Monday, April 03, 2006


So, one way in which this TV-buff's thinking has changed over the years is in my evaluation of the "golden age" of TV situation comedy. The conventional wisdom -- well, my conventional wisdom -- has been that the TV sitcom hit one peak in the 1950s, declined in the '60s, and came back to life again in the 1970s. I'm not sure I think that any more. I don't know whether I'd say the '60s was the best period for sitcoms, but it certainly produced an impressive number of shows that hold up today, probably more than the decade before or after.

There are two factors that make it hard to notice that. One is that sitcoms went nuts in the '60s, with gimmicks abounding and almost any idea green-lit, however bizarre, as long as it had some relation to a then-current trend. "The Flying Nun" is the quintessential '60s sitcom: a show with a premise so totally insane that you wonder how it could possibly get on the air, until you realize that it combined two trends that the network wanted to cash in on (superpowered women were "in" on sitcoms, and nuns were "in" thanks to The Sound of Music). The sitcoms critics respect tend to be the ones that make at least some attempt at realism; you're not going to get that from "The Beverly Hillbillies" or "My Favorite Martian."

The other thing that depresses the reputation of '60s sitcoms is that most successful sitcoms of that era stayed on the air long after the premise had been exhausted and the original staff had left. (It was considered very unusual for Carl Reiner to pull the plug on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" after only 150 episodes or so.) Not to mention the fact that almost every show that switched from black-and-white to colour wound up suffering a creative decline. So unlike shows like "Cheers" or "Everybody Loves Raymond," shows that may get a bit creaky but maintain a certain amount of creative consistency, most of the best '60s sitcoms had some seasons where they were basically worthless. "The Beverly Hillbillies" was a terrific show -- for two seasons. "Bewitched" was brilliant for one season, very good for another, and then spent the rest of its run on a downward slide. "The Andy Griffith Show" probably should have ceased to exist once it lost both Don Knotts and black-and-white photography, but it ill-advisedly kept going. If you try to evaluate a lot of '60s sitcoms, you have to be careful to draw a dividing line between the "good" years and the "bad" years, because in many cased it's like evaluating two different shows.

All that said, the '60s stuff does have its own unique advantages. Variety, for one thing. '50s sitcoms were primarily an outgrowth of radio sitcoms, sticking fairly closely to the subject-matter, tone and style of radio comedy. By the '70s, everything was either a Norman Lear kitchen-sink sitcom or an MTM urban workplace/domestic comedy. But in the '60s, the sitcom form took in just about everything: urban sitcoms, rural sitcoms, domestic sitcoms, workplace sitcoms, realistic sitcoms, fantasy sitcoms; sitcoms about war and sitcoms about peace. There seemed to be very few rules about what sort of subject matter was or wasn't appropriate for the sitcom form, and that created a broader spectrum of stories and characters; it wasn't just cute young urbanites with relationship problems.

Second, the '60s was the only era when most sitcoms were shot without a studio audience. The three-camera, live-audience, "I Love Lucy" format has been the standard format for most of televsion history; even now, when there are a bunch of one-camera shows, the three-camera format is more common. But in the '60s, with television production being integrated into the old methods of film production (with "B" movies out, sitcoms wound up being filmed in the same places and in the same way as "B" movies once had been), most sitcoms were shot with one camera, no audience, and a laugh track. At its worst, this could lead to drab visuals and stilted performances -- with no audience to bounce off of, some performers were not anywhere near their best. But at its best, this "opened up" the sitcom and allowed it to go places and do things that the stage-inspired live-audience show can't -- and also allowed performers to be more subtle and low-key than they would be in front of a live audience. Something like "The Andy Griffith Show," which made excellent use of outdoor (backlot) settings and had cinematography of much higher quality than the average sitcom (courtesy of the director of photography, former Warner Brothers mainstay Sid Hickox), and featured performances with more shading and nuance than on most sitcoms, is a good example of that.

Finally, the '60s brought a very high caliber of writing talent to the table in the sitcom world. There were at least two new pools of talent to draw on: New York-based comedy writers driven out to Los Angeles by the decline of live TV comedy (Carl Reiner, Garry Marshall, Everett Greenbaum), and "B" movie comedy writers pushed into television by the collapse of the "B" movie and the comedy short (the director of "Green Acres," Richard Bare, had previously been the writer and director of a series of live-action theatrical shorts, the "Joe McDoakes" series). Add that to the people who had populated TV sitcom writing in the '50s, the radio comedy writers transplanted to TV, and you get an excellent mixture of talents and comedy styles. And that came out in the joke writing in the better '60s sitcoms, which feature a whole range of different ways to get laughs, from corny vaudeville-style jokes to sophisticated banter to New York-style one-liners to slapstick. There wasn't the kind of uniformity of style you often get in sitcoms today, where a show as crazy as "Arrested Development" sticks out like a sore thumb; in the good '60s sitcoms, the idea that crazy jokes can co-exist with sophisticated jokes and character comedy is just taken for granted.

Now, the weakness of the '60s sitcom world is that the kind of show that we now consider the bread-and-butter of sitcoms -- the urban comedy about relationships, a la "I Love Lucy" or "Friends" or "Cheers" -- was in its weakest state. There was "The Dick Van Dyke Show," but that was almost an outlier among '60s shows. And when it went off the air, there was a scramble to create shows to fill the void, most of which were good and most of which didn't make it. There was "Love on a Rooftop,", which the creator, Canadian playwright Bernard Slade, considered the best thing he ever did in TV, and there was "He and She", possibly the best one-season sitcom of all time. The only show in the Dick-Van-Dyke mold that succeeded was "That Girl,", perhaps because it had the most direct connections to "Dick Van Dyke," what with the daughter of "Dick Van Dyke" producer Danny Thomas as its star, and the creators were the former head writers of "Dick Van Dyke," Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. (The show, which will be coming out on DVD, actually got pretty good in the second season when the ubiquitous Danny Arnold was brought on as producer; interviewed about Marlo Thomas, he seemed to like her because she was as mean as he was.) But the viewing public didn't seem to have much of an appetite for shows that were character-driven, rather than driven by an offbeat premise -- and the networks didn't seem to have much interest in greenlighting them. That's a weakness, and the '70s stuff like "All in the Family" would take character development and character comedy farther than they could go in the '60s.

Still, the best '60s sitcoms have things that sitcoms from other eras do not: more variety in all things, more emotional range (many of these shows could do serious moments, or long serious scenes, without being accused of doing a "very special episode"), more visual interest (especially in black-and-white episodes), a wider range of comedy performance styles, and just generally more surprises than you would usually get in the rigid world of the situation comedy. With its best work -- "Dick Van Dyke"; the black-and white years of "Andy Griffith," "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Bewitched"; "Get Smart"; "Green Acres"; "Car 54 Where Are You?" (underrated but as good in its own way as creator Nat Hiken's previous show, "Sgt. Bilko"), and one-season delights like "My World and Welcome to It," "Love On a Rooftop" and "He and She," the '60s can more than hold its own with other eras when it comes to that much-maligned but essential TV form, the sitcom.

No comments: