“I Love Lucy” may have given birth to the sitcom but the genre didn’t truly come of age until the 1970s.
The smiley face decade gave rise to an amazing number of classic comedies as the screwball antics of ’50s and ’60s laffers were replaced by half-hours that tackled some of society’s thorniest issues.
To be sure, there was plenty of fluff — this was also the era of “Happy Days” and “The Brady Bunch” — but for the most part, TV scribes in the ’70s seemed bent on taking the medium places it had never been. The whole concept of least objectionable programming went out the window as viewers flocked to see a type of literary programming that truly made the decade TV’s golden age of comedy.
“The ’70s is the era in which TV grew up,” says TV Guide critic-columnist Matt Roush. “It heralded a time when grown-up topics could be dealt with in a serious manner, when comedy could examine real life and real issues.”
Ironically, the comedy revolution started at CBS, traditionally the most conservative of the nets.
As the 1960s drew to a close, Eye execs were having success luring auds with the likes of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Mayberry RFD” and “The Red Skelton Hour.” But the shows were starting to show signs of age, and more importantly, didn’t play very well with younger urban audiences that CBS was suddenly clamoring to reach.
CBS topper William S. Paley, programming chief Bob Wood and a young Eye programming VP named Fred Silverman decided to take a big gamble.
“The decision was to get back into the city, to be more sophisticated,” says Grant Tinker, who at the time was president of MTM Prods. “It came out of the sales department, which wanted programming that would demand better prices.”
Within two years, CBS canceled a slew of shows that were still working and replaced them with programs that would define a decade: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “MASH,” “The Bob Newhart Show.”
“It was a calculated sea change, but it allowed the whole sitcom formula to go to the next level,” Roush says.
The opening volley in the Eye’s laugh revolution came Sept. 19, 1970: the night Mary Richards, single career girl, used her spunk to land a job as a news producer for the fictional WJM-TV. Before long, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was a top 10 hit, and the era of quality comedy had begun.
Within a few days of the “Mary” premiere, ABC launched “The Odd Couple,” a Garry Marshall-produced remake of the Neil Simon play that reinvented the buddy comedy. Its ratings were never huge but the series lasted long enough to ensure a long life in syndication, where its status as a TV classic was confirmed.
But while “Mary” and “Odd Couple” set the stage for the era of the quality comedy, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin’s “All in the Family” — which bowed in January 1971 — is considered by most the landmark achievement of the decade.
Using lovable bigot Archie Bunker and his family, Lear and Yorkin tackled issues of race, class and gender … not to mention the war in Vietnam. All of a sudden, the sitcom had subtext.
Viewers initially greeted “All in the Family” with a shrug. But then the series won the 1971 Emmy for best comedy; not long after, it rocketed to the top of the Nielsen chart.
Lear gives most of the credit for “All in the Family’s” success to its cast.
“First and foremost, you had four magnificent players,” he says. “I made the decision to put them in those roles, but I had no knowledge that the chemistry would be what it was. Every time you got any two of them together (in a scene), it was magic.”
Imitation is the sincerest form of television; as a result, primetime was soon filled with socially conscious sitcoms.
Lear helped fuel the trend, using “All in the Family” to spin off “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” for CBS. NBC blazed its own trail with the Hispanic-led laffer “Chico and the Man.”
Later in the decade, Lear would advance the cause of single moms with “One Day at a Time” — something Linda Lavin did well with “Alice” — while ABC’s “Soap” would push the envelope in dealing with an array of sexual issues.
TV Guide’s Roush believes that the social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s made it inevitable that the small screen would ultimately tackle the same issues.
“We couldn’t retreat back to Mayberry after everything we’d seen on the news,” he says. “We had all gone through the culture wars, and now we were willing to let the revolution take place in a popular form.”
Not every successful comedy aimed for the quality mantle. By mid-decade, viewers seemed ready to take a break from watching socially conscious sitcoms and ABC was ready to give them an antidote in the form of “Happy Days.”
The laffer, also from Marshall, was set in the 1950s, allowing viewers to travel back to a time where social issues were swept under the rug. Auds couldn’t get enough, and just as “All in the Family” begot clones, “Happy Days” produced its own sentimental offspring: “Laverne & Shirley,” “Three’s Company,” “Mork & Mindy,” among others.
“It was yin and yang within one decade,” Roush says. “We went from confronting our realities to escaping them.”