Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Situation comedies featuring ridiculous premises, gimmicky situations, bizarre characters, and slapstick silliness became a mainstay on American television.

Summary of Event

By the early 1960’s, a number of factors resulted in the proliferation of youth-oriented situation comedies and other escapist fare on American television. The baby-boom generation had grown up with the medium and by that time constituted a viable market. Concurrently, escapist situation comedies were becoming the most popular programs among corporate sponsors. Advertisers Television;advertising reasoned that such comedies rarely dealt with conflict and that audiences did not become as emotionally involved with such shows as they did with dramatic programs. Consequently, it was believed, viewers were not irritated when a commercial interruption occurred. Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies [kw]Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming (1960’s) [kw]Comedies Dominate Television Programming, Situation (1960’s) [kw]Television Programming, Situation Comedies Dominate (1960’s) Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies [g]North America;1960’s: Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming[06330] [g]United States;1960’s: Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming[06330] [c]Radio and television;1960’s: Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming[06330] Aubrey, James Henning, Paul Minow, Newton

Additionally, situation comedies were establishing themselves as the highest-rated programs by the early 1960’s. Humorous programming also satisfied those who wished to decrease the amount of violence presented on television. The era was marked by programmers’ reliance upon farfetched premises, gimmicks, vaudeville and slapstick humor, and characters who ranged from corny to campy to literally otherworldly.

With the coming of a new decade, all three networks and their major sponsors saw the profitability of escapist programming. Five genres of escapist shows soon developed. Shows that centered on the humor of growing up were the first to emerge. There were the rural, folksy shows that became the staple of the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;comedic programming (CBS) and the prime-time cartoon shows that became identified with the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The other genres were dispersed throughout the networks. These include farcical comedies and gimmick programs. Although most of the programs would fall into a particular category, elements of other genres were often seen in all programs.

The humorous trials and tribulations of youth were included in a number of situation comedies during the 1950’s. Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet are but two examples. The “traditional family” was still the focus of these programs, and for the most part, the situations that occurred were common to families across the United States. Most also presented a moral along with the humor. Two programs that debuted in the 1959-1960 season, though, broke from this format and became harbingers of new trends.

In Dennis the Menace, Dennis the Menace (television program) Jay North starred as the high-spirited comic-strip character. He was forever involving the hapless Mr. Wilson in humorous incidents that sometimes bordered on the absurd. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The (television program) featuring Dwayne Hickman and Bob Denver, dealt with late adolescence in an offbeat and witty manner. In both programs, the focus was on humor, not the teaching of a lesson. Later lighthearted youth comedies included Gidget, starring Sally Field as a coastal California teenager, and The Patty Duke Show, which chronicled the lives of two lookalike but personally dissimilar cousins.

The rural, folksy genre was established by CBS in 1960 with the premiere of The Andy Griffith Show Andy Griffith Show, The (television program) Griffith, Andy and was nurtured by network president James Aubrey. Griffith was featured as the easygoing sheriff in the fictitious town of Mayberry, North Carolina. He was supported by a cast consisting of characters steeped in local color. While primarily escapist comedy, the show did have its serious and sentimental moments. Although it viewed rural residents in a humorous manner, it generally did not portray them negatively.

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The success of the show’s folksy theme led to the creation of a number of rurally set comedies that made no pretense of seriousness. Included in this group was the Griffith spin-off Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (television program)[Gomer Pyle, USMC] starring Jim Nabors as an incompetent but likable Marine. The mainstay of the CBS rural lineup, and indeed one of the most popular shows in television history, was The Beverly Hillbillies. Beverly Hillbillies, The (television program) Created by Paul Henning and starring veteran actor Buddy Ebsen Ebsen, Buddy , the program centered on the misadventures of the Clampetts, a newly rich Ozark mountain family who had moved to a mansion in Beverly Hills. The show was disdained by critics but loved by the public; although eight of the series’s episodes were among the fifteen highest-rated single programs of the 1960’s, critics complained about the absurdity of the show’s premise and the manner in which rural people were portrayed. The Beverly Hillbillies spawned two spin-off series, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

The prime-time cartoon Animation Tele vision;animation genre was established on ABC during the 1960 season. The Flintstones, Flintstones, The (television program) created by Hanna-Barbera Productions Hanna-Barbera Productions[Hanna Barbera Productions] and advertised as an adult cartoon series, received the bulk of the advance publicity. Essentially a Stone Age version of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones showed some imagination in its adaptation of prehistoric animals and artifacts into the lives of a suburban family, but the show suffered from predictable plots and mediocre animation. Other Hanna-Barbera cartoons included Top Cat (an attempt at a feline Sergeant Bilko) and the space-age The Jetsons, which was essentially The Flintstones in reverse. Perhaps the most adult-oriented prime-time cartoon was The Bugs Bunny Show, Bugs Bunny Show, The (television program) which relied upon old Warner Bros. movie shorts. As a result, it had higher-quality animation and greater plot sophistication than the other prime-time cartoons.

Although farce had previously been used in such programs as I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, there was a wider range of format and quality of this style during the 1960’s. In the early part of the decade, Car 54, Where Are You?, McHale’s Navy, and I’m Dickens—He’s Fenster were featured, along with one of the most critically despised programs in television history, Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island (television program)[Gilligans Island] The latter show, which dealt with the absurd adventures of the marooned passengers of a small cruise ship, has often been referred to as a prime example of banality in television.

Later in the decade, the World War II prison-camp comedy Hogan’s Heroes Hogan’s Heroes (television program)[Hogans Heroes] and the spy spoof Get Smart Get Smart (television program) continued the tradition of farce in situation comedies. Although some questioned the choice of a prison camp as a setting for comedy, Bob Crane Crane, Bob did lead a cast of solid comic actors. In Get Smart, Don Adams Adams, Don received critical praise for his deadpan portrayal of the incompetent spy Maxwell Smart. Another show of note was The Monkees. Monkees, The (television program) This half-hour situation comedy with musical interludes had some innovative features, although it was primarily a promotion vehicle for a made-for-television rock band. Farce and vaudeville also made their way into variety programs and were used in topical and innovative style in the top-rated Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and the controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Gimmick programs, ranging from absurd nonsense to witty, clever chicanery, were another genre. The style was launched in 1961 when Mr. Ed Mr. Ed (television program) became a surprise hit in syndication. Later that year, CBS began to carry the series, which featured Alan Young as the owner of a talking horse. The gimmick of young men having an unusual conversation companion continued with My Favorite Martian and My Mother the Car.

Supernatural and bizarre premises were common. The Addams Family, Addams Family, The (television program) created by cartoonist Charles Addams Addams, Charles and starring John Astin Astin, John and Carolyn Jones Jones, Carolyn , was a clever spoof on wealth featuring a macabre family. The Munsters depicted a family of horror-film lookalikes in a middle-class household. Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie starred Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden as characters with magical powers, while The Flying Nun featured Sally Field as an airborne nun. Although not a situation comedy, Batman, starring Adam West, was such a campy comic-book takeoff that it actually was quite humorous. One of the worst series in this genre was The Hathaways, a short-lived show about a family raising chimpanzees in a middle-class American household.

By the early 1970’s, the tumultuous nature of the American political and social scene caused a shift in situation comedies. Beginning with All in the Family, All in the Family (television program) relevancy became the focus of many shows. As a result, the lighthearted youth-oriented genre became outmoded. By the middle of the decade, after the American withdrawal from Vietnam and the Watergate crisis, escapist comedies made a mild comeback and continued to have some success in later decades. The style, however, was never to regain the overwhelming popularity it enjoyed during the 1960’s.

Significance

The popularity of the 1960’s youth-oriented situation comedies brought forth a debate that became a central focus in television history. From the offices of the network and corporate sponsor executives to the living rooms of viewers, a recurring question has been asked—is it the quality of a program or the quantity of its audience that is the true measure of a program’s success? The debate revolves around the fact that most American television has been controlled by private enterprise; the profit motive has thus been a critically important factor in many programming decisions.

Disillusionment with television grew soon after the escapist programming began in the 1960’s. Although critics were quick to find fault with weak shows during the 1950’s, they could take heart in the high-quality drama, variety, and comedy that was presented in the medium’s “golden age.” With more escapist fare making its way to the airwaves, however, serious questioning of television’s future was under way.

On May 9, 1961, newly appointed Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton Minow launched the critical barrage at the annual National Association of Broadcasters convention in Washington, D.C. In the past, most speakers at the convention had offered praise and mild suggestions for improvement, but Minow, a former law partner of Adlai E. Stevenson, shocked the major television executives with scathing remarks about the medium. He referred to television as a “vast wasteland” consisting of “very, very few” enjoyable programs. He then implied that much of television programming was terrible because the network executives lacked creativity and settled for mediocrity.

The reaction to Minow’s critique was mixed. “Vast wasteland” became the chosen phrase used to describe the lack of quality in television programming for years to come. The cry for more thoughtful and intelligent series was taken up annually by television critics. Network executives promised to make reforms and took some steps in the direction of more news and dramas. Yet the public’s desire for escapist television continued. Since the major goal of television was network and sponsor profit, executives continued to schedule simplistic series that people would watch.

The debate spurred by the 1960’s escapist situation comedies was not a simple case of good versus bad. The role of the networks and the public was complex. Since Americans were watching these shows, it could be argued that the networks merely reflected the nation’s taste. According to some, it would have been presumptuous and financially disastrous for television executives to impose the preferences of critics and the intelligentsia upon the whole viewing audience. This argument was countered by the claim that, if given enough exposure to high-quality shows, the American public would eventually come to prefer such programs. In this scenario, the networks could serve in the capacity of teachers to their viewers.

Some also argued that nothing was wrong with using television simply as a recreational activity. After a hard day of work, a few hours of escapist fare could be a pleasant diversion. Moreover, some of these youth-oriented situation comedies were actually quite witty and clever. Opponents countered by claiming that television should offer more alternatives to such simplistic shows. It was also noted that a constant diet of escapism could be detrimental to certain viewers, especially children.

The debate over quality in television has never abated. The decline of network domination within the industry reduced the controversy to some extent, since by the mid-1980’s most viewers in the United States had gained access to high-quality programming on cable or public television. Still, the criticisms regarding the merits of network programming continued. Such issues seem likely to be debated as long as people have different perceptions of what television should accomplish. In effect, the dubious quality of many of the 1960’s youth-oriented situation comedies was the beginning of a greater public and critical input into the nature of television programming. Situation comedies Comedies;television Television;comedies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Lists cast members, dates of broadcast, and other useful information about thousands of shows. Also provides summaries of program premises and discusses broadcast histories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Prodrazik. Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Gives an excellent description of the 1960’s situation comedies and discusses their critical and popular merits. A valuable source in understanding the development of television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalton, Mary M., and Laura R. Linder, eds. The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Scewed [sic]. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Compilation of essays on the American television situation comedy; includes many essays on the comedies of the 1950’s, as well as the evolution of the form in the 1970’s, 1990’s, and early twenty-first century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fireman, Judy, ed. TV Book: The Ultimate Television Book. New York: Workman, 1977. Brief articles on numerous facets of television history. Some references to the 1960’s situation comedies are made. Information regarding ratings and programming is included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. Deals with a wide variety of program formats. The focus is on the decision-making process of program selection; provides a good insight into the reasons why the 1960’s situation comedies were aired.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. An excellent chronicle of the relationship of situation comedies and public viewership. Although all venues of television comedy are discussed, there is a great deal of information relevant to the 1960’s situation comedies. The style is scholarly, but the book can be recommended to a general readership.

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