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Wouldn't it be nice if our problems could be solved in 30 minutes? Or we could have the perfect children or spouse? Television allows us to spend a few moments spying on families that are just like ours — or, thankfully, not like ours!
Even when the honeymoon is over, there is still laughter and joy to be found in family life. Regarding the success of family sitcoms in general, the most famous Honeymooner of all, Jackie Gleason, told his writers, "Make it real, make it the way people live. If it isn't credible, nobody's going to laugh." From the squeaky-clean Father Knows Best to the musically-inclined and acne-free Partridge Family; from the lower-middle-class bigoted Archie Bunker to the upper-class bigoted George Jefferson; there are families that either mirror our own or make us glad we're not like them.
In any case, TV families through the years have both mirrored and parodied society. The Honeymooners began as a sketch on Jackie Gleason's Cavalcade of Stars. The concept that was meant merely to fill time became a beloved and eternally-syndicated show featuring an irresistible force (Ralph Kramden) and an immovable object (Alice Kramden). Ralph, played out loud by Gleason, was a bus driver with schemes as big as his bus and a mouth to match. Alice, his attractive homemaker wife played by Audrey Meadows, was a master of put-downs and stoic defiance. Through all the hollering, sneaking, arguing, and perfectly-timed comebacks, their love never failed and usually ended up with Ralph's signature love song: "Baby, You're the greatest!" followed by a big bear hug and a camera-shy kiss. Of course, Ralph had a sidekick, the slow-witted, naive, but incredibly talented Ed Norton (Art Carney). The anguish of Gleason's own Bushwick, Brooklyn, childhood — his father deserted the family when Gleason was eight, and his mother died 10 years later — fueled the humor of his pipe dreams and bellowing. People could connect with his persona.
Another show based on the reality of its creator was The Dick Van Dyke Show. Carl Reiner was looking for a premise to showcase the writing talents he honed on Sid Caesar's variety program. Living in New Rochelle, NY, and commuting
to Manhattan every day, Reiner thought it would be innovative to feature a writer who lived in New Rochelle and commuted to New York. Although the material was good, the networks didn't care for the idea; nor did they care for Reiner starring in his own creation. So, the change was made from a "Bronx Jew" to "a midwestern gentile." Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) Petrie rode the wave of interest in young, handsome, stylish, successful couples — ala John and Jackie Kennedy — to multiple Emmys and perpetual syndication. The writers drew upon their own experiences, and the actors upon their comic gifts, to take simple, everyday incidents — sneezing, painting a wall, suspected nursery mix-ups, dating, bar mitzvahs — and turn them into classic TV.
An up-and-coming stand-up comedian once visited the set of the Van Dyke Show in 1963, leaving the cast and crew laughing, while leaving with inspiration for a show that would bloom 20 years later. The new formula of using real-life situations and keeping them real, which Bill Cosby spent his entire life perfecting, brought success to Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable and his family in 1984's The Cosby Show. "Cliff" (Cosby) and Claire (Phylicia Ayers-Allen Rashad) raised a family of siblings in an environment that was more gentle and nurturing than the typical dysfunctional TV families, where the kids were rebellious punks and the parents were hapless and helpless. Although the Huxtable children had their own quirks and traits, they were raised by stern and loving parents who taught them the finer virtues while training them to be independent and to keep their noses clean. Cosby fought the impression that "only white people have a lock on living together in a home where the father is a doctor and the mother a lawyer and the children are constantly being told to study by their parents." No other sitcom had been so consistently watched by so many, scoring the #1 slot four years straight.
Sadly, Cosby's portrayal of family life met with a backlash that illustrated a way of life that was perhaps more realistic (except for the fact that problems were still resolved in under 30 minutes). Programs like Married . . . with Children and The Simpsons brought back the dysfunctional family and the high ratings. But in 1998, another stand-up comic with a past rich with material, the self-proclaimed "domestic gaahdess," the "female Ralph Kramden," hit it big with Roseanne.
The cynical Roseanne Barr left home at age 18, and by age 25 was raising three kids in a mobile home in Denver. She worked as a diner cook to supplement her then-husband's income as a hotel clerk. She had many other traumatic family and personal issues and leads a controversial life. Her show's philosophy is simply stated: "Shows are dominated by fathers who know best and their wives are so enchanted with everything they do. I wanted to be the first mom ever to be a mom on TV. I wanted to send a message about mothers and how much we do." The Conners, Roseanne and Dan (John Goodman) were working stiffs at a time when the economy was slumping and morality was shifting. They fit right in, fighting and belching and welcoming societal outcasts. Interestingly, the show was produced by Cosby producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, and written by ex-Cosby writer, Matt Williams.
Although there have been many family-oriented sitcoms through the years, some believable, some highly sanitized, some forgettable, we cannot leave without examining TV's most famous Italian family, partly the product of a Jewish mind. Philip Rosenthal teamed with stand-up comedian Ray Romano to create Everybody Loves Raymond, about a Long Island sportswriter, his wife Debra (Patricia Heaton), and their three children. That wouldn't be so funny were it not for Ray's mother Marie (Doris Roberts) and father Frank (Peter Boyle), an intrusive, overbearing, but loving couple, who happen to live across the street — way too close. Oh yes, and Ray's dour, obsessive- compulsive, gigantic, police sergeant older brother Robert (Brad Garrett). Although they are uncompromisingly Italian, their idiosyncrasies and daily situations are easily recognizable (and claimed) by anyone. Romano's brother is a policeman; he and his wife have twins; and his parents lived down the street in Queens — once again, art mirrors life. Sixty-nine Emmy nominations and 15 wins prove that life, in the right hands, can be funny. In our next installment, we look at how sitcoms mirrored and mocked society in the turbulent '60s and '70s.