Tuesday, April 30, 2013


The 1973-1974 season was a watershed year for sitcoms.  There was not one single fall premiere that generated much of an audience or a renewal.  It was the final season with any representation at all of the “old school” sitcoms (Lucy, the Bradys).  From here on through the decade, sitcoms would look and feel different, especially with the topicality of the premises and the permissiveness of the writing.  Most would be videotaped or filmed in front of a studio audience.  Mid season, audiences would see the premiere of a sitcom that would set the trend for the last half of the decade, ironically hearkening back through nostalgia and family life from the fifties.


And this season witnessed the greatest programming lineup of quality comedy that ever existed.  On the Tiffany Network, CBS, Saturday nights (for this season only):  "All in the Family" followed by "M*A*S*H" followed by "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" followed by "The Bob Newhart Show" followed by "The Carol Burnett Show."

Carol Burnett’s popular variety series was entering it’s seventh season.  This was the first season during it's life that it was aired on Saturday night, where it would remain until it’s run ended in 1978.  Also, this was the year that the series premiered it’s skit “The Family.”  Created by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, the setting was some nondescript southern town where neurotic Eunice (Burnett) shared her household with oafish husband Ed (Harvey Korman) and her Mama (Vicki Lawrence).  The dysfunction in this family was hilarious and spot-on if somewhat presentational in it’s approach.  There was drinking and yelling and
Eunice (with her curiously dated hairstyle and dress…I thought the setting was the 1930’s at first) could be vindictive, hateful, jealous, phony and self-pitying.  Her relationship with Mama was constantly tested by the visits of her many brothers and sisters (played by weekly guest stars…Betty White, Roddy McDowall, Ken Berry ). Only thirty episodes of this skit were taped over six years but they are completely memorable as a stand-alone family situation comedy in the 70’s.  That is why it led to a long-running series in the 80’s (sans Burnett and Korman) that seemed more like Mayberry than the current urban settings.  One of Eunice’s brothers was played by Alan Alda who also had a pretty fantastic year in 1973.

The other legendary sitcom that was derived from a variety show, "The Honeymooners," would be revisited with a "women's lib" storyline on a Jackie Gleason special in the fall this year.  Art Carney, Sheila Macrae and Jane Kean would reprise their roles from the fifties classic.


Even though "M*A*S*H", in it’s second season, was only placed on the Saturday night schedule this one season, many mistake it for having been a regular presence in this famed line-up.  Actually, this season saw M*A*S*H garner it’s first Top 30 rating which would be the norm through it’s final famed finale in 1983.   And Alda, as star, would start reaping awards and accolades for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce even before he took control of the show years later.

Earlier in 1973, the United States withdrew it’s soldiers from Vietnam, thus ending the domestic involvement in the conflict there.  To this day, it cannot be argued with certainty that the U.S. left with any semblance of an upper hand.  Americans at home viewed body bags returning on the nightly news and the continuing carnage--a first for TV audiences-- was creating a sense of hopelessness especially after the assassinations and social tumult of the sixties.  And as this season saw the Watergate fiasco flare up, Spiro Agnew resign as VP, and the resulting resignation of Richard Nixon, the public was experiencing a malaise and loss of confidence as never before.
While Norman Lear was blasting these weary and skeptical audience members with as much new information as possible regarding sexual mores and racial politics with a sermonizing tone, “M*A*S*H” was quietly (albeit hilariously) putting a gentle human touch on the changes being experienced in the 70’s.  The irony was inherent in the setting of “M*A*S*H”:  Korea in the 1950’s.  But astute viewers could see that "M*A*S*H" was really about Vietnam and the new counterculture (much as the film “Bonnie and Clyde” used a Depression-era setting to comment on timely cultural upheavals.)  As the series dragged on into the eighties, it took on a world of it’s own:  out of space, out of time…preaching morality with beloved voices of truth.  But the first couple of season saw the denizens of  the 4077th mix the ribaldry and playfulness with the serious business at hand:  war is hell, lives are lost, and little of it makes any sense at all.  Hawkeye was a beatnik (or hippie) working for The Man.

Another trending topic this year--with “Maude” starting it’s second season--was feminism.  Whereas up to now, women’s struggles in TV shows involved pantsuits and /or looking for work opportunities-- not necessarily the strident elements of free sexuality and transforming gender roles.


#1. All in the Family (CBS):  Continuing as number one, the Bunkers are as outrageous as ever.  In addition to The Jeffersons, new neighbors were Frank and Irene Lorenzo.  These new characters, played by Vincent Gardenia and Betty Garrett,  melded perfectly with the feminist themes mentioned above.  Irene took over the male roles in the house while Frank stayed at home and did the cooking.  Of course, Irene would play a new foil to Archie as a free-thinking woman and a Catholic.  Louise Jefferson’s brother Henry would also exit this season to make way for George (finally arriving
Looking to get in.
after a contractual conflict tied up Sherman Hemsley).  Archie really met his racist match with equally closed-minded George-- especially in the episode where Lionel gets engaged to Jenny with her mixed-marriage parents in tow.

Opening the season with a heat wave episode where Archie AND Henry agreed to fight a another black couple moving in the neighborhood, the topicality of the series continued unabated:  Edith found a lump in her breast; Archie revisited a gambling addiction; Rodin’s “The Kiss” stirred up censorship arguments; Mike had the tables turned as he is shown to be as intractable and closed-minded as his father in law; Archie humiliated a mentally retarded bag boy; and the aforementioned interracial issue.  There was time for some domestic comedy as well with Archie and Edith experiencing their second honeymoon in Atlantic City; Archie getting locked in the basement with a bottle of booze; and the introduction of an older couple who escape from a nursing home (leading to Edith’s work with the retirement community).

After a deluge of Emmy Awards the previous year, Rob Reiner would garner the only statue this season for his soul-searching performance as Mike.

#3. Sanford and Son (NBC).  Aunt Esther and Grady play larger roles this season.  Actually when Redd Foxx leaves the show before the end of the season due to contract disputes,
Looking to Get Out.
Grady (Whitman Mayo) takes over as the defacto dad to Lamont for five episodes, with Esther and her husband Woody being featured more.  Before that happens Fred fights with his Puerto Rican neighbors, assumes Lamont and Rollo are frequenting gay bars, continues his on-again off-again courtship with Donna and throws a wild senior-citizen party.  In another example of the politically incorrect  nature of this program, when Fred defends himself in a court case, he actually utters the most derogatory term for the sake of a joke--this was edited out of the episode in future syndication.

#4. M*A*S*H (CBS).  As mentioned above, the 4077th finally received ratings to match it’s critical success due to the cozy post-Bunker pre-MTM timeslot on the Saturday night schedule.  The balance between pathos and pratfalls was once again sublime.  Supporting characters such as cross-dressing Klinger (a la Catch-22's Yossarian in motivation) and Father Mulcahey were featured more prominently along with first appearances by recurring characters such as the relatively unfunny Dr. Sidney Friedman and the conspiratorially goofy Col. Flagg.  Along with the anti-war themes, this year saw explorations of bigotry both racial and sexual.  Among the occurrences this season:  a sniper holds the doctors hostage; Radar discovers he is the father of a Korean child; a psychiatrist visits the base; and Henry Blake is placed on trial (McLean Stevenson actually wrote the episode.).

The Emmys started coming this year as "M*A*S*H" won Best Comedy (and Best Series) and Alda received best actor (and Actor of the Year) at the Emmys.  Also, fifties sitcom veteran Jackie Cooper won the first directing award for an episode.

#6. Maude (CBS).  If the abortion episode from last season wasn’t enough, this sophomore season offered enough drama and fireworks to definitely make “Maude” the most controversial show on the air.  And it started off with a bang.  Maude, Walter and Arthur go on
Looking for Better Times
a drinking binge, Maude ends up in bed with Arthur, Walter flies into a drunken rage and gives Maude a black eye.  No kidding.  Later in the season, Walter goes into another rage and crashes his car.  Outside of Walter’s anger issues, the Findlays hire an auditor who turns out to be a man who raped Maude in the past.

On a lighter note, this season saw Maude befriend a young girl from the ghetto, get a face lift, and debate spanking her grandson.  Whew.  And this is the year that Maude’s best friend Vivian (Rue McLanahan) dates and marries Arthur (Conrad Bain).  John Amos appears as maid Florida’s husband and that leads to her exit mid season for her own series.

And to think, the Bradys and Lucy were still around!  More on the Lucy vs. Maude situation later.

#9. Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Thoughtful and funny examinations of relationships seemed to be the order of the day this season.  Mary dates a younger man.  Mary and Rhoda have a falling out.  Mary and company stake out a singles bar for a story.  This season saw all the players experience life events to flesh out their rich characterizations.  Especially Lou.

Lou and Edie Story
Ed Asner’s Lou Grant separates from his long-time wife in a touching and funny storyline.
Mary tries setting him up throughout the season.  The first setup is an inadvertent hook up with a sweet grandmother. Later, Lou dates Rhoda.  Lou buys a house from real estate agent Phyllis.  And the parties…Mary’s infamous parties were the butt of many jokes:  Lou’s birthday party…he hates birthday parties.  And the best:  Mary invites a Congresswoman to dinner and the invitation list grows and the chaos results in Rhoda’s nerdy date (Henry Winkler himself) seated across the room from everyone else.  Funny, funny stuff.
The original Anchormen

Ted runs for city councilman and he even meets his idol, Walter Cronkite.  Mary travels to NY for Rhoda’s other sister’s wedding.  Mary has to fire a sportscaster.  And we are introduced to Betty White’s Sue Ann Nevins, the randy “Happy Homemaker” as she acts as “Housebreaker” in her affair with Phyllis’s unseen husband, Lars.

It is interesting to note that, with Rhoda spinning off the next season and the entrance of Sue Ann, this year saw the entire cast of characters together the only time including Georgette, Phyllis and the newsroom guys.

Deservedly, this was a huge Emmy year for MTM.  Moore won Best Actress and Actress of the year.  Cloris Leachman received Best Supporting Actress for the “Lars affair” episode.  And Treva Silverman (Sara’s mom) won for her thoughtful writing of the “Lou and Edie Story.”

#12.  Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  Bob’s second season carried on with well-written and directed episodes.  Nothing groundbreaking-- just great comedy.  One of the funniest shows had Bob and Jerry get a hotel room in Peoria to watch a college football game and wind up involved with two hookers.  Also, this is the season where Howard starts dating Bob’s sister Ellen.

Cool white jacket.
Bob discovers Emily has a  higher IQ.  Bob and Emily visit a marriage counselor (Katherine Hellmond).  We meet Emily’s parents for the first time.  Bob counsels a minister and an ex-con (Henry Winkler..once again in another pre-Fonzie MTM comedy role).

Not so cool white jacket.

#16.  Happy Days (ABC).  Speaking of Fonzie!  Based on an episode of “Love, American Style” Garry Marshall produced this mid season replacement series as a nostalgic trip to wholesome 50’s America.  Although “Father Knows Best” was on TV at that time, what Marshall gave us in this first truncated season was the dark side (well, not that dark):  the dating, the petting, the pickups, the stag films, the racial bigotry, burlesque shows, the drag racing, the bomb shelters, the beatniks and a hood.  A friendly hood named Fonzie.  He wore a white jacket this first season because ABC was afraid a dark leather jacket would scare audiences away.

Ron Howard starred as Richie, all-American kid with the standard fifties nuclear family.  Howard also appeared in the hit film “American Grafitti” that year--George Lucas’s nod to the fifties--jump starting the career of the man who would change the nature of films (that’s another story).   Rather than be a wacky buddy comedy with an ecstatic studio audience, these first episodes were funny yet gentle with a laugh track.  They commented on the fifties with an accurate look and feel.  (“Rock Around the Clock” was the theme song the first year).  Richie and Joannie had an older brother who was never seen again.  Potsie was Richie’s best friend and Fonzie, the white-jacketed rebel,  was a supporting character and not nearly as tolerant of the middle-class lifestyle as he would end up being.

It’s amazing to think that this series--hazy remembrances of a  not-so-long ago time and the innocent if misguided mythology it projected-- would end up dethroning Lear’s topical examinations of the mixed-up present time in the hearts and minds and Neilson ratings of modern TV audiences.

#18.  Good Times (CBS).  Mike Evans (Lionel from "All in the Family") co-created this portrait of an African American family living in the projects of Chicago.  Maude’s housekeeper Florida was so popular to audiences that she got the golden ticket to this spin off series premiering mid-season.  Whereas Norman Lear’s “Sanford and Son” kept the racial politics to a light murmur, he made sure “Good Times” presented a more realistic portrait of blacks and their struggles in a post-civil rights era still reeking of closet racism and the resulting inequities.

Lear assembled another crack cast from Broadway with the exception of  John Amos and stand up comedian Jimmie Walker.  Amos had a recurring role as Gordy the weatherman on MTM.  This was another example of the brilliant comedic turns that the MTM writers would subtly use to make points that Lear would bullhorn.  At the WJM newsroom, visitors would mistake Gordy for the sportscaster.  Subtle and effective, making a point about preconceived notions on race.

Amos portrayed the family patriarch James in a realistic way, with the hard-scrabble written all over his face and the blustery demeanor of a proud yet struggling tragic character.  Walker, however, created in son JJ a cartoonish and offensive “jive” stereotype that would launch the ratings(and pop culture cache) of the show but create discord among the few black writers and the veteran showrunners.  It was an awkward mix.
Walker Meets a Payment.

Aside from JJ’s story lines of finding sponsors for his artwork and luring pretty models into dates, in true Lear fashion the series had it’s many serious moments in this first short season.  Florida was portrayed as a devoutly religious woman serious in her moral  convictions as when she was offended at JJ’s Black Jesus painting or disavowed James’s association with a flamboyant evangelist.  Young son Michael was a true activist and provided much of the series race-related discussions such as when he labeled George Washington a slave-owning racist in a school project.  As we will see, this is a trend that would be short-lived on this series--and in all sitcoms--as thoughtful discourse in a humorous vein would be replaced by antics, innuendo and insult comedy.

#29.  Here’s Lucy (CBS).  Lucy, we hardly knew ye.  Lucille Ball, still clinging on at 29 in the ratings, was about due for retirement.  Her brand of humor, still appreciated for it’s bland innocence, was now in it’s sunset.  After twenty-three years on series television, it was time to go.  Mary was now the queen of sitcoms, Carol was the tops in slapstick, and Bea (who was rumored to have been in rabid conflict with Lucy on the set of the film adaptation of “Mame”) drove the nail in the Desilu coffin with “Maude.”

Lucy,you must a-quit.
Lucy’s final season was an odd mash up indeed.  Lucy was promoting her upcoming big screen flop “Mame” on one episode…playing Lucille Ball with husband/producer Gary Morton.  Guest stars this season included Milton Berle, Steve and Edie, Danny Thomas, Joan Rivers (in a takeoff of 12 Angry Men) and, you heard it here folks, OJ Simpson.  But to be fair, Lucy ended her reign with some hot topics and seventies style. Hippies: daughter Kim and Frankie Avalon pretended to be Sonny and Cher. (If you can’t get Sonny and Cher, you get OJ). Gambling: Uncle Harry was caught ticket scalping.  Sex: Lucy stalked Eddie Albert and found Chuck Conners in her bed. Racial and gender issues:  Phil Harris and Lucy try filling a band with minorities at the expense of women.  And in the final episode, appropriately, ageism.

So long, Lucy.  (Until 1986--See "Life with Lucy").

RETURNING SERIES  (in alphabetical order):

Brady Bunch (ABC): The Brady swan song started with the famous trip to King’s Island and the Yogi Bear poster incident.  This year we saw the blossoming relationship between Alice
Say it ain't so, Joe.
and Sam the Butcher--he proposed toward the end of the run but nothing came of it.
 Parodies of "The Brady Bunch" usually reflect the look of this final season with Mike’s perm and bell-bottom plaid slacks and the general mod clothing and hair styles (Disney-fied of course).  For the rerun-savvy, this season saw:  the embarrassing “Roaring Twenties” party scene (a forerunner to the "Brady Variety Hour" that would appear three years later); the notorious addition of cousin Oliver to the cast; Marcia’s ice-cream parlor fiasco; the pool table; Greg’s recording contract; an appearance by Joe Namath; Cindy’s Shirley Temple diary incident; the driving contest; the UFO sighting; Jan’s Most Popular Girl episode.

Ken Berry starred in one episode as a father with a multi-racial group of adopted kids.  This was to be a pilot for a new series.  And as a throwback to creator Sherwood Schwartz’s “Gilligan’s Island”, Jim Backus (the Millionaire) and Natalie Schafer (His wife) each had cameos--the nostalgia was already starting.   And I remember the horror at the most controversial episode when Greg was harboring a goat mascot in his new room and the folks, a la a “Three’s Company” eavesdropping gag, mistakenly thought Greg was amorously speaking to a girl.  It’s a good thing though that the topicality never reached higher than that as Robert Reed, a serious actor, didn’t bother to show up for the final episode as it involved hair tonic that caused discoloration and he was concerned about the implications of FDA approval for such.

It didn’t take long for audiences--never showing up for the weekly Neilsons to demand a return of their chaste Friday night family.  The aforementioned variety series (sans Eve Plumb), a couple of made for TV movies, and a three-camera sitcom in the eighties would keep the beloved Bradys in the public eye until they became memorialized in two movie spoofs in the nineties and a stage show recreating the episodes line for line.  And reruns and reruns and reruns.  Now that’s a story.

Brian Keith Show (NBC).  Renamed from “The Little People” this series set in Hawaii lost it’s post Sanford time slot and most of it’s audience.  Roger Bowen (Arnie) and Nancy Kulp (Beverly Hillbillies) were added to the cast to give it more sitcom wackiness to no avail.

New Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS).  Creator Carl Reiner reportedly left the series sometime during the season when an episode dealing with Dick’s kids walking in on Jenny and him having sex was fought by CBS censors.  It didn’t matter.  This season, Dick moved back to Hollywood and became an actor in a soap opera.  Dick was asked to do a nude scene in film in one episode and in another he had to kiss an Italian actress.  That’s about as hot as the show got.  Death was dealt with when Dick’s uncle passes on in the house.  But the change of locale and new supporting characters (workplace and neighbors)played by Richard Dawson, Chita Rivera, Dick Van Patten and Barbara Rush didn’t save the show.

Odd Couple (ABC).  Felix and Oscar continue their adventures in their fourth year.  Lots of marriage flashbacks, lots of stories about Oscar being in debt, lots of varied seventies cameos:  Bobby Riggs, Marilyn Horne and Jaye P. Morgan, and Felix finally photographing lots of nude centerfolds.  Once again, critical acclaim keeps the show on despite hum drum ratings.

Partridge Family (ABC).  Another family flies the coop after this season.  Taking the singing Partridges off the Friday night lineup couldn’t have helped their ratings.  As the David Cassidy sensation was wearing down, the series tackled issues such as home schooling, anti-Semitism, and energy conservation.  And singing 14 year old twins.

Room 222 (ABC).  Also running on fumes, the denizens of Walt Whitman High also had plot lines dealing with ecology, energy conservation and gas mileage.  Teen alcoholism turned up in an episode as did the prescient issue of computer tampering.  By this time, the social significance of the subdued humor in “Room 222” was overshadowed by Lear noise machine.  Anyway, it was time for ABC to make room for a certain high school in Brooklyn with some questionable characters.

(The New)Temperature’s Rising Show (ABC).  Producer William Asher overhauled this show from the previous season.  Leaving only Cleavon Little’s scheming character in place, he brought in Paul Lynde--fresh from his previous Asher-produced domestic sitcom--as the hospital manager. New writers and showrunners were hired.  But none of that helped.  In the summer the show came back with a third revamp, this time adding Alice Ghostly.  Lynde and Ghostly may have been too much snark for one hospital and the temperature dropped off the map.

Wait Til Your Father Gets Home (Syndicated on mostly NBC affiliates).  Hanna-Barbera produced a second season of this adult cartoon sitcom.  Episodes seemed to be tamer in theme than those in the premiere season.


Roll Out (CBS).  Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds attempted to recreated the magic of their
new critical hit "M*A*S*H", also for 20th Century Fox.  This series, though, took place during WWII in Italy and followed the misadventures of an Third army’s supply drivers in the “Red Ball Express” made up mostly of African American soldiers.  A pre-SNL Garrett Morris was a regular.

Race played a smaller part in the 1973 premieres than feminism and the new “free” sexual mores:

Diana (NBC).  Diana Rigg (Emma Peel of The Avengers”) played a British divorcee newly relocated to Manhattan.  Moving in to her swinging brother’s apartment, she finds many unexpected visitors popping in and out.  NBC may have been trying to start its own MTM here with the romantic engagements and the department store workplace family, but by this time the “divorced” tag was not quite as forbidden.

Needles and Pins (NBC).  Like MTM, this series was about a fresh-faced girl moving to the big city of NY to work in the garment district.  But the focus of this short-lived series was more on the employees of the Lorelie Fashion House which included such comedy pros as Norman Fell, Bernie Kopell and Louis Nye.  The actress was never heard from again.

Kenneth and Gwyneth's mom.
Adam’s Rib (ABC).  This 1970’s update of the classic Tracy-Hepburn film dealt mostly with issues of gender.  Blythe Danner as an up and coming feminist attorney battling with husband Ken Howard’s establishment assistant DA offered many lighthearted and bubbly opportunities to examine the rights of women in this MGM-produced single camera sitcom.

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (ABC).  The groundbreaking Paul Mazursky film from 1970 openly parodied the wife-swapping / swinging lifestyles at the onset of the Me Decade.  Although this name-sake series did contain it’s share of sex talk, the action was quite tame as the friendship between the conservative couple and the hip couple was more arms length leading to more of an “odd couple” relationship.  Jodie Foster played the daughter of the “straight” couple and Anne Archer and Robert Urich played the swinging couple in this three camera sitcom.

The Girl with Something Extra (NBC).  Sally Field returns to sitcom land not long before
her stellar rise as an Oscar-winning dramatic actress.  The seventies version of witches and genies was ESP.  So Field experienced misadventures--especially with her boyfriend John Davidson--relating to her uncontrollable ability to read the minds of the opposite sex.  Of course, Screen Gems produced this single camera show created by Bernard Slade and co-starring a young Teri Garr.

Now that Norman Lear’s formula was considered a recipe for ratings, the other networks decided to try their hand at urban, videotaped sitcoms with strong male comedic leads.
Dom-estic life.
Lotsa Luck (NBC) tried mimicking the domestic life of the Bunkers.  Dom Deluise played a lost-and-found officer of the New York bus system.  He lives with  (and supports) his mother, sister and free-loading brother-in-law in a lower middle class neighborhood.  Created by Carl Reiner along with Sam Perksy and Bill Denoff (“That Girl”) and based on the British show “On the Buses," “Lotsa Luck” lasted through the season but couldn’t match the fire of Archie and company.
Coco's lament.

Calucci’s Dept. (CBS) offered the ethnic and social
stereotypes in the setting of a New York City unemployment office run by James Coco.  More of a workplace show, Coco’s character suffered the slings and arrows of the new bureaucracy and romantic pursuit of his secretary (Candy Azzara).  Created by comedy stalwarts Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor, this was the first sitcom to be taped in New York rather  than Hollywood in the 70’s--giving it an even more NY flavor.

The classic western series “Gunsmoke” was close to ending it’s twenty-year run.  The producers decided to offer a spin-off during mid-season:
Dirty Sally (CBS) was more of a western series in structure but the premise lent itself more to a comedy.  Jeannette Nolan played the title character, a hard-drinking junk peddler in the Old West accompanied by a failed gunslinger running from his fellow bad guys.  Although there was adventure, the comedy derived from Sally’s attempts to help people in need thus delaying her partner’s escape.

The following two series, both syndicated to local markets, represent the last gasp of the sixties in prime-time sitcoms as Lucy and the Brady’s were singing their swan songs.

Dusty's Trail, also set in the Old West, was as blatant a rip-off as possible.  Cheaply shot on what looked like home movie film stock, classic (and thrifty) sitcom producer Sherwood Schwartz (“Brady Bunch”) basically completely stole from his own “Gilligan’s Island” and set it in the Old West on a lost wagon train.  Bob Denver recreated his Gilligan Persona as Dusty and Forrest Tucker took over crusty Skipper duties as wagonmaster.   So it’s “Gilligan’s Island” meets “F Troop.”  Get this:  there was a millionaire and his wife; there was a movie star (this time a prostitute); there was a professor (some smart guy); and a Mary Ann (some sweet wholesome young lady).  Someone came up with the idea of stringing four episodes together, deleting the laugh track and releasing it in theaters.  Bad idea.

Finally, after fourteen years (1952-1966), Ozzie and Harriet Nelson returned in
Ozzie’s Girls.  Ricky and David are long gone, but this time the Nelsons are putting up two young female college students…one white girl (played by B Movie goddess Susan Sennett) and one hip black girl (Brenda Sykes)…just to show how “seventies” they can be.  It may be that audiences had already forgotten about the famed sitcom couple as this videotaped offering with some sauced-up storylines didn’t hold up to the competition.  Even Ozzie breaking out his guitar didn’t help much.


Sorry! Something Special:


Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Norman Lear laid claim to  the top three sitcoms this season.  “All in the Family” was still leading the pack and “Sanford and Son” followed up in its first return season.  His third hit would be his first spin-off series.  Edith Bunker’s cousin Maude, appearing as Archie’s liberal antagonist on two episodes the previous season, would get her own series this year and join the other Tandem produced sitcoms in their notoriety, controversy and popularity.

1972 was probably the most significant season in terms of premieres (if not a close second to 1970).  Along with “Maude” CBS premiered the cult classic “Bob Newhart Show” and the legendary “M*A*S*H.”  Yet with all the game-changing topicality emanating from the full-frontal brazenness of Cousin Maude and the salacious cynicism of Hawkeye Pierce, it was the sweet romantic comedy “Bridget Loves Bernie” that got the cultural rebuke.


Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin did not play favorites in their society-skewing satires.  As much as Archie Bunker played the uneducated buffoon with his bigotry and bravado, his liberal “Meathead” son-in-law could also be put in his place by way of his own brand of hypocrisy and his general slothful ways.  There was no doubt Lear was a staunch liberal and the character of Maude Findlay was based on his wife, Frances.  Maude was a middle-aged feminist, married to her fifth husband with a divorced daughter, and as bombastic in her left-wing views as Archie was in his conservative bluster.  And Lear didn’t hesitate to show Maude not just nobly involved in her progressive causes but in her constant frenzy of mixed messages and overcompensating intentions gone awry.

Bea and Rue: Golden Controversy
In the most talked about television event that season, the episode dealing with Maude’s decision to have an abortion at 47 was Lear’s crowning achievement in “going where no (wo)man has gone before” in terms of sitcom (or any series genre) storylines.  Revisiting this two-part episode, one can see how such a progressive event in 1972 can seem rather dated today.  The series was known for it’s yelling and ugliness, just as its sister series was.  Yet it went further in its staginess (most of the actors were from Broadway) and insensitivity.  The poorly regulated comedic shifts, the inherent cruelty of the characters, and the broad delivery of the material in the abortion episode were somewhat redeemed by star Bea Arthur’s exquisitely timed slow burns and measured histrionics.

“Maude” was just as controversial as AITF, if not more so, but it tended to favor it’s distant cousin “Sanford” in its schticky insult setups and jokes.  Whereas the trials and tribulations in the Bunker household, as outrageous as they could be, were dealt with in a more serious matter with no loss of laughs or humanity, Maude and her household tended to veer into one-dimensional line readings with multi-dimensional plot elements.  This may be one of the reasons that “Maude”, as popular as it was in the early seventies, has not been as fondly remembered or rerun as Lear’s other output.


Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore also found a hit followup to their new classic critical sensation, “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  Button-down Minded comedian Bob Newhart, having spent the previous decade selling more vinyl albums than any comedian with his hilarious telephone routines and nurturing a film career in satires playing off his modest stammering everyman character, was perfect for the role of psychologist Bob Hartley.  Set in Newhart’s actual home-town of Chicago, Bob was given a smart and sexy wife in Emily ( Suzanne Pleshette) and a motley assortment of friends, co-workers and condo neighbors that rivaled his group patients in terms of clinically-unbalanced behavior.  Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses created this vehicle as another gentle, sophisticated yet extremely droll and funny sitcom in the style that would exemplify the MTM kitty logo.

With the exception of the loud sports jackets and plaid slacks, “The Bob Newhart Show” has aged better than any other seventies sitcom.  It avoided controversy and honed in on character flaws and the foibles of being  human.  Bob and Emily never had children so they avoided the cute kid trap that also dates so many sitcoms.  It was a show about adults, slightly neurotic (or pretty neurotic if you count Bob’s patients) and sometimes silly, but adults nonetheless.


With the Bunkers and Findlays tackling every television taboo  in the most overt and noisy manner, another new show-quietly premiering this season-was as subversive and daring without getting in the viewer's faces.  Based on a best-selling book and hit film, “M*A*S*H” brought the Korean War to TV screens for laughs in all it’s bloody realism.  And at a time when  the Vietnam war was winding down on the evening newscasts. M*A*S*H was not highly rated but returned a second season due to its critical acclaim.  With expert writing by Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds helming the producing duties, this long-running series got off to a bang due to superb acting and timing, deft editing, a music soundtrack that fit the mood, a tonal balance of the darkness and silliness, and direction that highlighted the futility of doctors in wartime saving lives and throwing the young soldiers back in the field.   The series was formatted much closer to the sitcoms of the sixties with the  single camera filmed setup and often unappreciated laughtrack but ventured nowhere near the tame, dumb or innocent laughs of that era.   I will examine M*A*S*H in much greater detail in the next season’s chapter.  Suffice it to say that it ranked right up there with Lear’s shows in terms of bold game-changing themes and approaches.

"M*A*S*H" premiered on Sunday nights, thus didn’t capture the ratings right off the bat.  But sandwiched between" All in the Family" and MTM was a single camera romantic comedy “Bridget Loves Bernie.”  The story of a Jewish cab driver falling in love with and marrying a Catholic schoolteacher and the subsequent effect on their respective families didn’t seem too out of place in the New School of topical sitcoms. (Meredith Baxter and David Birney played the couple, eventually marrying in real life..until.)   Even the gentleness of the approach, once again with a laugh track instead of a noisy studio audience, couldn’t keep it from having stellar ratings in it's no-lose time slot.  Yet more angry letters poured into CBS regarding this series and it's inter-religious themes than did for Archie Bunker’s blatant racism, Maude Findlay’s candid sexual discussions or Hawkeye Pierce’s vehement nihilism.  And the series was not renewed for a second season.


#1 All in the Family (CBS).   Lear’s first family of TV continued to smash the competition this year.  Archie, Edith, Mike and Gloria shared time with Louise and Mike Jefferson next door.  Although Edith’s cousin Maude premiered in her own show this season with ultra-topicality, the Bunkers were no slouches in this area.  Some examples from this season:
*Archie does a TV opinion piece on gun control and the stage is set for a lively debate.
*Staid Archie and Edith encounter some “swinging” singles.
*Gloria’s friend dates Mike Jefferson in an episode dealing with interracial relationships and Archie’s resulting ire.
*Gloria experiences an attempted rape.
*Archie toys with insurance fraud.
*Edith may be a kleptomaniac.
*The Bunkers find a swastika painted on their front door.
Heavy stuff this season.
The characters and relationships were rock solid by now and the writers allowed some fun as well.  For instance, the family flash backed to Mike and Gloria’s wedding in one episode.

Although AITF received an Emmy for best Comedy Series again this season, the only other statue received was for writing, surprisingly the “swingers” episode.

#2.  Sanford and Son (NBC).  Lear’s number two hit followed right behind.  Fred and
Lamont continued their hi jinks to less dramatic effect than the Bunkers. This season saw the introduction of Whitman Mayo's cousin Grady (sauced and silly) and Gregory Sierra's Julio, the Puerto Rican neighbor and his pesky goat.    Topicality was cloaked in outrageous buffoonery, thus blunting any dramatic overtones or preaching.  But--as with the Bunkers--the top writers in comedy could pull off the best laughs.

Fred showcased his own prejudices in episodes where Lamont dated Julio’s sister and where Fred hires of a white maid.  But the shows dealing with Lamont embracing his African heritage and Fred accidentally getting involved in a porno movie allowed the laughs to take center stage.  Richard Pryor wrote a few episodes this season, such as the hilarious “dowry” storyline.  And Lena Horne provided the obligatory celebrity cameo.

#4 Maude (CBS).  Lear had a winning trifecta this season as this AITF spin-off was highly discussed and feared.  Along with the abortion episode, the premiere season had the ultra-liberal feminist lead character involved in a marijuana bust and a malpractice suit.  This was the only full season that Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) was Maude’s housekeeper.

#5. Bridget Loves Bernie (CBS).  As mentioned above, this single camera Romeo and Juliet variation, safely cushioned between AITF and MTM on Saturday night, ended up cancelled due to audience protests regarding it’s Jewish-Catholic inter-marriage storyline.  This is all the more ironic considering that this series didn’t rely on loud, crude in-your-face theatrics so prevalent on Lear’s race-conscious episodes.

#7. Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Mary’s ensemble comedy continued to be lauded by the critics for its sophisticated approach to comedy.  This season saw Mary Richards become the object of desire by many including a few ex-boyfriends, a newly divorced friend’s ex-husband, landlady Phyllis’s brother (who turns out to be gay--a landmark moment on this series), and her daughter’s teenage boyfriend.  Rhoda started losing weight this season, becoming less of the sidekick to Mary and more of a sexual threat.  Speaking of Rhoda, we saw her father Martin for the first time, as he and Ida broke up.  Mary’s newsroom cohorts saw their share of adventures as Ted starts doing commercials, Murray deals with a gambling problem, and Lou…in a hilarious episode… decides to buy a bar.   We are introduced to Georgette, egotistical Ted’s sweet, naive girlfriend.  (Louise Lasser has a cameo as a loan officer much different than  her future classic persona as Mary Hartman mid-decade).  

This was the year MTM almost swept the comedy acting Emmy awards with Moore herself as best Actress, Asner and Harper repeating in their supporting roles as Lou and Rhoda.  The directing Emmy was awarded to MTM as well for an episode involving Lou setting up a poker game in Mary’s apartment.

#15. Here’s Lucy (CBS).  Believe it or not, Lucy was still holding her own amidst the
Lucy's dilemma.
thematic fireworks provided by Lear and company.  She performed a lot of episodes in a cast this season due to a broken leg, maybe deadening the pratfalls a bit.  This allowed the goofiness to be limited to a trip to prison and lots of dating for the widow Carter.  Lucy and Uncle Harry did attend a group therapy session allowing the current zeitgeist to interfere with the antics.  But basically, it was a cameo fest with Joe Namath, Petula Clark, Don Knotts, Donny Osmond (with her daughter Kim), and other female comic legends such as Ruth Buzzi, Totie Fields and Phyllis Diller.  Oh, and the standard “marry a prince for his money” plot, borrowed from her time slot neighbor Doris Day.

#16. The Bob Newhart Show (CBS).   The quiet premiere of this MTM-produced classic was just that:  no fireworks, no tantrums, just Bob: well psychologist Bob Hartley, wife Emily, Howard the pilot, Jerry the dentist, Carol the receptionist and everyone’s favorite neurotic, Elliot Carlin.  lt’s interesting to note that the actual pilot episode was aired mid season.  The wallpaper in the living room was different,  Emily’s hairstyle was much different, and Bob was a bit more aggressive and, well, amorous as the plot involved the Hartleys deciding whether to have a kid or not.  Thankfully, we know how that turned out.

#19. The Partridge Family (ABC).  This series still brought in more ratings than it’s network allies due to the popularity of the band and Mr. David Cassidy.  The dark side of rock n roll still eluded this family as many episodes dealt with the high school politics (literally and figuratively) of Keith and Laurie.  Well, there was a show dealing with shoplifting and one dealing with sex education (Keith failed!) but mostly it was Brady-esque story lines interspersed with a song which most likely would soon be featured on a Partridge LP at your local record store. Oh, and Jodie Foster appeared in a show.

Who needs Manhattan?
#25.  The Little People (NBC).  Garry Marshall was a co-creator of this single camera sitcom starring Brian Keith as a pediatrician practicing with his daughter (Shelly Fabares) in a free clinic on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.  No doubt the ratings were a function of the post-Sanford time slot as the tone of this show hearkened back to Keith’s previous stint on “Family Affair” as evidenced by the gentle humor and laconic interactions with precocious children.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order):

The Brady Bunch (ABC).  The Bradys start off this season on their three-part Hawaiian vacation ending in a mysterious tiki mystery with Vincent Price and Don Ho.  Nowhere to go but up.  So for rerun fans, what we saw this season:  Jan wants to be an only child, Alice gets her feelings hurt and leaves, Marcia gets a broken nose from an errant football, Peter fakes laryngitis, Bobby is an overeager safety monitor, Greg gets the attic room, and Robert Reed and Florence Henderson play Grandpa and Grandma.  But most importantly, the Bradys sing:  First the whole family struts it in a school talent show but then the Silver Platters aka the Brady Kids, sing “Sunshine Day” for the first time.  I doubt they were competing with the Partridges from the next time slot though.  No way. 

The Corner Bar (ABC).  The short run from last season came back for an even shorter mid season run this year.  Grant's Toomb, the New York watering hole was now managed by new characters played by Anne Meara and Eugene Roche.  The typical urban stereotypes saw an addition with an aspiring actor.

Doris Day Show. (CBS).  Way past it’s due date, the series remained on this final season for contractual reasons.  Day couldn’t wait to quit and focus on her animal rights work.  It was obvious as many episodes this season had pets worked into the story lines.  Once again, single journalist Doris Martin dealt with her long-suffering editor Cy and her nemesis Billy deWolfe, but mostly she dated Peter Lawford (a doctor) and then Patrick O’Neal (a politician).  The politician proposed to her before the series ended.  Without having watched these episodes, the progression of events through the season seems arbitrary and out of sync but I doubt anyone cared.  Day did no acting in any medium after this season (to this day...no pun intended.)

New Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS).  Van Dyke continued his second season as Dick Preston with Carl Reiner continuing to call the shots.  His amiable presence alleviated journeys into darkness (marijuana, neighbors with Mafia connections.)  Supporting players such as Fannie Flagg, Charlie Brill, and Nancy Dussault featured prominently in many shows.  Strangely, the final episode of the season dealt with interfaith (Jewish/Catholic) relationship, which sunk the entire run of  “Bridget Loves Bernie”.  (Oddly, David Doyle played Dick's boss and Bridget's dad).

The Odd Couple (ABC).  Although ratings still weren’t great, the critical reviews of this series insured it’s continued presence.  Case in point, Jack Klugman won his second Emmy as Best Actor this season beating out Carroll O’Conner.  Famous episodes about the two divorced roomies included the one in a monastery, the one on “Password” and the one with Howard Cosell.

Room 222 (ABC).   This series was still relevant enough to remain on ABC’s Friday night lineup with the Partridges, Bradys and Felix and Oscar.  With all of the Norman Lear titles gaining notoriety for their “special subject matter,” the teachers and students at Walt Whitman High didn’t have much cache anymore when it came to taboo subjects.  An incident with a bra less student was about as racy as it got…but that sure beat out it’s Friday night cohorts on controversy.

Sandy Duncan Show (CBS).  When Duncan returned from eye surgery, her previous top-rated series “Funny Face” was completely revamped.  Her character was now an advertising executive surrounded by work and home relations (none from the previous series) and she had a studio audience this time.  Obviously, CBS was trying to mimic the MTM model.  What Sandy didn’t have was the same Saturday night time slot, leading to worse ratings and an early cancellation.


M*A*S*H (CBS).  As mentioned earlier, this landmark series premiered to very little audience
fanfare but much critical acclaim.  This first season would be the only one where M*A*S*H was not a high-rated program.  The early Sunday night time slot was an odd programming decision, as this first season included some pretty racy goings-on.  Lots of nurses sleeping with lots of doctors, lots of leering and lots of innuendo.  Even married Colonel Frank Burns and Hot Lips carried on their illicit affairs over a Bible Study.  This first season saw a recurring character of Spearchucker Jones, a black doctor (from the book and film) .  His character was pulled after certain reviewers discovered that there were no black doctors in the Korean  War (later disproved).  Although the operating room played a major role-- the laugh track was removed in these scenes--the sitcom experienced more wackiness this season than it normally would.  Hawkeye narrated letters home to his dad to deliver plot and this was one feature that audiences would see used in the future quite a bit.

The "other" black comedy about war that came out in 1970 was "Catch-22" based upon the classic novel by Joseph Heller.  Uber-talent Mike Nichols directed an absurdist film scripted by Buck Henry ("Get Smart" and "The Graduate") with all all-star cast led by Alan Arkin and featuring future seventies sitcom stars like Bob Newhart (with Peter Bonerz), Norman Fell,Richard Benjamin and Martin Balsam.  CBS tried a sitcom pilot of this one in spring of 1973 starring Richard Dreyfuss directed by British comedy director Richard Quine for Paramount TV.  It did not take off.

20th Century Fox, which brought "M*A*S*H" to the small screen had a second movie adaptation that year:
Anna and the King (CBS) was based on the book and subsequent Broadway musical and hit film with Yul Brynner surprisingly reprising his role as the King for TV.  The series was quite out of place in this year of prominent and controversial premieres.  It’s possible that the story of Anna and her confident and adversarial relationship with the stubborn and chauvinistic  King of Siam was somehow representative of the growing feminist attitudes.  Any possible relevance was lost though as the book’s author disowned the series for its frivolity and lack of substance and audiences disowned it out of lack of interest.  

Producer William Asher and his wife Elizabeth Montgomery finally were able to convince ABC to allow them to end the long-running and extremely tired “Bewitched.”  But Asher continued his producing duties with two new sitcoms on ABC:
Paul Lynde Show (ABC).  Asher brought Lynde--who played one of the most popular
Who's Your Daddy?
supporting “warlocks” on his signature series "Bewitched"--back to audiences in his own three-camera sitcom as a harried lawyer raising a family in “these trying times.”  This was another attempt by ABC to rectify its decision not to give AITF a home in 1969.  How?  Lynde’s character had to deal with a lay-about son in law who he despised when his newly married daughter moved back home.  And as the topicality veered more into the counter cultural realm (nude plays, communes, the hippie lifestyle), the lack of political charge or ethnic representation left the show with mostly Lynde’s snarky retorts.  And Lynde, a gay actor who played to those strengths in his comic delivery, could not convince audiences of a Bunker-ish mindset.
Temperature’s Rising (ABC) was Asher’s second offering this season.  Set in a Washington DC hospital with a multi-racial cast, this series tended to be quite lighter in tone
Blazing Bedpans
than the one with the doctors in Korea.  Cleavon Little played the mischievous Bilko-esque MD at odds with the stoic head of surgery played by James Whitmore. While the sexy fluff and wacky scenarios were far removed from the important themes of the day--especially in the medical community-- the fact that Little’s African-American character was a doctor and (possibly) having sexual relations with white nurses was a step up in the progressive evolution of the seventies sitcoms.
Asher, who subversively and with great wit, tackled racial and sexual identity themes through the cloak of “witchcraft” did the same by casting Lynde as a middle-American conservative father and populating a wacky hospital sitcom with a racially diverse cast of characters with no condescension to their ethnic differences.

Here We Go Again (ABC).  Larry Hagman tried to return to sitcom-land again with this mid season replacement. Divorce was not necessarily a forbidden subject now, what with Oscar and Felix cavorting about with their ex-wives and Maude and Vivian having experienced umpteen marriages between them.  So the premise of this series-- a newlywed couple, each divorced with kids whose lives were constantly interrupted by their respective exes--seemed dated.  Six years later, Hagman would be JR and nothing else would matter.

ABC’s attempts to mimic the Lear model continued later in the season with these three attempts.  Topicality was not the object of similarity as much as the actual format.  All three of these shows were videotaped three-camera setups based on hit British TV comedies.
A Touch of Grace (ABC).  Shirley Booth (Hazel) returned as a free-spirited widow in her sixties moving in with her conservative son and daughter-in-law.  Sort of an updated "December Bride." She dated a gravedigger as well!  Carl Reiner helped adapt this series, based on “For the Love of Ada”  for the Oscar and Emmy winning actress Booth.
Love Thy Neighbor (ABC).  Based on "Love Thy Neighbour," this summer tryout hewed closer to the Lear model in its racial themes.  Basically, a white couple move next to a black couple and it turns out the black man is also the efficiency expert at the white man’s job site.
Thicker Than Water (ABC).  This second summer tryout series is one adaptation that seemed, well, almost too British in its execution.  Based on “Nearest and Dearest” the plot revolved around a spinster sister (Julie Harris) and her swinger brother (Richard Long) living with their crazy octogenarian father and running his pickle business in order to collect an inheritance.  Sounds like something from 2006.

And finally, with all the sixties comedy actors and producers taking their final gasps, we must not forget Hanna-Barbera studios, updating their animated sitcom format (The Flintstones, The Jetsons) to the new times.  With the Simpsons being twenty or so years off, this would be the only attempt in the seventies to present audiences with a cartoon family.  (HB had a professional football player with his family and neighbors in a 1970 summer cartoon, “Where’s Huddles.”)  
Wait Til Your Father Gets Home (Syndicated on mostly NBC stations) was basically "All in the Family"  in cartoon form.  The Boyle family--actually premiering as an episode of “Love, American Style"--consisted of conservative dad, dopey mom, feminist daughter, lay-a-bout long haired son, precocious younger brother and a grumpy dog.  Nowhere near as crass as it’s live-action doppelganger, WTYFGH was pretty gritty as far as TV cartoons go, as evidenced by the opening with the daughter coming home with her mod clothing all disheveled. Harvey Bullock and RS Allen, longtime sitcom runners who actually wrote scripts for "The Flintstones" and Andy Griffith, co-produced this show.  And some of the writers would go on to work on Lear’s future projects.
 Side note: Saturday Morning actually offered up another blatant AITF clone this season, this time as anthropomorphic dogs "The Barkleys" on NBC.  Arnie Barkley was a  closed-minded bus driver, his daughter wore mod clothes, his wife was a dingbat, his son was a lay-about with long hair, the younger brother was precocious, and…well, they didn’t have a dog--they WERE dogs.  It didn’t take long for the “bigoted father with progressive kids” model to become almost Disney-fied.

"Wait Til Your Father Gets Home" didn’t shy away from the topical themes though.  It’s almost as if they were trying to cover everything in their zeal to be shocking.  In some ways, they went even farther in their satiric tone than the Bunkers.  Sure, at the time, a lot of the shock was geared towards the creators of Yogi Bear doing episodes about a nude beach or see-through blouses (easier in a cartoon I guess). But in retrospect, having a paranoid conspiracy-spouting neighbor character who blamed everything on the commies and was a blatant racist --sort of a prescient take on the Tea Party movement--never seemed to elicit much notice from a desensitized audience.  

Watching an episode on YouTube (luckily right before Warner Brothers took it down) gave me insight into the politically incorrect humor of the time:
The cartoon episode dealt with Harry Boyle having to let go a Jewish employee.  In replacing him, the writers poked fun at the equal-opportunity hiring guidelines that were still fresh from LBJ's New Deal.  Harry had black, Asian, gay and Latino applicants.  The drawings and voice portrayals of these characters were stereotypes and could be deemed highly offensive in today’s environment.  As in our previous discussion of “Sanford and Son”, an observation can be made that although at the time it may have seemed progressive and/or innovative to include previously forbidden subjects regarding race relations and sexual mores, quite often the portrayals come across now as grossly oversimplified and, yes, cartoonish.  This partly has to do with “square” writers from the fifties and sixties trying to adjust themselves to a changing society.  Observing middle-aged politicians during the Nixon administration with their bell-bottom pants and large sideburns as visual proof of the growing pains incurred when an established somewhat conservative mindset tries to adapt to a counterculture it really doesn’t understand--mainly for reasons of style or acceptance.


Felix and Oscar play Password:

More PC material from the junkyard, scripted by Richard Pryor.

And in case things are moving too fast:

Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Thanks to the overnight success of  Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” summer reruns, the “rural purge of CBS” was vindicated.  With the exception of Lucy and one final desperate year of the Douglas family and Samantha the witch, any remnant of the sixties-era sitcom was pretty much disposed of.

The odd thing about this season is that, with the exception of Lear’s follow-up in January, the new series were mostly just hipper rehashes of old formulas (read bell bottom pants and long sideburns) and sixties comedy stars trying to come back in new vehicles:  Larry Hagman, John Banner, Don Adams, Ted Bessell, and Dick Van Dyke (the only successful one…and moderately so).  Viewers would also see returns of Bob Crane, Sally Field, Shirley Booth and Brian Keith over the next couple of years.  Even Buddy Ebsen and Eddie Albert return from Hooterville…but in cop shows!

Another strange trend were the movie stars :  Along with Henry Fonda, returning with his seriocomic family drama, audiences were treated to weekly doses of Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Maclaine and Don Rickles.

Although ABC would experiment with some bold Lear-like sitcoms in the summer of ’72, for the most part the “third network” would lead the way in the old-style family comedy programming.  One of the most fondly remembered blocks was on Friday night and this season represented its first year.  With the exception of The Partridge Family, all the series were low rated but would live on through nostalgia (The Brady Bunch) or critical acclaim (Room 222 and The Odd Couple).    The final hour of the block consisted of the anthology series “Love, American Style”--a series of filmed skits that would reflect the permissive lifestyle choices of the new day but with a cheesy innocence devoid of  the raw controversy of the Lear product.


This season would mark the premiere of NBC’s only true 70’s sitcom hit:  “Sanford and Son.”  As in “All in the Family” Norman Lear co-opted a British sitcom “Steptoe and Son.”  He transformed the scheming old junk dealer and his son into African Americans for this new version.  Unlike it's CBS cousin, this new sitcom was an immediate Friday night hit….insuring that the ABC lineup would remain in the ratings shadows.  Like it’s CBS counterpart, “Sanford and Son”s  lead character was also a bigot.

X-rated comedian Redd Foxx played Fred Sanford and future preacher Demond Wilson played his son Lamont.  This was the second sitcom to be videotaped before a studio audience.  Lear’s Tandem partner Bud Yorkin had a larger hand in this show.  Although some of the writers would represent the newer generation of comedy scribes (Richard Pryor and Garry Shandling for instance), there were some old hands brought in such as Aaron Ruben (“Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle”).  So where AITF would always have dramatic moments and shocking story lines, “Sanford” would, with the exception of certain racial scenarios, avoid controversy and stick with wacky misunderstandings and domestic shenanigans.

Eight years earlier, golden-age sitcoms “Amos n Andy” (1951) and “Beulah” (1950) were withdrawn from the syndication market due to the racial stereotypes portrayed.  In an historic time of civil rights legislation and a cultural awareness of the evils of prejudice, audiences needed to see some diversity in the overly white world of sitcoms (and programming in general).  Comedian Bill Cosby paved the way with his starring role on the crime drama “I Spy”, and followed that up with his first sitcom featuring his gentle brand of humor.  At the end of the 70-71 season, NBC cancelled Cosby’s series as well as the hit “Julia” which avoided any stereotype by basically submerging the lead character’s identity in an anglo-centric world.  Both series were non-confrontational, only hinting at elements of struggle or conflict.  ABC’s “Room 222,” with two black lead characters, would dive into racial issues occasionally, but from a a safe and didactic distance.

So when Lear gave the Bunkers neighbors in the Jeffersons, an upwardly mobile black family with a son who mocked and humiliated the racist Archie Bunker, audiences finally got a feel for a new type of ethnic representation: brash comedy with bite and a message of tolerance buried under a bombastic bullhorn of insults and screaming.  Having grown up in a mostly white environment until I entered public school in 1973, Norman Lear’s series provided me my earliest glimpses of racial diversity and a perspective of race from the outside world.  The dark side of ultra-liberal Lear’s satire was that Archie Bunker’s character could actually appeal to like-minded viewers--thus the across-the-board super ratings numbers.  On the other hand, fortunately, I was able to see what Lear was aiming at:  the futility and banality and ignorance of the Bunker mindset.  Lear was brave enough to make Fred Sanford closed-minded as well (albeit without Bunker's bitter venom), railing against his Puerto Rican neighbors, making fun of gays and Asians, and skewering "old ugly white women." (Lear was able to make fun of his own left-minded allies as well as we will see next season.)

With that in mind, it wasn’t until 1984-- when Cosby took African-American sitcom families into the upper middle-class-- that culturally aware audiences recognized the blatant stereotypes inherent in even Lear’s groundbreaking black characters, from Fred Sanford, Aunt Esther and his buddy Grady to JJ “Dyno-Mite” Evans and even super-wealthy George Jefferson.   Political correctness wasn’t the order of the day either with Lear, as slurs flew and the worst racial epithets were uttered in prime time sitcoms--unheard of today in even the most uncensored cable comedy programs.   This phenomenon was just one of the characteristic dichotomies of the seventies that was representative of the growing pains inherent in this important decade in media.  In retrospect, though, the characters in "Sanford and Son" seem based more on stereotypes from  “blaxploitation” films popular at the time.  Having revisited these films in recent years, though, I find even these grind house extravaganzas to be more thought-provoking and thematically bold than most of Lear’s ethnocentric episodes.


#1.  All in the Family (CBS).  The Bunkers return for their first full season, now the talk of the nation and having practically swept the Emmy Awards in its previous truncated season.  Crammed into one season, the topicality ran the gamut:  layoffs, picketing, gun rights, mixed marriage, insurance cancellations and street violence.  And this was over forty years ago?  Sounds like today’s headlines.  This was the season Edith experienced menopause, Mike experienced impotence, ,Archie experienced jail time and Gloria posed nude.  Also, this was the season that Archie got trapped in an elevator with every stereotype he rants against.  He also did his Man on the Street interview this season.  The Jeffersons--Louise, son Mike and George’s brother Henry (Sherman "George" Hemsley was contractually obligated to
Guess Who Came to Dinner?
Broadway for now) --provided plenty of spirited discussions on race with small-minded Archie.  But the famous episode where Sammy Davis Jr. comes by the house and kisses Archie playfully gamed Archie’s bigotry.  Yet, somehow the episode came off like Lucy’s contrived guest star of the week episodes in the other sitcom universe.  But Archie really met his match in one episode this season, as would TV viewers of the seventies….with Edith’s cousin Maude.

This season “All in the Family” would sweep the Emmys again for best comedy, writing and directing.  Carroll O’Conner would join Jean Stapleton this year as an Emmy winner for his portrayal of the most famous/infamous man in modern America.

#6.  Sanford and Son (NBC).  Lear’s reputation was already intact, so his followup series in January (described above) hit the ground running.  These first episodes were mostly remakes of the British “Steptoe and Son” on which the series was based.  Fred and Lamont tended to scheme together a lot more in this first season and Lamont even spent a lot of time foiling Fred’s engagement to his girlfriend.  Most of the characters that audiences would love had not shown up yet.  Even Aunt Esther was different:  Aunt Ethel…and not nearly as violent or funny.  One of the funniest episodes this season involved Fred and Lamont moving a piano for a Beverly Hills snob.  Hilarious yet sadly homophobic.  Plus the premiere involving a silent art auction is classic.  Also, this is the only year “Sanford and Son” would receive  Emmy nominations--even Redd Foxx for best actor.

#8.  Funny Face (CBS).  CBS was touting Broadway’s Sandy Duncan as the next Mary
Face Rook
Tyler Moore….and gave her a time slot right after AITF and before MTM.  And with all this and the stellar ratings it created, star Duncan needed to take a leave of absence mid-season to have  a tumor removed in her eye. Inexplicably, in her absence the network felt like the show needed to be retooled.  So Sandy’s exploits as a small-time girl trying to make it as an actress in Hollywood--sort of a hybrid of Mary Tyler Moore, Doris Day and Marlo Thomas--were discontinued by mid season.  She would return next season with a live studio audience, different friends, and a new job,  a different time slot and no audience.  Seems like a cruel joke.

#10.  Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Having captured a number of writing, directing and acting Emmys for the previous season, Mary was back with a mandate to continue bringing quality to the New Sitcom in her second season.  This season saw a balance of stories at the newsroom and exploits involving Mary and her many male admirers.  And of course, Rhoda.  Mary’s landlady Phyllis and her daughter Bess played a large part in the proceedings this year as well.  Mary’s relationship with her co-workers was slowly progressing as the characters of Lou, Ted and Murray were coming into their own.  Nancy Walker returned as Ida Morgenstern in a couple of episodes.  Other than the periodic implied one-night stands, MTM’s only topical episode involved a restricted tennis club.

Valerie Harper and Ed Asner would repeat their supporting acting wins as Rhoda and Lou Grant this year.  And of course, the series would get a multitude of writing and directing nominations.

#11.  Here’s Lucy. (CBS).  This series, on the other hand, never got more topical than Lucy being replaced by a computer at the employment agency or Kim moving out on her own.  Once again, being stranded on a ski lift with Dinah Shore was an example of where this show remained thematically.  Pulling Flip Wilson into drag in  a Gone with the Wind sketch doesn’t help any.  Appearances by singing nuns, Ginger Rodgers…and David Frost?  Even a couple of animal guest stars proved that Lucy was borrowing from now-defunct Hooterville.  She had the good sense  though to bring back Vivian Vance for a reunion episode.  Which Vivian character she was though is in question.

#16.  The Partridge Family. (ABC).  Shirley and her brood became the anchor to the Friday night lineup thanks to teen heartthrob David Cassidy.  In this second season, her youngest son changed into a different actor a la Roseanne eons later.  Well, Laurie dated a biker (played by Meathead himself!) and posed nude for a painting.  There was an episode regarding Native Americans.  But other than rock n roll, the most controversial thing happening on that tour bus were multiplying hamsters.

Not Quite Keith.
Producer Screen Gems tried to launch another teen-mag idol factory with a sort-of spin off:
Getting Together (ABC) featured Bobby Sherman one half of a musician/songwriter/singer team loosely based on real-life Boyce and Hart who wrote music for The Monkees.  As with the Partridges, lots of music intermingling with the mild comedy antics were the order of the day.  Although there were some stirrings from fan mags and comic book adaptations, the ratings did not prove as like able.

#18.  New Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS).  Now that MTM
returned, it was her husband’s turn.  Dick re teamed with Carl Reiner from his sixties series--promising the same high quality laughs from that classic series.  This time Dick was the host of a talk show in Phoenix, Arizona (the three-camera shoot actually took place in Van Dyke’s current hometown in Arizona.)  Hope Lange was his wife and he had kids and neighbors and zany co-workers.  Dick’s brand of physical comedy mixed with decent comedy writing put him somewhere between Lucy and Mary on the seventies scale.  The premiere season did well, pairing the series with MTM on Saturday nights after AITF.  Also with a story dealing with a restricted country club, Dick outdid Mary on the topical scale with story lines about “dirty” books and racism.

I can do that hat thing!
#23.  Doris Day Show (CBS).  Doris didn’t lose her series in the “rural purge” but she did lose her kids.  Her offspring from the previous three seasons miraculously disappeared as Doris became a swinging single woman living in San Fransisco full-time now with new friends, a better job at the magazine (globe-trotting reporter) and a cynical boss.  Her Italian landlords even beat a hasty retreat at the beginning of the season. Doris had a contract to continue the series and the ratings were still good, so I suppose the network brass decided to make her a bit more like MTM to spice things up.  What wasn’t like MTM were the crazy plots and fanciful situations involving Greek billionaires, Saudi princes, and romancing Peter Lawford’s debonair doctor character.

#21.  Room 222 (ABC).  This comedy-drama broached the Top 30 the only time this third season.  With creator James. L. Brooks involved with MTM, this series lacked the wit but continued on with its lesson-of-the-week format.  Their were a lot of episodes dealing with lawsuits and politicians…school bureaucracy.   The impending computer replacements!  Teaching the horrors of VD!  One student pretended to be a witch. One student started smoking.  One student was harassed for being gay.  Room 222 was still brave enough to tackle controversial subjects, but did so in a thoughtful, if not necessarily realistic manner.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order):

Arnie (CBS).  This series about the working class guy making management came back with a few changes.  His relationship with his wife was more prominent and the couple got a new neighbor in a TV chef played by Charles Nelson Reilly.  Basically, though the concept wore thin, the format was stale (by this time, laugh tracks were reserved for family sitcoms) and the network unceremoniously dumped it to the late final half hour on Monday nights.

Bewitched (ABC).  The eighth and final season of this beloved magical sitcom was
So long Samatha--hip witch!
basically a number of remakes from previous seasons.  Star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband, producer William Asher, were both ready to move on after the “first Darrin” left the series.  But three years later, due to network pressure, they both kept the series going.  By this season, “Bewitched” reruns were even showing up on ABC’s Saturday morning lineup.  Whereas “Bewitched” was usually the most topical sitcom in the 60’s (by way of inference), in this age of Lear it was just quaint and tired.  Adventures with Henry VIII, the Loch Ness monster, and a family vacation in Rome were conflated with hippie warlocks and George Washington getting arrested for demonstrating.

The Brady Bunch (ABC).  More episodes were created in this third season that certain fans have committed to memory.  The family travels to the Grand Canyon and has adventures in a ghost town.  Then:  The eavesdropping Cindy episode.  The Bradys do a TV commercial episode.  The Jan gets glasses episode.  The Romeo and Juliet episode.  The Alice’s twin cousin episode.  The Davy Jones episode.  The seesaw record episode.  And:  “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”  The episodes that didn’t happen:  Carol poses nude or Mike is replaced by a computer.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (ABC).  There WAS, however a nude modeling episode in the third and final season of this low-key comedy.  A young Jodie Foster made a few more appearances.  Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara appeared in a couple of episodes together, working towards a possible spin-off pilot.  As more stories were involving producer James Komack’s character Norman, the relationship between Tim and Eddie took a back seat.  Eddie did tinker with being a Communist in one episode.  Otherwise, a quiet demise.

My Three....oh never mind.
My Three Sons (CBS).  Shocking to think this was still on the season Archie Bunker captured the nation’s zeitgeist.  Maybe billionaire Fred MacMurray wouldn’t give up so Fred Silverman dumped the series to late Monday night long after the family hour.  That did the trick.  As well as dated plots such as Tramp having puppies.  We must give the producers credit for lightly tackling subjects such as Katie having to raise her triplets alone as her husband was away on his job--she even contemplated the dreaded D word.  Even drug use was dealt with tangentially on the final, uneventful closing episode.  Just to drag things out, there was a continuing storyline about Steve’s Scottish cousin (also played by MacMurray) courting a young barmaid.  After twelve years, the farewell of the Douglas clan pretty much put the nail in the coffin of the homogeneous sixties family sitcoms.

Nanny and the Professor. (ABC).  Removing this show from the Friday night family lineup in it's third season did it no favors.  There was very little this show could offer modern audiences and it was dumped by mid season.  Nanny was accused of being a witch in one episode.  That wouldn’t have helped as Samantha Stevens even called it quits this year.

The Odd Couple (ABC).  The critical acclaim of this series led to producer Garry Marshall
"Can you find me her roommate?"
overhauling the format in the second season.  Felix and Oscar now bantered about in front of a studio audience.  As a result the stories were more character-centered.  The ex-wives of both men would be semi-recurring characters starting this season.  The writing would be even sharper.  The producer’s sister, Penny, would make her first regular TV appearance as Myrna and remain on this same sound stage at Paramount for the next 13 years.

The Smith Family. (ABC).  Returning from its successful mid season premiere, Henry Fonda’s comedy-drama about a cop and his family became more of a drama-drama and lost whatever audience it had.  Soon, Ron Howard, who plays the teenage son, would do so again in a more successful vehicle.


Would you believe...?
The Partners (NBC).  Don Adams returned as a bumbling cop, doing his Maxwell Smart schtick with sideburns and a hip black partner.  Creator Arne Sultan worked with Adams in “Get Smart” and some of the magic returned but without the zany edge provided by Mel Brooks, the series couldn’t hold up.

The Good Life (NBC).  Larry Hagman returned  with Donna Mills as a middle-class couple trying to live in high society by, get this, becoming domestics.  Very much a “situation” comedy, I can imagine the class conscious humor was pretty tame in this single camera show.

The Chicago Teddy Bears (CBS).  John Banner ("Hogan's Heroes") returned here as co-
Hogan's Anti-Heroes
owner (with Disney stalwart Dean Jones) of a speakeasy in Depression-era Chicago.  He went from bumbling Nazis to bumbling gangsters (including Jamie Farr) in his comic efforts to fend off the mob.

#1 in bad sitcoms.
Me and the Chimp (CBS).  Strange choice for a mid season pinch-hitter, this Garry Marshall series brought Ted Bessel ("That Girl") back as a family man dealing with the antics of his pet chimpanzee, rescued from medical experiments.  Considered one of the worst series of the seventies, this one arrived ten years too late for its audience.  The original title was “The Chimp and I.”  Bessel wouldn’t do the series unless the title was changed.  He lost either way.

NBC premiered a short-lived comedy/variety show hosted by Gene Kelly called "The Funny Side" this season.  I mention it because it was a series of skits (along with musical numbers) about five different "types" of married couples.  This method of simplistic stereotyping would be a common thread through many sitcoms over the decade.  The five couples were:  working class, black, young and hip, middle-aged and wealthy, and elderly.  Future sitcom stars such as John Amos and Cindy Williams were players in this social experiment created by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff of "That Girl."  Persky and Denoff would not have much luck in the future with a few other sitcoms.

The Movie Stars:

Jimmy Stewart Show (NBC).  Hal Kanter, of “Julia” fame created this vehicle for legendary
Mr. Smith Goes to Mayberry.
movie star Stewart.  A small-town anthropology professor deals with his son’s family moving in after a house fire.  Like Fonda’s series this one had no laugh track (but less violence) and that  or may not have helped the series survive its first and only season.

Don't look back, Shirley!
Shirley’s World (ABC).  Having tried flying the friendly sitcom skies with stewardesses last season, British production company ITC tried again this season with film star Shirley Maclaine playing a globe-trotting photo journalist.  This was the Moddest of the Mod, duly representing the swinging styles of the era.  But recycled footage of flying passenger jets didn’t revive Ms. Maclaine’s career.  The cancellation of this series,  however, did wonders as she would remain for decades to come as one of the most versatile and awarded film actresses of her generation.

Surprisingly, there were three premieres, all after the fall season, that were harbingers of the sitcom styles that would permeate the airwaves starting the next season.

The Don Rickles Show (CBS).  Popular insult-comic and acclaimed character actor Rickles
Father Knows Borscht.
played a big city ad executive who with his wife and daughter struggled to maintain his sanity in the modern world.  Sheldon Leonard and Howard Morris created this three camera setup to showcase Rickle’s brand of humor.  His caustic approach may have been held back some though as audiences didn’t tune in.  As the final episode of the short run involved him firing a black secretary, that might have been too much.  It is interesting to note that Rickles best friend Bob Newhart would appear as an insurance salesman in an episode.  Next season, Newhart would have much better luck than his buddy Rickles.  And Rickles would never guest star on his friend’s hit show.

One year is enough time before the topical comedies a la All in the Family start arriving.  There are no clips available of either of these ABC summer replacement series, but I imagine the urban settings and timing and controversial elements were derivative of Archie Bunker’s New York world.  I’m not sure, but I would venture to guess that both of these series were the first non-Lear videotaped sitcoms as well.  And I also imagine that ABC was hoping to catch the lightning it missed two years earlier when it turned down Archie and Company.
The Corner Bar (ABC) was created by Alan King for ABC.  A grimy NY pub populated by a diverse group of patrons and staff including the first regularly featured gay character on TV (Peter Panama played by Vincent Schiavelli).  Former Bowery Boy Gabe Dell played the bar owner.  The patrons represented the gamut of gritty NY:  angry hard hat guy, snaky Wall Street banker etc.
The Super (ABC) was created by Rob Reiner and Phil Mishkin.  It featured Richard Castellano (fresh off his well-deserved Oscar for "Lovers and Other Strangers" and soon to be in "The Godfather") as a tough superintendant of a NY walk up populated by a diverse group of residents and malcontents.

“Populated by a diverse group of …..” would pretty much be the guiding setup of most sitcoms in the next eight years and it pretty much started now:


 An unsold pilot was aired as an episode of "Love, American Style."  The pilot was called "New Family in Town" and it took place in  Milwaukee in the fifties.  Here's the opening: