Halfway through the latest episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm earlier this week, I had to pause and take stock. I have always loved Curb, and I've always thought it was one of the finest half hours of comedy on television. But this season has been different. This season is a step up, a comedy writer at the very top of his game, doing his very best work. A step up, mind you, for a 64 year-old who also created a show many consider the greatest sitcom of all-time.
Here's what's really astounding, though: this season of Curb, helmed by the most accomplished television comedy writer in history writing some of the best material of his career, still isn't the best comedy on television. It's not even the best comedy airing right now, in the middle of summer. That's when I realized: we're in the golden age of comedy television.
Grand proclamations aside, the current surfeit of great comedy television is about quantity as much as quality. For instance, here's a list of the shows nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy in 2001:
Everybody Loves Raymond
Malcolm In The Middle
Sex and the City
Will and Grace
This was the best the world of television comedy had to offer a mere decade ago, and only Frasier could've been considered appointment viewing. No wonder they won all those Emmys; the competition was dismal.
Today, by my count, there are 20 comedy shows I enjoy watching, good enough for ten straight hours of hilarity-pocked vegetation. So, of course, I'm going to rank them, because that's what I am wont to do.
GROUP D (Shows you generally enjoy, but only watch when there's nothing else on.)
17. Family Guy/The Cleveland Show - Few shows have been consistently amusing for so long, and Seth MacFarlane's work is always good for a few chuckles.
16. The Simpsons/Futurama - After some rough years, The Simpsons is back on track. Unfortunately, it suffers from overexposure, and we take it for granted. Futurama's return should be fun.
15. 30 Rock - What once was a solid member of Group A has dropped over the years. 30 Rock is always good for some terrific comedy, but I don't have to watch.
GROUP C (The daily variety show group.)
14. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report - Both shows are brilliant and have some of the best comedy writers in the world on their staff. And they do it every single day. It's hard to make something appointment viewing when it's on every night.
LEVEL B (Shows you look forward to, and watch after you're finished with Level A.)
13. Wilfred - Relies a little too much on easy shocks for my liking, but there have been terrific moments. By the way, Wilfred is not a better show than The Daily Show, The Simpsons, or really any of the other shows I've listed so far. I just look forward to it more.
12. The Soup - More along the variety show path, The Soup is hardly ground-breaking or innovative. But it's funny, my wife loves it, and it's on weekly.
11. The Office - Also suffering from overexposure, but still terrific after all these years.
10. South Park - Maybe Trey and Matt have moved on to Broadway, but South Park is still as excellent as ever.
9. Modern Family - A traditional family sitcom with non-traditional, but extremely likable characters. Modern Family has broad appeal, an appropriate amount of sentimentality, and enough of an edge to appeal to people like me who want to believe they have refined tastes.
LEVEL A (Appointment viewing. Shows I watch as soon as I possible can.)
8. Sportsdome - Sadly cancelled, Sportsdome was frantic and the freshest thing on TV when it aired last January. I will miss it greatly, but at least this moment lives on.
7. Eastbound & Down - Like Wilfred, E&D leans too much on shock value to ever be considered truly great, but a strong second season took the show in new directions and developed the characters to, if not likable levels, then at least sympathy. Then there are times when the show weaves crass profanity into elegant afghans of hilarity. Like this.
6. The League - A lot of people think their ring of friends would make for great television. Particularly Bill Simmons. But The League actually pulls it off. Like Friday Night Lights, football plays a peripheral part, the show is sadly overlooked, and, for some reason, my wife loves it.
5. Community - Pop culture references, shifting genres, and Alison Brie/Gillian Jacobs may get Community across on a broad level, but it's the character development, surreality, and innovation that make it one of the most exciting shows on television. Now, for no particular reason, here's Donald Glover crying.
4. Always Sunny in Philadelphia - It was a little flat last season, and shows like Eastbound & Down plumb even deeper depths of depravity, but Always Sunny has been one of the most consistently hilarious shows on television, and there's something bizarrely appealing about the seedy world of the Paddy's Pub gang. It also has one of the funniest scenes in history.
3. Curb Your Enthusiasm - As I mentioned before, Curb is in the midst of perhaps its greatest season. Maybe the cast isn't as great, but Larry David's Rube Goldberg-ian plot structures match anything on Seinfeld.
2. Parks and Recreation - This Venn Diagram pretty much describes it all.
1. Louie - Chuck Klosterman already said it well, but watching this season of Louie has been completely mind-bending. Louie is comedy's answer to The Wire, an immensely entertaining show that also feels important and greater than anything that's come before. I recommend reading the whole piece, but I'll leave you from this quote from Klosterman:
"And this is not a situation like 2003, when everyone just sort of temporarily agreed that 'Hey Ya!' was a terrific single; this is different. This is someone working on the most radical edge of mainstream culture and succeeding brilliantly without ever doing the same thing twice. There is no antecedent."
And experiencing it is exhilarating.