Something To Laugh About: TV Comedy, From Milton Berle to David Letterman

Media and communications expert Brian Rose begins his survey in the late 1940s when comedy was one of television’s primary draws. “We needed to laugh at ourselves and share a mirror on what it is to be most human.”  (Something we’re less able to do today.) In 1948, Texaco Star Theater dominated the medium with “Mr. Television himself, your Tuesday night Cinderella, Milton Berle.” We watch Uncle Milty exit a pumpkin coach in full drag. Berle, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and Groucho Marx all came from radio situation comedies.

“The most controversial of these sitcoms was the heavily stereotyped Amos and Andy which cast white actors as African Americans.” (They donned blackface for personal appearances.) With the move to television, Black actors were cast. This didn’t prevent the NAACP from protesting the show’s offensive portraits. Sponsors pulled out in two years.

When My Favorite Husband, a radio program with Lucille Ball and Richard Denny as a middle class couple was slated to make the move, Ball insisted that her actual mate, bandleader Desi Arnaz, play her spouse. Ironically, CBS insisted the country wouldn’t accept an all American girl with a Latin husband. Ball’s reaction was to create and tour a duo vaudeville act to show audience acceptance. The network reluctantly agreed and I Love Lucy was born. (CBS finally brought My Favorite Husband to television in 1953, starring Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson.)

Rose uses the actress’s real life pregnancies as examples of social change. Ball’s first pregnancy was hidden, while the second one, specifying she was “expecting,” not “pregnant,” was written into the script. We watch an excerpt in which Lucy calmly enters the living room to tell her husband and best friends the Mertzs that it was “time.” Slapstick chaos ensues with the three crashing into one another, her suitcase opening, husband Ricky packing the phone and their rushing out without the incipient mom.

“Sitcoms and Comedy Variety shows would rule television for seven decades.” One of the most famous of the latter is Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris. At ninety minutes in front of a live audience, one never knew what might happen. The show was written by what Rose arguably calls “the greatest group of comedy talent ever assembled: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein…

A parody of This is Your Life with Carl Reiner playing host Ralph Edwards finds Caesar planted in the audience as an unwilling subject who, chosen, first faints, then fights, is chased by show personnel and finally carried flailing to the stage. A Master Class of comedy. Reiner would later create The Dick Van Dyke Show based on his time here, Neil Simon would write My Favorite Year.

“Ernie Kovacs took a very different approach,” Rose tells us. “He found an audience distracting and liked to technically tinker.” A clip of office equipment (and furniture) cast as musical instruments playing “Sentimental Journey” is cited as a precursor to music videos.

There were also transitions between variety and situation comedy such as Cavalcade of Stars (1949-52) in which Jackie Gleason made his mark in skits called The Honeymooners. These became a series in 1955. Watching Ed Norton (Art Carney) teaching Ralph Kramden (Gleason) to dance the Hucklebuck is a hoot. Oddly, the show only lasted one season. Gleason later showed dramatic chops in The Hustler.

“One other significant source of comedy in the 1950s was The Tonight Show hosted by Steve Allen.” It ran 105 minutes before a live studio audience. Allen left in 1957 and was replaced by Jack Paar who turned the format towards conversation. Johnny Carson took over in 1962 with the ability to tap both entertainment genres. He held the crown for 30 years.

Designed to appeal to the public’s lowest common denominator, sitcoms moved to Hollywood. Rose cites Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction as two samples. We had a flying nun, a talking horse, two shows with contemporary witches and – wait for it – Jerry Van Dyke in 1965’s My Mother the Car in which his deceased mom comes back to haunt him as an antique vehicle. The opening sequence is a follow-the-dancing-ball sing-along.

All the 1960s sitcoms were not as insane,” Rose notes praising The Dick Van Dyke Show 1961-66 (produced by Carl Reiner). After Mary accidentally reveals on national television that husband Rob’s boss Alan Brady (Reiner) is bald and wearing a toupee, she goes to his office to apologize. “I really like your hair-not on,” she stutters. “A little more snow here and we could ski,” he retorts.

Mary Tyler Moore is wonderful. Who doesn’t remember “the girl who can turn the world on with her smile!?” In a later series bearing her name, the character was to have been divorced. Ever pandering down, the network thought that was too much for its public to handle. Instead, Mary became an independent single woman seriously pursuing her career – a perfect signifier of the times.

Comedy/variety shows featured Red Skelton, Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson. A five year run of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In introduced Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. “Advertisers who pay the bills go out of their way to sponsor shows that wouldn’t offend,” Rose comments. The witty, topical Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour lasted only two years.

Norman Lear’s All in the Family followed Mary Tyler Moore’s CBS success. Derived from a British series called Till Death Do Us Part (in which the protagonist was even more bigoted), “there had never been anything quite like Archie Bunker on American TV.” (The role was originally offered to Mickey Rooney who turned it down for being un-American.) It thrived for eight seasons, though Lear was upset Bunker became a folk hero instead of the parody of conservatism he intended.

Liberal spinoffs Maude and The Jeffersons (which gave rise to A Different World and Fresh Prince of Bel Air) followed. Suddenly abortion, drugs, alcoholism, and suicide found their way past censors. In 1972, M*A*S*H arrived presenting something completely different. Both comic and serious, it “questioned and mocked.” Eleven seasons ended with an episode still rated the most highly watched in television.

“In 1975, young Canadian writer Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol debuted Saturday Night Live, a late night comedy series that resembled Your Show of Shows. Instead of humor for the masses, its 90 minutes before a studio audience reflected counterculture and was unafraid to tackle politics.” We watch Chevy Chase play Gerald Ford with type across the screen stating: This is not a good impression of Gerald Ford, but Rich Little won’t work for scale. And a prom skit with Rita Rudner and Bill Murray. Five years later, the show burned out and shut down. In 1985, it rose again and is still going strong.

The primetime sitcom then suffered a fallow period. “The Bill Cosby Show went a long way to break racial stereotypes with its warm, empathetic, educated family while Roseanne was working class, loud and in your face.” Revived in 2018, the latter became a disaster when its namesake star posted a racist and Islamophobic tweet. (Roseanne Barr blamed Ambien.) It was retooled as The Connors in 2018.

Workplace sitcoms include Cheers, Murphy Brown, and ultimately, The Office. Fraser, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, and The Golden Girls are even more popular in reruns. Late night talk shows morphed with the advent of David Letterman, “a purveyor of absurdity and silliness” and one of Johnny Carson’s favorite guests. When Carson left in 1992 and Letterman didn’t get The Tonight Show, he set up in competition with its new host, Jay Leno.

Rose brings his lecture to a close with two extremely popular series, Seinfeld, which can still be seen in repeats all over the world. “A peerless program about totally selfish 30-somethings who can spend an entire episode on how to quit your old barber without hurting his feelings.” And, The Simpsons, “in its 33 season, the most successful sitcom of all time; unbelievably funny. Despite the family’s disfunctionality, this is a family that cares deeply for one another.”

Will sitcoms still have a life on networks? Rose thinks not. Reality shows are far less expensive and (much to my surprise) appeal to men, who still hold buying power. “Five or ten years from now there may not even be broadcast or cable tv, everything will stream. As to future shifts, the diversity of audience taste makes it very difficult to predict what will work.”

An edifying, entertaining, and nostalgic session.

Photo Courtesy of Smithsonian ssociates

Thursday, September 2, 2021 – 12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. ET, Rose will present
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks: Grandmasters of American Comedy

Smithsonian Associates Streaming

About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.