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.