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It has been said that art imitates life. Sooner or later, entertainment catches up with reality and reflects it like a funhouse mirror, often distorted — sometimes hideous, sometimes comical. The turbulent '60s and '70s changed both society and comedy.
In the 1950s, television tended toward both gooey family life and pie-in-the-face comedy and schtick. As the '60s rolled in with war, protests, hallucinogenics, and Hair, sitcoms like Gilligan's Island, Green Acres, and The Brady Bunch, soon seemed irrelevant and too pat. They not only did not reflect the times — they fell behind the times. As America's youth began to feel a surge of independence, marching in protest and making their own music, writers and filmmakers were breaking out of traditional molds and creating more gritty and "realistic" books and films. It was time for The Beverly Hillbillies to move out of their mansion and Ken Berry to move out of Mayberry RFD. Hee Haw had become ho hum.
Producers and studios, such as CBS president Bob Wood, looked for fare that would attract a more urban, youthful — and wealthier — audience that would satisfy the advertisers who paid the bills. New shows were birthed — shows that would reflect life's issues, but with a keen comic touch.
Arguably the biggest plow to push aside tradition and make a way for the new breed of performers, writers, and directors, was Norman Lear. Normal Lear was active during the 1950s, writing for The Colgate Comedy Hour and making movies with producer Bud Yorkin (The Night They Raided Minsky's and Divorce American Style). When Lear saw the British comedy series Till Death Us Do Part, a light bulb went on that lit the TV landscape of the colonies as All in the Family.
Like its British ancestor, All in the Family (January 12, 1971) featured a rude, lower-class, angry bigot (Caroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker) and his long-suffering wife (Jean Stapleton as Edith), as well as live-in daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her husband Mike (Rob Reiner). According to Lear, the show was successful because it showed “real people dealing with real issues.” According to Reiner, it portrayed the worst traits of prejudice and frailty in a humorous way that highlighted just how absurd they are. With 50 million viewers each week, real people were part of the family.
Lest the realm of bigotry be limited to Whites, Lear and Yorkin introduced the world to The Jeffersons in 1975. Lear's idea of a “Black Archie Bunker” began with George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) appearing and tussling with Archie on Family. His popularity led to his own show with Louise “Weezy” Jefferson (Isabel Sanford), and impertinent maid Florence (Marla Gibbs). They were surrounded by enough foreigners and interracial couples to constantly irritate and incite George. The show's popularity showed that, cross-culturally, Americans were ready to receive Blacks as sitcom stars that were more real than Amos ’n’ Andy and Diahann Carroll's pallid Julia.
Norman Lear also birthed Good Times and Sanford and Son, two additional series that set a trend for portraying the underclasses as more than just losers and comic foils. Then came Maude, the first spin-off from All in the Family.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Maude (Bea Arthur) was a female Archie Bunker, but in an entirely different realm. She and fourth-husband Walter (Bill Macy) were middle-aged and upper-middle class, and faced issues of the day from a liberal, liberated perspective. Maude was Edith's cousin from a wealthy suburb in New York. She was outspoken, strong-willed, and equal to men, reflecting the women's movements of the ’60s and ’70s. Her perspective covered nouveau-sitcom topics including alcoholism, menopause, birth control, women's lib, vasectomy, face-lifts, abortion, and depression. Yet in a humorous way.
The humor grew from the rich soil of two I Love Lucy veteran writers: Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller, as well as a cast of comedy veterans. As with most of the contemporary sitcoms, writers were encouraged to bring their own life situations to the table, which is why they were so successful. It was not easy for the public to relate to Lucy stomping grapes with a feisty Italian woman, ending in a swim in grape juice, or Jerry Van Dyke talking to his mother through the grill of a 1928 Porter (not to mention talking horses and other sitcom fantasies). These were among what one might consider pseudo-reality shows — shows that depict real-life situations handled by contrived characters trying to make a point with enough humor to relieve the tension of the story.
One hot-button issue of that era was the Vietnam War, a conflict that many of that generation considered to be a contrived war. Many older citizens of the time drew parallels to the recent Korean War, another controversial conflict that seemed to make little sense. Out of that era came Larry Gelbart's M*A*S*H, adapted from Robert Altman’s Oscar-winning film of the same name. Airing in the fall of 1972, M*A*S*H combined the backdrop of the Korean War with the antiwar sentiment of the Vietnam War era. The show explored the lives of the characters based at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea. Alan Alda played chief surgeon Captain Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, irrepressibly humorous, inveterately rebellious, and indisputably talented as a surgeon. He and his comrades, including Dr. “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) and Dr. B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell) were forced into wartime service in a mobile hospital that looked more like a tent sale at Ollie's Bargain Center than Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. They tried to live the “good life” when they could: drinking homemade hootch, chasing nurses, and practicing their putting. They also disregarded army regulations and protocols, resulting in the kind of conflict that makes good humor. Add to this the cross-dressing Corporal Max Klinger (Jamie Farr), Senior Nurse Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the incompetent Dr. Frank Burns (Larry Linville), and an assortment of friends and foes — both military and civilian, and you have Grouch Marx meets Patton. The humor was as black and biting as the censors would allow.
Reality can be harsh at times, and the best means of escape — even for about 22 minutes — is the sitcom, where skilled verbal surgeons can dissect life's situations and make the parts into characters you can identify — and cry — and laugh — with.
Fun TV Sitcom Facts
Critics initially called All in the Family “a plotless wonder,” “a welcome breath of stale air,” and “a flop.”
The 2½-hour M*A*S*H finale, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen,” was watched by 77% of the people watching TV that night (02/28/1983).
Corporal Klinger, who wanted to “Section 8” himself out of Korea, married a Korean woman, and was the only 4077th member to stay in the country.
All in the Family jumped from #12 in the ratings to #1 and stayed there for five years running, more than any other show in TV history.
Maude answers the phone: “No, this is not Mr. Findlay; this is Mrs. Findlay! Mr. Findlay has a much higher voice.”
Maude ends an argument: “God'll get you for that, Walter.”
The Jeffersons was the first sitcom to feature an interracial couple: Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker) Willis, neighbors.