Monday, March 25, 2013


"The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show -- in a mature fashion -- just how absurd they are."

JANUARY 12, 1971

The warning was clear.   You, the viewer, are about to witness frank sexuality, profanity, overt racism, loud political discussions, and the sound of a toilet flushing.  And also the wholesale revamp of the American sitcom.

Norman Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin worked in the early years of television as comedy writers.  In the sixties they wrote, produced and directed various feature films, mostly social satires touching on subject matter that pushed the borders of what was--at the time--mainstream star-driven product.  “All in the Family” was based on the British sitcom “Til Death Do Us Part” and Lear and Yorkin formed Tandem Productions to Americanize the dysfunctional Garnett family:  racist, close-minded dad; dimwitted good-hearted wife; lay-a-bout yet socially progressive son in law; and devoted yet sexually liberated daughter.  They are now the Bunkers from Queens NY: Archie, Edith, Mike and Gloria.  Originally taped as a few pilots (with some different casting), ABC turned down the program.  After being reworked a third time, CBS bought it and placed it in a mid season time-slot.  Fred Silverman, head of programming for CBS, was in the process of a “rural purge”-- he was going to remove still-popular hillbilly farces and gentle rural family sitcoms with more urban, sophisticated and topical programs.  “Cutting down the trees," as Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney) put it.

In the 1970-1971 season, Americans saw the final seasons of so many beloved sitcoms from Mayberry to Hooterville.  And, when the Bunkers--premiering to uninterested viewer numbers despite the controversy--showed up in summer reruns to stellar ratings, the die was cast.

Combined with the premiere of what many believe to be the best sitcom of all time, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"--with its smart writing, sharp character development, and replacement of the nuclear family with workplace alliances--the revolution had begun.


Lear and Yorkin would develop most sitcoms throughout the coming decade.  Many were spin offs of "All in the Family".  Or even spin offs of spin offs.  Lear and Yorkin would split up around 1974 with Yorkin forming his own company.  Between the two of them, they owned the decade when it came to sheer quantity--if not necessarily quality.  Lear’s content was topical in that movie-of-the-week way.  Continuing story lines were not uncommon.  His actors came mostly from Broadway as opposed to the stock sitcom actors of year’s past.  Recalling the immediacy of a Broadway play (or early live TV) Lear’s programs were shot on three cameras in front of a studio audience on Hollywood sound stages.  The difference between his programs and those of say, Desi Arnaz or Sheldon Leonard, is that he shot on videotape rather than film.  Oftentimes the acting seemed stagy with the stage-trained actors in tightly framed close-ups.  The sets looked like sets with the overly-bright flat lighting.  Studio audiences were encouraged to hoot, clap, ooh and aaah, which they did with very little prompting.  The audience almost became part of the show:  witnessing, along with you-- the home viewer--a laugh-filled but somewhat frightening expose of ourselves and our society.  Warts and all.

And those first episodes covered almost everything: racial prejudice, unemployment, the politics of Richard Nixon, homosexuality, women’s lib, and religion-- all with that flushing toilet, lots of yelling and lots of cussing!  But it was extremely funny.  The acting was top-notch and the best writers and directors (from the previous sitcom era actually) were on board for this experiment.  The characters were broadly drawn, yet complex.  The humor was fast, furious, bombastic and sometimes vulgar.  The situations were dramatic and life-changing.  The audience howled and gasped.  Sophistication and wit were left to someone else, starting out on her own.


James L. Brooks, who worked in the broadcast news industry and developed and wrote for network television (most recently the critically acclaimed “Room 222”) teamed up with many of the best writers in TV to give birth to Mary Richards.  Grant Tinker and his wife Mary Tyler Moore formed a production company, MTM,  and hired Brooks to make TV history.  When Moore teamed up with former TV husband Dick Van Dyke in a variety show reunion, her comedic timing was as sharp as ever.  CBS bought the idea of her own show as a newly divorced woman on her own with the caveat that she  cannot be divorced.  Rob and Laura Petrie could NOT be divorced as audiences (being given little intellectual credit by studio execs) would turn away in droves.  So, in the same season that Archie Bunker single-handedly broke most taboos at the time, Mary Richards had to be “left at the altar” rather than suffer the D word.  But she wasn’t Doris Day or Ann Marie or Gidget.  Mary had a few “experiences” and the show was written well enough that audiences didn’t have that fact hit them over their head.  Well, audiences, that is, that could have handled the dreaded divorce scenario.  

MTM’s sitcoms were very different in tone and appearance from Lear's.  They hewed more closely to the Desi Arnaz model, filmed with three cameras before a studio audience.  The audience was tamer but savvy.  Musical transitions and location shots added to the classiness of the productions.  The writing was solid and the direction was on par with the acting:  superb.  Sadly, MTM would veer into videotape usage (probably to save costs) in the latter part of the decade to ill effect.

The third most prevalent 70's sitcom creator, Garry Marshall, would also premiere “The Odd Couple” this season.  But his style would not become signature until his teammates at Paramount were churning out a multitude of series for ABC, mostly of the nostalgic bent, formatted much like the MTM shows, but without the quality and with the hooting and applause of the Lear shows sans the controversy.

In this series of articles by season, each year I will start by listing the shows in order of ratings for that year.  I feel it is better to reveal the tastes at that time in order to reflect the true nature of the audiences on their path to sitcom maturation in the 70’s.  It is more interesting, for instance, that The Brady Bunch was never a top-30 show at the time but would live on in nostalgic reverie through reruns and pop culture.  I’ll follow up the top rated sitcoms with the returning series and notable premieres each year. 

The previous two seasons had seen the end of many long-running escapist 60's sitcoms:  I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, The Flying Nun and Petticoat Junction.  Gomer Pyle USMC, still at the top of the ratings when it was cancelled in 1969 reverted to a variety format, The Jim Nabors Hour" to showcase the star's singing ability.  Although the previous sitcom's actors returned for a silly recurring skit "The Brother In Law" which was a bit more contemporary and the ratings still in the top 30, the purge took hold as this newer series was also cancelled at the end of the 1970 season.  The accent must have done it.  The variety show "Hee Haw" also fell victim to the CBS cancellations but flourished in syndication for decades to come.


This year was definitely transitory due to the strange mixture of returning old favorites and the premiering milestone series. Consider yourself warned by the ensuing programming schizophrenia.  As “All in the Family” was a CBS hit only during summer reruns, you won’t find it in the top 30 programs this year.

#3. Here’s Lucy (CBS): Hard to believe Lucy would be the highest rated sitcom in this year of change.  But the third season of her newly formatted “hipper” show was more of the same.  Lucille Ball's character, widow Lucy Carter (no longer Carmichael) was joined by her real-life kids, now hip teens. The famous Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor episode as well as shenanigans with Sammy Davis, Rudy Vallee, and Jack Benney filled the year.  There may have been some slight references to women’s lib by her mini-skirted daughter, but Lucy was still pretty much Lucy in style and content.

#15. Mayberry RFD (CBS).  Still highly rated, the third year of this " Andy Griffith Show" sequel would be its last due to the “rural purge.”  Alice Ghostly replaced Aunt Bee this year and that was as controversial as it got if you don’t count Goober finally opening up a gas station or Goober getting lost in a cave or (heavens!) Howard becoming a “swinger.”  Women’s lib didn’t come up.

 Ironically, Andy Griffith himself tried TWICE to return to TV this season.  First, in the fall, he attempted to match “Room 222” in its serio-comic attempt at examining youth-related problems in Headmaster (CBS).  When ratings were not good, he went back to his old formula (and laugh track) as the mayor of a small North Carolina town in The New Andy Griffith Show (CBS).  Again, no luck.  Andy always succeeded on Monday nights and these were both tried on Friday night.  Or maybe Silverman was right in his instincts.  Aaron Ruben, who produced for Andy in the 60’s had a hand in both of these series and he would end up crossing the cultural divide to work for Lear the next year in another landmark series featuring a different kind of "pop".

#19.  My Three Sons (CBS).  Audiences were still hanging on with the Douglas family in its eleventh season.  Already having safely endured a format, network and offspring changes since 1960 (wha?) the seventies saw the domestic trials and tales shared among the various family units.  As Robbie was raising his triplets, Chip married new girlfriend Polly and even adopted son Ernie started becoming interested in girls.  There may have been a reference to women’s lib with all these new wives around.  Had to have been.

#20.  Doris Day Show (CBS).  Well, widowed Doris Martin was becoming more liberated as she and her kids spent less time on the farm and more time living above an Italian family in San Fransisco where she worked for the magazine and spent lots of time with Duke the boxer (Larry Storch).  Don't ask.  So for the third season, the “rural purge” was occurring within the show rather than in the wholesale destruction of the franchise.  Wait til next year!

#21.  The Smith Family (ABC).  This mid season entry featured movie star Henry Fonda as a middle-America cop raising a family (including post-Opie, pre-Richie Ron Howard).    Another dramatic sitcom with no laugh track, the travails of a family having a father with a life-threatening job proved less-than hilarious. One of the few sitcoms without a widow actually had a wife character in danger of becoming one.  But the drug-related story lines definitely gave the series a dour tone contrasting with its breezy title credits.   This may have been an attempt by producer Don Fedderson ("My Three Sons" and " Family Affair") to gain street cred.

#22.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  This year saw the premiere of the best sitcom on TV (in my opinion).  I already covered the genesis of Mary Richards above.  And though she had to remain Not Divorced, the first season--dealing with the procurement of  her job at WJM with SPUNK, introducing Lou Grant, Ted Baxter, Murray, Rhoda and Phyllis, and fending off advances of most men in Minneapolis--still dealt with infidelity and separation.  Mary got back at CBS right off the bat when she and Rhoda pretended to be members of a divorce support group to meet men.  Hah.

The series would prove itself an qualified critical hit winning Emmy's for directing and writing.  Ed Asner and Valerie Harper would win supporting acting awards as Lou Grant and Rhoda respectively becoming the first "stated" non-stereotyped Jewish sitcom characters since The Goldbergs.  This would start a pretty long trend during the next seven years.

#25.  The Partridge Family (ABC).  The premiere of this musical family sitcom would prove that there was still room for lighthearted family fare.  As  long as there was rock-n-roll and the kids were really hip and good looking and could have fan clubs and billboard hits.  And, of course, Mom was a widow. And right off the bat there was an episode dealing with women’s lib.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Jeb's last dance.
The Beverly Hillbillies (CBS).  In it’s ninth and final season, the Clampetts gasped to the finish line out of place and out of time.  The fish-out-of-water hayseeds had some continuing story lines that reeked of desperation:  Ellie May dated a Navy frogman and Granny thought he was a real frog. There was something about a Grunion invasion.   Trips to DC involved political misunderstandings while trying to give the President money (!) and get conned by Phil Silvers with cheap-looking process shots.  Oh, and women’s lib was brought up, but in the context of a gaggle of Japanese women who Jethro tried to….oh, never mind.  It’s over.  

Bewitched (ABC).  The seventh season of this hit series saw the ratings start to decline.  The second Darrin was wearing thin, there was a little warlock now, and Samantha’s evil twin took center stage. (Sitcom note: evil twins usually represent a shark jump.)  This season did take some bold steps, cloaking its messages about intolerance in a family-friendly magical comedy. Along with a visit from George Washington (Will Geer), an extended visit to Salem (during the witch trials--and all the hilarity that entails) as well as the famous “polka dot” episode about race relations remained an example of clever and subversive storytelling this series had provided since 1964.  

The Bill Cosby Show (NBC).  Cosby’s second and final season once again showcased his
No, I'll be back, you see.
gentle brand of humor sometimes interacting with students at the fictional LA school where his character taught.  There were also some wacky domestic situations and cameo guest appearances (Dick Van Dyke, Elsa Lanchester, and Don Knotts).  Mining humor from giving birth during a hellish rainstorm may work…after all it’s Cosby…but doing so without the requisite laugh track--refused by the star--probably confused the audiences and they didn’t watch Bill this year.

The Brady Bunch (ABC).  The second season saw the contrived premise of this extended family, widow meets widower, finally take hold.  Some of the most beloved and oft-played episodes emanated from this season though, such as Jan’s Makeover and Greg’s New Room.  Although there was some talk of women’s lib (via Marcia), the real controversy erupted with topics such as the dangers of gossip and practical joke-playing.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (ABC):  Although the Harry Nillson theme song and the fashions were hip, producer (and co-star) James Komack wouldn’t gain his 70’s sitcom grit until a couple of years later.  The closest widower Tom and his motherless son Eddie got to controversy this season was an episode about shoplifting.  Too many men in the cast for a women’s lib episode.

Fred Silverman's got plans.
Family Affair (CBS):  This extremely popular family comedy dropped off the radar just in time for the family part of the purge on CBS.  Buffy and Jody were getting older and less cute.  But teenage Cissy must have been getting cuter as a lot of stories revolved around her.  She even tackled women’s lib.  Well, actually, she tackled a lot:  The Peace Corp and Middle Eastern politics even came up. Nancy Walker, who was added to the cast the final year to help manservant French with the transition to cancellation, would begin her glorious reign as sitcom queen of the decade right here in Uncle Bill’s apartment.  Oh, and we meet the real Mrs. Beasley this season.

The Governor and JJ (CBS):  There was some political jabbing in the second and final season of this three camera sitcom.  It is interesting that this ended up being the show cancelled to make room for "All in the Family."  After all, the short-lived series about a conservative Midwestern governor and his meddling liberal niece reeked of Mike Vs. Archie energy.  But even the topical digs on media makeovers and scandal squelching  didn’t quite meet the litmus test for the shocking new times.  Or maybe it was just the low ratings.

Green Acres (CBS).  Hooterville, we hardly knew ye.  Whereas, the West Coast natives of this berg were drowning in desperate plot repetition and silliness in the Hills, Oliver and Lisa were, after five years--into their sixth season here--still trying to fix up their farmhouse.  Their buxom neighbors at the Shady Rest Hotel were smart enough to get cancelled the season before.   This burlesque, near-stoner third-wall-breaking humor remained consistent throughout the run and the series never really dates to this day.  Arnold the pig and Droby the Duck presided over the most controversial scenes (no women’s lib here).  The final episodes, with no resolution, were basically pilots for other series--one taking place in a Hawaaian hotel and the other in Oliver’s Manhattan law office.  It’s just as well that these pilots, hearkening back to the saccharine of yore, never got in the cockpit.

Hogan's Heroes (CBS).  As in the previous entry, this popular series would basically never deviate from its tone or formula.  The premise of a diverse group of Allied prisoners of war duping the bumbling Nazi officers was pretty much the same up through this, it's sixth and final season.  What's interesting is that within a year, a painted swastika would play into the dramatic plot involving the Bunkers....and within two years, a new military sitcom premiering would be one of the most relevant and popular and critically-acclaimed series of all time by dealing with the destruction of war head on rather than as a plot element to be danced around.

Julia (NBC).  The fact that the third season of this hit series saw a drop in high ratings was almost appropriate.  The sort-of groundbreaking sitcom--with it’s lead character being African-American--basically avoided any hot-button issues regarding race.  As the Jeffersons--fighting tooth and nail with Archie Bunker--became the new representatives of black culture on sitcoms, Diahnne Carroll’s Julia was more apt to be involved in story lines suited to Donna Reed.   Ms. Carroll parted ways with producer Hal Kanter and the series ended at just the right time in history.

Nanny and the Professor (ABC).  Returning for a second season due to its family-friendly Friday night time-slot (along with "The Brady Bunch"), this series didn’t offer much in the way of anything new.  Reminiscent of “Bewitched” in it’s mystical heroine and her various odd and equally mysterious relations mixing it up with a motherless family, this series relied on a cute dog and cute kids rather than any sense of wit from its pedigreed British players.

Room 222 (ABC).  After many Emmy nominations, ABC brought back this low-rated comedy-drama for a second season.  After "All in the Family," this was probably the most daring series this season in its subject matter.  The faculty and students of Walt Whitman High dealt with drugs, Vietnam, anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, lifestyle changes, culture wars, and reading Catch-22…all in ONE season.  Take that, Norman Lear!  And they did it without all of the histrionics.

That Girl (ABC).  The proto/anti-feminist, played by Marlo Thomas, spent this entire final
Turn the plane around.
season almost marrying her boyfriend (the Donald) of the previous five years.  There were lots of celebrity guests (including dad Danny) and the women’s lib episode actually involved getting stuck on an elevator on the way to the meeting.  Actually, Ann Marie did deal with issues of nudity, environmental activism, shoplifting, and prejudice against Mexican-Americans this year.  So there, Archie.  But Ms. Thomas got the last word in by refusing to have Ann get married at the end of the run--to prove that does not necessarily have to be the fitting end to a show about a single woman making it on her own.  So there, Mary.

To Rome, with Love (CBS).  Fedderson’s lesser known series, this family comedy about a motherless family (yes, again!) headed by a professor (John Forsythe) relocating his kids from Iowa to Rome didn’t find its audience in its second season.  Actually, "All in the Family" replaced the series in its time slot.  Moving to a different night didn’t help and neither did adding sitcom stalwart Walter Brennan in a supporting role.


"Give me one year, Felix. I'll get rid of the laughtrack"
The Odd Couple (ABC).  Garry Marshall’s first pairing with Paramount studios was adapting Neil Simon’s hit play and blockbuster film to the small screen.  The first season resembled the earlier versions of the property much more than the later seasons, what with the single camera framework and no live audience (laugh track though).  Also, the Pigeon Sisters played a large role in early episodes and the poker games were more prominently featured.  Nonetheless, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman did an excellent job of filling the shoes of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, thus leading to years of critical success and acting Emmys.  The concept of divorce was also a major plot element in this show and was probably the first series to treat it as such.   

Jack Klugman's portrayal of Oscar Madison would garner him the Best Actor Emmy for a comedy this season.  He would beat out Carroll O'Connor's premiere season as Archie Bunker.  A feat.

 Paramount and Simon teamed up again for an sitcom adaptation of Barefoot in the Park
(ABC). Although the brave and timely idea of making the Wasp-y lead couple African-Americans did not quite have the desired effect of higher audience numbers.

All in the Family (CBS).  Yes, notable.  Emmy's for Best Comedy Series, Best New Series and the first of many Best Actress-Comedy awards for Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker.  It all starts here.  and no one even started watching until just a couple of months before these awards were handed out.

Arnie (CBS).  In a subtle way, this urban sitcom tackled class warfare, one of the least covered topical themes in the early 70's.  Herschel Bernardi's main character was a dock foreman who works himself up to middle management.  The comedy is generated by the culture shock of the "nouveou riche" and Arnie's relationship with his wife and aloof boss.

Nancy (NBC).  Some fluff about the President’s daughter being courted and getting married.  Creator Sidney Sheldon (of "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Patty Duke Show" fame) missed the mark on this one.  There was probably very little political bite in this show and the hyped-up wedding never even happened.  That was reserved for a girl from the Bronx four years later. This forgotten series was replaced by:

From a Bird’s Eye View (NBC).Sitcom maestro Sheldon Leonard teamed up with UK production company ITV to come up with this swingin’ sixties…I mean, seventies series about two stewardesses, one American and one British (go figure) and their swingin’ singles adventures.  No women’s libs plots in this one but lots of mini-skirts.  Austin Powers would have loved this show.

Make Room for Grandaddy (ABC).  It seems fitting to end this crazy season on this title.  Danny Thomas decided to bring back his “Make Room for Daddy” cast and crew to rekindle the laughs from his earlier long-running Desilu series.  Retaining the three-camera setup and studio audience, but adding Rosie Grier and a storyline about mini-skirts for seventies credentials, this sequel probably relied too much on numerous celebrity cameos such as Bob Hope, Diana Ross, and even Sinatra himself.  Thomas's return actually lasted a couple of months longer than his previous spin off star-- Andy Griffith's failed rejuvenation.  With daughter Marlo bowing out this year, it was a temporary reprieve for  this sitcom dynasty.  Until producer son Tony would Make Room for Jody (Billy Crystal) seven years later with “Soap.” 

As the original was produced by Desilu, it was apropos that Lucy herself makes a cameo (as Lucy Carter, her current "Here's Lucy" character).    So as a perfect transition from the sitcoms of old to the new more permissive's Lucy mistaking Danny as a sex maniac.


Andy and Barn didn't quite make it this time:

Even Opie couldn't pull it off with a movie star dad:


The very first pilot of "All in the Family" in 1968.

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