Here’s an easy way to start an argument.
Ask a group of TV lovers to name the best sitcom of all time. There’s no chance of a consensus.
Someone is sure to be crushing on I Love Lucy. Somebody else will single out Seinfeld. Another someone might make a case for The Cosby Show (although it’s not a politically correct choice these days).
Someone might even nominate 2 Broke Girls, because there’s a crackpot in every crowd.
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But about this, there is no dispute: If you make a comprehensive list of the best of the best, all five comedies in SundanceTV’s new 5 a.m.-to-noon weekday lineup will make the cut.
M*A*S*H, All in the Family, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Andy Griffith Show. There’s not a weak one in the bunch.
Monday is the second day of a 48-hour, get-reacquainted M*A*S*H-a-thon.
Then Sundance settles in with seven-hour mini-marathons every morning: M*A*S*H (Mondays), All in the Family (Tuesdays), The Bob Newhart Show (Wednesdays), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (Thursdays) and Andy Griffith (Fridays).
The lineup has made us feel nostalgic. Let’s take a look back at these funny five.
Fans often ask Alan Alda, aka Dr. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, if he has a favorite episode of M*A*S*H (1972-1983).
“I tried to figure it out once,” he says. “There were about 15 or 20 shows at the top of my list, but no single favorite. I liked the ones where we told the story in a different way — like the dreams episode or the black-and-white interview episode or the-camera-was-the-point-of-view-of-the-patient episode.
“Those shows that were very different stick out in my head, because we took a risk and we shook up the format. Of course, the audience was generous with us and let us play around like that and came back the following week, even if they didn’t go for a particular shift as much as we’d hoped.”
Sure enough, the military-medical comedy, set during the Korean War of the 1950s, ran for 11 seasons. In comparison, in real life, American troops fought in South Korea for three years.
As popular as the show was, Alda maintains he didn’t realize it was a classic until it was over, after wrapping with a farewell episode that had a record-setting 125 million viewers.
“When we were in the midst of doing it, we really had no idea of the impact we were having,” he says. “We were just working as hard as we could to do good shows — or as Jack Benny once said, ‘I try never to do a lousy show.’ That’s actually a pretty good standard.”
All in the Family
It’s often celebrated as the first “relevant” sitcom, as a though-provoking, issue-driven comedy that changed the face of American television.
Indeed, the moment that viewers stepped inside the home of bigoted Archie Bunker (played by the late Carroll O’Connor), it was hard to keeping clinging to the illusion that family sitcoms such as Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show had been realistic slices of life.
By placing a combating mix of characters under one roof — conservatives with liberals, hawks with doves, the old with the young — series creator Norman Lear created a forum for lively discussion every week, not just among his characters but also with the audience.
All these years later, Lear says the high praise the show gets is deeply satisfying. But make no mistake: While topical, All in the Family (1971-1979) also was one of the funniest shows of the 1970s.
“First and foremost, we were in the business of making people laugh,” Lear says. “And if we couldn’t get a laugh, what we were trying to do was strike a chord, provoke an emotion, bring forth a tear now and then. But entertainment was always our No. 1 concern.”
The Bob Newhart Show
Did you ever play the “Hi, Bob” game in college?
If so, you may have played a small part in transforming The Bob Newhart Show from a very funny sitcom into an enduring piece of American pop culture.
The rules were simple: Watch an episode of The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) and when a character greets unflappable psychologist Robert Hartley with the line, “Hi, Bob,” chug-a-lug the alcoholic beverage you’re holding.
“I think it was at Southern Methodist University where the game started,” Newhart says. “Then it just spread. I’ve been in all parts of the country and I hear the same thing: ‘We played Hi, Bob when we were in college.’”
Newhart has mixed feelings about the show’s unusual claim to fame.
“If people play Hi, Bob, at least play it at home and don’t drive,” he says. “That’s a concern. But on the other hand, it’s flattering that they must enjoy the show. Otherwise, they wouldn’t sit through it.
“And someone originally had to watch the show enough times to realize that people say ‘Hi, Bob’ a lot. That had to happen a lot before the game could be invented. That’s my idea of viewer loyalty.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
America’s sweetheart. Television legend. Doody-head.
All of these phrases, Mary Tyler Moore says, have been used to describe her. That last one was once uttered by a young nephew. To this day, it keeps the more fawning remarks from inflating her ego.
“I always hyphenate whatever may be said about me,” Moore says. “It’s hard to be too self-impressed about being called a legend when you’re also a doody-head.”
But she is a legend. In The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977), Moore played Mary Richards, a single thirtysomething woman working as associate news producer at a small-time Minneapolis TV station. While making people laugh, her character helped change real-life attitudes about women in the workplace.
“Mary Richards was the first woman on television, I think, who saw men, she dated men, she slept with them, but she wasn’t desperate to have one that she could put her stamp on,” Moore says.
“I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who introduced themselves and said, ‘You know, to a large extent, it was your influence that made me go into journalism.’”
The Andy Griffith Show
Astonishing as it may seem in retrospect, the late Andy Griffith never won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Andy Taylor, the affable sheriff of Mayberry, N.C.
Perhaps it was because, while he could crack jokes with the best of them, his role in The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968) often was that of straight man. He was the one sane character in a community of crazies.
“It’s true — the straight man usually doesn’t get the attention,” Griffith said a few years before his death in 2012. “But that’s all right. The fact that people love the show is what I’m proud of.”
Aficionados tend to prefer the black-and-white episodes from the first five seasons; they dismiss the final three seasons of color as inferior. The most obvious reason is that Deputy Barney Fife, played by five-time Emmy winner Don Knotts, left the show. His scene-stealing antics were sorely missed.
Griffith said he had no idea while making the show that it would be revered as a classic.
“None of us knew,” he said. “All we were trying to do was make the best show we could. One of the reasons the show lasts is that it’s not joke comedy — it’s character comedy. So you watch it again and laugh again, not because of the punch line, but because of the way the characters behave.”