Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The First Couples to Share a Bed on American Television

Ozzie and Harriet in the episode "Costume Party"
Today viewers often look back in bewilderment at what the broadcast networks would not permit on American television. The closest a toilet ever came to being shown on an American television show prior to the Eighties was the Leave It to Beaver episode "Captain Jack," and then only the toilet tank was shown (for those who haven't seen the episode, Wally and Beaver get a baby alligator which they hide in the toilet tank). When a toilet was heard flushing on All in the Family (although it remained unseen), it was something of a revolution for American television. Similarly, women's navels would be forbidden on American television, so that Dawn Wells and Tina Louise on Gilligan's Island and Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie would have to keep their bellybuttons concealed. From the Fifties into the Sixties only a few women's navels would slip through on American television, a notable example being Nichelle Nichols's navel on the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror." It wouldn't be until Cher bared her navel on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour that the networks would lift their ban on bellybuttons. Among the things people believe to have been forbidden on American television were couples sharing the same bed. Given the broadcast network's standards and practices departments banning such innocuous things as toilets and women's bellybuttons, it might come as some surprise that this does not seem to have been a case.

Of course, viewers might be forgiven for believing that couples sharing the same bed was banned on American television from the late Forties to the late Sixties, as couples were shown sleeping in separate twin beds on several major shows. Despite Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz being married in real life, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were always portrayed on I Love Lucy as sleeping in separate beds. The same was true of Jim and Margaret Anderson on Father Knows Best. Even as late as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob and Laura Petrie were portrayed as sleeping in separate beds. That having been said, while the couples on these shows slept in separate beds, there were yet other shows on which couples shared the same bed.

Indeed, it is a well known fact that the first sitcom to portray a couple sleeping in the same bed was Mary Kay and Johnny, which debuted in 1947. Among other things, Mary Kay and Johnny was the first American television sitcom. It debuted on the DuMont Television Network on November 18 1947. Mary Kay and Johnny starred real life couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns and centred around Johnny, who worked at a bank, and his wife Mary Kay. Not only did the show portray the couple as sharing the same bed, but it was the first show to portray a character's pregnancy. After Mary Kay became pregnant in 1948, it was incorporated as a storyline on Mary Kay and Johnny.

As to the next couple to share a bed on American television, that is a bit more difficult to determine, but there is a good chance that it was real life married couple Ozzie and Harriet Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The 1956 episode "A Day in Bed," in which Ozzie decides to spend the whole day in bed, shows that the couple have a double bed. Other episodes show Ozzie and Harriet in bed together, an example being the episode "Costume Party" from 1959. I have read claims that Ozzie and Harriet slept in separate beds, but if that was the case it was something that came to an end very early in the show's run. Of course, here it must be kept in mind that, like Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were married in real life, which may have made a difference.

Ozzie and Harriet weren't the only couple to sleep in the same bed in the late Fifties. The Flintstones debuted on ABC on September 30 1960 and portrayed Fred and Wilma as sleeping in the same bed. Many point out that here it may have made a difference that The Flintstones was an animated show. That having been said, it would not be long before a live action couple, whose actors were not married in real life, would be shown in the same bed.

The honour of the the first American TV series to show a couple whose actors were not married in real life sharing a bed goes to Bewitched. In the third episode of the series, "It Shouldn't Happen to a Dog," Samantha and Darrin Stephens are portrayed as sleeping in the same bed, even though Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York were not married in real life. The episode aired on October 1 1964.

As to the second series in which a couple was shown to sleep in the same bed, that would happen a few weeks later on November 26 1964. The tenth episode of The Munsters, "Autumn Kroakus," showed Herman and Lily Munster as sharing a bed.

By the mid-Sixties it seems that it was no longer unusual for couples on American network television to share a bed. On Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Joan and Jim Nash shared the same bed. Similarly, on He & She, Dick and Paula Hollister also shared the same bed. Of course, just like Mary Kay and Jim Stearns and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson before them, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were married in real life. While there are those who believe that Mike and Carol Brady on The Brady Bunch were the first couple to share a bed, they were not the first by a long shot. They were not even the second.

Of course, the $64,000 question is, "Why on some shows were couples shown sleeping in separate beds, while on others couple shared beds?" It seems possible that whether the actors were married in real life may have made a difference. It is notable that out of the early instances on American television of a couple sharing a bed, the couple was married in real life. Perhaps for that reason, Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns on Mary Kay and Johnny and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were allowed to share the same bed. It is notable that on Father Knows Best and The Dick Van Dyke Show, on which the actors were not married in real life, they slept in separate beds.

While it seems likely that whether a couple was married in real life made a difference in the bed arrangements on shows, it does not explain why Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, married in real life, did not share a bed on I Love Lucy. Here it seems possible that the acceptance of couples sleeping in the same bed may have varied from network to network. It is notable that of the earliest shows on which couples shared a bed, a number of them aired on ABC. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Flintstones, and Bewitched all aired on ABC. In contrast, I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and The Dick Van Dyke Show all aired on CBS. Quite simply, ABC's Continuity Acceptance department may have found couples sharing a bed more acceptable than CBS's Program Practices department did. Here there is also the possibility that it was something that varied from production company to production company.

The American broadcast networks in the Fifties and Sixties did forbid things that to us today seem wholly innocuous. For much of the two decades neither women's navels nor toilets were to be seen for the most part on American television. That having been said, couples sleeping in the same bed does not seem to have been among the things the networks absolutely forbade. Well before The Brady Bunch debuted in 1969, couples were sharing the same bed on American television.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

It is surprising how much of history, even entertainment history, is left to myths or "ideas" of what things were like "back then." Thanks for setting us straight. It is easy to see that line drawn between real-life couples and others. That's another angle to entertainment that amuses; the inability for some producers or maybe some audiences to differentiate between life and the job the actors are doing. (My head hurts. I'm thinking too much for so early in the morning.)