So this is a bit of an esoteric post; picking out only television great television shows that were made before I was born isn’t exactly an obvious one, especially considering I have yet to do my favorite shows overall.
But I was a bit of a Nick at Nite freak when I was a kid; not really quite sure why. Maybe it’s because the quality of the 30 minute sitcom took a nose-dive in the 1990’s and, at the time, that was the primary form of television entertainment. In my view, the form didn’t really rally until the introduction of the US version of The Office in 2005 and it took another four years until Modern Family (2009) for it to revive across three of the four major networks (CBS has yet to pick up the non-laugh track format, which just doesn’t cut it anymore in my view. If you need people to tell you when something is funny, it probably ain’t).
Side note: Though The Office is credited for the reinvigoration of the sitcom format, it was Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night which blazed the trail in 1999. Sorkin and his crew didn’t want the laugh track and didn’t write the show for it. ABC forced it onto the first half-dozen episodes before realizing how stupid it was and dropping it altogether. The show might have had a much larger impact had it lasted more than two seasons, but it was far ahead of its time. One of the most common complaints about the show “I didn’t know whether it was a comedy or a drama”. Like I said, ahead of its time.
The rules for this list are simple: The show has to debut before I was born, thereby giving it prime Nick at Nite status in the early 1990’s when I got addicted to the network. One of the fun parts of writing a list like this is that it might get some of our younger generations interested in these terrific shows, all five of which hold up well and still have something to say. Plus, maybe it won’t make me feel old; at one point last year, I had a colleague who was born in 1992, and another who had never heard of Cheers.
Top 5 Sitcoms (Before I was Born)
Yeah, I’m cheating a bit with this one. The pilot episode of Taxi debuted on September 12, 1978, when I was 25 days old. But I’m figuring that the pilot had to have been shot much earlier in the year, since the show was clearly on ABC’s slate far before that. The show featured the eclectic cabbies of the Sunshine Cab Company in New York City, and was one of the first prevalent blue-collar television shows on the network. Many of its cast members went on to bigger things (Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd & Danny Devito), and it preserved some of the best work of Andy Kaufman, a truly unique comedian who died shortly after the show was canceled after five seasons (even though he never actually wanted to be on the show in the first place).
4. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Though I Love Lucy, one of the original original television shows, was primarily focused on a woman, it was Mary Tyler Moore which pioneered the concept of a working, career-oriented woman living on her own in no real rush or need of a husband. Originally conceived as a divorcee, CBS ultimately forced its creators into making Mary Richards the victim of a broken engagement instead. The two primary reasons cited for this were: (1) divorce was considered too hot of a topic prime time television in 1970 and (2) they were afraid viewers would have thought she had left Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke Show, see below). Ultimately MTM became the voice of the 1970’s, with Mary slowly finding her footing and “making it on her own” as the show’s theme song dictated. It was pretty funny, too.
3. The Bob Newhart Show
One of the first shrink shows on television, Bob Newhart brought his brand of dry humor to CBS in 1972. His was primarily a work-place comedy which also featured his wife, a career-oriented woman (like Mary Richards), played by Suzanne Pleshette who taught grade school. Newart was 43 and Pleshette was 35 when the show debuted, and the couple did not have children. They discussed it on occasion, but remained childless for the 6 year run; something fairly unique for the cookie-cutter time. The show also introduced the concept of fun with elevators into comedy; the two elevators in the lobby of the doctor’s offices almost became inanimate characters.
2. I Love Lucy
Pretty universally considered the best sitcom in television history, its general format of hilarity and live studio audience becoming the standard sitcom blueprint for the next 50 years. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz launched the show with CBS mainly as a vehicle to save their failing marriage; Ball was a B-movie and radio actress while Arnaz was always on the road and two never spent any time together. Ball had a TV first when, in 1954, the actress became pregnant and stayed on the show, writing the pregnancy into the story lines. The birth of Little Ricky became one of the highest rated television shows in the history of the young format. Though the show didn’t ultimately save the couple’s marriage (they divorced in 1960), it remains one of only three television shows to go off the air at #1.
1. Dick Van Dyke Show
So if I Love Lucy is the top sitcom in television history, how come some show you probably haven’t heard of comes in at my top spot? The four shows listed above were each pioneers in their own right, CBS’ Dick Van Dyke was as down the line as you can get; man with a job in the city, house in the county and a pretty wife whose only job it is to take care of it (ironic side note: that wife is played by Mary Tyler Moore). But the comedy of the show was simply unparalleled; each of the three characters in the office (Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers & Buddy Sorrell) were established comedians who bought their own unique style to the small screen, and the blend of them combined with some first-rate supporting characters (Moore, Richrard Deacon & the amazing Carl Reiner who also wrote and created the show) created something unique which has seldom been approached.