The American Situation Comedy — a half-hour of problems entirely surrounded by laughter — hit its stride in the 1950s. At first the difficulties were trivial. How would Lucy handle all those chocolates on the assembly line? How would Ralph Kramden, Jackie Gleason’s character on “The Honeymooners,” tell his wife, Alice, that he had forgotten their anniversary?
By the late 1970s, any subject was fair game. Racial attitudes moved from the flat-out vaudeville of “Sanford and Son” to the complex stories of Dr. Cliff Huxtable and company on “The Cosby Show.” Families went from the picket-fence complacency of “Father Knows Best” to the dysfunctional but irresistible folks on “The Simpsons” and “Married…With Children.”
Now, in this new millennium, the genre is being sharply elbowed by “reality shows.” They cost less to produce, and give viewers a voyeuristic kick as contestants try to out-disgust, out-embarrass, or out-perform each other.
But like the characters on those bygone episodes, sitcoms are bound to come back stronger and more mature than ever. Why? Because laughter is one of the basic food groups — we need it for our physical and mental nourishment. Even now, the form is redefining itself: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” employs the techniques of reality shows — the program is unscripted, shot on location and uses real people (Ted Danson as Ted Danson). And Dreamworks has just announced the launch of “Father of the Pride,” a computer-generated cartoon for grownups.
The prime times, they are a-changin’.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
As a TV news producer in Minneapolis, Mary Tyler Moore showed that feminism could be beautiful — especially combined with superb comic timing. The standout cast of regulars included an egotistical anchorman, a sarcastic meteorologist, and a boss, Lou Grant, who was so memorable he got a one-hour drama spin-off of his own. A rare feat that has never been repeated.
All in the Family (1971-1979)
He changed TV forever — and he changed attitudes. “Archie Bunker” came to define the unrepentant bigot, and Carroll O’Connor played him to comic perfection.
Taking its cue from Robert Altman’s feature film, this tragicomedy mixed the grim realities of an Army hospital with the pranks and sarcastic banter of its overworked medics, headed by an outstanding Alan Alda as “Hawkeye,” a wise-guy surgeon with a heart. “Other shows led the way,” observes Alda, who stayed with the show for all 11 years, wrote over 20 episodes, and directed many more. ” ‘All in the Family’ dealt with ideas. ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ had believable human relationships. When it was our turn, we charged through the door they opened.” Set during the Korean War, but clearly meant as a commentary on Vietnam, it proved that the sitcom format could provoke thought as well as laughter.
“If we inspired other breakthrough sitcoms, that’s all to the good.” — Alan Alda
With actors like Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Tony Danza, Andy Kaufman and Marilu Henner, a show about part-time taxi drivers and dispatchers had to be a winner. And indeed it was, with the characters alternately kidding and supporting each other’s aspirations, fracturing English — and transmissions — en route.
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Three’s Company (1977-1984)
A modern Restoration comedy, built on mistaken identities. To save on rent, virile Jack Tripper moved in with two single women. To get his landlord, Mr. Roper, to agree to this setup, Jack pretended to be gay. Not an easy pose for a womanizer, especially when the randy Mrs. Roper kept sneaking upstairs to see what “those kids” were up to.
Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)
Like the earlier “My Favorite Martian,” this frothy sitcom followed the foibles of an extraterrestrial struggling to learn the peculiar customs of earthlings. The show’s extraordinary popularity was due less to the subject matter than to the boundless energy and deft improv skills of emerging megatalent Robin Williams.
In an intimate Boston pub “where everyone knows your name,” retired ball player Sam Malone presided over a colorful collage of patrons and barmaids. They all sounded off, trading insults and romancing, arguing and making up, all the while endearing themselves to a following almost as loyal as the customers.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992)
Comedian Bill Cosby wanted to make a statement and set an example. His upscale Dr. Cliff Huxtable and family did just that, seldom wisecracking about racism or social injustice. Instead, comedy was brilliantly employed to defuse arguments, and to teach kids, big and small, core values to sustain them when they left the nest.