Sitcoms in the fun house

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

Sitcoms in the fun house

Brian D. Johnson January 13 1986

In television programming, one of the most serious businesses is making situation comedies. Rarely was that clearer than on Jan. 19 1953, when 44 million viewers tuned into I Love Lucy because their favorite sitcom character, Lucy Ricardo, was about to have a baby. With exquisite timing, on the same day that the filmed episode aired, the show’s star, Lucille Ball, gave birth to her son, Desi Arnaz Jr., known on the screen as “Little Ricky.” Indeed, over the decades the heroes and heroines of sitcoms have served as television’s most consistently popular performers.

Spotlight: In the early 1980s serials (Dallas) and adventure shows (The A-Team) dominated viewer ratings, but in the past year comedies have returned to the spotlight. Of the top 10 U.S. shows, five are now sitcoms—The Cosby Show ranks first with 86 million viewers a week. In Canada such shows are just as popular. Jack Humphrey, executive producer of the CBC’s Hangin' In, one of the few Canadian sitcoms, acknowledged the power of his competition. “The U.S. networks spend millions on research and development,” he said. “In Canada, it is all a crap shoot.”

In North American television, sitcoms are more than mere entertainment. Censored by market researchers and scrutinized by some of the world’s most obsessive pollsters—the networks and their sponsors—comedies serve as ultimate barometers of social taste. Over the years, audiences have graduated from the frivolous Lucy to the liberated Mary, from working-class bigot Archie Bunker to prosperous black physician Bill Cosby. In the late 1970s, with the triumph of such farces as Three's Company, character development and social commentary gave way to titillation. Now, as Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper attempt prime-time comebacks with Mary and Valerie, more realistic sitcoms are back in fashion at the networks.. Said Harvey Shephard, a senior vice-president at CBS, the network that launched Moore’s new series last month: “There was a time when comedies were all escapist. Now the public wants comedies that reflect their lives and problems.”

Indeed, it is now the TV drama series, with rock-video violence and pat endings, that provide the most popular escapist fare. By contrast, comedy serves as a fun-house mirror for North Americans’ everyday preoccupations—family, sex, career and class—although the classic sitcom portraits of harmonious households have often lacked realism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, when divorce rates were relatively low, such sitcoms as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet reflected widespread family stability. That show was the saga of the Nelsons, a real family offscreen, and it offered a bland portrait of middle-class America. Audiences delighted in watching the rebellious Ricky Nelson mature. Last week rock star Nelson, 45, died in a plane crash, and among his mourners were fans who had followed him since he was 8. Ozzie and Harriet ran for 14 years—longer than the average marriage in the 1980s.

Cosby and other 1980s sitcom hits—Family Ties, Cheers and The Golden Girls among them—regularly make light of once-forbidden issues, from sex to senility. But some critics still find the shows bland. Said Mark Freiman, a professor of Canadian studies at the University of Toronto: “They may raise painful issues, but the answers dissolve in your hand. The Cosby Show is particularly dishonest. It suggests that black families are just like white families.”

Imports: Canadians have few alternatives to the U.S. imports. During four decades of TV history, the English-Canadian networks have produced only 12 original comedy series. And the three that are still on the air trail their U.S. rivals in the ratings: recent figures show that about one million viewers watch the CBC’s Hangin’ In, starring Lally Cadeau, 1.3 million watch Seeing Things, with Louis Del Grande—both CBC shows—and fewer than a million tune in to CTV’s Check It Out! That compares to over five million Canadians who watch Cosby.

Budgets: Indeed, it is much cheaper for Canadian networks to buy imports at about $25,000 per episode than to invest in their own shows. Budgets for Canadian sitcoms range from $200,000 to $250,000 per episode—still only 60 per cent of the average budget for similar U.S. programs. In any case, according to Hangin ’ In’s Humphrey, 80 per cent of Canada’s former sitcom talent is now working in the United States.

One Canadian series that has won a reputation for being funny is Seeing Things, an hour-long hybrid of mystery and comedy that owes its humor to the genius of its New Jersey-born star/co-writer/co-producer, Louis Del Grande. As Louis Ciccone, a clairvoyant reporter at the fictional Toronto Gazette, Del Grande is a master of self-deprecation and the throwaway line. Although a murder usually underlies each episode, the comedy plays on the unexpected ironies of domestic predicaments. Del Grande says that the zany realism of Seeing Things owes much of its inspiration to such early classics of American comedy as The Honeymooners. Said Del Grande: “There was something believable in Gleason. He had one sink and one room and he was a bus driver. You can tell those actors didn’t take coke.”

From the beginning, sitcom stars were influential role models. In the United States, black organizations attacked the Amos ’n’ Andy series as a racist caricature and forced it off the air in 1953. Canada’s first homemade situation comedy, The Plouffe Family, was often attacked for its condescending tone. Based on the 1948 novel by Roger Lemelin, Les Plouffe, it introduced English Canadians to a French-Canadian mother, Josephine Plouffe, her antimonarchist husband, Théophile, and their four children. After five years of strong ratings the CBC cancelled the show in 1959 because of criticism that it portrayed Quebecers as crude. Independent MP Raoul Poulin, for one, had charged that too many episodes were “scabrous, suggestive, sometimes immoral and even degrading.”

Bucolic: Meanwhile, most of the successful American sitcoms avoided controversy. The family reigned supreme in such programs as Father Knows Best and The Danny Thomas Show. Baby-boom children could identify with lovable peers in Dennis the Menace, Leave It to Beaver and My Three Sons. In 1957 television strayed from the suburbs and created the first successful rural sitcom with The Real McCoys, prototype for a bucolic breed that would include The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies. The tale of an oil-rich Ozarks family who moved to California without changing its rural habits, Hillbillies offered an easy escape from the pressures of life in the 1960s.

Supernatural: Popular television never did reflect the social turmoil of the 1960s. Instead, there was a proliferation of sitcom fantasies featuring supernatural beings: My Favorite Martian, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, The Addams Family and My Mother the Car. The networks discovered a market for weirdness. But in the 1970-71 season two shows revolutionized the sitcom format and brought television back to urban reality: All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

All in the Family shattered television etiquette. Its main character, Archie Bunker, called blacks “spades,” Puerto Ricans “spies” and Chinese “chinks.” He labelled his liberal son-in-law, Mike, “a Polack pinko meathead.” The show, a broad adaptation of the British Broadcasting Corp.’s hit comedy Till Death Do Us Part, went on the air only after a long struggle between its producer, Norman Lear, and CBS. The nervous network executives preceded its first broadcast with a warning that the show “seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.” In fact, only 1,000 viewers phoned in, 60 per cent of them with favorable reactions.

Mary Tyler Moore’s impact was more discreet. Still, she broke the mould of the bubbleheaded housewife by making a single career woman a television role model, and her sexy feminism appealed to both male and female viewers. In Up the Tube, author and former TV Guide columnist Sally Bedell writes: “All in the Family may have taken the prize for courage and toughness in blasting through values and attitudes. But the MTM show nudged its way into human relationships with an enviable subtlety.”

Vibrant: In 1972, when CBS added M*A*S*H to a Saturday-night lineup that already included All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore, the network created one of the most vibrant TV nights in the medium’s history. More than any other series, M*A*S*H put the sitcom format to dramatic use. And its gritty portrayal of medics finding laughs amid the chaos of the Korean War served as a thinly veiled metaphor for Vietnam. But in 1975, under pressure from Congress, a new “family viewing policy” by the National Association of Broadcasters led networks to postpone adult-oriented programming in the evening until after 9 p.m. That policy led CBS to dismantle its powerful Saturday-night lineup, and it paved the way for a deluge of immature programs by ABC over the next few years.

At Canadian networks, sitcom production faced a different obstacle: for years it was simply not a priority. Then, in 1974 John Hirsch became the CBC’s director of drama and tried to change that. “If you look at American shows,” he said, “every situation comedy is made by a machine—the Norman Lear machine, the Mary Tyler Moore machine.” To create his Canadian “machine,” Hirsch relied on Winnipeg-born Perry Rosemond, who had worked in Hollywood since the late 1960s directing network specials for Bill Cosby, Phyllis Differ and others. Hirsch and Rosemond sought alternatives to the abrasive style of American sitcoms, and the result was King of Kensington, with Al Waxman.

Like All in the Family, the CBC show centred on a working-class character—but he was designed to reflect the good-natured spirit of good-natured Canadians. Waxman told Maclean's: “We take a softer attitude in comedy and drama. We are not as aggressive a country as the United States.” King of Kensington ran five years on the CBC and its reruns have been syndicated to U.S. stations.

By the time the series ended production in 1980, its producer, Jack Humphrey, had created Hangin’ In, which is still on the air. Replacing King's community centre with a youth counselling service, it stars Cadeau and David Eisner as social workers. As Kate Brown, Cadeau helps adolescents and their parents cope with such matters as teen pregnancy and juvenile crime. Some viewers have found the shows so believable that they have written letters asking if their children could consult with its counsellors.

Slapstick: For its part, the CTV network has followed the American format more closely. It currently produces Check It Out! with Don Adams (Get Smart) as a supermarket manager in an unidentified city. The program is slapstick farce designed for an international market—as well as appearing on CTV, it runs on the USA Cable Network. But so far the CBC’s Seeing Things remains Canada’s most successful comedy series abroad, with distribution in more than 40 countries and in all major European languages. With in-jokes about The Journal, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and Toronto’s WASP establishment, Del Grande makes its Canadian setting highly obvious. In fact, he goes out of his way to paint American television and pop stars as poisonous. While filming one episode, the costume crew gave Ciccone’s son, Jason, a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt. Del Grande turned the incident into an on-screen joke by telling him: “Go put on a T-shirt with a Canadian hero. Enough of this cultural imperialism.”

Del Grande’s comment indicated just how strong the American entertainment industry is. Supported by enormous amounts of money and talent—and a creative intelligence often vastly superior to what appears on the screen—the sitcom machines are at the heart of American TV culture. And, it appears, Canadians also share in the imported laughter.