Evil Ash checking in again.
As someone who is in his early 50s, there really isn’t much that I see appealing in “network” television these days. I get it; I’m from a different generation, a different mindset, a different sense of humor. Still, I can’t remember the last time I actually “watched” a half-hour sitcom. Most likely it was The Good Place which was solid until it fell off the rails in the final season. That said, September 1970 – just a shade over 50 years ago – was THE absolute Golden Year for American network television; specifically, half-hour sitcoms. This article looks back at that time, and celebrates this Golden anniversary.
Legendary producer, director and screenwriter James L. Brooks would kick things off by launching The Mary Tyler Moore Show on September 19, 1970. Brooks, a New Jersey native and an NYU dropout, moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s to try and make it as a television writer. He would bounce around Hollywood for several years, working on such shows as My Mother The Car and My Friend Tony, before successfully pitching the racially groundbreaking show Room 222; for which he was the creator and show-runner.
CBS and producer Grant Tinker saw the talent and possibilities in Brooks and hired him – as well as his producing partner Allan Burns – to create a show that revolved around TV superstar (and Tinker’s wife) Mary Tyler Moore. The rest is history and would launch Brooks’ career into the stratosphere.
While the greatness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show needs its own dedicated article (the Writers Guild of America named the show 6th on its list of 101 Greatest Written TV Shows of all time), I’ll simply state that this show changed the trajectory of how Americans viewed single women who were focused on their careers, rather than getting married and making sure dinner was on the table.
Brooks would go on to win multiple awards for the show and would have one of most prolific careers in the history of Hollywood, winning an astonishing 21 Emmys for shows such as The Simpsons, The Tracy Ullman Show, Taxi and Lou Grant, as well as 3 Academy Awards for directing, writing and producing the 1983 classic film, Terms of Endearment.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and its incredible cast (I’m looking at YOU Ted Knight) and writing team were revolutionary and groundbreaking. On top of it being a damn funny show, it was considered monumental in continuing the push forward of feminism’s “second wave.” The show concluded its seven-year run in 1977 and would lead to several successful spin-offs (Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou Grant).
The impact that this show would have on future generations of writers, directors and producers cannot be understated. you do not have 30 Rock without The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Tina Fey has said on numerous occasions how writers and creators such as herself owe so much to people like James L. Brooks, Allan Burns and the incomparable Mary Tyler Moore.
Half-hour comedies weren’t the only thing that made 1970 “golden.” That same month, iconic comedian Flip Wilson would get launched into the stratosphere.
Clerow “Flip” Wilson, Jr. was born in 1933 and basically grew up in foster homes from the age of 7 on. At the age of 16, he (illegally) joined the Air Force to try and make a better life for himself. It was during this time that Wilson would discover his natural instinct for being funny. He would entertain the troops, and improve the morale of those around him. His fellow servicemen would describe Wilson as being “flipped out” hence leading to the nickname of “Flip” which would stick for the rest of his life.
Throughout the late 50s and 1960s, Wilson would build his reputation as a comedic wild man, touring – throughout the country – nightclubs and the “Chitlin Circut,” a group of venues in various parts of the US that would provide an opportunity for African Americans to perform during the era of racial segregation. It was during these years that Wilson would hone and sharpen his routine. In 1965, legendary comedian Redd Foxx would go on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and state that Wilson was the funniest comedian in the country. Carson, a launching pad for so many comedy legends, would subsequently have Wilson as a guest numerous times, as would Ed Sullivan.
By 1970, it was Flip Wilson’s time to take center stage. NBC took a chance on him, and on Thursday, September 17, 1970, the network launched The Flip Wilson Show, an hour-long variety show. Wilson’s career, and the American viewers, would never be the same again. Wilson’s show, much like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was groundbreaking. Not only was it the first network variety show to star an African American male, but it was also a show that was hugely successful among a predominately white audience. During its first two seasons The Flip Wilson Show would jump to #2 in the Nielsen ratings; only behind a show that I’ll be getting to later.
The Flip Wilson Show was a predominately “skit” type show, that would feature Wilson often dressing in drag as “Geraldine Jones,” and creating such other hilarious characters as “The Good Time Ice Cream Man” and “The Reverend Leroy.” His performances were often ad-libbed, unhinged, and completely new for 1970s television viewers.
He also provided a platform for many musical artists of the day; such as The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and especially singer/composer/actor/musician Bobby Darin, who he had incredible chemistry with, and was a frequent guest. This wildly popular show would conclude its run in June of 1974. Flip Wilson, a two time Emmy winner and Golden Globe winner would pass away in 1998 at the too-young age of 64.
On Thursday, September 24, 1970, producer Garry Marshall would roll out the first of many monumental American television shows. The Odd Couple, based on the 1965 hit stage play and 1968 film adaptation by Neil Simon, premiered without much fanfare on the ABC network. It starred Tony Randall as the fussy and annoying (yet ultimately lovable) Felix Unger, and Jack Klugman as the slovenly, yet warm-hearted, Oscar Madison.
It was a show about two divorced men living together and driving each other crazy, and it wasn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the means. However, it was incredibly funny, well-acted, and brilliantly written. It’s really unlike anything we have today in my opinion. Both actors would win Emmy’s for their work on the show.
While the ratings weren’t surefire, the critics absolutely loved The Odd Couple, and that gave it the juice to survive for five glorious seasons. After the first season, the show switched over to multi-cam, so every second of the fast-paced physical and verbal action of these two veteran stage actors could be captured. It was a smart move, as was switching over to a live audience, which was taped and edited in post-production.
As viewers, we were introduced to such characters as “The Pigeon Sisters,” “Murray the Cop” (played by Garry Marshall stock player Al Molinaro), and of course Penny Marshall as Oscars’ loyal secretary “Myrna.” The only thing to dislike about the show was the annoying canned laughter that was piped in over the live audience. It was completely unnecessary.
While the series wrapped up in March of 1975, it was in syndication where millions of Americans would learn about this show, and absolutely treasure it. I remember watching countless episodes on New York’s Channel 11 WPIX as a kid – around dinnertime.
The show has stood the test of time and is now part of the pantheon of legendary half-hour sitcoms. The Odd Couple would serve as a launching pad for creator Garry Marshall, who would go on to create and produce, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy, all in succession. On top of that, he would branch out to direct such movies as Pretty Woman, Frankie & Johnny, The Flamingo Kid, and the grossly underrated Nothing in Common with Jackie Gleason and Tom Hanks.
Marshall would continue writing and directing films right up until the time of his death in 2016 at the age of 81.
Its time to address the giant in the room, as previously referenced above. In 1966, legendary producer/writer Norman Lear (still going strong at 98!) had noticed the success of a British television show called ‘Til Death Do Us Part and immediately saw himself and his family – particularly his father – in the characters. He quickly snatched up the American rights to the show and fashioned it after his own familial experiences as a kid growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. Lear has said publicly many times that Archie and Edith Bunker were modeled after his parents.
The original pilot of Justice for All was shot for ABC in 1968. In said pilot, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton played Archie and Edith Justice. A second pilot was shot in 1969, and after numerous complaints from test audiences, the network grew wary of airing a show with a lead that was a bigot with a foul mouth.
The CBS network right around the same time was looking to expand its slate of programming from the “rural” shows that it was airing (Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., etc.), and wanted to go in a more “urban” direction, thereby appealing to a broader audience. CBS jumped at the opportunity and quickly purchased the rights to Lear’s show – which was now in television limbo. The network did some slight retooling, kept the original cast in place, and shot yet another pilot. This pilot episode would be the first episode of the newly re-titled All In The Family and would air on January 12, 1971, a 1970 mid-season “filler” show on CBS’s Fall schedule.
The “Justice” family would be renamed the “Bunker” family. While the show started off slowly in its first season, it caught on like wildfire during the summer reruns of 1971. Yet again, the rest is history.
To say that this show is legendary is an understatement. For nine seasons and 205 episodes, All In The Family would rank at, or near the top, of the Nielsen rating chart. From 1971 to 1976, it would rank first in the yearly Nielsen ratings; the first show in television history to do that. All In The Family didn’t just break new ground, it set the ground on fire and steamrolled right over it.
The show was an integral part of the continuing counterculture movement and would deal openly (and often hilariously) with topics that had been TV taboo for years: cancer, racism, sexism, Vietnam, politics, Watergate, antisemitism, rape, infertility, and so on and so on. These were topics that were never discussed on television before the hot-headed and insulting Archie Bunker came along.
I can’t stress enough how important and groundbreaking it was to deal with these types of sensitive issues through comedy; and Norman Lear took a HUGE gamble by doing this in 1970, a time where a good portion of the country wasn’t ready for a show like this. All In The Family is widely considered to be one of the greatest television shows in American history, and rightfully so. Every single actor and writer on this show shines, but it’s O’Connor and Stapleton’s performances throughout the series that are absolute iconic; especially O’Connor. He basically developed the “antihero” character years before it would become a common television standard. As vicious as he could be, you ultimately root for him to do the right thing. It’s those times where he does (and there’s quite a few), where the show shines and brings you almost to tears.
All In The Family would conclude its monumental run in April of 1979, winning an incredible 22 Emmys, including 4 for O’Connor and 5 for Stapleton. The show would spin-off several successful shows, such as Maude and The Jeffersons. Archie Bunker’s Place was basically a not nearly as successful continuation of the original series (co-starring the fantastic Martin Balsam), and would run until 1983.
If there’s a Mount Rushmore of television, Norman Lear has to be on it. In a career that has spanned over 70 years, Lear has created topical and brilliant shows such as Sanford & Son, Good Times, One Day At A Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, among just a few. He’s an Academy Award nominee, 5-time Emmy award winner, and 2-time Peabody Award recipient. His contribution to the industry is the gold standard that others can only hope to achieve.
While I assume that most of you reading this article have likely watched some – if not all of the shows mentioned above; if you have not, seek them out, you won’t regret it. If you have seen these shows, seek them out again. They are timeless classics that still hold up, especially in today’s turbulent times.
Most of these shows you can find either on Hulu or Amazon Prime. The Odd Couple is also available on CBS-All Access; The Mary Tyler Moore Show can be found on Sundance TV, and All In The Family is free on Crackle with ads.
Do you want to revisit 1970 and the “Golden Year” of television?
Sound off Outposters and let me know what you think!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg