SITCOM GENRE: TELEVISION:
People want to laugh, and recorded history proves that this has been true from the very earliest days of entertainment. From the writings of the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to vaudeville to radio, comedies have always been popular with audiences.
Comedies on stage and in the movies were almost always a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end, but television changed that, and the situation comedy was born. Now characters could appear every week, and their stories could be evolving from episode to episode.
Sitcoms are based on a single main character, or a group of characters such as a family, a group of friends, or the staff of a workplace, and portray them as they interact with others in dealing with odd or uncomfortable situations or misunderstandings. Sadly, as with so many early television programs, many of the earliest shows were broadcast live and so no visual record remains. However, with the advent of filmed programs in the early 1950’s, some of the early and best of sitcoms have been preserved.
Beginning in burlesque and vaudeville, then on to radio and the movies, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were one of the greatest loved comedy teams of all time. From 1952-1954 “The Abbott and Costello” show was broadcast for two seasons in 52 half-hour episodes. Starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the program follows the comic adventures of two unemployed actors living in a boardinghouse run by Sid Fields (himself). Each appearing in many episodes, the show features guest appearances by Gordon Jones (as Mike Kelly), Bobby Barber (as Hercules), Hillary Brooke (as herself), and Joe Kirk (as Mr. Bacciagalupe).
Ozzie Nelson first came to fame as a band leader in the 1930’s, and Harriet (née Hilliard) as a vocalist. The couple then went on to guest star in notable radio programs such as “The Red Skelton Show”, and eventually to their own radio show. Then, in 1952, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was brought to television. The family-based sitcom was the longest running sitcom in television history, at fourteen seasons, until it was surpassed in 2004. A total of 435 half-hour episodes were broadcast in the show’s run from 1952 to 1966. The program centers on the Nelson family’s home life, from the raising of their young sons David (himself) and Ricky (himself), through the boys’ teen years and up to their marriages. Don DeFore, as their neighbor 'Thorny' Thornberry, is a frequent guest star on the program, as are Jimmy Hawkins, Mary Jane Croft and Skip Young.
A huge success on radio, “The Amos 'n Andy Show” was a sitcom broadcast on television from 1951 to 1953 in 78 episodes. The first television series with an all black cast, the setting is Harlem in New York, and the stories are mainly about three members of a fraternal order, the Mystic Knights of the Sea. Amos Jones (Alvin Childress) is a conservative man who owns a taxi cab company, Andrew ‘Andy’ Brown (Spencer Williams) is his more flamboyant friend, and George ‘Kingfish’ Stevens (Tim Moore), president of the lodge, is a character who draws his acquaintances into his get-rich-quick schemes. Other recurring roles in the program are Sapphire Stevens (Ernestine Wade), the Kingfish’s wife, Ramona Smith (Amanda Randolph), Sapphire’s mother, and Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart).
“The Beverly Hillbillies” is an American sitcom which ran for nine seasons, with 274 half-hour episodes. The program was broadcast in black and white until 1965, and then was broadcast in color for the remainder of its run. The comical adventures and misadventures are told of a family from the Ozark Mountains who, upon finding oil in the swamp on their land, relocate to Beverly Hills, California. The cultural contrasts of their ‘backwoods’ ways and the more sophisticated lifestyle in Beverly Hills are the basis for much of the humor. The family includes Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), ‘Granny’ Moses (Irene Ryan), Elly May Clampett (Donna Douglas), Jed’s daughter, and Jethro Bodine (Max Baer Jr.), son of Jed’s sister Pearl (Bea Benaderet). Also appearing in major roles in the series are Raymond Bailey as Jed’s banker, Milburn Drysdale, Harriet E. MacGibbon as Drysdale’s wife, and Nancy Kulp as Jane Hathaway, Drysdale’s secretary.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was a five season sitcom airing from 1961 to 1966 in 158 half-hour episodes. Centering on the home and work life of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), head writer for the fictitious ‘Alan Brady Show’, the program deals with the funny situations that arise between Rob and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), and between Rob and his co-workers at the TV show, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). The series also stars Carl Reiner as Alan Brady, and Richard Deacon as Mel Cooley, Brady’s brother-in-law.
Starring Bob Denver, and seeming in many ways to be a repeat of his successful “Gilligan's Island”, “Dusty's Trail” is a sitcom that was broadcast for one season in 1973-1974 with 26 half-hour episodes. Set in the 1800’s, a stagecoach and a wagon become lost when they are separated from the wagon train they are traveling with. Dusty (Bob Denver), the wagon train leader’s assistant, and Mr. Callahan (Forrest Tucker), the grumpy wagon trail leader must find their way to California with their passengers. The passengers are a wealthy banker and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Carson Brookhaven (Ivor Francis and Lynn Wood), a saloon dancer, Lulu McQueen (Jeanine Riley), an educated man, Andy (William Cort), and a farmer’s daughter, Betsy (Lori Saunders). Jay Silverheels (‘Tonto’ from “The Lone Ranger” series) made his last television appearance in an episode of the show.
A popular radio program from 1941 to 1957, and one of the first spinoffs on radio (from “Fibber McGee and Molly”), “The Great Gildersleeve” was a one-season television sitcom in 1944, with 39 half-hour episodes. Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve (Willard Waterman) is a rather pompous woman-chasing bachelor, juggling a job, raising two ‘adopted’ children, and becoming entangled with various marriage-seeking women. Also appearing on the program are Barbara Stuart as Bessie, Gildy’s secretary, Harry Antrim as Judge Hooker, Lillian Randolph as Birdie Lee Coggins, and Ronald Keith as Leroy Forrester.
Airing for three seasons with 99 half-hour episodes from 1952 to 1955, “I Married Joan” starred Joan Davis as Joan and Jim Backus as her husband, Judge Bradley Stevens. The series recounts Joan’s zany antics, sometimes in league with her younger sister, Beverly (Beverly Wills, Joan Davis’ real-life daughter). In one episode, Joan adopts a wounded crow and the neighborhood is suddenly hit by a jewel thief—a thief that hides all the stolen goods at the Stevens’ house! Hal March and Sheldon Leonard were among the guest stars on the series.
One of the most-loved and popular stars of comedy, Lucille Ball, had a sitcom which ran for six seasons, with 156 half-hour episodes, from 1962 to 1968. The episodes ran in black and white in 1962 and 1963, and then in color for the remainder of the series. “The Lucy Show” is about the life and antics of Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball), a widow with two children, daughter, Chris (Candy Moore) and son, Jerry (Jimmy Garrett), sharing her home in New York with her divorced friend, Vivian Bagley (Vivian Vance). Left with a large amount of money in a trust fund, a good many episodes involve Lucy’s efforts to get to the money but being thwarted by her banker, Mr. Barnsdahl (Charles Lane), and later Theodore J. Mooney (Gale Gordon). After a few format changes, and the fictional family’s move to California, many famous guest stars appeared, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, Joan Crawford, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Dean Martin, Robert Stack, and several others.
“Make Room for Daddy” (aka “The Danny Thomas Show”) was a family-based sitcom that aired for eleven seasons from 1953-1964, with 351 half-hour episodes. The series deals with the life of Danny Williams (Thomas), a comedian and nightclub entertainer, and his family: his wife, Margaret (Jean Hagen), their daughter, Terry (Sherry Jackson), and their son, Rusty (Rusty Hamer). Jean Hagen left the show after the third season and at the beginning of the fifth season Danny took a new wife, Kathy (Marjorie Lord), and adopted her daughter Linda (Angela Cartwright). Hans Conried has a recurring role as Danny’s “Uncle Tanoose”, and guest stars included Bill Dana and Annette Funicello.
Due to its success as a summer replacement show for ”I Love Lucy”, “My Little Margie ” is a sitcom that then ran for four seasons, with 126 half-hour episodes from 1952 to 1955. Vern Albright (silent film star Charles Farrell) is a widower, and his daughter Margie (Gale Storm) lives with him in their apartment in New York City. Vern is under-appreciated by his boss George Honeywell (Clarence Kolb), and Margie often gets involved in helping him to secure clients for the firm, and also in match-making or match-breaking for her father. Quite often in disguise, Margie concocts schemes that invariably go awry, and several times she enlists the help of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Odetts (Gertrude Hoffman) in trying to pull them off.
Broadcast from 1953 to 1957 in five seasons, with 103 half-hour episodes, “Private Secretary” was a sitcom based in the workplace of Susie MacNamara (Ann Sothern). The episodes usually begin in her then state-of-the-art office, with the opening sounds of the rapidly clattering keys of her IBM electric typewriter. Susie works for talent agent Peter Sands (Don Porter), and is so devoted to Sands that she not only helps him at the office but also becomes involved in trying to help him with his romantic life, nearly always with disastrous results. Her co-worker, Vi Praskins (Ann Tyrrell), also gets embroiled in her schemes, with humorous consequences.
Set in the fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina, “The Andy Griffith Show” was a very popular sitcom about the life and times of Sheriff Andy Taylor (Griffith), his family, and his friends. His family consists of his son Opie (Ron Howard), and his Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier). His friends include his deputy, Barney Fife (Don Knotts), the local barber Floyd Lawson (Howard McNear), cousins who work at the local service station Gomer and Goober Pyle (Jim Nabors and George Lindsey), and Andy’s sweetheart Helen Crump (Aneta Corsaut). Andy is quick to grin and soft-spoken, with a lot of patience and common sense. These qualities serve him well as he deals with the exploits of his family and the townspeople. Not many people realize that the first appearance of Sheriff Andy Taylor was on “The Danny Thomas Show” in a 1960 episode where Danny Thomas was arrested for running the stop sign in Mayberry. “The Andy Griffith Show” ran for eight seasons in 249 half-hour episodes from 1960 to 1968.
“The Bob Cummings Show” (aka “Love That Bob”) was broadcast from 1955 to 1959 over five seasons, with 173 half-hour episodes in all. Hollywood, California is the perfect setting for Bob Collins (Robert Cummings), with his smooth, urbane manner. Bob is a photographer, an officer in the Air Force reserve, and a confirmed ladies’ man. All would be well, except for his sister Margaret MacDonald’s (Rosemary DeCamp) efforts to get him to settle down, and his secretary Charmaine ‘Schultzy’ Schultz’s (Ann B. Davis) infatuation with him that invariably gets in the way of his romances. Also complicating things are his nephew Chuck MacDonald’s (Dwayne Hickman) attempts to gain the attention of the ladies in Bob’s life.
Broadcast from 1950 to 1958 (291 half-hour episodes), “The Burns and Allen Show” was a popular sitcom with a twist. Successful comedy team George Burns and Gracie Allen starred in this sitcom about their life together. At the beginning of each episode George Burns is just in front of the stage set, and offers an explanation of the story about to be seen. Set in their home, the ditzy Gracie, with the help of their neighbor, Blanche Morton (Bea Benaderet), finds trouble in different funny situations. These situations aggravate Blanche’s husband Harry (Larry Keating), but George Burns merely shrugs them off, turns to the camera, and philosophically speaks to the audience. The announcer for the program was Harry Von Zell.
“The Life of Riley” was a popular radio program from the 1940’s, a feature film in 1949, and then was brought to television in the 1950’s. The television series began with a one season, 26 episode run from 1949 to 1950, and starred Jackie Gleason as Riley, with Rosemary DeCamp as his wife, Gloria Winters and Lanny Rees as his children, Sid Tomack as his best friend, and John Brown as an undertaker. The series was resurrected in 1953, running for six seasons until 1958 with 217 episodes. The second series was based on the same plot, the life of Chester A. Riley. Riley (William Bendix) is a blue collar worker at an aircraft plant in California. The stories involve the big-hearted Riley trying to help with his family’s and friend’s problems, but usually bungling the job, making mountains out of molehills. Through thick and thin, he is supported by his family; his wife Peg (Marjorie Reynolds), daughter Babs (Lugene Sanders), son Junior (Wesley Morgan). His friend Jim Gillis (Tom D’Andrea), a schemer, is often the cause of the problems Riley tries to fix. Gillis’ wife Honeybee was played by Gloria Blondell.
“Topper” was a fantasy sitcom which ran for two seasons from 1953 to 1955, with 78 half-hour episodes. Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) is vice president of a bank, and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, married to sweet but scatterbrained Henrietta (Lee Patrick). They live in the home they bought from the estate of George and Marion Kerby (Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys), who had died in an avalanche along with a rescue St. Bernard, Neil. Imagine Topper’s consternation when he finds that the home is haunted by the fun-loving Kerbys and Neil! The Kerbys decide that Topper needs to have more fun, and cause curious things to happen in the Topper home, which Topper has to cope with and try to explain since he is the only one able to see the Kerbys.
“The Trouble with Father” (aka “The Stu Erwin Show”) was a family sitcom that aired from 1950 to 1955 in five seasons, with 128 half-hour episodes. Stu Erwin (himself) is a high school principal who, with his wife June (June Collyer), has to deal with the complications of raising two daughters. The eldest daughter Joyce (Ann E. Todd) causes concern for her parents by being boy-crazy, and the younger daughter Jackie (Sheila James Kuehl), a tomboy, causes problems by being oftentimes too outspoken for comfort. Willie Best appeared as Willie, the Erwin’s handyman, and Martin Milner appeared as Drexel, Joyce’s boyfriend.
For a look back at how life was in the fifties, and for some good laughs, there is nothing like the early sitcoms. From the subtle to the slapstick, there is something for everyone at Matinee Classics!