TV comedy doesn’t get quite the same respect as high-end TV drama. Maybe that’s because the definition of “good comedy” is slipperier and more subjective and ultimately immune to adjectives. Calling a comedy sophisticated or vulgar, well-crafted or chaotic, innovative or traditional doesn’t mean much if the damned thing didn’t make you laugh, or at least smile and think. The episodes on this list made me laugh, smile or think — sometimes all three. They also had a little something extra: an audaciousness, a delight in saying, “What the hell, let’s try it.” I sensed this heedlessness in all sorts of shows, from the shticky Archer and Futurama to the postmodern bubblegum echo chambers of Community and Bob’s Burgers to the melancholy arthouse stylings of Louie and Girls.
This list has 25 slots and could have gone to 50 or 100. Rather than select just one episode of a particular series and calling it “representative,” as a lot of my colleagues have done, I decided to go ahead and award certain shows more than one slot if I thought they deserved them. I did not include sketch comedy series or comedic talk shows in this ranking, only half-hour scripted comedies (with one hour-long exception) driven by regular recurring characters. I awarded points for ambition, which is why a few less-than-perfect episodes ended up crowding out possible alternatives that were more perfect (or just funnier). Is that a valid criteria for listmaking? I really don’t know, but it’s my list, so why not?*
Please share your favorite comedy episodes in the comments. Thanks for reading!
1. Louie, “New Year’s Eve.” (Written and directed by Louis C.K.) The finale of Louie’s third season starts out as a realistic depiction of Louie’s harried Christmas with his kids, including a hilarious flashback showing Louie trying to repair a doll’s missing eyes. Then it segues into an extended, surreal, often horrifying maybe-dream trip, with Louie going to an airport to fly to his sister’s house for the holidays, unexpectedly meeting Parker Posey’s Liz (with whom he had a scary-memorable date in “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2”) on a bus and bearing witness to her sudden, ghastly death, then impulsively going to China to see the Yangtze River. He ends up sharing a small cottage with a family with whom he can communicate despite not knowing a word of English. Is the second half of this episode a dream? Is all of it? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. Many episodes of Louie seem more figurative than literal, and can be taken however you choose to take them. Regardless, “New Year’s Eve” captured the sensation of dreaming better than any half-hour comedy episode I’ve ever watched. My favorite moments were the shot of a devastated Louie walking through a hospital corridor while the staff sang “Auld Lang Syne,” the moment when Louie and a random pedestrian mirror each other’s gestures on a busy Beijing street, and the final crane shot that came to rest on a verdant landscape, the sun winking through tree branches like a Christmas star.
2. Louie, “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Parts 1 & 2.” (Written and directed by Louis C.K.) This would have been a lock as the best comedy episode of 2012 if the show hadn’t later run the one that overtook it, above. These installments, following Louie on his quest to find a wife, which leads to a date with a bookstore employee, capture the title character’s depression, loneliness, and self-hatred better than the Letterman arc, which I found overwrought. Watch the two episodes, and the buildup to that stunning rooftop scene at the end of Part 2 seems mathematically precise. Louie’s romantic/sexual fantasies — the brain farts of a rudderless man fantasizing that a female angel of mercy will come along and anchor him — give way to a real date that’s more challenging than anything his mind can dream up. Parker Posey’s Liz — who I wish would become a regular, “death” or no “death” — brings him back to reality, calling him out as a secret suicide case who won’t join her on the edge of the roof because he’s afraid he’ll jump. The last five minutes of Part 2 have an uncanny power, particularly that final shot of the empty skyline.
3. Mockingbird Lane, “Pilot.” (Written by Bryan Fuller, directed by Bryan Singer.) This pilot for a rejected series (aired by NBC as a Halloween special) has more visual imagination than almost any American show this year, plus a pleasingly tricky tone — by turns scary, sweet, and perverse — that probably ensured its doom. It owes less to its sixties inspirations, The Munsters and The Addams Family, than to the Addams Family movies, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and early Tim Burton. The colors and textures somehow evoke both fecundity and decay. The hour begins with a shocking act of violence taken from John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy, and throughout there are disturbing images, such as a wave of black rats spilling out of a crate to form Grandpa Munster (Eddie Izzard), and the stitching around the throat of Herman Munster (Jerry O’Connell), which others mistake for a necklace. And yet the tone is mostly gentle and reassuring, and there are bursts of poetry. When the stunning Lily Munster (Portia DeRossi) enters a Boy Scout troop meeting, her hair and dress billowing, Grandpa uses his heat vision to peer into the chests of Herman and the goggle-eyed Scoutmaster beside him, and purrs, “Did your hearts just skip a beat?” The Mockingbird Lane pilot got decent ratings, and I hope NBC gives it a shot as a series.
4. Girls, “She Did.” (Written and directed by Lena Dunham.) The finale of Girls’ first season brought the show’s character arcs to a crescendo and sprang one sharply written, uncomfortable comic confrontation after another. The best is probably Adam (Adam Driver) reading heroine Hannah (series creator and star Dunham) the riot act for being a pampered narcissist who can’t really commit to anything. “You don’t know struggle,” he declares. “I’m a beautiful fucking mystery to you.” The scene is a great example of the show’s ability to empathize with its characters while still calling B.S. on their drama-queenery: Adam is corny and self-aggrandizing but not wrong. The final sequence — Hannah falling asleep on the F train, then eating a slice of Jessa’s surprise wedding cake on the beach at Coney Island — is gently mysterious, like something out of an Eric Rohmer film, or an episode of Louie.
5. 30 Rock, “My Whole Life Is Thunder.” (Written by Jack Burditt and Colleen McGuinness, directed by Linda Mendoza.) One of the funniest episodes the show has ever aired, this was Marx Bros./W.C. Fields–level nutty, a masterpiece of construction featuring go-for-broke lines and sight gags. It alternated two main plots: Jenna (Jane Krakowski) plotting a “surprise” wedding (as revenge for getting snubbed from Liz’s wedding in the previous episode), and Jack (Alec Baldwin) being worn down by his battle-ax of a mother Colleen (Elaine Stritch), who ultimately dies of a heart attack during a Central Park carriage ride with Jack. (She was 87, or as Jack puts it, “14 in demon years.”) The two main plots fuse in the memorial for Colleen. Jack confidently promises the greatest funeral oration of all time, and damned if he doesn’t deliver, even bringing in Kermit the Frog to assist. It’s hard to choose a favorite moment: I’m torn between Florence Henderson swigging cleaning fluid from the bottle; Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) at Colleen’s funeral, pealing, “Life is for the living!”; and Jenna walking into the harsh-lighting trap set by Liz at the awards dinner and hissing like a vampire.
6. Community, “Virtual Systems Analysis.” (Written by Matt Murray, directed by Tristram Shapeero) An extended peek into the mind of Abed (Danny Pudi), this episode centered around his virtual reality “Dreamatorium” and gave the actors a chance to show off their chops as they played perceived aspects of each other’s personalities. As I wrote in a Community appreciation, “As in [season two’s] “Critical Film Studies,” you got to see the show’s actors show off their chops in service of a story. When we were watching Abed ‘play’ Jeff Winger, we were not seeing Jeff, but Abed’s conception of Jeff, which was plenty intriguing. But there was something equally thrilling happening at the level of pure performance: We were seeing Joel McHale play Jeff Winger as imagined by Abed. McHale was channeling aspects of Danny Pudi’s screen presence even as he was playing ‘himself.’”
7. Bob’s Burgers, “Bob Day Afternoon.” (Written by Dan Fybel and Rich Rinaldi, directed by Wes Archer.) As the title suggests, this is an utterly charming send-up of the classic 1975 drama Dog Day Afternoon, but infused with the show’s trademark character beats and a marvelous deadpan relationship between the bank robber Mickey (guest actor Bill Hader) and Bob (H. Jon Benjamin). I’ve watched this episode three times. Dry, sweet, perfect.
8. Glee, “The Break Up.” (Written by Ryan Murphy, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.) This episode was so heartfelt and controlled that it briefly restored my faith in a show that had been going to hell in a handcart for a while. As I wrote in a New York magazine piece on Ryan Murphy’s shows, “When it became clear that it was going to bust up not one, not two, but four couples in an episode — Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Blaine (Darren Criss); Rachel and her old high-school sweetheart Finn (Cory Monteith); Will and Emma; and Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera) — I laughed out loud at its Glee-ness.”
9. Parks and Recreation, “The Debate.” (Written and directed by Amy Poehler.) This hilarious and substantial episode contained some of the show’s funniest satire on political fund-raising and voter pandering; it climaxed with a five-way mayoral debate between Leslie Knope (Poehler), her chief rival Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), Gunbelievable Gun Emporium owner Fester Trim, animal equality activist Manrico Della Rossa, and porn star Brandy Maxxxx. Every other line was a keeper, but my favorite is Della Rossa’s “Anyone who rubs their hands on a leather jacket should be tried for murder.”
10. Louie, “Dad.” (Written and directed by Louis C.K.) Louie keeps talking and talking and talking about going to reconnect with his estranged father in Boston (at the behest of his Uncle Excelsior, a great cameo by F. Murray Abraham), but not only do we never see their meeting, Louie literally runs away from it after suffering a panic attack. He escapes on foot, motorcycle, and cigarette boat. As is so often the case on Louie, there’s no obvious clue as to how literally we’re supposed to take any of this. The episode could have been a dry run for the more complex, lyrical mind-effery of “New Year’s Eve,” but it’s brilliant on its own terms.
11. Girls, “The Return.” (Written by Dunham and Judd Apatow, directed by Dunham.) A bittersweet episode befitting a young adult’s return to her hometown, and the concurrent fear that she’s neither as wise nor as self-sufficient as she likes to think. Hilariously uncomfortable moments abound, the best of which is probably Hannah’s friend Heather’s awesomely horrible dance tribute to her late friend at a fund-raiser. Sterling back-up work by Peter Scolari and Becky Ann Baker as Hannah’s parents.
12. Parks and Recreation, “Win, Lose or Draw.” (Written and directed by Michael Schur.) Every Parks and Rec episode features great tidbits about Pawnee, but this season finale about Leslie’s election day was a veritable Wikipedia. “In the event of an exact tie,” says the election board supervisor, “the seat is awarded to the male candidate, and the female candidate is put in jail.” Every scene was packed with gem moments and lines: Leslie nervously biting into her cream-cheese-covered cell phone and muttering, “This isn’t a bagel”; opponent Bobby Newport (Rudd) giggling at a boom mic and asking, “What is that?”; Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) sprinting to return to his “sex decathalon” with Newport’s campaign manager; the voting machines that dispense a Sweetums candy bar gift certificate to anyone who votes for Newport (a descendant of the Sweetums-owning dynasty) and urges anyone voting for Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) to “think it over”; Ron Swanson’s monologue in which he confesses that he’s had the same haircut since 1978 and driven the same car since 1991.
13. 30 Rock, “Leap Day.” (Written by Luke Del Tredici, directed by Steve Buscemi.) A Seinfeld-worthy bit of craziness built around a nonexistent holiday, Leap Day, whose mascot is Leap Day William, a St. Nicholas–like figure who dwells in the Marianas Trench, emerging every four years to swap children’s tears for candy. Best bit: the clip from Leap Dave Williams, a holiday cash-in comedy starring Jim Carrey and Andie MacDowell. Random citizen to Leap Dave Williams: “Hey, take a leap, pal!” Leap Dave Williams: “That’s the spirit!!!” Supposedly one of the many Leap Day traditions is to do something nobody would ever think to do. This episode qualifies.
14. Bob’s Burgers, “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal.” (Written by Lizzie Molyneux & Wendy Molyneux, directed by Tyree Dillahay.) Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline), the landlord of Bob’s Burgers, invites the Belchers over to his house for Thanksgiving, and asks them to pretend that Linda Belcher is his wife and the Belcher children his children so he can convince an old flame, an Annie Oakley–style sharpshooter who is turned on by adultery, to have an affair with him. Highlights include Linda’s non-rhyming, atonal Thanksgiving song; Bob anthropomorphizing the turkey and acting out its voice in uncomfortably intimate conversations; the sharpshooter greeting the kids by tossing a handful of bullets at them, and Bob guzzling absinthe and having a fantasy that seems to seems to have been drawn by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki.
15. Louie, “The Late Show, Parts 1, 2, and 3.” I wasn’t crazy about every aspect of this series of Louie episodes, especially the crazily overwrought “Which child shall die?” music that served as a recurring soundtrack to Louie’s professional/ethical torment. But the triptych’s sheer ambition — it’s practically a feature film in itself — demands acknowledgment. And all the David Lynch scenes (backed by a faint Lynchian air whoosh) were surreal comic gold.
16. 30 Rock, “Live From Studio 6H.” (Written by Jack Burditt and Tina Fey, directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller.) The most TV-history-conscious of 30 Rock’s live episodes finds Jack and Liz conspiring to stop airing live broadcasts of The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan to save money. They’re swayed from their Grinchiness by Kenneth, who gives a heartfelt speech about the importance of live TV; the monologue becomes a bracketing device for a ludicrous “history” of live TV in 30 Rock’s alternate universe, including fake versions of Laugh-In and The Honeymooners featuring stars Fey and Baldwin, and a fifties-era Amos ‘N’ Andy–type sitcom featuring Jon Hamm in blackface. As Vulture’s Izzy Greenspan wrote, “Who knew that the year’s best episode of Saturday Night Live would take place on another show?”
17. Veep, “Chung.” (Written by Sean Gray and Will Smith; directed by Armando Iannucci.) Vice-President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) tries to take down an Asian-American war hero, governor, and political rival on Meet the Press and blunders into making a remark with racist overtones, then keeps digging herself deeper into a bad-PR pit, bringing racist voters out into the open as she flails after redemption. This was the sharpest episode of Veep’s first season, especially in light of the 2012 elections, which were at least partly fueled by racism, xenophobia, and paranoia about immigration.
18. Suburgatory, “The Motherload.” (Written by Emily Kapnek, directed by Ken Whittingham.) Mother’s Day has never seemed more oppressive than it does in the season one finale of Suburgatory, which finds Tessa (Jane Levy) confronting her resentment of her mother for abandoning her while the town celebrates the glories of matriarchy in the most ghastly and lead-footed manner imaginable. Somehow this episode manages to be incredibly arch — Suburgatory’s default mode — and powerfully affecting. When Dahlia Royce (Carly Chaikin) tells her mom Dallas (Cheryl Hines) that she’d rather go to Israel with her dad than stay in town and watch Dallas run in the Mother’s Day 5K, Dallas’s suppressed hurt radiates from the screen. “You know, that’s one thing I admire in Dahlia,” she tells Tessa. “She puts her own happiness ahead of everyone else’s.” Plus: much love for James Ingram.
19. Archer, “Lo Scandolo.” (Written and directed by Adam Reed.) In this raunchy send-up of the drawing room mystery, Malory calls Archer and Lana to help dispose of the body of Savio Mascalzoni, Italy’s prime minister, who’s found clad in a zentai suit and lashed to a chair with five bullets in his torso and a dildo crammed up his bum. To paraphrase Mel Brooks’s description of Blazing Saddles, this episode rises below vulgarity. (Archer is surprised to learn that Italy even has a prime minister. Archer: “Doesn’t Italy use a king?” Lana: “No, they don’t ‘use’ a king.”)
20. Community, “Digital Exploration of Interior Design (Part 1)” and “Pillows and Blankets (Part 2)” (Written by Andy Bobrow, directed by Tristam Shappero.) This two-parter about Troy and Abed’s parting and reconciliation is as ambitious as season two’s paintball arc but ultimately more complex and assured. It starts out as a meditation on the iffy concept of the autonomous “self” (it’s built around a guy named Subway who gave up his humanity to become a walking emblem of the fast food company) then segues in Part 2 to an account of the war between Pillowtown and Blanketsburg, Troy and Abed’s split, warring factions. The latter is done in the style of a Ken Burns documentary, complete with slow-zooms into photographs and narration by Keith David. But it’s all done with such intensity that it becomes strangely affecting — a hallmark of Dan Harmon’s super-meta yet always human sitcom.
21. South Park, “Sarcastaball.” (Written and directed by Trey Parker.) Proof that the old cartoon warhorse still has some kick left, this episode skewered the National Football League’s longtime non-response to its athletes suffering concussions, while also tweaking the idea that a violent sport could be anything other than, well, violent. Concern over injuries prompts Stan’s dad Randy Marsh to convince the school district to ditch football in favor of a new sport in which players wear tinfoil hats and bras while walking a balloon down field, pausing to hug opponents. “Nobody’s getting hurt, and the kids are learning valuable life lessons, because hugging and safety is what the world is all about!” he declares, sounding as if he doesn’t really believe it himself. This is also one of the show’s more gleefully disgusting recent episodes. Butters keeps singing the praises of humankind’s “gooey center,” but as it turns out, the goo isn’t coming from the heart. I am faintly ashamed of myself for having laughed so hard at this. Okay, no I’m not.
22. Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, “Love and Monsters.” (Written by Sallie Bradford McKenna, directed by Victor Nelli Jr.) Arguably the show’s funniest sendup of romantic comedy clichés to date, this Halloween installment found June (Dreama Walker) trying to thwart a diabolical-even-for-Chloe (Krysten Ritter) plot to seduce a new victim each Halloween, mine his deepest anxieties to make him fall in love with her, then dump him. June is horrified by the realization that this scenario means Chloe is the lead in their little life-drama, and she’s the lovable, supportive best friend who’s fated to fall in love with an overweight, socially maladjusted comic relief character. There’s even a climactic and probably unnecessary rush to an airport. That Chloe might actually have feelings for the victim (Ben Lawson’s Benjamin) adds one more self-aware wrinkle to an episode that’s as knowing as anything on Community. Bonus: James van Der Beek’s upbeat Halloween party, at which only nice costumes are allowed.
23. Archer, “Space Race, Parts 1 & 2.” (Written and directed by Adam Reed.) A parody of one of the silliest, most overscaled James Bond films, 1979’s Moonraker, finds Archer blasting off to the spaceship Horizon to put down a mutiny, and getting pulled into a Bond-ian plot by Commander Anthony Drake (guest star Bryan Cranston) to colonize and populate Mars and install himself as king. The zero-gravity gags are fantastic, and the whole episode is more visually imaginative than almost any current live-action science fiction film or spy thriller.
24. Futurama, “Fun on a Bun.” (Written by Dan Vebber, directed by Stephen Sandoval.) In his demented quest to win the Oktoberfest sausage cook-off, the alcoholic robot Bender convinces Fry to locate frozen 30,000-year-old mammoth meat. Fry appears to fall into the meat grinder, and when Leela discovers bits of his hair and clothing in her sausage, she’s so traumatized that she has all trace of Fry erased from her mind. Turns out Fry miraculously/stupidly escaped the grinder, got frozen inside a glacier, and ended up in a lost valley of Neanderthals, where he reinvented himself as a revolutionary leader determined help his fellow “big brows” take back the world from “those stuck-up Homo Sapiens with their tools and their pants and such.” Oh, and Bender’s wooly mammoth sausage wins third place. Bender: “Third place? This is the greatest injustice that Germany has ever committed!”
25. Happy Endings, “Sabado Free-Gante.” (Written by Josh Bycel and Jonathan Fener, directed by Stuart McDonald.) Alex and Dave want to move in together but reject every prospective apartment, often on nonsensical grounds. Penny goes car shopping with Jane perched figuratively on her shoulder. Max teaches Brad how to live like a hobo. Jackson 5 Marionettes. Rob Corddry as the Car Czar. Plus: the non-destruction of a piñata filled with 40 pounds of Nerds that can resist the assaults of sledgehammers, baseball bats, barstools, and a hacksaw.
* The list initially contained a Community episode that actually first aired in 2011. It has been removed and replaced with a Happy Endings episode.