The 18 Best Comedies From the 1980s That You Can Stream Right Now

Grab your jelly shoes… then put them back down again, because we’ve assembled a list of comedies you don’t have to leave the house to watch
The 18 Best Comedies From the 1980s That You Can Stream Right Now

From yuppies to ex-hippies; from white collar to blue collar; from adorable little moppets to geriatric roommates — all found homes in the comedies of the 1980s. But which have held up and are available for you to stream? 

This alphabetical list makes it easy for you to revisit the era’s best comedies — no need to dig out your Betamax…

227 (1985-1990)

After her run on The Jeffersons — where she received five Emmy nominations for her role as the titular couple’s housekeeper — Marla Gibbs had an even bigger part in the launch and success of the NBC sitcom 227. Not only did she headline and co-produce it, but she also sang its theme song. Gibbs plays Mary Jenkins, resident of the D.C. apartment building that gives the show its title; the show basically revolves around Mary and her neighbors hanging out gossiping on the stoop (or, in the case of Helen Martin’s Pearl, leaning out her first-floor window to get in on the conversation). 

These days, the show is probably best remembered as the vehicle for breakout star Jackée Harry, who won an Emmy for her performance as Sondra, sexy neighbor to Gibbs’ Mary. In fact, you might recall Sandra’s “Ooh, Mary!” catchphrase before placing who the Mary in question even is. The show also gave one young performer her début screen role as Mary’s daughter Brenda: future Emmy and Oscar winner Regina King.

Cheers (1982-1993)

Sam (Ted Danson) has transitioned gracefully from washed-up Red Sox pitcher to recovering alcoholic/owner of the titular bar, where he delights his regulars with tales of his dating exploits. Then Diane (Shelley Long) stops in, with her fiancé, on their way to eloping. Things don’t quite work out for the relationship, so Diane needs a job, and starts her life over as Sam’s newest barmaid. Creators Glen Charles, James Burrows (who directed almost every episode) and Les Charles had previously collaborated together on Taxi, so they had plenty of experience creating comedy in a workplace, though audiences weren’t so sure: Famously, Cheers was a ratings loser in its first season, but a raft of Emmy nominations helped secure its future, and it might still be going today if Danson hadn’t been ready to move on to new challenges after 11 seasons. But the Cheers-verse lives on: Its spin-off, Frasier, also lasted 11 seasons, with a revival set to arrive later this year. 

The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (1988)

When it comes to radically weird kids’ shows of the 1980s that could also become obsessions for adults, Pee-wee’s Playhouse obviously reigns supreme. Sadly, it’s not available to stream in its entirety. Happily, it opened the door for other creators to push the boundaries of what children’s programming could do. And if one skinny weirdo with an affected speaking voice could connect to young viewers, why not two? Martin Short originated the character of Ed Grimley — a pointy-haired naif whose obsessions include Pat Sajak — on the stage at Toronto’s Second City, then carried him over to SCTV and his brief stint on Saturday Night Live. And though Ed wasn’t conceived with a kid-to-tween audience in mind, neither was Pee-wee; turns out a man-child doesn’t require much adaptation to appeal to the youth. In addition to Short reprising the titular role, the voice cast includes Short’s former SCTV castmates Catherine O’Hara and Dave Thomas, with Joe Flaherty playing his SCTV character Count Floyd in special live-action segments.

The Cosby Show (1984-1992)

OB-GYN Cliff (Bill Cosby) and attorney Clair (Phylicia Rashad) have such fancy careers, they could probably enjoy an extremely high standard of living in their Brooklyn Heights brownstone. However, they decided to have five children, so their lives are merely quite nice. Though Cosby’s fame as a stand-up comic surely propelled this project to the air, inspired casting created the familial chemistry that made the show a critical and commercial hit, and launched the careers of Lisa Bonet (second-eldest daughter Denise) and Malcolm-Jamal Warner (sole son Theo); and the pilot is still one of the best any sitcom has ever made. All that said: It’s understandable if the off-screen crimes of its titular star have permanently soured you on this one.

Designing Women (1986-1993)

One season after The Golden Girls — and we’ll get to them — proved that “four gal pals talking smack” could be a recipe for sitcom success, Designing Women came along — and was about as different as another show about four ladies spending most of their time together could be. Instead of housemates, the Women shared a ground-floor office in an antebellum mansion in Atlanta. Julia (Dixie Carter) is the founder and president of an interior design firm; Mary Jo (Annie Potts) is her lead designer; Charlene (Jean Smart) is their office manager. Suzanne (Delta Burke) is Julia’s younger sister, a retired beauty queen who serves as a silent partner in the company and generally just hangs out, being a diva. Julia’s many impassioned monologues helped define CBS as the home for unapologetically opinionated women, as we would see a couple of years later with Murphy Brown (but which you can’t see, because as of this writing it’s not streaming anywhere).

A Different World (1987-1993)

When the time came for The Cosby Show to see daughter Denise (Lisa Bonet) off to college, it was to Hillman College, a fictional HBCU in Virginia. This proves to be a challenge, since Denise has never been a particularly dedicated student; it was also a challenge off-screen, since Bonet got pregnant during the show’s first season, and EP Bill Cosby forbade the character from sharing the experience with her. Debbie Allen, a performer and director who had graduated from prestigious HBCU Howard, came on in the second season to help right the ship, and steered it through its sixth season with a spectacular ensemble cast and urgently contemporary storylines, ultimately making it far more socially relevant and radical than the show it had spun off from.

Family Matters (1989-1998)

Today, Family Matters is remembered by many as the story of the Winslow family getting crowded out by their weird, intrusive neighbor, Steve Urkel (Jaleel White). But there’s a reason Reginald Veljohnson — who played cop/patriarch Carl — is currently headlining Progressive TV commercials as “TV Dad”: Through the show’s nine seasons, he created an indelible character who still shows up among TV’s all-time best fathers. And if you’re not particularly drawn in by the gentle comedy, perhaps the gossip in you will want to watch for signs of off-screen animosity between White and JoMarie “Hariette Winslow” Payton.

Family Ties (1982-1989)

Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) happily spent the 1960s as free-spirited hippies, but that sort of thing can skip a generation. When we meet them, they’re raising three kids. Alex (Michael J. Fox) is most openly rejecting all their values, spouting capitalist rhetoric and revering William F. Buckley Jr. Mallory (Justine Bateman) seems to have no particular political views, and is generally a stereotypical teenage girl of the sort a 50-something sitcom writer might invent. Jennifer (Tina Yothers) is a tomboy. (Brian Bonsall’s Andy is born during the run of the show, but like all late-era babies, he’s eminently forgettable.) Fox got most of the attention for the show — which made sense, given that Back to the Future came out just a few seasons in and made him a superstar — but the whole ensemble deserves credit for making the Keaton family feel so authentic, and so lovable. 

The Golden Girls (1985-1992)

I said we’d get to them, and here we are. A year before the start of the series, hot-to-trot widow Blanche (Rue McClanahan) posts a note seeking roommates to share her large bungalow; dippy Rose (Betty White) and sardonic Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur) are the successful applicants. The event that sets the course for the rest of the series takes place in the pilot, when Shady Pines, the retirement home where Dorothy’s sassy mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) lives, burns down, requiring Sophia to become the girls’ fourth roommate. In 2014, the Writers’ Guild named it among its 101 Best Written TV Series of All Time, and alumni of its writing staff have certainly gone on to acclaim: those include Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, and Marc Cherry, creator of Desperate Housewives. The show’s DNA also lives on in, basically, every other sitcom with four female leads, from Sex and The City to The Sex Lives of College Girls

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)

Most of us have had the experience of watching a bad movie for the joy of loudly goofing on it with our friends. That’s the concept behind Mystery Science Theater 3000. The framing premise is that co-creator Joel Robinson (co-creator Joel Hodgson) is a janitor trapped on a space station, forced by a pair of mad scientists to watch legendarily bad films so that the scientists can track his reactions. Joel is joined in his viewing by robot friends Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy), Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) and Gypsy (Jim Mallon). Over the show’s run, Joel and his successor Mike (Michael J. Nelson) endure nearly 200 bad movies; then they made a movie of their own, in which Mike must watch This Island Earth. (A crowd-funded revival came to Netflix in 2017, but you’re fine skipping it.)

Newhart (1982-1990)

In semi-retirement from his career as a how-to author, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) and his wife Joanna (Mary Frann) leave New York City for rural Vermont, where they buy and operate a historic inn. The kooky characters who surround them include handyman George (Tom Poston), spoiled maid Stephanie (Julia Duffy) and Michael (Peter Scolari), the producer of the local TV news show Dick starts hosting in Newhart’s second season. The town’s most memorable residents are Larry (William Sanderson), his brother Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and his other brother Darryl (John Voldstad); though the appeal of the Stratford Inn for tourists is its picturesque setting, Larry & Co. remind the viewer that Vermont also has its share of antisocial weirdos whose vibe is likely to clash with that of any character played by Bob Newhart.

Night Court (1984-1992)

After making comedy out of the quirky characters who may tangle with the legal system on Barney Miller, Reinhold Weege created Night Court, which mines the same vein. Harry Anderson, already known as lovable con artist Harry the Hat in a recurring role on Cheers, plays Harry Stone, a judge presiding over the titular court — and, at just 34 at the time of his swearing-in, the youngest judge in New York. Harry’s foils are womanizing prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette); idealistic public defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post, from Season Three through the end of the series run); court clerk Mac (Charles Robinson); and bailiff Bull Shannon (Richard Moll), the last of whom lost his elderly partners Selma (Selma Diamond) and Flo (Florence Halop) when the actors who played them died between seasons. The show’s format provided a revolving door for memorable guest stars, some of whom included Gilbert Gottfried, Yakov Smirnoff, Dick Butkus, Michael J. Fox and Fran Drescher. A sequel series followed earlier this year: Melissa Rauch plays the new Judge Stone, who happens to be Harry’s daughter Abby; and Larroquette reprises his role as Dan, though this time he’s the public defender. 

Roseanne (1988-1997)

After becoming a sensation as a “domestic goddess” turned stand-up comic, Roseanne Barr partnered with creator Matt Williams to translate her persona into a namesake sitcom. In the distant (and fictional) Chicago suburb of Lanford, Roseanne Conner toils in a plastics factory by day; by night, she raises three kids with her drywall contractor husband Dan (John Goodman). Said kids — grade-grubber Becky (Lecy Goranson), tomboy Darlene (Sara Gilbert) and forgettable brother D.J. (Michael Fishman) — have all learned sarcasm from their parents; the ability to laugh at life’s setbacks serves the whole Conner family well, since storylines tend to revolve around their financial struggles. Unfortunately, this also belongs in the same category with The Cosby Show in that it’s a fine piece of work tainted by its titular star’s abhorrent behavior. To get the vibe without Roseanne herself, there’s The Conners, which killed off her character after one racist tweet too many

Seinfeld (1989-1998)

Unlike Roseanne Barr, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up was (and is) based more on observations of life’s mundanities than on an outsized persona, which, one might think, would make him an unlikely choice to anchor a sitcom. But Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David found a way: a show that is, like Seinfeld’s bits, “about nothing.” Jerry (Seinfeld) lives on New York’s Upper West Side; as a touring comic — if one who is not quite as successful as the real-life Seinfeld — his days are free to run unimportant errands and have lunch at the local coffee shop with his lifelong best friend George (Jason Alexander), ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and across-the-hall neighbor Kramer (Michael Richards). One of NBC’s biggest hits for nearly its entire run, Seinfeld is still celebrated for the laser precision with which it taxonomized the petty irritations of urban life, from the expectation of a kiss hello to the angst of losing credit for the gift of a big salad.

The Simpsons (1989-)

The Tracey Ullman Show was an early sketch series on the still-relatively-new Fox when it launched a series of animated shorts about the Simpson family, featuring the voice talents of several Tracey stars, from Life in Hell comic strip creator Matt Groening. A half-hour Christmas special followed, providing the proof of concept for The Simpsons to get their own spin-off series. The Tracey Ullman Show is long gone, but the chronicles of idiot father Homer (voice of Dan Castelleneta), patient mother Marge (Julie Kavner), hellion son Bart (Nancy Cartwright) and soulful daughter Lisa (Yeardley Smith) are still airing, with a 35th season coming this fall.

Square Pegs (1982-1983)

Long before Freaks and Geeks and Glee, high school misfits got to be TV protagonists in Square Pegs. Patty (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a normal girl just trying to get to graduation at Weemawee High. Her best friend Lauren (Amy Linker), however, is desperate to break into the school’s popular clique, and episodes tend to revolve around Lauren’s attempts to climb the social ladder. Co-stars include Jami Gertz as prep queen Muffy Tepperman; Tracy Nelson as Valley Girl Jennifer DiNuccio; and Leave It to Beaver alumnus Tony Dow as Patty’s father. Creator Anne Beatts, a veteran of Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, attracted top musical talent in this project too: Its brief run boasted performances by The Waitresses, John Densmore and Devo.

Too Close for Comfort (1980-1987)

Ted Knight followed his role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show with this remake of the British show Keep It in the Family. As cartoonist Henry, Knight embodies a work-from-home icon well before the Zoom era. However, being at home means his family is up in his business, as the title suggests: Henry and his wife Muriel (Nancy Dussault) share the upper floors of their Victorian house in San Francisco, while their daughters Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) and Sarah (Lydia Cornell) share the apartment downstairs. The show even had its own Urkel: Monroe (Jm J. Bulloch), who broke out from what was intended to be a single appearance to join the series cast permanently.

The Wonder Years (1988-1993)

Kevin (Fred Savage) is the youngest child in the Arnold family, growing up in an unspecified and unremarkable American suburb in (at the start of the series) 1968. It’s a tumultuous era: His crush Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) loses her brother in the Vietnam War in the pilot. But most of Kevin’s stories revolve around standard coming-of-age events, and are narrated by his present-day self (Daniel Stern) looking back on how they changed the course of his life. 

The Wonder Years got the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot in January 1988 and continued, for a while, from win to win, starting with a Peabody Award in 1989 for “pushing the boundaries of the sitcom format and using new modes of storytelling.” The least expected outcome is that the adorable little boy we watched grow up would, like Bill Cosby and Roseanne, be accused of misconduct, but if these stories make it impossible for you to look at him now, good news: An excellent new take, revolving around a Black family in late-1960s Birmingham, Alabama, came to ABC in 2021 and is currently airing its second season.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?