For those of us of a certain age, Saturday night was not considered date night when you went out on the town to meet friends and have a bite to eat, but a night at home to view “must see” TV.
Yes, before Bruce Springsteen was grumbling about “57 channels (and nothin on”) in 1992, the 1970s featured just three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC along with PBS and a couple independent stations). Young and old alike tuned into CBS Saturday evenings to watch All in the Family, M*A*S*H, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Bob Newhart Show, culminating with the Carol Burnett Show.
Do you remember? Do you still catch some of those shows on rerun stations? Is your perspective as a viewer now different from when you first watched those shows 50 years ago?
Take All in the Family (1970-1979). I happened to catch the very first episode recently and talk about oil and water with Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker and Rob Reiner’s Michael Stivic AKA “Meathead” — and boy, was Sally Struthers’ Gloria’s skirt short — like really short. About the length I wore at the time. As a kid, I didn’t realize how the issues it touched had been considered so unsuitable for a U.S. television comedy — racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, religion, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence. Yes, it was the values of the Greatest Generation vs. those of the Baby Boomers.
Remember how Archie referred to Edith as “dingbat” or told her to “stifle” herself? Acceptable now? I don’t think so. Or the kiss heard around the world when Sammy Davis Jr. laid on the cheek of TV’s loveable bigot Archie? That episode placed 13th on TV Guide’s list of the “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.”
Could All in the Family be produced today? According to IMDB contributor Rick Klugman, “No, it was the right show at the right time…nowhere on today’s network TV will you find a sitcom that liberally uses (the derogatory) terms” that Archie used to refer to different segments of society or his views on race, religion, and other hot button issues of the time. Others may disagree with this, particularly with the advent of cable.
All in the Family was #1 in the Nielsen ratings for five years, meaning that about a third of all television sets were tuned into the show, with some of its 1972 episodes garnering than 40% of the country’s televisions.
Then there was The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) that featured – gasp! – a single woman in her 30s living on her own (surrounded, of course by her fabulous work and home “family.”) Just saying their names brings memories of specific situations/shows so many of us can recall all these years later: Ed Asner’s Lou Grant, Betty White’s ‘Happy Homemaker” Sue Ann Nivens, Rhoda, Phyllis, and more. Specific episodes, like Mary’s interview with (Lou Grant: You got a lotta spunk; Mary Richards: Why thank you, Mr. Grant; Lou Grant: I HATE spunk.)
Do you remember one of the comedy’s famous episodes, “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” where Mary couldn’t make it through the funeral of Chuckles the Clown without breaking into laughter. (In 1997, TV Guide ranked this episode #1 in 1997 on its list of The 100 Greatest Episodes of All times.)
Or the final episode where, as a group holding onto each other, they moved as one unit to the newsroom’s exit, but needing some tissues, the group shuffles en masse towards a box on Mary’s desk.
My husband and I still watch M*A*S*H on television most evenings. Airing for 11 seasons, it won 14 Emmy Awards during its run and a Peabody Award in 1975. Based on Robert Altman’s 1970 film of the same name, the show — even with many of its significant players leaving the show and others joining — Army surgeon Capt. Benjamin Franklin (“Hawkeye”) Pierce, Maj. Margaret (“Hot Lips”) Houlihan, Corp. “Radar” O’Reilly, and corporal Max Klinger, the show’s favorite cross-dresser determined to win his way out of the Army, won their way into our hearts, along with a great ensemble cast. Sometimes the conclusion of an episode left you sad and thinking and other times you laughed along with the M*A*S*H crew. Both serious and comedic, unusual at the time.
When the final episode aired on February 28, 1983, it set a record for the most-watched television episode in broadcast history — a mark that still stands.
And who could forget The Bob Newhart Show, where later, in reruns, college kids would partake in the drinking game Hi, Bob, consume alcohol whenever a character utters the phrase “Hi, Bob”. Believed to have originated on American university campuses in the 1980s, it is thought to be the first documented instance of a drinking game using prompts from a television show to initiate player action.
It was a show with another wonderful ensemble cast.
And do you remember the finale of Newhart’s next show, Newhart, where Bob Newhart and Pleshette reprised their roles from their show for the 1990 finale (Remember “Hi! I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and that’s my other brother Darryl”. ) where it was revealed the entire Newhart series had just been Bob Hartley’s dream. Bob awakens in their Chicago bedroom from The Bob Newhart Show, upset, and he wakes Emily to tell her about the very strange dream he has just had: that he was an innkeeper in a small Vermont town filled with eccentric characters. Bob mentions his marriage to a “beautiful blonde,” and that Emily should wear more sweaters.
Saturday evenings’ Must See TV concluded with an hour with Carol Burnett’s variety/sketch show with her VBFs Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman (1967-1978), among others. How many of us can still recall the “Gone with the Wind” skit, with Carol’s “Went with the Wind” parody of Gone with the Wind, with her wearing velour drapery, along with the curtain rod, as she regally walked down the staircase. That dress, created by Bob Mackie, is now housed in the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2009, TV Guide ranked the sketch #53 on its list of “Top 100 Episodes of All Time.”
And I’m sure many of us recall that at the close of each episode, Burnett tugged her ear. This silent message was meant for her grandmother, who raised her, and meant she was thinking of her at that moment. After her grandmother’s death, Burnett continued the tradition.
At a time when TV was still king and we were limited to three broadcast stations, so many of us have these shared memories. I hope you enjoyed a little blast from the past and were able to smile along with me during this travel down memory lane.