Television comedy in the 1980s felt a lot like a Ronald Reagan campaign commercial: warm and fuzzy, but frequently lacking substance.
After spending much of the 1970s tackling issues such as women’s rights and the Vietnam War, sitcom scribes seemed to lose their revolutionary zeal. Indeed, at the dawn of the decade, network execs were beginning to wonder whether writers had lost their inspiration altogether.
Over at NBC, the situation was particularly dire. The Peacock’s 1980 primetime sked boasted just two sitcoms: “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Hello, Larry.”
ABC and CBS had a greater number of laffers on their respective lineups, but most were aging relics of the 1970s. Serials like “Dallas” and “Dynasty,” along with groundbreaking dramas such as “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere” were generating all the buzz in media circles, as well as with viewers.
In short, there was nothing funny about the state of TV comedy.
“Sitcoms weren’t dead, but they were gasping and breathing hard,” remembers Grant Tinker, the former MTM Prods. chief who joined NBC in 1981 as chairman.
In addition to having few laffers, NBC was also mired in third place in the overall ratings. As is often the case with nets that have nothing to lose, the Peacock decided to start taking some chances.
“Grant Tinker was never a man who walked into our offices and pitched an idea,” says former NBC Entertainment prexy Warren Littlefield, at the time a VP of programming. “What he did do was usher in an age of thinking that said, ‘First be best, then be first.’ We had never allowed ourselves to think that way.”
Tinker and his top programmer, Brandon Tartikoff, quickly greenlit two comedies that would help lead the Peacock out of the ratings basement (albeit slowly): “Family Ties” and “Cheers.”
Neither did gangbuster ratings — “Cheers” actually bombed its first season — but both garnered excellent reviews. NBC had faith and, considering its third-place status, plenty of time.
Patience paid off in 1984, when the Peacock scheduled the series that would revive a network … and a genre: “The Cosby Show.” It was an out-of-the-box smash, at times attracting near-record audiences.
ABC originally had the rights to the show, but passed. NBC almost did the same, but changed its mind after seeing a quickly assembled presentation tape.
“It was a big surprise to the network,” says exec producer Marcy Carsey. “They didn’t know what they had but they couldn’t have known.”
What NBC had was a half-hour about an affluent African-American family in which the parents were firmly in charge. It might not sound revolutionary now, but there was nothing else like it on TV.
The huge success of “Cosby” lifted the ratings of “Family Ties” and “Cheers,” all of which were top 10 shows within a year. NBC’s Thursday night was now a juggernaut — hello, Must See TV — and the network was back in the ratings race.
What’s more, audiences once again seemed interested in comedies. And networks were ready to fill that hunger with a slew of new laffers, most focusing on families –nuclear and nontraditional.
“It revived the sitcom,” Carsey says.
ABC aped “Cosby” with “Growing Pains” and “Who’s the Boss,” while NBC expanded its comedy dominance to Saturdays with “The Golden Girls,” “Facts of Life,” “Amen” and “227.”
While none of these comedies generated much controversy, some — particularly “Cheers,” “Golden Girls,” “Cosby” and “Family Ties” — managed to advance the form in their own way.
Later in the decade, “Moonlighting” would introduce the hourlong romantic comedy form to TV in a big way, while “The Won-der Years” would manage to blend drama into the half-hour genre.
“There was an evolution that started with Norman Lear in terms of focusing on character instead of content,” says Paul Junger Witt, one of the production team behind “Golden Girls” and several other ’80s hits.
“We tried to make the point of conversation between characters more than just an excuse to create a joke,” he says. “We tried to create characters who were funny because of what they said as opposed to how they delivered the joke.”
Appropriately enough for the decade of greed, sitcoms also became big business during the 1980s.
Paramount managed to turn “Cheers” and “Family Ties” into syndication gold mines, while “The Cosby Show” turned Carsey-Werner Prods. into an indie powerhouse funded by what was then record off-net revenue.
By the late 1980s, comedy was once again evolving.
The family comedy had drifted into parody, with “Full House” and “Family Matters” pandering to the under-18 crowd.
“Cheers” was still going strong, but “Cosby” ceded its ratings crown to another half-hour from Carsey-Werner: “Roseanne.” The sweet innocence of the Reagan era had been replaced by the less-kind and far-less-gentle war cry of the blue-collar domestic goddess.
Meanwhile, the Fox network was starting to emerge, and it had its first real hit on its hand, a loud and crass domestic laffer called “Married …With Children.”
The ’80s were definitely over.