11/11/11

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?

9 comments:

  1. When I watched Hillbillies the first time (when I was about 12) I went along with the standard line and laughed snidely at the ignorant rednecks.

    When I watched it again on WGN a couple years ago, I was amazed to find that the actual portrayals were NOT snide. The writers gave enough material for adolescents to snortle and snark, but underneath that stuff Jed was consistently shown as a deeply moral man, a real gentleman who knew when to be hard and when to be soft. The Californians were shown as the ignorant ones who had no idea how to live a good life.

    Pretty much the opposite of the Lear approach.

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  2. Great look into the past, sir! I often think about how silly they all seem, in retrospect, but when compared with some stuff we get these days, they are all mini-masterpieces!

    And the bad actors on an old show can usually outshine the 'good' actors on some modern shows.

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  3. You forgot Green Acres in the whole fish out of water trope.

    I always felt Bewitched was more an exaggeration of the problems married couples face, but how with a whole lot of love and understanding, a marriage can grow stronger. Weird relatives, curses, time travel, and all.

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  4. And on Gilligan's Island, a fish out of water had a radio in it. I'm just sayin'.

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  5. Remember, the 1960's were the decade that everybody left home and hit the streets, so it's not that surprising that the families in the sitcoms were a little warped. Who wanted to stay home when you could go to a Go-Go?

    I couldn't agree more with Polistra about Beverly Hillbillies. Buddy Ebsen's background meant that he portrayed a Southerner with respect; exactly like Andy Griffith did. That has a lot to do with why both shows lasted as long as they did.

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  6. The thing you have to remember about these 1960s sitcoms was that they were SATIRES of then-current society...Beverly Hillbillies, dealt with the immigrants' desire to assimilate while holding on to their culture, The Addams Family were a family of eccentrics who felt THEY were normal, and The Munsters dealt with bigotry in America. Gilligan's Island was about diversity (no, really); Bewitched dealt with interracial/interfaith marriage (I Dream of Jeanie, on the other hand, was a disguised sex fantasy).

    Leave It to Beaver, imo, was a pretty subversive program for the period, what with the Cleaver kids allowed to be screw-ups and their associates a collection of losers (Lumpy Rutherford) and delinquents (Eddie Haskell)...contrast this with the concurrent Ozzie and Harriett, Father Knows Best and the Donna Reed Show, where EVERYBODY and EVERYTHING was nice 1950s Good Housekeeping-approved perfect.

    The Norman Lear shows, many of which were adapted from British sitcoms, were satires, too...only more pointed in their criticisms.

    And how could you forget The Flintstones?

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  7. Gilligan--I disagree with your comments on the front page. Elly May was a good girl. Jed raised her that way. She would NEVER take a man away from someone else. In fact, she was more interested in her "critters" than in dating. It was Granny who was worried about her becoming an old maid, since she hadn't been married by the standard backwoods age of 13 or 14.

    Cartoon Joe--you nailed so many things on the head, concurring with things I've read. BEWITCHED was supposed to be a veiled comment on interracial marriage (but not so veiled a number of ABC affiliates in the South wouldn't carry it).

    And GILLIGAN'S ISLAND...a few years before his death, Sherwood Schultz was asked in an interview what he would do differently in his two iconic shows. He said that of the seven stranded castaways, one would be black and one Hispanic.
    Meanwhile, the lovely lady and the man named Brady (and their kids) would have been different races.

    Paul

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  8. Miss Hathaway wasn't a lesbian. She used to swoon over Jethro. She simply wasn't attractive.

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    1. The plain Jane TV females--especially the ones who were man-hungry--were presumed to be lesbian in dog whistle terms.

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