As it turns out, WKRP was once a favorite of mine. There are bits from that show that I still fondly recall. I'm tempted to try to theorize what makes a great sitcom, but perhaps instead I will, in the tradition of Burke, Schiller, and Longinus, try to define what makes a sitcom of high spiritual, moral, or intellectual worth, not to be excelled, supreme:
- a verbal virtuoso (which WKRP had--two times: Dr. Johnny Fever, in the manic vein, and Venus Flytrap, in the smooth vein. Add also the tightass Les Nessman performance, and you've got a triple threat going.)
- a pompous blowhard (viz., Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Diane Chambers on Cheers, or, in the Alien Blowhard category, Dr. Dick Solomon on Third Rock from the Sun)
- an amoral pleasure hound (extra points if it's a woman, like Karen on Will and Grace or Nina Van Horn on Just Shoot Me--which also featured a pretty consistently hilarious David Spade as Dennis Finch, who also belongs in this category)
- sparkling repartee (Frasier, Cheers, Mary Tyler Moore)
There are other things that don't fit systematically, at least not for me. For instance, most family sitcoms leave me cold--but Malcolm in the Middle has been unbelievably funny sometimes, and some episodes are indelible. Ditto Everybody Loves Raymond. I will acknowledge the conceptual greatness of Seinfeld, and also confess that it largely left me cold. I found Friends absorbing, but I felt it undid its contract with the viewer in the last two seasons, so much so that I somehow failed to watch it during that period (exception: the always great Lisa Kudrow, esp. the episode wherein she channelled Kathryn Hepburn, apparently involuntarily, to her boyfriend's snooty folks).
Lastly, a shout-out to The Simpsons, and, more recently, Family Guy, both of which I watch only in the company of teenagers, a strategy which vastly enhances the aura of their greatness.