I love sitcoms of the 80’s, but you may notice that I hardly talk about a show that was on before 1984. Why is that? Because most of the shows on in the late 70’s/early 80’s were so bland! Everytime I look at a list of the greatest sitcoms there is always this gap from around 1978 to 1984. Today I decided to try to take a closer look at this, and figure out
Why Did So Many Early 80’s Sitcoms SUCK?
Now let me be perfectly clear. I am not saying these shows were BAD, if you love them fine. But there was something about these shows which just made them, unique? We all know the story, the sitcom was considered dead. In 1982 only one sitcom was in the top 10, Three’s Company. In 1983 only one once again, only this time it was Kate & Allie. Then in 1984 Bill Cosby came along with The Cosby Show, and single handedly saved the sitcom (not to mention NBC). But the question is, what happened? What made the sitcom go stale in the early 80’s?
Was it because they weren’t funny? Not with shows like MASH and Taxi. Is it because there were not big stars? Three’s Company was huge not to mention a little show called Happy Days. Was there an onslaught of boring and fake reality TV which made people forget about good scripted shows? Nah that wouldn’t happen until 2002.Â Of course there were major hits of the time (Mash anyone?) but many of the sitcoms of that era just didn’t make people want to watch.
Well, here’s my theory. Sitcoms had gotten into a rut of playing it safe (or to use another word, cheap!). Not with the topics per se, but with the format they used. Really, go back to watch an episode of Silver Spoons and what do you see? It feels like someone is recording a stage play. The characters are pretty bland. The kids are cute and the parents just react to their antics with a smile and a wave of their head (this is one of the major things Bill Cosby threw out the window). Romances were very clean, major issues were discussed quietly, and all problems were resolved at the end with two (or more) characters talking out the issue and ending with a big hug or a laugh. Oh sure they tried to handle tough issues, but it falls flat when it’s the same formula every episode. The formaula was this:
Problem comes up
Problem is discussed
Problem is resolved
Resolution is discussed, show ends with a hug or a laugh. And of course, nothing that happens in the episode will in any way affect the next episode.
Next week focus on a different character then Lather, rinse, repeat.
For ths article I decided to watch an episode of “One Day at a Time”. I randomly picked one on YouTube, which aired in 1979. First, awesome theme song! First thing I noticed was the laugh track, laughing at nothing. Yeah they say it was taped in front of a studio audience but that has to be most stilted studio audience ever. And why are they laughing at things that aren’t funny? That format I mentioned is totally there. The episode is like a stage play. The problem is introduced, discussed, and resolved. A little less speeches and more character moments would be nice. Now it’s true this is one episode and it’s not fair to judge a whole series on it. That being said while there were some good jokes the dialogue did not feel natural at all. And everything takes place in the living room which is annoying. How about a B story? There’s a reason shows have those. This show was a hit for a very clear reason-the actress’s were very good. Bonnie Franklin, Valerie Bertinelli, and Mackenzie Phillips really stand out. And Schneider is funny. That’s great but it still feels like a stage play. I admit I hit the scroll bar at least once out of boredom. The worst part is when I jumped ahead a few minute I had missed nothing.
But here’s what I don’t understand. How did they get into this rut? Seriously, sitcoms were doing pretty well in the 70’s. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was awesome. The Bob Newhart Show was too. I watched episodes of Taxi when I was young and I liked it (and still remember them). WKRP was a great show. Barney Miller was funny. And of course Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork & Mindy. When exactly did sitcoms get lazy and stop trying to think outside the box once in awhile? These shows were around before ’78 so were not affected. WKRP is an exception because it was so out there. And Benson was hot on the heels of Soap which was, let’s be honest, in a world of its own. But for the majority of the sitcoms in the late 70’s and early 80’s, it was that formula.
Now this is just my theory, I want to make that clear. But here is what I think happened. Very often a big hit will cause people to copy what made it a hit, even if it doesn’t work. Heck I could do a list of examples of that, how many knock off’s have there been of things that were succesful from game shows to reality shows? Sitcoms are no different. Every sitcom in this era had a format that closely resembled a hit show of the 70’s. Which show was that? One Day at a Time may have started this trend but it was a little show called Diff’rent Strokes that perfected it. All these shows, at first, tried to copy what they had done. Facts of Life is obvious since that was a spin-off, but what about the others? Silver Spoons once had Arnold guest star as his Diff’rent Strokes character so don’t tell me they weren’t copying them. Webster was revamped to include Emmanuel Lewis because he was cute like Gary Coleman. Even Family Ties at first feels like the Diff’rent Strokes format with the wisecracking little kid (Jennifer who thankfully grew out of her tomboy stage).
Diff’rent Strokes was a big hit and it knew how to use that formula in a way that worked. The copy cats, not so much. Some shows got lucky and found a way to break through. Facts of Life revamped it’s whole format and introduced a new character played by Nancy McKeon who was a sharp contrast to the safe characters already on the show. When Michael J.Fox was the break out star Family Ties tweaked the series to focus more on him, and with that the show found it’s own voice. And I think Growing Pains was one of the last to copy this formula, for about five episodes in the first season before creators realized it wasn’t working. The show got a new identity all its own and while not a major hit it was popular enough. Even Mama’s Family sucked when it first came on, it was when the show was syndicated and overhauled it found it’s identity (and stopped being a clone of the Carol Burnett Show).
Show’s that could not do this are more forgotten. One Day at a Time is loved by those who watched it, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time. Silver Spoons was made famous by Rick Schroder but who remembers anything about that show? Tell me who played Kate without looking it up. Gimmee A Break added characters and tweaked things, I think the show would be more remembered but Dolph Sweet’s tragic death hurt the show more than anything. And finally, Webster gets no respect. This show was a more blatant Diff’rent Strokes rip off but it held up on its own. Oh sure we all know who Emannuel Lewis is but the series never gets any real respect except from people who loved it. I always remember the ABC 40th Anniversary, all the big stars were there and everything. Where were Alex Karras and Susan Clark? In a back table where the cameras would show them sitting there once in awhile. It’s to bad to because it wasn’t really that bad a show. But it stuck to close to that formula and failed to have an identity of its own beside “cute kid”.
Like anything else once people realized copying a formula is stupid they stop doing it. It wasn’t until 1984 that these shows started to stop playing so close to the format. Abandoning it and letting their shows have their one identities. We all know The Cosby Show, other shows did this to. Who’s The Boss was a big hit because it felt like normal people, Tony was a very New York guy and Angela was a uptight Connecticut woman. Night Court was a big hit because it was broad and over the top, the characters are nuts and they loved it. Punky Brewster is much more loved and remembered, not just because Soleil Moon Frye was cute but because the series knew they were there own show and didn’t try copying the Diff’rent Strokes formula. It put the show from the perspective of the kids, rather then the adults. They were both one the same night but while I remember episodes of Punky, I remember very little of Silver Spoons.
I also should point out it was family shows which really suffered. WKRP was great. Alice was ok. Cheers was one of the few shows that figured out very early on that they were going to be a all about the the Sam/Diane romance and that is why while not watched at first, it became a big hit. It was different and stood out. Even Newhart smartened up when it switched to videotaping in front of an audience and let the characters be totally crazy. In fact Newhart is a great example because when it premiered in 1982 it was stuck in the format the rest of the sitcoms were in then. Canned laughter and taped without a studio audience. When that was changed, so that is was filmed with a live studio audience, the whole show changed because now they knew what was funny and what wasn’t. If not for that live audience Larry, Daryl, and Daryl may never have appeared more than once.
So basically you had two choices in the early 80’s, the classic shows which were getting on in their run or the new shows trying to copy a very bland formula. No wonder they said sitcoms were dead. I noted that the only top ten shows of that era were Three’s Company and Kate & Allie. Three’s Company is easy to understand, with John Ritter aboard you knew craziness was going to ensue. Not sure why Kate & Allie rose above the pack, it was good but top 10 good? Time slot maybe? Sitcoms are always evolving and changing, and I think the reason they hit this rut in the early 80’s is because they stopped evolving for a few years. In 1984 things started to get back on course. We got The Cosby Show, then Roseanne, and then Seinfeld. By the 90’s sitcoms were very different, and in my opinion much improved.