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 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:

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