Television sitcoms in the 1950s contained a lot of carryover shows from radio like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet, “The Aldrich family”, “Beulah”, and “The Goldbergs”. It was funny stuff but nothing new. The most successful new sitcom of the decade was “I Love Lucy” which ran from 1951 to 1957. Everyone loved Lucy and it showed in the ratings.
From the mid 50s into the early 60s, comedy slipped in favor of westerns which became more popular than anyone could imagine; more on that in a future post.
As the 1960s emerged, TV was searching for something to boost ratings. They came up with a lot of shows that I would call “screwball sitcoms”. Please don’t confuse the term “screwball” with the great movie comedies of 1934-1941. The TV shows were not in that league and many of them were just plain bad although two stand out as high quality productions: “The Dick Van (inappropriate term) Show” (1961-1966) and “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968).
A lot of the 60s’ sitcoms depended on gimmicks or “shtick” to gain an audience. One of the most popular entries was “The Beverly Hillbillies” with Buddy Ebsen . It somehow managed to stay on CBS as a rating’s giant from 1962-1971. The plot was oxymoronic: Hillbillies from the Ozarks invading the luxury of Hollywood with the result being the funny interaction of the two cultures. Robert Osborne even appeared in one 1962 episode.
Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies" (TV Land)
CBS salivated over the ratings of “The Beverly Hillbillies” so it was quickly followed by “Gomer Pyle, USMC” (1964-1970), “Green Acres” (1965-1971) and “Petticoat Junction” (1963-1970). Gomer was a spin-off from “The Andy Griffith Show” and starred Jim Nabors as a marine bumpkin who was always irritating his nemesis, Sergeant Carter, played by Frank Sutton.
Frank Sutton (L) and Jim Nabors in "Gomer Pyle, USMC (MPTV.net)
“Green Acres” starred Eddie Albert and was the opposite of “The Beverly Hillbillies” as it placed city slickers in the country with the expected hilarious results. “Petticoat Junction” followed the antics of the townsfolk of Hooterville, USA.
I used to feel sorry for quality actors like Ebsen and Albert having to participate in this canned laugh track fare but they were in the acting business and had to eat too. On the plus side, I’m sure they were well paid for those nonsensical shows.
The same goes for Ray Walston who starred in another gimmick show, “My Favorite Martian” (1963-1966). Do you remember the Francis the talking mule films with Donald O’Connor? In this show Ray plays a Martian who will only let co-star Bill Bixby know of his powers. Does that sound a bit like Francis only talking to Peter Sterling (O’Connor)? It was pretty bad.
Then there was “Bewitched” (1964-1972) where Samantha’s witchcraft was the gimmick usually at husband Darrin’s expense. It’s no wonder he slugged down those Martinis after work! “I Dream of Jeannie” (1965-1970) used a similar scenario where Jeannie (Barbara Eden) used her powers over her “master” Larry Hagman.
If you liked macabre humor there was “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters”. “Gilligan’s Island” and “McHale’s Navy” provided slapstick. Family humor was alive with “Dennis The Menace” and “Leave it to Beaver” along with the ever sweet “The Donna Reed Show”.
Most of these shows were inane but they did provide some innocent fun during the 1960s. Like the music of the time, TV was emerging from the innocence of the 1950s while also bringing a bit of carryover from that era. By the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1970s, wholesale changes were in store for the tube.
More on that later.