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|
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.
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|
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|
"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.
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|
RATINGS WINNERS (1978-1979)
|#1 Rated Program.|
#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.
|Her Favorite Orkan|
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
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?|
#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|
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|
#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|
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.|
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.
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
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!|
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.|
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.|
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.
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.
Funniest scene this year:
David Letterman and Robin Williams, 1978:
Cheesy Successful Garry Marshall Theme #1:
Cheesy Successful Garry Marshall Theme #2