A few weeks back, we pointed you in the direction of some great movies streaming free on YouTube, for those of you who like watching movies online but don’t like ponying up those Netflix dollars. Now, if you wanna watch free TV online without a Netflix or Hulu Plus membership, the proposition gets a little trickier — those copyrights are guarded a bit more zealously (public domain isn’t nearly as rampant with television properties), and the viewing experience can be, to put it charitably, spotty. That’s why sitcoms are so good for YouTube viewing; as long as you have a passing familiarity with the characters, it’s easy to sample an episode here or there on a lunch break and not have to worry about serialized arcs and continuity issues. We sought out some of the best sitcoms in television history and found those that had at least a handful of episodes on YouTube — and that were either there officially (via the show itself, a distribution service, or public domain) or that have been up long enough to indicated that everyone’s cool with it. Have a look (and a laugh) after the jump.
Carl Reiner’s sophisticated mixture of workplace and family sitcom remains one of the finest examples of the form — fast, smart, and beautifully executed, smoothly mixing old-school yuk-yuk one-liners (most of them via Morey Amsterdam’s uproarious Buddy Sorrell) with heartfelt, naturalistic situational humor. And best of all, Reiner knew when to stop; he called it quits after five seasons, going out on top and while the show was still fresh and funny. (You can watch the entire first season and highlights from later years here.)
When Dick Van Dyke co-star Mary Tyler Moore returned to series television in 1970, her show’s original concept — a divorcée starting over on her own — was modified to make her an engaged woman who left her fiancé, lest viewers think Laura Petrie had divorced Rob. (TV execs didn’t give viewers much credit in those days. Or today.) Like her previous program, MTM masterfully juggled its protagonist’s work life (as a TV news producer) with her time out of the office, though the later element took a hit when best buddy Rhoda Morgenstern (the wonderful Valerie Harper) was spun off into her own show. These days, The Mary Tyler Moore show remains progressive, intelligent, and (contrary to that dubious Salon piece) very funny; the comic ensemble is crackerjack, from Moore’s bemused lead to Grant’s grumpy proto-Jack Donaghy to wisecracking Murray to Ted Baxter, without whom there could have been no Ron Burgundy. (User MTMepisodes has uploaded most of the series.)
The sitcom form was considered dead in 1984, the glory days of All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore, and even (gulp) Three’s Company passed, when Bill Cosby brought an old-fashioned family sitcom to NBC and revived both the network and the genre. It was based on his own family of five children, four girls and a boy, and perhaps its success was due to the characters’ close proximity to real people, or the skill with which Cosby (himself a doctor of education) was able to mix big laughs with real truth and subtle life lessons. Whatever the reason, people identified with the Huxtables, loved them, wanted to be like them, and the humor is both timeless and explosively funny. (User TheCOMDYSHOWS has uploaded the entire first season and is well into year two.)
When Roseanne premiered in 1988, it was positioned as the “anti-Cosby,” and while that description certainly situates the program well in terms of class — the Conners were decidedly working-class in comparison to the Huxtables — it simplifies the vast number of similarities between the two programs. Both centered on a stand-up comedian’s well-honed persona; both presented recognizable and relatable woes of growing up and being a parent; and both were funny as hell. (User mewSTL has posted the entire first season in its original, uncut versions — particularly welcome, considering that the DVD release for that year consists of the shorter versions edited down for syndication.)
The characters of The Honeymooners originated on Jackie Gleason’s variety shows (Cavalcade of Stars and The Jackie Gleason Show), where they were seen for four years before being spun off into their own, standalone sitcom. That show aired for only a single season, from 1955-1956, but that group of shows — dubbed the “classic 39” — influenced television forevermore, from the cartoon knockoff The Flintstones to portraits of working-class life like All in the Family and Roseanne. Most of the “classic 39” can be seen on YouTube, and these stripped-down stories of the Kramdens and Nortons are as funny and honest as ever.
David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker were white-hot from the smash success of Airplane! when they were hired by ABC to create a comedy series. Their idea was to send up cop shows, in the fast and furious style of their films, but the show proved just a little too joke-dense when the network premiered it midway through the 1982 season; they pulled the plug after just four episodes, burning off the last two in the summer. But ZAZ had the last laugh; the show became a cult hit (via reruns and VHS releases), prompting the popular Naked Gun movies, in which Leslie Nielsen reprised his role as Lt. Frank Drebin. (User TheSexbombisme has uploaded the entire series here.)
When producer Norman Lear turned the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part into the giant American hit All in the Family, he knew better than to mess with the formula. He went back to the UK’s airwaves and found a show called Steptoe and Son, about a west London junk dealer, and adapted it as a Watts-set vehicle for stand-up comic Redd Foxx. The result was a giant hit, running six seasons and becoming one of the first TV sitcoms with an all-black cast, as well as sporting one of the all-time great theme songs. (Select episodes of Sanford and Son are available on YouTube via Crackle.)
Norman Lear’s next big hit was this direct spin-off of All in the Family, taking the Bunkers’ neighbors George and Louise (aka “Weezie”) Jefferson out of their home in Queens and into a “deluxe apartment in the sky.” The show would ultimately run an astonishing 11 seasons — even more than Family — and presented an image of upward mobility (with an edge) that was groundbreaking for its time. And it’s crazy funny, and Sherman Hemsley was kind of a genius, and (again) its theme song is pretty much perfection. (Another Crackle show, with select episodes from throughout the run.)
Good Times, meanwhile, was a spin-off of Maude, which was another spin-off of All in the Family (keep up!) — initially intended to showcase Maude’s former housekeeper Florida (Esther Rolle) and her husband James (John Amos). But a skinny, charismatic stand-up named Jimmie Walker became the show’s breakout star, thanks to his comic portrayal of son J.J. and his catchphrase “Dy-no-mite!” Good Times hasn’t aged as well as Lear’s other works, but it remains a funny and frequently heartfelt show. (Another Crackle series.)
The spirit of Mary Tyler Moore lived on in this five-season workplace sitcom, set at New York news radio station WNYX. It’s a rapid-fire, laugh-a-minute affair, but the best kind of character-based situation comedy; by the third or fourth episodes, these people are firmly established, entertaining, and beloved. Once again, the ensemble is key: Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley, ER’s Maura Tierney, Office Space’s Stephen Root, Treme’s Khandi Alexander, Andy Dick, Joe Rogan, Vicki Lewis, and the late, great Phil Hartman. (One more from Crackle.)
The millennial idolatry of a 1980s sitcom centered on four elderly women seems mighty peculiar, and at first glance, it seems some kind of forced, snickering embrace of something so square it’s hip. But people don’t love Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia ironically; their affection for them is as genuine as the quartet’s for each other. Part of it is charm, part of it is just plain good writing, and part of it, let’s be honest, is prurient — there’s no expiration date on a good sex joke. (User goldengirlpalace has uploaded almost every episode.)
Any mention of The Golden Girls warrants one for the other great female ensemble comedy of the era — Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s hilarious show set at the Sugarbaker design firm, run by sisters Julia and Suzanne Sugarbaker, with the help of designer Mary Jo, office manager Charlene, and Guy Friday Anthony. Fast, funny, opinionated, and more than a little mean (when called for) — but stick with the first five seasons, and the original quintet. (Available from a variety of users; an episode search is probably your best option here.)
The Bob Newhart Show is a favorite over on Hulu, but those of us who came of age in the ‘80s (oops, just aged myself) have even fonder memories of Mr. Newhart’s eight-season CBS hit, which is the warm television equivalent of comfort food. User newhartepisodes has posted most of the first season, so there’s a ways to go; hopefully we’ll be able to see them all, right up to that amazing finale.
The personality sitcom, be it Bob Newhart, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, goes back to Jack Benny, the brilliant stage, radio, and television comic whose painstakingly established persona — terrible violinist, mild egotist, eternal 39-year-old, and to-the-death skinflint — was explored and exploited over several hilarious seasons. Surprisingly little of his TV output is available on DVD (though a new Shout! Factory set will help take care of that), but old episodes are available on YouTube from a variety of users.
George and Gracie had been friends of Jack Benny since vaudeville, and their show (also a radio-to-TV transplant) was superficially similar: a peek into their “private lives,” based on their carefully cultivated personae of bubbly airhead and stern straight man. But Burns and Allen was groundbreaking it its own way — Burns and the show’s writers developed the gimmick of George not only talking to the audience in monologue form, but stepping out of the action and commenting on it (even occasionally going to his home office and turning on the TV to watch the show, in progress, and observe scenes he wasn’t in). Breaking the fourth wall is a common device these days, but few did it as well or as ingeniously as Burns. (Allegro Media Group has uploaded several episodes of the show here.)
Happy Days was set in the 1950s, but that didn’t prevent its producers from insisting on a space alien episode after the runaway success of Star Wars. They found a little-known nightclub comic named Robin Williams and cast him in the role of Mork, an alien who visits the Fonz; the episode was such a hit that Williams quickly got his own spin-off. The show burned out pretty quickly, but it made Williams a star, and remains pretty funny, particularly for younger audiences. (User Jerry Muratalla has uploaded the first and second seasons here.)
A funny thing happened on the way to The Cosby Show’s first and only spin-off becoming a success: it had to break off and become its own thing. Season 1 was a bumpy affair, unsteadily anchored to series lead Lisa Bonet as Denise Huxtable, but once she left the series (at the end of year one, along with a very young Marisa Tomei), the two supporting characters that had become the show’s most reliable scene stealers — Jasmine Guy’s Whitley and Kardeem Hardison’s Dwayne Wayne — moved front and center, and the show became a sturdy and reliably funny look at life on the campus of an all-black college. (User artem alagizov has uploaded the entire series here.)
Another reminder of an era when sitcoms for, by, and about black people would actually air on one of the Big Four networks, this five-season sitcom bottled the charisma and excitement of the pre-Big Momma Martin Lawrence and gave him his best showcase to date, as a radio host trying to keep his personal life intact. (He played several other characters as well.) Off-screen drama lend a strained awkwardness to the the last season or two, but in its early days, Martin was endlessly funny and a well-preserved snapshot of its early-‘90s heyday. (User OnARainyDayTV has uploaded the entire series.)
Another show that’s easy to dismiss for overstaying its welcome (seriously, you don’t keep a show going after its lead disappears — Randy Person is no Eric Forman, no way no how). But for much of its run, That ‘70s Show sported one of the tightest comic ensembles on TV: the dry line readings of Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher before he was insufferable, Mila Kunis before she was astonishing, and Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp, one of the best mom-and-dad pairings in all of television. (User Fanagilles has uploaded the entire series.)
The general distaste around Zach Braff’s recent activities might keep you from fully enjoying the sitcom that made him a star — and that’s too bad, because this sweet, fast-paced hospital comedy/drama is awfully funny stuff. Braff and Donald Faison’s bromance charms, Sarah Chalke beautifully embodies the type-A personality, and John C. McGinley’s Dr. Cox is one of the finest sitcom foils in recent memory. (User curtig has uploaded the entire series.)
The “find a comedian and give him a sitcom” craze came of age in the 1970s, after Freddie Prinze made the transition from nightclub comic to star of Chico and the Man. Chico producer/creator James Komack figured he could do the same for storytelling comic Gabe Kaplan, but in a bit of a Good Times situation, Kaplan was quickly overshadowed by the actors who played his students — especially a handsome young fellow named John Travolta. (User MisterEPlace has uploaded much of Season 1 here.)
Surprisingly enough, not a sitcom about the woes of being in the band Paul McCartney started after the Beatles. This Cheers spin-off was set at a small airport in Massachusetts, run by a two brothers — played by Tim Daly and Steven Webber, who pulled off the familial thing so successfully that this viewer still mixes them up, to this day. It’s not exactly Cheers, but there’s some awfully funny stuff here, much of it provided by Thomas Haden Church as the uproariously dim mechanic “Lowell.” (User Thad Bartley – MBA has uploaded several episodes.)
As we get to the bottom of the list, the designation of “great” can certainly be argued with higher frequency. But however well the shenanigans of Balki and Cousin Larry hold up these days (spoiler: not that well), this is a show that is viewed with a great deal of affection by an awful lot of people, and that kind of instant nostalgia may be the best use of YouTube bandwidth. (User Roscoe P. Coltrane has uploaded over 80 episodes.)
Married… with Children
Some of us pride ourselves as intellectuals. And Married… with Children is our secret shame. (Available on YouTube via Crackle, but not indexed; a search is your best bet for tracking them down.)
Sadly, I Love Lucy is one of those shows (like Cheers, M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, and many more) that simply isn’t on YouTube, for one reason or another. What you can find there, however, is less iconic but more intriguing: several episodes of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, the series of one-hour specials featuring the Ricardos and Mertzes, which aired occasionally in the three years following the end of I Love Lucy proper. The early episodes are a perfectly enjoyable epilogue to the series; the later ones have a peculiar fascination of their own, as the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz marriage was falling apart right out of frame, and sometimes within it. (Their divorce proceedings began the very day after they finished shooting the final episode.) Still, at least in the initial outings, it’s a frequently funny and charming follow-up to one of television’s most beloved programs.
Those are our recommendations; leave your own YouTube sitcom-viewing tips in the comments, won’t you?