What’s the opposite of a Golden Age? Tin? Aluminum? Plastic?
Whatever it is, we are definitely NOT in a golden age of network TV comedy.
NBC has just two lame programs, the revived Night Court and something called Lopez vs. Lopez. ABC has Abbott Elementary, which despite critical acclaim, is at best feel-good pablum. The best CBS has to offer is Ghosts, a passable but inferior American version of a Britcom (check out the original on CBC Gem). If it were not for Fox’s ‘animation domination’ (The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, etc.) there would be zero comedy on that reality-centric network.
Amazingly, CBC’s Son of a Critch is superior to any sitcom on U.S. network TV right now. Peacock’s revival of Frasier is painful, with a braying laugh track borrowed from The Big Bang Theory. The last excellent network sitcom was the underrated Superstore on NBC (available on Netflix; if you haven’t seen it, check it out).
There is clearly a desire for quality sitcoms. The most streamed program on all of Netflix is The Office; in 2020, 57 billion minutes of The Office was watched on Netflix in the U.S.
Since the networks have seemingly lost the ability to produce a great sitcom, I have a suggestion: bring back the classics. And no, not revivals (see Frasier, Night Court, or better yet, don’t). Bring back the originals, which for reasons unknown, are near impossible to find (or so I thought; more on that later). Three examples …
Mary Tyler Moore (1970-77) is indisputably one of the all-time great sitcoms. A groundbreaking series at the time – Mary was a single working gal and stayed that way – MTM boasted a sparkling cast of characters. Ed Asner was Mary’s TV newsroom boss Lou Grant. (“You’ve got spunk … I HATE spunk.”) Betty White was the lascivious host of The Happy Homemaker. Gavin McLeod was the sarcastic news writer Murray Slaughter, whose favourite target was the pompous, dimwitted anchor Ted Baxter, played to perfection by Ted Knight. A brilliant cast (sadly, all gone today) combined with crackling writing made Mary Tyler Moore a classic. And yet, where is it today?
Right after Mary – on Saturday night, if you can believe it – was the equally great The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78). Newhart played psychologist Bob Hartley, which gave him the opportunity to do what he does best; playing the straight man to his wacky friends, neighbours and especially his patients (my fav was Mr. Carlson, played to deadpan perfection by Jack Riley). Key to the success of the Newhart show was the lack of children. Newhart insisted that Bob and wife Emily (sexy, deep voiced Suzanne Pleshette) remain childless during the show’s run. Newhart didn’t want any cute dialogue for child characters, which, like MTM, made it groundbreaking for family-focused 1970s TV. Still with Newhart, where is Newhart (1982-90), Bob’s followup show set at an inn in Vermont? Not quite in the same league as his first show, but it still gave us Larry, Darryl and Darryl and the single greatest series closing scene in TV history.
WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82) is another near-impossible to find gem. Set in a radio station that switched from sleepy music to rock, it too boasted a stellar cast of characters. DJs Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hessman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid), news director Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), uber-salesman Herb Tarleck (Frank Bonner), befuddled station owner Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), and the reigning sex symbol of the era, Jennifer Marlow (Loni Anderson). The show has disappeared from syndication apparently because the music rights to the popular tunes played during the show are now too costly to renew, which is a shame. We may never get the chance to hear Mr. Carlson’s immortal line, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
I don’t believe I’m alone in believing all of these shows would find audiences today. Maybe CTV could sacrifice just one half hour of the 90 minutes of The Big Bang Theory they show every day for just one Mary or Bob.
In my research, such as it is, for this column, I found that all three of the above shows are available in Canada. They can be found, oddly enough, on Apple TV+, which shows only original Apple programming. But a search of the Apple TV+ site found all three of the above shows … but you have to pay for them. For example, one episode of Mary Tyler Moore costs $1.99, a whole season will cost you $14.99. Baffling. But, I guess a struggling little company like Apple (market cap $2.63 trillion) has to make a buck somewhere, so Mary and Bob and WKRP are trapped behind a paywall.
Until Apple frees the three, I guess you can enjoy the new Frasier … although I can’t see how that’s possible.
Despite being so wrong about the new Frasier (see sponsors ad banner down the side of this column), Maurice Tougas knows his comedy gold from the ’70s. Look for the Alberta-based journalist to unearth more “hidden TV gems” here at brioux.tv.