Monday, May 27, 2013


It is interesting to note that halfway through this decade, the years that represented the pushing of envelopes--the stretching of boundaries in thematic elements and presentation of same--that the most popular sitcoms would involve a trip to the good ol' days.  With Americans celebrating the Bicentennial, a celebratory theme in some returning sitcoms, looking back with fondness would become the nation’s pastime in the aftermath of political turmoil and confusion.


In the sixties Gary Marshall was a writer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” with his partner Jerry Belson. With lots of television and some feature film work under his belt by 1970 he brought Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” to prime time in 1970.  Even with the critical acclaim generated by this show, Marshall helmed a few undistinguished efforts before providing American audiences with the pleasures of living in the past with the Cunninghams and their “Happy Days.”  After a season and a half of mediocre ratings, ABC had enough confidence in this series to renew for a third season, adding a studio audience to the mix.  With a new writing team and a three camera setup, the series morphed from a gentle (yet ribald) view of fifties life to a “buddy” comedy featuring a straight-laced overachiever and his slightly darker protector: the Fonz.  

Fonzie jumps the trashcans.
With the feature film “American Grafitti” still on the radar, the “greaser” culture being glorified in the Broadway hit “Grease,” and the rock and roll of the era being re-visited and re-imagined via the stylings of Sha Na Na, Marshall found the perfect time to recapture his childhood memories for current audience enjoyment.  The single three-camera  episode from the low-rated second season tested so well that ABC decided to play up the laughs  and gags at the expense of the period design and thoughtfulness.  As the series progressed and became a ratings champion, it  depended on familiar character traits and interactions….the star power of nerdy actor Henry Winkler in his persona of the ultra-cool biker Arthur Fonzarelli in contrast to clean-cut “aw shucks” Richie created by Ron Howard (who at this point was a TV veteran from his days as Opie on “Andy Griffith Show”)--resulting in fantastical plot elements, leading to the infamous “Jump the Shark” scenario.


ABC's Sitcom Power Trio 
And with Marshall’s previous series “The Odd Couple” finally put out if it’s low-rated misery, he decided to use his sister and the Felix/Oscar set to create another apartment…this time 1950’s Milwaukee where the Cunninghams reside.  A guest appearance on “Happy Days” by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams (who starred with Ron Howard in “American Grafitti) as a pair of gum-chewing “floozies” on a date with Richie and the Fonz led immediately to the mid season series “Laverne and Shirley.”  The two brewery workers would morph into, well, Felix and Oscar as William’s Shirley became more prudish and naive countering Marshall’s course and “experienced” Laverne.   To this day, I never understood how this uninspired spin off setup, with the forced 50’s setting, could become such a ratings hit.  As the writing and gags were, for the most part, pedestrian and sometimes childish, I can imagine audiences were yearning more for the long-ago Lucy and Ethel antics more than the sophisticated Oscar and Felix shenanigans.

Perhaps as modern audiences were alienated by reruns of Donna Reed, "Father Knows Best" and the Beav in a cynical world experiencing overt violence and permissiveness post-sixties it became cathartic to celebrate the darker elements of those halcyon black and white days--by adding the womanizing hood prone to violence or the not-so-chaste life-hardened single gals--and to do it in what is still a relatively family-friendly environment compared to the wild west of Lear's world or the 4077th.

Marshall teamed up with Thomas Miller and Edward Milkis to form this new production company.  No longer working as much with Belson, Jerry Paris (an actor on the Van Dyke series) became his new directorial collaborator. This new team, releasing through Paramount,  would produce most of ABC’s three-camera output throughout the decade and (sans Marshall) on through the eighties.  So while Norman Lear was pushing the envelope and MTM Productions (along with “M*A*S*H” and “Barney Miller”) was leading the way  in the premium blend of wit and character, Marshall’s company became the third leg of the 70’s sitcom stool by shucking the class of “The Odd Couple” for the pop culture retro feel-good comedy that would usurp the social content and quality productions that groped it's way out of the sixties morass of brainless genre fare.


Blackboard Jungle-Gym
ABC would lead the way with sexy yet harmless sitcoms in the last half of the decade.  Whereas the network recently had the Partridges and the Bradys for sitcom star power, they continued the trend of providing fodder for teen mags with Fonzie, Laverne and Shirley, and a new idol…Vinnie Barbarino.  Also premiering this season was “Welcome Back, Kotter,”  James Komack’s follow-up to “Chico and the Man.”  Another stand up comic, Gabe Kaplan, played a joke-spouting educator returning to his tough Brooklyn alma mater, Walt Whitman High.  His students were dominated by the Sweathogs, a motley crew of schoolyard thugs more reminiscent of the Marx Brothers than the “scared straight” variety of hoodlum.  This was purposeful in order to “neuter” the dangerous stereotypes that could influence the youth of the 70’s. Kaplan as Gabe Kotter would open each show telling his wife, Julie, a joke in the best borscht-belt style.  Then on to school to provide headaches for vice-principal Woodman and to reign in the chaos of the goofy Polish nerd Horschack (Ron Pallilo), the scheming half Puerto-Rican half Jewish Epstein (Robert Hegys), the charming African-American Washington (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and John Travolta as the dim-bulb Italian teen Lothario Vinnie Barbarino.  It was obvious that all of these actors were way beyond the age of the characters.  But it didn’t matter:  the Sweathogs became a huge sensation, joining Fonzie in the remaking of the sitcom into the pop culture fanzine frenzy that ABC was always the best at nurturing.


Not to be forgotten, Lear provided his own teen heartthrobs--although for the young male set--with “One Day at a Time” in December.  Young divorcee Ann Romano breaks out for life on her own in Indianapolis with her two teenage daughters, Barbara and Julie.  Lear co-created this series with sixties sitcom star Whitney Blake (“Hazel”) based on her experiences as a newly divorced mother. Mackenzie Phillips as Julie and Valerie Bertinelli as Barbara would join Jimmie “Dyno-Mite” Walker as CBS’s entry in the pop hero sweepstakes.  “One Day" would become another long-running hit for Lear and CBS despite it's staginess (especially with  Bonnie Franklin’s fresh from Broadway self-conscious acting), corny sex humor (courtesy of Pat Harrington’s nosy building super Schneider), and crisis of the week plotting.  Multi-part episodes garnished with “drama”  were quite frequent in this milieu.

Speaking of Lear, this was the season he introduced the world to “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.  A parody of daytime soap operas, this nightly serial covered every taboo topic that Lear had already covered and more.  Louise Lasser as the Heidi-haired housewife, pathologically neurotic and concerned with “waxy yellow buildup” was less a glamorous soap caricature and more of a cautionary tale for depression and the dangers of suburban lower-middle-class stasis. The setting of Fernwood, Ohio was less urban and chic and more of a working-class den of middle-American archetypes--almost rural what with Mary Kay Place’s character, Loretta, being a country-western singer and Greg Mullavey's husband sporting a ball cap and dungarees.  Extremely controversial, the show would rank up there with Archie Bunker and his clan in terms of shock and awe.  I remember staying up late on weeknights to see what all the fuss was about.  I noticed that the series, although videotaped, had the brightness of Lear’s other sitcoms rather than the gauzy hazy look of the daytime soap opera tapings.  Populated by a bevy of actors from stage and screen that Lear had used and would continue to use in his series, the performances in “Mary Hartman” were a bit off in terms of timing and pacing. It was almost otherworldly. One could almost sense the pauses as the actor’s waited for a studio audience to intervene (there was none).   Nonetheless, the show was ahead of it’s time, more languid and melancholic than “Soap” which would be coming up soon to shake up the scenery.  Lasser’s tour-de-force nervous breakdown on national TV would attest to this.  Plus the spin off talk show spoof “Fernwood 2-Nite” with Martin Mull and Fred Willard would predate show-biz satire perfected by the Second City players in a few years. “Mary Hartman, Mary  Hartman” would continue on through the 1977-1978 season.  Lasser would leave the show the 1978 season, leading to a new title “Forever Fernwood.”  Also, “Fernwood 2-Nite,” MH’s summer replacement in 1977 would return on a national scale with “America 2-Nite” in early 1978 for a short run.


Archie and Beverly
#1.  All in the Family (CBS).  Nothing like having Archie Bunker usher in the Year of the Bicentennial.  With the Jeffersons having moved on up, Mike and Gloria (now pregnant) move into their house next door.  This season, the focus would be more on the interpersonal relationships of Mike and Gloria and future grandparents Archie and Edith as they await and experience the birth of baby Joey.  And what a year for Archie.  He shows up at the hospital in blackface when Gloria is delivering as he had been performing in a tasteless skit at his lodge.  That marks quite a difference from the birth of Little Ricky in the 50’s.  And if that isn’t bad enough, he sneaks little Joey off to be baptized against the wishes of atheist Mike.  Archie gets mugged in one episode and in another he actually performs mouth to mouth on Beverly Lasalle and saves her life….but he didn’t know that Beverly  was a transvestite performer.   Edith gets involved with the Sunshine Home leading to some older characters visiting the Bunker household occasionally.  Mike, who has started teaching now, has a crisis of conviction when he is on the losing end of an affirmative action decision.  And Gloria gave birth to a child whose grandfather would be, well, Archie Bunker.  There would be interesting guest performers this season including Bernadette Peters (as a temptation for Mike during Gloria’s pregnancy), a young Billy Crystal (the beginning of a long career relationship with Rob Reiner) and veteran Jack Gilford.

This was the first season that “All in the Family” would not be leading the famed Saturday night lineup (“The Jeffersons” would be there for now).  Nonetheless it anchored a winning Monday night lineup featuring Mary’s old buds Rhoda and Phyllis and Archie’s old nemesis Maude.  Obviously, the ratings did not suffer.  This time.

#3. Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  This “Happy Days” spin off from Garry Marshall would
Odd Couples.
outrank it’s partner series, even as a mid season replacement.  This premiere season introduced us to the roommates living in their basement apartment in 1950’s Milwaukee.  We meet Laverne’s crusty Italian dad who owns the “Pizza-Bowl”, landlady Irma Babisch (Betty Garrett fresh from “All in the Family”), Shirley’s high school crush Carmine the dancer, and the two goofiest greasers, Lenny and Squiggy.  Not quite mentally impaired, these two, as played by Michael McKean and David L. Lander, were Abbott and Costello by way of “Rebel without a Clue.”  Shirley had more of a streetwise accent this season, soon to be lessened to give the girls more of an “Odd Couple” feel.  But audiences turned out in droves to welcome these blue-collar heroes as they brawl, carouse with hoodlums and experience class issues with snobs during the era of Eisenhower.  Marshall would direct the blockbuster movie "Pretty Woman" fifteen years later and he would exploit the same judgment/class war issues in that film that he would examine in the early years of this series.

Greats of Wrath
#4. Maude (CBS).  This series remained top-rated, now following "All in the Family" on Monday night.  While cousin Edith and her clan were involved with the birth of baby Joey, Maude and her co-horts continued give birth to  controversy and dysfunction in the extreme.  Some examples:  Walter leaves Maude as she decides to run for state senate.  He hooks up with a sexy barmaid (Bernadette Peters, again as the “other woman”) and falls off the wagon again.  Maude tries to run Henry Fonda (playing himself) as President, leading to a manic-depressive episode.  Walter is arrested for indecent exposure (that Walter!).  Mrs. Naugatuck has a stroke upon taking her citizenship exam.  And Maude, turning 50, gives a tour-de-force one-woman performance on her therapist’s couch for a full twenty-four minute installment.  Although there were many up and comers as guest performers such as Teri Garr and Bob Balaban, Lear would hire many TV character actors from sixties sitcoms this season to fill out supporting roles rather than bringing unknown names from the Broadway stage.

#6. Phyllis (CBS).  After the untimely death of her unseen husband Lars, Mary Richard’s
landlady takes her daughter Bess and moves to San Fransisco to start a new life.  Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels created this second MTM spin off as a vehicle for Cloris Leachman’s Emmy winning portrayal of the insecure, overconfident and overbearing Phyllis Lindstrolm.  This series featured some incredibly quirky characters in regular roles.   Phyllis moves in with Lar’s mother Audrey (Jane Rose) and her husband the Judge Jonathan Dexter (Henry Jones) providing a hilarious combination of daffy and droll to complement the acerbic Phyllis.  As well as the domestic hubbub with her daughter's imminent womanhood and her need to be Bess's “best friend”, a sudden relocation, and the traumatic essentials involved with “making it on her own”, Phyllis found herself penniless and needing a job.  She immediately found one in a photography studio run by Julie Erskine and populated by scatterbrained photographer played by Dick Schaal (Valerie Harper’s husband).  Erskine was played by Barbara Colby--cast based on her expert portrayal of a hooker on Moore's series.  Tragically, the actress was murdered in a bizarre Hollywood scenario a few weeks in and replaced by Liz Torres for the remainder of the season.  So much like Mary, Phyllis balanced a domestic life with her work life.  The humor was almost a modern comedy of manners as Phyllis dealt with wacky relations and strange situations (her possible in-laws turn out to be little people).  Guest stars include Linda Lavin and future MTM stars Daniel J. Travanti and Loni Anderson.

Plopped right between “Rhoda” and “All in the Family” on Monday nights, the ratings were stellar.  Monday was almost looking like Saturday night of old.

#7. Sanford and Son (NBC).  Fred and Lamont were getting quite long in the tooth by now with episodes that seemed more out of the Lucy archives with guest stars and outlandish situations.  The fifth season starts out with an earthquake leading Fred to move to Vegas and see Steve & Edie and Merv Griffin.  But he’s back in Watts soon enough to turn his domecile into a hotel:  The Sanford Arms.  This allowed a multi-ethnic cast of characters right out of wacky sitcom casting central.  Along with Pat Morita (doing double duty on “Happy Days”), Nancy Kulp (Miss Jane from "Beverly Hillbillies) joined the cast as Officer Hoppy’s mother, a new resident of the Arms and a foil for Fred in her misplaced desire to be “hip” and “with it.”  Add that to Fred’s attempts to open a Japanese restaurant, to start a senior escort service, to babysit a circus elephant, to act with George Foreman, to attempt hypnosis to cure himself of his TV habit, to remake Aunt Esther as a contestant in the Ms. Watts Businessman
Steinberg and Son
Contest, to foil a bank robbery, to attempt a camping trip with Lamont, to foil his steady Donna’s relationship with another man, to circumvent a mob hit, and something with Della Reese.  Is there time to sell junk?  And the wackiness continued with a “Christmas Carol” episode and one of the most “meta” moments in Lear sitcoms:  Fred and Lamont attend a taping of the sitcom “Steinberg and Son” played by Lou Jacobi and Jeff Goldblum, realize the similarities to their own life and decide to sue.   It is interesting to note that future comedy guru Garry Shandling wrote a few episodes this season.  But don’t  hold that against him.

“Sanford and Son” begat it’s first spin off mid season with 
Grady (NBC).  Our old dizzy friend decides to move in with his daughter, son-in-law and
grandson in a middle-class Westwood neighborhood.  Whitman Mayo’s shtick didn’t quite translate outside of Fred’s junkyard and Grady returned to the Sanfords for their last season.  Future film actor Joe Morton played Grady’s son-in-law.

#8. Rhoda (CBS).  Riding the crest of it's hit premiere season,

Setting the tone.
“Rhoda” was already seeing the cracks in the foundation.  Although the writing (featuring many female scribes this season) was expert and the acting top-notch, “Rhoda” fell victim to having  too many characters to keep track of and thus no core group for audiences to care about.  Now that Rhoda had the advantage of being the sexy one  (in contrast to sister Brenda) she had the disadvantage of being married--and married to an actor that was miscast.  Fans of the original Rhoda Morgenstern would lament the change in Valerie Harper’s character regarding her new domestic bliss (eliminating the sardonic self-loathing and wisecracking retorts common in Minneapolis) and the “un-Jewishing” of the family as if CBS were afraid of alienating audiences in the mid-seventies--especially after the network’s cowardly handling of “Bridget Loves Bernie" in 1973. As a result, most of the comedy came from the boyfriend issues of hangdog Brenda and relationship exploits of mother Ida.  Husband Joe had his
I Love Rhoda
failing wrecking ball company and Rhoda wasn’t doing to well in her new window dressing business she ran with an old school girlfriend.  Rhoda’s social life pretty much involved hanging out with old friends from her school days and feeling insecure because she wasn’t, well, as insecure as she used to be or as her sister is now. I’m sure there was some comedy in there somewhere.  There were some interesting guest stars such as Ruth Gordon playing Carton the doorman's mother and Vivian Vance playing a neighbor caught between Rhoda and Ida.  Melanie Mayron had a semi-recurring role as Brenda’s best friend.  John Ritter, Norman Fell Tim Matthiessen (as an FBI agent), and Jack Gilford would also appear.

Sticks and the Stones
#11.  Happy Days (ABC).   Now that the series shifted to three cameras with a hyped-up studio audience, it relied much more on catch-phrases and cheap laughs.  Although the writing was still relatively sharp, the plots started to show a certain desperation to please a youthful audience looking for familiar thrills rather than social relevance.  So Fonzie moves into the Cunningham's garage apartment allowing him to have more interaction with " Mr. and Mrs. C".  Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph were the Three Stooges (involved in many schemes) to Fonzie’s wise sage James Dean.  We finally meet Arnold (of the hangout “Arnolds”) in the form of moonlighting comic actor Pat Morita.  We meet Officer Kirk, the stereotyped cop character to be the foil to Fonz and the boys and all of the good youth of  fifties Milwaukee.  Howard has a mid life crisis.  Fonzie refuses to wear glasses.  Joannie gets a crush on Potsie leading to the new term “Dren” (opposite of “Nerd”).  Mr. C and Fonzie go to court over a damaged pigeon coop (yes, Fonzie keeps pigeons).  Richie and Fonzie go out with Laverne and Shirley. Fonzie sells encyclopedias.  Fonzie enters a dance contest with Mrs. C.  We hear the words “Sit On It” for the first time.  Fonzie can make the jukebox play by hitting it.  And, inaccurately playing on the 70’s Evel Kneivel craze, Fonzie decides to perform a daredevil motorcycle jump over fourteen garbage cans on live 50's TV.  Oh, and we already had a clip show this third season--made up mostly of clips from the first two laugh track seasons.  There was an “important” episode dealing with racism when the boys hired the black drummer Sticks to be in their band.  Oh, yes, the boys had a band.   Of course.  And the audience goes wild.

#12. One Day at a Time (CBS).  The truncated mid season premiere season focused on
David Kane Mutiny
divorcee Ann Romano’s transition to raising her daughters alone in a male-dominated world. Ann has a new job with a PR firm. Richard Masur plays her lawyer, David Kane, a younger man who has the hots for Ann, the older woman (at thirty!).  They sort of had a relationship in this first season.  It was hard to tell as Ann starting dating other men right off the bat.  She even did a lot of flirting with nosy super Schneider.  The drama started right from the start:  will Julie go all the way with her boyfriend?  How will Ann deal with another of Julie’s boyfriends (Robby Benson) falling in love with her instead of her daughter?  Most of the fireworks involved rebellious daughter Julie as younger Barbara was pretty much a wisecracking tomboy with a basketball in these early episodes.  Joseph Campanella would make a few appearances as Ann’s ex-husband.  Suzanne Somers would make a pre-Crissy appearance in one episode.  And Norman Lear would have his sixth mega hit.

#15.  M*A*S*H (CBS).  This first season without Henry Blake and Trapper John remained funny thanks to the continued contribution of writer Larry Gelbart and continuing presence of Frank Burns.  Clean cut BJ Hunnicut would be Trapper’s replacement.  As the ever-faithful husband to wife Meg back home and with the ever-earnest demeanor, BJ was nowhere near as effective a partner-in-crime to Hawkeye.  Oh, sure he could throw out clever little sayings and hold his own in the “mocking hypocrisy” department but he just wasn’t a funny character.  Now, Harry Morgan, returning to the show, this time as Colonel Sherman Potter--a career officer, also faithful to his wife, Mildred, back on the horse ranch and earnest to the nth degree with all of his folksy sayings and stiff line-readings.  But that’s just me.
Not really.  But that's just me.
Hawkeye was still an expert wise ass, Klinger was still wearing dresses, Radar still had his teddy bear,  Frank and Hot Lips were still an elicit pairing, and Igor was the laconic cook.  But this time, when Hawkeye stands up to Frank he is put up on a mutiny charge.  But the Korean War (now in its fourth year) still gets in the way the comedy:  BJ is stranded on a bus in a war zone in his first appearance; Hawkeye has to keep talking to a Korean family to avoid falling into a concussion; an injured bomber claims to be Jesus; and news correspondent Clete Roberts interviews the inhabitants of the 4077th for a television documentary (the first of many “event” episodes).  This season saw guest roles for Ned Beatty and Blythe Danner.  Unfortunately, McLean Stevenson was “dead” and Wayne Rogers was MIA.  But that’s just me.

Gene Reynolds picked up the only Emmy for M*A*S*H this year for his direction of the hour-long season premiere:  Frank is in charge while Hawkeye and Radar attempt to catch Trapper before his flight out and  instead escort the new regular BJ back to the 4077th.  The journey entailed a lot of drama (landmine rescues, overturned jeeps, drunken escapades) and the tail of the episode showed the arrival of Colonel Potter.  Perhaps it was a bad omen for the self-indulgent drama the series would start reverting to when BJ vomited at his first sight of a war mutilation.

#17.  Good Heavens (ABC).  Carl Reiner starred as an angel in business attire, who must grant a wish to a different guest star each week.  That’s it.  Sort of “Love Boat” meets “Bewitched.”  This show--originally to begin in the fall with Jose Ferrer-- premiered mid season to stellar ratings and I have no idea why it ended there.  Reiner had the only recurring role and the “target” character pretty much would carry the comedy in the episode.  The single camera show, created by Austin and Irma Kalisch of “Good Times” for Columbia TV, featured such varied guest stars as Sandy Duncan, Loretta Swit and Susan Dey.  

#18.  Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC).  The first season of this show saw lots of controversy.  First off, a Boston affiliate refused to air the show fearing that the integrated classroom would inflame passions during busing issues.  Also, a union rep was placed on the set to make sure Gabe Kaplan’s teacher character was accurately reflecting an educator.  Kaplan was not happy.  The Sweathogs were an instant sensation thanks to John Travolta’s breakout character Vinnie who contemplates becoming a priest in one episode.  But the comic scenarios always took precedent over possible “lessons.”  As when the Sweathogs led a sit-in over serving liver in the cafeteria.  Or when Hotsie Totsie (Debralee Scott, the only “female” sweathog) claims to be pregnant to enhance her reputation.  Or when Julie leaves Gabe because he is spending too much time with his students--.especially when they keep hanging outside the window of their small Bensonhurst walk-up.  Look for James Woods as a student in one episode.  He’s about as young as the other sweathogs.

#19.  Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Mary and the gang at WJM just get funnier and funnier.  As a lot of Mary’s sitcom peers are showing their age and losing their bite, this series saw it’s strongest season yet.  With Jay Sandrich helming most episodes, the creative teamwork resulted in some of the most memorable moments from this series run.  
With Rhoda and Phyllis gone, Mary moves out of her famous loft apartment to a high rise.  There are a few appearances by some new neighbors (possibly the producers trying to replace Mary’s two departed friends) but it never went anywhere.  One of them was played by Penny Marshall before she went on to become Laverne and the other was Mary Kay Place right before she went on to become Loretta in “Mary Hartman.”  But that’s OK, Betty White’s Sue Anne Nevins provided plenty of laughs for all of them. 

Chuckles Bites the Dust
 The highlight of this season was the “Chuckles Bites the Dust” episode ranked by TV Guide as the #1 Funniest Episode in Sitcom History. This was a big season for Ted:  he hosts a game show; sees a psychiatrist over bedroom issues; he gets audited; he and Georgette get
The wedding was a Trip-per.
married (in Mary’s apartment by John Ritter in tennis togs); and they adopt a son (played by ex-Brady Robbie Rist).  As for Lou:  his ex-wife Edie gets remarried; he dates Sue Anne; he has a one-night stand with Sue Anne that he can’t remember; and he collaborates with Mary’s globetrotting Aunt Flo (Eileen Heckert) who visits twice this season.  Murray?  He realizes he is in love with Mary.  And Mary?  She has a priest fall in love with her; she becomes a “big sister” to a wayward girl (Mackenzie Phillips); and we are introduced to her non-committal boyfriend Joe (Ted Bessell, who played the same game with Marlo Thomas in a previous sitcom era).  And then there was the episode where Lou and Mary go to Washington DC and Mary doesn’t believe Lou when he says he was visiting with the Fords at the White House.  And then a phone cameo by Betty Ford just enhances the joke with a skeptical Mary scoffing at Lou.  Now that’s a cameo that makes sense!

Mary cleaned up at the Emmys this year.  The series rightly received overall best comedy for the second time.  And the show picked up another writing award (David Lloyd) for the aforementioned "Chuckles" episode.  Mary won Best Actress for the second time.  Ted Knight and Betty White picked up their first statues for their expert supporting characterizations of Ted Baxter and Sue Anne Nevins respectively.

#21.  The Jeffersons (CBS).  It didn’t take long for Mike Evans to leave the show as Lionel.  This season he was replaced by another Evans, Damon.  But the show still had some relevance upon it’s second season return in the old Bunker time slot.  Episodes dealing with racial politics were frequent as when George refuses to hire a white woman and when George is accepted at an exclusive tennis club as a “token” member.  Family issues come to the forefront as Lionel splits from Jenny and later in the season he gets drunk before his college graduation.  Mother Jefferson gets a boyfriend in Uncle Bertram.  And there is an episode dealing with a recipe for possum stew.  Future Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr. plays an old Navy friend of George's in one episode.

#24.  Good Times (CBS).  The story lines from the Evans family this season seem to be coming out of 2013 headlines: James still is unemployed and accepts a job in Alaska; Florida won’t go see the doctor because she can’t afford the treatment; the family is politically split up over who to support for alderman; Florida goes to jail for protesting about bad meat in the school cafeteria; young Michael is investigated as a security risk for doing a research paper on a Communist country; and James decides to buy a gun due to the high level of crime in the projects.  Most of the comedy is still provided by the antics of JJ and his rivalry with sister Thelma.  This season saw some heartbreaking episodes amidst the carnage as Winona dates a deaf man; a old man decides to die with the family so he won’t be alone; and JJ’s girlfriend (Debbie Allen) turns out to be a thief to supporting a drug addiction.  Oh, did I mention that JJ got VD?  That brings us back to the seventies.  Guest stars included a young Jay Leno and future filmmaker Carl Franklin.

#25.  Chico and the Man (NBC).  The relationship between Ed and Chico was still evolving but a majority of effort this season seemed to rest on guest star appearances:  Joey Bishop, first appearance of future regular Della Reese, Carole Cook as Ed’s girlfriend, George Takei (“Mr. Solo” himself) as Ed’s long-lost son from WWII, and Jose Feliciano who sings the theme song as Ed and Chico argue (as well as “Light My Fire”).  Perhaps the strangest cameo was when Tony Orlando (who many confused with star Freddie Prinze) actually appeared as Chico’s look-a-like.  Semi-regular appearances were made by Jeannie Linero as Chico’s girlfriend and Mel Brooks stalwart Ronny Graham as the Reverend Beemis.  Louie the trash man was back as well.

Jack Albertson broke the chokehold held by the Mary Tyler Moore crowd this year by claiming the Best Actor Emmy.

#26.  Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  This season saw the funniest Newhart episodes, with future wunderkind sitcom director James Burrows helming many episodes. One of TV Guides top 50 episodes aired this year: the Thanksgiving show where Bob, Howard, Jerry and Carlin get drunk watching college football.  Incredibly well-written and directed this was a brilliant and hilarious ensemble piece for fifteen minutes of air time.  Also aired was the famous episode where Bob is ambushed by a ferocious talk show host (Jennifer Warren).  This season saw the creative installment modeled after “The Sting.”  Howard got a lot of action this season proposing to Ellen and gaining custody of his son Howie.  And Carol marries mild-mannered Larry after knowing him only one day.  We meet Howard’s brother, Warden Gordon Borden and, in a couple of episodes, Bob’s old college prankster buddy “The Peeper” played by Tom Poston.  Of course, Emily and Bob’s patients all put in their time in this show which continued to be low-key yet very funny.
Drunk Thanksgiving

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Barney Miller (ABC).  Still a sleeper, the cops from the 12th precinct were receiving critical kudos but few viewers on it’s return from a mid season premiere.  The sometimes authentic, sometimes bizarre plot lines fed the excellent words and comic timing that emanated from the realistic acting performances of the ensemble.  This year:  Wojo goes undercover in drag to catch a rapist; the detectives have to chase “The Mole” (played by future regular Ron Carey) through the sewers of NY; Yemana is shot on duty; a man with a dynamite belt holds the precinct hostage; and Wojo’s gun is confiscated due to an unfavorable psychiatric evaluation.  The boys are harassed by a fraudulent priest, a crazy nightclub comic, a polygamist, and a con selling charter flights to Saturn.  We meet the gay couple Marty and Daryl for the first time when they file an harassment complaint.  The station house has bad plumbing and even the roof collapses at one point.  Speaking of the station set, this season saw two of the few times the action actually left the environs of the police office:  once ,when Wojo and Wentworth stake out an apartment complex and another time when Fish is put on restricted duty and sent home (in an episode that introduces Steve Landesberg as Deitrich--he will return the following season). 

That’s My Mama (ABC).  Not much to report on the second season return of this sitcom.  Barber Clifton Collins and his “Mama” are back with Earl the postman and Jive-master Junior.  Lynn Moody is replaced with Joan Pringle as Clifton’s sister, married to the conservative lawyer.  Earl’s schemes played a larger part than Clifton’s romantic setups this time out.  By December, they were all gone.  Norman Lear had cornered the market on African-American family comedies on CBS and NBC so ABC ended up relying on Fonzie until Raj and Rerun arrived.


There were some “copycat” themes this season, none leading to anything successful.

The old doctors:
Doc (CBS). Weinberger and Daniels created this gentle comedy for now-prolific MTM
Old Doc One
Productions.  Utilizing the droll talents of Barnard Hughes (a hit as Bob Newhart’s dad), he played an old-school doctor in New York who did things the old-fashioned way.  His wife (Elizabeth Wilson) and daughter and blustery son-in-law (who lived in an apartment above them) provided the domestic laughs while Mary Wickes as his long-time nurse and lots of  devoted patients provided the office chuckles.  Professor Irwin Corey was one of many veteran actors playing Doc’s old chums.  Thanks to head writers Glen and Les Charles, the series had a realistic feel, which would be reflected more successfully in their hit follow-ups “Taxi” and “Cheers.”  I remember the first time I saw Steve Martin (outside of SNL) was when he played one of Doc’s sons who decides to give up stand-up comedy to become a priest!!  Comfortably couched before sister series “Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Saturday nights it found a decent audience.
Mid season, Danny Thomas decided to don a crazy white wig and mustache to portray another cranky old-school practitioner, Dr. Jules Bedford in 
Old Doc Two
The Practice (NBC).  Beford prefers to practice in the lower-income neighborhoods of New York while his son-in-law doctor practices in posh upscale Park Avenue.  Thus treating children from the ghetto or a practicing drug pusher (Vic Tayback pre-Mel) was no big deal for him. Dena Deitrich (Mother Nature) plays the devoted nurse and Shelly Fabares is his daughter.  This three-camera filmed series was produced by Thomas’s son Tony and his parter Paul Junger Witt (before they scored with “Soap”) for MGM and was created by “Arthur” writer and director Steve Gordon.  

Speaking of Witt and Thomas, before they produced “The Practice” they teamed up with future partner Susan Harris to create another three camera  vehicle for Academy Award winning film actress Lee Grant that would rival their future “Soap” in terms of boldness and sexual frankness.
Fay (NBC) had Grant playing a fortyish divorcee trying to start a new life with dating and  with a new job.  Her ex-husband (Joe Silver) of twenty-five years, who admitted to numerous
affairs, was still hanging around though.  Fay was having affairs herself now, much to his dismay and that of her grown daughter.  There was much explicit talk of infidelities and relationships,--a bit more sophisticated than the noise coming from the “Maude” machine but definitely more ribald than the peeps from Mary Richards.  But it was the term “stretch marks” that NBC censors decided to bleep.  Along with Harris, there was a rich creative pedigree here with direction by Burrow and film star Alan Arkin.  Renee Taylor popped in for a guest appearance and in another sitcom coincidence, Fay’s best friend was played by Audra Lindlay, frustrated by her boring husband played by Norman Fell.  The two would go to be a more popular “frustrated” couple, the Ropers.

Grant found out right before a "Tonight Show" appearance that her critically-acclaimed series was axed only a couple of episodes into the season.  She flipped the bird to the NBC programmers and rightly so.  It seemed extremely odd five years after Mary and Archie broke so many molds leading to this series--and Felix and Oscar were celebrated divorcees,  that the network would cave in so soon and so inexplicably.  But that's about the beginning of the end of the Golden Age in the 70's.

Another trend this season was urban Italian families, probably due to  the cultural impact of “The Godfather” films.
Joe and Sons (CBS).  Speaking of “The Godfather,” large but lovable Richard Castellano who played Clemenza in the film, would star in his second videotaped sitcom as Joe Vitale a widowed working-class dad raising two teenage sons in Hoboken, New Jersey.  Florence Stanley (soon to be Ms. Fish) played his nosy sister and Jerry Stiller his co-worker at the tube factory.  The series, created by Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris, didn’t shy away from topical themes, examining bed wetting, sex ed, marijuana in the house and the horrific misperceptions of a young male taking ballet lessons.
The Montefuscos (NBC) was another series about Italian-Americans, this time focusing on the Sunday dinners consisting of  three generations of the Montefusco family in suburban Connecticut.  Created by Sam Persky and Bill Denoff (of “That Girl”) for MGM, the series lacked star power and decent writing.  The videotaped mess was cancelled quickly after it’s fall premiere.

Big Eddie (CBS). Persky and Denoff would team up with another sixties veteran Hy Averback to bomb again, this time with sitcom producing legend Sheldon Leonard in front of the camera.  He played an ex-mobster/gambler trying to live a reformed life running a major New York sports arena.  But he was a cuddly, family friendly ex-criminal as he tried to raise his granddaughter (Quinn Cummings) along with his sitcom-friendly ex-stripper wife (Sheree North).  This taped sitcom didn’t last through the fall.

On the Rocks (ABC).  While we are on the topic of criminals this one-season sitcom,
Setting the Bars
videotaped in front of a studio audience and created for the network by sitcom veteran John Rich (who directed many episodes of “All in the Family”, as well as Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke)  took place amongst actual inhabitants of a Alamesa Minimum Prison.  And they were a perfect seventies ethnic blend of family-friendly criminals, just like our friend Eddie.  It was like the Sweathogs AFTER they get out of high school.  And of course, the wackiness ensued at the “minimum risk” (of course) facility under the leadership of inmate Hector Fuentes. There was the black inmate (Hal Williams), the goofy white inmate,  the young naive inmate and the old codger, Gabby.  The antagonism was provided by Mel Stuart (George Jefferson's “brother”) as the warden and Tom Poston as the dimwitted guard (playing Schultz to Fuentes’s Hogan).  I remember the ads for this show as it followed “Barney Miller” touting:  “Funny Cops, Funny Robbers.”  

With “Chico and the Man” a success on NBC, the other networks decided to try their hand at the Latino demographic.
Viva Valdez (ABC).  ABC did have a lead Latino character in the aforementioned “On the Rocks” but being set in a prison is not exactly the ideal scenario to show progressiveness.  But the Valdez family, living in East LA, suffered the same fate as “The Montefuscos” on NBC:  too many characters, no names, and forced laughs.  Even the newly arrived cousin from Mexico didn’t help any with this Phil Mishkin-created sitcom.
Popi (CBS).  CBS tried to jump on this bandwagon by adapting the 1970 feature film to the small screen in this single camera entry..  Hector Elizondo played the Alan Arkin part:  a poor Puerto Rican immigrant widower trying to raise a young daughter by tackling three jobs and managing to date a neighbor in the bowels of New York City.
Neither of these mid season replacements fared well and it wouldn’t be until 1984, with Paul Rodriguez starring in Norman Lear’s AKA Pablo, that networks would return Latino characters to sitcom-land.  It would take even longer before the characters themselves were not misrepresented as stereotypes.  This was probably due to the fact that the Hispanic audience was not a targeted demographic yet and the series were basically created as entertainment for a mostly white middle-America.

Lear Goes Dear
The Dumplings (NBC).  A stereotype that Norman Lear missed was that of the overweight individual.  So he decided to create this mid season series (along with the NRW crew of “The Jeffersons”) starring James Coco and Geraldine Brooks as a cuddly, sweet couple with extra girth and lots of affection for each other and those around them.  They ran a lunch counter (of course) in a Manhattan sky rise.  I remember this sitcom had a real New York feel to it (though it was taped in Hollywood with all the other Lear shows)-- especially with it’s roster of Broadway actors (and Lear regulars) that played various customers in the diner:  George Furth, Marcia Rodd, Jane Connell, George S. Irving to name a few.  This was one of Lear’s rare strike-outs in the seventies.

The Cop and the Kid (NBC).  Another mid season show from NBC was this single camera (rare by now) sitcom starring film actor Charles Durning as a grizzled Irish cop (he played that part a lot, often profanely so)…but this time the cop had a sitcom heart of gold.  Through a bizarre series of events, he ended up  being assigned custody of a streetwise black youth.  Comedy ensued as he and his conservative Irish mother (who he lived with) had to reform young Lucas.

When Things Were Rotten (ABC).  So amidst the ethnic stews and forced premises that
Old Men in Tights
this fall season produced, leave it to the zany Mel Brooks to remind us about the lost art of farce.  While his partner Carl Reiner would be granting wishes later this season, Brooks-- coming off the dual big-screen hits “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein"--would return  to network TV (“Get Smart”) with this knockoff of Robin Hood and His Merry Men in Sherwood Forest.  Avoiding the R-rated mayhem that was making him a household name, Brooks created this homage in a tamer (but still saucy) vein.  The jokes were fast and furious and typically anachronistic (an OPEC dopelganger, a Sherwood Housing Development, a weapon for King John to rule the world).  The expert cast, with Dick Gautier as the lead character and ample support from Brooks regulars Bernie Kopel (Allan-a-Dale) and Dick Van Patten (Friar Tuck) was aided by guest turns by Sid Caesar (Brooks' old boss from “Your Show of Shows”), Dudley Moore, Paul Williams and Lainie Kazan.  Although audiences didn’t take to this show, Brooks would bring Robin Hood back to great success on the big screen twenty years later with “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” featuring a much younger cast but pretty much the same gags.

What’s Happening!! (ABC).  This popular seventies sitcom would premiere in a 4-episode tryout in August.  It would return in November 1976.  More on this series in the next installment.

Saturday mornings on network TV were reserved for cartoons / children’s programming and selling breakfast cereals and Hot Wheels to enchanted kids.  The seventies were a magical time for a kid during these programming hours.  We look back at the psychadelic, simpleminded, possibly subversive but definitely entertaining programming with a warm nostalgia.  One of the chief purveyors of this type of series was Sid and Marty Krofft Productions.  Their life-size puppet shows, with real humans interacting in a thirty-minute story with a laugh track, were basically sitcoms cloaked in a sideshow funhouse.  For example, “HR Pufnstuf,” “The Bugaloos,” “Lidsville” and “Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.”  “Sigmund” running from 1973-1975 on NBC was the most “real” with “Family Affair”’s Johnnie Whitacre as the young lead.  But this season, with prime-time sitcoms awash in sexual themes, social commentary, subtle adult comedy and multi-cultural characters,
"F Troop" reimagined
Saturday Morning seemed to be a place to dump sixties sitcom stars in cheesy high-concept half-hour comedy series--only this time geared towards kids.  Fantastical sixties sitcoms were still prevalent in syndicated reruns in the afternoon, but the networks pretty much did away with the old form of laugh track-driven, high-concept slapstick.  Krofft produced two of these this season:  “Lost Saucer”(ABC)  starring Ruth Buzzi and Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle) as two extraterrestrials lost in space and “Far Out Space Nuts” (CBS) starring Bob Denver (Gilligan) and Chuck McCann as two technicians accidentally launching themselves into space.  The cartoon production company Filmation ("The Archies," "Fat Albert") hired some veteran sitcom showrunners to create “The Ghost Busters” (CBS) a near-burlesque style parade of non-sequiters starring Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch (both from “F-Troop”) and a smart-ass gorilla as they vanquish famous monsters from the past.  What these shows had in common with current sitcoms was the videotaped format…but the poorly timed laughtracks, cheesy sets, and obligatory costumed creature sidekicks betrayed their target audience.  

Speaking of nostalgia, Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows, Art Carney and Jane Kean would reprise their roles as the Cramdens and the Nortons in four hour long "The  Honeymooners" reunions for ABC over the course of the next three years.  Gleason and Carney were both box-office gold by this time.  Carney would win an Oscar for Paul Mazursky's "Harry and Tonto" and Gleason would be chasing Burt Reynolds in "Smokey and the Bandit."

Some Treats:

The funniest episode in sitcom history:  Chuckles in its entirety:

Bob discusses the Thanksgiving scene from his series:

Mel Brooks jaunty theme:

Mary Hartman's nervous breakdown:

Saturday, May 11, 2013


When Rhoda Morgenstern left Mary Richards and Minneapolis to visit her family in the Bronx, little did she know it would result in her own series, a marriage, a divorce, and the second highest rated episode of weekly television up to that time.  When an actor turned producer tried to create a TV series for Cheech and Chong, little did he know it would become about an old white man taking in a half-Hungarian Chicano and make TV history.  When a simple pilot about the domestic life of a cop aired, the parent network had no clue that it would turn into one of the most heralded ensemble set pieces of the decade.  When the neighbors of the most-followed family on TV moved “on up” to a new neighborhood, little did they know they would be around for over ten years.

Such is the 1974-1975 season.  The first season where the seventies stood on its own with no remnants of the innocent and naive comedies of the past.  And there were many “sitcoms” airing without laugh tracks or audiences and many would wish that  the doctors of “M*A*S*H” had followed suit in that department.


James L. Brooks decided to give Mary Tyler Moore’s best friend Rhoda her own series.  Rhoda, always the schlumpy sidekick as played by Valerie Harper was growing into her own as a svelte and sassy sex symbol.  When she joined her kvetching  mother Ida and tolerant father Max(Nancy Walker and Harold Gould) in the Bronx, she also paired up with her neurotic frumpy sister Brenda (Julie Kavner) allowing her to be the “Mary” to Brenda’s “Rhoda.”  “Rhoda” had a more episodic feel to it as the arc of the first season involved Rhoda meeting Joe Gerard (David Groh),--owner of a wrecking ball company--falling in love and marrying him.  Just like that.  And the wedding episode mid-season, with the old MTM gang stopping by, garnered the highest ratings for a single episode since Lucy had baby Ricky on “I Love Lucy.”  Viewers had parties celebrating the nuptials.  This was “Must See TV” before the "Friends" cast was even in first grade.

With the steady hand of Brooks at the controls and, much like "MTM"--utilizing the services of the best female comedy writers in the business--“Rhoda” was held in high regard during it’s premiere season. "Rhoda" was the first sitcom headlining a Jewish family since “The Goldbergs” in 1949.  The humor was a lot more gentle and the dialogue a bit more laid-back than the parent MTM show, although the unseen and often drunk doorman Carlton (heard through the intercom and voiced by writer Lorenzo Music) provided some good belly laughs.  The setting was quite urban compared to MTM and Bob Newhart, the other creations from the studio, but never veered into the coarseness of a Lear program.  Many  may not know much about Rhoda’s wedding these days but , at the time, it defined water cooler television.  And not far from Rhoda in the Bronx were some cops:


As ABC was still coping with it's giving up of Archie Bunker and the Lear juggernaut, it tried again this season to emulate the videotaped, urban milieu that it entailed.  January of this season saw two attempts.

First, ABC actually snagged Lear with the highly publicized "Hot L Baltimore" with it's on air warning and menagerie of stock controversial oddballs and malcontents.  By now, as you will see later with "Fay," audiences were not interested in shock.

Then ABC snagged John Rich, the veteran sitcom director who helmed most episodes of
"All in the Family" to recreate his magic.  He worked with Danny Arnold, producer of "That Girl" to come up with the perfect urban nightmare-comedy to complement the dysfunctional Bunker household.  The domestic life of a Brooklyn cop--gritty and topical.  And a Jewish cop at that just to add to the flavor.  There was a lot of testing and lots of opinions about this show and it was almost never to be.  But Arnold persisted (Rich left after the first episode--see "On the Rocks" next season) and created the perfect tapestry for the angsty humor of 1970's New York.  It didn't take long for the aforementioned captain Barney Miller (Hal Linden) to ditch the "family with kids" element and focus on his fellow cops and collars in the 12th precinct.  Much like Lear, the characters were richly drawn and acted, the situations topical and outrageous.  But more like the MTM output most of the humor--even amidst bombastic deliberations and catastrophes--was subtle and full of humanity.  The gentle and nuanced performance of Linden--no stereotypical Jewish caricature typical in film and theater--was the perfect antidote to his quirky fellow cops and the criminally neurotic visitors to the squadroom.  It was almost like "Green Acres" moved to the city and got hooked on quaaludes.

Arnold was a perfectionist, often keeping the cast working through late hours doing script rewrites up to the final shot.  Thus the studio audience was eventually shelved and each finely sculpted episode would be screened to an appreciative audience.  Thus the show would seem twice removed from the audience in it's later years--the immediacy lessened.  But not the quality.  And also to avoid the bright fake look of a taped studio set, Arnold hired a master cameraman to filter the image and manipulate the set colors--grimy and green--to add authenticity to that squad room.  And the series hardly left that squad room.  With the exception of a few episodes, the series was basically a weekly three act play on the same stage--but without the staginess.  Sort of a precursor to MTM's groundbreaking "Hill Street Blues" in terms of dark humor in the world of law and order, this series was often referenced by law enforcement personnel as the most realistic cop show of all.  Quite high praise.

For some reason, this series would never capture many awards at Emmy time.  It was a perfect example of a unheralded gem.  It would ride on the coat-tales of ABC’s ratings bonanza in later years but you ask anyone who remembers the show and they will smile and nod in recognition of a long-ago era of quality understated programming.


Actor and producer James Komack (“Courtship of Eddie’s Father"), trying to conceive a program for the West-LA stylings of comedy duo Cheech and Chong, settled for a different kind of team.  Melding nightclub comic Freddie Prinz with veteran character actor Jack Albertson was a stroke of unexpected brilliance.  The perfect followup to “Sanford and Son” on Friday nights, the spectacle of cantankerous and alcoholic garage owner Ed Brown sparring with the smart-aleck Latino lothario Chico (found living in a van in the shop) was an instant success with audiences.

Although there were Latino characters represented in the ethnic soup of the New Sitcom, this was the first series to actually headline such a archetype.  Chico was not quite as stereotyped as Fred Sanford’s neighbor Julio with his goat and thick accent.  Prinz, actually half Hungarian and half Puerto Rican, portrayed his character as a suave and stylish wiseacre albeit with no place to live and no job and no parents that he knew of.   Yet despite the realistic background of the barrios of East Los Angeles, adding veteran character actors such as Scatman Crothers as Ed’s best friend Louie often left the series feeling like an old-time vaudeville act with Ed as the straight man to Chico’s zaniness aided and abetted by a hyped-up studio audience at NBC studios videotaping sessions.  But there was no mistaking that Chico Esquella was the first major Latino character on network television.  And, surprisingly, there would not be many others throughout the decade.

“Rhoda” and “Chico and the Man” were both relatively short-lived as ratings winners and neither are as revisited or remembered as much as two other series that premiered mid-season.  Both with enduring runs and much-loved characters, “The Jeffersons” and “Barney Miller” would represent longevity / popularity and quality / timelessness respectively.

But, as  usual, everything starts with the Bunkers…at number one for the final time in it’s broadcast history this season.


1) All in the Family (CBS).  This season saw less controversy via weekly topics and more fireworks through drawn-out relationship stories.  The season opened with a four-part episode about Archie’s loading dock going on strike and the implications of possible pending unemployment and the politics of unionization.  Archie’s job is saved just in time for him to disappear on his way to a convention.  That two part story was derived from Carroll O’Connor’s feud with creator Norman Lear.  The show veered into silliness with this plot device as Archie returns (after going to a different convention and partying with them) to see Edith, Irene, Mike, Gloria, George and Louise Jefferson all in the house in some state of physical craziness.  Fortunately, contrivances such as this would be rare the rest of the season.  After his return, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner were absent a few episodes as well but Mike and Gloria did have a good number of focus episodes dealing with their relationship and ego issues.

Irene and Frank Lorenzo
Betty Garrett as Irene would move on out to another sitcom in Milwaukee after this year and The Jeffersons would move on UP mid season with their new series.  Before they relocated to Manhattan, George would have a lot of antagonistic face-time with Archie this season.     And the season would end with Mike and Gloria moving into the Jefferson's old house--next door to Archie!  And “All in the Family” would move out of it’s Saturday night time slot after this season forever dismembering  the Saturday night powerhouse schedule.

This season Henry Fonda hosted a retrospective special of “All in the Family.”   It is ironic that the series had extremely conservative critics who felt like the series had “aided and abetted” the enemy during Vietnam with it’s outspoken anti-war fervor and that “Hanoi Jane”s dad--the All-American movie legend himself-- would celebrate the inherently liberal series.

2) Sanford and Son (NBC).  This would be the final one-two ratings punch of these two Lear hits.  Grady would play a larger part in many episodes (in the absence of Redd Foxx) acting almost as a de facto Fred Sanford.  One of the funnier story lines with Grady involved the “parsley” he was growing for dinner.  Except for a tender episode where Fred’s niece reminds him of his late wife Eliabeth, most shows just veered toward near-farcical situations:  Fred creates a “Tower of Junk” for the art world; Lamont rehabilitates a down and out boxer; the Sanfords compete on a TV game show; and Billy Eckstine joins Fred and his old buddies for a night of music.  Comic Pat Morita begins his sitcom journey here with his role of “Ah-Chew”, fodder for Fred’s racial comments.  And in the spirit of The Willises (introduced on “All in the Family” this season), Fred gets to mimic George Jefferson in his disdain for his sister’s “honky” husband.

3) Chico and the Man (NBC).  The first season of this sitcom was a ratings hit following “Sanford and Son” on Friday nights.  Audiences saw belligerent Ed warm up to wiseacre Chico over the course of the season.  One way that “Chico” was similar to “Sanford” was in it’s reliance on special guest stars to divert from any seriousness that may arise from the characters’ hardships or cultural struggles.  Case in point: Sammy Davis Jr. made an appearance as himself, much as he did with the Bunkers in their second season.  Except at Ed’s garage the contrived appearance drew more attention to itself. One interesting guest star was Shelly Winters, re teaming with Albertson after their heartbreaking “Poseidon Adventure" pairing.

Early digs.
4) The Jeffersons (CBS)  "The Jeffersons" started out running midseason, replacing a less successful Saturday night followup to the Bunker time slot as the second Bunker spinoff.  George Jefferson, the successful African-American laundromat chain owner moved to a “dee-lux” apartment in Manhattan with wife Louise and son Lionel.  Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford and Mike Evans recreated their roles.  Lionel’s fiancee Jenny and her mixed marriage parents, the Willises also lived in the luxury apartments providing much fodder for the closed-minded George.  Neighbor Harry Bentley, a British UN translator, was also a butt of George’s insults.  George’s tipsy mother-in-law, not always approving of Louise, provided even more fireworks.  Much of the first season dealt with George trying to impress his new peers (mostly wealthy and white) and Louise reigning him in.  The sociological aspects of the Jefferson's situation was astutely reflected when, after a few episodes, Louise hires Florence to be her maid instead of one of her old friends.  In one of the funniest lines of the seventies, Florence sees her prospective employers and says “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”

“The Jeffersons” was Lear’s first solo outing after breaking off with partner Bud Yorkin.  Lear’s new production company TAT Communications would continue to explore topical issues a la “All in the Family”, “Maude,” and “Good Times.” whereas Yorkin’s T-O-Y Productions (formed with Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turtletaub)  would remain with the safer “Sanford and Son” formulas.  Lear hired many black writers and directors for “The Jeffersons” and this showed the first few years with a few insights mixed with the belly laughs.  On the other hand, he also brought in three veteran writers from “All in the Family” as the main producers (Don Nicholl, MIchael Ross and Bernie West with the acronym NRW) and they would tend to favor silliness, insults, and misunderstandings which would be a recurring motif in the show’s ten year run--much more representative of their next hit, “Three’s Company.”

5) M*A*S*H (CBS)  Hawkeye and company moved to Tuesday night where they will remain for a few more years.  The show continued it’s incredibly deft dance between hilarious hi jinks and harrowing drama epitomized in the award-winning episode “O.R” which detailed a frantic night in the operating room (sans a laughtrack).  Notable comedic situations involved the doctors abstaining from sex with the nurses; Frank instituting a prohibition on alcohol; a pending visit from General Macarthur; and Trapper and Hotlips being trapped in a supply closet.  Dramatic situations included a booby-trapped soldier and the doctors forced to save the life of a patient who is intended to be executed for spying.  Hawkeye makes his pacifist intentions very clear in a very funny way with his “I will not carry a gun” bit when Officer for the Day.

“M*A*S*H” was also no stranger to hiring female writers such as  Mary Kay Place and future “Designing Women” creator Linda Bloodworth.   Larry Gelbart would continue to contribute and sixties sitcom veteran Hy Averback ("F Troop") would direct many episodes. Even Alda himself would make his directorial debut this season, garnering an Emmy nomination in the process.   The only Emmy win this year would be for Gene Reynold’s direction of the aforementioned “OR” episode.

Guest stars included James Gregory as “Iron Gut,” Alda’s father Robert Alda as a prized surgeon, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III In the first of many appearances, Harry Morgan--in a hilarious, ribald performance as a senile, by the books general.

The producers liked Morgan so much, he would return the next season--less zany--as Colonel Potter replacing the much more laid-back Henry Blake.  Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) and McLean Stevenson (Blake) both decided to leave the show after this season.  In my opinion, the show never recovered from this loss.  The scenes between Blake and Radar were always comic gold with Radar’s ESP preempting Blake’s bumbling recitation of orders.  Whereas Trapper’s exit was rather unexpected and unremarkable (Rogers didn’t appreciate being second fiddle to Alda and just quit), the
character of Colonel Blake was discharged and the final episode of the season detailed his exit.  But in a stunning final scene, an acting clinic for the performers and a punch in the gut for a huge viewing audience, Gary Burghoff as Radar enters the OR and announced, unbeknownst to the cast, that the beloved Henry Blake was shot down and killed in his departing helicopter.  Another first for a sitcom character--reflecting the bravery of the writers on this series.

6) Rhoda (CBS)  This first hit season was highlighted by the record-setting audience for the wedding episode.  Along with the courtship and eventual marriage to Joe, this first year entailed story lines involving Joe’s financial problems with his wrecking-ball company, the couple’s dealing with past relationships, Rhoda’s tribulations at suddenly becoming intertwined with her overbearing mother and neurotic sister, and her eventual decision to start a window-dressing company.  There were many characters crammed into the series this year---this would be a problem with the show: too many divergent and changing characters leading to a lack of core relationships so vital to other MTM-produced sitcoms--such as  Rhoda’s childhood girlfriends, Joe’s co-workers, and Brenda’s strange boyfriends (including Nick Lobo, the accordion player).  Along with film actor Allen Garfield, guests this season included many future sitcom stars such as Linda Lavin, John Ritter, Norman Fell and, of course, Henry Winkler.

Valerie Harper would win another Emmy, this time for Lead Actress.  As I write this, Ms. Harper is bravely facing the effects of terminal brain cancer.  She recently appeared on a talk show with the other women of the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and her graciousness and humor in the face of her situation was remarkable and awe-inspiring.

7) Good Times (CBS).  The sophomore season with the Evans was beating out its fellow newbie “Happy Days” by leaps and bounds on Tuesday nights this year.   Florida and her clan seemed to beat out “Maude” as well this year in terms of sheer controversy.  The main story arc involved JJ robbing a liquor store, dealing with loan sharks, getting involved in a gang (Satan’s Knights) and getting shot.  Not necessarily “Father Knows Best.”  Especially when dad James decides to take on the gang.  JJ’s “antics” didn’t stop there as he painted a nude portrait of a woman with a jealous husband and brought home a pregnant girlfriend.    Various house guests brought alcoholism and gambling to the weekly discourse.  Even daughter Thelma (Bernadette Stanis) had more story lines this season as she dated an older man (Louis Gosset Jr.) and was courted by a sorority simply because she was black.

Equal opportunity and affirmative action played a role with the parents as well.  Florida beat out James for a job because she was a woman as well as being black.  And James and JJ become unemployed at the same time.  We start seeing building superintendent Bookman.  And neighbors:  one older destitute woman is suspected of eating dog food, so when she brings a dish to the family, you can imagine the frivolity that ensued.  Guest stars would include a pre-Apollo Creed Carl Weathers and (twice) a pre-Harris Ron Glass.

9) Maude (CBS).  Maude gets a new maid this season, the boozy Brit Mrs. Naugatauck.  Her
pedestrian ideas about serving men provided plenty of sparks with Maude.  Besides the medical themes--Walter has a heart attack, Maude gets a hysterectomy--there were plenty of stories about sex and relationships this season:  Carol gets engaged to a married man; newly married Vivan and Arthur lead Maude to question her fading sparks with Walter; even Mrs. Naugatauck finds love with fellow Englishman Bert (J. Pat O’Malley).

Rooster and the Lady
Also this season: Vivian dabbles in Women’s Lib; Walter fakes a religious conversion in order to sell appliances to a mega church; and Maude is selling real estate.  Guest stars included Jill Clayburgh and, in probably the most outlandish cameo of all, John Wayne as himself.  The Duke, with completely opposite political opinions than Maude, turns her to putty in a battle of the ideas.  Another notch in the belt for Norman Lear and his take-no-prisoners approach.

Betty White's Wash
11) Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS).  Sue Ann, Betty White’s “Happy Homemaker” plays a larger part this season with Rhoda moving to the Bronx.  News writer Murray also features prominently this season as he considers an extramarital fling and adopts a Vietnamese boy with his wife Marie.  WJM hires a consultant in one episode and Mary finally becomes full-fledged producer at the station.  In the most controversial show of the season, Mary is found in contempt of court for not revealing a news source, resulting in a friendship with a sardonic prostitute.

This was a big Emmy Year for MTM:  Ed Asner repeats as Supporting Actor for Lou Grant and Betty White receives her first career Emmy as Sue Anne Nevins.  Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels received writing awards for the episode involving Mary’s arrest.  And, capping off another incredible season, “Mary Tyler Moore Show” captures the best overall Comedy award for 1974.

17) Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  The relationship between Howard and Ellen is featured more prominently this season as Ellen moves in with Howard and she tried to curry favor with his son, Howie.  Nothing spectacular happens here, just laughs:  Emily is going for her masters degree and Bob joins a therapy group for his own issues.  Bob and Emily have both parents over for Thanksgiving leading to some interesting family dynamics.  And the other doctors in Bob’s office are featured as a group a couple of times this year.  The final episode of the season has Bob’s ceiling collapse in on him, figuratively and literally!

25) Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers (CBS).  James L. Brooks, playing on his critical
successes, added this title to his MTM Enterprises resume.  Sex and class were the name of the game in this story of a Boston double bassist (Sand) and his romantic escapades.  The shy bachelor musician lived with his overachieving older brother and his wife (Penny Marshall).  Other co-stars were Steve Landesberg (soon to be Deitrich on “Barney Miller”) and Jack Gilford.  This highly tauted series was slotted on Saturday nights between “All in the Family” and “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  Although this sophisticated show was appreciated critically and the ratings were decent, CBS decided to let it go by midseason and replace it with “The Jeffersons.”  Thus this was the first cancellation under the MTM banner.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order):

Happy Days (ABC):  In retrospect, it is odd that the second season dropped out of the top 30 before it became a tent pole for the ABC juggernaut.  (Actually, “Charlie’s Angels” was the tent pole but that’s for another blog).  Garry Marshall’s ode to the fifties was still shot single camera with a laugh track this season and still trying to cover all the bases of the era--before it delved more into Fonzie's Shark-Jumping World.

There were many memorable stories this season.  Brother Chuck would make one final appearance before disappearing into “never existed” mode as Richie moves in with him for an episode.  Richie encounters a burglar in the house.  Richie sees a psychiatrist.  The boys join the ROTC.  The boys throw a party in an actual haunted house.  The fifties were reflected very accurately this year:  Richie gets involved in a quiz show scandal;  Richie supports Adlai Stevenson for President while Howard and (yes) Fonzie support Ike; and there is even an appearance by Buffalo Bob Smith and Clarabelle Clown from “Howdy Doody.”  Sex is at the forefront as well:  the boys travel to Chicago and attend a burlesque show; Richie thinks he acquired mono from kissing one of Fonzie’s girlfriends; and, in a nod to “Summer of ‘42” the boys are infatuated with an older divorcee down the street.    There were shades of future characters as Joannie dates Fonzie’s little hoodlum cousin Spike (much scarier than Chachi).  And the fantastic Fonzie tales were foreshadowed this season as Fonzie plays Hamlet in a play and, in another episode, where he has to play the bongos in Richie’s band.

A Fonzie Christmas with Chuck
The episode where audiences really got to know Fonzie (finally sporting a black leather jacket) was the overly sentimental but effective Christmas episode where Fonzie is invited to the Cunninghams for dinner as he has no family.  But, in my book, the funniest episode of the entire series came mid-year.  Lowell Ganz, who would later be a major part of the series and go on to create films with Ron Howard, would write an episode about Fonzie dating a stripper.  He finds out that his girlfriend is a stripper because Howard remembers her from a hardware convention.  And they all go to the strip club with Fonzie to prove it.  And the saucy scene at the dinner table with Fonzie, the Cunninghams and the stripper is one I will always remember due to the expert comedic writing and the fact that it was a test-run for a studio audience.  Although couched in the middle of the single-camera season, the three-camera episode worked so Marshall and ABC decided that was the way to go all the way through the " early sixties."

The Odd Couple (ABC).  While Marshall was prepping “Happy Days” to be the new sire of
Back to the future.
sitcoms for the late seventies, he allowed himself one final season with Felix and Oscar.  The critically acclaimed show never got into the top 30 in five years but managed to stay on the air through this, it’s final season.  Unfortunately, although the performances were crisp and the writing still above average, the scripts veered toward “Here’s Lucy” and “Sanford and Son” with impossible situations and celebrity cameos.  Many media figures (mostly from ABC) made appearances as themselves:  Howard Cosell, Howard K. Smith, Dick Cavett, Bob Hope, Jack Carter, Roone Arledge, Rona Barrett and Paul Williams--mostly due to Oscar’s sportswriting job.  Roy Clark appeared, not as himself, but as one of Oscar’s old Army buddies.  There were a few flashback episodes a la "Dick Van Dyke Show" (where Marshall and partner Jerry Belsen got started together) such as the Roaring 20’s speakeasy episode with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman playing their respective fathers with young actors playing the boys.  Penny Marshall, as Myrna would do an episode with her then-husband Rob Reiner, before her brother would send her to the moon in a new series in 1976 (using the same set as “The Odd Couple” at Paramount Studios).

Tony Randall would finally win his Emmy statue beating out previous winners roomie Klugman, Carroll O’Conner and Alan Alda.  He accepted the award claiming he was unemployed as the show ended it’s run after five years.  He did end up remarrying his ex-wife in the final episode leaving Oscar to clean up after himself.

Humble beginnings.

Barney Miller (ABC).  The pilot of this series, airing the previous season, titled "The Life and Times of Barney Miller” dealt with the family life of a Greenwich Village police detective
captain played by stage actor Hal Linden.  The police station was just one of the settings with the nearly retired Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) being the only holdover.  The series premiere episode mid season would also feature his wife and two kids prominently with his station cohorts.  After that first episode, the series pretty much took place in that one studio set complete with a jail cell and Barney’s office.  One of the few shows that  the squad room aired this season when some of the crew performed a stakeout in an apartment building.

Off Set
Danny Arnold (“That Girl”) created this classic comedy series with quality in mind.  Audiences were lucky that he decided early on to forgo the family element and focus on the zany cops.  The first season introduced us to the ethnic stew of a crack cast:  the aforementioned Fish (resigned and still-alive, awaiting retirement); Chano (hotheaded and impulsive, a Serpico-type); Yemana (laconic and droll, the coffee maker); Wojo (a bit slow yet capable, a playboy); and Harris (self-assured and classy, writing his crime novel).

Classic episodes would be coming out the gate this first season, setting the tone. The very first show had a drug addict take the station house hostage.  Following that:  a flasher attempts suicide; Wojo harasses a prostitute; Chano kills two robbers; police corruption and mafia ties are explored.  These themes were dealt with honestly and the comedy came from the characters and their interactions with each other and the visitors, never at the expense of a perpetrator’s vulnerabilities.  Many law enforcement professionals felt that Captain Miller and his crew represented the most authentic cops on TV to this day.  Just real guys doing their job with a camaraderie laced with wit and affection.

A pre-"Alice" Linda Lavin would make appearances as the lone female detective this year and James Gregory would debut his expert characterization as the hilarious Inspector Luger.  Although, Barney’s apartment would never be revisited after the premiere, his practical wife Liz (Barbara Barrie) would make many precinct visits through the year.

That’s My Mama (ABC).  Produced by Chris Beard and Alan Blye who were behind variety shows such as "Laugh-In" and "Sonny and Cher", this series was ABC’s answer to the Lear comedies featuring African -American families.  Clifton Collins (Clifton Davis) was a Washington DC barber living with his “Mama” (Theresa Merritt) who wanted him to find the right girl to settle down with.  His sister married well, after all, to an egghead businessman.  Clifton though chose to pal around with his clients, like scheming postman Earl and street hustler Junior (played by future shipboard bartender Ted Lange).  These were middle-class blacks, predated by the lower-class Sanfords and Evans and soon to be joined by the upper-class Jeffersons.  Although it would be renewed, this series didn’t quite garner the ratings to insure a slot on TVLand.

Karen (ABC).  America’s “Room 222” sweetheart Karen Valentine teamed up with Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart of “M*A*S*H” in this single camera political sitcom.  “M*A*S*H” was political in it’s anti-war, anti-establishment mentality.  “Karen” was political in it’s setting:  she played an advocate for Open America, a liberal citizen’s lobbyist organization.  Boy, can you see a show like that airing today?  Probably not.  Even though muckraking politicians got called out and leaks were discovered at aeronautics firms and corruption was uncovered, having the cutesy Valentine at the helm with a laugh track-- romantic entanglements with suave DC types a common plot--the show was relatively tame and never ventured further than it’s mid season run.

We’ll Get By (CBS).  Speaking of “M*A*S*H”, Alan Alda would cut his teeth in showrunning with this taped sitcom about an adorable New Jersey family headlined by a loving lawyer patriarch (played by film actor Paul Sorvino).  Another mid season replacement, this  subdued series was hailed for it’s creator but  didn’t really offer much to audiences caught in the midst of much more dysfunctional and noisy families with the exception of one special episode dealing with marijuana.

Another interesting trend this season were filmed sitcoms with no laugh track.  This entailed a lot of exterior shots and the comedy was not quite as in-your-face as expected of the genre.  Three examples:

The Texas Wheelers (ABC).  The single-camera non-laugh track format of this MTM-
produced series was quite different from the normal fare from the studio. The rural setting as well: Lamont, Texas.  Grizzled veteran character actor Jack Elam played the hard-drinking long-lost father to a group of kids that had basically been raising themselves.  Notable more for it’s theme song performed by John Prine and it’s cast of future movie stars such as  Gary Busey and Mark Hamill, the show was rather out-of-place in the urban and topical landscape currently being produced.

Paper Moon (ABC):  Another future Oscar winner-- Jodie Foster-- would play the part young Tatum O’Neal won an Oscar for: the foul-mouthed precocious Addie Pray.  O’Neal teamed up with her dad Ryan in the beautiful black and white comedy-drama about a Bible-selling con man Moses traveling through Depression-era Midwest with a young girl who believes him to be her father.  The TV version, beautifully shot in color with excellent production value, failed to capture the subtleties of the big-screen hit and was soon on the road itself.

Sunshine (NBC):  This one was based on a television movie  (based on a John Denver song) that aired on CBS the previous year.  Cliff De Young reprised his role as a laid-back musician forced to take care of the young daughter of his new wife who dies prematurely of cancer.  As the above mentioned format allows, the humor was extremely gentle and the melodrama was intact.  Sort of a hippie version of “Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”  The rural Vancouver setting and the mellow musical characters assisted the title song in creating a very seventies mood with this mid season show.  You could almost smell the patchouli. Nowadays, the characters would be openly smoking pot (in front of the young girl), but in 1975 it was all just presumed.

Speaking of film adaptations, it was  probably a good thing that “Black Bart” aired only as a pilot on CBS.  Mel Brooks had nothing to do with bringing “Blazing Saddles” to TV.  After the trail-blazing farce created blockbuster numbers with it’s taboo-breaking toilet humor and take-no-prisoners parodying of the beloved Western genre, it was wise to assume that this single episode (with Louis Gossett playing Bart and Steve Landesberg as the Waco Kid) would not allow the ribaldry to translate to the small screen with a laugh track.  It is interesting to note that the controversial elements of the film that made it to the TV version--the consistent use of the “N” word and the politically incorrect racial humor--would not be allowed today even on the Comedy Channel whereas the sexual and scatological jokes, not considered acceptable for viewers at the time, would be openly welcomed on even prime time TV these days. 

Another pilot on CBS failed but found life as a syndicated series:
Love Nest (CBS) featured Charles Lane and Florida Freibus ("Dobie Gillis") as an older couple having a relationship as they resided in a trailer park.  Although only the pilot can be found in online sources, I have an old sitcom book that indicates it continued on in syndication this season.

The Bob Crane Show (NBC).  MTM would actually find it’s first outright three-camera failure
Skeleton Out of closet.
this year with this vehicle.  Three years before his controversial murder, Crane starred as an insurance executive with a wife and daughter who decides to change course midway through life and go to medical school leaving his spouse as the breadwinner.  Except for an episode where John Astin played a gay activist, the show never really went anywhere outside of the mid-life crisis gag bag.  Crane himself stated that he was going for the relationship comedy inherent with Moore and Newhart but it just wasn’t happening here.

Conchata Farrell as April the hooker
Hot L Baltimore (ABC).  And this was Norman Lear’s first ratings flop as well.  ABC, the network that originally turned down the Bunkers, was still trying to find redemption.  Lear adapted Lanford Wilson’s Off-Broadway play about the “colorful” tenants of a run-down Baltimore hotel for this mid season TAT-produced show.  This was the second Lear series to run a disclaimer at the beginning warning of content.  I remember watching this when it first came on.  It didn’t really seem that daring what with Archie and Maude and all of their "special themes.".  Most of the concern was possibly due to the motley cast of characters, played by Broadway actors--some who would go on to film and larger television roles.  There was the hotel manager (James Cromwell), the Latina prostitute, the overweight prostitute (Conchata Farrell), the "momma’s boy" son of the hotel owner (Richard Masur), the older gay couple, the grumpy old man, the black philosophizer, the old barmaid, the tomboy, and the woman (Charlotte Rae) whose unseen son Moose would cause havoc in their room (taping himself to the ceiling for instance).  There were probably too many characters and too much going on for this one to stick.

So from the beginning of 1971 to  right before the start of the 1975 season--midway through the decade--audiences witnessed Lear’s “All in the Family” pave the way for a new brand of sitcom and four years later Lear brought even more scandal to collective yawns.

The warning:

The end of M*A*S*H:

Enjoy, play special attention to the table scene at 5:25
(this was the "experiment" episode)

Watch for Florence: