American television situation comedies (sit-coms)

When television was new, it drew inspiration from two sources: radio programs and stage productions. In addition to operas, musicals, and plays, stages used to be filled with variety routines in an art form called vaudeville. Early Marx Brothers movies were largely developed from their vaudeville routine, with music and song and dance blended into a thin plot written around many comic lines. From a blend of vaudeville and radio drama, the situation-comedy, or sit-com, developed.

Today and tomorrow I will share a list of American sit-coms I enjoyed at the time and remember fondly. None of these are recent shows, although reruns of most of these shows can still be found on various television channels. Note that these are all American shows, so Monty Python’s Flying Circus will not be included. Also, these are sit-coms, not variety shows, so Laugh-In and Carol Burnett also are not included. I make no claim that these shows were the best of their genre. I am only listing the ones I remember watching faithfully.

This is not a wish list—I would not want to receive these shows on DVD for my birthday. I don’t have the time to watch the DVDs I already own. I’m sure most of these shows would seem less entertaining now than in their own time. Some classics stand the test of time, while others live better in memory than in repetition.

Andy Griffith (1960-1968): I watched this in syndication on weekday afternoons after school. The antics of Sheriff Andy Taylor, his son Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney Fife, and even Floyd the barber remain fresh in my mind after all these years. Even the theme music is still vivid in my head. Mayberry feels almost like a second home-town, even though those home-town memories are in black and white.

Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967): For some reason, this comedy became the paradigm of mindless entertainment on television. Actually, it contained some skillful writing for a set cast of seven characters (a number which seems ideal both for television comedy and television drama) with frequent guest appearances by other characters. Alright, maybe too many brief characters for a remote island. The theme song is also a paradigm for ear-worms—music that runs through the head again and again and won’t go away. Like the majority of male viewers, I favored MaryAnn over Ginger.

Bewitched (1964-1972): I don’t know how this show escaped the scolding of the Moral Majority of the 1960s, as it depicts a beautiful witch using her magic while trying to fit into an ordinary American home and neighborhood with her every-man husband Darren (played by two different actors in the course of the show). For me, the show paled in comparison to my next feature, even though the following show was begun a year later and was considered a rip-off of Bewitched, rather than the other way around.

I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970): An astronaut finds a genii and sets her free, but she falls in love with him and stays with him. The astronaut and his friends were more interesting than Darren and his friends, and Barbara Eden was my first television idol, far ahead of MaryAnn or Ginger. Of all the shows on late afternoon TV weekdays after school, this is the only show I ever objected to missing.

Get Smart (1965-1970): An incredibly funny show about an American spy; this show was my first exposure to the wit of Mel Brooks. Don Adams was perfect as the bumbling Maxwell Smart, and he was surrounded by splendidly entertaining teammates and villains. Leonard Nimoy plays a bad guy in one first-season episode, shortly before he became famous as Mr. Spock.

Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971): A prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War becomes the base for behind-the-scenes spy and sabotage work by the Allies, including Americans, French, and British prisoners. The German Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz make Maxwell Smart seem brilliant by comparison, and life in a prison camp doesn’t seem so terrible as portrayed in this odd comedy.

Mary Tyler Moore (1970-1977): This show is the first on this list that I remember original episodes rather than reruns after school. Admittedly, though, I don’t remember it well, since I keep confusing it with the Dick Van Dyke show, in which Mary Tyler Moore played his wife. The apartment sets, I think, were similar. In this show, Mary is a single woman working for a television station—Lou Grant and Ted Baxter are more memorable than Mary and her other friends.

All in the Family (1971-1979): Created by Norman Lear and starring Caroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, this is one of the first television show to address the topic of bigotry through caricature.  Somehow Archie Bunker remains likeable in spite of his abusive language toward his wife, their daughter, her husband, and pretty much every other person in Archie’s life. All in the Family was considered a brave show in the 1970s; its success makes me wonder how many reputedly conservative political commenters in the United States today are inspired more by Archie Bunker than by true conservative beliefs.

The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978): Bob Newhart plays a psychologist working and living in Chicago, surrounded by a cast of odd characters that allow Bob to portray his dry humor as the ordinary man surrounded by strangeness. Although in the opening credits Bob takes an odd route between his office and his apartment (crossing the Chicago River three times!), much of the portrayal of life in Chicago is true to form. His work as a counselor is also exceptional.

M*A*S*H (1972-1983): A mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War is depicted, showing the lives of doctors and nurses trying to heal in the midst of war. The war lasted three years; the show about the war lasted eleven years. My memories of this show are shaped by the fact that I often watched reruns after the nighttime news while living in places where I did not want to be. As a result, I always felt drawn to those characters who hated being in Korea and wanted the war to end so they could go home.


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