The bedrock of comedy is an aberration of the normal. There's a reason we say "that's funny..." when something is odd, even if it's not really comical. The fish-out-of-water scenario is an easy platform for a TV comedy series, and who could be more out of their element than an alien? They come from far away, knowing as much English as they need to communicate, but can see the absurdities in our culture because it's foreign to them. And they are so foreign to us that anything they do fits into the format.
My Favorite Martian
My Favorite Martian was the first regular TV sitcom featuring an alien from outer space, in 1963. Tim O'Hara (Bill Bixby) took in a stranded Martian (Ray Walston) as his roommate. "Uncle Martin," as the Martian was called, had all kinds of super powers. He was telepathic, he could turn himself invisible, he could rearrange molecules to change objects, he could levitate at will. He even built a time machine! But he couldn't repair his ship and go back home -at least not during the three-year run of the show. You can see the pilot eppisode in five parts on YouTube.
Mork and Mindy
Mork and Mindy had the same setup, with alien Mork (Robin Williams) rooming with Mindy (Pam Dawber), while trying to keep his alien identity secret from everyone but her. The comedy revolved around Mork trying to understand human behavior and explain his findings to his boss back at the home planet,Â Ork. It was a breakout role for Williams, tailor-made for his trademark improvised comedic riffs. The series was a Happy Days spinoff, airing from 1978 to 1982. Mork and Mindy eventually married and had a child (Jonathan Winters). Yeah, it was that silly. See the show intro on YouTube.
More funny aliens, after the jump.
ALF was an acronym for Alien Life Form. It was also the title character of the sitcom which ran from 1986 to 1990. ALF was the sole survivor of the doomed planet Melmac, who crash-landed on Earth and moved in with the suburban Tanner family. ALF was played by a puppet controlled by three people, except for rare scenes where a dwarf actor walked through the set in an ALF costume. In addition to the alien trying to make sense of Earth culture, the comedy came from ALF's smart-alec attitude. He was difficult to live with, but funny to watch once a week. A rundown of episodes (each named for a song) can be found here. See the show intro on YouTube.
3rd Rock from the Sun
In 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001), an entire crew of an alien spaceship came to earth to study our planet. The four scientists (led by John Lithgow) took human form and posed as a family, without the help of a live-in Earthling confidant. The comedy was derived from their attempts to seem human when they had no real understanding of how to do it. There were also conflicts between each character's normal alien identity and the human form they inhabited. Bonus: William Shatner played the aliens' supervisor. Get a taste of the show in this YouTube clip.
The character of Latka Gravas on the series Taxi (1978-1983) was not from outer space, but he was an alien, in the immigrant sense. Latka was from a unnamed island in the Caspian Sea, with a distinctive but unrecognizable accent actor Andy Kaufman used as "the Foreign Man" in his standup comedy routine. However, he suffered from multiple-personalilty disorder and would sometimes appear as a cowboy, and Englishman, or the womanizer Vic Ferrari. These characters were included in the show to satisfy Kaufman, who feared being typecast as Latka. You can see the character in this clip at YouTube.
Balki Bartokomous was the resident alien in Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Like Latka, he was a stranger in a strange land, but unlike Taxi, this was the entire premise for the series. Actor Bronson Pinchot was able to carry the schtick for several years. Balki traveled from his rural home on the fictional island of Mypos (which seemed Greek, but was never pinpointed) to Chicago to live with his distant cousin Larry (Mark Linn-Baker). See the show intro here.
Since 3rd Rock from the Sun was discontinued in 2001, the closest thing we have to comedy aliens is the animated series Futurama, which is set in the future when aliens from other planets are not so unusual. Although discontinued in 2003, Futurama will return to TV in 2008 on Comedy Central.