Saturday, July 27, 2013

SEVENTIES SITCOMS: 1978-1979 CABBIES, DJ'S AND ALIENS RULE. THE EDUCATION OF FRAT SLOBS; AND THE DEATH OF DISCO.


This was a busy year on the Paramount sound stages.  Over the course of the season, Garry Marshall was producing six three camera shows (four of them huge hits) with his Miller-Milkis/Henderson Productions.  Two single camera sitcoms were produced there as well.  And MTM's James L. Brooks formed his own production company and moved to Paramount for his new critical landmark followup to WJM:  "Taxi."  With sitcoms veering towards the videotaped "family formulas" or the filmed "workplace family setups," the seventies were starting to morph into the eighties and beyond at this point.  And this year saw the first large wave of talent that would pretty much shape comedy (and drama)--not only on TV but film and otherwise--up to this day.  And the content of the programs--the topicality and shock value-would take a back seat to plain old entertainment, star power and family values.

The main themes of the programs this season (besides the fluffy sexual fare of large leggy female ensembles) was the slob vs. snob element what with all three networks providing a light-weight version of the hit R-rated comedy "National Lampoon's Animal House" with the mindless pranks of frat house rejects substituting ignorance and brutishness ( in service of educational equality) for sophisticated class-conscious banter.  Even Marshall's "Angie" approached the class issue within the context of a romantic comedy...minus the abrasiveness and obviousness he displayed in directing his mega-hit "Pretty Woman" eleven years later.  The closest that sitcoms came to "commentary" was a mid season attempt about a single mother raising her baby.

BIRTH OF THE NEW HOLLYWOOD
The talent coming from the Paramount comedy lot (mostly for ABC) would read like a who's who of the Hollywood power list over the next forty years--in some cases winning Oscars:  Ron Howard, Brooks, Marshall, sister Penny, and Lowell Ganz would be behind the scenes as directors, writers and producers.  Danny Devito and Henry Winkler would do double duty.   Penny's husband Rob Reiner would team up with co-star Michael McKean and frequent guest stars Chris Guest and Harry Shearer for "Spinal Tap" leading to stellar careers for the group.  Christopher Lloyd, Jim Belushi, Tony Danza, Doris Roberts and Marilu Henner would have extensive careers as character actors on screen, large and small.  David Letterman, Jeffrey Tambor, Tom Selleck and a very young Anthony Kaedis would even make guest appearances.  And then there's the enigma of Andy Kaufman.  Michael Keaton and Tom Hanks would be gracing the studio for Henderson over the next couple of years.  Billy Crystal, John Travolta and a certain pop star/famous sister were on their way with other production companies and even Steve Guttenberg made his odd quiet debut. And his "Police Academy" director Hugh Wilson premiered his classic comedy at MTM.

The Future Looks Bright
And Robin Williams.  Nightclub comic Williams had made a few appearances on TV up to
now (including a failed "Laugh-In" revival).  Marshall fell in love with the zany improvisational guru and cast him as Mork from the planet Ork in a dream sequence on "Happy Days."  Well, the schizoid appearance went over so well (with an audience already sizable due to that show's popularity) that Marshall gave him his own series "Mork and Mindy"  set in  present day Boulder, Colorado.  Of course, the previous dream sequence was re-edited to make it seem that Richie and Fonzie were actually visited by this alien in the late 1950's and he performed a mind-erasing exercise on them (as if that were necessary).   So in 1978, he hooks up with Mindy (Pam Dawber) who works for a local TV station, naturally.  She takes him in as she mistakes him for a priest--he was wearing his suit backward when they met in the dark.  The show was written to allow Williams to go into extended manic non-sequiter rants about everything from politics to show biz to sex to religion--basically his act minus the swearing and vulgarity.  And with the outer space inhabitant full of naivete and innocence his inquisitive nature was allowed to shine and lead to no penalties or shame.  He would speak to Orson from his "egg" at the end of each episode to add a little more comedy insight.  Over the four year run, there would be a number of supporting players but it was William's show all the way.  From here his career would lead to decades of film roles--some dramatic, some very dark, an Oscar, huge box office, Disney-fied repetition with family films and a place at the table with the greats of Hollywood film comedians.  It is also interesting to note that this was the first three-camera sitcom with a studio audience that had a "magical" premise.  Perhaps the onlookers were laughing so hard at Williams that they didn't notice the drudgery of setting up special effects shots.

QUALITY FARE
ABC was in the midst of it's ratings bonanza leaving CBS with the few Norman Lear hits (already fading in quality) and "M*A*S*H" as it's "tiffany" bulwark.   Fred Silverman would leave ABC to do his magic for NBC this season creating a mess of over-budgeted, over-hyped dreck but introducing through the network  a certain Gary Coleman and company as it's sole comedy franchise.  And as ABC's sitcom hits were mostly of the harmless family variety or the harmless titillation genre, it did have "Barney Miller" and "Soap" as critical darlings.  MTM Enterprises on CBS was producing dramas now and it's final original hit "Rhoda" was in a painful decline.  James L. Brooks, the creator of "Mary Tyler Moore Show" formed the aforementioned production group, John Charles Walters Company-- at Paramount with his co-conspirators in thoughtful, intelligent comedy: Stan Daniels, Ed Weinberger, and David Davis.    Glen and Les Charles came in as writers and Jim Burrows would direct.  The series they made was "Taxi."

Most of Marshall's output was derivative of the current New York-city based disco craze and had a strong Italian-American flavor.  Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever", Sylvester Stallone's  "Rocky" and Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets"/"Taxi Driver" one-two punch featuring a up-and-coming Robert Deniro contributed to this as much as "The Godfather" films did in the earlier part of the decade.  (Marshall would even produce a sitcom version of the Tony Manola's "Fever" saga this season).  The more WASP-ish fare coming from the Midwestern settings of the MTM stable and Lear's highly urban programs featuring the lions-share of African American content were on the wane.  The denizens of "Taxi" represented the new emphasis on the big-city gritty lifestyles of the Italian-Jewish melting pot that more accurately represented the backgrounds of a majority of the sitcom writers successfully working by this time.

Based on an article that Brooks read in The New Yorker about cab drivers and wanting to pursue characters that were all striving for a dream while toiling in dreary jobs, the Manhattan-based series was born.  Divorced Alex Reiger (Judd Hirsch)  was the main "voice" in the crew.  He had grown daughters and was resigned to be a cab driver and his sardonic humor reflected that surrender.  Tony Banta (Tony Danza) pursued a boxing career and his slightly dim-witted persona revealed the blows to the head.  Elaine Nardo (Marilu Henner) was a struggling divorcee working two jobs as she pursued her talents pursuant to
One Last Try 
being a well-regarded artist. Bobby Wheeler (Jeff Conaway) had the unenviable task of being a struggling actor in a city awash with thespians.   Danny Devito would create one of the most celebrated characters in TV history with his vile and cruel dispatcher Louie Depalma.  Christopher Lloyd, as the "Reverend" Jim Ignotowski was the well-heeled Harvard educated man of promise who ended up burned out on drugs.  And the undetermined East European character of Latka Gravas (along with his many alter-egos) would simply be a plot device (albeit a very funny one) to showcase the bizarre comedy stylings of the mysterious Andy Kaufman.  The three-camera setup was filmed in a gritty, dark manner with a mellow almost tranquilizing theme music and transition score.  This look provided a contrast to the bright, colorful and stagy sitcoms of the day, despite it's zany characters and sometimes broad comedy. "Taxi" would win many Emmys in all categories and represent a second wave of Brooks-created sophistication in workplace-based situation comedy.  Burrows and the Charles brothers would form their own company in the next decade and create an even bigger sitcom bonanza with "Cheers."  As with Mary Tyler Moore's program, a single dramatic scene (punctuated by a gentle riff on the theme music) would lead to a score with a well-timed punchline.  These series never left you with an audience applauding or gasping in response to a melodramatic ending.  But "Taxi" was the perfect bridge to "Cheers" in the way the characters and their almost pathological "togetherness" led to a predictable and familiar pattern rather than a distinct level of excellence that allowed the actors and the script to remain authentic and not resort to cheap laughs no matter how well-written they may be.

Brooks would go on become an Academy-Award winning writer and director with more hits than misses.  Devito would parlay his many Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Depalma into a very successful film comedy career in the eighties leading to his own career as director and collaborator with such luminaries as Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson.  He would marry Rhea Perlman who he met playing Louie's shy love interest and she too would create Emmy gold as Carla on "Cheers" playing a character not too far off from... Louie Depalma.   Lloyd would become a beloved character actor in films-- blending in with each of his personalities especially "Doc" Brown in "Back to the Future" franchise.  And Kaufman's bizarre short life has been chronicled in many books and documentaries, his stint on "Taxi" reenacted in the film "Man on the Moon."

MAKING RADIO WAVES
With "Rhoda" nearing it's tired end this season, MTM's sole entry in the sitcom race was "WKRP In Cincinnati."  Another expert workplace comedy, Andy Travis  (Gary Sandy) comes to Cincinnati to revamp the Muzak-flavored, floundering radio station with an older demographic.  Bumbling Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) was the station manager--his wealthy overbearing mother owned the station.   Loni Anderson played the aptly named Jennifer Marlowe--the anti-Chrissy Snow if you will--who was the level-headed, beautiful  receptionist and the antithesis of the "dumb blond" stereotype.  Her style brings to mind no-nonsense, statuesque Joan from the sixties-set "Mad Men."  Travis hired flashy and hip DJ
Glenn Beck in 1978
Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) for the night shift.  He joined burnout Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) who spun discs at WKRP after getting fired elsewhere (for saying "booger" on the air.)  Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) was the leering and scheming ad rep--hitting on Jennifer despite his married status.  Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) was the inept and insecurely egotistical newsman.  Bailey (Jan Smithers) rounded out the cast as the shy ingenue trying her hand at everything.  The music industry was parodied in a timely and true fashion.  Radio personnel would comment that the show was an accurate representation of the AM/FM life much as "Barney Miller" would be for law enforcement.  The music played on the show (for editorial reasons or as part of the DJ's "work") would be extremely current and relevant.  MTM chose to videotape this three-camera series created by Hugh Wilson ("Tony Randall Show"), rather than film it in order to get better rates on the song rights.  The series would lose it's audience as it eventually got bounced around the schedule and never found a home.  But in reruns the show would gain popularity.  The comedy was sometimes hilarious, sometimes gentle, sometimes outrageous and sometimes outright farcical.  Even politics was lampooned as the conservative Herb and staid Nessman would lock horns with the more laid-back and nihilistic DJ's, especially Fever.

 "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," having been off for a year saw many of the cast members trying to branch out "on their own."  Ed Asner and Gavin McLeod found success in the hit programs "Lou Grant" (drama) and "Love Boat" (romance) respectively.  Betty White and Ted Knight would have unsuccessful namesake series only to return in the eighties with popular sitcom characters.  Moore however decided to try variety in the fall with a highly anticipated weekly revue on CBS.  Her regulars included David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Swoozie Kurtz, and Dick Shawn.  "Mary" unfortunately only lasted a few episodes despite being hailed as the next "Carol Burnett Show."  
Not giving up, Moore retooled the show in the spring as an hour-long pseudo-sitcom .  In Mary Tyler Moore Hour (CBS) she played the popular star of a variety show.  She had regular characters in her life including her secretary (Joyce Van Patten), her producer (Michael Lombard), her head writer (Keaton again) and her maid (Dody Goodman, fresh from "Mary Hartman").   The background situation would be interspersed with the actual performances with the  guest stars in the "show within a show," including fellow sitcom stalwarts Bonnie Franklin, Lucille Ball, Bea Arthur, Nancy Walker and Linda Lavin (who played themselves of course).  Even Dick Van Dyke appeared as he and Moore revisited their sixties couple Rob and Laura Petrie in a sketch routine.  Alas, the second attempt failed for Mary and she would go on to Broadway and film until the mid-eighties.

DIFF'RENT FOLKS
As for Lear, his production company started a new franchise on NBC with very little input (no name on the credits).  Wanting to create a new vehicle for Conrad Bain of the suddenly cancelled "Maude" and break out the pint-sized wiseacre Gary Coleman, he combined the two in "Diff'rent Strokes":  Park Avenue millionaire Phillip Drummond takes in the two sons of his deceased African-American  housekeeper from Harlem and raises them as his own in his ritzy apartment.   The show would deal with issues of race and class but in a condescending, family-friendly way.  A staple of the eighties, this taped sitcom would often veer into
Future of Comedy
uncomfortable pathos with it's "very special episodes" usually dealing with issues that were a tad above the Brady's level of topicality.  But it was basically "The Brady Bunch" of the eighties--a safe family-oriented sitcom with some lessons amidst the laughs.    Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris who created the series for Tandem Production, didn't allow the social satire to raise above the level of a Sunday morning lecture.  The comedy once again came from the antics of the diminutive "Arnold" (Coleman) as he interacted with his brother Willis (Todd Bridges) who preferred his life on the streets and his new sister Kimberly (Dana Plato), Drummond's daughter.  Nonetheless, with new NBC head Silverman in charge, the show created a number of spin offs--his hallmark-- including "The Facts of Life" as new housekeeper Edna Garrett would end up working at Kimberly's all-girl prep school and stay there for over seven years.

RATINGS WINNERS (1978-1979)


#1 Rated Program.
#1.  Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  It's hard to believe, in retrospect, that this was the #1 rated program on network TV again.  In it's fourth season, the girls had not had any Emmy-winning moments.  Well, Laverne did talk to her mother's grave this year.....  Following along with Marshall's Italian-American themes, the gang go to New York to see Laverne's grandmother and Frank tries to win a trip for her at a street festival.  This leads to a greased-pole climbing contest.  And that's how the season started.  Other than her animal-rights crusade, Shirley got involved with an older man (Robert Alda) and was mistaken for a stripper.  Laverne tried out for West Side Story (with Toni Basil as choreographer) and dated "Eraserhead" ("Cheers Paul Willson).  Together the roommates go on a shopping spree, become maids, go back to school, and put on (you guessed it) another Schatz Talent Show.  We meet Shirley's brother (Ed Begley, Jr.) and Laverne's grandmother.  Lenny and Squiggy have way too much involvement.  Jay Leno plays a date.  And the Lucy and Ethel (oh, excuse me) Laverne and Shirley  flashback to their move into the apartment.  All good clean fun in late fifties Milwaukee.  Or are we in the sixties yet?  Who cares?

#2.  Three's Company (ABC).  Basically, the soft-core powerhouse continues to dominate the ratings.  Things get a little tamer as audiences start to bond with the developing characters...but not much.  Janet and Mrs. Roper get trapped au naturel when at a nude beach protest.  Otherwise, Crissy gets a majority of attention:  she falls for a self-proclaimed guru; she is suspected of being a kleptomaniac; Mr. Roper thinks that she is pregnant--one of those misunderstanding things!  Speaking of Roper,  his wife suspecting  him of having an affair (with Ruta Lee) is the last misunderstanding they will experience with the "kids" downstairs:  they spin off mid season to their own series.

#3.  Mork and Mindy (ABC).  Audiences fell in love with Robin William's Mork this first season.  The alien and his down-to-earth "live-in' Mindy are getting to know each other in this first go round.  But just in case audiences don't fall in line, ABC execs made sure to include Laverne and Fonzie in the first episode--Mork goes back in time to visit his buddies there..from last season.  This is the strangest tie-in in the history of sitcoms.  But it works as Mork strongly anchors the Thursday night lineup (as the Fonz does with Tuesday nights).  In this premiere season, we see Mork fall in love with a mannequin and age himself up and
Her Favorite Orkan
down (thanks to William's incredible improvisational abilities).  The regulars the first season were Mindy's dad (Conrad Janis) who owns a music store in Boulder and her "hip"
grandmother.  Just to prove he wasn't in the fifties, Marshall added a young black character, Eugene, as Mork's confidant.  The recurring players lined up ad nauseum:  Robert Donner's crazed street prophet Exidor who gave Mork a run for his money in the "zany" department:  he actually claimed fealty to  OJ Simpson in one episode;  Morgan Fairchild as Mindy's snobby friend; and later in the season Tom Poston as the grumpy near-alcoholic neighbor Mr. Bickley.  All these character types were simply fertile ground for Mork's wild observations on the human race.  Even David Letterman would guest as a motivational speaker, his cynical personal going mano y mano with the untarnished alien Mork.  (See video nuggets for Dave.)

#4.  Happy Days (ABC).  Where you do go post-shark jump?  Well, out West naturally.  So the season opens with the crew travelling to a dude ranch owned by Marion's uncle and getting involved in an adventure as they try to save the ranch from falling into the hands of a crooked neighbor.  Of course this ends up with Fonzie riding a bull (to save the day) and Joannie getting caught up in a runaway hayride wagon.  The outdoor shots always seemed a bit out of place when edited together with the three-camera sets.  But, hey, it was Tuesday night on ABC!  Put your seat belts on:  The Drama:  Fonzie is temporarily blinded.  The Pathos: Fonzie refuses to accept a Christmas gift from his estranged father.  The Life Lesson:  Fonzie breaks Joannie of her new smoking habit.  The Intrigue:  Is Richie the famous Kissing Bandit?  The Coming of Age:  Joannie celebrates her Sweet 16.  The History Lesson:  the Cunninghams recreate the first Thanksgiving (literally).  The Excitement:  Fonzie reveals his black belt abilities as he defends the Cunningham's honor from a snobby
Sappy Days
French exchange student.  The Farcical:  Is Fonzie allergic to girls?  The Gothic:  Al gets exorcised of a demon. The mystical:  Richie experiences a personality change after a hypnosis experiment.  The Educational:  Fonzie convinces Potsie to stay in college.  The excitement:  Goons threaten to take over Arnold's.  The Murder Mystery:  When Fonzie gets involved with the mob, his garage blows up and the Fonz, presumed dead, is the star of his own funeral attended by none other than cross-over kings Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Arnold (Pat Morita)!  So by this time, Fonzie has gone from becoming a shady supporting player to the grand savior of all things Cunningham, Milwaukee, and the American Way of Life.  Oh, and yes you read it right:  An exorcism is performed on Al.   Do I need to repeat it again?  Welcome to the TV Funhouse that is "Happy Days."

Chachi and Lori Beth appear later in the season as the respective actors try their hands at NBC in another Marshall series(see below).  They are back by mid season.

#5.  Angie (ABC).  In this Romeo and Juliet scenario, Gary Marshall and his Miller-Milkis group land in modern-day Philadelphia.  Donna Pescow, cute as a button fresh off of her supporting stint in "Saturday Night Fever" is Angie Falco--a struggling waitress at the Liberty Coffee Shop.  She meets a patron, the doctor Brad Benson (Robert Hays, soon to have a drinking problem on  "Airplane!") and it's love at first sight.  So this partial premiere season saw the couple elope, have their first spat and adjust to marriage.  All this while condoning their battling families.  Angie's Italian-American blue-collar mother (played by Doris Roberts, in her first regular starring role) and saucy sister (Debralee Scott) clash with Brad's blue blood sister and father (John Randolph).  In the meantime, they have moved into Brad's expensive town home with butler in tow. In true class comedy fashion, the butler likes Angie as does Brad's young niece.  Although the mid season three-camera show started strong, replacing "Laverne and Shirley" on Tuesday nights after "Happy Days," it is known more for it's cheesy Maureen McGovern theme song than it's study of class warfare.  See video nuggets for the opening.

#7.  M*A*S*H (CBS) Now entering it's seventh year of the three-year Korean War, "M*A*S*H" was still garnering stellar ratings.  Margaret (as she is now called, way too frequently) is divorcing Penobscott.  The 4077th deals with a heat wave, a snow storm and operates out of a cave in one episode.  Father Mulcahey is a centerpiece to many stories this season.  One show takes place entirely in Rosie's Bar. This year saw the famous "Point of View" installment, as the entire program was seen from the eyes of a patient.  And for comic relief, Colonel Flagg made an appearance and Klinger amped up his attempts at getting a section 8...not sure if he wanted to escape Korea or the relatively staid surroundings on the Fox lot.

Alan Alda one his first directing award for the episode "Inga."  In it, he directs himself as Hawkeye falls for a visiting Swedish doctor (Mariette Hartley) and has to confront his sexist attitudes toward women.

#8.  The Ropers (ABC).  At the time, many viewers were wondering how you could base a comedy show on a middle-aged couple who had sexual issues.  Well, the premise behind this "Three's Company" spin-off had more to do with class wars than snickering impotent jokes.  Jack, Crissy and Janet's landlords Stanley and Helen Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Lindlay) sell the the Santa Monica apartment complex and move into an upscale town home not too far away .   Like it's progeny, "The Ropers" was based on a British sitcom "George and Mildred." Also like that show, the wife is constantly embarrassed by her oafish husband as they try to insinuate themselves into a higher class structure.  That structure was
Hello or goodbye?
represented by their neighbors the snobby realtor Jeffrey Brooks III  (Jeffrey Tambor) who despised his nouveau  riche neighbors and his sweet wife (Patricia McCormick) and son who adored them.  There was a sexy neighbor as well for Stanley to ogle over the hot tub.  The episodes in this initial six week run were directly based on the British plots.  And the producer Don Taffner as well as the director Dave Powers came right from "Three's Company."  Even Jack's bud Larry made a guest appearance.  And, as the followup to the parent show in March, "The Ropers" had incredible ratings and were primed and ready for a fall return.  But......

#9.  All in the Family (CBS).  This ninth and final season served as a sort of buffer between the Mike and Gloria years and "Archie Bunker's Place."  Originally, the producers were going to call the continuation of the series "Archie and Edith."  But the concept stayed the same as the Bunkers ended up gaining custody of their little niece who was abandoned by her father.  So the legendary barrier-breaking program was starting to be a comfy feel-good family show where you knew what you were getting.  With Carroll O'Connor more in charge now than Norman Lear, Archie became a cuddly grouch (he was aging into a more tolerant character, but not completely!).  And, at O'Connor's suggestion, the show was now taped without a live audience and the edited show would be screened to an audience for live responses.  Thus the show had less snap, more closeups (huge closeups!)  and the acting lacked the timing that a live audience requires.

Archie had to face his demons further when he finds out that little Stephanie is part Jewish.  Along with the inherent dilemmas of raising a child (Stephanie steals in one episode, in another her wayward father returns in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim her), the Bunkers
Bigot Knows Best
dealt with the pressures of owning a neighborhood pub.  And the frequently seen Hank the bartender and Harry the barfly were a Greek chorus of middle-aged cornball wisdom as was Archie's pal Barney Heffner (Alan Melvin), whose travails with his wife (Estelle Parsons) took up a lot of screen time.  Watching these veteran actors--Melvin went back to "Sgt. Bilko"--ham it up was almost a huge step backward in the evolution of the sitcoms as we have seen.  Edith had a few issues as well, with an attack of phlebitis working at the bar and an assisted death at the Sunshine Home where she still volunteered.  Fortunately, Isabel Sanford made a return appearance as Louise jefferson as did Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers:  Archie and Edith take a trip to California only to find out that MIke and Gloria are splitting up leaving little Joey with divorced parents.  So much for the family.  Well, they still had Stephanie and a bunch of old drunks.

Nonetheless, O' Connor won yet another Emmy this year for his portrayal of cuddly Archie.  And Sally Struthers finally won her Emmy as Gloria (after many nominations) for her performance in the multi-part California episodes.

#10.  Taxi (ABC).  This critical darling got off to a huge start it's first season, aided and abetted by it's slot on ABC's powerhouse Tuesday night line-up (oddly following the inane "Three's Company.").  Whatever it takes.  Although Alex was the "voice" of the show, this first season saw Randall Carver play a regular character of John Burns, a small-town boy who just didn't fit in with these rough denizens of the Big Apple (for the outsider perspective).  He didn't return after this season because he didn't add any laughs to the show despite marrying a woman after one date.  His replacement, Reverend Jim, would make his first appearance in a single episode where he "performs" an arranged marriage for immigrant Latka.  The comedy was sharp and the dramatic moments were carefully placed amidst the laughs--mostly involving Alex:  he attempts to visit his estranged kids in the first episode; he fights a return to his gambling addiction; he gets shot by a fare and rethinks his life's direction: and-- in a very poignant show--he asks out a woman based on her voice on an answering service and when she turns out to be overweight and self-deprecating, Alex shows his true humanity in a difficult situation.   Class issues arise when Elaine invites Alex to an art opening with her affluent gallery comrades.  The despotic Louie even breaks down and talks to God in one episode.  Bobby has auditions leading to hope and despair and Tony has boxing matches leading to hope and despair.  On a lighter note, Alex dates Latka's mother and has a great time.  The guest stars were reflective of the show's cache:  Martin Mull plays a director wanting to "capture" the cabbie experience; Jeffrey Tambor plays a sleazy Congressman who dates Elaine; Mandy Patinkin and Tom Selleck also make appearances.  And Ruth Gordon--see below.

"Taxi" picked picked up it's first Emmy for Best Comedy right off the bat in it's premiere season.  After all, with the MTM shows dying off, Lear's brands softening up and becoming
Alex and Maude
the "norm," "MASH" believing it's own press, and Marshall's pablum numbing minds across America  "Taxi" was our new best hope.  Also, "Taxi" won Best Actress for veteran film and stage actress Ruth Gordon still glowing in her cult status from "Harold and Maude".  Her guest appearance as an eccentric older woman that Alex befriends earned her the award.  This was before the "guest" categories on sitcoms.

#11.  Eight is Enough (ABC).

#13.  Alice (CBS).  Not much happens here that doesn't involve Mel's Diner:  the diner gets robbed, Thanksgiving turkeys are stolen and Mel and the waitresses fight to get the diner back from it's unscrupulous new owner.  There is a "play" and a "commercial" allowing some over-the-top theatrics from the over-the-top cast.  Mostly, the show is about guest stars--not yet in the "playing themselves" mode.  Up and comers Nancy McKeon (Phillip's sister--soon to be on "Facts of Life"), future burn-out Corey Feldman, future Oscar nominee James Cromwell (?), and future "Vern" Jim Varney (that's more appropriate).  Plus the veterans:  Gary Collins plays Tommy's principal who dates Alice; Hans Conreid plays the aforementioned new owner of the diner; Forrest Tucker plays Flo's wayward daddy; and in the first of many appearances, Martha Raye plays Mel's brash momma Carrie Sharples.

#16.  Barney Miller (ABC).  More classic episodes result from another quality season, still safely couched on Thursday nights now between "Mork" and "Soap."   The 87th Precinct is visited this season by a rabbi running a casino out of a synagogue; a disorderly mime; a paranoid spy; a man with a voodoo curse; an aging Native American who wants to die in his park; a 1960's radical(Jeff Corey) who stirs everyone up with his Vietnam protestations; and a claustrophobic prisoner (Sidney Lassick).  The station house put on an open house and only vagrants showed up.  Leavitt gets hooked on pep pills.  Deitrich saves Harris's life.  Wojo gets bitten by a rabid dog.  The season opens as the squad deals with a kidnapped department store owner.

Barbara Barrie returns in a few episodes as Barney and his wife Liz decide to separate due to the pressure of being married to a cop.  The show steps out of the station house as Wojo moves in with his ex-prostitute girlfriend in what was to be a pilot for a "Wojo" spin-off that never happened.  And, sadly, Jack Soo passed on during this season and the final show  had the cast gather to share memories of working with the great character actor as he drew so many laughs as Nick Yemana, maker of the bad coffee.

"Barney Miller" finally won an Emmy:  for direction (Noam Pitlik) in an episode where Harris is mistakenly shot by a rookie cop.

#17.  The Love Boat (ABC).  The copycats were already coming in.  This season saw the "airplane" version of the light romantic comedy with guest stars:  "Flying High" on CBS. Featuring three stewardesses this series already hearkened back to 1971--just with skimpier outfits.   And, as part of Fred Silverman's grand re-branding of NBC, the over hyped "Supertrain"--a comedy-mystery probably playing upon the hit film "Silver Streak."  "Supertrain" is considered one of the most expensive, biggest flops ever on network television.

#18.  One Day at a Time (CBS).  What's happening to Ann and  her growing daughters in the fourth season?  Well, Ann loses her child support as her ex is having financial difficulties (with a new wife) and later in the season she dates a married sportswriter.  Flowering Barbara vies for rock star status with Julie as they battle over a rock star (Greg Evigan).  Barbara's boyfriend Cliff is the father of a child by one of Barbara's girlfriends.  And, as what happens to young girls who are blossoming, Barbara gets her nose broken by an errant door leading to much anxiety a la Jan Brady.  With Mackenzie Phillips in and out of episodes due to drug issues, Valerie Bertinelli took center stage this season as her misadventures working in a fast food restaurant with friend Bob were  chronicled.  On the home front J. Pat O'Malley plays an aging tenant who holds the family hostage when he is evicted and Steve Franken plays a master pianist who sets up musical shop in the Romano household when his instrument is mistakenly delivered there.  Jay Leno plays one of many dates in a very prolific year for Jay Leno appearances as a date.  And, finally, Nanette Fabray makes her first appearance as Ann's mother.

#19.  Soap (ABC).  The hubbub over this serial parody's subject matter died down as audiences realized it was actually funny and pretty harmless in it's new Thursday night time slot.  The season starts with Chester admitting he killed Peter Campbell--letting Jessica off the hook.  So Chester escapes from prison with convict Dutch (Donnelley Rhodes) and they hide out in the basement of the Tate house.  Dutch falls in love with Eunice Tate then gets captured.  Chester escapes and then loses his memory, exhibiting multiple personalities until he returns to discover a brain tumor has caused the murder and the memory problems.  Jessica has an affair with the daffy detective (John Byner) she hires to find Chester.  Corinne, pregnant by the priest, marries him much to the ire of his mother (Doris Roberts) who puts a curse on them both before she dies.  And the season ends with an "Exorcist" parody as the baby turns out to be a demon from hell.  Son Billy joins a cult, the Sunnies.

Flying Over the Cuckoo's Nest
As for the Campbells, Burt is blackmailed by his receptionist Sally when, thinking Mary is having an affair with her night school professor, gives in to her advances.  Danny is forced into the marriage with mob daughter Elaine (Dinah Manoff) and eventually falls in love with her before she is killed.  Burt and Danny track down and find the killers before Burt has a "close encounter" with a UFO.  And gay son Jody actually gets his girlfriend pregnant and decides to marry her before she leaves him and he falls in with a lesbian (Randee Heller) who helps him raise the baby.

Nothing happens to the Tate butler, Benson.  But he is the only sane member of this crew and Robert Guillaume wins an Emmy for Supporting Actor for holding his own amidst the craziness with well-timed retorts and a good amount of common sense.  Next season, he will have his own show and remain sane amidst the real loonies in the political world.

#20.  Dukes of Hazzard (CBS).

Not so Mary.
#26.  Stockard Channing in Just Friends (CBS).  CBS chiefs fell in love with Broadway and film actress Stockard Channing after her winning turn as Rizzo in the film version of "Grease" starring "Kotter" star John Travolta.  So they offered her a show mid-season,
hoping to turn her into the next Mary Tyler Moore.  So where Mary couldn't be a "divorcee," Channing's character could so "Susan Hughes" leaves her failed marriage in Boston and heads to LA where she works in a Beverly Hills Health Spa.  Her boss (Lou Crisculolo) is a fitness-freak Jack Lalaane type and her zany co-workers are played by Sydney Goldsmith and underground comedy superstar Gerrit Graham.  Mimi Kennedy played the snobby sister who tried to get Susan out of this meager existence.  So with a lot of network push and a cozy post-Bunker Sunday night time slot in the spring, Channing's TV debut went quite well.  But.....


#27.  Diff'rent Strokes (NBC).  In it's premiere season, with a mid-fall launch, this series put NBC back on the map in it's post-"Sanford and Son" sitcom drought.  The first season launched the storyline that would continue for seven more years.  There were many episodes dealing with the culture clash between the Park Avenue Drummonds and the new Jackson brothers from Harlem in their household.  The show started out with some sharp laughs what with Gary Coleman's catchphrases and facial expressions catching on early.
Smiling Peacock.
The "very special episode" syndrome had not started yet (unless you count the one where Arnold fakes bed wetting to get attention).  Lawanda Page made a welcome appearance as did other sitcom vets Jack Riley and, even Elinor Donohue as Drummond's girlfriend.  And "Diff'rent Strokes" set a record by having a retrospective episode no later than the middle of the first season's run.  Fred Silverman, new to NBC from his success at ABC, decided to parlay his success of the spin-off model right off the bat to his new hit.  Thus the housekeeper Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) visits daughter Kimberly's all-girl prep school upstate and decides to stay and become a nutritionist.  That allows the matronly Garrett to become a de facto Mom to a lot of privileged young women and, for four summer tryout episodes, teach them--
The Facts of Life (NBC).  There are a lot of regular characters at the genesis of the show (we will go into that in the next chapter) and it's a bit top-heavy.  But the social lessons start right off the bat as snobby Blair accuses a tomboy of being gay.  Robert Alda (very busy this year) plays Edna's ex-husband in one episode.  Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon from Carol Burnett's series created the series and wrote most episodes during it's early run.

#29.  What's Happening!! (ABC).  This is the final season of the show, thanks to the many demands of the cast--especially Fred Berry as the popular Rerun.   And it would be the last time a lower middle-class African-American family would be featured in a high rated TV program with The Jeffersons on their way back up and Bill Cosby re-emerging in the eighties with a whole new paradigm for the black experience.  And the ratings were helped when ABC put the show back on Thursday nights (post-"Mork") rather than move it around the schedule.  Mama is not around (she has a night job) so waitress Shirley--with a larger role in the show this year--moves into the house with Dee providing the domestic laughs.  Roger and Rerun have moved into an apartment and Dwayne (still in high school) lives with his politician father.  The season starts out with Rerun entering a disco contest of course.  Some new characters are introduced:  neighbors in the apartment include Big Earl and Little Earl, a white detective and his son (with a crush on Dee) whose sole purpose seemed to be to add some diversity and possibly to  show racial harmony.   Future comedian John Witherspoon appears as a DJ at a party.  In one strange episode, the guys fantasize about being characters in "Three's Company" and "Happy Days"--talk about a weird cross-over stunt.  And the season ends with the cast doing a benefit show for a teen center.  That probably involved Rerun dancing. The cast would return in the mid-eighties for a syndicated three-year run.  Berry would only remain for the first year of "What's Happening Now!"

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Carter Country (ABC)  The satire of racial politics was pretty much removed in this second and final season.  Roy ran for mayor against Burnside and the station house experienced an encounter session.  Clinton Corners was visited by a hurricane and a stranded Soviet Ballet company seeking asylum.  A young Melanie Griffith makes a couple of appearances as a cub reporter in the small town.  Towards the middle of the season, Roy's mother and a young runaway (Kyle Richards) become recurring characters.  And the series, which was unceremoniously bounced around the schedule (not helping the ratings) ended with Deputy Baker planning to marry Lucille.  Oh wait, no.  It ended with the cast "putting on a show" for the Clinton Corner Follies.  Just as well.

Good Times (CBS).  Esther Rolle returned for the final season as the producers promised to upgrade the quality of the scripts.  No word on what happened to her new husband Carl--she just returns.  Winona and Penny (Janet Jackson) now lose the spotlight but there is a story arc where Penny's mother tries to get her back.  The main story thread this season involves Thelma (Bernadette Stanis)  meeting and marrying pro football player Keith (Ben Powers).  Well, Keith ends up with a career-ending injury (thanks to JJ) and has to drive a cab.  This leads to a drinking problem in one episode.  JJ and Florida both experience unemployment.  JJ decides to teach art independently (and takes a back seat due to Rolle's influence) and still is involved with low-lives like Sweet Daddy Williams (Teddy Wilson).  Florida ends up driving a school bus, leading to one dramatic show dealing with a hearing-impaired child.  Single episodes involve Michael deciding to shack up with a white girl and Florida experiencing a nightmare free clinic visit.  Sheryl Lee Ralph plays JJ's girlfriend and Bubba Smith makes early guest appearances as Sweet Daddy's crony.  But with the low ratings and scheduling mishaps, the final episodes are burned out during the summer as all turns out well for the Evans clan:  Kieth is miraculously cured and goes back to a high paying football job.  He and Thelma can afford to move out of the projects and take Florida with them.  They just so happen to be neighbors again to Winona and Penny in their new digs.  And JJ gets backing to feature his superhero creation in a comic book!  Sadly, no one was paying attention by this time.

The Jeffersons (CBS).  This series was falling victim to chaotic scheduling as well but  garnered enough viewership to extend it to next season where it would flourish in a new Sunday night spot.  This season  however, saw Lionel and Jenny disappear while the Willis's son Alan became a new regular.  George got to call him a "zebra" as well....but whereas Jenny was black, Alan was white.  So for this one season, George had a different sparring partner in the activist-minded college student.  And the few times the show had serious themes, they just segued into silliness and farce as when Louise gets mugged resulting in amnesia or when George experiences impotence.  Otherwise, silliness ensues when  George getting disco fever or Louise taking a nude painting class.  This season had Louise and  Helen  actively involved in the help center and George dealing with real estate issues--being Stan to Tom's Ollie.  And Billy Dee Williams makes a guest appearance--as himself, pre-Lando!

Operation Petticoat (ABC). It is hard to understand why the network brought back this WWII-era single camera show about sexual tensions aboard the pink submarine.  They changed show-runners (Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris) and the entire cast save two.  The new leads were played by Robert Hogan, Randolph Mantooth and Jo An Pflug.  Jim Varney was one of the holdovers.  Bad sign.  Four episodes into it's second season, it pretty much sunk.

Rhoda (CBS).  Sadly this series--with it's royal pedigree-- just limped along during it's final year.  After being slightly revived the previous season by a decent time slot and Julie Kavner's Emmy, CBS paired "Rhoda" with "Good Times" on the now-dead Saturday night schedule in a lame attempt to bring back the "Tiffany" magic.  Only five years later, the shows were already fondly remembered for better times.  Once again, sister Brenda got the juicy focus with her relationship with Benny heating up--they ended up near marriage at the end of the run.  Benny's brother (George Wyner) would pursue Rhoda who was still working at Doyle's Costume Shop.  Her co-workers there never really caught on, even with the addition of Valley Girl-like Nancy Lane.  Rhoda continued to play straight-man as Ida decided to reunite with her husband Martin leaving their older daughter as the only character on the show with no laughs and a possibly un-romantic future.  A very sad farewell to the last of the original MTM sitcoms.

Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC).  Speaking of Travolta, he was billed as "Special Guest Star" in his dozen or so appearances on the show this year.  With "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" now buring up the box office and redefining the movie musical and "Urban Cowboy" in the works, producer James Komack was lucky to get Vinnie Barbarino at all.  In his absence Komack brought in a dapper charming Sweathog from the south (Beau played by Stephen Shortridge) in an extremely unlikely scenario reeking of desperation.  Kotter became vice-principal this year allowing Gabe Kaplan to limit his screen time as well.  Wife Julie, however,  became a secretary at the school giving her the de facto duty of raising the motley group of thirty-year old students.   The season opened with a slapstick outing where the group attempts to work part-time in the hospital where Vinnie Barbarino is an orderly and where Julie's now-motherless twins were born.  During the season, suicide and alcoholism were addressed; the Sweathogs inadvertantly screen an X-rated film; and Horschack actually ties the knot.  Barbarino featured prominently in the Travolta shows:  he has an apartment now and even delivers a baby in an episode.   But he couldn't deliver ratings in this fourth and final season where the Sweathogs found themselves scheduled on a Monday night.  The first night of school.

HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE FOR SITCOMS BASED ON DISCO?  NOT VERY.

Joe and Valerie (NBC).  The mid season return of this short comic/musical mini-series was even shorter than the previous run.  Only a couple of episodes for the disco-obsessed lovers to get married.  Arlene Golonka ("Mayberry RFD")  took over the role of Joe's mom this time.  

Even hit-maker Garry Marshall, teaming up with the producer of "Saturday Night Fever" (Robert Stigwood)  and using actual Bee Gees music from the film couldn't save
Makin' It (ABC) In this version, David ("He's a pepper") Naughton played Billy Manucci  the part-time college student  who worked at an ice cream parlor by day while reigning supreme on the dance floor at night.  This one focused more on Billy's relationship with his carousing brother (Greg Antonnaci) and his childhood buddies.  In this way, it resembled Paramount's previous "Busting Loose."  That's no surprise, with that show's creators Lowell Ganz, Mark Rothman and Joel Zwick at the writing table.  Billy's large Italian-American family also played a large part in the proceedings, with his mom (played by Tony Manero's actual sister, Ellen Travolta) reuniting with his dad.  Denise Miller ("Fish") played his little sister.  Set in Passaic, New Jersey, the three camera filmed series definitely reflected the urban film-centric grit of the New Hollywood--Billy even tried to pull off being Al Pacino in one episode.  With Stigwood on board, the series actually had license to use the popular songs which defined the film and the era.  Unfortunately, the disco sensation was already wearing thin and this was the only failure coming from the lucrative Miller-Milkis/Henderson on ABC this year.  On the bright side, Naughton did release his own hit disco single based on the theme and title of this show while selling lots of Dr. Pepper.  He would eventually get eaten by a werewolf.  See video nuggets for the theme song.

Flatbush (CBS).  CBS was smart to avoid the heavy influence of the dance club in it's version of the urban Italian street punk sweepstakes.  So they just put the punks in.  Adrian Zmed led the cast of young actors playing the five Brooklyn high school graduates who formed a benign street gang called the Flatbush Fungos.  Charming.  Who wasn't charmed?  The Brooklyn borough president who had this embarrassment yanked after a few episodes due to offensive stereotyping.  Lorimar produced this single-camera fiasco.
Oooh.  Bad Move.


OTHER NOTABLE PREMIERES:

Who's Watching the Kids? (NBC).  Garry Marshall finally put his Vegas showgirls to rest after this final attempt to capitalize on the "t &a"  phenomenon.  To recap: he made adjustments to his "Happy Days" spin off "Blansky's Beauties" starring Nancy Walker by dumping her and the kids (Scott Baio et al), moving to NBC and from the 1950's to 1978, focusing on the showgirls at the Club Sandpile and amping up the sexual content.  This high-rated pilot was called "Legs."  So by the time he premiered the Paramount three-camera series this fall he changed the name and brought the kids back--borrowing Baio again from "Happy Days" and adding a bumbling Las Vegas news anchor (Larry Breeding)  and his schlubby camera man (Jim Belushi) as neighbors who often were tasked with looking after the younger siblings of the two showgirls played by Caren Kaye and Lynda Goodfriend (both patient holdovers from all versions).  But Chachi and Lori-Beth (Baio and Goodfriend) were back in 1950's Milwaukee by January.  This series was known for kickstarting the career of Jim Belushi, who's ill-fated brother John was making comedy history on "Saturday Night Live" and the film "Animal House."  Also, look for future music icon Anthony Kaedis in a small role.

FRATHOUSE FOLLIES IN THE FAMILY HOUR:
And with "National Lampoon's Animal House" breaking all comedy box-office records in movie houses across the nation during the summer 1978, the networks couldn't pass up an opportunity to cash in--maybe a little more successfully  than their disco ventures.
Delta House (ABC).  This was the only actual true spin-off from the John Landis movie with Matty Simmons, Ivan Reitman and the National Lampoon people behind it.  Universal backed the single camera series and brought in hip Lampoon scribes such as John Hughes and Carl Gottlieb to contribute.  The setting changed very little from the film:  1962 at Faber College where the pranksters and miscreants of the Delta House fraternity were a bane to the existence of Dean Wormer (John Vernon, reprising his role) and the snobby Omega
Belushi-lite.
fratboys.  Rather than try to re-cast Belushi's outrageously rude Bluto Blutarsky, Josh Mostel came on board as his younger brother Blotto.  Also reprising their film roles were Stephen Furst, Bruce McGill and James Widdoes as Flounder, D-Day and Hoover respectively.  With the series being limited by the boundaries of a laugh-track family-hour sitcom, the sexy stories never really could go as far as the R-rated movie in raunchiness.  This allowed the show to parody other elements of the time-frame such as bomb shelters, draft notices and the Cold War--which "Happy Days" covered more benignly in it's early years.  But the pranks never hit the ribald territory audiences expected--switching letters on the frat house and tormenting a house mother were as wild as it got--and that affected the ratings.  The show did well enough to return but was too expensive to produce what with the talent in front of and behind the camera.  In recurring roles were Gloria Dehaven as Mrs. Wormser and future movie starlet Michelle Pfeiffer as "The Bombshell" possibly fore-shadowing her roles in "Hollywood Knights" or maybe "Grease II."
Brothers and Sisters (NBC)  The NBC version was basically the same show, just set in the present day and sporting a three-camera setup with a studio audience.  The Paramount series featured Chris Lemmon (Jack's son) as "Checko" the leader of a group of, yes, troublemakers, living in the basement of the Pi Nu house known as Le Dump.  William Windom played the dean of the Crandall College and Mary Crosby was one of the female regulars (targets).  Ron Leavitt and Brian Levant who worked with Marshall on "Laverne and Shirley" and "Makin' It" (and later would create "Married..with Children") would create this series for Paramount.  Surprisingly, Marshall was NOT involved in this.  Also premiering mid-season with "Delta House", this one also ended mid season.
Co-Ed Fever (CBS).  CBS premiered it's videotaped version right after the much-hyped premiere of "Rocky" on national TV.  And that's as far as it got.  One episode.  At least the plot was a little changed up.  The all-girl college started admitting males.  And shenanigans start.   So there you go. Future TV star  Heather Thomas and future film star David Keith were regulars.

So basically, the R-rated "Saturday Night Fever" and "Animal House" did not quite translate well to the small screen in a sitcom format.  Another popular big-screen comedy however had a bit more juice but not much.
The Bad News Bears (CBS)  Jack Warden took the Walter Matthua part and Tricia Cast played the Tatum O'Neal role in this small-screen version of Michael Ritchie's satire on the Little Leagues in Southern California.  But once again  the novelty of a group of misfit, multi-ethnic, foul-mouthed, and crude kids being coached by an alcoholic pool cleaner was muted by the restrictions of family-hour TV.  Leavitt would once again take the reigns for Paramount in adapting the film to this single camera comedy--assisted by veteran comedy director William Asher ("Bewitched").   The mid season replacement did well enough to return for a small run next season.

An interesting take-away from this is how the raunchiness that was "sanitized out" of the sitcoms would be considered more than fair game on today's network television.  However, the topicality that was inherent in Lear's comedy would be untouchable, uninteresting or politically incorrect on most televised offerings today.

Norman Lear attempted to reclaim some of his magic during the season with a couple of premieres.
In the Beginning (CBS).  This was the second attempt for McLean Stevenson to warm to America's heart after his winning turn as Henry Blake in "M*A*S*H."  Lear basically cast him as a conservative priest running a ghetto mission in Baltimore with a liberal nun (Priscilla Lopez, from Broadway and "A Chorus Line.")  Jack Dodson (from Mayberry) played the monsignor. So Lear had a chaste version of his "All's Fair" from a couple of years ago.  There were plenty of 'colorful" street characters to balance the ecumenical setting  but the cultural clashes between the father and sister didn't interest audiences enough and the videotaped show was cancelled post haste.  Even pop star Rick Springfield playing  a threat to the sister's avocation didn't help stir things up.
Hello, Larry (NBC).  Lear didn't give up on Stevenson though.  His production company Tandem produced this vehicle on a different network.  This time, our harried star played a radio talk show host who gives advice but can't control his own family (sound familiar?).  After a divorce, Larry Alder moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon with his two
Help!  Get me off this crazy thing!
teenage daughters (one a tomboy played by Kim Richards). With two producers from "One Day at a Time"--Dick Bensfield and Perry Grant--and the problems a single parent has raising two teenage girls (the pill, losing the virginity) the show seemed like a male-centered version of the Romano family.  Even Shelly Fabares played Larry's ex in a few episodes.  But Larry balanced the chaotic home life and his work at the station with his liberated producer (Joanna Gleason) and his comically obese engineer.  New NBC chief Silverman decided to apply his clever  ABC cross-over gimmick here:  As a follow-up to the new hit "Diff'rent Strokes" (also produced by Tandem), it was deemed advantagous to have tycoon Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) buy the station so he and Gary Coleman could make a convenient appearance on the show.  So, "Hello, Larry"--deemed one of the worst shows ever--was nudged into a second season based on this strategy.

Apple Pie (ABC).  Just as "Diff'rent Strokes" was designed to showcase a post-"Maude" Bain, Lear adapted this show for Bain's previous co-star and "wife" and best friend to Maude (Vivian) Rue McLanahan.  Lear didn't court controversy on this one:  Based on the play "Nourish the Beast" by Steve Tesich, McLanahan played Ginger Nell Hollyhock, a hairdresser in 1933 Kansas City who decides to create a family by advertising in the classifieds.  A con-man (Dabney Coleman) answered the call for husband and Jack Gilford played the blind (literally) candidate for her father.  The teenagers were characters right out of "You Can't Take it With You."  This period comedy was a strange premise for a videotaped Lear sitcom and it barely lasted a couple of episodes in the fall.  Lear stalwart James Cromwell and Ken Berry (more at home here) made guest appearances.  Peter Bonerz (Jerry the dentist) directed.

So Lear found new showcases for Bain and McLanahan as they were written out of the final season of "Maude."  The main character was going to leave New York and  become a Congresswoman in Washington DC.  Only before the fall season, Bea Arthur decided she was tired of the role and dropped out.   Using the same supporting characters of Maude's Capitol staff, Lear brought back John Amos ("Good Times") as an ex-football star who runs for office: "Onward and Upward."  Amos however wasn't happy with the production and Lear shot another pilot with Cleavon Little ("Blazing Saddles") playing the African-American Congressman: "Mr. Dugan."  This version was considered too racially offensive in Lear's post-race world.  So, in an act of desperation, Lear retooled the cast and setting once again:
 Hanging In (CBS) Bill Macy (who played Maude's husband, Walter) returns to the sound stage but as an ex-football star who is now a university president for public relations reasons.  So the congressional staff (featuring Barbara Rhoades and the very recently departed Dennis Burkley) is now the staff of the Office of the Dean and the four episodes that aired at the end of the summer dealt with the hilarious tribulations of higher-education fund-raising.  Actually not that far off from the legislative world.  And thus ends the saga.

The Baxters (Syndicated).  Lear took his concept of examining social issues to the extreme with this experiment.  Based on a series in Boston created by a divinity student, Lear created a Hollywood version.  Basically, the first eleven minutes was a sitcom about the Baxter family.  It dealt (as most Lear shows did) with a topical or controversial subject inherent in raising kids or being an adult in 1978 America-- a post-Bunker America I might add.  The final half of the show would revert to the local studio affiliate where a host would question a studio audience about what they just saw and how they would handle the issue.  In a way, by embellishing this concept, Lear also had a prescient vision of reality TV and interactive dialogue which would be a staple of the medium up to today.  Sadly, today's "opinions" and "viewer comments" are mostly scripted, vulgar and uninformed.

Miss Winslow and Son (CBS).  Since Lear was falling short in the topicality department, it took another production team to shake things up a bit in this mid season replacement.
Darlene Carr played a single mother who just gave birth to a baby.  Roscoe Lee Brown
The rabbit died.
played her stuffy neighbor in the New York brownstone who sometimes assisted with the baby and gave sage, sarcastic advice.  Of course, her high-class family were aghast at this development. This was adapted from a British series (aren't they all) and TTC, the company that adapted "Three's Company" for American audiences was behind this less sexy but more edgy videotaped series.  At this point, the sitcom has come a long way, baby, from Mary Richards.

WKRP In Cincinnati (CBS).  Speaking of Mary, MTM's sole half-hour sitcom entry this fall was this classic.  The show had enough critical acclaim and fans to make up for the lackluster ratings it received in this first season.  Audiences got to know the beloved characters this first season--probably more than they wanted.  There were some standard work-place sitcom scenarios:  a tornado hits the station; a baby is left on the doorstep; a hostage situation occurs on a live remote.  But, the dark humor inherent in the show (DJ's deemed it extremely accurate)  started to rear it's ugly and hilarious head.  Johnny Fever leaves the station on a lark and is replaced by a cocaine abuser.  New DJ Venus Flytrap is revealed to have a double life as an Vietnam deserter.  Newsman Les Nessman attempts to jump off a ledge after being labeled "gay" by some sports figures.  The station's resident "reverend" is fired for misleadingly hawking junk on his show.  And in one of the funniest moments in 70's sitcoms, bumbling station manager Arthur Carlson comes up with the misguided promotion of dropping turkeys out of an airplane on Thanksgiving Day.  His reply after the disaster:  "As God is my witness...I thought turkeys could fly." (See video nuggets for this scene.)  Hoyt Axton made an appearance as receptionist Jennifer Marlowe's ex who threatens to take her back.  And Herb Tarlek, always hitting on the buxom yet sensible Jennifer, decides to leave his dowdy wife.

This series provided a good foreshadowing of the culture wars that would dominate politics
Orwell in a plaid sportsuit.
(and talk radio) to this day.  The show opens with a group of older listeners protesting the change to a rock and roll format.  At one point this season, Herb, with his polyester suit and salesman's swagger educates simple-minded Les, with his bow tie, about the differences between "us", the upstanding, responsible ones and  "them" the laconic, value-less DJ's:  the "suits" versus the "dungarees" as he puts it.  In other words:  "red" vs. "blue."

13 Queens Blvd. (ABC)  Bud Yorkin ventured into the large ensemble  sitcom with this entry from his TOY Productions.  Popular film and Broadway actress Eileen Brennan and sitcom stalwart Jerry Van Dyke led the cast of characters that made up the residents of a Queens garden apartment complex.  Van Dyke was the only male character as females rounded out the group:  Marcia Rodd, Helen Page Camp and Frances Lee McCain.  This spring tryout series, premiering post-"Ropers" to decent ratings, returned to burn off episodes in the summer but never returned..  The series, with Nancy Walker directing some episodes,  was marketed as an "adult" comedy--read: sophisticated--but that was a dying art form.

Dorothy (CBS)  Another popular Broadway veteran played the lead in this  summer series.  Dorothy Loudon, who gained critical raves for creating the role of Miss Hannigan in the musical "Annie" came to TV as a showgirl turned music and drama coach at a prestigious all-girl's school.  Of course, her brash ways offended many of the parents and faculty.  Linda Manz (of Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven") would play one of the students in this videotaped entry from Warner Brothers.  With Madelaine Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. behind the taped production and John Rich directing, the short run didn't allow all the experienced talent to find an audience.

There were many mid-season replacement series in spring of 1979 starting a trend in short-run spring series replacing short-run fall series--none of which get a chance to find it's audience.  Among the spring replacements were some extremely high-concept sitcoms, hearkening back to an earlier time on television before the advent of "relationships" on standard television.

Detective School...One Flight Up (ABC)  James Gregory--, who had been expertly playing cranky but lovable Inspector Luger on "Barney Miller"--was cast here as Nick Hannigan, the owner of a low-rent detective training school.  Unfortunately, his motley crew of students including the zany Taylor Negron as Silvio and Lawanda Page ("Aunt Esther") as Charlene would get the class involved in actual murder investigations.  Producers Bernie Kukoff and Jeff Harris would bring back Randolph Mantooth and Mindy Naud from their failed "Operation Petticoat" reboot earlier in the fall.  The series was taped but I doubt a live studio audience was used by the nature of the set requirements.  The prime time slot right after "Three's Company" on Tuesday nights insured that the summer show would return in the fall.

Turnabout (NBC)  John Schuck and Sharon Gless would headline this single camera fantasy sitcom about a husband and wife who inhabit each other's bodies due to a magic statue.  Of course, with Schuck being a sportswriter and Gless a cosmetics executive, the sexual stereotyping was rampant in this role-reversal shtick.  Universal produced with Sam Denoff and William D'Angelo producing.  D'Angelo had just recently produced some fantastical sitcoms for Saturday morning and wasn't too far off here except for the slightly blue humor related to "being late" and possible pregnancy.  Writer Stephen Bochco ("Hill Street Blues") added some class to the project.  Rick Springfield, making yet another sitcom appearance this year, did not.

Highcliffe Manor (NBC).  Alan Landsburg produced this Gothic serialized series that seemed like a cross between the newly appreciated "The Addams Family" and the current hit "Soap."  Euginie-Ross Leming created the taped series (and played a character as well) that drew well upon the trappings of the macabre thriller.  Shelly Fabares played the widow who inherited the mansion, home of the Blacke Foundation, where he inhabitants--all creepy and sinister (some were actual monsters)--were trying to do her in.  Interestingly,  future Ghost Buster Ernie Hudson would be a recurring character.

Billy (CBS).  This mid-season show was based on a 1960 play called "Billy Liar."  Billy worked in a funeral home and spent most of his time daydreaming.  And this series would chronicle those daydreams vividly a la Walter Mitty.  His mother thought he was a chronic liar but Billy knew better.  John Rich was behind this single camera sitcom from 20th Century Fox.  And 80's film legend Steve Guttenberg would play the 19-year old lead.

Before CGI.
Waverly Wonders (NBC).  Right before Fred Silverman took the helm at NBC, the network tried to prove just how low it could go.  The special effect in this high-concept show was casting NFL superstar Joe Namath as a high school history teacher slash basketball coach.
It was brilliant casting as the character knew nothing of history.  And, of course, a la "Bad News Bears" his team was a group of misfits with an outstanding girl player, an attractive female principal and a nemesis played by Ben Piazza (he of the film "Bad News Bears").  But this taped series lasted a month on the fall schedule and Namath's no-nothing educator, who was forced to teach, said more about the crumbling educational infrastructure than did any Norman Lear tutorial

Even though Maude got out of the game, politics still played a part in sitcoms.
Hizzoner (NBC)  David Huddleston, who must have owned stock in NBC, got to try his hand at yet another short-run taped summer sitcom.  This time he was a happy-go-lucky Midwestern small-town mayor --a widower of course--who was too naive for his own good, except when he wasn't.  He would even break into song and dance occasionally.  His hippie son and civil rights attorney daughter (played by Walter Cronkite's daughter, Kathy) contrasted with "Hizzoner"'s conservative ways.

Grandpa Goes to Washington (NBC)  This was one of those rare hour-long sitcoms.  Jack Albertson played an retired political science professor who gets elected to Congress in a special election when the incumbent is caught up in a stripper scandal and his opponents are caught up in corruption schemes.  Of course, he uses his old-school honesty and low-level cronies to get things done for his constituents.  Larry Linville provides his trademarked brand of  comic relief as his boneheaded military son and Sue Anne Langdon plays his daughter-in-law and mother of his many grand kids.

Where are these two guys when we need them?

There were a couple of syndicated pseudo-sitcoms this season which add nothing to the discussion and are here for obsessive-compulsive  completion purposes only.

The Beach Girls (Syndicated).  I will go to my deathbed convinced that I saw this show at 6:30 during the syndicated half-hour before prime-time in San Antonio, Texas.  It was a videotaped sitcom with live-action segments about a bunch of bikini-clad girls that lived and played on the beachfront.  I cannot find any information on this show anywhere on the interwebs.  If I am wrong, then my imagination was much more powerful than I thought and the influence of "Jiggle TV" on a high school sophomore was extremely powerful.

Hee Haw Honeys (Syndicated) was basically an extension of the "Hee Haw" franchise.  Three country girls that worked at a country diner had Hi-larious situations and introduced Nashville musical acts that were much more impressive than the sitcom portion of the simple-minded show.  Kathie Lee Gifford (known then as Kathie Lee Johnson) was one of the honeys along with Misty Rowe.  Gailard Sartain and Loulou Roman would reprise their "Hee Haw" characterizations for this series.

So beach bunnies and corn pone humor were a great representation of what the seventies would end up with after a decade of insight and investigation.  Lear tried to delve further into the issues of the time with "The Baxters" but bikinis and banjos would prevail.

And banjos would play an even larger part as this season saw the mid season premieres of "Dukes of Hazzard" (CBS) and "BJ and the Bear."  More on this topic in the next segment, but these comedy/adventure shows would set the tone for a return to the rural humor that was effectively dismantled when Mary and Archie and Fred hit the airwaves in the early seventies.

Video Nugget:

Funniest scene this year:


David Letterman and Robin Williams, 1978:


Cheesy Successful Garry Marshall Theme #1:


Cheesy Successful Garry Marshall Theme #2


Timeslot TNT:




Saturday, July 13, 2013

SEVENTIES SITCOMS: 1977-1978. THE RAUNCH REVOLUTION AND THE FIRST SHARK JUMP




The 1977 fall season could be considered "the beginning of the end" in regards to the quality sitcom programming of the era.  But it depends on how one defines "quality."  If you define it by a respect for the viewing public, you will bemoan the previous loss of the Mary Richards,  the impending demise of "Bob Newhart Show," relish in the ratings resurgence of "Barney Miller," or feel redeemed by the resurrection of James L. Brooks into the three camera sitcom world the next season ("Taxi"), you may be lacking with a glimpse of hope for the future.  If you define "quality" by prurient content, sappy resolutions, pandering catchphrases and audience-pleasing contrivances then you will be satiated by the immediate popularity of "Three's Company," the comfortable safety of Gary Marshall's 50's world, and the fading repetitive topicality in the Norman Lear universe and thusly witness the pinnacle of prime-time network comedy achievement.  And then there's "Soap."

THE SILVERMAN SPOON
A history of seventies sitcoms is a history of Fred Silverman.  As a programmer for daytime TV for CBS in the late sixties, Silverman championed the "superhero/mystery solver/breakfast cereal" tropes of Saturday morning kid's TV.  After being promoted to programming chief in 1970, he proceeded to "cut down the trees," cancelling many old rural favorites and replacing them with sophisticated and daring urban fare.  As we saw at the beginning of this blog series, that resulted in the MTM and Lear blockbusters.  He also pioneered the concept of "spin-offs," creating even more ratings gold for CBS.  For example, "Good Times" was a twice removed spin off of "All in the Family" and it knocked Marshall's sweet, nostalgic homage "Happy Days" off the ratings map in it's second season.  So when he moved to ABC in 1975 (a move covered mightily by the press), not only did he bring "Scooby Doo" with  him, he changed the dynamic (again) to focus on sensationalism, reliability and star power.  It is unfair to focus on the "T and A" aspect of Silverman's strategy:  he was responsible for the mini-series format--namely "Roots"--and for trying to launch a new vehicle for critical darling Nancy Walker.  But when he made the bra-less Farrah Fawcett a worldwide poster child for, well, posters, he found his new strength:  youth, excitement, and sex.  And with a safely-neutered (figuratively speaking of course) street punk being highlighted along with a manic studio audience, "Happy Days" retook the Tuesday night crown from the pseudo-reality of ghetto life in "Good Times."

SHAKE AND AWE:  THE NEW TWIN PEAKS OF ABC COMEDY.
By 1977, Silverman had cemented the Fonz, Laverne and Shirley and Vinnie Barbarino in pop culture iconography.  In doing so, he wrapped up the family/youth market leaving only JJ and the Cooper girls for CBS's teen fandom.  But in 1976, producer Aaron Spelling brought Fawcett and "Charlie's Angels" to ABC,  altering the tastes of discerning viewers and  pre-teen males (like myself).   It wasn't good enough to be on the cover of TV Guide.  The stars of the new programs must also grace the front of "Time," "Teen Beat," and "Playboy."  

My first official jiggle 
Don Nicholl, Bernie West and Michael Ross Americanized the saucy British sitcom "Man About the House" much as Norman Lear had done with "Til Death Do Us Part":  "All in the Family" which the three writers had worked on previously to conceiving "Three's Company."

Unlike Lear's offerings, one will never find a dramatic moment or pregnant pause in the antics of Jack, Crissy and Janet.  The "nervous breakdown" of the decade was taking hold:  Vietnam and Watergate were fading from the headlines; civil rights studies were moving off the book shelves to make way for in-depth studies of the "me" generation and the resulting disco craze.  And five years earlier, "Deep Throat" broke box-office records and ushered in the middle-class fascination for pornography.  This new lifestyle phenomenon, part of the swinger culture, ushered in "porno chic."  "Normal" citizens were now experimenting with mind-opening drugs, pot being the least controversial.  Soon in 1978 "Debbie Does Dallas" would create more buzz for this new liberated art form.  "Three's Company," with no nudity, no overt sex and no pulsing techno soundtrack gave audiences a safe outlet for their
Thinking inside the box.
opening libidos and pharmaceutical experimentation through innuendo and Suzanne Somer's bouncing assets and tight shorts.  Has anyone examined the subtle hints through the characters names?  John Ritter as Jack "Tripper."  Somers as Chrissy "Snow" (a missed opportunity for an excellent porn star name).  Joyce Dewitt as Janet "Wood."  And to make the show more relatable to the poor schlubs at home--after all, who gets to live in a swinging Santa Monica apartment complex during the era of free love?--the landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Roper (Norman Fell and
Audra Lindlay) are a sexually frustrated wife with her "non-interested" husband.  And in order for the extremely heterosexual Jack to co-habitate with sensible Janet and ditzy but hot Crissy, he has to convince the Ropers that he is gay.  A modern parlour comedy.  Allowing audiences to feel as they are watching "adult" material even though the sophistication and intellectual stimulation was, well, lacking.

I can remember the controversy this season when the "surging" ratings (sorry) allowed "Three's Company" to be paired with a new show that was being condemned by pretty much every special interest group, especially the Moral Majority.  When a sitcom is criticized by both gays and Catholics you know you've reached the mother lode of satire.  Writer Susan Harris ("All in the Family") teamed up with Tony Thomas and Paul Junger-Witt (her husband) to create "Soap."  Although their previous collaboration, "Fay," was controversial in it's own right, it failed to capture any attention in 1975.  But that wasn't the case with "Soap."  The take-off on soap operas, what with the multiple story lines dealing with mostly sex and murder, outdid Lear's "Mary Hartman" in terms of public outrage and private outrageousness.  And it was a hell of lot funnier.  Actually, it was pretty much the funniest show on TV at the time.  And that was it's saving grace.  So after the "adult content" warnings (one of the few since "All in the Family" did it six years earlier) and the local ABC affiliate's relocation to the 9:30 (C) time-slot right before the nightly news (if not outright refusal to air) and the protests about inaccurate portrayals of homosexuality and offensive portraits of Catholic priests, the show settled into it's audience to become an extremely well-acted, well-written comedy appointment.  All four seasons saw a continuing serial format with the announcer reviewing the previous week's events and commenting on next week: "What will happen to...?"  "Well, find out on next week's episode of ..."Soap!"

A comedy goldmine:  Two sisters--Jessica Tate (Katherine Hellmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon).  The Tates:  philandering husband Chester (soap vet Robert Mandan), daughters Corinne (Diana Canova--offspring of Judy) and Eunice (Jennifer Salt--offspring of Waldo), son Billy (Jimmy Baio) and sardonic butler Benson (Robert Guillame).  The Campbells:  insane husband Bert (Richard Mulligan), mobbed-up son (Ted Wass), ventriloquist step-son with extremely sarcastic dummy  (Jay Johnson) and, in his first major television role, Billy Crystal as gay son Jody.
Best. Cast. Ever.
 Not shabby at all.  Although the critics defined their opinions of the show by the level of shocks, it is only now that those who appreciate good comedy can see the high level of quality in the no-holds-barred writing and performances.  Most of the time the laughs come from the characterizations and isolated situations rather than the topicality itself (unlike a lot of Lear's output).  The show seems almost quaint now, but still funny.  And allowing the drama--there was some--to blend with the laughs rather than  jolt the audience into a moral position, "Soap" never took itself too seriously.  And there was nary a bra-less jiggle in sight.

Speaking of Lear, this was the final "real" season of "All in the Family."  Mike and Gloria would leave Archie and Edith at the end of the year in a powerful finale.  The series would continue it's exploration of controversial themes (including the notorious episode where
So long, kids.
Edith fends off a rapist on her fiftieth birthday) while showing signs of it's age with self-conscious directing (mostly by Paul Bogart) and less-crispy dialogue.   Archie and Edith would continue a few more years and the series--with less direction from Lear and more from star Carroll O'Connor--would ramp up the pathos and sentimentality and ham-fisted acting  and (gulp) even add a cute kid.

Oh, and brace yourself--somebody jumps a shark this year.

RATINGS WINNERS 1977-1978

#1.  Laverne and Shirley (ABC).  At the pinnacle of it's popularity, this series offered no more than slapstick antics.  For example, the girls get attacked by a giant robot at a toy store. There were parodies of "Airport" and TV wrestling.  There was a cruise ship adventure.  There was a talent show (courtesy of Schatz Brewery).  And another retrospective.  Lenny found out he was in line for the Polish throne.  Laverne trains as a cop.  Frank and Edna's relationship heats up.  Fabian makes an appearance just to remind us we are still in the fifties.  Lonely Laverne dreams that she and Shirley end up with Lenny and Squiggy.  The most topical the show got was when Laverne tries to save Buttercup the horse from being shipped to a glue factory.  And there was some sweet drama to cut the craziness:  Lenny dates Edna's mentally challenged daughter.  There would be more bit part appearances by Harry Shearer and Christopher Guest.  Along with Michael McKean ("Lenny"), it is amazing that so many elements of the future Guest film company ("Best in Show," "Waiting for Guffman") would gestate from this high-rated inanity.  Even Rob Reiner, who would start the trend with "This is Spinal Tap" was married to star Penny Marshall, a future director herself, at the time.

History is Made!

#2.  Happy Days (ABC).  Fonzie jumps a shark in the opening multi-part episode.  That's right:  This is where the "shark jump" comes from.  And it accurately represented the trend:  a show having hit it's peak and  going downhill fast.  Like it's spin off above, "Happy Days" was a huge ratings hit but offered no more than sitcom silliness and cheap thrills.  In this story arc, Fonzie (a superhero by this time) goes to Hollywood for a James Dean-style screen test.  He fails but Richie ends up with a contract (sort of apropos considering Ron Howard's future reign as Hollywood royalty).  And through some convoluted plot device, Fonzie ends up jumping over sharks--a tribute to the "Jaws" phenomenon no doubt--on water skis.  Sadly, he makes it.  That gives him a chance to be more  human:  when Richie falls into a coma from a motorcycle accident, Fonzie prays and cries.  It was a request from educator groups that Fonzie show more emotion.  And, as opposed to Norman Lear using extreme close-ups and uncomfortable coughing from studio audiences, Garry Marshall loved to ramp up the saccharine by adding sentimental music to sappy scenes.  But it must have been effective--ratings never nosedived even though the sharks were unfed.  He even dated a ballerina to show how sensitive he could be.  And as a sign of the contrivances involved in maintaining a hit series, Fonzie actually ended up on a jury with Howard "Mr C." Cunningham in a "Twelve Angry Men" take-off.  Milwaukee's not that small of a city.

Richie, Potsie and Ralph actually got a lot of attention this season.  Starting college, they would pledge a fraternity, date college girls, and live in a dorm but end up sharing an apartment together.  Richie moved back home and that provided a segue to a Potsie and Ralph Malph spin off that never materialized.   (Another spin off would come next season, though....see below).  Richie became enamored of investigative journalism.  And Erin Moran's little sister Joannie started coming of age.  She shows her rebellious side when she wants to join Leather Tuscadero's all-girl rock band.  Oh, did I mention Suzi Quatro as Pinky Tuscadero's reform-school little sister?  The tough gal would share the leather jacket mystique with Fonz.  She even sang a ballad while Richie recovered  from the aforementioned tragedy, backing up Fonzie's soul-searching chat with God.  This ain't your daddy's "Lords of Flatbush".   Other guest stars popping up would be Danny Thomas as Howard's retired cop dad (a nod to the era) and Dr. Joyce Brothers as herself (definitely a nod to 1977).  Even Morgan Fairchild made an appearance as a snob.  And an unknown nightclub comic named Robin Williams would be introduced to mass audiences as an alien from another planet in a dream that Richie had.  The alien's name was Mork.  And the episode would be re-edited to take the "dream" ending out for obvious reasons.  Mork would need to reappear in 1978 in Colorado so he could anchor Thursday nights on ABC.    So it's obvious that "Happy Days" was barely hanging on to it's authentic charm in reflecting the depicted time frame of the late fifties and delving into audience pleasing stunts and stretches of credulity.

Also this season audiences meet Chachi Arcola played by Scott Baio.  A slightly less threatening version of Spike from previous seasons, Baio would join the ranks of teen heartthrobs for playing a shaggy seventies-era post-pubescent confused youth in a sitcom set in the clean-cut fifties.  And Lynda Goodfriend would join the cast as Richie's main squeeze ("sweet knees") Lori-Beth.  Both Baio and Goodfriend would jump over from Miller-Milkis's previous flop "Blansky's Beauties" and end up going back to Vegas next season on NBC on the Garry Marshall Vegas showgirl-themed merry-go-round.  The pilot for that show, called "Legs" had an hour long pilot premiere this season as NBC tried to complete on the "scantily-clad" sweepstakes.  The airing had good enough ratings to return with a slightly more family-friendly format and a different title in the fall of 1978.

#3.  Three's Company (ABC).  The soft-core antics would abound as this series returns from it's successful tryout run last season.  In keeping with the general themes of the new lifestyle:  Crissy is mistaken for a prostitute; Mr. Roper ends up in bed with Jack after a wild party; neighbor Larry borrows a 16 mm projector to screen a porn film (it turns out to be something else); Mrs. Roper inadvertently grows a marijuana plant from some seeds that the kids give her; Jack may have gotten his girlfriend pregnant; Crissy dates a married man.  But in a break from the mindless sex humor, we had mindless situational humor as when the roommates babysit a parakeet or get stuck with an actual baby.  Although Gidget is long gone from the beachfront property, her TV dad Don Porter makes an appearance as Jack's scheming uncle and Loni Anderson appears as Jack's ex-girlfriend.  In another nose-thumb to propriety, audiences meet Crissy's dad--the Reverend Snow.

#6.  All in the Family (CBS).   This was the final season with Mike and Gloria.  The show would never be the same without them.  After seven years the Meathead--Archie's motivation for his small-minded stubbornness--would leave the premises with "Little Goil" and grandson Joey when a teaching job becomes available in California.  The last few episodes, chronicling the misunderstandings and misplaced priorities inherent in such a huge familial upheaval, awkwardly revealed the camouflaged father-son dynamic between Archie and Mike.  Just as sentimental--earlier in the season when the two get locked in a cellar and get drunk together--Carroll O'Connor and Rob Reiner provide a heart-tugging two-act play about Archie's father and how that dynamic informed the closed-minded Bunker mindset.  This episode, somewhat jarring by it's emotional immediacy, was another example of the soon-to-be departing hilarity of the long-lasting series. See video nuggets below.  On a lighter note, one episode re-enacted the circumstances surrounding Mike and Gloria's first meeting bringing the show full circle.

The Bunkers certainly didn't hold back this season.  Unemployed Archie buys Kelso's Bar but forges Edith's signature in order to get the loan.  Archie gets hooked on pills to ward off depression.  Mike and Gloria have severe marital problems.  A local branch of the Klu Klux Klan threatens to burn a cross in Archie's front lawn.    Edith finds out that her Cousin Liz was a lesbian.  Archie's bar gets robbed during the Superbowl.  When transvestite Beverly laSalle is brutally murdered by thugs, Edith loses her faith in God.  In one of the most harrowing episodes, Edith fends off an attempted rapist on her fiftieth birthday.  With all the drama, reviewers were comparing "All in the Family" to the live television anthologies of the fifties.  The laughs were there but the tragedies were never ending.

Audiences felt the pain with the Bunker's as they willingly rode the roller coaster of life with them over the past seven years.  So they were forgiving when the producers offered up
melodrama in the service of character development and thematic resolution.  "All in the Family" swept every category of comedy Emmy's this year, except supporting actress.  Jean Stapleton, who we sadly lost during the writing of this blog,  rightly won another award for the "50th birthday" episode which also won the directing honor for Paul Bogart (a frequent director this season).  The episode dealing with Cousin Liz won for Best Writing.  And Carroll O'Connor and Rob Reiner both received followup acting trophies, most likely for the touching bonding incidents spread throughout this emotionally revealing year.

Now nested in his new Sunday night time slot, Archie would once again anchor a successful night of comedy.  The formats would change and the show would become less daring.  By the end of this season for all intents and purposes, the groundbreaking  sitcom was beginning it's slow wind-down to mediocrity.

#8.  Alice (CBS).Nesting with "All in the Family" on Sunday, "Alice" was granted better ratings allowing it to build an audience despite it's rather spineless comedy.  Along with it's rural setting (suburban Phoenix), the show was becoming a throwback to the silly comedies of yesteryear (at least on CBS) what with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. of "I Love Lucy" brought on as show-runners and William Asher ("Bewitched") providing some creative duties.    Davis and Caroll would continue through most of the long run, making "Alice," like "Laverne and Shirley" a step backward from the thought-provoking and challenging material that defined the seventies sitcom.  Guest shots by Morey Amsterdam, Desi Arnaz and even George Burns (as God, of course) couldn't help but celebrate those days of yore this year.  Still staying true to it's setting, Native Americans played a large part in the plots this season as Mel's Diner was said to be sitting on sacred burial ground and when a local tribesman predicts an earthquake in the neighborhood.  Plus Jerry Reed and Burton Gilliam would pop in to add some bucolic flavor.   There was an episode dealing with gangsters and Flo dates an Arab sheik in another. Dangerous food additives were a topic for one show adding a little bit of topicality.  The relationship between Alice and her son Tommy was already taking a back seat to the wacky goings-on at the Diner with the customers, Flo, Vera and Mel.  Speaking of customers, it is this season that comedy veteran Marvin Kaplan plays Henry--one of many diners that provide a borscht belt Greek chorus to the shenanigans rather than an appropriate interstate trucker contingent--reflective of the bi-coastal comedy roots of the veteran writers on board now.

#9.  M*A*S*H (CBS).  Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds were no longer involved in the show by now.  Larry Linville was replaced as the foil by the aristocratic Charles Emerson Winchester played by David Ogden Stiers.  Alan Alda took creative control of the show.  And "M*A*S*H" is no longer a funny satire with bursts of tragedy but a weekly commentary on war that is long on melodrama and leaving comedy to the cute cookie-cutter quips and observations.  Hot Lips Houlihan (Loretta Swit) becomes "Margaret" reflecting her new found humanity and feminism as she deals with the problems in her new absentee marriage.  Hawkeye is less prankster and more of an existential Chekhovian figure as he falls in love with a Korean villager and actually has a tryst with Hot Lips (excuse me, Margaret) as they are trapped behind enemy lines.  And the series begins it's standard "three-story" format, usually allowing one for comedy and two for hard-hitting medical or psychological dramas.  For example, this season the 4077th deals with a disfigured soldier contemplating suicide, a patient getting hooked on morphine, a hostage taker in the surgery tent demanding to be sent home, and a stolen batch of much-needed penicillin.  Sort of like "Medical Center" or maybe even "ER."  Winchester jumped into drama right off the bat when he became addicted to pep pills in his new environment.  But to be fair, "M*A*S*H" didn't forget it was a sitcom thanks to Klinger's antics (wearing a dress less now), Radar getting a tattoo, Hawkeye and BJ refusing to shower until Charles gives up the French horn, a mouse race, and the M*A*S*H Olympics.  Even old sitcom hands such as George Lindsay ("Goober") and Bernard Fox ("Bewitched") paid visits to add laugh track levity.  Keye Luke and James Cromwell also made appearances this season.  Father Mulcahey (William Christopher) would become a major regular player and Johnny Haymer would begin appearing as the scheming Sgt. Zale.  Midway through this season, M*A*S*H would move to Monday nights where it will dominate the ratings for the next five or so years.

#10.  One Day at a Time (CBS). The season starts with multi-parters of  Julie having a serious relationship with an older man (Jim Hutton) and ends with Julie moving out of the apartment to go into the fashion world.  In between, she allowed little sister Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli) to experience "the facts of life."  Barbara came into her own this season as she is constantly torn between sweet guy Bob and not-so-sweet guy Cliff.  She even runs off with Bob to a hotel room to prove her independence.  Barbara gets into multi-part territory as well with story involving a clingy girl friend who threatens suicide.  She also has a lot of activity at her high school (Alice Ghostly provides support as a counselor) as she witnesses vandalism and commits forgery on a poetry assignment.  And Ann, celebrating her 35th birthday this year, gets some action with a race car driver.  Her workplace, Connors and Davenport ad agency, provides a setting for many episodes as she competes with new nemesis Francine (Shelly Fabares) in many feminist-related story lines.

#12.  Eight is Enough (ABC).

#13.  Soap (ABC).  So what happens the first season?  Jessica is having an affair with Mary's step-son Peter Campbell (Robert Urich).  So is daughter Corinne...and many others.  At the end of the season, Jessica is found guilty of his murder.  But she didn't do it.  Corinne does hook up with a priest (Sal Viscuso).  Jody's rocky relationship with a closeted professional athlete leads to an attempt  at a sex change, an attempt at suicide and an attempt to fall in love with  a straight woman (Rebecca Balding).  Eunice is secretly dating a married congressman (Edward Winter).  Danny tries to leave the mob but must kill his step-father Burt to do so.  He fails but must date the mob boss's daughter, Elaine (Dinah Manoff).  Burt is institutionalized and he experiences impotence with Mary.  Chester is playing around on Jessica.  Inga Swenson plays a woman intent on blackmailing Jessica. And Benson won't answer the door.   Confused?  You won't be......on the next season of "Soap."  Guests throughout the courtroom proceedings include Gordon Jump and Howard Hesseman (soon to be on "WKRP"), Eugene Roche, Charles Lane, Harold Gould, Sorrell Booke and William Daniels.

Norman Lear's soap satire, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" continued it's nightly syndicated run a third and final year this time without the title character played by Louise Lasser.  Most of the rest of the cast returned for "Forever Fernwood" including Dabney Coleman and a red-hot Mary Kay Place.  Shelly Fabares, Shelly Berman and Orson Bean were among the new cast members.  Martin Mull and Fred Willard returned in the summer with their hilarious talk show parody, this time renamed "America 2-Nite" taking place in a boring Los Angeles suburb so bigger name guest stars could be featured.  Mull and Willard interviewed themselves in the final episode.

New Plot Device
#14.  The Love Boat  (ABC)  This hour-long series set on a vacation cruise ship to Mexico, created by Aaron Spelling, was basically a sitcom wrapped around various light romantic comedies with huge weekly guest stars--from current TV hits to past movie matinee idols.  The hour long show usually involved three stories:  a regular crew member in a comedic situation; a regular crew member involved with a guest passenger in a comedic or light romantic situation; and two guest passengers in a melodramatic situation, usually romantic or maybe dangerous.  I won't classify this as a sitcom due to it's anthology-like format and it's episode length-it's been compared to "Love, American Style" with recurring characters.  It did have a chuckle track interspersed in the appropriate locations.  The crew?  Fresh off "Mary Tyler Moore Show" was Gavin Macleod as the Captain.  Sitcom stalwarts Bernie Kopell and Ted Lange were the ship doctor and bartender respectively.  Fred Grandy was the chief purser and newcomer Lauren Tewes was Julie the cruise director.  This show would go on to become a cultural experience adding to the escapism and mindless fantasizing inherent in the eighties.  Plus lots of shots of two-piece bikinis to placate the "new" new audience demographic.
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#18.  Barney Miller (ABC).  At some time, maybe this season, Danny Arnold's marathon taping sessions involving major rewrites up to the last minute led to the show no longer being taped before a studio audience but shot and screened for an audience for live responses.  You could tell in later years how the series had a twice-removed feel to the background laughter.  As a result, the pacing was a bit off but just as funny nonetheless.  Also, like "M*A*S*H" the series would rotate between three co-existent story lines.

Arthur Deitrich (Steve Landesberg) becomes a regular this season.  Fish appears in a few episodes before officially "retiring" into the second season of his own sitcom.  Lt. Scanlon (Jack Murdoch) of internal affairs would start making appearances this year.  The stationhouse would be bugged  and at one point the precinct would have a hostage situation.  Another show had the crew trapped in the 12th precinct during a blizzard with a rotting corpse inside.   Among the "guests": a man charging a sperm bank with murder after losing his specimen; a woman who wants her husband arrested for rape; a ventriloquist with an out of control dummy (a big thing this year); owners of a mom and pop porno shop; a stubborn numerologist; a survivalist who has liquidated all of his assets into gold; a TV copycat criminal; and a militant environmentalist.    Wojo would experience a UFO sighting and share is sexual problems with Barney.  As for Barney, he would get shot much to the dismay of wife Liz (Barbara Barrie makes a return appearance for this arc).  Barney also ventures off-set to quell the tenants of a condemned hotel who will not move out.  And in another metaphysical incident (like the werewolf last year), a prisoner is sure he is seeing ghosts in the squad room.

#25.  Rhoda (CBS).  Moving to Sunday with the other established sitcom hits helped "Rhoda" get back on the grid this season.  The show was all over the map again though, still falling victim to too many characters and settings.  Of course, Ida and Martin have returned from their trip as Nancy Walker's two sitcoms on ABC failed the previous season.  Brenda was dating two men, Gary and Benny, and still working her bank job.  So with Ida providing plenty of neurosis and shy Brenda blossoming into a social butterfly, Rhoda--now officially divorced and spending this season on many blind dates such as nightclub singer Johnny Venture--  was left as a third wheel and a good listener in the comedy department.

Educating Brenda
Now that Brenda was becoming "Rhoda" to Rhoda's "Mary," the producers decided to saddle Rhoda with a new job and a crusty middle aged boss.  Character actor Kenneth McMillan as the owner of the Doyle Costume Company provided plenty of grumpiness but he was definitely not leading man material.  Pairing him with Valerie Harper, even in platonic circumstances, just reeked of desperation and audiences just didn't care at this point about him or Rhoda's  wacky co-workers at the shop.

Julie Kavner, known to a new generation of TV viewers as the voice of "Marge Simpson" would even come into her own as an Emmy winner, taking home the Supporting Actress Award this season for her embodiment of the less-frumpy Brenda Morgenstern.

#28.  Welcome Back, Kotter (ABC).  With John Travolta's big screen breakthrough in "Saturday Night Fever," his character--Vinnie Barbarino--was featured more prominently  as when he instigates a tirade from a gym teacher who, as a result, suffers a fatal heart attack.
Flopsweathog
And the producers took advantage of his dancing prowess by having him compete in a talent show against a...girl!  But Vinnie's occasional absence allowed the other Sweathogs(now entering the eleventh grade--right) to experience some large-scale melodrama: Horschack joins a religious cult and Freddie gets on painkillers.  Gabe also experienced some drama as the twins are born and he contemplates leaving the teaching profession to go into stand-up comedy.  Oddball student Carvelli (Charles Fleischer) makes a few appearances this year ,and in a nod to the future, the Sweathogs get a tutoring session from a computer.  Of course, with ABC in the throes of a sexual revolution, even "Kotter" had it's share of lasciviousness:  Epstein paints a nude picture of Julie on a school wall; Hotsy Totsy (Debralee Scott) who left school turns up dancing in a strip club; and an attempt is made to introduce a sexy new Sweathog, Angie (future Playboy Playmate Melonie Haller) but someone shot the idea down before it took hold.  I suppose that she was too tough for audiences, who were perhaps expecting a "sweet-hog."  Sorry.

#29.  On Our Own (CBS).  This new series from David Susskind, taped and set in New York City for Time-Life, held it's own on the newly successful Sunday night lineup.  But despite the decent ratings, it was only on this one season.  Two secretaries, played by future film star Bess Armstrong and future writer/director Lynnie Green, would get promoted at the Manhattan Ad agency where they work to copy righter and art director respectively.  Despite a cast of Broadway actors--future Designing Woman Dixie Carter was a regular--the concept of two inexperienced "girls" making it on their own in the big city was rather cliche by this point as audiences were expecting more "Laverne and Shirley" and less "Mary Richards" in their comedy these days.  It is interesting to note that another future film star,  Danny Aiello, would make an appearance in one episode.

RETURNING SERIES (in alphabetical order)

Bob Newhart Show (CBS).  Sadly, the Hartleys reach their final year.  The season starts with Bob and Emily moving into a new condo in the same building and ends with Bob finishing his book and accepting a teaching job in Oregon.  They managed to pull off having no cute kids in six whole years.  Bob and Emily do experience a dream sequence detailing what their lives would be like with other more successful partners.  The producers find a rather politically incorrect way to add some ethnicity to the lily-white cast by having Bob regularly counsel a group of ex-cons.  Patients Carlin (Jack Riley) and Peterson (John Fiedler) would get more attention this season.  Guest stars would range from the experienced (Ralph Bellamy, Mildred Natwick) to the up-and-coming (Loni Anderson, Morgan Fairchild).  Newhart, however, was tired of weekly grind and preferred the grind of touring and Vegas shows.  As a result, Bob's appearances would be limited to phone calls from remote hotel rooms.  That left Emily as the main character as she dealt with school politics (in her new assistant principal job) and became involved in the patient's lives (as when she pretends to be Carlin's wife at a school reunion).  The laugh quotient was lowered due to these changes.

The show would never fail to provide gentle, honest laughs up to the end, much like it's predecessor, "Mary Tyler Moore Show."  The next time we see Bob and Emily together it will be twelve years later when Bob wakes up from a bad Vermont-based dream.  Come to think of it, they are not in Oregon when that occurs.  Hmmm.  But still no kids... that we know of.

Busting Loose (CBS).   There is not much information on the second season of this show.  Adam Arkin is still living away from his overbearing parents, still working in a shoe store and still hanging around with his childhood chums.  He also still lives next door to a  voluptuous escort.  This year though he has a steady girlfriend and her name is "Jackie Gleason" (that joke has worn thin by this time in sitcom-land).  The show barely made it through December in it's sophomore season but continued on with a sequel of sorts:
Ted Knight Show (CBS).  Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman kept the premise of the escort service from "Busting Loose" and had Ted Knight (fresh from seven years as Ted Baxter) play Roger Dennis, the mothers-boy/ladies man owner of the business.  Knight may or may not have played the role in the previous series (it's hard to dig up information on this) but there were no spillover characters from "Busting Loose."  And in true late seventies fashion, there was a mix of personalities and backgrounds representing the girls doing the "servicing."

Chico and the Man (NBC).  Sadly, this series should have ended after the tragic demise of it's star, Freddie Prinze.  But NBC decided to keep the franchise going by having Ed Brown returning from a trip to Tijuana with Louie (Scatman Crothers) and finding an eleven year old Mexican orphan, Raul, in his travel trunk.  Conveniently, he adopts the boy and calls him Chico:  "You're all Chicos to me," he says.  The show takes a dark turn when Raul is caught going through the original Chico's belongings and Ed goes haywire, breaking up the guitar belonging to his long gone friend.  It's sad that this moment of honesty even had to take place as the series just hung on with silly plots with the "family hour" cute kid and guest appearances by the usual sitcom suspects:  Al Lewis, Alice Ghostly, Ted Cassidy.  Della Reese continues her role (Ed even proposes to her drunk in one episode) and Charo becomes a semi-regular as Raul's aunt, ramping up the quality quotient.  And producer James Komack couldn't forget that 1977 marked a time of nubile fascination so at the last minute he added the character of Monica, Ed's niece coming to LA to pursue an acting career (naturally) and move into Chico's old room. She gets story lines involving a sleazy bar job, a scantily-clad car wash, and a female biker gang.  So much for Chico--either one for that matter.

CPO Sharkey (NBC).  Don Rickles returns as Sharkey in October to replace the failed
"Sanford and Son" reboot.  (See below).  He now has a loud and angry male commanding officer replacing the kinder female one from last season.  She is replaced as the only female character in the show by Sharky's new girlfriend, Natalie.  Audiences see more of Sharky's soft side this year as he hides a pregnant Mexican woman from the INS in the barracks.   And NBC continued to rip off ABC's sexual revolution when females were allowed in the barracks creating a co-ed situation on the naval base.....and the resultant leering and misunderstandings.  It is interesting to note that when Sharky goes off base to find his charges in a bar brawl, the band playing is The Dixies--marking the first appearance of an actual punk rock band in a prime-time network TV show.

Fish (ABC).  In the sophomore season of the "Barney Miller" spin-off, now-retired detective Phil Fish experiences many personal problems, adding to the travails inherent in raising a group of wards.  For instance he gets arrested, gets in financial trouble and gets a widower (Erika Jong) lusting after him leading to marital discord.  In keeping with the ABC themes of promiscuity, the teen Jilly (Denise Miller--gathering a male teen following of her own) posed nude in one episode and requested birth control in another.  But the greatest irony involved an episode where Fish found his name in the obits:  star Abe Vigoda is still alive to this day and has been rumored demised on and off for the past thirty years!  He would appear on "Barney Miller" sporadically over the next couple of years, but the cancellation of "Fish" would pretty well end the era of the droll "Fish."

Good Times (CBS).  Although the ratings dropped this year, this season is infamous in pop culture trivia.  Audiences are introduced to Penny played by future pop star and "wardrobe malfunctioner" Janet Jackson.  Here's the story:  Esther Rolle decided to leave the series due to the stereotyped portrayal (and celebration) of the "JJ" character.  So Florida Evans has left for a year-long "health" excursion with her new atheist husband Carl (who has an incurable medical condition).  So basically, neighbor Winona (Ja'net Dubois) becomes
Pre-Super Bowl
the de facto mom to the Evans clan.  In a multi-part story arc (with plenty of drama), Winona befriends the young neighbor, discovers that the little girl is physically abused by her mother, confronts the mother (who leaves) and proceeds to adopt Penny.  All in the course of a few episodes!  But as long as Alice Ghostly plays the social worker, there will be a few laughs along the way.  Winona will play a central role in many episodes with her department store job, her many romances and balancing both with a new, unexpected daughter who even has issues with kleptomania.

And what about the Evans?  Well, Thelma becomes a playwright and dates a young parolee in her college life.  Ralph gets involved with CB radios where he discovers one of his new friends behind the "handle" is disabled.  JJ, sillier than ever, dates a married woman and has a dream where he is white.  Plus in a Rashomon-like flashback episode, the family argue
What'you talkin about, Florida?
over who burned the sofa.  And, of course, the "let's put on a show" episode involved saving a local day care facility.  Just as well that Esther Rolle was gone.  Guest stars included future sitcom stars Robert Guillame and a very young Gary Coleman.

The Jeffersons (CBS).  Gary Coleman also made an early appearance here this season before his stint as Arnold Drummond on "Diff'rent Strokes."  With the exception of the heartwarming episode dealing with George secretly sending money to the family in Harlem for Christmas or the political satire when George and Louise are arrested as looters during a blackout, "The Jeffersons" started it's decline into farce:  George gets a bust made of himself; an ant farm breaks on the expensive living room carpet; and George's old navy pal has a sex change operation.  Louise, who started her volunteer
What'you talkin' about, Jefferson?
work at the help center this year, had a rough ride:  the season opened with a multi-parter where Louise is supposedly kidnapped and held for ransom and later she and George get tied up by burglars.  The burglar idea could have been more insightful but instead it was just a frame for a "clip" episode as the couple reminisced on their past life together.

Maude (CBS).  In it's unintentional final season, "Maude" still didn't hold back on the controversial themes.  With Lear's "All's Fair" only being a one-season wonder, the political humor had to be dished out in this series:  Maude is annoyed by an overzealous ecologist; one of her real-estate clients is involved with the mob; Arthur fights the opening of a gay bar in the neighborhood; and her Ethiopian foster child is the son of a former dictator.  Also, Maude sees a UFO and experiences an obscene phone caller.  Maude's housekeeper du jour this season is Victoria Butterfield (Marlene Warfield) from Jamaica and a few
Baby Sally can walk!