Commentary Magazine

Saturday Night Strive

In the winter of 1972, CBS began to air four of its most successful comedy shows, All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, back to back on Saturday evenings, customarily the night of the week people were least likely to watch television. CBS undermined this custom with its Saturday-night shows, which were so popular that large numbers of people stayed home to watch them.

One reason for the popularity of these shows is that they broke with the prevailing tone of previous CBS shows. Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, famously described network TV as “a vast wasteland” in a 1961 speech, and the network grew more vapid during the decade that followed. Thus it was noteworthy that CBS, which had specialized in such lowbrow comic fare as The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island and was, by leagues, the most popular television network, now chose to build its programming around a group of shows whose subject matter was regarded at the time as sophisticated, even daring. When The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which made its debut in 1970, left the air seven years later, Time went so far as to call it “the sitcom that was intellectually respectable.”

Today, nearly four decades later, The Carol Burnett Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in particular are still esteemed by those who watched them when they were new. In May, the Kennedy Center announced that Burnett would be the ninth recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and Jennifer Keishin Armstrong published a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show called Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic (Simon & Schuster, 324 pages).

Alas, Armstrong’s fawning book is as inadequate as the other full-length studies of classic TV series that have appeared in recent years. And while Burnett has produced a candid, strikingly well-written memoir, One More Time (1986), it deals only with her childhood and youth, ending before she launched The Carol Burnett Show in 1967. That so little of value has been written about either series is all the more disappointing given that they rank among the finest of their day—though it was Moore, not Burnett, whose show pointed far more accurately to the future of TV comedy.

Throughout the first half of the 50s, network TV was in essence a New York-based industry whose shows were mainly viewed on the Eastern seaboard. As a result, a high percentage of network programming, including such comedy series as Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, had a markedly urban flavor. Not coincidentally, much of the best TV comedy of the period was written by Jews, such as Nat Hiken (the creator of Phil Silvers’s You’ll Never Get Rich) and Neil Simon (who wrote for Sid Ceasar’s Your Show of Shows). They made no effort to temper the pungent, sharp-cornered brand of ethnic humor that made their scripts so distinctive.

All this ended when Hollywood replaced New York as the center of network TV production. In Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Neil Simon’s 1993 play about the writing staff for Your Show of Shows, one of the characters angrily explains what happened:

Suddenly television is expanding. They’re going into the midwest, the south. Different kinds of audience. They want to watch quiz shows, bowling, wrestling, am I right?…Don’t make the shows too esoteric. Too smart. Don’t do take-offs on Japanese movies, Italian movies.

Simon was right: As network TV evolved into an unprecedentedly profitable nationwide institution, the men who ran it sought to enlarge its potential audience by “deurbanizing” their programming. CBS’s entertainment programming took off thanks to such rural-themed family sitcoms of the 60s as The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. As late as 1969, it was still possible for a CBS executive to inform his colleagues that “American audiences won’t tolerate divorce in a lead of a series any more than they will tolerate Jews, people with mustaches, and people who live in New York.”

By then, though, it had become evident to other, demographically minded TV executives that it could be even more profitable to target a smaller audience of younger urban professionals whose higher incomes made them attractive to corporate advertisers. Starting in 1970, CBS acknowledged this new reality with a new programming strategy, canceling its rural sitcoms and replacing them with shows aimed at an upwardly mobile audience, and the success of the CBS Saturday-night comedy bloc proved the wisdom of this new approach.

What seemed sophisticated in 1973 has, of course, long since lost its freshness, and it is now easy to see how much more these programs had in common with their predecessors than with 21st-century TV comedy. The Carol Burnett Show is a case in point. Variety shows, a staple of network TV from its earliest years, had only just started their long slump in popularity when Burnett’s program began its 11-year run in 1967. But they were already looking old-fashioned, in part because so many of the variety shows of the day were based on vaudeville (The Ed Sullivan Show) or were hosted by superannuated radio comedians (The Red Skelton Show). Burnett, by contrast, was a younger performer, born in 1933, who had gotten her start on Broadway and, later, on TV. As a result, her show had a more modern feel, though Burnett, unlike Ed Sullivan, rarely featured rock musicians as guests, preferring to work with middle-of-the-road pop singers like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé.1

Nonetheless, viewers with long memories knew that her program was modeled on Your Show of Shows, the most admired variety series of the 50s. Like Your Show of Shows, The Carol Burnett Show consisted in the main of brilliantly crafted comic sketches about contemporary life and parodies of Hollywood films that were performed by a permanent ensemble of gifted actors.

The difference was that Burnett’s Los Angeles-based show, though sophisticated by mid-60s standards, lacked the hard urban edge of Your Show of Shows. Burnett herself was a Texas-born actor with a knack for broad physical comedy, and her on-air persona was neither identifiably ethnic nor strongly urban in tone. Her writers steered clear of political material, and while her style was tinged with a pathos arising from her unhappy childhood—her parents were alcoholics—the overall tone of her show was sunny and optimistic.

Not only was The Mary Tyler Moore Show less deeply rooted in TV’s past, but it was stylistically original in a way to which The Carol Burnett Show never aspired. A dancer turned actor, Moore became a TV star when Carl Reiner cast her opposite Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66), a fictionalized sitcom based on Reiner’s experiences as a writer and on-camera performer for Your Show of Shows. Reiner mostly stayed within the stylistic parameters of the 60s sitcom, but James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the creators of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, made a conscious effort to update both its comic vocabulary and—more important—its subject matter.

Unlike Laura Petrie, the stay-at-home housewife whom Moore played on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Richards was an unmarried working woman, the producer of a Minneapolis TV news show, who sought personal fulfillment in her job, not in romance. Such themes had previously been touched on in series TV, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first successful sitcom to make them central.

That Moore’s character is both single and childless is even more important in retrospect. Virtually all of the popular sitcoms that preceded The Mary Tyler Moore Show were family-oriented programs whose humor revolved around marriage. Moore’s was a “post-family” sitcom in which family life was invisible and characters were mostly unmarried. Instead of focusing on the family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show concentrated on the workplace. Though Mary Richards has friends outside the office, it is her coworkers who function as her quasi-family and who are far closer to her than any of the men she dates. It is, to be sure, taken for granted that Mary is sexually active, albeit on a modest scale, but her love life, such as it is, remains peripheral to her enduring “relationship” with WJM-TV, the great good place where she is most herself.

Most latter-day critics who write about The Mary Tyler Moore Show emphasize the proto-feminist aspect of a sitcom that featured (in Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s phrase) “enviable, unapologetic single women.” But it is far more significant that these women—and their male friends—are mainly seen functioning in the workplace, where they draw emotional sustenance not from husbands or wives but from colleagues.

This post-family idealization of the workplace has proved to be the show’s most prophetic aspect. Although family comedy is still very much a part of postmodern TV, a strikingly large number of the most influential sitcoms of the past four decades, among them Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, The Office, and 30 Rock, have either deemphasized family life or replaced it with the workplace-based “families” that were first seen on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

What has changed most profoundly about TV comedy since then, however, is not its subject matter but its tone. Today’s sitcoms typically embrace a cynical, disaffected comic language far removed from the underlying optimism of TV in the 70s. Postmodern sitcoms tend to be neither hopeful nor idealistic. Their view of the world, like that of the millennials whose lives they portray, is pessimistic, not infrequently to the point of outright nihilism.

In addition, the TV viewers of the early 70s would be staggered by the way in which their children and grandchildren experience TV. Forty years ago, the only way to watch a program was to tune it in at a specific time. Home video recording did not yet exist, much less the “on-demand” digital distribution that now makes it possible for viewers not merely to record broadcasts for later viewing but to download and watch them as they please. It was the absence of these technologies that made it possible for CBS to put together a Saturday-night lineup so attractive that people would stay home to see it. Such a phenomenon is unimaginable today. And not only were those people watching the same TV shows, but they were watching them together, sitting in the same room. Well into the 70s, most American households owned only one television set.

Watching the CBS Saturday lineup each week, as my own small-town family did in 1973, helped keep Americans in touch with the rest of the world—and with one another. In the America of 2013, by contrast, the viewing of TV programs has become a solitary pursuit. We watch the shows we want to watch whenever and wherever we want to watch them, and more and more we watch them by ourselves.

It goes without saying that such lonely individualism has its reciprocal advantages. Yet as the world of the nuclear family and the common culture that sustained it recedes inexorably from view, it is hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when everybody knew who Carol Burnett and Mary Richards were. That is part of why they are so fondly remembered by aging baby boomers like myself: They remind us of a way of life that is gone forever.


1 Burnett was an impressively talented vocalist in her own right, though she would never feel comfortable featuring her singing in anything other than a comic context.

About the Author

Terry Teachout, Commentary’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, out in October from Gotham Books.

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