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.
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.
Night Court (1984-1992)
The blue jeans and sarcastic wit of adjudicator Harry Stone alarmed a staff that was nearly as odd as the nightly parade of malefactors — a tall, shaven-head bailiff, a chain-smoking matron, a perky clerk, a couple of sexy DAs. Their internecine strife went on unabated, and viewers rightly judged it to be hilarious.
The Golden Girls (1985-1992)
Four single women of a certain age created sparks when they all moved into a home in Miami. The comic chemistry between Bea Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty showed the world that the years of Social Security were more social than secure, and more colorful than a sunset.
Married…With Children (1987-1997)
It shouldn’t have been hilarious. After all, what’s comic about a dyspeptic shoe salesman, his indolent wife and their kids who seem incurious about everything — except sex, of course? Yet somehow, largely because of the acting (by Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal) and the audacious situations, the show kept viewers diverted for ten years.
Murphy Brown (1988-1998)
As the title character on a TV newsmagazine, Candice Bergen was the sharp-tongued reporter who went everywhere — including the Betty Ford Clinic. Initially, network executives weren’t so sure about what they had on their hands. But Diane English, the show’s creator, held firm. “She insisted on ‘Mike Wallace in a dress,’ ” Bergen recalls, “and that’s what she got.” With the help of a mirthful cast Murphy Brown became a household word, especially when Vice President Dan Quayle took her to task for having a baby out of wedlock. “I guess he and I will be linked forever in the textbooks,” says Bergen.
“In the end, the show lasted ten years and to tell you the truth I still miss that outspoken lady very much.” — Candice Bergen
No utopian ’50s here. An overweight, unglamorous but fiercely loyal couple, the Conners (Roseanne Barr and John Goodman) met everything from rebellious kids to mortgage payments. Humor in the Conner house was sarcastic, tough and ruthless, but the bond of affection was as unbreakable as it was uproarious.
Successful stand-up comic Jerry Seinfeld played himself as struggling stand-up comic, abetted by his hyperneurotic pal George, his goofy entrepreneurial neighbor Kramer, and his ex-girlfriend and platonic chum Elaine. This “show about nothing” actually turned out to be a substantial hit, with hip performances by an expert quartet.
The Simpsons (1989- )
One of the longest-running cartoons in history follows the follies of bulbous Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. With a powerful combination of imagination, love and lunacy, the program proves that when nothing is sacred, everything is funny, including politics, celebrity and the nuclear family itself.
After an excruciating divorce, Cheers’ elegant therapist returned home to heal — only to reopen old conflicts with his rival shrink brother and rough-edged ex-cop Pop. Stage veterans John Mahoney, David Hyde-Pierce, Jane Leeves and Peri Gilpin kept the jousting quick, sophisticated and, at times, painfully honest.
One of the most popular sitcoms in history focused on six twenty-somethings finding their way in New York City. From the neat freak to the womanizer to the single mom to the folk singer to the paleontology prof, all were bright and attractive, with light plights and witty solutions.
Spin City (1996-2002)
Before “West Wing,” Michael J. Fox and Barry Bostwick provided an acerbic peek behind the scenes of American politics. The City’s mayor was long on image but short on acumen. The diminutive deputy mayor was just the reverse, and he went to frantic, farcical lengths each week to give his boss’s errors a positive twist.
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996- )
Ray Barone is a prosperous, well-married sportswriter living on Long Island. Sounds like a prescription for Happily Ever After — except for Ray’s parents, who like to barge in unannounced, his sardonic cop brother likewise, plus some colleagues and neighbors whose motto is “Why have it simple when you can have it complicated?”
Will & Grace (1998- )
They’re more than friends, yet less than lovers. As it happens, he’s gay and level-headed; she’s straight, nutty and needy. Without preaching, this odd couple manage to vividly illustrate the contemporary values of acceptance — and even empathy.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000- )
The first “realticom” is unscripted, autobiographical and shot on authentic locations. As if in a home movie gone bad, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David stars as himself, quarreling with his closest friends, claustrophobically trapped in a lifestyle he can neither take nor leave. David’s deadpan delivery and reckless candor make the show an extra-edgy hoot.