The 10 most rock & roll sitcoms of all time
A television show does not have to be about rock & roll to be rock & roll. Frankly, there have not been many sitcoms about the music biz. (Note to networks: There's an idea.)
There are other ways a series can embody rock & roll. Leather-clad characters with greaser hair. Better yet — a leather-clad character named Leather. A wild spirit that rips up the comedy rulebook. A theme song that rips and a killer soundtrack. Live performances. Honest-to-god rock star cameos. A whole bunch of denim.
These are all factors we weighed while ranking the 10 most rock & roll sitcoms of all time. Let's count it down. A one, a two, a one-two-three-four…
Consider the NYC music scene in 1978, as Taxi premiered. The Ramones had stumbled out of Queens in ripped jeans. Hip-hop was kicking off in the Bronx. Unlike other New York sitcoms, Taxi took place downtown. In the opening credits, Tony Banta drives his cab over the Queensborough Bridge. Nobody was "movin' on up" here. The characters in the Sunshine Cab Company garage reflected this real New York. There was Reverend Jim, an acid burnout fond of Canadian tuxedos, and Bobby Wheeler, portrayed by Jeff Conaway with the same Kenickie swagger seen in Grease. And, of course, there was Andy Kaufman, the most unpredictable comedian in history. He once got into a fight with cast members and a producer on the sketch comedy show Fridays — or did he? (Spoiler: It was staged.) Still, the man kept audiences on edge. Seeing him perform was the closest thing in comedy to a punk show.
Most rock & roll character: Reverend Jim
Get a Life!
Rock & roll should be iconoclastic while remaining reverential to its roots. Indeed, Chris Elliot's early-'90s Fox sitcom thumbed its nose at sitcom cliché while embracing the low-brow pleasures of the genre. The main character, a pathetic 30-something (or 50-something, depending on the episode) paperboy, was often killed off at the end of episodes. And yet, on the other hand, the mom was played brilliantly by Elinor Donahue of Father Knows Best. Brains like Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Better Caul Saul) were banging out the scripts. Oh, and R.E.M. provided the theme song. Okay, yeah, it was "Stand," but still, R.E.M.
Most rock & roll character: Gus Borden, Chris' grumpy ex-cop roommate played by Brian Doyle-Murray
Social misfits were the stars of this cult '80s sitcom. The adorkable Patty (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren (Amy Linker) were constantly striving to fit in with the popular kids, which is not particularly rock & roll, but Marshall and new-wave Johnny Slash were there to keep them in check. Johnny and Marshall worked at the school radio station, where posters for the Clash, Squeeze, Laurie Anderson and Missing Persons cover the walls. Oh, and Johnny plays in a band with John Densmore of the Doors. Literally. Bill Murray is in an episode with Billy Idol on the soundtrack. The Waitresses sang the theme song. But the biggest cred boost here came when Devo played on the show.
Most rock & roll character: Johnny Slash, obviously
Image: The Everett Collection
It was no coincidence that Batman hit the airwaves just as psychedelic music was blossoming. The show was a kaleidoscope of bold colors and canted camera angles. Paul Revere & The Raiders turned up in an episode, rocking Penguin's mayoral campaign party, and hip duo Chad & Jeremy popped in, too. Sure, Liberace may have been a guest star, but he was a villain. Anyone who questions Batman's influence on rock & roll only need search for its theme song. The Who, the Kinks and the Jam all covered the ripping surf number. Deep Purple claimed the riff to "Space Truckin'" was lifted from "Batman Theme," too.
Most rock & roll character: It would have to be Catwoman, in that skintight black getup with claws
Freaks and Geeks
"I don't give a damn about my reputation!" So began each episode, as Joan Jett howled and hammered her way through "Bad Reputation" in the opening credits. The "Freaks" clearly had rock cred, from the very first scene, as Seth Rogan and James Franco argue over a Molly Hatchet T-shirt. Of course, there was Nick (Jason Segel) the Rush-worshipping drummer who auditions for the arrogant professionals in Dimension. He's the one who blurts, "Disco sucks!" (He's wrong, but for the purposes of this list, we'll give him a point.) He has his own band with his buddies, Creation. Or Mission Control. Or Anarchy's Child. Whatever they decided upon… Anyway, other episodes delve into Deadhead and punk. Heck, even the guidance counselor is a hippie. It's hard to argue against the rock & roll spirit of the show. You might argue it's not a sitcom, but few shows of the era were funnier, so… it is.
Most rock & roll character: Daniel Desario, the go-nowhere James Dean of central Michigan
Laverne & Shirley
Milwaukee is a rock & roll town, and not just because of all the breweries. No, it's blue-collar and Alice Cooper had an awesome line about it in Wayne's World. The sitcoms set there help its rep, too. Switching between poodle skirts and jumpsuits, Laverne and Shirley ooze classic rock & roll style. Best buddies Lenny and Squiggy only add to the spirit. Both duos release real albums in the 1970s. Laverne & Shirley Sing covered "Da Do Ron Ron," while Lenny & Squiggy Present Lenny and the Squigtones featured cuts like "Creature Without a Head" and "Vamp On."
Most rock & roll character: Squiggy. Sorry, Lenny, but he has a Misfits haircut.
Yes, of course, there is Fonzie. He rode a motorcycle, started jukeboxes with a snap of his fingers and sported black leather in all weather. Oh, and he told everybody to "Sit on it!" But don't overlook the other, tougher rockers of Happy Days — the Tuscaderos. Pinky Tuscadero was tougher than (painted) nails, but it was younger sister Leather Tuscadero who brought the rock. Played by rocker Suzi Quatro, Leather tears up Arnold's in "Fonzie, Rock Entrepreneur." Happy Days helped ignite the '50s rock revival. "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets was the original theme song. Even the show's creator, Garry Marshall, drummed in episodes.
Most rock & roll character: Leather Tuscadero. Nope, not the Fonz.
The Young Ones
MTV, PBS, USA and Comedy Central all aired the cult British sitcom, perhaps the only television show that truly deserved to be called punk. Why? It wasn't just Vyvyan Basterd, with his "Very Metal" denim jacket and egg-white-spiked hair. Motörhead, the Damned and Madness all appeared on the show, as episodes spontaneously broke out into a concert. Rick embodied arty indie snobs, while Neil Pye was the consummate bean-eating hippie. Each character's life was tied up in music, and the show, for all its wildness, demonstrated that sometimes rock & roll is worth a little poverty.
Most rock & roll character: Vyvyan
Image: The Everett Collection
The original rock & roll sitcom. In fact, the Monkees perfected the art form, which is perhaps why nobody has been bold enough to copy the formula. Some may have cried that the foursome was manufactured — but so what? The Monkees proved that origin hardly matters. It's all about tunes and character, you know? Besides, doing surreal physical comedy on television is just as rock & roll as jangling through a pop song.
Most rock & roll character: Mike. He wrote psych songs like "Daily Nightly" and "Circle Sky." The former was perhaps the first rock song to ever feature a Moog!
Image: The Everett Collection
WKRP in Cincinnati
Let's just go ahead and put this on the record: No other network sitcom has or will play a Captain Beefheart song. Yet Dr. Johnny Fever spun "Suction Prints" off Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) in the tenth episode. That's some deep, deep, weird stuff. And yet, WKRP was constantly dropping the needle on cutting-edge rock & roll in episodes. The show featured Van Halen, the Stones, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, the Doors, Chuck Berry, AC/DC, the Who, Queen, Springsteen, Chic, the Police, Little Richard, U2, Pat Benatar… and dozens more. The show is credited with helping to break both Blondie and the Cars, and it showcased the budding bands. It helped that the show was about a radio station, but consider that the producers could have just as easily gone all disco, or smooth jazz, or Rupert Holmes. The show simply had cooler taste.
Most rock & roll character: Dr. Johnny Fever. Duh.