'70s sitcoms

In the 1970-71 TV season, CBS put two sitcoms on the air. Both broke with long-running formats. Both rejected the rural and fantastical settings of most of the sitcoms of the ’60s. Both debuted to inauspicious ratings and cancellation rumors. Both would be warmly embraced by critics and the Emmys and eventually land in the Nielsen top 10. Both were run by writers who occasionally seemed skeptical of television’s ability to confront important ideas and issues, yet both would comment on social issues of the time. And both would change the face of television radically and influence virtually every television comedy up through the present. 

All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show are among the handful of TV series that altered the medium so profoundly that it can be divided roughly into periods before and after their arrival. They ushered in a brief era of sitcoms that tackled the great debates and questions of the time. Yet by the end of the ’70s, nearly every show like them would be marginalized, low-rated, or run off the air by a series of government regulations that aimed to create a safe haven for family-friendly programming, the growing audience for lowest-common-denominator sitcoms like Three’s Company or Laverne And Shirley, and the lack of a network aiming to create an image as a home to quality programming, as CBS fashioned itself in the early parts of the decade.

The ’70s were the apex of the traditional sitcom form, developing the kinds of complicated, ever-changing relationships we’ve come to expect from dramas today. The relationships between Mary Richards and Lou Grant, Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic, and “Hawkeye” Pierce and “Hot Lips” Houlihan grew and changed, and the series depicting these shifting relationships were unafraid to alter their forms or tell essentially dramatic stories to get at their characters’ core. Many of these sitcoms performed early experiments in light serialization, as well. Yet as drama has come to be the dominant, most-respected respected form on TV, TV scholars, fans, and critics seem less aware of the role ’70s sitcoms played in the medium’s evolution. 

70s Sitcoms 101
The best way to dive into ’70s sitcoms is to recreate a classic Saturday night lineup that lasted for only one season. In 1973 and ’74, CBS aired four shows in a row on Saturday nights: All In The Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show. All In The Family came from ’70s super-producer Norman Lear, who aimed to blend broad comedy with biting social satire. Larry Gelbart, who struggled most visibly against the bounds of the form he worked in, produced M*A*S*H. And the final two shows came from MTM Enterprises, which created a new kind of sitcom about witty young professionals, not bound by traditional family lives and finding meaning in the workplace more than the home. By and large, every TV comedy created since the ’70s has its roots in one of these three traditions.

The split between Lear and MTM has particularly defined TV comedy. Lear had a broad, anything-for-a-laugh approach and a penchant for dragging the issues of the day into every episode, often giving them a satirical bent. This subtly contrasted with MTM’s approach, which was more interested in shows with tightly constructed scripts and rigidly defined characters, more like little one-act plays than sitcoms. MTM kept the radical social changes sweeping the United States in the background. Lear put them up front. MTM’s shows often had a rueful poignancy to them, with characters who often seemed to be beaten at every turn, no matter how hard they tried. Lear’s shows were often wackier, but they were also prone to outbursts of emotion, which could seem to come out of nowhere. 

Everything Lear did best was perfectly on display in All In The Family, his first and biggest hit. Centered on one of the finest four-person ensembles in TV history—one assembled only on Lear’s third attempt to cast the roles—Family debuted shortly after New Year’s in 1971 in a TV landscape that CBS president Fred Silverman was convinced wasn’t ready for it. Archie Bunker ranted about “spics and spades.” He and son-in-law Mike argued earnestly about the role racism plays in America. In the pilot, it’s easy to hear the nervousness of the audience at much of the early going, as if every member was asking him or herself, “Am I supposed to be laughing at this?” Modestly funny laugh lines from reliably dimwitted Edith Bunker are greeted with peals of enormous laughter, from an audience seemingly grateful to encounter a typical punch line. Lear had aimed to turn the English series Till Death Us Do Part into a show that would reflect the angry debates occurring around dinner tables across America. In the pilot, it’s easy to sense that he did his job almost too well.

The pilot of All In The Family, buried in a Tuesday timeslot where no one would find it, tanked. CBS received a ridiculously small number of complaints (some accounts number the complaints at only one), and it looked as though the show would be off the air before Lear’s broad, dinner-table comedy could catch on. Instead, the Emmys saved the series. It did so well in the nominations that the show’s producers recruited the cast, all of whom would win Emmys over the show’s run, to perform a skit during the broadcast. The skit proved so popular that the series, newly moved to a promising Saturday 8 p.m. timeslot, shot to the top of the ratings, a position it would remain at for five years. 

Lear had intended Archie as a buffoon, but his frank dismissal of nearly every traditional liberal position made him a poster boy for many ’70s conservatives. The show reflected debates around America, but it also provoked and enhanced them, with Americans seeing themselves in either Archie or Mike and their own arguments in the near-brawls of the show. An issue wasn’t really an issue in America until All In The Family had tackled it, as when the show devoted the first four episodes of its fifth season to the inflation crippling the American economy at the time.

One reason All In The Family’s new 8 p.m. timeslot seemed so promising was because CBS had the other big new comedy critical sensation of the 1970-71 season on at 9 p.m. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had started modestly and grown slightly throughout its first season, also winning a boatload of Emmys. CBS had simply wanted to be in business with Mary Tyler Moore, but she and husband Grant Tinker insisted that she’d only do a show if CBS gave them a blank check to hire the best creative personnel. Tinker and Moore approached two young writers named Allen Burns and James L. Brooks, who had recently worked on the pioneering school-based dramedy Room 222. The two weren’t terribly interested in taking on another TV show, but the chance to work with Moore was too good to pass up. Like Lear, they aimed to break many of the inviolate rules of the sitcom format with their new show.

Most sitcoms before Mary Tyler Moore were either fantasy-based, rural-based, or family-based. Mary Richards didn’t have a husband and kids, the better to distance her from the actress’ previous role as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She was an urban professional. And there were no goofy gimmicks. Mary wasn’t the first single girl in the big city as a protagonist, but she was the first to not have her search for love dominate the show, and she was one of the first to be defined heavily by her job. Mary had a home life with her neighbors and friends, Rhoda and Phyllis, but the longer the show went on, the more scenes at her workplace, a TV station in Minneapolis, dominated it.

Mary Tyler Moore set the template for most of the sitcoms MTM Enterprises, the production company created to produce it, would go on to make. It was shot on film, as opposed to the videotape used on Lear’s shows. The social issues were present, but treated as a fact of life and set in the background. The characters created warm, loving workplace families. The undercurrent of the show was often sad or tragic, emphasizing regrets and dashed hopes. (One famous season-three episode suggested that the only way to avoid crippling depression was to be an idiot.) MTM, in general, was more interested in character interactions and relationships than jokes for their own sake, and its shows tended to be more concerned with what was in good taste and pleasant overall.

Gelbart’s M*A*S*H took some of the advances other shows had made on the dramedy front and shoved them into a show that was as much idiosyncratic political statement as it was sitcom. Gelbart was an old-fashioned gag man who, nonetheless, constantly tried to push against the boundaries of the sitcom form with his TV adaptation of the Robert Altman film about doctors in the Korean War. Gelbart’s arguments with the network—as he tried to get rid of a laugh track, film more cinematically, and create characters with human foibles—paved the way for more sitcom auteurs to come, even though he lost many battles. Gelbart lasted just four seasons on M*A*S*H, and the show can be painful to watch in places. Its ’70s liberalism and well-meaning nature constantly conflicts with its setting and the rules of good drama. Yet it’s one of the most beloved TV shows in history, running successfully in syndication to this day, when its showrunners’ struggle to wrest creative control away from the networks remains relevant.

MTM also produced The Bob Newhart Show. While it follows the usual MTM house style, it has its own quirks that would go on to define a movement within MTM and the producers who trained there. Like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart is about a group of young, urban professionals who have sophisticated, wacky adventures, but Bob Newhart has a serious streak of surrealism running through it, inspired by some of the goofier sitcoms of the ’60s. Newhart’s character, Bob Hartley, worked as a psychiatrist at a practice that got stranger as the seasons went on. His patients and group therapy sessions got more bizarre as well. Fairly early on, the producers of The Bob Newhart Show realized that the best way to make a show starring Bob Newhart was to make him the straight man to a bunch of kooks. This formula would serve them—and many other MTM shows that would borrow the setup—well.

This classic TV lineup would last only one season. CBS began to use the post-Family slot to try to turn other shows into hits, and M*A*S*H became a big enough hit on its own to prop up other weak spots on the schedule. At the midpoint of the decade, a government ruling that the 8 p.m. hour needed to be filled with programming suitable for families sent All In The Family scrambling to 9 p.m. on Mondays—a scheduling move from which its ratings never wholly recovered—and prompted the rise of shows like Happy Days. Despite its short life, however, the lineup stands as one of the best in TV history, and it’s hard to think of a better introduction to the types of sophisticated ’70s sitcoms than these four shows.

Intermediate Studies
Though the influence of Lear and MTM on other comedy producers was felt almost immediately after Family and Moore debuted, their influence extended into future decades. Save for Seinfeld and its immediate descendents, every other TV comedy since those shows owes a debt to one of them. Does a show favor gently funny character relationships and poignant moments over comedy at all costs? Then it’s probably descended from MTM writers. Does it favor broad comedy and social satire above all? Then it’s probably descended from Lear’s stable of writers (and the Saturday Night Live writers influenced by what Lear was doing). Cheers and The Cosby Show? MTM. Golden Girls and Roseanne? Lear. The Simpsons? MTM. South Park? Lear. The Office? MTM. 30 Rock? Lear. 

This split was already apparent in the ’70s, as the two producers came to dominate the airwaves. (While Gelbart's style was important to sitcoms in the ’80s and ’90s, the producers it most influenced in the ’70s were those who already had hit shows and could make demands, like Lear and the MTM gang. There’s one important exception to this, which we’ll deal with later.) Lear’s approach was more successful in the ’70s, but MTM’s approach has proved more successful over time, perhaps because the company brought in more young writers, while Lear worked often with sitcom veterans who joined his shows as last hurrahs. 

Some of Lear’s best-known shows in the ’70s spun off from his biggest hit: All In The Family. The best is Maude, a funny show centered on a liberal, female version of Archie Bunker—though Lear’s affections were far more with Maude than they ever were with Archie—and launched the career of Bea Arthur. But The Jeffersons and Good Times also remain worth watching. Both offer two very different takes on the black experience in the United States. The Jeffersons followed Archie’s neighbors as they came into wealth and moved into a predominantly white apartment building. The show ran longer than All In The Family (which eventually became Archie Bunker’s Place), and its later seasons descended into dullness. Initially, though, the show was remarkably funny, and stars Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford were among the best at pulling off Lear’s over-the-top style. A spin-off of Maude, Good Times aimed to show life in poorer neighborhoods. It largely succeeded while gracefully integrating melodrama into the Lear formula—until it was taken over by Jimmie Walker’s J.J. character and his catchphrase “Dyno-mite!” 


The other three Lear-related shows that still hold interest for modern audiences have nothing to do with All In The Family. Sanford And Son was Lear’s other remake of a British series, based on the show Steptoe And Son. Sold as a show about a black variation on Archie and Mike, Sanford quickly got much sillier than Family, but the chemistry between Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson still sizzles. Of similar interest is Lear’s late-in-the-decade soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an uneven show, but one of the period’s most ambitious, airing every night in syndication and filled with ludicrous gags. It also works well as a transition to the final show to come out of the Lear tradition.

Susan Harris (who would later create The Golden Girls) created and ran Soap, another broad soap opera satire. Though Lear did not produce it, Harris brought Lear’s appreciation for social satire to the show, the first American series to feature a gay character prominently (though the character, played by Billy Crystal, seems a dated stereotype now). Harris also took Lear’s love of broad comedy to its logical extreme. Soap nearly invented the gag-a-second pace that would become the hallmark of later Lear-inspired shows like Arrested Development and remains blisteringly funny to this day, though its satire can seem scattershot.

Writers trained at MTM would go on to dominate the sitcom landscape, but the company itself had trouble continuing its aesthetic after Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show. The two Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs—Rhoda and Phyllis—both have their moments, but ended up hamstrung by bad creative decisions. While it was exciting at the time to marry Rhoda off, her marriage ended up dragging the show down in its middle seasons. Similarly, Phyllis’ escape to San Francisco after her philandering husband died fit the poignancy of MTM shows, but became a decision the show could never escape. The producers tried too hard to play up this central tragedy while still running away from it in the name of goofy jokes.  (Numerous other MTM shows—including Paul Sand In Friends And Lovers, The Tony Randall Show, and The Betty White Show—have bright spots, but all had short runs and are impossible to find on DVD.)

The best MTM sitcom after Moore was canceled took the mold of The Bob Newhart Show. Both its network and production company largely disliked it, but audiences embraced it. WKRP In Cincinnati takes place in a radio station full of goofballs, and with its constant barrage of jokes and videotape aesthetic often seems more like a Lear show. But at its core, it’s still an MTM production. The characters are lovable losers, the central setting is a workplace mired in defeatism, and the episodes have an undercurrent of rueful regret. WKRP is also the wackiest show MTM would produce, and it would go on to be the production company’s biggest hit in syndication. (Due to extensive music usage, only the first season is available on DVD. The current release is disappointing, thanks to the replacement of so many tracks.)

MTM floundered after the mid-’70s as Paramount Television Studios swooped in to hire many of its best writers, including Brooks, promising them creative freedom if they’d just create a show the network could sell to ABC. Moore veterans Brooks, David Davis, Ed. Weinberger, and Stan Daniels wanted to create a “guys’ show.” What they came up with was Taxi, one of the funniest sitcoms of the ’70s, but also its most depressing. Set at a garage full of people who want to be anything but taxi drivers, Taxi boasted a stellar ensemble that included Danny DeVito, Andy Kaufman, and Christopher Lloyd). Its gritty New York setting was surprisingly accurate for a network sitcom, and its grim mood challenged audiences, leading to the show being canceled twice. It’s the first great American sitcom about giving up on the American dream. (Brooks and fellow producer Weinberger would also be responsible for The Associates, an odd little show about a law firm of losers—sensing a trend?—that starred Martin Short. The show didn’t find its legs in an abbreviated first season, though it’s worth seeing if you can find it.)


Advanced Studies:
Gelbart’s model of using sitcoms to make personal statements about life and politics would go largely uncopied in the ’70s, when the team-writing method for sitcoms still held considerable sway. (Even M*A*S*H would become team-written, missing Gelbart’s signature one-liners.) One producer who would pick up the Gelbart torch and run with it was the cantankerous Danny Arnold, an acidic man who turned off co-workers as quickly as he hired them. Yet Arnold was responsible for one of the best TV comedies of all time and his biggest hit, Barney Miller.

Like Taxi, Barney Miller was mired in an economically depressed New York City. Like All In The Family, Arnold used his central location—a police precinct—to consider the issues of the day. But Arnold was also interested in larger questions of life, death, and morality, and the scripts he wrote became so bold that he would do away with taping them in front of a studio audience, keeping the cast around until the wee hours of the morning to nail down the tone he wanted. That dark tone was offset by the MTM-esque sense of the workplace as functional family, and the cast was so in sync with one another that the dialogue often felt more naturalistic than typical sitcom dialogue. Barney Miller isn’t appreciably difficult to get into, but it stands as one of the few shows of the decade to blend the lessons of Lear, Gelbart, and MTM. (Another producer who kept trying to blend the lessons of Lear and MTM but kept failing was James Komack, who was held back by lame gag-writing and cast troubles on Chico And The Man and Welcome Back, Kotter. Still seeing an episode or two of each is worth it, particularly for the actors and an idea of how Komack tried to meld his influences.)

The ’70s midpoint would see an onslaught of goofy sitcoms aimed at kids, which ended the dominance of sophisticated, adult-oriented sitcoms in primetime. Where Archie Bunker ranted about the encroaching creep of communism and Mary Richards paved her own way in the workplace, the Fonz was now jerry-rigging jukeboxes by smacking them on Happy Days. Not all of these shows were terrible, but they all aimed much lower than their predecessors. Most of the new hits were produced by Garry Marshall, a man who never met a standard so low he wouldn’t stoop to meet it if it made his show a hit. 

Curiously, Marshall is also responsible for one of the decade’s best sitcoms, The Odd Couple, an adaptation of the hit play and film, with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman locked in one of the great comic duets. Unlike Lear and MTM’s shows, The Odd Couple is timeless, a throwback to the high-concept sitcoms of the ’60s. Oscar and Felix, the uptight snob and the messy slob, are such a perfect duality that the show doesn’t need other characters. In fact, it suffers when there are other characters on screen. Yet the series works because it doesn’t bother with timeliness or social commentary. It just produces the funniest experience it can. The Odd Couple is a great show that doesn’t fit comfortably within any of the movements that dominated the sitcoms of the decade. It’s a ’70s sitcom only because it was produced in the ’70s.


Miscellany:
Marshall’s shows could be awfully stupid, but there are good moments in the early seasons of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy. Happy Days, in particular, starts out as a nostalgic look back at a simpler time many Americans (like Archie Bunker) longed for in the ’70s. (See also: American Graffiti, the sitcom’s obvious inspiration.) As the show continues, it switches from a single-camera to a multi-camera filming style, and the Fonz takes over the series. Both changes would ultimately hurt the show, but the first two seasons offer the best example of Marshall’s style. Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy both start out broad and dumb, but Laverne features winning comic performances from the ensemble, and Mork features early Robin Williams at his least filtered.  If stupid but popular sitcoms of the era are your thing, Three’s Company is far from subtle but boasts great work by John Ritter.

Many sitcoms of the ’60s were still running into the ’70s. Most of these would be canceled within a few years of the decade’s start, but some were producing worthwhile episodes at the beginning of the decade. Green Acres reached some of its weirder peaks, while Get Smart closed out a great run with its weakest season. Also, The Brady Bunch, while not very good, would define the way many kids of the era thought of themselves and become one of the decade’s biggest syndication smashes.

Finally, there are a number of one-season wonders worth a look, including the only show to be canceled after spending its first season as one of the top 10 programs, Bridget Loves Bernie. The show, about a Jew and Catholic marrying, so enraged religious viewers that their vitriol led CBS to pull it in spite of its popularity. (Another short-lived show worth seeking out: Funny Face, which has a winning Sandy Duncan performance at its center.)


The Essentials:

1.) The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Perhaps the greatest traditional sitcom ever created, Mary Tyler Moore was a warm and funny show about how young, single people sometimes find their closest friends and family in the workplace. The series largely invented the format sitcoms would use for the next 30 years.

2.) All In The Family: Individual episodes of this series haven’t aged as well as episodes of other sitcoms, but the cumulative effect packs a wallop. This consideration of how families are sometimes best bound together by driving each other nuts was the funniest show of the era.

3.) Taxi: The MTM model takes a left-turn into outright surrealism and darkness here. The idea of a band of lovable losers working together was boring by the time Taxi took it on, but the show elevated the idea by making its characters completely delusional about their own greatness.

4.) Barney Miller: Barney Miller is one of the era’s few shows to work as a personal statement as much as a sitcom. Danny Arnold’s vision of a decaying world held together by camaraderie and public servants was on point at the time, but in the current decade, it seems downright prescient.

5.) Soap: Gloriously strange and over the top, Soap isn’t for everyone, but in its willingness to do anything for a joke, it’s easy to see the groundwork being laid for fast-paced shows to come like Arrested Development and 30 Rock.

Special thanks: I’m enormously indebted to the book Classic Sitcoms by Vince Waldron, numerous blog posts on sitcoms by Jaime Weinman, and the thoughts of David Loehr, Myles McNutt, and Jason Mittell in researching this article.

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