Sitcoms stayed away from decade's political turmoil
The 1960s TV saw such upheaval and change it could be discussed in four separate chunks: pre-1963, post-John. F. Kennedy assassination, pre-Vietnam, postwar protests.
Otherwise, how do you deal with “Father Knows Best” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” or “Dennis the Menace” and “Bewitched,” all huge hits in the 1960s and as dissonant in tone as if played in separate foreign countries?
One thing they had in common, however, was a determination to entertain rather than politicize or preach. Only very late in the decade, as the body counts mounted for slain political leaders and young GIs, did TV comedy take on the darker, edgier side of “The Smothers Brothers,” “Laugh-In” and, to a lesser degree, “The Tonight Show.”
Indeed, according to Bob Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, two of the decade’s greatest hits, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66) and “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-68), while very different from each other, were totally disconnected from what was happening in the news.
” ‘Dick Van Dyke’ was literate, brilliant, flawless,” says Thompson. “While it didn’t discuss issues, there was a sense these people were living in the same world as the viewers. And its determination to be modern and hip points the way to the television sitcoms of the 1970s.
“Meanwhile, ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ made absolutely no attempt to be modern, yet it was also literate, brilliant and flawless, even while it seems almost aggressive in its attempt to make the (real) world go away.”
Adds TV historian Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows,” “If you look at the top 10 TV shows for 1963, there was never a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis or civil rights. Everything was extremely escapist.”
” ‘Andy Griffith’ was retro, showing life in the South as a Garden of Eden,” Thompson agrees, but adds, “While it’s almost racist, it was also so warm, so loving.”
At the close of the decade in 1969, the top 10 shows, led by “Laugh-In,” also included “Mayberry RFD,” “Family Affair,” “The Red Skelton Hour” and “The Doris Day Show,” a range of fare reflecting a decade that saw American auds grapple with how real TV should be.
And while “Dick Van Dyke” might not have been political, it was a breakthrough in terms of content.
” ‘Dick Van Dyke’ was something adults can watch,” says Tom Hill, VP and creative director of TV Land, which touts itself as the cable home for classic shows. “Its creators said let’s take the sitcom form and forget the kids and do something that makes grownups laugh. Carl Reiner, its creator, thought TV should have its own rules, a different flavor.”
Adds Earle Marsh, “The Complete Directory” co-author, “(Reiner) introduced a sophistication to sitcoms we hadn’t seen before. And the writing was so good, you developed an appreciation for what the actors said (as well as) how they acted.”
Two other ’60s icons bring special praise from Thompson.
” ‘Leave It to Beaver’ (1957-1963) was one of the great jewels in the crown, but as an ABC show, it never did well in the ratings. It really took off in reruns,” Thompson says. “But here was a show about daily life in minutiae, like ‘Seinfeld,’ a show about nothing.
“But Beaver and Wally were living, breathing kids. The writers clearly listened to how kids speak.”
Producer Paul Henning is especially lauded by Thompson for a body of work — “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction” — that Thompson says were watched by huge numbers of people but not fully appreciated by critics.
” ‘Green Acres (1965-1971) is so incredibly hip,” Thompson explains. “Everything in it was so self-reflective, so post-modern.”
“The Tonight Show” of the ’60s, perhaps best represents the cultural evolution of the decade.
“It’s a strange animal,” says Brooks. At times tame, other times tense, it took a long time to catch on.
“The first few years under Johnny Carson were not well rated,” Brooks notes.
That all changed when Tiny Tim decided to say his “I do’s” on the air.
“His 1969 live wedding ignited that show. It was the first reality event on TV,” Brooks adds. “It wasn’t script-perfect television and it drew a huge audience. Carson then became untouchable.”
Another form of reality TV came wrapped in the humor of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (1967-75) and “Laugh-In” (1968-1973), two programs that heralded an end to primetime escapism.
“They were very important in their time,” says Thompson, “but not outside that time.”
While both had moments of brilliance, he adds, being so topical made them less likely to become classics.
Says Thompson: “Of-the-moment stuff doesn’t really have a shelf life.”