by Jim McAllister
From the comedy-variety format to the sitcom, television provided a new outlet for humor.
Although television had been around in an experimental mode for several years, it never made a breakthrough into the public consciousness until the New York World's Fair of 1939. Unfortunately, shortly after that breakthrough, World War II arrived and the development of television was delayed until the mid 1940's. America was ready for the new medium as set ownership in the American home went from 1% to 50% from 1948 to 1953 and by the 1960's, 90% of homes had a tube. Today that percentage is in the 98% range.
So, what was the role of comedy in this success? One of the first successful comedy shows was the "Texaco Star Theater" which came on the air in 1948. It starred Milton Berle (aka "Uncle Miltie") and ran for seven years on NBC. Berle was the king of Tuesday nights with his raucous brand of comic material. In those early days of television, he was able to command 75% of the viewing audience. In 1950 "Your Show of Shows" made its debut starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. It ran until 1954 and was a ninety minute extravaganza of live, original, comedy broadcast on Saturday nights on NBC.
The 1950-1951 season was a watershed era for television comedy because of the aforementioned shows plus, by this time, radio had been severely diminished by the new medium. In 1950, the comedy-variety program was the most popular form of comedy on television. There were twenty-five shows of this format during that time and only eleven situation comedies. This was, however, the last year that any form of comedy show was more popular than the situation comedy.
Star based comedy shows were popular at this time but there were not many of them. One that stood the test of time was "The Jack Benny Program" which ran for fifteen years. Benny's show, like many comedy hits of that era, was a carry over from the days of radio.
Also coming over from radio were several sitcoms such as "The Aldrich Family", "Beulah", "The Goldbergs", and one of the most successful of the 1950's sitcoms, "The Burns and Allen Show" starring vaudeville and radio favorites, George Burns and Gracie Allen.
The 1951-1952 season was a bad one for comedy. More radio comedies gave television a try with mixed results. Nineteen new shows came on the air but only one, "I Love Lucy", made a serious impact. What an impact it was as "Lucy" ran for six seasons on CBS and was continually number one in the ratings. It is probably the most loved show ever on television as it has been on since October 15, 1951 either with new episodes or in reruns. It also set some precedents as it was the first filmed sitcom, was the first to use a California setting, and was the first to film in front of a live audience.
From 1952 to 1955, sitcoms began to dominate the television comedy scene. The era of the comedy-variety show was fading, perhaps in proportion to those who were either dismissing the vaudeville mentality or were too young to remember it. The number of sitcoms grew from twenty-two in the 1952-1953 season to thirty-three in 1954-1955. Some of the big hits of the time were "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (another carry over from radio) which had its debut in 1952 and ran for fourteen years to make it the longest running sitcom of all time. 1953 brought "Make Room For Daddy" starring Danny Thomas, another success with an eleven year run. Also in 1953, the longest running comedy show of any kind, "The Red Skelton Show", was picking up steam. Red actually started on NBC in 1951 and spent twenty years on the air until 1971, mostly on CBS. While many radio comedians failed on the TV screen, Red was successful to the end and was canceled mainly because of demographics, not audience size. He gave his final "Good-night, God bless" on August 29, 1971.
From 1955 to 1960, comedy programming went into a tailspin as the mid to late 1950's was the era of the television western. Starting with "Gunsmoke" in 1955, the western built to twenty shows by 1957 and averaged thirty shows in production from 1958-1960. During that time the comedy-variety show continued to decline and situation comedies slipped in number to seventeen by 1959-1960.
By the early 1960's, the western had run its course as far as being a dominant form of television entertainment and the comedy format began a resurgence, especially in the form of the situation comedy. There was some adult entertainment that was successful such as "The Dick Van Dyke Show", which ran on CBS from 1961-1966, and only left the air because of the star's wish to move on rather than as a result of bad ratings. As we shall see, Dick Van Dyke's co-star, Mary Tyler Moore, was to go on to even more success in the 1970's with her own groundbreaking show, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show". Most of the comedy of this era, however, was of the "screwball" type with shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies", "Gomer Pyle", and "Bewitched" drawing large audiences.