M*A*S*H, long the top-rated sitcom on television, was set to leave the air voluntarily after 11 seasons in the spring of 1983. Taxi, which won three consecutive Best Comedy Emmys for its first three seasons, had been canceled by ABC after its fourth. (NBC would pick it up, but the ratings for season five would prove so disastrous that it was canceled yet again.) Barney Miller, the incumbent best comedy series Emmy winner, had left the air in May. The social satires of Norman Lear now felt long-in-the-tooth, and James L. Brooks and the other men who had worked for the 1970s’ other sitcom powerhouse, MTM Enterprises, were mostly pursuing careers in film as MTM moved into revolutionizing the TV drama (which it did quite handily). The few popular sitcoms remaining were holdover ’70s hits that were long past their prime or terrible attempts to recapture that ’70s spirit, that feeling of sitcoms being relevant on the national scene.
To make matters worse, the two most promising new sitcoms of the fall—the two most promising new sitcoms anyone had seen in ages—both underperformed. NBC’s Cheers settled into a position at the bottom of the ratings, while CBS’ Newhart benefitted from its time slot, but still lost millions upon millions of viewers from a cushy M*A*S*H lead-in. Despite a crippling recession, American viewers didn’t turn to comedy for comfort, as they previously did in trying economic times. Instead, they looked to glitzy, over-the-top soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, shows that allowed for a few moments of escapism into the world of the idle rich. Critics huffed about this situation. If viewers wouldn’t watch Cheers, Taxi, or Newhart, but they would watch The Love Boat, was there any hope for quality sitcoms that dominated the ’70s?
Meanwhile, the people who made sitcoms—those who hadn’t escaped to the film industry—were increasingly bored with the strictures of the form. Where the sitcoms of the ’70s had reacted against the plastic, single-camera worlds of the worst ’60s sitcoms, the very idea of setup-punchline humor punctuated by audience laughter was beginning to feel more and more reductive to many TV writers. Wasn’t there another way to do this? Sure, Cheers was great, and everybody wanted to get a job in that writers’ room, but wouldn’t it be possible to do away with the audience laughter or the laugh track altogether? Couldn’t something more like a film comedy emerge?
The story of sitcoms in the ’80s is a story of a near-death experience that abruptly became a roaring success. It’s also a story of how iconoclastic creators clashed with networks, following the model of M*A*S*H head Larry Gelbart and Barney Miller creator Danny Arnold, in an attempt to break the sitcom rules as they’d been written. But at some level, it’s a story with a simple basic question at its center: What’s funnier, going to work or staying at home?
’80s Sitcoms 101: Must-See TV
The most significant figure in comedy in the ’80s wasn’t an actor, writer, or mega-producer. He wasn’t even a terribly creative person, though he was great at coming up with one-line pitches he then farmed out to writers and producers who would turn those ideas into hits. His name was Brandon Tartikoff, the chief programmer and president of NBC’s entertainment division. Together with NBC chairman Grant Tinker, Tartikoff decided to cling hard to quality shows, no matter how low-rated, in the belief that the audience would eventually find them. While not all of the shows Tinker and Tartikoff would put on the air would be of high quality—after all, the two put a famously terrible show about a talking orangutan, Mr. Smith, on the air in 1983—the team could soon boast one of the best development streaks in network television history. And the show central to their success was a fairly big gamble.
When Bill Cosby opted to come back to television in the fall of 1984, he did so with a creative blank check from NBC. Cosby worked with the best writers he could find. He got to film the show in New York, instead of Los Angeles, even though people used to working on multi-camera sitcoms all lived in L.A. (Cosby and his producers had to train an entirely new crew in a filming style that can be decidedly counterintuitive.) He got to create a decidedly low-concept, gimmick-free show centered on an affluent African-American family. His show was simply warm, funny, and humane, and when the network and critics got their first look at the pilot, it was obvious that this was the big hit series NBC had been waiting for. It was legitimately like nothing on the air at the time, and populated by a proven TV star, a funny, sexy woman to play his foil, and a bunch of amusing kids.
The series, of course, was The Cosby Show, which dominated the ’80s network landscape just as All In The Family dominated the ’70s or I Love Lucy the ’50s. NBC’s big gamble didn’t come from its belief in the show itself; everybody knew it would be at least a solid hit (though few would have predicted how big it would become). The big gamble was in programming three quality shows with horrible ratings after The Cosby Show in the belief that people would be so entranced by Cosby that they’d sit around for a bunch of other funny shows. The concept would later evolve into “Must See TV” in the ’90s. Cannily, Tartikoff followed Cosby with another family sitcom, then followed those two shows with two adult-skewing, workplace sitcoms. It proved to be the best sitcom lineup since CBS’ Saturday night lineup nearly 10 years earlier (and it was capped by what was then the best show on TV, Hill Street Blues).
The Cosby Show broke out because it wasn’t like any other show on the air at the time. That’s easy to forget now that the show’s DNA has been so thoroughly incorporated into every family sitcom that followed (most of which were terrible). Cosby pitched the show to the networks with two former ABC executives, Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, whose production company would consequently become at least as powerful as Lear’s and MTM had been in the ’70s. Carsey and Werner knew the game, and Cosby was a star. Both of these elements bought the show’s producers a level of creative freedom almost unprecedented in the ’80s, when network executives, including Tartikoff and Tinker, were far more hands-on with sitcoms than they had been in the past.
Look back at that first season of Cosby, which remains the show’s best. There are no big plots. There often aren’t plots at all. The whole idea of the show was to come up with an extremely basic sitcom situation, drop Cosby into the middle of it, and let him do some funny things. This absence of structure grew enervating over the show’s run, especially as the series kept expanding the central Huxtable family to include more children and grandchildren to compensate for the aging of the five original kids. But in that first season, it never felt forced. This was just a funny, normal family, and hanging out with them for Thanksgiving dinner or a goldfish funeral always promised at least one or two amusing moments. And at the center was Cosby, a consummate mugger who lapped up audience laughter. The Cosby Show no longer feels revolutionary nearly 30 years after it debuted, but it brought plenty to the TV landscape, beyond just being the mega-hit that saved the sitcom business.
Tartikoff chose to follow The Cosby Show with Family Ties, a show that had debuted quietly in 1982 then quickly grew into a critical favorite. Created by wunderkind producer Gary David Goldberg, Family Ties followed the Keatons of Ohio, a family begat by aged hippies who had settled down into a respectable liberal life in the Columbus suburbs, only to find their oldest child, son Alex, was—gasp—a Reagan-worshipping Republican. Where the ’70s TV landscape was littered with shows that tackled political and social issues, the networks shied away from series in this vein in the ’80s, believing that fatigued audiences wanted simple, silly shows. Family Ties was far less politically loaded than All In The Family or Maude, and it’s aged atrociously (as have many ’80s sitcoms). But the series at least attempted to engage with the United States’ rightward shift and understand people like Alex. Furthermore, Goldberg assembled a great cast. Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter became the era’s epitome of good TV parents, while Michael J. Fox became a megastar. It’s easy to forget how versatile and funny an actor Fox can be, but watching any given episode of Family Ties, even an awful one, makes clear just why he became so famous so quickly. More ’80s shows turned to Family Ties for inspiration instead of The Cosby Show (perhaps because Cosby’s point of view so heavily influenced his show), but the original remains the best of the decade’s high-concept family sitcoms.
NBC turned the 9 p.m. hour over to two struggling workplace sitcoms, one already a critical cause célèbre, the other destined to become a warmly regarded misfit. The first was Cheers, one of the greatest shows in television history, which had previously been unable to translate great reviews into ratings success. The show was in its third season when Tartikoff chose to leave it in place on Thursday nights, where it had aired since its first episode. (To be fair, the series’ ratings had started to perk up by the end of its second season, but it wouldn’t become a megahit until airing after Cosby.) It was coming off its second Best Comedy Emmy, and critics loved the series’ blend of MTM-style workplace sitcom humor with the fizzy verve of a Hepburn and Tracy-style romantic comedy. Series stars Ted Danson and Shelley Long were perfectly cast for maximum romantic and comedic potential, and they clearly relished bouncing off each other.
Of all the ’80s sitcoms, Cheers feels most like a culmination of what was going on in the ’70s. It’s as if the show took the basic precepts of an MTM show like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Bob Newhart Show, then honed them to the sharpest possible point. Every element was perfectly calibrated for maximum comic value, every cast member precisely chosen, and each character played a specific role within the ensemble. Even the show’s setting seemed calculated. And yet Cheers never felt dry or airless. Creators Glen and Les Charles built a show about a gang of lovable losers, much like they had learned to do while working on Taxi. But the central device of the will-they/won’t-they romance would never be done better. Danson and Long hooked up, then broke up, then hooked up again, and Cheers somehow made it enthralling every time. Some of that may have been due to co-creator James Burrows—unquestionably the most influential multi-camera director in television history—who kept the pace light and effervescent and gave Cheers a sense of elasticity that allowed it to survive even the departure of Long, a move that effectively cleaved the show into two different series. The first is a witty romantic comedy about a dunderhead and the bright barmaid who tries not to love him; the second is a more traditional workplace farce. Both are terrific.
Night Court, a midseason replacement from the season before that Tartikoff liked, filled out the lineup. Created by Barney Miller vet Reinhold Weege, the show began, much like Barney Miller, as an opportunity to address a variety of social issues. Instead, Weege and his writers realized their crackerjack ensemble—which included such players as John Larroquette, Harry Anderson, and Richard Moll—worked best when doing truly weird stuff. As such, they took the series to increasingly surreal extremes, largely abandoning the attempts at social realism the show had feinted toward in its first two seasons. In time, Night Court would become too weird, but outside of Cheers, it’s the ’80s sitcom that’s aged the best, thanks to the way all involved got out of the way of scripts packed with wall-to-wall jokes. Night Court was never as sophisticated as Cheers or as revolutionary as Cosby; it settled, instead, for being a very funny show and the pinnacle of the decade’s surreal comedy.
NBC became the standard-bearer for comedy in the ’80s, as Cosby surged to the top of the Nielsen ratings and the three shows that followed it became top 10 mainstays. Yet where the rise of All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show had prompted the networks of the ’70s to double down on intelligent, adult material, the networks saw the success of Cosby and came to one basic conclusion: People wanted to see shows about wacky families with cute, rapscallion-y kids, and they wanted to see them immediately.
Intermediate Studies: All in the family
After the fall of 1984, comedy was big again. The Cosby Show and Family Ties had shot into the top 10 in the Nielsens, and another new comedy, Who’s The Boss? on ABC, had drawn promising, if not huge, numbers. The problem was that networks no longer had real, working relationships with comedy veterans, which meant they often had to turn to whomever they could find to work on their ideas for shows. This led to the rise of, among other companies, Miller-Boyett, a relentlessly mediocre purveyor of television product whose output included such series as Full House, Family Matters, and Perfect Strangers. In other cases, it meant a network would get an idea to, say, base a show on the film character Mr. Belvedere, then toss that idea to writers who couldn’t be more wrong for it, like Frank Dungan and Jeff Stein, Barney Miller alumni who were just thrilled to get a show on the air.
Not every idea for a bland sitcom in the ’80s came from a network mandate, but the networks definitely chased the Cosby/Family Ties ideal into the ground. The sitcom writers still banging around the industry were primarily trained in writing shows about workplaces or intense social issues. Having them do shows about cute kids who spoke in adorable malapropisms was often a bad fit. The ’80s had many good sitcoms, but also an unusually large number of mediocre-to-terrible shows that inexplicably became popular, thanks to a hunger for family-friendly shows.
But this also led writers of the time to chafe against network restrictions by coming up with series that fulfilled them creatively while still giving the network a genial family comedy. Few would call ABC’s Who’s The Boss? and Growing Pains good shows. Both were certainly popular shows, and both boasted surprisingly deep casts, but neither produced much more than sitcom treacle. At the same time, both series had seasoned writers from big ’70s hits who were interested in poking at the edges of what their shows could do. Boss is the ultimate example of a series with pretty good scripts sunk by one element that simply didn’t work: the central performance of Tony Danza. The show’s scripts are good enough to have been translated into other languages and reshot in other countries to some critical acclaim, and the series’ writers created a handful of indelible characters, particularly blowsy grandma Mona (Katherine Helmond). But Danza was so unable to play his character as anything other than a lummox that the show never worked.
Growing Pains had a similarly talented writing staff, but it only seemed engaged when blatantly going against the family sitcom format, as with hour-long tributes to Halloween shot in the style of various horror films or occasional peeks through the fourth wall. (The gradual blanding-out of Kirk Cameron’s Mike Seaver, thanks to Cameron’s dedication to born-again Christianity, certainly didn’t help.) Growing Pains genuinely is better than its reputation, but it still has too many faulty elements to be consistently good.
NBC had slightly better luck gradually skewing away from bland family sitcoms. It began the decade with such boring stalwarts as The Facts Of Life and Gimme A Break and ended it with a roster of shows trying to express their creators’ individual points of view. While it would still embrace bland family comedies—shows like ALF and The Hogan Family—the network also loaded its Saturday night lineup with intriguing shows featuring protagonists not often featured on TV, like Richard Mulligan’s widower on the deeply flawed Empty Nest, or the black friends and families on 227 and Amen, both problematic shows invested with a raucous sense of fun. Chief among these Saturday night series was The Golden Girls, from Soap creator and Norman Lear acolyte Susan Harris. The scripts could be weak and predictable: At times, it seemed more like Harris only wanted to make a series that would allow her to make jokes about older women having sex. But the ensemble cast (Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty) was genuinely fantastic, one of the few where every series regular won an Emmy at some point during the series’ run. The set-up—four older women, only two of them related, share a Miami house—spoke to NBC’s experiments with sitcoms about “found” families, shows that looked like family sitcoms but were actually just about groups of friends living in close proximity. With only a little creative wiggling, it’s possible to draw the line from The Golden Girls to the network’s ’90s hits, Seinfeld and Friends.
The Golden Girls also played into a major movement in the decade, one that saw its fullest flowering on CBS: shows about strong, funny women created by women with ties to the ’70s Lear factory. Leading the way: Kate & Allie, another show that’s aged poorly but looked groundbreaking at the time. It debuted several months before The Cosby Show and was similarly an instant hit. (Like Cosby, it was filmed in New York instead of Los Angeles.) The voice of creator Sherry Coben (and her producing partner, Mort Lachman, who had emerged from Lear’s production company) made the premise—two recently divorced women cope with life and love as newly single people—sharp-edged for the time. The show also boasts a funny, go-for-broke Jane Curtin performance, one of the few elements that still works.
CBS turned over its Monday nights in the latter part of the decade to two other shows created by women, both of whom would engage in high-profile struggles with their network. The first to debut was Designing Women, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s demonstration of how far feminism had come in the ’80s and just how far it had left to go, despite the complacency of a largely conservative electorate. Bloodworth-Thomason’s spirit was in tune with the Lear productions, and she cut her teeth on M*A*S*H under Larry Gelbart, which makes her numerous battles with the network to keep the show on the air and uncompromised that much more understandable. Designing Women, despite becoming slightly too preachy toward the end of its run, remains funny today, with a terrific ensemble headlined by Dixie Carter and Delta Burke.
Murphy Brown eventually gave Designing Women the coattails it needed to turn into a genuine hit. It remains worth watching as a perfect time capsule of the late ’80s. Created by Diane English—who, like Coben, emerged from the world of made-for-TV movies—the series became a cultural flashpoint in the early ’90s when English decided to give the title character, played by Candice Bergen in a performance that won boatloads of Emmys, an unplanned pregnancy. English and Bergen were unafraid to make Murphy unlikable, but not invulnerable, and the show eventually became a top 10 hit.
While CBS invested heavily in shows featuring strong women, it also kept a moderately rated, strange, often sweet show on the air despite the fact that it probably could have been canceled at nearly any time: Newhart, one of the few examples of a program improved by network retooling. Originally conceived as a last stand for the MTM style of sitcom production—it’s the final sitcom from the company to last more than two seasons—it began as a throwback to The Bob Newhart Show set in an inn. At CBS’ request, the series shifted to incorporate more and more bizarre characters and situations as it went on, recognizing what the producers of Bob Newhart’s earlier show had realized: If you put a bunch of weird people around Newhart and let him play straight man, it will always be funny. Featuring a small town that got weirder and wilder as the series went on, the show is one of the funniest of the decade—and, sadly, mostly unavailable now, apart from its problematic first season. (The show’s writing staff included David Mirkin, who went onto shepherd some of the strongest seasons of The Simpsons.)
The ’80s also featured the rise of cable channels beginning to program scripted series, and the insurgent, newly formed Fox network coming up with self-consciously edgy shows that would prove it wasn’t like the big three. Fox would briefly show repurposed reruns of a new, critically acclaimed Showtime series in its Sunday night lineup. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show isn’t as good as the titular creator’s follow-up series, The Larry Sanders Show, but it crystallized the attitude cable networks and Fox took to creating television: We’re going to blow up the things that you take for granted on television. Shandling talked to the camera, the theme song referred to itself as the “theme to Garry’s show,” and the jokes were often about the characters being in a sitcom. This aggressive tack led to the most successful of the many series in the ’80s that tackled the sitcom form at its most basic essence. (More on that in a moment.) The ratings for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show wouldn’t have been nearly high enough to work on one of the big three, but for Fox and Showtime, they did nicely, presaging the niche-y television world we live in now. (Of similar interest: HBO’s first venture into scripted comedy, 1984’s 1st And 10, which now feels like it’s trying too hard to incorporate adult content but has some historical value.)
Fox was also responsible for the most direct assault on The Cosby Show yet, a series that punctured holes in the No. 1 show on television with a gleeful mania. Married … With Children was specifically conceived of as a fledgling network’s attempt to subvert a much more popular show in order to gain some media attention. (In fact, the show was the first to ever air on the Fox network.) Boorish and crass, the show was also undeniably funny, taking no prisoners when it came to portraying the horrifically terrible parenting methods of Al and Peg Bundy (Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal). The series never earned much respect from critics, but its ratings grew until it cracked top 30 during the 1991-92 season, and the Bundys became household names. The series remains one of the most popular from the decade and still airs in syndication in most markets to this day.
All of these trends—a need for more family sitcoms, a desire to hear from strong women, a hope for more Lear-like social issues sitcoms, and a blatant reaction to the sweet morals of The Cosby Show—would combine in one of the decade’s best shows, though one that would air most of its best episodes in the ’90s. Roseanne debuted on ABC in the fall of 1988 and was an instant hit, the first significant family sitcom self-starter since Cosby had debuted. The series was also produced by Carsey-Werner, and the two producers understood that the public shrugged off many family sitcoms because they contained nothing approaching a point of view. In the cantankerous, often vituperative Roseanne Barr, a stand-up comedian well known for her stints on The Tonight Show, the producers finally found someone who would create a family sitcom to equal Cosby in the public’s eye, even if it would prove to be Cosby’s nasty mirror image. Though the Connors at the center of Roseanne were loving at the end of the day, money troubles and the stresses of having a few too many mouths to feed meant that love was hard-earned. Boasting fantastic work from Barr, John Goodman, and Sara Gilbert, the series is one of the high-water marks of the blue-collar sitcom.
Advanced Studies: What’s a sitcom anyway?
One of the most interesting, least noticed trends of sitcoms in the ’80s were the attempts by veteran writers of the form to figure out how to break the inviolate sitcom rules that governed what people thought they would see when they flipped on their sets. Most of these shows would die fairly quick deaths, despite critical acclaim, and few are available on DVD (though you can often find whole episodes or clips on YouTube). The decade is so stacked with cult hits that it’s impossible to write about all of them. Instead, let’s look at four, one each from CBS and NBC and two from ABC, only one of which actually became a hit. These were shows that tackled central questions about TV comedy: Did you need audience laughter? Did you need a constant barrage of jokes, or could the comedy come from more subtle human interactions? Could the lead be an asshole? Could the series call attention to itself as a TV series? Did it even need to be a half-hour? (Some of the funniest work on TV was occurring in hour-longs in the ’80s, particularly on the fizzy romantic comedy Moonlighting.) If cult hits of the ’80s intrigue, then viewers should check out Sledge Hammer, The Slap Maxwell Show, The Famous Teddy Z, Hooperman, Open All Night, Square Pegs, and The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd, all of which played—often failing horribly—with the standards of the sitcom form at it existed at the time.
Bosom Buddies, which debuted on ABC in the fall of 1980, has a reputation as one of the worst shows of all time in some circles, but it’s actually a surreal work of near-genius and the only good show to ever emerge from the Miller-Boyett factory. Miller-Boyett assigned a young writer named Chris Thompson to work on a TV spin on Some Like It Hot, and he cast Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari in the lead roles. While both actors now seem mildly embarrassed by the show (perhaps for its “two guys have to wear drag to live in an all-women’s apartment building” premise, which is, admittedly, ridiculous), it contains some very funny work from both. Thompson, who would go on to work on The Larry Sanders Show, filled the series with strange sight gags and mostly abandoned his central premise as soon as he possibly could. The show allowed Hanks and Scolari to improvise freely, often leaving the script for far funnier, stranger tangents. Unfortunately, no one was watching, so the show faded out after two seasons (though it lives on via a somewhat butchered DVD.)
Many of the shows that questioned just what a TV sitcom had to be in the ’80s issued from the pen of Jay Tarses. Tarses was a renowned crank who ran off more than a few underling writers thanks to his angry demeanor and who was never quite as good solo as he had been with writing partner Tom Patchett (who went on to work on ALF, of all things). The partnership dissolved after the two were unable to turn 1983’s Buffalo Bill into a hit. Produced by NBC in the same spate of development that led to Cheers and Family Ties, the series was unapologetic in making its lead character an absolute dick. Played by Dabney Coleman with a gleeful, vigorous, free-floating anger, “Buffalo” Bill Bittinger terrorized his staff and guests on his local talk show in Buffalo, NY. Bill didn’t care who he angered, and Patchett and Tarses were willing to push the show’s content remarkably far for the time, trusting that audiences would follow Bill to the heights of prick-i-tude because Coleman played him so charismatically. They didn’t, but comedy writers, critics, and the Emmys loved the show, and NBC gave it an unexpected second season, though low ratings prevented it from receiving a third. The show’s cult fan base would keep it alive by circulating videotapes until it was finally released mostly intact on DVD (though missing its most famous scene, a dream sequence featuring Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack”). Buffalo Bill lives on in the spate of comedies now featuring unrepentant jerks at their centers.
The final two experimental sitcoms would both air in the 1987-88 season. Both would ditch audience laughter or a laugh track in favor of straightforward comedy that played more like a film. Both would embrace sentimentality and moving moments of sadness that might have felt more at home on a drama like thirtysomething than on a sitcom. Both would be nominated for the Best Comedy Series Emmy, and one would win. Only one would be a hit, and both remain unavailable on DVD, thanks to extensive use of popular music.
The first was CBS’ Frank’s Place, from the versatile pen of WKRP in Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson. Set in a sleepy restaurant in New Orleans, the series boasted a great cast of mostly black faces and some of the signature weirdness Wilson had brought to WKRP (including a voodoo curse that kicks off the whole series). At its most basic level, though, Frank’s Place is a moving show about the power of community and what it means to find the place you belong, even though you thought you belonged somewhere else entirely. The show’s sprawling cast (headlined by Tim Reid), sentimental-but-not-cloying writing, lack of laugh track, and use of original jazz music marked it as substantially different from anything else airing on TV at the time. Critics loved it, and the Emmys responded in kind; audiences couldn’t have been less interested, and the show was canceled after one season. Wilson never quite seemed to recover from the show’s failure.
The series that actually became a hit was ABC’s The Wonder Years, a sweetly sleepy evocation of growing up in suburbia in the late ’60s. Created by Carol Black and Neal Marlens—who had created Growing Pains for the network and, thus, got free rein to do pretty much whatever they wanted—The Wonder Years aimed to evoke nothing less than the hazy intoxication of nostalgia. Pumped through with baby boomer memories and period-appropriate music, the series succeeded more often than not, particularly in its first three seasons. The shortened, six-episode first season won the Emmy for best comedy series, despite not being especially funny in a traditional sense. The use of observational humor and expressing something of intrinsic human value without going overboard (like, say, the first time you realize that your parents are human beings, too) still remains sweetly funny. The show would grow too sentimental quickly, particularly after Black and Marlens (who poured everything they had into the show’s first two seasons) left and were replaced by Bob Brush. But for roughly half its run, The Wonder Years was a genuinely terrific show.
The sense of experimentation was all over the ’80s sitcom landscape, but it wouldn’t reach its full fruition until the next decade. There were signs, though, that all of this was leading somewhere, particularly as two shows aired but one episode each in 1989, suggesting new directions for TV comedy to go. The shows were called Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and were we to continue with the story of ’90s sitcoms, it would naturally have to begin there.
Miscellany: They made awful TV, too
These articles naturally focus on the series that debuted in the decade in question, but several ’70s holdovers were still producing good TV as the decade began. In particular, Taxi, Barney Miller, and WKRP In Cincinnati were having some of their best seasons, while Soap was still cranking out ridiculous takes on the soap opera. M*A*S*H had long since passed its sell-by date, but the series finale was the TV story of the decade, drawing more viewers than any scripted program ever (to this day). Sadly, the output of Norman Lear had mostly been marginalized. The Jeffersons grew more and more pointless, while All In The Family had become Archie Bunker’s Place and much less funny.
If awful, awful television is your thing, the ’80s had a lot of it. The network climate at the time was conducive to awfulness, and the rise of syndication money meant that shows like Small Wonder and Charles In Charge could live on via local networks picking up cheaply made new episodes of the shows. No survey of the decade would be complete without mentioning some of the truly bad shows that became big hits, beyond just the mediocre ones (like, say, Gimme A Break or Diff’rent Strokes). Full House may be the worst show to ever take up residence in the Nielsen top 10. Sure, it was aimed at kids, but it seemed to assume all kids were absolute idiots. Similarly bad were most of the other Miller-Boyett sitcoms produced for ABC, including virtually all of the Friday-night TGIF output. Not as bad but still disappointing given the talent assembled was Head Of The Class, also airing on ABC, while Mr. Belvedere’s awfulness has made it something of a cult sensation. Then there’s Too Close For Comfort, which wasted a pretty good Ted Knight performance on a largely formless show. And if you just want strange shows that offered virtually no redeeming value, the decade is crammed with those as well, including the aforementioned talking orangutan series, Mr. Smith, and the truly atrocious waste of talent One Of The Boys, which featured Mickey Rooney and Scatman Crothers moving in with Rooney’s grandson, Dana Carvey.
The ’80s were so crammed with sitcoms, from good to awful, that it’s virtually impossible to highlight every single one, even in an article as lengthy as this one. But if you just want a better understanding of ’80s sitcoms and only want to watch the best of the best, these five are the way to go.
Not just the best sitcom of the decade but one of the best sitcoms ever produced, Cheers boasts tremendous writing, an enormously gifted cast, and a premise elastic enough to last 11 mostly wonderful seasons.
It took much of a decade to come up with the best response yet to The Cosby Show, but prickly comedienne Roseanne Barr was at the center of this lament from the edges of Reagan and Bush’s America, where blue-collar workers had been forgotten and the pocketbook got ever tighter. Its last three seasons are awful, but the first six are peerless.
The ’80s were the richest decade yet for truly bizarre and surreal sitcoms, and Newhart was the best of them all. What started out as a fairly standard TV show about a sleepy small town got stranger and stranger, until it seemed to be about the last sane man in a world gone apocalyptically off its rocker.
4. Night Court
Though the later seasons of the show got pretty bad, this show was a work of daffy genius for much of its run, taking a bunch of talented comic actors and pushing them to get weirder and weirder, testing just how far the show could be pushed before it broke.
5. Frank’s Place
Sadly unavailable on DVD, the series can mostly be watched on the Internet, if you know where to look. Its blend of film-like rhythms and hard-earned sentimentality sets it apart from much of the decade’s output, and the scripts by creator Hugh Wilson and his writers were at once sprawling and perfectly contained.
Special thanks: As always, I’m grateful to essential TV blogger Jaime Weinman for sharing his thoughts on the decade and to Vince Waldron’s indispensible Classic Sitcoms (all of which is available online at his website). I also drew heavily from The Sweeps by Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth, which follows Tartikoff and Tinker the season before Cosby debuted, as they attempted to decide just what to do about their many critically acclaimed, underperforming sitcoms, like Cheers. It’s one of the best books about the TV industry ever written.