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.
TIFFANY NETWORK'S TIFFANY LINEUP
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
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.
A NEW S*M*A*S*H HIT FOR CBS
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.
RATINGS WINNERS 1973-1974
#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.|
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.|
#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|
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|
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.|
|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.|
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.|
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
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.|
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
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.
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:
CASTING SUE ANN: