The Boob Tube #28: 1960s Sitcom Sociology
I grew up on sitcoms that prided themselves on realism: All in the Family, Good Times, Rhoda, One Day at a Time, etc. (Thank you Norman Lear); but this wasn't the case just a few years prior to the Bunkers hitting prime time. In the 1960s, situation comedies consisted of genies, witches, martians, monsters, and a talking horse. It all was a bit silly, but well crafted fun nonetheless. We certainly wouldn't still be reminiscing about it four decades later if it hadn't been any good, right?
Maybe I'm reading too much into these things, but if James Franco can compare Three's Company to Molière (if you haven't already heard, don't ask), then I'm entitled to a few words of boob tube sociological analysis.
I can't help but notice that the sitcoms of the 1960s followed the same basic formulas from the "fish out of water" trope. You know the gag: the comedic hilarity ensues when a person(s) is somewhere where he or she doesn't belong (i.e. Crocodile Dundee and 3rd Rock from the Sun). It's a fail safe formula.
But what the fuck was going on in the sixties that nearly every sitcom was about not fitting in? Think about it: Darren spends most his time blowing a gasket over Samantha's eccentric family ruining his reputation. Major Nelson spends all his screen time fretting over looking strange and out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, all those shows: The Munsters, The Addams Faily, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Beverly Hillbillies all touch a nerve about not fitting in in this new world of the "perfect" white picket fence Pleasant Valley Nuclear Family lifestyle.
The Nuclear Family was a fairly new phenomenon in the mid 1960s. Before WWII, it wasn't at all uncommon to have extended family members in the home, and family units (namely Catholic homes) could be ridiculously huge. After the War, the family unit became: Mom, Dad, 2 - 4 kids, dog, house in the suburbs. Cat optional. If you violated the Cleaver rules of The Nuclear Family, you may as well be a goddamn hillbilly or monster.
Norman Lear got a lot of kudos for injecting realism into the sitcoms of the seventies; but weren't they just more of the same, but without the fantastical element? The Jeffersons is a "fish out of water" trope-driven sitcom if there ever was one. Even All in the Family operated along the same conventions with Archie being the fish out of water - a racist pre-WWII stereotypical male (i.e. the fish) in a changing world of hippies, integration, and women's lib (i.e. the water).
The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family and The Munsters were total subversions of the Nuclear Family. They didn't take themselves nearly as seriously as Normal Lear productions, but they were no less topical. Issues of not acceptance based on outward appearances and "foreignness" certainly were in play in the American psyche of the 1960s.
Leave It to Beaver glamorized the Nuclear Family concept. It was American Ideal in sitcom form. And, I've got to admit, it looks pretty damn good. I'd love to be Ward Cleaver and come home and greet my wife decked out in pearls every day, whilst my 2 strapping lads hang on my every word. And you better believe Wally will never, I repeat NEVER, get Mary Ellen knocked up. And he definitely will not be coming home with a black chick.
You get my point. Everything had to be perfect... but reality isn't perfect. Shit happens. Lumpy Rutherford may lose his legs to a landmine in Vietnam. Ward may get canned when his company "downsizes". June may then have to go to work as a nurse where she contracts hepatitis (okay, I'm getting carried away).
I'm not saying these shows were bad because they didn't show the seedy side of life as Norman Lear brought us. In fact, I prefer a little escapism with my sitcoms. What I am saying is that I think many of these 1960s sitcoms took aim at the popular delusion of The Perfect Nuclear Home, but they did it without the heavy-handedness of Lear.
So, next time you watch The Beverly Hillbillies, remember that you are actually watching something high minded and of cultural significance. Now, y'all come back now y'hear?