Comedy Essay, Research Paper

A History of Comedy on Television:

70??s to the 90??s

TV Criticism

The history of comedy on television goes back many years. Through out this paper I will go through many shows that have had a heavy impact on television, and criticize why they had the success that they did.

1970: The situation comedy dropped to 24 this year. This season saw the premiere of a landmark sitcom, THE

MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, breaking with the tradition of the single woman not being in the regular work force, nor being happy single. The variety show dropped to 17 shows. This season marked the end of an era as it was the final season

of the longest running comedy show ever on television: THE RED SKELTON SHOW. Red Skelton was on the air for 18 seasons.

1971: There were 24 situation comedies on this season. The rural comedy came to an end as THE BEVERLY

HILLBILLIES, GREEN ACRES, THE NEW ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, AND MAYBERRY. Among the new shows was the controversial and ground- breaking ALL IN THE FAMILY. It was the first of a new type of sitcom, the ??dramedy??, in this case an advocate dramedy. The variety show had 12 programs on the air. The only new show of the four that premiered that lasted


1972-73 The situation comedy dropped to 23 shows. Canceled were the last of the gimmick comedies,

BEWITCHED; all three of the shows created last season for movie stars: THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW, SHIRLEY’S WORLD with Shirley McLaine, and THE SMITH FAMILY with Henry Fonda;

and MY THREE SONS, the longest running of the domestic comedies. Among the new shows was the first of a new type of sitcom, the human dramedy M*A*S*H. The variety show went up to 13 as five new shows premiered. However, none of the five lasted more

than the one season.

1973-74: The situation comedy went back up to 28. However, none of the 13 new shows survived the season.

The variety show dropped to only 10 as all five shows from the previous season were canceled, as was

LAUGH-IN. In addition, all three of the new shows were canceled before season’s end.

1974-75: The situation comedy plunged to its lowest level since 1951 with only 15 shows on the air as all 13 new

shows from the 1973- 74 seasonwere canceled. However, four of the eight new shows became hits: CHICO AND THE MAN, GOOD TIMES, RHODA, and HAPPY DAYS.

The variety show continued its decline to only seven, the lowest since 1962. Only THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW remained from previous seasons; all others, including THE DEAN MARTIN SHOW and THE FLIP WILSON SHOW were canceled.

1975-76: The situation comedy made a violent upswing as 19 new shows premiered, bring the total up to 29.

However, 13 of the 19 new shows were canceled by season’s end. Nonetheless, of the remaining six new shows, four were big hits: BARNEY MILLER (7 seasons), THE JEFFERSONS( 9 seasons), ONE DAY AT A TIME (9 seasons), and WELCOME BACK, KOTTER (four seasons).

The variety show dropped to six, but three of the four news shows were canceled within weeks.

1976-77: The situation comedy rose to 37 as 22 new shows premiered. Only six of the new shows lasted more than

one season, and only ALICE and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY more than two. The variety show rose to 12, but only one of the 10 new shows, DONNY AND MARIE, lasted out the


1977-78: The situation comedy lost one show, down to 36. 19 new shows premiered, including the first T&A

comedy, THREE’S COMPANY, which became the #1 television show in the ratings. The variety show continued its downward slide, with 10.

1978-79: The situation comedy dropped to 34. Of the 19 new shows, many were canceled within weeks. One, however, became a runaway hit: MORK & MINDY, starring Robin Williams, a wildly inventive and imaginative comedian, who played an extraterrestrial trying to learn about Earth. The writers would often leave gaps in the script simply labeled “Mork does his thing for three minutes”, letting Williams improvise what wouldn’t even occur to them to write for him. The variety show was down to only six, and to make matters worse, MARY, starring Mary Tyler Moore,

was canceled after the first show, leaving only five.

1979-80: The situation comedy jumped to its highest point in history, before or since. There were 45 sitcoms on

the air, 50% of prime- time, with 30 new shows, the largest number of new programs ever. However, 16 of those 30 new shows were canceled within weeks, and seven more lasted only the season. Two, BENSON and FACTS OF LIFE, were hits.

The variety show had seven programs, but three of the four new shows were canceled after only a few nights, including Mary Tyler Moore, her second flop in two seasons.

1980-81: The situation comedy began a decline this season, to 39 from last season’s incredible high of 45. Sixteen

of the nineteen new shows were canceled by season’s end, and the remaining three ended within two

years. The variety show held steady at seven shows, but two of the five new shows lasted only weeks.

1981-82: The situation comedy continued down to 34. Only three of the 15 new shows were canceled quickly,

but only one, GIMME A BREAK!, became a hit. The variety show dropped to only three on the air. This was the first season that there was no new variety show.

1982-83: The situation comedy had 38 shows on the air this season, but of the 19 new shows, only five lasted

longer than the season. However, of those five four were hits: CHEERS, FAMILY TIES, NEWHART, and SILVER SPOONS.

The variety show started with four, but was down to one in weeks.

1983-84: There were 34 situation comedies this season, but only one of the 19 new shows, WEBSTER, lasted out

the season. This year also marked the end of one of the most popular situation comedies of all time,

M*A*S*H. According to the Neilson’s, the final two- hour episode of M*A*S*H was the most watched

program of all time, gaining a 60.3 rating and a 77 share, or 77% of all televisions that were turned on in

the country were tuned to the show. In its 11 year run, M*A*S*H consistently ranked in the top fifteen

programs in the Neilson ratings. The variety show was down to one, THE LOVE BOAT. The only new show, THE 1/2 HOUR

COMEDY HOUR, lasted only one month.

1984-85: Twenty shows were canceled this season, including ten of the thirteen new shows. Only KATE & ALLIE

and NIGHT COURT and one other survived, leaving only 25 on the air. The one other was THE COSBY SHOW, starring Bill Cosby. THE COSBY SHOW immediately shot to the top of the ratings, a position it continued to maintain. The rumor was that the situation comedy was dead, that the audience

didn’t want it anymore. THE COSBY SHOW, as well as the rest of the NBC Thursday night schedule (FAMILY TIES, CHEERS, and NIGHT COURT), changed that idea.

The variety show was basically a dead form. Only THE LOVE BOAT remained, and there were no new shows.

1985-86: The situation comedy was at its lowest point since 1974, with only 23 programs on the air. Because the

situation comedy was considered a passe form of show, only seven new programs premiered. However, three of them, 227, GOLDEN GIRLS and GROWING PAINS, were hits. The variety show was still at one, THE LOVE BOAT.

1986-87: Because of the success of THE COSBY SHOW and the rest of NBC’s Thursday night line-up of situation comedies, the sitcom was back in style and 22 new shows premiered, bringing the total to 37. Although some of the new shows, including the highly-touted and sure-to-be-smash-hit LIFE WITH LUCY starring Lucille Ball, were canceled almost immediately, others became hits. Those included


The variety show died this season when THE LOVE BOAT was canceled and there were no new programs. The only example of comedy-variety show left was the syndicated HEE HAW.

1987-88: The situation comedy continued to increase. Eighteen new shows were added, bringing the total to 43,

only two shy of the all-time high of 45 in 1979. Most of the new shows were canceled by season’s end. This was the year that a fourth network, Fox, challenged the Big Three (ABC, NBC, CBS) and began assembling nightly schedules. Fox presented three new sitcoms, DUET, MARRIED . . . WITH

CHILDREN, and IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW. THE COSBY SHOW was the most popular show on the air, emphasizing family values. Now they came out with the antithesis of COSBY’s ideal family — MARRIED…WITH CHILDREN. Instead of warmth and wit, MARRIED had heat and half-wits with a totally dysfunctional family. The show appeared to be so anti family-values that a Midwestern

woman named Terry Rakolta tried to start a sponsor boycott to get the show off the air. Her campaign backfired: the show got so much publicity that its ratings skyrocketed, guaranteeing it a slot on the Fox

schedule. Dolly Parton tried a new variety show. After a rocky start she revamped the format, using more music

and less glitz and production. However, the show was canceled in a matter of weeks. It appeared to be

the true end of the variety show.

1988-89: The situation comedy made a slight readjustment, falling back to 39 on the air. Nineteen new shows

premiered, including new shows for Mary Tyler Moore (ANNIE McGUIRE) and Dick Van Dyke (THE VAN DYKE SHOW). However, they seemed unable to capture the audience the way they had in the past, and both shows were cancelled within weeks. DAYS AND NIGHTS OF MOLLY DODD, starring Blair Brown, was also soon cancelled, but was picked up by a syndication company that continued making new episodes and placing the show on the independent cable network Lifetime.

The two big hits of this season were ROSEANNE and THE WONDER YEARS. ROSEANNE violated virtually every principle of network television: the lead was a fat, raucous woman who bad-mouthed anything and everybody, but always with an undercurrent of affection and tenderness.

THE WONDER YEARS was a nostalgic look back at the 1960s, but avoided the slapstick and pat

situations and answers that were the hallmark of HAPPY DAYS (1974-84). It became almost a kid’s-view dramedy, involving the lead, a 12-year-old boy with bullies, first love, going steady, and death in the Vietnam War. It used a mixture of humor, pathos and poignancy without every getting raucous or maudlin.

1989-90: There were 50 sitcoms on the air durng this year, 29 from previous seasons and 21 permieres. By the end

of the season 21 shows were cancelled, including 15 of the premieres. One of the premieres was a show that Fox felt could challenge the Thursday night dominance of THE

COSBY SHOW — THE SIMPSONS, a cartoon sitcom featuring a nine-year-old brat named Bart, a genius named Lisa, Maggie, a pacifier-sucking baby, Homer, a dumb fat slob father, and Marge, the tender-loving-care mother with a three-foot blue beehive hairdo. For those people who were finding

COSBY a bit cloying and plotless, THE SIMPSONS was a perfect alternative.

1990-91: Twenty-four shows carried over from 1989-90, and were joined by 22 premieres. Thirteen shows ended

their runs, but only one, UNCLE BUCK, was cancelled before New Year’s. However, of the new shows,

only two could be considered hits: THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL AIR and SEINFELD. The latter starred Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic who played — Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up comic. As Seinfeld himself said, all the other actors on the show play characters; he’s just himself. The show concentrated its plots around little things, like parking spaces and answering machines, with which the audience could identify. This was a break from the usual problem-solution plots of the average sitcom.

1991-92: Thirty-three shows carried over from previous seasons, but ten of the 22 new shows from last season

weren’t around this fall. In addition, 20 new shows premiered, of which eight were soon cancelled. One of

the new shows, BROOKLYN BRIDGE, a gentle family comedy set in 1956, was almost cancelled, but fans, aided and abetted by a TV GUIDE magazine campaign, got it a reprieve.

There was also an attempt to revive the comedy-variety show. Oneof the most popular C-V shows was THE CAROL BURNETTE SHOW (1967-78). However, this season’s effort (imaginatively titled THE CAROL BURNETTE SHOW) died a quick death.


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