Ranking the Best Shows Within Popular Comedy Shows
Fictional shows within shows have become a comedy staple. The Simpsons have a bunch of them, South Park has that inaudible stick-figure skit and 30 Rock features multiple in-show shows because it’s literally about making TV content.
But let me pose this question: Which of these little shows hiding inside their bigger, actual shows would you want to watch in real life? Which of these comedic gems might, in some fascinating alternate universe, be as successful as the shows they’re in? Don’t worry; I’ve dug deep, done some soul searching, and crunched those numbers (no, I didn’t) to whittle the answer down to...
‘Estrada or Nada’ from ‘My Name Is Earl’
Remember this Jason Lee mid-2000s sitcom that ended with an unfulfilling cliffhanger? Yeah, poor Earl never got to finish his list of wrongs-made-right, but at least he got to watch an incredible reality show starring Erik Estrada and his best bud Randy. More specifically, it featured Estrada showing off myriad talents, from lumberjacking to playing the violin to chopping sushi, because this was the 2000s. There’s zero chance that this would’ve failed as an actual reality show in those strange days of the aughts.
‘Itchy and Scratchy’ from ‘The Simpsons’
Technically, it’s a show within a show within a show, but it still counts because it works regardless of Krusty's show. Violent? Yes. Hilarious? Ditto.
‘Inspector Spacetime’ (American Version) from ‘Community’
After Britta showed Abed the six-episode British series Cougarton Abbey — that abruptly ends when the characters drink hemlock and die — Abed has a breakdown, and Britta scrambles to find him a new show to absorb. Enter Inspector Spacetime, an obvious play on the Doctor Who series, only with a lot more Quantum Spanners.
During a later episode at the Inspector Spacetime Convention, Shirley and Pierce get sucked into a focus group for the show. Pierce’s old-timey and diabolical suggestions end up in the American version of the sci-fi show that, quite naturally, stars Luke Perry and Jennie Garth from Beverly Hills, 90210 — which is the reason why everyone would totally watch it. Well, that and all the deliberately terrible jokes.
‘Everybody Loves Hypnotoad’ from ‘Futurama’
Futurama is probably the animated show with the highest batting average of multiple shows within shows to date. Everybody Loves Hypnotoad was an immediate sensation, spawning many a fan-made rendition of Hypnotoad online because a lot of folks are apparently into ASMR for serial killers.
‘Pigs in Space’ from ‘The Muppet Show’
You know a fictional show-within-a-show is good when NASA ends up showing it to their crew members on a freaking space shuttle. Yes, The Muppets’ Swinetrek crew has literally been beamed up to space. We truly are a species.
‘Mock Trial with J. Reinhold’ from ‘Arrested Development’
Because who doesn’t enjoy a mockery of the court system? The best part of this show — that served as the Bluth family's own mock trial in its pilot episode — is the court band named Hung Jury (naturally led by William Hung), who plays intros and segues like they’re at a 1960s rock ‘n’ roll church revival. If we can get over 6,000 episodes of Judge Judy, then we should get at least one real-life season of Mock Trial with J. Reinhold.
‘Sick Sad World’ from ‘Daria’
Are you telling me you wouldn’t want to watch an animated tabloid news show covering homicidal houseplants? What about an in-depth look at neonatal skinhead babies? Orcas practicing law, maybe? Rats on Ritalin? Don’t lie; you’ll watch all of it… “on Sick Sad World!”
‘Looking for Latoya’ from ‘Insecure’
Only a show as downright clever and devilishly funny as Insecure can pull off a true-crime docuseries spoof that addresses the media’s shortcomings when it comes to reporting on missing Black women. The show also didn’t skim on the cast here, with SZA playing the missing woman who the cops seem to think shares a name with a car.
‘Troy & Abed in the Morning’ from ‘Community’
The trope of having a show inside a show is more prevalent in comedies that dive headfirst into the meta pool, and Community has a gold medal in just that. The Dan Harmon sitcom spoofs multiple movies in most of its episodes, so it’s no wonder that they have multiple shows in the series, too. Troy & Abed in the Morning is a classic, thanks to the great chemistry between its talented cast members, Donald Glover and Danny Pudi. It’s also fake, which makes it even better.
‘All My Circuits’ from ‘Futurama’
I mean, they could just as well have done an entire series of “All My Children But With Robots,” and it’d probably have been as successful as Futurama itself. The animated melodrama is spoofing at its finest — made even better when Bender briefly becomes part of the show. The “Amnesia” episode, in particular, will never get old — ever.