When the Laughter Stopped: Remembering Television’s Halcyon Days

Mark Bizzell


Reality television shows such as Survivor, Dancing with the Stars, and American Idol have been on top of the Nielsen TV ratings for more than a decade, a place where situation comedies used to sit.  While some comedy staples of the past few years, notably Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, have stellar ratings and critical acclaim, they are not as groundbreaking as the comedies of the past.  Early 1970s sitcoms, like the highly rated All in the Family and Maude, dealt with social issues that networks now won’t touch in today’s hyper-partisan environment. 


Networks initially “kicked comedies off the island” because of cheaper-to-produce reality programming.  But reality shows also generally don’t generate the type of controversy that makes advertisers jittery -- social, political and religious storylines that were common during the Vietnam era.  And while the sitcom is making a comeback, 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Up All Night, Suburgatory, and Are You There? It's Me Chelsea are some of the new offerings this season, they are as banal as ever.  Crude jokes are in, political commentary is out.


America’s Laugh Track

Comedies have always been integral to network television.  The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best drew from vaudeville and radio to make America laugh.  A Norman Rockwell view of America was represented in programs like Leave it to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show that followed.  But the turmoil and change of the 1960s brought on by the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution required a different kind of sitcom.

Enter Norman Lear, a television producer who wanted to create sophisticated comedies that, while topical and funny, also made people think.  Characters in his early 1970s shows included the bigoted, but lovable, Archie Bunker of All in the Family; the liberal firebrand Maude of her namesake show; and the upwardly mobile African-American George Jefferson of The Jeffersons.  Theses shows and their characters tackled the war, Watergate, homosexuality, abortion and rape -- topics that never would have been discussed in the Ricardo household.  (Lucille Ball was reportedly said to be livid that CBS, home of all the Lucy sitcoms, was airing All in the Family).


Madeline Smith, who worked on Maude as a writer’s assistant in the 1970s, says shows used to have a point of view.  “We received bomb threats after Maude’s abortion episode,” she says from her Southern California home.  “The entire CBS lot had to be evacuated and the networks were nervous, but the ratings were good.”  She explained that the writers on the show wanted to tackle the issues of the day to further causes such as women’s rights and to speak out against the war.  Something you won’t find on today’s networks.


By the 1980s there were still a few notable sitcoms: The Cosby Show, which featured a lawyer and a doctor heading up a Black household; and the Golden Girls, about women over the age of 50 who still had sex -- and talked openly about it.  But by the ‘90s, sitcoms were famously about nothing (Seinfeld) or an unrealistic look at 20-something friends living in New York.

Reality Sets In

On May 31, 2000, a show called Survivor debuted and nothing was the same.  Based on a Swedish television program, Expedition Robinson, Survivor never fell out of the top 10 its first six seasons.  A year later, American Idol premiered to decent ratings, and by its finale had garnered more than 20 million eyeballs.  Along with the celebrity contest, Dancing with the Stars, the show is ratings gold   American Idol has been the number-one show for eight consecutive seasons, beating former record holders All in the Family and The Cosby Show, which were the most watched shows for five seasons each.


But the halcyon days of reality TV may be over.  This season Idol’s ratings are off by 20 percent, and Simon Cowell’s new offering, The X Factor, pulled in only half of its expected audience.  And The Big Bang Theory recently beat Idol in the coveted 18-49 demographics, a first for any program up against the singing contest.  Modern Family has consistently shown up on the top 10 as well, along with the crude and unsophisticated Two and a Half Men.

So while comedies seem to be making a comeback, their content appears to be lacking.  Social commentary has been relegated to cable, and network television is only pushing the boundary on raunchiness.  It will take a new producer like Norman Lear and a visionary network executive  willing to take a risk if shows are ever to be as insightful, funny and thought-provoking as yesteryear.  But the reality now is on your television set, and it’s not looking good.            


Author Bio:

Mark Bizzell is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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