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.
BIG NOT-SO-FAT JEWISH WEDDING
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.
A BADGE OF HONOR, A BARRAGE OF LAUGHS
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.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIOS
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.
RATINGS WINNERS 1974-1975
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|
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.
“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.
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
|Rooster and the Lady|
|Betty White's Wash|
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
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.
|A Fonzie Christmas with Chuck|
The Odd Couple (ABC). While Marshall was prepping “Happy Days” to be the new sire of
|Back to the future.|
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.
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.
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.
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-
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.|
|Conchata Farrell as April the hooker|
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 end of M*A*S*H:
Enjoy, play special attention to the table scene at 5:25
Watch for Florence: