Our Ten Best- Episode 30: TV Comedies of the ’70s

244132odd-couple-postersRemember the ‘70s? Bell bottoms, Black Power, disco? Well, it was a great time for comedies, too. The following are Review Fix’s favorites- the first few seasons are out on DVD at most retailers as well, so check ’em out!

“The Odd Couple”

Together, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman made television magic as Felix Unger, the obsessively clean metro-sexual and Oscar Madison, the messiest, slob of a man who reluctantly allows the former to move in with him. Based on the play of the same name by Neil Simon, it was highly successful, however, the television show made these two characters iconic. The storylines were based on the idiosyncrasies of both men. It dealt with their dating habits, parenting skills and their relationships with the other members of the cast – and what a cast. Penny Marshall played Oscar’s secretary, Myrna Turner, and before there was a “Happy Days” Al Molinaro played Murray, the cop. The casting is no surprise considering that Garry Marshall was executive producer of the series. He had a way of bringing out highly comedic moments where you wouldn’t think there was anything to laugh about. On a side note, Klugman’s ex-wife (Brett Somers) on the series was played in real life by the wife who he was unofficially separated from until her death in 2007. The theme song is equally iconic as the series and was featured on “Friends” and is a popular ringtone. For a show that suffered from poor ratings, its five-seasoned run garnered Klugman two Emmys and a Golden Globe, as well as an Emmy for Randall (the same year the series was cancelled). Thanks to syndication, we can enjoy the lives of these two men.

“All in the Family”

The comedy that launched a plethora of spin-offs was groundbreaking in its own right. Here we have equal opportunity bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) faced with the changing landscape of the ‘70s. With comedy and dramatic episodes “All in the Family” (based on the British comedy “Till Death Us Do Part”) faced the war in Vietnam, feminism, racism and his wife Edith (Broadway and television star Jean Stapleton). What made this series a mainstay on CBS for eight years was that it was smartly written. No one ever had to reach for a laugh. And when Archie called his son-in-law (Rob Reiner) a meathead, you agreed with him. Even when you didn’t like what he had to say, you respected him for voicing it out loud. Although it limped out in the last two seasons, it is still remembered as one of the iconic shows in television history.

“The Jeffersons”

During its eleven-year run, “The Jeffersons” was never out of the Top 30. The show that spun off from “All in the Family” dealt with reverse racism and interracial marriage in an intelligent, comedic way. As George Jefferson, Sherman Helmsley’s antics brought guffaws from audiences every Sunday night. His favorite targets were interracial married couple Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover, Roxie Roker). One of the funniest episodes consisted of Tom and Helen taking George to small claims court because his dry cleaners couldn’t take a chocolate stain out of Tom’s pants. How he knew it was chocolate is one of the most hilarious threads in the episode. Incidentally, Ja’net Dubois (Willona Woods “Good Times”) co-wrote and sang the theme song.


“And then there’s Maude.” Yes, people, before Bea Arthur was a Golden Girl, she was Edith Bunker’s outspoken cousin, Maude. In another spin-off from “All in the Family” and creation of Norman Lear’s, this was a groundbreaking show that took on the politics of the day head on. Maude fought for gender and racial equality and when she became pregnant late in life, abortion. It was truly a revolutionary show as it dealt with these issues in a way that did not pander to the audience, stood up to its principles and made no apologies for it.

“Good Times”

A family living in the projects; you may ask yourself: how could this possibly be funny? Well, it was one of the best series on television that introduced us to a cast of colorful characters; and who could forget J.J.’s (Jimmie Walker) famous catchphrase, “Dy-no-mite?” As a spinoff of “Maude” and produced by Norman Lear, the first few seasons were of an African-American family with a strong black male figure in the household. “Good Times” (co-created by Mike Evans who played Lionel on “The Jeffersons”) dealt with teen suicide, alcoholism, poverty drugs and crime, all with uproarious humor and dry wit. However, people had issues with J.J., (including his television mother) as he was seen as more buffoon than part of a family unit. Still, the show was a well-rounded ensemble with two loving parents, until Lear began working on “One Day at a Time.”As a result, the show lost its father figure (John Amos) and soon after, Esther Rolle, as the matriarch of the household, had a decreased role in her children’s lives. The one bright spot in the last two seasons was a young Janet Jackson, who played abused child, Penny. The scene where her mother is about to burn her with an iron still sends chills up one’s spine. This series finally jumped the shark when J.J. dreamed he was white. Still, before the Huxtables, there was the Evans family.

“One Day at a Time”

Before the revelations of her past came to light, Mackenzie Phillips was part of a groundbreaking show that faced teen pregnancy, divorce and the feminist movement. Ann Romano (Bonnie Franklin) played straight-man to her daughters Julie (Phillips) and Barbara (Valerie Bertinelli). Rounding out the cast was nosy super Schneider (Pat Harrington), who used his pass-key at every opportunity. “One Day at a Time” was never preachy and every episode had a healthy dose of comedy thrown in to temper the dramatic moments, making it a Top 20 show until its last season. Early on in its run, in a three part arc, Julie runs away with her boyfriend, Chuck, giving her mother an ultimatum between accepting their relationship and losing her daughter. Romano does one of the most surprising things in history and tells her eldest daughter not to come back. It sent a gasp through audiences as it was one of the highest rated episodes in the show’s history and when in syndication, has been a fan favorite.

“Sanford and Son”

The sharp-tongued, junk man who was always getting into get-rich-quick schemes was created by ‘70s master creator Norman Lear. Starring Redd Foxx as Sanford and Demond Wilson as his son Lamont, “Sanford and Son” (based on the British series “Steptoe and Son”), became one of the most iconic series in television history. Surrounded by a cast of characters to play off of, Foxx did his best work and the series is remembered for several of his catchphrases and the way he sparred with his dead wife’s sister, Esther (Lawanda Page). It made for must-see TV. What’s more, Fred Sanford owned his own business, one of the few men of color to do so on television. The show became as famous for its theme song, which was composed by none other than Quincy Jones.

“What’s Happening!!”

Because of the demands of the three main characters of the series, “What’s Happening!!” only lasted three seasons. However, they had some of the funniest moments on television. The premise was as a working-class, single parent household headed by Mama Thomas (Mabel King) raising teenage son Roger (Ernest Thomas) and smart-aleck, quick-witted young daughter Dee (Danielle Spencer). Rounding out the cast were Roger’s friends Rerun (Fred Berry), Dwayne (Haywood Nelson) and waitress Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), who insulted and intimidated the teens who hung out at Rob’s Place. The show had many funny moments that centered on the high jinks of the friends with Dee throwing in dry wit and constantly showing how she was smarter than big brother Raj and his friends. Additionally, there were several guest musical acts, such as the Doobie Brothers and a myriad of celebrities, as in one of the episodes Rerun appears on the “Gong Show.” Sadly, Berry’s demand for the first incarnation of this show was the catalyst that forced the producers to cancel it. Several years later in syndication, the show came back as “What’s Happening Now!!” with the teens all grown up and living out their dreams. It wasn’t half as funny and never recaptured the spirit of this show.

“Three’s Company”

Arguably the first show about nothing, “Three’s Company” was not based around a place of business. Instead, the focus was on cooking student Jack Tripper (John Ritter) pretending to be a homosexual in order to live with two women, Chrissy Snow (Suzanne Somers) and Janet Wood (Joyce Dewitt). Added to the mix were nosy landlords Mr. and Mrs. Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Lindely), then when the Ropers were spun off into their own series, “Mr. Furley.” For years, the show centered on hiding the truth about Jack from the landlords, as well as several misunderstandings. Someone was always overhearing part of the truth and creatively filling in the blanks. One episode in particular had Mr. Roper listening through the pipe he was supposed to fix in the kids’ apartment. Once he heard Chrissy saying she wanted to get rid of it, he naturally jumped to the wrong conclusion. It made for several funny moments on the show. Sadly, it ended with a finale that instead of having Jack do what the fans wanted and marry Janet, he winds up shacking up with a woman the audience knows nothing about into an unsuccessful spinoff; centering around Jack and his new relationship. Still there are enough moments that made this show one of the favorites of the late Lucille Ball.

“The Carol Burnett Show”

One of the best sketch shows ever, for 11 seasons, “The Carol Burnett Show” changed the way we saw television. Weekly, Burnett, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Lyle Waggoner (yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s Colonel Steve Rogers from “Wonder Woman”) gave audiences iconic characters that can only be associated with these stars. No one can forget the parody of “Gone With the Wind” when Burnett as Scarlett O’Hara with the curtain rod between her shoulder blades, lumbers into the scene telling Korman as Rhett Butler “I just saw it in the window and I had to have it.” It’s no wonder that this cast had a difficult time keeping a straight face. Nearly everyone got their start on that show and the musical acts of the day would pass through and reveal their acting chops, as well. Even designer Bob Mackie did some of his best work creating costumes for the infamous skits. We will always remember Eunice and the issues she had with Mama (which was later spun off into the syndicated series “Mama’s Family”). And where would we be without Burnett’s signature ear pull and cleaning woman? This was truly a series that could be shown today and still be relevant without having to change a thing.

About Donna-Lyn Washington 611 Articles
Donna-lyn Washington has a M.A. in English from Brooklyn College. She is currently teaching at Kingsborough Community College where her love of comics and pop culture play key parts in helping her students move forward in their academic careers. As a senior writer for ReviewFix she has been able to explore a variety of worlds through comics, film and television and has met some interesting writers and artists along the way. Donna-lyn does a weekly podcast reviewing indie comics and has also contributed entries to the 'Encyclopedia of Black Comics,’ the academic anthology ‘Critical Insights: Frank Yerby’ and is the editor for the upcoming book, ‘Conversations With: John Jennings.’

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