Monday, May 27, 2013

SEVENTIES SITCOMS: 1975-1976 THE GOOD OL' HAPPY DAYS -CHUCKLES ARRIVES -BEFORE THE SHARK JUMP



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.

HAPPY DAYS AGAIN

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.

WORKING GIRLS

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.

SWEATHOG FEVER

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.

A NEW BREED OF SITCOM REDHEAD

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.


AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:
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.

RATINGS WINNERS 1975-1976

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
Dexter-Ity
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.

NOTABLE PREMIERES

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.

FROM PRIME TIME TO KIDDIE TIME
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:





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