This is the first installment of a series of articles examining the television sitcoms in the seventies. I find this era fascinating to examine for two reasons. First, I remember watching these shows during a period when television viewing was a near obsession, from elementary school through high school. Second, the decade represented a sea change in tastes and permissiveness in network broadcasting. Beginning with the tail end of the Vietnam War and the debacle of Watergate and continuing with inflation, spiraling gas prices and a disco revolution, the seventies were an important decade in historical and social terms. The followup to newly enacted Civil Rights legislation and the hangover from a malaise created from political assassinations, race riots and cultural upheaval embellished the confusion of the seventies.
With this in mind, I intend to briefly examine season by season the network sitcom in relation to these events.
First up, a quick primer on sitcoms up until this time.
In the early days of television, most sitcoms were video reenactments of popular radio shows: George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Jack Benny Program, Life of Riley being the most popular. Other popular radio adaptations were Amos n Andy, Beulah, and The Goldbergs. These were later (rightfully) deemed controversial for their racial stereotypes and were pulled from syndication. It wouldn’t be until over fifteen years later that African Americans were featured in a sitcom prominently and with more respect and thoughtfulness.
In the early days, Hal Roach’s My Little Margie represented the out of body experience of odd laugh track placement and sketchy editing. Mr. Peepers used a studio audience in New York, but without the filming thus a classic is lost to future generations.
Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show (Sgt. Bilko) used the new format to great effect and critical acclaim while veering away from the domestic family formula. Bob Cummings added some leering spice with Love That Bob. The Honeymooners is considered a classic with one full filmed season of the character sketch from Jackie Gleason's popular variety series.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver represented the gentle humor of the Eisenhower-era nuclear family. The first time the standard family equation was broached would be in the first "swinger turned dad" premise: Bachelor Father.
With few exceptions, the sitcoms of the sixties represented an alternate universe to the social changes and historical events going on at the time. The sitcom programming in first half of the sixties was populated by a continuation of the safe family fare: Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reed, Danny Thomas were joined by My Three Sons. Beaver’s adolescent antics continued along with the addition of Dennis the Menace. After her breakup with Desi Arnaz, Lucy would continue on her own with The Lucy Show, which took on three different formats during it’s successful sixties run. Hazel, another tame domestic offering, would become the first popular sitcom broadcast in color--one of the few in the early sixties.
|The past and the future.|
Another trend (predating The Simpsons by decades) was the animated sitcom. Hanna-Barbera, along with Screen Gems, produced The Flintstones and The Jetsons both of which would make cartoon history with their half-hour format and canned laughter. Future sitcom runners Harvey Bullock and Ray Allen contributed to the stories and productions.
|"You will make it, baby."|
|Belaboring the point.|
No doubt the candy colored sitcoms of the late sixties continued to be dominated by the ever popular Mayberry and Hooterville contingent, the ubiquitous Lucy, genies, witches and goofy Nazis. Even the family sitcom continued with a reformatted My Three Sons. The creator of that show, Don Fedderson, provided a second blockbuster of the time period with the tame but popular Family Affair. But as the mod culture took hold, the psychedlic experiments in camera angle and editing would show up in the Beatles-influenced The Monkees--created by future Hollywood counterculture taste-makers Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson-- as well as the hyper kinetic Batman serials. Rock and roll youth culture was only alluded to as sort of a freak show plot element in the standard sitcoms popular at the time (see Rob Reiner's musical hippie sing with Jim Nabors in Gomer Pyle or "The Mosquitos" invade Gilligan's island.) The burgeoning drug culture was rarely alluded to but clearly evident in the conceptualization of The Flying Nun, a highlight of the unreality of the times. Feminism would be hinted at in the exploits of Ann Marie in That Girl, never a ratings hit, but buoyed by Marlo Thomas’s familial roots. The Doris Day Show premiered but the early seasons of that showed squelched any hint of female empowerment as the recently widowed big city mom, you got it, moved onto a farm. Even dad was a widower in Courtship of Eddie’s Father, created by future seventies sitcom guru James Komack, aided and abetted by a Harry Nillsen theme song to reference the time frame.
|Well, it's still history.|
Very soon, new CBS head Fred Silverman will "cut the trees" down, leading the way for a more urban, sophisticated and socially probing situation comedy.
As you will see in future installments, the seventies would immediately usher in the controversy of Lear’s game-changing stable of hits and the MTM collection of critically acclaimed workplace comedies and later in the decade revert to Garry Marshall’s revisionist nostalgia and Silverman's new strategy of sexually permissive and controversial (for the wrong reasons) content as part of the “t and a” revolution. Plus a return to martians and hillbillies by the end of the decade!
Most of these sitcoms I remember watching in reruns, either syndicated or “stripped” on daytime network TV or Saturday morning. So they remain embedded in the fabric of the seventies if only as a reminder of how fast things were changing.
One that got away, 1967: