Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Post-World War II parents found the baby-boom culture they were creating mirrored in family-oriented television comedies that played up the humor of family life and played down its stresses and difficulties.

Summary of Event

The post-World War II advent of commercial television programming in the United States coincided with the return of millions of American servicemembers with two clear goals: starting a family and forgetting the war. Thus, an ideal format for comedy in the first decade of the television era was family-oriented escapism. Though the production of such shows was a perfect fit for the young television industry, it later proved to be a major source of criticism leveled at 1950’s television. Beginning in the 1970’s, critics complained that early family comedies had been too escapist, had not dealt with important issues, had made Dad too omniscient, Mom too submissive, and the kids too well behaved. Such shows, critics complained, were not “real.” Television;comedies
Situation comedies
Television;representation of American families
[kw]Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity (1950’s)
[kw]Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity, Family (1950’s)
[kw]Television Rise in Popularity, Family Comedies on (1950’s)
Situation comedies
Television;representation of American families
[g]North America;1950’s: Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity[03080]
[g]United States;1950’s: Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity[03080]
[c]Radio and television;1950’s: Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity[03080]
[c]Popular culture;1950’s: Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity[03080]
[c]Communications and media;1950’s: Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity[03080]
Nelson, Ozzie
Reed, Donna
Young, Robert
Thomas, Danny
Gleason, Jackie
Bendix, William
Mathers, Jerry

There is some truth to such complaints. It is true that the image of the family represented by early television sitcoms was idealized; by definition, the ideal is not the real. The idealized Dad was not always omniscient, however. There was a second character type, the bumbling father, who was much more common in the 1950’s. The archetypes of the omniscient father, Father Knows Best’s Father Knows Best (television program) Jim Anderson (played by Robert Young) and Leave It to Beaver’s Leave It to Beaver (television program) Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont Beaumont, Hugh ) were later arrivals who made their debuts in 1954 and 1957, respectively. The first television entry in the bumbling-father school was The Life of Riley’s Life of Riley, The (television program) Chester Riley (Jackie Gleason), which premiered in 1949.

The prototype for the bumbling father, though, was Ozzie Nelson, who played himself in the radio series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The (radio program) beginning in 1944. The creation of the type was to some extent a fluke: Nelson did not set out to typify the American father, but rather tried to use a gentle form of self-deprecating humor to offset the fact that he was placing himself on center stage. In 1952, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The (television program) began a twelve-year television run that made Nelson the epitome of the bumbling father. If anything, the television Ozzie was the direct opposite of the real-life Nelson: ineffectual on television, Nelson was by all accounts a firm and demanding director and father. Furthermore, Nelson’s real-life accomplishments were tremendous; he was, at various times, the starting quarterback for Rutgers University’s football team, a law-school graduate, a composer, a musician, and a big-band leader in the heyday of swing bands. The only thing “unreal” about the on-screen Nelson was that he wrote his character smaller than life, not larger.

There was something about the pathos of the bumbling father image Ozzie created, however, that appealed to radio and television audiences. Whether Americans saw themselves—or their own fathers or husbands—in the character, or whether the type’s ridiculousness made viewers feel superior, audiences loved the character. In American television, success spawns imitation.

On October 4, 1949, Gleason made his television debut in The Life of Riley. The Chester Riley character he created was even more hapless than the on-screen Nelson. Nelson may have been klutzy, stammering, and ineffectual, but his lifestyle was clearly that of the upper middle class. In fact, the often-asked question “What did Ozzie do for a living?” indicated a leisure unknown to Chester Riley, a working stiff who worked hard yet barely managed to support himself and his wife Peg (Rosemary DeCamp DeCamp, Rosemary ). When William Bendix took over the role in 1953 (and Marjorie Reynolds Reynolds, Marjorie took over the role of Peg), the character became even more pathetic. In the same year, Stu Irwin created another bumbling father in The Trouble with Father. Trouble with Father, The (television program)

The kind of television wife exemplified by Peg Riley was not universal, but represented one of the limited female types in early television. Another was the “supermom” type, usually married to the “omniscient dad”; supportive, domestic, yet glamorous, supermom cooked and cleaned in pumps and pearls. The quintessential supermom was Donna Reed; on her show, Donna Reed Show, The (television program) she, not her television husband Alex Stone (Carl Betz), was the star. The show’s title sequence, and the way it changed over the course of eight seasons, told the tale. In the early years, Reed was shown getting her children (Paul Petersen and Shelley Fabares) ready for school and her husband ready for work. In the last two seasons, with her children grown and women’s roles changing, Reed herself is seen leaving with a briefcase—though not until after she has taken care of her family. June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley) of Leave It to Beaver, Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt) of Father Knows Best, and Harriet Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were other examples of the supermom type; it was Reed, though, who made the character the star.

Similarly, Theodore (“The Beaver”) Cleaver (played by Jerry Mathers) made the “cute kid” character the star of Leave It to Beaver. His predecessors were Ricky Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Bud Anderson (Billy Gray) of Father Knows Best, and Rusty Williams (Rusty Hamer) of Make Room for Daddy. Beaver typically disturbed the idyll of the American family dream by his penchant for getting into trouble, but the trouble was usually mild and was always corrected by wise and stern counsel from omniscient dad Ward Cleaver.


These character types—dad, either bumbling or omniscient; wife, either supermom or shrew; kids, cute but slowly growing into mature copies of mom and dad—dominated television family comedies for almost two decades. The types, and the family comedies that presented them, were palpable artifacts of 1950’s America: They would not survive the 1960’s.

If one had to pick a year to mark the end of the first family sitcom era, 1966 would be a good candidate. The year marked the end of two archetypal series: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Donna Reed Show. It was also the year Family Affair
Family Affair (television program) appeared, but even that show’s advent demonstrated the change in the idealized American family. The traditional nuclear family, while still the norm, was shown to be less than universal. Family Affair was the first step in the mutation of the television nuclear family from 1966 to 1984, when Bill Cosby brought the archetype back to life. When the family shows that had not survived 1966 attempted comebacks or “reunions,” the families had changed, and so had American culture: The 1950’s family, in its depicted ideal and otherwise, was out, and the single-parent, extended, or alternative family was in. Television;comedies
Situation comedies
Television;representation of American families

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Marla. The American Family on Television: A Chronology of 121 Shows, 1948-2004. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2005. An excellent chronological history of the American family on television, beginning with shows in the late 1940’s and including the 1950’s. Recommended for its details.
  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th ed. New York: Ballantine, 2003. A truly essential tool for any research on television programming. A National Book Award winner.
  • Eliot, Marc. American Television: The Official Art of the Artificial. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Highly subjective criticism of virtually every prime-time television show before 1981. The criticism tends to be revisionist, debunking many myths about 1950’s television; the book thus serves as a contrast to Ozzie Nelson’s and Danny Thomas’s autobiographies.
  • Hough, Arthur. “Trials and Tribulations—Thirty Years of Sitcom.” In Understanding Television: Essays on Television as a Social and Cultural Force, edited by Richard Adler. New York: Praeger, 1981. While this article only mentions in passing the television shows discussed above, it provides a comprehensive overview of the genre of television situation comedy from 1950 to 1980 and places the family comedy in a wider context.
  • Nelson, Ozzie. Ozzie. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1973. Autobiography of the creator of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Offers an insider’s look at one of the prototypical family comedies of early television. Written shortly before Nelson’s death, and before the future of family comedy was clear, the book demonstrates no awareness of the changes that took place in the genre in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
  • Newcomb, Horace. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1974. Of interest mostly for its second chapter, “Situation and Domestic Comedies,” this book, though by a leading academic authority on television, is written in a popular style. The chapter studies the family comedy in general rather than specific shows.
  • Thomas, Danny, with Bill Davidson. Make Room for Danny. New York: Putnam, 1991. Published just before Thomas’s death, this autobiography offers many behind-the-scenes glimpses of the family comedy Make Room for Daddy. Though the early portion of the book concerns Thomas’s film and radio career, a good portion is devoted to his television show.

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