On The Best American TV Sitcoms
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/31/10
Recently, I got to thinking about television sitcoms. This was mostly prompted by my decision to buy a bootleg version of the complete The Odd Couple tv series from an Oriental company for a third the price I would have had to pay if I had bought the ‘official’ Universal DVD releases for all five seasons and 114 episodes. I did so due to the infamous butchering of the episodes by Paramount Studios; which consisted of them snipping out moments when the cast members sing songs that the studio did not want to buy the rights to. Apparently the rights are only for broadcast, not private commercial (home video) consumption. But, if the company does not even care about the artistic integrity of its show, why should any fan pay them for the product? Thus, I got a more complete version of the 114 episodes, sans any bonuses and commentary, and without the better audio or video qualities. And, there were a handful of episodes that seemed to lack some of the epilogues most of the episodes had, but since the set was pirated from copies of a local television station, I don’t know whether the ‘shorter’ episodes were cut by them, or if some episodes simply lacked any epilogues. Two of the eight disks were defective, but I got replacements mailed to me.
Regardless of this foray’s origin, however, is the fact that there were
precious few television sitcoms that I could think of that rose to a level I
could call greatness. Ironically, I could only think of ten in the 60+ years of
American broadcasting. And, yes, tv is the little cousin to film, and I deplore
Top 10 lists, so this will not be a Top 10 list (no qualitative ranking is
attempted), as much as me thinking over the parameters of sitcoms, and what made
a sitcom great or not. So, let me proceed in chronological order. Recently, I
was looking over the list of sitcoms from the start of American tv through now,
and in the 1940s and 1950s, only one sitcom stood out. Not Leave It To Beaver,
not The Life Of Riley (Jackie Gleason nor William Bendix versions), not Father
Knows Best, and not even I Love Lucy. Only The Honeymooners,
originally part of The Jackie Gleason Show, but for a year its own show,
rose to unassailable greatness.
All the prior mentioned shows had moments, but none broke new ground. I Love Lucy was far and away the most popular of the bunch, but no one ever really cared about Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball's character). Also, neither Desi Arnaz nor Vivian Vance were good enough straight men to form a great comedy team with Ball. But Gleason and Art Carney (as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton) were the first of three great comedy teams in television history. The Honeymooners tales could also be set in any era. They are not bound by time. And Gleason, unlike Ball, imbued his character with pathos. And unlike Lucy, Ralph Kramden NEVER won. Some of the episode ends are total downers, and do not even close with a hug and a kiss of Alice, his wife. It was never what was going to happen to Ralph that mattered, but how it would happen, and how Gleason would make you care, even mist up, that made the show so special. In the annals of great sitcoms, the 1940s and 1950s can thus submit only one immortal show, The Honeymooners, and Gleason bests Ball, finally!
The 1960s, in a sense, was the teenaged era of television (think of all the high concept/low content sitcoms of the day), and fared a bit better than the toddler 1950s. It contributed two great sitcoms to the mix: Gilligan’s Island and Get Smart. I'm sure Sherwood Schwartz never remotely thought his show set on a tropical island could touch upon greatness, but, in only three seasons, it provided the perfect elliptical Absurdist series. The Castaways never get off the island, despite all their best efforts, and many people who find them. And Gilligan, played by Bob Denver, always screws things up. And, for those who think that the term Absurdism should only be reserved for the plays of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, etc., think again. Gilligan’s Island is the ultimate Absurdist piece because not only is it Absurdist in execution and conception, but the fact that it was episodic only aided to its Absurdity. And, to top it off, the very fact that the series ended abruptly- it never had a ‘Very Special’ end episode (discount the handful of later television movies)- makes it almost a perfect closed loop. The Castaways are forever cast away.
When I reviewed this show, some years ago, I wrote:
So, the query is- if the characters are so dumb & predictable, why are they so beloved? Because they are archetypes, not stereotypes- despite the absurd plots. Even when treated to the stand-bys of doppelgängers or ‘certain’ doom, the viewer knows the episode will end just where it began- not waiting for Godot, but salvation. Still, the characterizations are so strong, that by the 3rd or 4th episode we know how every character is going to react to a certain premise. This would kill most shows- witness the dull meanderings of the 1980s mega-hit, The Cosby Show. But, being set with such a wacky initial premise allowed each episode to go off on increasingly absurd branches without viewer backlash against the characters. This allowed producer SS to moralize without being preachy- unlike, say Bill Cosby’s show. This absurdism also allowed SS to have a retinue of occasional stock actors to play many parts- the most notable recurring actor being Vito Scotti- who made a handful of outrageous appearances as different characters. In a way, GI’s fantastical plots allowed a lot of subtextual social commentary to go on without being heavyhanded. In this way, GI resembled another all-time tv classic- The Twilight Zone. On TTZ writer & producer Rod Serling could slip in political messages under the guise of an extraterrestrial storyline, that he could never slip by the network censors were he overtly writing about McCarthyism or racism. Similarly, GI could tackle greed, vanity, materialism, & relationships by using far out scenarios to comment on more prosaic dealings with such things. This is why viewers were drawn into the show in its network run, & have never let it go since. Despite the absurd silliness we all know versions of the 7 castaways in our own lives. This made them REAL, despite their often caricaturized state. Add in the fact that the castaways never really learn their lessons, & the parallels to reality could become depressingly obvious, were they not so hilarious. Never before nor since has tv been so existential, & simple, at the same time. The show was about total illogic, yet it made perfect sense, especially the more its slapstick & absurdism pushed the pedal to the metal.
Another element in the show’s greatness was that it featured, like The Honeymooners, the second all time great comedy team on television: Bob Denver’s Gilligan and Alan Hale, Jr.'s The Skipper. Whereas Gleason and Carney were more akin to the sentimental comedy of a Charlie Chaplin, Denver and Hale were Laurel And Hardy sorts. Who was the straight man and who was the comic relief? Both were both. The show also featured some queries that only an Absurdist could appreciate, such as: where did they get all the stuff they have on the island if they only went on a three hour cruise? Why couldn’t the genius Professor and veteran old salt Skipper design a sea-worthy vessel? What was Gilligan’s first name (rumor has it that Willy was it, although it was never spoken in the series proper)? Also, the series featured the immortal existential query: Ginger or Mary Ann? Most men say Mary Ann, but I’ll be honest; it’s Ginger in a walk, although Mary Ann has held up very well over the years- perhaps the sexiest septuagenarian ever!
In looking back at the rest of the sitcoms from the 1960s, especially the
‘high concept’ sort- like The Addams Family, The Munsters, My
Mother The Car, Bewitched, I Dream Of Jeannie, My Favorite
Martian, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, etc.- they all
depended upon, well, the highness, so to speak, of their concept. I mean,
were Barbara Eden or Elizabeth Montgomery really indispensable in their roles as
a genie and witch? Could not either of them have been paired up with their male
mates and basically have had the show’s premises been the same? Was Uncle
Fester the reason anyone watched The Addams Family? No. All of the actors
were replaceable. But, not so with Get Smart.
First, it was written by the great comic minds of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Second, it spoofed the Cold War in such an outrageous manner that even The Prisoner would have been proud. Third, it specifically lampooned the then popular James Bond films of Sean Connery, especially with all its high tech gadgetry, as well as The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Lastly, it had the great comic talent and timing of Don Adams. Now, before you scoff at Adams’ being mentioned in such high regard, think of anyone else in the role, uttering such lines as, ‘Would you believe....?’ or ‘Missed it by that much.’ And that is the mark of greatness. Just as only Bob Denver could be Gilligan, only Don Adams could be Maxwell Smart (aka Agent 86- get the reference?) Yes, there were solid supporting actors, such as Barbara Feldon and William Platt, as well as guest tar villains and co-workers, and the battles between Smart’s CONTROL and the evil KAOS organization were hilarious. But, none of it works without Adams. Originally, Tom Poston was considered for the role. While Poston’s a good comic actor, most notable in the Bob Newhart sitcoms, he was no Don Adams.
Get Smart was a great sitcom that worked in spite of its high concept roots, and all because of one man, Don Adams, who proved that great sitcoms are not necessarily premised on great comedy teams, but one great comic actor. And a good deal of great writing, of course.
Now, on to the series that started my musing on this subject. The Odd Couple was the best sitcom of the 1970s, the Golden Age of television situation comedies. Thus, since it was the best of the best, it has a strong claim to being the greatest sitcom in American television history, and possibly in world history. It worked well because Jack Klugman, as sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison, and Tony Randall, as neat freak photographer, Felix Unger, are simply the best comedy team to ever appear in the medium. They had the pathos of Gleason and Carney, from The Honeymooners, the physical comedy of Denver and Hale, from Gilligan’s Island, plus terrific writing and the best use of guest stars in any American television show, any genre. While the show is definitely a period piece from the 1970s, it is not immured there. Like The Honeymooners, with a bit different set of accoutrements, the series could be set anywhere in human history.
In a bit of irony, the role of Felix, as first played on Broadway, in Neil Simon’s play, was essayed by Art Carney. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon took over the roles in the 1968 film version, but neither had the exact chemistry Klugman and Randall did. By the fifth and final season the show had developed the same aura of The Honeymooners, in that one knew what would happen, but not exactly how it would happen. As the saying goes, this show never jumped the shark.
In an earlier essay on the series I wrote:
Like GI, TOC left its mark on pop culture. Oscar & Felix- the names alone- invoke the archetypes of slob & neat freak, wild id & anal retentive ego. The famous episode where the boys appear on the game show Password, is still remembered for Oscar’s slow boil-come-to-a-head-clue of Aristophanes to elicit Felix’s reply of ‘ridiculous’. The most famous quote from the series was the great line: ‘Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS of U and ME.’ This line was Felix’s in the episode ‘My Strife in Court’. Felix was in court for scalping opera tickets to a woman. While cross-examining the woman in court, Felix asked the woman if he told her he had been selling the ticket. The woman says she just assumed he was. Felix pounces & nails her with the ‘assume’ quote.
In short, while there were great shows in the 1970s that were more political, none was better at what a sitcom is about, comedy derived from certain situations, than was The Odd Couple. Randall and Klugman reigned supreme, in this regard.
But, they were not without competition. In the mid 1980s I recall seeing
comedian Bill Cosby on the Phil Donahue talk show. He was pushing his own
mediocre sitcom, at the time, and as it had been #1 in the ratings, for a few
years, it was drawing comparisons to Norman Lear’s breakthrough comedy, All
In The Family, from over a decade earlier, which similarly had been a
ratings titan. Cosby then showed off both his envy and stupidity when, on
national tv, he declared that he did not think All In The Family a good
show because its lead character Archie Bunker was an unapologetic bigot. Yet,
that was the POINT! The show’s episodes did not follow in the now noxious
habit of tidying up every episode at its ending. Similarly, like most real world
bigots, Archie Bunker was unrepentant, although late in the series run, viewers
found out part of Archie’s bigotry stemmed from emotional sufferings he
endured as a poor Great Depression era child.
Whereas Garry Marshall built a 1970s sitcom empire based upon relatively lightweight comedies like Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley (the exception being his first hit, The Odd Couple), Lear built a stable of hit comedies based upon social issues: Maude was based upon feminism; The Jeffersons was an extension of bigotry, based on All In The Family; Good Times was based on poverty; One Day At A Time was about the aftermath of divorce, etc. But none was better than Lear’s first (just as The Odd Couple was Marshall’s first). While Archie had many foils: Lionel and George Jefferson, his wife Edith (‘Dingbat’), and his son-in-law Mike (‘Meathead’), he was really a one man wrecking crew, and as played by Carroll O’Connor, a great character. TV Guide once voted Archie Bunker the greatest character in American television history, and that could still hold true today. But he is great because of his great flaws, and the slow way that, over the years, he recognized a few of them; even if he was not able to change. Compared to Cosby’s benign (benighted?) and neutered Cliff Huxtable, Archie Bunker was ‘real.’
The show was a rework of a 1960s British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part, but the series was so true to its time and place that both the show and its main character are quintessentially American. On the down side, the very essence of the show cannot be extricated from its Vietnam/Watergate heyday, even as some of its themes resonate still. One has to look at the slew of predictable television shows on today- cops and lawyers, medical dramas, fantasies, banal and formulaic sitcoms, dull ‘reality’ shows, to see that a show that really pushed the envelope, as all the Norman Lear shows did, would likely score well in the ratings. If nothing else, it could help turn the tide against the conventional conservatism of Political Correctness. In one other way, this show was important, as it was the first of what would be called ‘slob comedies’- the likes to be followed by Married....With Children and Roseanne; two shows inferior to the original. All In The Family was NOT the greatest sitcom ever made, although a couple dozen of its episodes are gems. It simply went on too long (its last few seasons plus the ill-considered and fey Archie Bunker’s Place), and got too diluted. But, in its heyday, it showed what the medium of television could do in handling issues like abortion, rape, racism, illegal wars, menopause, and a plethora of others. Its biggest flaw was failing to show that left Wingers were just as dumb, bigoted, and sanctimonious as Right Wingers. But, it was, undoubtedly, flaws and all, a great sitcom.
This brings me to the estimable The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ok, its theme song is (bar possibly the theme from The Twilight Zone) the most covered in television history. But, it was a great show, and the flagship series for the third great sitcom production company of the 1970s, along with Norman Lear and Garry Marshall. MTM, like those other two powerhouses, had a stable of shows it produced- from this one to The Bob Newhart Show to Phyllis and Rhoda (spinoffs of this show- as well as the drama Lou Grant), and a myriad of other shows. All three companies took up the banner Desilu left. Why was it a great show? First, there is Mary Tyler Moore- a great looking babe with a great acting ability and underrated comic ability. She is a reactor, in the mode of Buster Keaton or Bob Newhart, albeit in a subtler way. She first came to prominence in the 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, which is often cited as a great sitcom. It’s certainly good, but Moore’s own show surpassed its forebear in every way: better characters, better actors, more realism, and dealing with adult issues, while still being able to have humor emerge in slapstick (see Ted Knight) or truly situational comedy, like the Chuckles the Clown funeral scene. After spending the whole show chiding others over Chuckles’ death in a peanut suit, squeezed by an elephant, it’s Mary who loses it at the funeral:
This was a show, despite not being in the Norman Lear stable, that first explored the life of a woman’s libber; unmarried and not desperate. Yet, there was none of the ‘topicality’ that dates All In the Family. Yes, styles do, a bit, but like The Odd Couple, it is timeless. The final episode of the series was one of the most watched in television history, but it was also one of the lesser episodes, and started a dismal trend toward ending television shows with sappiness. After a group hug, the cast heads out. Compare that to the perfectly in character ending for The Odd Couple, two years earlier, wherein Felix salutes Oscar, after remarrying Gloria, by dumping a trash can over the apartment floor. Oscar says he’ll clean it up as a tribute to Felix. When Felix leaves, Oscar walks away without cleaning up the garbage. Felix re-enters the apartment and puts the trash back in the can. Just perfect! Of course, the sappy ending this show started reached its nadir a few years later when M*A*S*H* ended its 11 year run. Nonetheless, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a classic, and a great sitcom, I watched every week as a boy.
Along with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show was one of the mainstays of the MTM sitcom empire of the 1970s. And like Moore’s show, there were no great comedy teams; only the incomparable reaction comedy of Newhart, and a motley crew of regulars who played gag man to his straight man. Because his later hit series Newhart (itself a quite good sitcom) was, in its great final episode, revealed to be a dream of the character Newhart played in this show, psychologist Bob Hartley, and that last episode is amongst the most famous in tv history, this first sitcom of Newhart’s (he has an earlier variety show of the same name in the early 1960s) is often forgotten. Or, at least, underestimated. That’s a shame. It shouldn’t be. It was a great adult comedy. Nary a child in any episode. In fact, Newhart was once told that the producers wanted Suzanne Pleshette, who played his character’s wife, Emily, to get pregnant, and Newhart replied, ‘Great, so who are you going to get to play Bob?’ That was the end of that idea. It’s a shame there are so few people, in any of the arts, with the strength of character that Newhart showed, to stand against the lowest common denominator. But, the sexy and sultry-voiced Pleshette was only one of the great supporting characters, which included Bill Daily (fresh off of an I Dream Of Jeannie run), Peter Bonerz, Marcia Wallace, and a bevy of wacky ‘patients,’ including Jack Riley, John Fiedler, Howard Hesseman, and occasional appearances by Tom Poston, who’d become a regular on Newhart.
Like Moore’s show, and The Odd Couple, this show really has not dated; a tribute to its writing and the universality of its characters who were never stereotypes, merely archetypes (albeit stretched a bit). The series’ final episode spoofed the weepfest ending of Mary Tyler Moore’s show, and showed why Newhart lasted decades in the business (as well as a fearlessness to tweak his boss).
Then there was Barney Miller; a show whose titular character was not even that funny, but who was a police captain in a precinct filled with zany cops and zanier prisoners. It was another classic of the 1970s Golden Age of sitcoms. Like many other successful sitcoms, it spawned a spinoff series, Fish, helmed by one of the series’ early regulars, Abe Vigoda. That show bombed but Barney Miller ran for eight seasons on ABC. The other officers (mostly detectives) included a Polish cop who was legendarily dumb, Wojo (Max Gail), a snazzy black cop, Harris (Ron Glass), a gambling Japanese cop, Yemana (Jack Soo), and Puerto Rican Chano (Gregory Sierra). Later characters who were added, as other characters left or died, were gung ho Inspector Luger (James Gregory), Napoleon complected short cop Levitt (Ron Carey), and Jewish intellectual Dietrich (Steve Landesberg). While the first season featured home scenes between Barney and his wife (Barbara Barrie), later episodes were strictly set in the detective's squad room, and the very idea of rotating fruitcakes was later copied by the good (not great) 1980s sitcom Night Court. In essence, the sitcom became a de facto 24 minute comic play, with only one set available. After the second season it was very rare that any action took place off the main squad room set.
The multi-ethnic cast of the show resembled, in a superficial way, the cast of another ABC sitcom of the era, the juvenile delinquents known as Sweathogs on Welcome Back, Kotter, with the Miller character as the grownup Mr. Kotter stand in trying to reign in the juvenile antics of his ‘children.’ The differences between the two shows, however, were more than just the age of the characters and settings. Barney Miller was taut and well written, and featured, in my book, the best large ensemble of comedic actors in television history. Think about it: I Love Lucy was all Lucille Ball. The Bob Newhart Show had great supporting roles, but none of them rivaled Newhart himself. Gilligan’s Island, The Honeymooners, and The Odd Couple were all propelled by great comedy duos. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H* had good ensembles, but Barney Miller, with its play-like atmosphere, delved further into character and ‘situations,’ whereas M*A*S*H* simply ran too long and had too many flaccid and preachy episodes. Barney Miller, however, went out on the top of its game.
As a final note, and as a youth who had my unfair share of dealings with the NYC Police of the 1970s (from Serpico to Barney Miller) there is utter truth to the claim that Barney Miller is and was the most realistic cop show ever to grace television. Forget all the glamorized portrayals in dramas from Dragnet to the CSI franchises; Barney Miller was it, just as (in many ways) Welcome Back, Kotter (along with The White Shadow) was the best representation of high school kids ever put on tv (if you overlook the fact of thirtysomethings playing teenagers). Barney Miller was a classic of the sitcom genre, and a great piece of American television entertainment.
M*A*S*H* was another unequivocally great sitcom from the 1970s,
American television’s Golden Age of sitcoms. It ran for eleven years on CBS
and underwent many changes in personnel, ala Barney
Miller. It also metamorphosed from a Buster Keatonesque type humor, in
its early years, to a more Charlie Chaplinesque humor in its senescence. Not
that this was always a bad thing, for along with every sappy, bleeding heart
liberal episode there was a touching episode of depth; something the Trapper
John era show could not muster.
It had a good cast, but the writing was never as consistently good as others of the great sitcoms listed, and the actors were also hit and miss. This is because it ran much longer than the other sitcoms. The major players in the series- Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Harry Morgan, Larry Linville, David Ogden Stiers, and Mike Farrell, were usually spot on, but lesser characters, like those that played Father Mulcahy, Radar O'Reilly, Klinger, Trapper John, and Colonel Blake were less reliable. McLean Stevenson, who played Colonel Blake, provided perhaps the most genuinely moving moment in all of sitcom history, when Radar came in and read a telegram that, after being transferred stateside, his plane had been shot down, with no survivors. Now, compare that episode with the series finale- a bloated 90 minute schmoozefest that made the ending for The Mary Tyler Moore Show look like an Ingmar Bergman film.
That the series lasted three times as long as the war it portrayed, and
given that they really screwed up with the internal chronology of events (not
Odd Couple, another great sitcom derived from a successful film), it is
amazing that the series did last so long. Like many great shows, though, none of
its regulars ever achieved the kind of success after the show that they did with
the show. There were many great episodes, but, of all the sitcoms so far noted, M*A*S*H*
had by far the most filler. My favorite character was probably Colonel Potter,
and my least favorite was Corporal Klinger.
The oft-debated question is- which was better? M*A*S*H*, the 1970 film by Robert Altman, or M*A*S*H*, the television series? But, as noted earlier, it’s likely just a preference issue. The film was bolder and more sacrilegious, but also lacked the depth and humanity the series had. But, while the series had moments that went higher than the film it also reached nadirs the film could not. Again, it's preference. But, no matter what the answer, even its biggest detractors cannot deny M*A*S*H* its place in the pantheon of great American sitcoms.
The last great sitcom from the Golden Era of the 1970s was another MTM
production- WKRP In Cincinnati. Like the other classic shows from that
stable, in many ways, WKRP was a classic sitcom. It did not push boundaries the
way the Norman Lear sitcoms did, but it was not as lightweight as most of the
Garry Marshall sitcoms. The show was created by Hugh Wilson, a former radio
executive, and based on his experiences working in advertising as a client of a
classic album-oriented rock radio station. The cast consisted included Gary
Sandy as the station manager Andy Travis, Howard Hesseman as DJ Dr. Johnny
Fever, Gordon Jump as station manager Mr. Carlson, Loni Anderson as his
intelligent bimbo secretary Jennifer, Tim Reid as DJ Venus Flytrap, Jan Smithers
as Bailey, Richard Sanders as newsman Les Nessman, and Frank Bonner as salesman
Herb Tarleck. While a good ensemble, the show’s four funniest characters were
Fever- a drug user, Mr. Carlson- a Mama’s Boy, the nerdy Les, and the
lecherous Herb, who always lusted for Jennifer.
Many episodes centered around the dumb things Carlson, Les, and Herb did, or the wacked out adventures of Fever. Next to the Chuckles the Clown death episode on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, perhaps the most fondly remembered sitcom episode of all time is the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP. The show revolves around Mr. Carlson’s attempts to prove he can run the station as well as Travis. He cooks up a turkey giveaway promotion by dropping live turkeys out of a helicopter over a shopping mall. As turkeys cannot fly, they die, crashing into buildings and cars as shoppers run for their lives. What makes the event even funnier is that, like the film My Dinner With Andre, we only hear (and do not see) a description of the event from on the spot reporter Les Nessman, who, at first, believes the turkeys to be parachutists, but when he realizes they are turkeys, goes into a re-enactment of the famed radio broadcast of the Hindenburg Disaster of broadcaster Herbert Morrison, replete with an ‘O the humanity!’ DJ Fever quickly switches from the disaster, chiming in that the mall is being bombed with turkeys. Later, Mr. Carlson and Herb return to the station, covered in turkey feathers, and Carlson says, in a daze, ‘As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.’
What sells the episode, and many of the crazy antics in the series, is that one believes that the characters are sincere. And, of all the sitcoms so far surveyed, WKRP is truly the most ensemble based, as it never had any real star. The show only ran four seasons- the shortest run for any of the great sitcoms after The Honeymooners and Gilligan’s Island, but it has fared well in syndication. Predictably, none of the actors had much success after the series, save for Howard Hesseman, who had a mild comedy hit in the mid-1980s with Head Of The Class; a show starring an actor who shares my name, and later went on to produce mindless sitcoms for children on cable tv. But, other than that, WKRP In Cincinnati remained the highlight of many of the actors’ careers, as well as the last gasp of a Golden Era for its genre.
In thinking about post-WKRP sitcoms, two fortuities emerged. 1) I could
think of no truly great sitcoms in the last three decades, and 2) I rounded out
my list at an even ten, with all of them beginning in the 1970s or earlier, and
seven of the ten representing the Golden Age of the 1970s. In thinking over the
last three decades, there were some good sitcoms: Night Court, Cheers,
and Seinfeld are the three most well known ‘choices.’ But Night
Court was Barney
Miller Lite, Cheers, like M*A*S*H*,
ran too long, and, frankly, I think Ted Danson’s later sitcom, Becker,
was actually better written and acted, and Seinfeld failed for two
reasons: first, it was really an inferior version of the old 1950s sitcom, The
Abbott And Costello Show, and two, one never really cared about the
characters. Add to that the fact that for every memorable Soup Nazi
episode there were three or four simply bad episodes and a bevy of rather
generic episodes. One can give good mention (as I did earlier) to Newhart,
as well, but it also ran a bit too long.
I then thought of Married....With Children, and was tempted to name it, for it was the best example of a slob comedy around. It was vulgar, anarchic, utterly disrespectful, and very funny- at its best. But, it also ran too long and, despite sexy Kelly Bundy, also fell into routine banality in later seasons. But, it was far better than pretentious crap like fellow slob comedy Roseanne. Then there was Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, 30 Rock, The Office, Scrubs, but every episode I’ve seen of those shows mark them as utterly generic and non-innovative. Of course, innovation gets harder as time wends onward. And don’t even get me started on the crap that was The Cosby Show and its spinoffs. Two latterday exceptions to the lack of possible greatness in sitcoms have been The Simpsons and, even more so, Family Guy. Unfortunately, they are both more properly satires and cartoons, not really sitcoms. Besides, The Simpsons long ago jumped the shark.
In looking farther back in time, a pretty good argument for greatness can
be made for I Love Lucy, but that show was all Lucy, not SITUATION comedy,
and it also ran too long. Other 1950s entries were simply too mediocre: Burns
And Allen, Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, etc. The
High Concept 1960s offered only one other possibility as being overlooked, and
that was the gleefully non-PC F Troop, which ran only two seasons. But,
in truth, it was quite formulaic, even with many brilliant moments from Larry
Storch and Ken Berry. The underrated The Monkees also ran only two years,
and was quite innovative vs. other sitcoms, but it never had much depth. They
were better comedians than musicians. The same lack of depth can be aimed at
copycat shows like I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched, The
Munsters and The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green
Acres, The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, etc. And,
Desilu shows like The Andy Griffith Show were simply too tame and
predictable. Hogan’s Heroes offered some quality, but was too formulaic
in its scenarios- the Nazis scheme and lose (repeat formula).
The 1970s offered many shows from the three titans of sitcoms: Garry Marshall, Norman Lear, and MTM, but none matched the shows that made my cut, from those ranks. Mork And Mindy had a few brilliant moments, but it was all Robin Williams. Three’s Company started the T&A comedy scene, but offered no depth. Sanford And Son, Chico And The Man, and Welcome Back, Kotter offered ethnic humor and little else (although Redd Foxx could be brilliantly funny), while Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts Of Life offered crap. Same with Family Ties. But, while crap like that was the norm, it was this decade which saw the first, and thus far, last, Golden Age of a genre in American television that provided art, and some of it great.
That this seemed to coincide with the last great eras in film, poetry, novels, stage drama, and rock music, may just be a coincidence, but I doubt it. Any connections between the arts, and the subsequent failure of years, is the topic of another essay, however. Sometimes, one must just enjoy. Go ahead.
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