Thursday, February 16, 2017

Top TV Moments: Veronica Cartwright


I’d like to open this piece with respect and admiration for both of the Cartwright sisters, two child stars that survived that gauntlet with a successful and graceful transition into adulthood, personally and professionally. 



Of the pair, Angela Cartwright arguably had the more successful career, as a Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and with roles in two classic series – Make Room for Daddy and Lost in Space.

But to me Veronica was the more intriguing sibling. She brought a formidable intensity to any character she played, but she also had a chameleon-like quality that made each one unique. I can always spot Angela immediately, whether she’s sitting in a classroom on Room 222 or sailing on The Love Boat. But I’ve watched shows over the years and didn’t know Veronica was in them until I saw her name in the credits. That is a testament to her ability to sink so deeply into a role that one sees only the character and not the actress.

With this guide to some of her memorable TV appearances, hopefully you’ll be able to notice her faster than I did.

Leave it to Beaver (1960)
In “Beaver and Violet,” Veronica Cartwright made her second of three series appearances as Beaver’s pig-tailed classmate Violet Rutherford. She kisses Beaver on the cheek at the urging of her father, who takes a picture of the moment that winds up on the cover of Ward’s company newsletter.  This was not a happy moment for young Theodore. Cartwright reprised Violet 25 years later in The New Leave it to Beaver – which, let’s face it, wasn’t a very good revival, but it was still fun to see her again. 



Make Room for Daddy (1961)
Nepotism alert: Veronica got a couple of guest spots on her sister’s series. In “Teacher For a Day” she plays…a girl named Veronica. Roles that required a bigger stretch were still to come.

The Twilight Zone (1962)
“I Sing the Body Electric” is best remembered as the only TZ episode written by Ray Bradbury, but it also features the first Veronica Cartwright performance in her child-star phase that requires some deep-down acting. She plays Anne Rogers, one of three siblings mourning the loss of their mother, and the only one reluctant to accept a robot grandmother as a substitute caregiver. It’s a strange, understated episode, one without the sting ending for which the series was famous. 



Daniel Boone (1964)
Cartwright’s longest-running TV role was Jemima Boone, daughter of the famed frontiersman played by Fess Parker. She appeared in more than 30 episodes during the first two seasons, and then disappeared without anyone knowing if she got married and left town or was killed by a grizzly bear. Apparently there were no hard feelings, as Cartwright appears in the series’ DVD sets happily reminiscing about her time on the show. 



Family Affair (1969)
Prim and proper Cissy is lured into the East Village pad of some filthy
hippies in “Flower Power.” Will Uncle Bill’s eldest soon become a burden on society? I love culture clash episodes from this era, even though their sympathies are always with the clean-shaven. Spouting lines like “We can just be…here we just are,” Veronica Cartwright plays Jo-Ann, one of the flower children whom Cissy finds fascinating, until little Buffy opens her eyes to the pitfalls of a life with no responsibilities. 



Dragnet (1969)
How’s this for versatility: in the same year she played a flighty flower child on Family Affair, Cartwright appears in “Personnel: The Shooting” as the conservative young wife of a police officer shot in the line of duty. In powerful scenes with Friday and Gannon she unleashes a torrent of bitterness toward the police department she never wanted her husband to join. 



The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1970)
Sometimes you meet a character that appears in only one episode of a series, and you find that character so captivating you want to see where life takes them next. Such is Mary Gaffney, coffee shop waitress in a dead-end Colorado town, featured in an episode of this underrated series entitled “Point of Honor.” It’s my favorite Veronica Cartwright performance and one of her least seen, though the series is available on DVD and highly recommended. 

Tanner ’88 (1988)
This 1988 miniseries about a Democrat presidential campaign arrived with quite the pedigree: Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau wrote it and Robert Altman directed. I thought it was boring, to be honest, even with Cartwright’s typically forceful performance as a reporter covering the story of Tanner’s extra-marital affair. The series has historical significance, as an early example of the “mockumentary” genre and for the appearances of some real Washington politicians and insiders. But everyone here seems to work so hard to achieve what The West Wing did without breaking a sweat.

L.A. Law (1989)
Cartwright appears as one of several recurring attorneys to go up against those from the titular law firm where the series is set. She has one of her best moments as no-nonsense D.A. Margaret Flanagan in “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” when she wipes the floor with Michael Kuzak (Harry Hamlin) after he makes the mistake of putting his client on the witness stand. 



And even though it’s out of the time period I associate with Comfort TV, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Cartwright’s standout work as alien abductee Cassandra Spender on The X-Files.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Remembering when Nick at Nite Was Still TV Done Right


My affection for television from the Comfort TV era dates back to my earliest childhood memories. But that interest did not fully evolve into a passion until Nick at Nite.

Not the current version, of course, if one still exists. I’m talking about the Nick at Nite of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when its slogan was “Dedicated to preserving and protecting America’s precious television heritage.” That Nick at Nite is now about 25 years old. It’s a strange feeling, to be nostalgic about a cable channel that trafficked in nostalgia itself. 




I still recall the lineup of shows when I became a convert: Get Smart at 8, The Adventures of Superman at 8:30, The Lucy Show at 9, The Dick Van Dyke Show at 9:30, two episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show at 10 and 10:30, Alfred Hitchcock Presents at 11, Dragnet at 11:30, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis at midnight, The Patty Duke Show at 12:30, The Donna Reed Show at 1am. I think F Troop came on after that but by then I was ready to turn in.

Some of these classics were old friends at the time, and some were new to me but quickly became favorites. 

As I look back what I remember most is how it felt to see these shows not just broadcast, but celebrated. 



That’s what Nick did. It said that great television shows from the past are important. They deserve to air in prime time, not on Sunday morning at 6am as we were used to seeing them on UHF channels in the pre-cable era. They deserved to have their runs aired in order, with each episode introduced by title, original airdate, and with a note made of any special guest stars or memorable moments. They deserve to have the closing credits play full-screen, not squeezed into a corner to make room for a promo for the show coming next.  

We take watching these shows via streaming service or on DVD for granted now, but this was a time when you still had to watch TV shows on television. That’s one reason why Nick at Nite became such a haven for classic TV fans. All the shows we loved were here, and we could tune in at 8 and never change the channel through the wee hours of the morning. It was always there when we wanted it, all night, every night.

My Nick at Nite years were also the first time I realized how many other people loved the classics as much as I did.



Tuning in felt like being part of a club that met every night to share happy memories. We got the jokes featured in the network’s quirky promotions, such as interviewing "the back of Patty Duke’s head," that others wouldn’t get (or wouldn’t care about). 

Even the commercial breaks were entertaining.  One of the Nick’s most charming inventions was its array of musical bumpers, some animated, some live action, that had qualities both retro and absurdist. Adding to the fun were the satiric PSAs entitled “How to Be Swell,” the Adventures of Milkman, the Block Party Summer marathons (presented in VertiVision!) and the appearances of Dick Van Dyke, who proudly served as Nick at Nite’s Chairman. 



Sadly, like many wonderful things in this life it was a lovely moment in time that didn’t last.

Gradually the shows of the 1950s-1970s gave way to the shows of the 1980s and 1990s. When that happened, even though new arrivals like Taxi and All in the Family could rightly be called classics as well, the innocence was gone. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, Nick at NIte was no longer a network that, as I described in one of my books, specialized in “the kind of shows that went well with warm blankets, pajamas, and graham crackers on a TV tray.” 



More than 30 years after the debut of Nick at Nite, the success of MeTV and Decades proves there is still an audience that cherishes Comfort TV, and gladly shuns the ever-passing pop culture flavors of the week to live proudly in the past. It also suggests that these series are attracting new viewers as well, which brings me some hope that the shows I love will not one day be relegated to the dustbin of history.  

Today I own every episode of every show I used to watch on Nick at Nite, and it’s wonderful to be able to see them whenever I wish. But as I wrote in one of my first Comfort TV blogs, that certainly makes TV viewing more convenient, but it also makes it less significant. If you can do something any time you want, there’s nothing special about doing it. 

With Nick at Nite, every night was special. 



Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mary


In television there is only one Mary, like there will always be only one Lucy. And when these icons leave us, our sadness is lightened somewhat by the remarkable legacies they leave behind. 



With Mary Tyler Moore, that legacy is primarily comprised of 158 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and 168 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Together these shows feature some of the finest situation comedy ensemble work the medium has ever seen or ever will see.

On The Dick Van Dyke Show she was the last one cast and the least experienced participant in a show that was both a classic family sitcom and a classic workplace sitcom. 



It’s a series that is now more than 50 years old but hasn’t aged at all. Replace Sally’s typewriter with a computer and the scenes in the Alan Brady Show writer’s room could take place today. Smart and sophisticated, but never too sophisticated for a master class in baggy-pants slapstick, the series remains one of the standards by which excellence in situation comedy should be measured.

It didn’t take long for Mary to find her place among such brilliant comedy veterans as Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam and series creator Carl Reiner. Seemingly overnight she emerged as a gifted comedic actress in episodes such as “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” “The Curious Thing About Women,” “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan” and “Pink Pills and Purple Parents” among many others.



I think of her most from this series in the Petries’ New Rochelle home, garbed in capri pants that generated controversy back in the day, both for the break in tradition of women wearing dresses on television, and for their form-fitting quality that gave male viewers one more reason to watch. 



Rob and Laura at home gave us a glimpse into an idealized suburban lifestyle to which many of us still aspire. Who wouldn’t love to attend one of those delightful parties at 148 Bonnie Meadow Rd., where witty conversation is exchanged, and guests and hosts perform polished song-and-dance numbers in the living room? 



It was a tough act to follow, but when Mary returned to television, this time as a headliner, the series would equal its predecessor in quality and genre impact. Mary Richards was not the same as Laura Petrie – though memories of Laura prevented the new series from creating the character as a divorcee.

She was a single woman out on her own, entering the workforce at a time when that was still evolving from a novelty into a familiar lifestyle. Mary Richards became a feminist icon and that’s great – but it wouldn’t have mattered if the show weren’t funny as well. And it was. 



Mary Tyler Moore carried two valuable lessons from her first classic series into her second – building memorable home and workplace settings that could each inspire good stories, and the importance of being surrounded by a cast of characters that brought their own m├ętier to the mix.

If you go back to the series now, as I’m sure so many of you will, you’ll see that while Mary gets top billing, most of the laughs are generated by those around her: Rhoda’s sass and Ted’s bumbling news broadcasts; Murray’s insults and Phyllis’s self-centeredness; Lou Grant’s bulldog bark and Sue Ann’s lascivious come-ons. 



Mary was the center around which these iconic characters circled, reacting with bemusement or disbelief or appreciation at their antics. But when she was called on to deliver a big comic moment, as in the series of mishaps leading up to her Teddy Award in “Put on a Happy Face” or the unforgettable funeral scene in “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” she always delivered. 



With any television show we can look back on famous moments and classic episodes. But with The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, what is more appropriately recalled is their remarkable consistency. Out of more than 300 combined episodes, you can count the ones that didn’t work on one hand.

There is so much more to remember with Mary – the other shows she headlined, her Oscar-nominated performance in Ordinary People, her early uncredited work on Richard Diamond, Private Eye and in memorable guest spots on Bachelor Father and Wanted: Dead or Alive, her Emmy Awards and the many other classic shows that carried the MTM Enterprises logo.

But for now we’ll celebrate her through her best work, and head back to our DVDs for one more “Oh, Rob,” and one more visit to the WJM newsroom. If you’re like me, one won’t be enough. How lucky we are to have so many shows to experience and enjoy whenever we wish.  


Monday, January 16, 2017

From Black and White to Color: Which Shows Changed Most?


Much has been written here and elsewhere about the cultural transformation of television in the 1960s. One change that receives less attention is the transition during the decade from broadcasting in black and white to color.

It was certainly a big deal at the time, as evidenced by those prominent “In Color” bumpers preceding many shows that started that way or made the switch.  



Today it is viewed as a natural progression, like the more recent evolution from standard definition to a high definition display. However, I’m not sure the change can be dismissed as merely cosmetic. Not in every case, anyway. Several shows, including many classics, debuted in black and white and finished in color. Watching them now it’s a way to instantly date each episode within the run, but with some series it also affects the viewing experience – sometimes subtly, sometimes less so.

Lost in Space (1965-1968)
Lost in Space is one of two series where the change to color coincided with a change in dramatic tone. 

The series’ first season, aired in black-and-white, featured relatively straightforward science fiction stories. 



But a lighter, more camp approach was adopted in subsequent seasons, and since the stories were literally more colorful it seemed fitting they were broadcast that way as well. Color made the Day-Glo planets visited by the Robinsons more visually appealing – but black and white was advantageous for masking the show’s budget limitations for sets, props and special effects. 



I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970)
The pink harem outfit worn by Barbara Eden is indisputably among the most iconic costumes in television, and black and white could never do it justice. 



But that’s all viewers saw in the show’s first season, when the outfit also sported additional accessories to conceal Eden’s pregnancy – a situation particularly troublesome to the network since Jeannie and her master were cohabitating outside of marriage. Season two debuted in color, which helped to cement its main character in popular culture. 



It also prompted a change from the season one black-and-gold Jeannie bottle to one in bright metallic purple. And it made it easier to tell Jeannie apart from her lookalike sister. 

The Fugitive (1963-1967)
For its first three seasons, The Fugitive aired in black and white, and that seemed fitting for a somber series with a grim protagonist running for his life through a hostile world. 



Many of its best episodes like “Search in a Windy City” and “Brass Ring” had a film noir quality fostered by the light and shadow of black and white cinematography. When the series switched to color for its fourth and final season, Dr. Kimble’s life didn’t get any better, yet it still appeared a little less dark and dangerous.

The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)
It’s remembered now as a wholesome, sincere but slightly silly children’s series – unless you’ve seen the first 26 episodes, which were rarely syndicated for decades and not just because they were in black and white. More than dozen people are gunned down in “Czar of the Underworld.” In “The Evil Three,” a wheelchair-bound woman is pushed down a flight of stairs. But as with Lost in Space the switch to color, along with a new kid-friendly sponsor in Kellogg’s Cereal, coincided with a switch to gentler adventures. And since superheroes have always been in color since the earliest days of comic books, it was a fitting addition.  



What’s My Line? (1950-1967)
In its original prime-time network incarnation, What’s My Line brimmed with sophistication, a trait not commonly associated with game shows. With its distinguished panel of journalists, publishers, critics and Broadway stars, each episode played like a New York society get-together, hosted by the urbane John Charles Daly. 



That these shows aired in black and white seems appropriate, as their civility and manners belong to a bygone era. When the series switched to syndication and to color, that quality was lost. It also didn’t help that Bennett Cerf was replaced by Soupy Sales. 



Dark Shadows (1966-1971)
Black and white was ideal for the gothic horror served by Dark Shadows after the introduction of Barnabas Collins. 



The famous moment when a kidnapped Maggie Evans, dressed in Josette’s wedding gown, slowly descends the Old House staircase, would not be as effective in color. However, there were some advantages once the switch was made, such as the showcase of period costumes in the 1795 and 1897 flashback story arcs – and Angelique’s hypnotic blue eyes. 



Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971)
Only the first episode of Hogan’s Heroes was filmed in black and white. Having just viewed it again I believe the series’ fate would have been very different had the show’s creators not opted for color (a decision made to increase syndication value). When “Germany, 1942” appears on screen at the start of the episode, followed by stock shots of a prisoner of war camp with barbed-wire fences and guard towers, I was stunned by how much it resembled the newsreel footage of the real places. 



Even when the comedy begins, it’s hard to shake that initial sense of foreboding. The series’ setting generated controversy back in its day – had the show remained in black and white, I wonder if it would have survived its first season. 



Friday, January 6, 2017

Top TV Moments: Bernard Fox


The 2016 passing of Bernard Fox was not among the year’s high-profile casualties, but for classic TV fans it was another reminder of an era in television that will one day exist only in memory. 



Most of the characters Fox played fell into one of two categories: distinguished British gentlemen and parodies of distinguished British gentlemen. His aristocratic look, military posture and robust voice found its way into nearly every province of TV Land, from the remote western fort in F Troop to the mysterious tropical splendor of Fantasy Island.

Along the way he created two characters that remain beloved by those who treasure comfort TV, while also elevating guest spots that called for an accent more than an actor. Here are some of Mr. Fox’s most memorable TV moments. Please share any I’ve missed in the comments.

Make Room for Daddy
“Danny’s English Friend” (1962)
Bernard Fox played a seemingly never-ending series of butlers, waiters and valets – some more qualified than others, some more sarcastic. His first memorable role on American television is here as Alfie Wingate, a waiter in Danny’s nightclub. He made four appearances on Make Room for Daddy, including in one of the show’s most enjoyable Christmas episodes.

The Dick Van Dyke Show
“Never Bathe on Saturday” (1965)
Fox played three different characters in three different episodes of this series. He had a bigger part as Laura’s amorous writing teacher in “Teacher’s Petrie,” but “Never Bathe on Saturday” is one of the show’s classics. Fox plays the house detective at the hotel where Laura gets her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. 



The Andy Griffith Show
“Malcolm at the Crossroads” (1965)
Malcolm Merriweather, the innocent abroad from England who takes a liking to Mayberry, offered Fox a chance to play a less blustery role (and to shave off his mustache). There is a soft-spoken sweetness to the character that is worlds away from his more familiar screen personae. “Malcolm at the Crossroads” was the last of his three series appearances, one that builds to a fight between meek Malcolm and Ernest T. Bass. 



The Flintstones
“No Biz Like Show Biz” (1965)
Even the most casual Flintstones fans will recall this episode, in which Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm become overnight singing sensations with their hit single “Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In.” Fox voices their manager Eppy Brianstone, an awkward Bedrock variation of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. The song is still catchy.

Hogan’s Heroes
“The Crittendon Plan” (1967)
Next to Dr. Bombay, Fox’s most recognized recurring character was Col. Crittendon, the bumbling British officer that inadvertently upsets Hogan’s best-laid plans. This is my favorite of his eight Hogan’s Heroes appearances, because of the contrast between the challenge of Hogan’s mission and the cluelessness of Crittendon’s contributions. 



The Monkees
“Monkees Mind Their Manor” (1968)
Peter Tork directed this episode, which is typical of many second season shows in which The Monkees seem to be barely paying attention to the script. The plot is some nonsense about Davy inheriting a British manor, with Bernard Fox (as Sir Twiggly Toppin Middlebottom) standing in his way. The medieval fair scenes give Fox a chance to sing “Greensleeves” (badly) and engage in the silliest fencing duel in TV history. 



Bewitched
“Okay, Who’s the Wise Witch?” (1970)
If all the other shows on this list never happened, Bernard Fox would still own a place of distinction among classic TV fans for his creation of Dr. Bombay.



As a general rule with Bewitched, the earlier in the run, the better the episode. But after the series lost some of its magic when Dick York was replaced by Dick Sargent, there was more reliance on the show’s deep bench of recurring characters, which means frequent house calls from Bombay in the final three seasons. I’ve selected this episode because of its unique plot – Samantha’s non-use of her powers causes a vapor lock that traps everyone who enters the Stephens’ home inside.  

Tabitha
“Tabitha’s Weighty Problem” (1978)
This was the first series profiled in my “Terrible Shows I Like” series back in 2013. Four years later I still think the show is pretty bad and I still kind of like it anyway – and one of the reasons is Bernard Fox’s reprisal of his most famous role. The best scene in “Tabitha’s Weighty Problem” begins as soon as Dr. Bombay pops in for a house call.  



MASH
“Tea and Empathy” (1978)
We’ve seen Fox play clueless military men before; but the laughs aren’t as broad in “Tea and Empathy,” which seems at first to explore the real-world, life and death consequences of incompetent leadership. But all is not as it appears. 



The Dukes of Hazzard
“Southern Comfurts” (1980)
It’s not one of the better Dukes episodes, but Bernard Fox in the General Lee? Sold.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1980s


Whenever I do these decade-by-decade surveys (essential shows, best theme songs, etc.) I always stop at the 1980s, as that is when the Comfort TV era ends. The ascension of cable and VCRs changed both what we watched and how we watched it, while also shattering the limits on acceptable content.

Television would continue to create classic sitcoms in the 1990s, from Wings to Friends, but this will be the last stop on our tour. Fortunately, with these ten shows we’ll be able to exit laughing.

MASH
“April Fools” (1980)
Generating laughs wasn’t always a top priority at the 4077th, especially in the series’ later seasons. But when the show’s gifted ensemble was allowed to cut loose the results were as funny as anything on television. In “April Fools” the camp becomes obsessed with practical jokes prior to a visit from a no-nonsense colonel. 



Three’s Company
“Up in the Air” (1982)
Those who dismiss Three’s Company as a lowbrow sex comedy…are not altogether wrong. But John Ritter was a truly gifted comedic actor who elevated many of its best episodes. “Up in the Air” offers a splendid showcase for his talents. 



Police Squad!
“Revenge and Remorse” (1982)
I’ve argued before that the joke-a-minute formula of writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker was probably not built for the long haul in television. That’s why I’m not as disappointed as most that there were only six episodes of Police Squad – they came, they made us laugh, and they left before the format grew stale. “Revenge and Remorse” features hilarious courtroom gags, William Shatner and Dr. Joyce Brothers. 



Taxi
“Elegant Iggy” (1982)
“Did I have a good time tonight?”
One of the series’ best-remembered shows has Elaine dreading the prospect of attending a society function with the ever-addled Reverend Jim. The party scene is by turns funny, surprising and heartwarming. 



The Cosby Show
“Happy Anniversary” (1985)
As with many of the episodes on these lists, “Happy Anniversary” provides many memorable moments that lead up to one perfect, classic scene (surely you recall the Huxtables lip-synching Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time”?). 



Cheers
“Pick a Con…Any Con” (1983)
Nothing against Woody Harrelson, but for me Cheers was at its best in the first two seasons, with the original cast and the tempestuous romance between Sam and Diane. I selected this episode out of many early classics for its guest appearance from Harry Anderson, as a con man hired to take down a fellow grifter who swindled Coach. 



Designing Women
“Big Haas and Little Falsie” (1988)
Like MASH, Designing Women often had more on its mind than comedy. But we’re just looking for laughs now and this is one of the funniest shows from the show’s glory years. In “Big Haas and Little Falsie,” Mary Jo considers getting breast implants, and takes out a loaner pair before making a decision. 



Married…with Children
“976-SHOE” (1989)
This was one of the shows that led us out of the Comfort TV era of television, with its happy, well-adjusted families and admiration for kindness and civility. But funny is funny, and watching Al Bundy’s get-rich-quick schemes crash and burn was almost as amusing as it was with Ralph Kramden 40 years earlier. My favorite episode of the series will always be “Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me,” but “976-SHOE” may be the funniest show in the run. 



The Golden Girls
“A Little Romance” (1985)
“Shrimp?”
I can’t help it – I love politically incorrect humor. This is supposedly Betty White’s favorite Golden Girls episode and its easy to see why – Rose is dating a short person that she hides from her friends, because she doesn’t know how they will react. When he meets the rest of the girls get ready to laugh. 




Seinfeld
“Good News, Bad News” (1989)
“The only difference between a date and a job interview is that not many job interviews is there a chance you'll end up naked at the end of it.”
The pilot was the only Seinfeld episode to air in the 1980s. It’s not yet the series it would become – there’s no Elaine, Kramer is “Kessler,” and Jason Alexander’s George is more a riff on Woody Allen than the misanthrope he’d become. But in moments like the laundromat scene and the first conversation between Jerry and George, it’s clear there’s something inventive going on. “Good News, Bad News” is not here merely as a harbinger for “The Contest” and “The Marine Biologist” – it makes the list on its own merits. 



Monday, December 19, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1970s


The 1970s are still my favorite Comfort TV comfort zone, not because the shows were inherently better but because they were the ones that I watched through my formative years.

It was an era that introduced some of television’s best situation comedies, including several that pushed the envelope on what could be said, shown or implied in prime time. Here are my picks for the decade’s ten funniest episodes.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975)
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”
I’ve never read the script David Lloyd wrote for this episode, but for the funeral scene I can’t imagine it gave Mary Tyler Moore any more to work with than “Mary tries to suppress her laughter.” And look at the magic she created from such a simple directive. That scene is justifiably famous but the whole episode is brilliant, from Lou and Murray swapping tasteless jokes about Chuckles’ demise to Ted’s on-air obituary: “I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”



All in the Family
“Sammy’s Visit” (1972)
When high profile stars visit a situation comedy, they tend to pull so much focus that the episode becomes more about them than the show’s regular characters. One of the great achievements of “Sammy’s Visit” is how it brings Sammy Davis. Jr. and the working class Bunkers together in a believable way, and then finds the right balance to distribute the content and the laughs equally. Kirk and Uhura may have shared TV’s first interracial kiss, but the one in this episode is much more memorable.  



The Bob Newhart Show
“Over the River and Through the Woods” (1975)
“More goo to go!”
It’s regrettable that drunk scenes have become yet another casualty of our enlightened age. Once they were to great comic actors what a hanging curve ball was to a .300 batter – a golden opportunity to hit one out of the park. That’s what happened when Bob Newhart, Bill Daily, Jack Riley and Peter Bonerz were handed a scene in which their characters get sloshed over Thanksgiving. They hit their rhythm early and for ten minutes set-ups and punch lines are served and volleyed with perfect timing and precision. When it all comes together like this, there’s nothing better. 



Fawlty Towers
“Gourmet Night” (1975)
I’m not sure if a British show should be eligible, but how can Fawlty Towers be left off any list of the funniest situation comedies? The question then becomes which of its 12 amazing episodes to select. “The Germans” might be the most obvious choice, with Basil’s constant references to the war he’s not supposed to mention, and that unforgettable long-limbed goosestep, but I’ve always been partial to “Gourmet Night.” It’s a classic farce that builds to a feverish climax in which Basil yells at and then beats up his car. The final line is perfect. 



The Odd Couple
“Password” (1972)
“Aristophanes…”
Oscar is invited to be a celebrity guest on Password, and self-proclaimed expert Felix, who owns two copies of the Password home game (one for his car) pleads to be picked as his partner. The results are predictably disastrous (and hilarious), and are made even more memorable by the range of reactions from guest stars Allen Ludden and Betty White. 


 Taxi
“Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (1979)
“What…does…a…yellow…light…mean?”
When an episode is so funny that even the cast can’t contain their laughter, it deserves to be here. During the famous driving test scene, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Conaway keep repeating the "What does a yellow light mean?" joke and it kills every time. By the third run-through, Marilu Henner and Tony Danza can clearly be seen laughing when their characters are supposed to be frustrated.



Laverne & Shirley
“Guinea Pigs” (1977)
The girls are invited to a fancy cocktail party but can’t afford the $20 admission. To earn the money they volunteer at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences – Shirley is only allowed to eat dirt as part of a nutrition study, while Laverne is deprived of sleep. They make it to the bash, and what follows is more than five minutes of non-stop laughs. Timeless episodes like this and “The Diner” are why, out of all the Garry Marshall ‘70s sitcoms, Laverne & Shirley has aged the most gracefully. 



Rhoda
“Rhoda’s Wedding” (1974)
This two-part episode would be memorable just for the milestone referenced in the title and the Mary Tyler Moore Show crossover cast appearances. But this is also the rare “event” show that is also among the best written of the entire series run. 



Green Acres
“The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” (1970)
Green Acres just kept getting nuttier with each passing season, and yes, that’s a compliment. I could try to summarize the plot of “The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” but it won’t do the episode justice: the town folk receive an unexpected (and undeserved) windfall and Mr. Haney convinces them to invest in monkey racing, in which little monkeys race around a track chasing after a wooden banana. Some things are better experienced than described.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters School” (1975)
We started with this series so we’ll end here as well. The idea of Ted lending his name to a school of broadcasting is already funny; the fact it was a scheme floated by a con artist is even funnier, but the best part is when the WJM news team show up for the first class and find only one student in the room. On the short list of things that always make me laugh, there is Ted singing the school’s theme song, and Lou Grant’s Ralph Kramden-like reaction. 



Next: The 1980s