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.
A FOXX IN THE HEN HOUSE: LEAR'S NEXT ANTI-HERO AND THE NEW BLACK SITCOM
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.
RATINGS WINNERS 1971-1972:
#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?|
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
#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.|
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
|I can do that hat thing!|
#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!|
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.|
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?"|
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 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-
|#1 in bad sitcoms.|
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.|
|Don't look back, Shirley!|
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.|
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:
FRED AND LAMONT: PIANO MOVERS:
ONE LAST THING: