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:

No comments:

Post a Comment