Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Best Sitcoms of Each Decade

Tonight I thought I would engage in what could be a fun exercise. Basically, I would chose what I consider to be the two best sitcoms from each full decade of American network television from the Fifties to the Eighties. I must state that my choices are more or less subjective, although many of the shows received their share of good notices and awards. Anyway, here goes...

The Fifties: The Fifties saw the sitcom in its infancy. Despite this it would produce its fair share of classic comedies. The Honeymooners, Make Room For Daddy, Mr, Peepers, Our Miss Brooks, and Topper all aired during the decade. It wasn't easy narrowing it down to just two shows, but here they are.

The Phil Silvers Show (AKA You'll Never Get Rich, AKA Sergeant Bilko: This classic series was set in Fort Baxter, a sleepy military base in Arkansas where things were so dull that Major Sergeant Ernie Bilko, played by Phil Silvers, entertained himself by coming up with any number of money making schemes.His men, particularly Corporal Rocco Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Steve Henshaw (Allan Melvin) often aided him in these schemes. Bilko watched by the careful eye of Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who was sadly outmatched by him.

The Phil Silvers Show was characterised by sharp dialogue and often interwoven plots. It also often combined the believable with the utterly absurd. Throughout the show there was an emphasis on slapstick. The Phil Silvers Show was not only critically acclaimed, but became one of the biggest hits on CBS. The series won five Emmys in its first season alone, and won three consecutive Emmys for Best Comedies. The Phil Silvers Show would become a huge success in syndication. It also proved to be influential. It inspired imitators from the cartoon Top Cat to McHale's Navy. Even such latter day shows as M*A*S*H would feel its influence.

I Love Lucy: Today, after it has been rerun literally thousands of times, we tend to take I Love Lucy for granted. In reality, however, it was a very revolutionary sitcom. Indeed, it was one of the earliest shows to utilise the three camera setup that would later be used to shoot most sitcoms. And while I Love Lucy clung almost religiously to its formula, with Lucy developing one hair brained scheme after another, only to be thwarted by her husband Ricky, through that formula it developed some of the most hilarious situations in the history of televison. The Vitametavegemin.commercial Lucy shoots and gets drunk while doing so, Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, the enormous loaf of bread that blew up Lucy's oven when she tried baking it the old fashioned way, all of these are well remembered classics. I Love Lucy was not the first television sitcom, but it was the genre's first true hit. And its influence can still be felt today.

The Sixties: The Sixties may well have been the Golden Age of the TV sitcom. This makes picking the two best comedies of the era very, very difficult. After all, this is the decade that produced such classics as The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, F Troop, Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, He and She, I Dream of Jeannie, The Monkees, My Favourite Martian, and yet others I have probably overlooked. Ultimately, however, I could only choose two, and these are the two I chose.

The Andy Griffith Show: On the surface, there one might be expecting nothing extraordinary about a sitcom centred on a sheriff in a small town in North Carolina. Nothing could be further from the truth. In many respects The Andy Griffith Show was a revolutionary show. First, despite its title, the focus of the series was not on Sheriff Andy Taylor (played by Andy Griffith), but on the town of Mayberry itself and to a lesser degree all of Mayberry County. Because of this, The Andy Griffith Show developed one of the earliest ensemble casts in the history of television. There was Andy's bumbling deputy, Barney Fife (played by the great Don Knotts), the local drunk Otis Campbell, the somewhat forgetful barber Floyd Lawson (Howard McNear), service station attendant Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors--later replaced by his cousin, Goober Pyle, played by George Lindsay), and several others. The ensemble approach served The Andy Griffith Show well, as its approach to comedy was not through jokes, gags, or one liners, but grew from the characters themselves. This set it apart from the vast majority of sitcoms that had aired up to that time.

The Andy Griffith Show was at the top of its ratings for the entirety of its run. So popular was it that when Andy Griffith decided to leave the show, it more or less continued with a new lead character (farmer Sam Jones, played by Ken Barry) as Mayberry R.F.D.. The show also proved very influential. It would spark a cycle of rural sitcoms that would continue for the rest of the decade. The Andy Griffith Show would go on to become of the most successful shows in syndication, still running today.

The Dick Van Dyke Show: Debuting in the early Sixties, well well written, intelligent sitcoms were rare, The Dick Van Dyke Show was the exception to the rule. The show centred on Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), who divided his time between writing for The Alan Brady Show and his home life with wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). Despite its title, like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show was a true ensemble comedy. Plots not only focused on Rob and his life at home or his life at the office, but on his co-workers as well: Maurice "Buddy" Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), a writer who fancied himself as a "human joke machine (which he was), Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), who was always trying to find a husband and quoting from her Aunt Alice, Melvin "Mel" Cooley (Richard Deacon), the show's overbearing producer who only got his job because he is Alan Brady's brother-in-law, and Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) himself, the egomaniacal star of the show. The strengths of The Dick Van Dyke Show were many. The jokes often came fast and furious, particularly when Rob, Buddy, and Sally were in the office. Dick Van Dyke had ample opportunity to demonstrate his gift for physical comedy (Rob Petrie was a bit clumbsy). The show also featured one of the first realistic portrayals of a marriage on television, even go so far as having Laura wear capri slacks instead the stereetypical dress and pearls. Most notable, The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the first sitcoms to feature intelligent, but always humorous, looks at such serious subjects as death, marital infidelity, psychiatry, race, religion, and even teaching one's child about sex.

Although it was not a hit in its first season, The Dick Van Dyke Show was soon at the top of the ratings. When it ended after five seasons, it was because of Carl Reiner's desire for the show to go out on top. The show would win several Emmys over the years. It would also prove a success in syndication. Ultimately, The Dick Van Dyke Show would prove a lasting influence on television, influencing shows ranging from Bewitched to Mad About You.

The Seventies: In many respects, the Seventies was a bit of a comedown from the Sixties when it came to sitcoms. The decade simply did not produce the same large number of classics. Still, it would produce quite a few: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Odd Couple, Taxi, and Three's Company (M*A**S*H I don't count, as I think of it as a dramedy). This still made it hard to pick the final two.

Sanford and Son: The early Seventies saw American television dominated by a cyle of relevance oriented sitcoms such as All in the Family and Maude. One of the few sitcoms to debut during this time that was of a more traditional type was Sanford and Son, a show based on the classic Britcom Steptoe and Son. Like the British original, Sanford and Son centred on a curmudgeonly, old junk dealer and his rather more ambitious son. Despite being based on an earlier source, Sanford and Son quickly developed a personality all its own, largely due to the comic genius of Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford. For the most part the plots centred on Fred's various schemes to make money. Fred was often helped by his none too bright friends in these schemes, Grady (Whitman Mayo) and Bubba (Don Bexley). The show benefited from a great supporting cast, including LaWanda Page as Fred's nemesis and sister in law Esther, his son Lamount's shady friend Rollo, Hal Williams and Howard Pratt as the two local beat cops.

WKRP in Cincinnati: Coming towards the end of the decade, WKRP in Cincinnati focused on a radio station that once played elevator music but was making the shift to rock 'n' roll. WKRP in Cincinnati was definitely a character driven comedy, with some of the strangest characters to ever appear on a sitcom. Perhaps the oddest was Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), a burnout DJ who cynical, neurotic, and seemingly always sleepy, despite always drinking coffee. Nearly as odd was Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), who was almost totally incompetent and obsessed with "the Communist threat." Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) was the boorish, nearly dude advertising account executive at WKRP, who constantly chased receptionist Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), despite the fact that he was married. WKRP in Cincinnati was constantly being moved by CBS, even though it picked up Emmy nomiatons (in the end it would pick up ten). Somehow it managed to last five years. When it went into syndication, WKRP in Cincinnati became a run away hit.

The Eighties: The Eighties would see the return of the family sitcom, due to the success of The Cosby Show. Sadly, many of these simply were not very good. That is not to say that there weren't good sitcoms that were released during the decade: Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Kate and Allie, Married with Children, Night Court, and Sledge Hammer. Here, in my opinion, are the two best,

Cheers: Cheers may well be the most successful Eighties sitcom of all time. Although in its first season it received extremely low ratings, Cheers ratings would rise until by its fourth season it ranked in the top twenty and in its fourth season the top ten. It remained there for the rest of its run. Initially centring on the relationship between ex baseball player and bar owner Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), the show swiftly became more of an ensemble piece, often focusing on waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), other bartenders Coach (Nicholas Colasanto) and later Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), and patrons Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and Norm Peterson (George Wendt). IT was because the show had become an ensemble piece that it was able to survive the death of Nicholas Colasanto as Coash and the departure of Shelley Long as Diane. In fact, if anything else its ratings even grew higher. After its cancellation, Cheers went into one of the most successful syndication runs of all time. In fact, it can still be seen in most television markets.

Newhart: Today Newhart seems almost forgotten, which is a shame, as it is easily one of the funniest shows of the Eighties. This was Bob Newhart's second sitcom, this time featuring him as how-to book writer Dick Loudon, who takes over a rural Vermont inn with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). The town was filled with some of the most eccentric characters ever seen on television. Handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) was incredibly dull witted. Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) was the exceedingly manipulative producer of the TV show Dick hosted. Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) was a spoiled rich girl, whose parents had cut her off, who could seem to accept being poor. Strangest of them all were the brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad), local backwoodsmen. The two Darryls never speak, while Larry always speaks in a monotone, often making outrageous claims (that more often than not prove to be true), Despite its title, Newhart was most certainly an ensemble comedy, which much of the humour coming from the inhabitants of the town. The series could also tend to be a bit surreal, especially when Larry, Darryl, and Darryl were involved. The surrealistic elements tended to increase as the seasons passed, until they became fairly pronounced in the show's final season. The final episode, in which the show gave in entirely to its surrealistic tendencies, is a classic.

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