Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Unlikely Sitcoms of the Sixties

Even someone with only a cursory knowledge of American situation comedies during the Sixties knows that many of them were offbeat, to say the least. Even many of the classics of the era seem slightly left of centre, with sitcoms centred on a witch (Bewitched), a genie (I Dream of Jeannie.), a Martian (My Favorite Martin), a family of monsters (The Munsters), and a family that was just plain macabre (The Addams Family). As strange as some of these concepts for sitcoms might seem to many today, in some respects they were actually tame compared to other sitcoms that aired in the Sixties.

The factors behind the sometimes bizarre premises for sitcoms in the Sixties were varied, but primary among them was the programming formula of James T. Aubrey Jr., president of CBS from 1959 to 1965. Aubrey's formula for getting ratings was pure, simple escapism. In fact, he reportedly instructed the producers of Route 66 to add more "...broads, bosoms, and fun." It was while Aubrey was the president of the network that CBS debuted such escapist series as The Beverly Hillbillies, My Favourite Martian, Gilligan's Island, and The Munsters. Aubrey's programming strategy proved very successful. CBS dominated the ratings for many years while he was president. NBC and ABC took notice of CBS's success and would soon debut their own escapist comedies. NBC would debut such shows as Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Monkees. ABC would debut such shows as McHale's Navy, The Addams Family, Bewitched, and Batman. Having never particularly gotten along with CBS CEO William S. Paley (who hated many of the shows Aubrey had brought to CBS, including Gilligan's Island and The Munsters), James T. Aubrey Jr. was fired in 1965 amidst a good deal of controversy. Despite this, his influence on CBS and the other networks would be felt for much of the Sixties.

Among the things James T. Aubrey Jr.'s policy of escapist entertainment would result in was a large cycle (I suppose given the genres it embraced, it could even be called a "megacycle") towards broad comedy that lasted from the early to late Sixties. The mid to late Fifties had seen sitcoms shift away from the broad comedy of I Love Lucy and I Married Joan to gentler family comedies such as The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver. Aubrey's programming philosophy would swing the pendulum the other way, so that broad comedies once more dominated the broadcast networks. Among the earliest of the broad comedies of the Sixties were The Beverly Hillbillies, McHale's Navy, and Car 54, Where Are You?.

To some degree Aubrey's programming philosophy may have been partly responsible for a very large cycle (again, one that can be called a "megacycle") towards imaginative television (to borrow a term from Sherwood Schwartz's book Inside Gilligan's Island)," shows with elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and so on. While many of the imaginative series of the Sixties were action series, such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Star Trek,many others would be sitcoms, such as Bewitched and Get Smart. Beyond Aubrey's policy towards escapist entertainment, other factors also probably resulted in the megacycle towards imaginative television. Foremost among them was the incredible amount of interest in the American space programme at the time. In fact, space would play a central part in at least two classic sitcoms. Uncle Martin, of My Favourite Martian, originated from Mars. On I Dream of Jeannie Major Tony Nelson was an American astronaut. Even shows whose premises did not deal with space, such Bewitched and Gilligan's Island, would often feature space oriented programmes. Another factor in the cycle towards imaginative television was the monster craze which had gripped America's youth after the classic Universal horror movies had been released to television syndication under the title Shock in 1957. The monster craze was perhaps much of the reason for such imaginative TV shows of the Sixties as Thriller and Dark Shadows. While the monster craze would have minimal impact on sitcoms, it was perhaps responsible for the comedies The Addams Family and The Munsters. Another factor in the cycle towards imaginative TV shows in the Sixties was the spy craze. By 1965 both the United Kingdom and the United States were engulfed in a absolutely craze for spies. The Bond movies were only one manifestation of the craze. Another were many of the TV shows of the era, including The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and The Wild Wild West. In fact, the spy craze in Britain was triggered by two TV shows (not the Bond movies), The Avengers and Danger Man. As far as American sitcoms, Get Smart and The Double Life of Henry Phyfe were the only ones directly created by the craze, but many sitcoms, from The Monkees to Gilligan's Island, had episodes featuring spies.

With the networks embracing more and more escapist TV shows, broader comedies, and imaginative TV shows, it was perhaps natural that the premises of various Sixties sitcoms were rather unusual. In fact, it seems doubtful that many of these shows would debut in any other era. Oddly enough, James Aubrey was not responsible for what was one of the stranger sitcoms of the era. Mr. Ed centred on a talking horse and the only friend to whom he would speak, architect Wilbur Post. The show was somewhat reminiscent of the series of Francis the Talking Mule movies of the Fifties, Mr. Ed was hardly derivative of those movies. Mr. Ed was based on Walter R. Brooks' short story "Ed Takes the Pledge," which pre-dated the Francis the Talking Mule movies. Mr. Ed debuted in syndication in January 1961. It was James T. Aubrey who brought the show to CBS in October 1961. It would ultimately last five years on the network before a very successful syndication run.

It was also in 1961 that ABC debuted another rather odd sitcom. The Hathaways centred on Walter and Elinore Hathaway, ,who adopt a family of performing chimps and who treated the apes as if they were human beings. Nearly from the beginning The Hathaways was a failure. Its ratings were so low that the series could not keep sponsors. Critics considered it one of the worst shows on the air. Despite this, The Hathaways managed to last one season.

For the most part, Mr. Ed and The Hathaways would be some of the few truly odd sitcoms to air on the networks in the early Sixties. All of this would change with the 1963-1964 season. The season would see a new hit sitcom in the form of My Favourite Martian on CBS, a situation comedy focusing on a Martian who finds himself stranded on Earth. The following season would see even more sitcoms with imaginative premises, including The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Munsters, and My Living Doll.Of these series, The Addams Family, Bewitched, and The Munsters were all hits. As a result the 1965 to 1966 would see yet more imaginative comedies and more comedies with strange premises. Among the strangest may have been a show called My Mother the Car.

My Mother the Car centred on small town lawyer Dave Crabtree whose mother had been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter convertible car while shopping for automobiles. Against the family's wishes, Crabtree bought the car. Like Mr. Ed, Mother would speak only to one person, Crabtree. The series featured Jerry Van Dyke as Dave Crabtree and Ann Southern as the voice of Mother. The show also had top notch writers, including Allan Burns (who had written for The Bullwinkle Show and would go on to create The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Chris Hayward (also a veteran of The Bullwinkle Show, he would go on to work on such shows as He and She and Barney Miller). Initially, the car was to be the reincarnation of Crabtree's late wife, but it was felt that this would wreak too much of necrophilia.

Despite a good cast and a good writers, My Mother the Car received bad notices from critics across the board. Even then there were many who thought it was possibly the worst show of all time. For over a decade it would be the basis of jokes for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Even now it still has a reputation as one of the worst shows of all time. In 2002 TV Guide ranked it as #2 in its list of the worst shows of all time (beaten only by The Jerry Springer Show). Despite this, My Mother the Car actually lasted a season, with a large audience of children. Having seen episodes of the series, I have to say it does not live up to its bad reputation. Although the comedy is sometimes hit and miss, there have been far worse shows on the air before and since My Mother the Car.

My Mother the Car was one of the shows in a trend towards imaginative sitcoms in the Sixties. This was not the case with Hogan's Heroes. Despite this, its premise was certainly unusual and controversial. The series had originally been titled The Heroes and took place in a penitentiary in the United States. After four years in which its creators Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy tried to sell the show, Fein decided to change the premise after seeing a fellow passenger on a plane reading Von Ryan's Express. Hogan's Heroes was then set in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II with Hogan and his men engaging in espionage and sabotage even as they were imprisoned in the camp. The show was largely a parody of such prisoner of war films as The Great Escape and Stalag 17, to the point that Hogan and his heroes had access to resources to which no POW would realistically have had access. While Hogan and his men were clearly cast in a heroic mould, The camp's commandant, Colonel Klink, and the other Nazis were generally shown as buffoons. The series featured Bob Crane in his first starring role as Colonel Hogan and Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink.

In some respects Hogan's Heroes had a very unlikely premise, even for the Sixties. For this reason many critics questioned whether such material was even appropriate for a sitcom before Hogan's Heroes debuted in September 1965. Many feared the series would make light of Nazism and as a result trivialise the horrible truths behind Nazi Germany. In its "television and radio" reviews from September 18, 1965, The New York Times commented, "There's something a little sick about "Hogan's Heroes..." A radio ad aired prior to its premiere, which summed up the show's "amusing ingredients" as "German police dogs, machine guns, the Gestapo..." would only add to the controversy, especially after being quoted in Newsweek. In fact, the ad may have led to the confusion as to whether Hogan's Heroes was set in a POW camp or a Nazi concentration camp that has persisted since its debut. The controversy would swiftly fade away once Hogan's Heroes aired, and the show would go onto last for a total of six seasons. It would then go onto a successful syndication run.

While the controversy would fade even as Hogan's Heroes was still in its first season, that controversy would return to haunt the show. In its October 25, 1998 issue, when the possibility of a movie based on Hogan's Heroes was being discussed, The Boston Globe stated "...under no circumstances should a film of Hogan's Heroes be made," claiming it "...presented the Nazis as the biggest cutups since the Keystone Kops." In his 2000 book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam's examination of the rise of modern media, the author referred to Hogan's Heroes as a "...programme with an almost obscenely comic view of the Third Reich..." In 2002, despite the fact that the show had received good reviews in the Sixties (even from that particular magazine), TV Guide ranked it as the fifth worst show of all time, primarily because by that time they thought the show was offensive. While many current criticism directed towards the show is grossly inaccurate (although the Nazis were portrayed as fools, there was very little physical comedy of the sort for which the Keystone Kops were known), the fact remains that there are those who today find the show offensive.

While Hogan's Heroes was controversial, The Flying Nun never was. In fact, it is probably hard to find a more wholesome show. And compared to other comedies of the era, it was exceedingly gentle natured. Its premise, however, is a bit strange. The show was based on the book The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios and featured Sally Field as Sister Bertrille, a 90 pound nun who could fly due to a combination of her light weight and her cornette. As might be expected, critics were not particularly favourable to the show, given its limited premise. Despite this, it was a minor hit when it debuted in 1967. It was also was commended by various orders of nuns for helping humanise the profession. The series lasted for three whole years.

By the late Sixties the cycle towards imaginative television had ended and the cycle towards broad comedy was coming to an end. It would seem, then, that the show called The Ugliest Girl in Town simply debuted too late in the decade. The Ugliest Girl in Town centred on Timothy Blair, a Hollywood agent who falls in love with British actress Julie Renfield. Unfortunately for Blair, Renfield returned to England after shooting a movie in the States. While goofing off, Blair dressed as a hippie and was photographed by his brother, a professional photographer. The photos wound up being published in an English magazine where an English modelling agent assumed Blair was a woman. Blair then dressed as a woman so he can be near Renfield in England. Further complicating matters, while in England Blair racked up ₤11,000 in gambling debts, forcing him to remain in England and impersonating a woman to pay off his debut.

With an overly complicated but very limited premise, The Ugliest Girl in Town received overwhelmingly bad reviews. The New York Times called it "..the most vapid half-hour in the nation last night." The Philadelphia Inquirer went even further, saying the series possessed "some basically distasteful overtone." Audiences were apparently not thrilled with the show either. It got low ratings from the very beginning. In all the series would only last half a season on ABC. Strangely enough, ABC would debut a show with a similar concept, Bosom Buddies (an early vehicle for Tom Hanks) in 1980. It was a bit more successful, lasting two years.

The megacycle towards imaginative television more or less ended in 1967, while the megacycle towards broad comedies would slowly fade away following 1968. The broad sitcoms and imaginative comedies of much of the Sixties would largely give way to family sitcoms. Some of the new family sitcoms would tend towards broad comedy (such as The Brady Bunch), but many more (such as Julia) tended to gentler, family comedies. Even the few imaginative comedies to debut in the late Sixties were often gentle family comedies. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (based on the 1945 novel and the 1947 movie) could not seem to decide whether it was a broad, fantastic comedy or a gentle family one. Despite its premise of a psychic nanny, Nanny and the Professor was a wholly gentle family sitcom.

Ultimately, the Sixties would produce an inordinately large number of sitcoms with very strange premises on American television. In fact, this article hardly even scratches the surface, as in addition to the shows mentioned above there were also My Living Doll (which featured Julie Newmar as a very lifelike robot), It's About Time (Sherwood Schwartz's comedy in which astronauts are thrown back in time to the Stone Age), and The Second Hundred Years (in which a man born in 1877 is frozen while prospecting for gold in Alaska and then thawed out in 1967), among many others. Nor would sitcoms with bizarre premises stop debuting after the Sixties. The Seventies saw the short lived sitcom Quark, which followed the adventures of an interstellar garbage scow. In the Eighties Alf would feature a sarcastic and cynical alien who came to live with a very unfortunate American family. In the Nineties 3rd Rock from the Sun featured a group of alien scientists who took human form and took up residence on Earth to study humanity. Nor are these the only rather unlikely sitcoms to debut since the Sixties. There have been others and will, no doubt about it, probably be more.

Still the fact remains that the Sixties saw more sitcoms with off the wall premises debut than any other decade. And it seems rather unlikely that many of these sitcoms would have made it on the air at any other time. Both Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car would see too outré by the standards of network programming in later eras. Political correctness alone would probably keep Hogan's Heroes off the air. The Sixties appears to have been a singular time when, for much of the decade, it seemed as if almost anything could go with regards to the basic concepts behind situation comedies.


d. chedwick said...

wouldn't it be funny if they brought back My Mother the Car and Mr. Ed, only the people "hearing" the car and horse were completely insane?

Mercurie said...

That would be an interesting take on Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car, Ched. It's sort of like my best friend's idea for Scooby-Doo. Only Shaggy would imagine that Scooby could talk and do other things Great Danes can't do, and then only when he's taking "Scooby snacks...."