Every decade has its great sit-coms and the 1990s was no exception. What was so exceptional about this decade though is that there was so many of them from both sides of the Atlantic. British comedy entered a golden age that rivalled the 1970s in which some of the names of the era went on to have notable acting careers. British comedies sold big time in the USA and American comedies were for the first time highly successful in Europe. Here are ten of the giants of the decade.
The biggest American export that isn’t edible is this animated series that began in the 1990s; it is still going strong after over two decades on our screens. It is about studying the ‘warts and all’ dynamics of modern family living. Though not dysfunctional, President Bush Snr saw it as a breakdown of American family values when he said ‘we should be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons’. Stone and Parker fought back by writing him into an episode that resulted in a feud between the former President and Homer Simpson.
Beginning in 1994, it ran for over ten years and was a global success that made big stars of all of the titular ‘friends’, especially Jennifer Aniston and Matt LeBlanc. It was about a group of young professionals in an apartment block in Manhattan, their various lives, friendships and relationships. They were mostly couples that broke up and got back together with astounding regularity. It went on to be so big that it featured some very high profile cameos.
The most successful and notable spin off of the highly successful Cheers; it ran for eleven seasons between 1993 and 2004. Frasier ‘ played by Kelsey Grammer ‘ has left Boston and returned to his home town of Seattle following his divorce. Once there, he sets up a practice in Psychiatry but also must care for his father (who also has an official carer ‘ Daphne – played by British actress Jane Leeves). Despite being determined to live as a singleton, he inevitably falls in love with Daphne.
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air
Fresh Prince was the sitcom that put Will Smith on all of our radars after a career as a rapper in the 1980s. It stars Smith’ oddly ‘ as himself as a streetwise rapper from inner city Philadelphia who, after getting involved in a fight, must move to California to live with his incredibly wealthy relatives. The different backgrounds were a regular feature of the clashes between Smith and his relatives. It went on to be popular all over the world and made Smith an international superstar.
The Thin Blue Line
After a highly successful 1980s in which he appeared in four series of Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson starred in this comedy about a small Police force. Despite being slightly officious for the laid-back station, laughs were aplenty and it played on friction between the uniformed officers and CID. Written by Ben Elton who also co-write Blackadder, it was highly regarded by viewers but critics greeted it with such indifference that it ran only for two years. Nevertheless, it made stars of James Dreyfuss and David Haig.
Though it first aired in 1988, its first two seasons were not a particularly big hit and popular only amongst science fiction fans. It took a two-year break between 1989 and 1991 when it re-launched with a larger budget and a drive by the BBC to push it as a flagship comedy for BBC2. It went on to have six more seasons in that decade, winning awards and receiving critical and popular acclaim. It is arguably the most popular British comedy in North America.
The Brittas Empire
It was a comedy that divided British audiences when Red Dwarf’s Chris Barrie left the mining ship to star as a petty bureaucrat in a sitcom set in a leisure centre. Brittas was incompetent and practically despised by his staff despite having a good heart. Lacking in social skills and being a stickler for paperwork, this comedy did not sit well with everybody. However, the character has passed into the vernacular with bureaucratic managers in the UK being likened to Gordon Brittas.
Though not a big hit, it is remembered fondly as one of Channel 4 (UK) greatest comedies. Seminal at the time in that it featured a cast that was almost entirely black. It was about a grumpy barber named Desmond who set up a business after moving from Guyana. It is about him, his friends who seemed to do nothing but waste their time in his shop and the exploits of his family. It used humour to demonstrate that prejudice also existed between black communities ‘ the character Matthew was African and sometimes experienced racist remarks from the shop’s Caribbean patrons.
3rd Rock From the Sun
The second science fiction comedy on the list (a crossover rarely explored), it features a group of aliens trying to fit into modern American life as they carry out their mission to observe humans. Once believing the planet to be insignificant, they stay for many years and assimilate into human life, often with hilarious consequences. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and John Lithgow starred.
‘Ab Fab’ was another British sitcom that became popular in the USA. It stars household names Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley as two women who made a living from the lifestyle industry ‘ Saunders character Eddy is a down on her luck PR agent and Lumley’s Patsy is a magazine editor. Their hard living is the source of frustration for Eddy’s straight-laced daughter (played by Julia Sawalha) who tries to keep both women on the straight and narrow. June Whitfield stars as Eddy’s mother.
The above ten titles represent some of the best of British and American comedy in a decade dominated by two countries. Most other English speaking nations would not get a look in and there are twice as many from each country that could have made it onto this list. What is clear is that these sitcoms made stars of its leading and some of its secondary characters, demonstrating the quality of the decade.