Sitcom fans born during the last twenty years have no idea how good they’ve had it.
The ebb and flow of conventional wisdom changes the tone of the genre every generation or so. The early days of television had fanciful or even escapist comedy storylines that were intended to be as stress-free as possible. The stakes were intentionally low. The most difficult “issue” dealt with on a program like I Love Lucy was whether Lucy would be able to get her fake white beard off before the movie agent visiting Ricky arrives at their apartment.
The prevailing conflicts on sitcoms of the 50’s and 60’s — to the extent there were any — were commonplace family and relationship issues that could never be confused with what we would call an issue-centric show today. Politics went virtually unmentioned, as did anything within a mile of controversy. Even a show like The Honeymooners depicted its lower-middle-class protagonists in a way that didn’t make the audience uncomfortable with the Kramdens’ socioeconomic standing.
As is often the case in popular culture, themes shifted quickly and dramatically to another extreme. Television began to reflect the changes in our more tumultuous society during the mid-to-late-1960’s. A UK program called Til Death Us Do Part signaled the beginning of something heretofore unseen on television: A comedy show tackling the most challenging topics of contemporary society. Norman Lear purchased the American rights to the show, retooling it as the groundbreaking (and superior) All in the Family. All in the Family was the first American sitcom to address topics like rape, racism, feminism, and homosexuality directly and bluntly.
As All in the Family was a major hit for a CBS network trying to dump its older “rural” image, the Lear venture sparked a new movement in sitcom programming. Sitcoms would now feature major storylines built around subject matter that television dramas wouldn’t have touched just a few years prior. Lear himself created a number of other sitcoms (e.g. Maude, a spin-off of All in the Family) that discussed similar topics. Another wildly-successful example was M*A*S*H, based on the book and movie set during the Korean Conflict, which indirectly but obviously offered commentary on the Vietnam War. A “light” sitcom like Three’s Company that carried far fewer dramatic elements than programs such as All in the Family or Good Times or even WKRP in Cincinnati still attracted controversy due to its racy subject matter.
Thus, the prevailing format of many successful American sitcoms entering the 1980’s was starkly different than what it had been just a decade before.
Trends began to shift again during the 80’s, although the change was much more gradual than what had occurred at the end of the 1960’s. Cheers offered a near-perfect show that managed moments of poignancy and occasionally incorporating issues like alcoholism while not coming to a screeching halt for a “dramatic scene” like many of its predecessors and contemporaries. The early seasons of The Cosby Show were similar, albeit with different execution. The hilarious Newhart was something of a throwback, in that it was essentially an all-comedy format with no intent other than to entertain and generate laughter, which it did with great success.
By contrast, a show like the fondly-remembered Family Ties was an evolution of the 70’s sitcom mindset. While Family Ties wasn’t as entrenched in issue-based comedy as the Lear shows, it followed the pattern of grappling with tough topics nearly every episode early in its run. The first season alone addressed restricted country clubs, teenage sex, handguns in the home, incest(!), and big corporations vs. small business. As tastes changed in the 80’s, the creative forces behind network sitcoms downplayed their issue-related aspect to some extent, but the remnants of the mentality from the previous generation of programming remained in place. Even the legendary last episode of M*A*S*H centered around Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery after watching a mother kill her own infant (cue laugh track).
As someone who was a small child during the 80’s, I can say without hesitation that most of these shows were, in retrospect, terrible. Even the high-quality shows often failed as comedies. It seemed perfectly normal at the time for every third or fourth episode of a popular sitcom to be a “very special” episode. Now, it just strikes me as dull, perhaps even lazy. Tedious at best.
Transforming every sitcom into a series of “after-school specials” moved television comedy away from its essential nature: Making people laugh.
This is obvious in hindsight. At the time, it felt natural for mediocre shows like Diff’rent Strokes or The Facts of Life to try to address controversial issues. Now? Even Family Ties hasn’t aged well. Just check out a few episodes on Netflix when you get a chance. You’ll see what I mean. By contrast, Cheers remains timeless, not only because of its level of quality, but also because, to the limited extent that it dealt with any “serious” topics, it could incorporate them organically and address them in a way that wasn’t heavy-handed.
The death knell to this style (or at least that style as the default) was the transcendent brilliance of Seinfeld, which had a “no hugging, no learning” premise at its core. Seinfeld was as important and different as All in the Family had been twenty years earlier. The one constant in television was the indomitable urge toward imitating anything wildly popular. Thus, shows reverted back to a style that emphasized comedy first, albeit in a more nuanced and sophisticated manner than something from the 50’s.
Nearly every popular sitcom post-Seinfeld has continued this trend, ranging from dumb comedies like Two-and-a-Half Men to brilliant shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock. This evolution was natural.
The best shows now can reference politics, controversial subjects, or sexual topics while never having to take a step back from a framework whose primary purpose is to make people laugh. South Park has produced some of the most pitch-perfect social commentary and satire in the history of the medium. While the shows of the 50’s and 60’s lacked the ability (or the will) to touch on difficult topics at all, even the best shows of the 70’s and 80’s that could pull that off still had trouble getting points across without appearing overly-dramatic, creepy, or inappropriate. And that, finally, brings me to the point of this post.
Mr. Belvedere was in that class of mediocre 80’s sitcoms that followed the changes wrought by All in the Family in the 1970’s. As a result, viewers were just as likely to get an episode about Mr. Belvedere “hilariously” secretly working for another family as they were an episode about Kevin losing his virginity (complete with a pre-show disclaimer(!) about the adult content of the episode).
If there were a single moment that epitomized how misguided sitcoms had become, it was probably this joke from an 1986 episode of Mr. Belvedere. Without any hint of irony, this actually happened:
It would be another matter entirely if this line were delivered in a self-referential, meta way, but that’s not happening. The joke here is that the kid is doing well except for the incurable, terminal illness he has. And don’t forget that this is 1986, when AIDS seemed even much scarier than it does now. The premise of the episode is that the child here is literally kicked out of school for having AIDS, and Wesley (the youngest in the family on the show) has stopped being friends with the boy due to his illness.
This is what passed for comedy then. Contrast that with how a modern show like South Park handles the topic of AIDS.
So, complain all you want about how terrible recent inexplicably-successful shows like Two-and-a-Half Men or According to Jim are or were. Their critically-panned brand of comedy is a small price to pay for 30 Rock or two decades’ worth of The Simpsons.
The alternative is overly-serious episodes that include bad jokes about horrible illnesses. And this: