Friday, March 22, 2013


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.

THE 50'S:

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. 

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz created I Love Lucy in 1951.  Probably the most beloved and revisited, this series was a landmark in so many ways.  Arnaz pioneered the use of the three-camera set up with a studio audience in Hollywood.   He used film rather than the kine scoped or live formats employed during those early years.  This insured reruns in perpetuity.  This model, the studio audience rather than a laugh track, would be a continuing format for sitcoms.  Throughout the fifties, Desilu produced more hits: Our Miss Brooks, December Bride, Danny Thomas Show aka Make Room for Daddy , Private Secretary, and (along with Danny Thomas) The Real McCoys.

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.

THE 60'S:

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.
The most popular premise of the sixties was rural America.  The bucolic sitcom (starting with Real McCoys) would blossom in Mayberry and Hooterville.   Desilu and Danny Thomas Andy Griffith Show and it’s blockbuster spin off Gomer Pyle USMC.  The first seasons, in black and white, represent some of the best comedic work in television. In the later color years (sans Deputy Fife), the show became sentimental, repetitive pablum.  Paul Henning came up with the Beverly Hillbillies for Filmways leading to cornpone meets borscht belt spin offs Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.  There was no sentiment or sap in Hooterville:  just misunderstandings, non-sequitors and cleavage.  Military comedies were also rampant if not as successful during this period, led by Gomer Pyle and McHale’s Navy.

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."
There were few deviations from the formulaic laugh track single camera sitcoms in the early part of the decade.  Hiken’s followup to Bilko, Car 54 Where Are You provided some urban relief.  The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis safely tiptoed into the growing youth (Beatnik) culture of the time while Gidget would examine the beach culture from a Disney-fied distance.  The highest critical acclaim would be heaped upon Dick Van Dyke Show.  A  powerhouse of writers and producers came up with this "inside showbiz" three camera workplace slash family comedy which would set the tone of most classic sitcoms in the next decade. The Desilu/Danny Thomas group teamed up with Sid Caesar’s cohort Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard (who would have a hand in most sitcoms for the next two decades) to provide jobs for Garry Marshall, John Rich, Jerry Belson, Howard Morris, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, Alan Rafkin and, of course, Mary Tyler Moore.  Running parallel but with less success, critically and commercially was the Danny Thomas clone, Joey Bishop Show.

Belaboring the point.
Another  trend during the sixties was fantastical and high concept themes.  Some of these would be subversively political in nature such as critic's darling Bewitched (writers and   creators in Hollywood were a lot more liberal than the audiences at the time), but for the most part, like the hayseed comedies, mindless escapism was the driving force.Along with the aforementioned domestic witch and starting with Mister Ed (the talking horse),viewers in the sixties were eating their TV dinners with aliens (My Favorite Martian), competing macabre/monster families (The Munsters and The Addams Family), genies (I Dream of Jeannie), identical twins (Patty Duke Show), and paranormal spirits (Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and even a reincarnated talking car (My Mother, the Car).  The high concept sitcoms also could be extremely silly and almost juvenile in execution.  Sherwood Schwartz mined this slapstick territory with the classic Gilligan’s Island and the short-lived It's About Time.  The Civil War-era F Troop was a bit more clever but just as schticky.  Probably the oddest sitcom of the sixties was Hogan’s Heroes.  Basically a WWII espionage thriller (produced by Bing Crosby!) with a laugh track, the story of  bumbling Nazis being outwitted by an eclectic group of Allied prisoners was an unlikely hit for an audience watching Vietnam casualties pile up on the evening news.

Smart Comedy
Hogan and his crew failed to generate sharp or satirical laughs from the politics of the situation (rightfully, so, when you are dealing with the subject matter at hand) only from the situations.  This was left to Get Smart.  Created by Mel Brooks (another Caesar ally) and Buck Henry, this zany James Bond spoof garnered the most critical praise in the latter half of the decade for its parody and bite.  As all narrative programs were filmed and broadcast in color by 1966, most sitcoms remained single camera laugh track formats.  This was due mostly to the use of extensive exterior shots (bucolic) or special effects (magical realism).  The most heralded exception to this was He and She, a 1967 three camera sitcom which was the closest followup to Dick van Dyke and the precursor for MTM in its sophistication and insider storytelling.  Chris Hayward (Bullwinkle) and Allan Burns (soon to co create MTM’s series in the 70’s) were the driving forces in this ratings-deprived series.


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.
It wasn’t until 1968 ( a year of upheaval and turmoil in the “real world”) that the black experience was represented in a sitcom with Julia.  Although the widowed (there it is again) nurse was surrounded by white supporting characters, her struggles raising her son alone alluded to a contemporary social problem, albeit indirectly.  Bill Cosby (who made history with I Spy years earlier) brought his gentle humor to another laugh track free sitcom The Bill Cosby Show, set mostly in a public school.  Jay Sandrich and Ed Weinberger created this show while James L Brooks and Gene Reynolds created another urban, racially diverse, serio-comedy set in a Los Angeles high school, Room 222.  All of these men, who would provide the highest quality comedy programming in the seventies were quietly ushering in a new vision of the sitcom, one that examined issues dealing with youth, drugs, race and sex.  Ironically, these topics would be examined in the next year by the much louder and bombastic voice of Norman Lear.   But 1968 wouldn’t let go of some things:  Andy left Mayberry but the town continued on (Mayberry RFD), Lucy reclaimed her two grown up hip kids and changed her name (Here’s Lucy) but still reveled in celebrity-filled shenanigans, and a silly little family comedy from Schwartz that would garner no ratings would premiere in 1969 and be watched and reference for generations to come (The Brady Bunch).

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:

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