8 Sitcom Spin-offs That Are Every Bit As Good As the Shows That Spun Them Off
Launching a successful sitcom is an imperfect science. It might seem like you’ve brought together the perfect creator, stars and premise, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to find the audience it deserves. So when you do strike sitcom gold, it’s natural to try to keep mining the same vein. Most of the time, creators find out the hard way that the deposit is cashed: AfterMASH (spun off from M*A*S*H), The Ropers (spun off from Three’s Company) and Women of the House (spun off from Designing Women) are among the spin-offs that fell far short of their progenitors.
But what about the sitcom spin-offs that matched — or, arguably, surpassed — the shows that spawned them? Let’s count down eight that pulled it off…
‘Laverne & Shirley,’ which spun off from ‘Happy Days’
Garry Marshall’s Happy Days, a nostalgic look back at the 1950s from… less than 20 years later, was itself a spin-off of sorts, starting as a segment on the anthology show Love, American Style. And while it was enough of a ratings juggernaut to have spawned seven spin-offs, by far the most successful is Laverne & Shirley. After the titular characters, respectively played by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, were introduced on Happy Days as, er, “free-spirited” friends of Fonzie’s (Henry Winkler), they got a slightly more wholesome makeover for a relaunch in their own show. There, we follow their adventures as bottle-cappers at Milwaukee’s fictional Shotz Brewery; their dating lives; and the hijinks they get into with their neighbors, Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David Lander). Two of the Happy Days spin-offs were animated, but Williams and Marshall’s commitment to physical comedy should grant them status as honorary cartoons.
‘Daria,’ which spun off from ‘Beavis & Butt-Head’
When Beavis and Butt-Head (voice of Mike Judge) weren’t on a couch critiquing music videos, they occasionally attended high school. One of their classmates there was the sardonic misanthrope Daria Morgendorffer (Tracy Grandstaff). The B&B empire eventually spawned a comic book series, films (one theatrical, in 1996; one for Paramount+, in 2022), series revivals in 2011 and this past April, and Daria, which ran for five seasons from 1997 to 2002. Relocating Daria from Highland, Texas, to Lawndale — “a mid-Atlantic suburb, outside somewhere like Baltimore or Washington, D.C.,” per series co-creator Glenn Eichler — Daria shows the eponymous character living uneasily alongside her peppy, popular sister Quinn (Wendy Hoopes) and making one good friend, Jane (also Hoopes), with whom to snark on the annoying conformists closing in on all sides. Last year, MTV announced that Daria would get a spin-off of its own — a TV movie called Jodie, starring Tracee Ellis Ross as the voice of the eponymous character, a high school friend of Daria’s.
‘The Facts of Life,’ which spun off from ‘Diff’rent Strokes’
After working as the cook and housekeeper to the Drummond family of New York’s Upper East Side, Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) decided to take on a new challenge: a job as a housemother at private school Eastland in Upstate New York. After an off-model first season with a couple of instructors and a bunch of students (including Molly Ringwald!) who don’t stick around, the story locks in for Season Two. Scholarship student Jo Polniaczek (Nancy McKeon) arrives from the Bronx, and quickly gets in trouble with Natalie (Mindy Cohn), Tootie (Kim Fields) and Blair (Lisa Whelchel). After that, the four board together and work in the cafeteria in a punishment that lasts for the rest of their high school years — improbable, but never mind! The plot machinations that keep them all together past graduation are tortured, but this Gen X viewer wouldn’t have wanted them to split up.
‘The Jeffersons,’ which spun off from ‘All in the Family’
Norman Lear’s All in the Family was such a ratings, critical and awards success that even its spin-offs had spin-offs: Family begat Maude, which begat Good Times. We also got Archie Bunker’s Place, Gloria and 704 Hauser. The longest-lived was the second: The Jeffersons. George and Louise Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) are first introduced on Family as neighbors to the central Bunker family; the irascible George frequently serves as a sparring partner to the equally pugnacious Archie (Carroll O’Connor). Then George’s chain of dry-cleaning shops becomes so successful that the Jeffersons move (on up) from Queens to a luxury apartment in Manhattan, and even get a live-in maid, Florence (Marla Gibbs), who becomes George’s reliable foil. The Jeffersons ALSO had a spin-off of its own — Checking In, revolving around Florence taking a job as a housekeeping manager at a New York hotel. When it fizzled after just four episodes, Florence returned to her job with George and Louise, because the hotel burned down — dark, but as we know, the shows of the Norman Lear-iverse aren’t scared of tough topics. If you’re counting: yes, that means All in the Family is tied (on this list) with Happy Days for most spin-offs, though none of Family’s were animated. Yet!
‘A Different World,’ which spun off from ‘The Cosby Show’
Cliff and Clair Huxtable (Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad) have five children, and thus plenty of options for spin-offs, but wisely passed over eldest/most boring offspring Sondra (Sabrina Le Beauf) in favor of Denise (Lisa Bonet), the second-oldest, best-dressed and most restless of the Huxtable kids. A Different World follows Denise to the fictional HBCU Hillman College, and introduces classmates Whitley (Jasmine Guy), Maggie (Marisa Tomei, who only lasted one season), Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). When Bonet became pregnant (with future superstar Zoë Kravitz), series creator Bill Cosby decreed that Denise could not be portrayed as a pregnant teen out of wedlock — and, as we know now, his moral judgment is unimpeachable — so Denise was written out of the show. But it went on for five more successful seasons, covering a variety of issues pertinent to 1990s college students, including HIV/AIDS and disinvestment from South Africa, eventually also launching the career of a young Jada Pinkett.
‘Rhoda,’ which spun off from ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’
Not quite as fertile a ground as Happy Days or All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show only launched three spin-offs — Phyllis, Lou Grant and Rhoda. Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) lives downstairs from Rhoda (Valerie Harper) in the original series, and the two become best friends. A few seasons in, Rhoda returns to her native New York for what is intended to be a visit until she meets Joe (David Groh); the two quickly fall in love, and Rhoda decides to move back to the city. Unfortunately, this also means more time with her critical mother Ida (Nancy Walker) and sad-sack sister Brenda (future Marge Simpson voicer Julie Kavner). Rhoda’s doorman Carlton — famously only a disembodied intercom voice (Lorenzo Music) — was considered enough of a sensation for a pilot to have been produced for Carlton Your Doorman, an animated series, but (somehow?) it wasn’t picked up.
‘The Simpsons,’ which spun off from ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’
The millions of fans who’ve never lived in a world without The Simpsons may not remember that before it was a wildly successful sitcom, it existed in the form of animated shorts in The Tracey Ullman Show, a sketch and variety show in the earliest days of the Fox network. But the Simpson family — father Homer (voice of Dan Castellaneta), mother Marge (the aforementioned Kavner) and children Bart (Nancy Cartwright), Lisa (Yeardley Smith) and baby Maggie (no voice talent required, generally, though her first word, “Daddy,” was performed by Elizabeth Taylor) — has had much longer legs than Tracey. Its run of 750 episodes, to date, has made it the longest-running American scripted primetime TV series, the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running American animated series, records it seems to be in no danger of losing, given that it’s already been renewed for its next two seasons. (Have there been more bad episodes than good at this point? Depends who you ask.)
‘Frasier,’ which spun off from ‘Cheers’
Cheers spent its first several seasons as a romantic comedy between prickly partners Sam (Ted Danson) and Diane (Shelley Long). One of the bumps along the road of Diane and Sam’s love story was Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), introduced in the Season Three premiere as her new love interest. Unfortunately for him, Diane wasn’t able to get all the way over Sam, leaving Frasier at the altar between the third and fourth seasons. Frasier’s bitterness toward her doesn’t preclude his spending virtually all his spare time drinking at Cheers, and we eventually see him meet and marry Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth) — a relationship that outlasts Diane’s time on the show, but ultimately also fails.
A few months after the series finale of Cheers, NBC premiered Frasier. Over the summer, apparently, the titular character relocates to his native Seattle, gets a job hosting a radio call-in show and reconnects with his finicky brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and curmudgeonly father Martin (John Mahoney); rounding out the cast are Peri Gilpin as Frasier’s producer Roz, and Jane Leeves as Daphne, a housekeeper who doubles as a physical therapist working with Martin on a lingering hip injury resulting from his being shot in the line of duty as a detective. The series ended in 2004 after 11 seasons, but a revival is coming to Paramount+ this fall; this story finds Frasier moving back to Boston, where Cheers was set, so it stands to reason that most of the cast won’t be returning. But will Frasier still be Frasier without Niles?