Phyllis Diller

Phyllis Diller, PBS Pioneers of TelevisionWith her feet firmly planted in stand-up comedy, Phyllis Diller’s lightning-fast wit and self-deprecating humor made her a natural guest on game shows that developed in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. The comedienne made a splash on the game show, “You Bet Your Life,” with host Groucho Marx in 1956.

“Meeting Groucho was a major thrill … I was not only nervous, I was petrified. Well, I was petrified the whole first ten years in the business. I shook visibly,” recalls Diller.

Diller, a mother of six children, used her domestic experiences to inform her comedy. And she was noticed by one of the most influential hosts in Hollywood — Jack Paar.

“He thought I was more than hilarious,” says Diller of Paar. He was fascinated by this skinny woman … who was over the hill to forty. He was just fascinated.”

Paar booked Diller regularly, and this national exposure helped make her career. She made appearances on talk shows and variety hours, but she made her biggest splash on game shows, where Diller’s rapid-fire responses paid off.

“Game shows give the public a chance to get to know you as a person because you’re not playing a role or not singing a song,” she says. “You’re speaking for yourself, in your own voice, so they feel that they know you a lot better than if you’re in a movie or in a television show.”

Phyllis Diller Is a Square

One of Diller’s most memorable gigs was on “Hollywood Squares,” a game show where stars sat in a large tic-tac-toe box and were challenged with trivia questions. Part of the joy of this show was the unscripted repartee between the celebrities.

“All five [Hollywood Squares] shows are [taped] in the same day, so that means you have lunch together. You meet all new people and make lifelong friends … and, sometimes they’re from out of town, and they’re all celebrities or very well-known somebodies, so, it’s like a party. It is truly.”

Diller is considered a pioneer for female comics, paving the way for strong women such as Roseanne Barr and Ellen DeGeneres.


For years, sprawling Westerns had been popular in the cinema, making rugged, plain-speaking actors such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood huge stars. During the Golden Age of Television — the early 1940s through 1961 — and into the 1970s, Westerns were produced for the small screen with success. In 1959 alone more than 30 different Westerns were on the television schedule.

Viewers idolized the gritty and romantic version of the American West with its portrayal of the loner who faces the world by himself and, mostly, comes up victorious. “[Westerns] captured that American myth, keeping it going and keeping it alive,” says actor Adam West. Beyond entertainment, these shows presented the idea of duality: That good and evil exist on the same plane and that most of the time good will prevail, but not always. Westerns helped break down rigid societal racial and gender roles. The popular show “High Chaparral” subtly explored the groundbreaking idea that Mexicans, Anglos and Native Americans all have a place in the American tapestry. “The Big Valley” tackled issues of feminism and featured Victoria Barkley, played by Barbara Stanwyck, as a smart, headstrong widow who presided over the Barkley ranch. Westerns faded in popularity as grittier, more urban crime dramas became standard fare in the late 1970s and 80s, but these pioneering Westerns left an indelible impression on American audiences that still informs our identities.


The wildly popular “Gunsmoke” began as a radio drama before it was adapted to television in 1952. Led by a physically imposing actor named James Arness, who played U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon, the ensemble cast came into our living rooms for 20 seasons, from 1955 to 1975. The show was set in Dodge City, Kansas, as the American West was actively being settled. Arness played Dillon as a gentle, fair lawman who opted for violence only when necessary.


A nontraditional Western, “Bonanza” featured Ben Cartwright, played by actor Lorne Greene, as a widowed father and ranch owner trying to advise his three sons, played by Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon. While most Westerns dealt with problems of lawlessness and good versus evil, this show was more preoccupied with the relationships between the Cartwright men. “Bonanza” was also a launching pad for Michael Landon, who within three years was writing scripts for the show. A few seasons later the eager Landon began directing “Bonanza” episodes, too. When Bonanza ended in 1973, Landon created his own television hit, “Little House on the Prairie.”

“The Big Valley”

This pioneering program graced television screens for four seasons in the 1960s, and brought with it one of the first strong women characters to a lead role: Barbara Stanwyck playing matriarch Victoria Barclay. At a time when most women played deferential roles on television, Stanwyck portrayed a hard-bargaining woman who tries to keep her three sons and daughter in line. This series also launched the careers for two young actors: Linda Evans, who would later star in “Dynasty,” and Lee Majors, who starred in the “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

Variety Shows

Born of the vaudevillian era, TV variety programs carried the traditions of comedy, song, dance and sketch performance into America’s living room and into a new era of entertainment. This genre of television programming pushed the boundaries of social satire and challenged the pace at which shows progressed.

“They would say, ‘Slow it down,’” says director George Schlatter, who produced “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” “I’d say, ‘No, people will understand it.’ They’d say, ‘But they’ll miss the jokes.’ I said, ‘So what? there’s another one coming along in just a few moments,’” he says.

From Ed Sullivan — whose stodgy on-air presence belied an unmatched ability to spot and highlight talent — to the socially conscious Smothers Brothers, variety programming mirrored the tastes of the day and introduced America to the latest, greatest talent. Often the shows centered around music and live performance, where anything — good or bad — could happen live for a whole nation to see.

In the 1970s, the variety show format began to fade from prime time. Audiences were more fractured than ever with the advent of the remote control and cable television. Today, elements of variety program exist on late night TV formatting and on some of the live performance shows such as “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars.” Despite several attempts to revive a contemporary variety hour, few stars have found success.

“The Ed Sullivan Show”

For 24 seasons, “The Ed Sullivan Show” entertained America with its electric line-up of new talent and seasoned entertainers. The show’s brilliance is largely attributed to its unlikely host, Ed Sullivan. A gloomy looking man with hang-dog jowls and the inability to remember people’s names, Sullivan displayed a keen eye for talent and had his hand on all details of the popular show. Audiences forgave Sullivan’s on-air gaffes because the show was so entertaining. Sullivan was especially concerned about promoting good taste. He rewrote jokes, re-arranged talent and adjusted costumes to make sure they were up to his standard.

“[Ed Sullivan] had a particular … genius, because it was a radar type of thing,” says entertainer Pat Boone. “He knew what the audience would like to see and hear, and he brought it to them.”

“The Carol Burnett Show”

Premiering in 1967, “The Carol Burnett Show” featured the versatile Carol Burnett alongside a host of regular sidekicks such as Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, Vicki Lawrence and Tim Conway. During its long run, the show won 25 Emmy Awards, and the secret to its success was Burnett’s willingness to let other members of the ensemble cast shine.

“I remember Harvey [Korman] saying, ‘You have no idea because most stars are very selfish. They’ll have things rewritten to where they get the joke lines, and they will not be supportive of you,’ says Lawrence. “And I think one of the most important things that I learned from Carol is that you are as good as the people that surround you.”

“The Carol Burnett Show” is famous for its skits that parodied popular culture, especially films and dramatic televisions shows.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”

While it was short-lived, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” left an indelible mark on American television history. The sibling comedic duo, the Smothers brothers, performed folk songs that often dissolved into on-air humorous bickering. Traditionally, Tommy Smothers, the eldest of the siblings, played a jealous, slow-witted character. In contrast was his younger brother, Richard “Dick” Smothers, who portrayed a condescending, smarter sibling. The chemistry between the two was electric, and the brothers’ variety show debuted in 1967, a tumultuous time in our history.

“Vietnam and Kent State and the Chicago riots of the Democratic Convention and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King: All this happened while we had a television show,” says Tommy Smothers.

The brothers went on the air hoping to be relevant, but they had no idea how much ire they would stir — not from American audiences, but from TV executives and politicians. With the help of talented writers and performers such as Steve Martin, Rob Reiner and Albert Brooks, the show took political satire to a new level that hadn’t been broached on television before. Despite high ratings, the show was cancelled in 1969.

“It was very emotional to be fired when you knew you hadn’t done anything wrong except exercise freedom of expression,” remembers Tommy Smothers.


Comedian Jackie Gleason had a well-rated variety show in 1955 that he gave up in favor of playing just one character: Ralph Kramden, a bickering bus driver who was the centerpiece of a new situation comedy, “The Honeymooners.” It was a bold move, but Gleason had already created the four core characters in CBS’ “Jackie Gleason Show,” and he understood the power a strong character and a continuing storyline can wield. While “The Honeymooners” didn’t catch on as he’d hoped — the groundbreaking sitcom finished after only 39 episodes — the episodes gathered a cult following and are now revered as some of America’s best classic television.

Because of his radio background, Gleason understood how well-written sitcoms can capture America’s imagination. The pleasing mixture of a continued storyline, running gags and ever-evolving characters resonates with viewers, and the genre has become a staple of the American television landscape.

Societal changes are often mirrored in the subject and placement of situation comedies. In the 1940s and ’50s, most half-hour comedies centered around a married couple or couples. As the fabric of American society began to morph, however, so did our entertainment. In the 1960s, sitcoms began to focus on single-parent or blended families or whole communities. “The Andy Griffith Show,” for example, featured a widower trying to raise a young son in a rural town: Mayberry, North Carolina.

In the 1980s and 90s, many sitcoms were built around a single comedian and his stand-up comedy. Perhaps the prime example was Bill Cosby, a perennial favorite on the small screen, who wrote, produced and starred in “The Cosby Show,” a barrier-bending sitcom about an upper-middle-class African-American family.

Whatever the decade, the sitcom has always mirrored America’s changing societal landscape and our expectations of ourselves and others.

“The Honeymooners”

This groundbreaking sitcom focused primarily on the relationship between two couples. The humor was raw and sometimes very dark, but the show highlighted Jackie Gleason’s bombastic comedy style and the sharp chemistry between the four actors: Audrey Meadows, Art Carney, Jackie Gleason and Joyce Randolph. On the air in 1955, the show played on traditional gender roles. Kramden was portrayed as big, blustery oaf, who was contrasted by his wife, Alice, who portrayed as the more intelligent, craftier partner. From “The Honeymooners” came several lines of dialogue that wormed their way into the mainstream lexicon, including “To the moon, Alice!” and “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

“[Gleason] was a guy who was an enormously great actor and a gifted, gifted comedian,” says entertainer Tony Orlando. “And there was nothing that he ever did that … you didn’t go ‘Whoa!’”

“The Andy Griffith Show”

Unlike most sitcoms before it, “The Andy Griffith Show” didn’t center on a married couple or family, but a whole rural community and the quirky characters that populated Mayberry, North Carolina. Southerner Andy Griffith played the straight character — sheriff Andy Taylor — to the town’s comic residents. The combination worked, and the show was a hit, spawning a series of sitcoms that were based on the eccentricities of rural communities.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was also a trendsetter in the way it was filmed. Instead of using a set and studio audience, the show used several cameras, and the actors worked on an actual replica of a small town, so scenes could take place inside and outside various buildings. Griffith hated the idea of a studio audience. To him, live audiences created pressure for a steady stream of one-liners that inhibited subtle character development. So the Andy Griffith show was shot with no audience, like a film, giving the cast and writers much greater freedom.

“So Don and I can do these little quiet scenes — or me and Ronnie, or me and Aunt Bea, or Floyd the barber … any of those. We could do these long, little nice scenes without having to go for a joke,” recalls Griffith.

Another payoff from this groundbreaking sitcom? Many of the ensemble cast members became stars in their own right. Don Knotts, who played bumbling deputy Barney Fife, and Jim Nabors, who was cast as the earnest Gomer Pyle, each found much success beyond “The Andy Griffith Show.” Ron Howard, who played Sheriff Taylor’s son, Opie, is a respected director.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show”

Actor Dick Van Dyke grew up on a steady diet of Laurel and Hardy slapstick comedies, so when writer and producer Carl Reiner cast him as the stumbling husband, Rob Petry, next to newcomer Mary Tyler Moore, in his new program, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the young actor got the chance to use his physical comedy abilities.

“Rob Petry wasn’t supposed to have been a klutz in the beginning,” recalls Van Dyke. “Carl [Reiner] knew I loved to do the physical stuff, and he wrote that in, or he would just say ‘Dick does five minutes here’ and let me come up with something.”

Reiner also recognized Moore’s burgeoning talent and began to expand her presence on the screen. The result was a half-hour sitcom that brimmed with exciting talent. It was a distinctive mix of sophistication and slapstick, peppered with glib one-liners, and creator Reiner was the talent that kept this delicate balance in play.

“[Reiner’s] great talent was hearing your speech patterns and your tempo and the way you spoke, and he wrote it so that you didn’t have to do anything with the line,” says Van Dyke. “That’s great writing.”

Science Fiction

It’s no wonder that Gene Rodenberry, creator of “Star Trek,” turned to science fiction when he wanted to delve into dicey subjects on television such as race relations and the value of war. It’s easier to unearth tough subjects when creatures from another planet or another time deliver the truisms. Humans have always gazed up at the stars or stared deep into the black, rolling ocean with equal parts fascination and fear. The unexplored frontiers at the edges of our existence beckon and repel in equal measure. In the early to mid-1960s, a number of innovative television writers, producers and actors began playing with these ideas on the small screen — sometimes preying on our universal fears, and sometimes dreaming up a very different future. Whatever their initial aim, these television innovators left behind a legacy of science fiction television that entertained us and challenged our preconceived notions.

“Lost in Space”

A kitschy, comic science fiction show based loosely on the classic novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, “Lost in Space” debuted in 1965 and was created by Irwin Allen, the most successful science fiction producer of the decade. While the show centered on the misadventures of the Robinson family in outer space, a scene-stealing, villainous anti-hero emerged in the form of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). Harris and the robot developed an unexpected comedic relationship in which the robot, voiced by Bob May, plays the “straight man,” allowing Harris to deliver some of his most memorable zingers.

“Star Trek”

Gene Roddenberry had the kernel of an idea for “Star Trek” as early as 1961, and he planned for each episode of the series to deliver a cathartic two-punch in the form of entertaining adventure and moral message. But Roddenberry met resistance from NBC. The network insisted that the “Star Trek” pilot presented fascinating ideas but lacked excitement. Roddenberry reworked the script and brought actor William Shatner to the key role of Captain James T. Kirk. NBC executives were satisfied with the changes, and the series “Star Trek,” hit small screens in 1966. Unlike anything that had come before it, “Star Trek” addressed issues of race, gender, war, nuclear proliferation and drug abuse in a context that was palatable to the public. And the on-screen chemistry between Captain Kirk and logical Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, was unmistakable. The series became a cult classic, spawning an impressive franchise of movies, animated series, merchandise and fan groups.

“The Twilight Zone”

Created by Rod Serling, “The Twilight Zone” appeared on the small screen from 1959 to 1964, and the anthology series relied on reams of taut writing from sci-fi literary greats such as Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson.

“The beauty of the science fiction genre is that so much of it had been untouched,” said Serling. “It had been reproduced in printed form over and over again, but it had never been done on camera, so we had almost a goldmine of unused material we could operate from.”

Unlike other science fiction television shows that planted their scripts firmly in the future, this series’ stories were usually set in more familiar surroundings. And instead of relying on a regular cast of characters, “The Twilight Zone” was an anthology with different actors for all 152 episodes. The result was a thought-provoking, unpredictable collection known for its excellent writing.

Local Kids’ TV

They sprang up in places all over the United States — Kansas City, Nashville, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.— and sounded a siren that pricked the ears of a generation of youngsters. In television’s early days, nearly every town with a station launched its own local kids’ program. In time, these local programs would give way to the more sophisticated children’s television programming we know today. But in its heyday, local kids’ programming generated indelible characters, entertained and educated countless youths, and launched the careers of a host of talented actors and broadcasters.

“It’s not that easy being green,” lamented a certain frog named Kermit, and kids understood what it was like to be a little different. “Hey, boys and girls! It’s Bozo,” cried Willard Scott, assuming the franchised clown persona in Washington D.C., and kids squealed in recognition. Programming aimed at kids didn’t have to be fast-paced just to keep kids’ collective eyes glued to the screen. Local television hosts read youngsters’ letters on the air, advised when snow forced local school closures, showcased kids’ artwork, and brought animals on set. “We did everything we could to entertain people in the morning, and that means you have a chimpanzee as a sidekick,” says actor Adam West, who worked as a local kids’ program host in Hawaii. Some of the best childhood memories for a generation of Americans include a trip to join the studio audience of the local kids’ show.“You would write away to get tickets six months in advance, and then your mother would dress you up … It was a TV show that the kids could visit and then go home and watch … and that was an awful lot of fun,” says Willard Scott.

“Wallace and Ladmo”

Superheroes who were cast on the “Wallace and Ladmo” show, broadcast primarily in and around Phoenix, Arizona, from 1954 to 1989, didn’t need to have X-ray vision or the ability to fly. “A superhero on the ‘Wallace and Ladmo’ show need only be two things: not super in any way, nor a hero,” says longtime “Wallace and Ladmo” performer Pat McMahon. Indeed, the slapstick, tongue-in-cheek show was the longest-running, local, daily kids’ show in television history. And part of the reason “Wallace and Ladmo” had such longevity and a dedicated local audience is likely that the programming was aimed at kids, but the humor was also sprinkled with ironic and clever comedy that resonated with teens and adults. Wallace founded the show in 1954. Within months he added sidekick Ladimir “Ladmo” Kwiatkowski, a cameraman on the show turned entertainer. In 1960 McMahon joined the cast and brought his brand of humor to the set. The program yielded several memorable characters including Aunt Maud, Captain Super and a down-and-out clown named Boffo.

“Romper Room”

In the 1950s, franchising was in style. McDonalds’ trademark golden arches were popping up in major cities across the nation, and a few enterprising TV producers thought this mass production model might also work in children’s television. Nancy Claster and her husband, Bert, created “Romper Room,” a children’s educational program that was re-produced in markets around the country. The show was heavy on games, songs and moral lessons, and was aimed squarely at pre-schoolers. Each major city had its own local hostess who was trained to be pitch-perfect by Claster. Despite its uniformity, “Romper Room” was successful because each program also reflected its own community.

“Bozo the Clown”

Just as “Romper Room” became a franchised show, generating versions in major cities nationwide, so did a certain wild-haired, manic clown named Bozo. In fact, this clown character, who originated as a record and storybook character, became the most aggressively franchised character in the history of kids’ television. In the late 1950s, Larry Harmon franchised the character of Bozo and soon clowns with the same distinctive make-up were appearing on live public television shows around the nation. Willard Scott assumed the clown’s persona in the Washington, D.C., market. “It really got to me,” Scott remembers of the onerous task of putting on layers of make-up and costume. Harmon had stipulated that Bozo never showed any skin, so that the illusion that Bozo is a clown, not human, was never broken. “I mean I trembled sometimes trying to put the make-up on because it was exhausting,” says Scott. Many Bozos made public appearances in parades, at schools, and department store grand openings. In Washington D.C., the local McDonalds restaurant hired Willard Scott — as Bozo — in an attempt to attract customers. It worked. Bozo’s arrival at McDonalds sparked mayhem. So, when the local Bozo show was cancelled, McDonalds approached Scott to develop a clown persona for the popular restaurant chain. The result: Scott debuted an orange-haired clown named Ronald who was closely modeled on Bozo. Ronald McDonald was born.

“Sesame Street”

“Sesame Street” became the most successful national children’s program of all time, but its success was built, in part, from lessons learned from the original, quirky local kids’ television programming that was blooming in the 1950s and ’60s. In the late 1960s, public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney was developing a new program, and she needed an artist who knew his way around puppets. Cooney found her man in Jim Henson, a soft-spoken puppeteer who, with his wife Jane, had been working in D.C. on their show, “Sam and Friends.” Cooney brought Henson to the “Sesame Street” project, and his iconic characters such as Kermit the Frog, Big Bird and Cookie Monster have entertained and educated generations of children since. The show was innovative in other ways, too. “Sesame Street” was the first national kids show to situate itself in an urban environment. And in terms of content, the show clung close to an impressive educational curriculum.

Late Night TV

It’s a field filled with big personalities, larger-than-life late night television comedians and conversationalists who put America to bed each night. From Jack Paar’s extemporaneous small talk to Steve Allen’s infectious laugh to Johnny Carson’s witty monologues, and all the big personalities that filled the guest chairs, America has had a love affair with late night television programming for years. It’s how we unwind, ingest the day’s news and laugh at ourselves. And some of the most talented, and varied, hosts have led us down the path to the Land of Nod.

For 30 years “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” starred the boy from Nebraska who never seemed to lose his quick smile and friendly demeanor. His ratings remain the highest in the history of late night television. But Carson and many others in this crowded field — Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and David Letterman among them — owe much to funny man Steve Allen, who broke the plane between stage and viewer and pioneered the first audience participation gags that dominate late night comedy today.

For years, late night TV programming has prompted America to look at the lighter side of the day’s news, to giggle a little before climbing into bed. And, because of the late hour, the programming has grown edgier and more provocative through the years, challenging us with humor to understand ourselves a little better.

“The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen

Steve Allen was the first host of “The Tonight Show,” and he is largely responsible for developing the late night TV format — a cross between a talk show and a variety program. Allen proved that wacky worked on the air, setting up on-air stunts where he jumped into vats of oatmeal or cottage cheese or was made into a human banana split, as staffers covered the comedian with ice cream, hot fudge and pieces of banana.

“There was something sort of wonderfully childlike about Steve Allen. He was like an adult who acted like a kid. He was loud,” says late night show host Jay Leno.

Allen also deconstructed the stage of late night television, going into the audience or out on the city streets to involve regular people in his televised antics.

“I went out into the audience and began to speak to people at random, horsing around the way I did in high school, and it got very big laughs,” recalls Allen. “But I didn’t know you could do that for a living. I thought that was too easy.”

“The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson”

Fresh-faced Johnny Carson steered the successful “Tonight Show” franchise on NBC for 30 years, and his Midwestern sensibilities and boy-next-door demeanor struck just the right chord with late night viewers.

“He never wanted to be the flashiest, fanciest,” recalls late night talk show host, Jay Leno. “He was always the classiest.”

Carson inherited the venerable “Tonight Show” stage from the greats before him — Steve Allen and Jack Paar — but he broadened the show’s appeal and made it a staple of American pop culture. “People don’t realize: As well as Jack Paar did in the ratings, when Johnny Carson came out, I don’t know if [the ratings] doubled, but it was pretty close to it,” says Leno.

Carson created humorous skits with comic regulars like Betty White, Jonathan Winters and Don Rickles, and he also developed funny characters for himself to play such as, “Carnac the Magnificent” and “Aunt Blabby.”

“Late Night With Conan O’Brien”

In 1993, Conan O’Brien was a comedy writer who had caught the eye of “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels. When a replacement was sought by NBC executives for an empty slot left by comedian and host David Letterman, Michaels urged the writer to audition. Although Conan had little on-screen experience, the tall, gawky writer aced the audition, edging out more seasoned talent such as Drew Carey and Jon Stewart. The first few seasons of his show were rocky, but “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” ultimately drew critical praise and many fans, and it lasted on the air for 16 years.

O’Brien brings to the air a self-deprecating, sarcastic humor punctuated with his own physically quirky movements. When O’Brien first appeared on the air, notable Washington Post television critic Tom Shales said, “The young man is a living collage of annoying nervous habits. He giggles and titters, jiggles about and fiddles with his cuffs. He has dark, beady little eyes like a rabbit. He’s one of the whitest white men ever.” Shales later recanted his criticisms, and, to his credit, O’Brien has capitalized on these traits, endearing him to legions of fans.

Game Shows

Americans began listening to game shows on the radio and were immediately hooked on the excitement and thrill of competition. As television came of age in the 1940s and ’50s, game shows made a natural transition to the new medium. There’s something about watching contestants match wits onscreen: We love to play along, shouting answers at the television.

“We play games at home, we play games at parties, we go to clubs and play games. Americans love games,” says Bob Barker, host of the long-running “The Price Is Right.”

Some game shows were edgy, such as “The Newlywed Game,” or they could be educational, such as “Jeopardy.” Some even disillusioned us.

By the late 1950s, the genre boasted some of the highest rated programs on television. Series such as “The $64,000 Challenge,” “Twenty-One” and “Dotto” attracted unprecedented audiences. The pressure was on to make these programs as dramatic as possible. “Dotto” debuted in 1958 and was an extremely popular game show, but its meteoric rise was halted when it was discovered that the show’s producers had rigged the outcome of the show, feeding questions and answers to contestants of their choosing. This discovery led to the show’s cancellation and scrutiny of other game shows, including the popular game show, “Twenty-One,” which was proved to be rigged, too.

The genre survived the scandal. In its aftermath, however, game shows began to focus more and more on big personalities. Having fun with celebrities became a staple of the game show universe and led to a successful series of shows that included “Hollywood Squares” and “Match Game.”


This game show debuted in the mid-1950s and asked two opposing contestants to match wits in an effort to beat each other to a point value of 21. Although the show was popular, it fell from grace in 1958 after allegations that it was rigged proved to be true. The show produced one of the most popular contestants in game show history, Charles Van Doren, a college professor who, ultimately, won nearly 130,000 dollars. Van Doren became a media darling in the aftermath of his long run on the show, and he was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in February 1957. A federal investigation followed accusations that the popular contestant had help from show producers, and Van Doren admitted to cheating during a Congressional hearing on the subject.


Following the game show scandals of the 1950s, producer Mark Goodson introduced America to game shows that didn’t lend themselves to cheating. Panel shows such as “What’s My Line” traded more on the extemporaneous humor and quick wit of celebrities. In 1961, Goodson’s production company developed the first big game show hit of the post-scandal era, “Password.” This show, originally presented by Allen Ludden, paired a celebrity with a regular contestant, and the two would take turns prompting the other with one-word clues to say the password. It was enormously popular.

“The Price Is Right”

Since its debut on the small screen in 1956, “The Price Is Right” has the distinction of being the longest running daytime game show in North American television history. For much of the show’s run, popular personality Bob Barker has been host. Barker’s talent lies in bringing out the personalities of the people who play the game.

“Spontaneous entertainment … It’s like mining for gold. You’ll find this wonderful little contestant, big contestant, or whatever, and you go with that person … You get the audience laughing. There’s nothing like that,” Barker says.

In 2007, Barker retired and handed over hosting duties to comedian Drew Carey.

Crime Dramas

Pioneering television crime dramas established new rules for viewers, amping up the violence and the flash-quick dialogue; and delivering reluctant, but likeable, heroes who solve complex crimes in an hour of delicious television. Today, the genre has never been more popular, but it owes much of its winning formula to industry innovations developed in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, the invention of the teleprompter helped actors deliver dialogue in quick, clipped sentences. New ways of shooting scenes, including the close-up and quick edits, ushered in new and exciting storytelling elements. Unlike Westerns, which tended to shoot panoramic scenes using wide shots that took in an entire landscape, crime dramas began to produce scenes that drew viewers close into an actor’s face, thus increasing the dramatic arc of the story. Several groundbreaking crime dramas also challenged stereotypes of the day, casting women and minorities in key roles.


Jack Webb’s popular radio drama, which dispassionately played out real-life crimes taken from the records of the Los Angeles Police Department, made the leap to television in 1951. This unusual show did away with fisticuffs and dramatic acting in favor of a documentary-like style that relied on authenticity for its street credibility. Unlike other crime dramas, “Dragnet” didn’t focus so much on the crime, but instead showed the after-effects of crime on victims and family members. Webb was an innovator, using teleprompters to help his actors deliver deadpan dialogue, and using close camera angles to break the barrier between viewer and actor. The show ratings were initially dismal, but NBC kept “Dragnet” on the air, and viewers eventually warmed to Webb’s approach.

“I Spy”

One of the first popular series in the “buddy genre,” the popular “I Spy” espionage crime drama relied heavily on the on-screen and real-life friendship between actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. This groundbreaking series debuted in 1965, just as America’s battle for civil rights was at a boiling point. “I Spy” made a splash by casting the first African-American actor, Cosby, in a lead role. Culp and Cosby decided the best way to handle the controversial casting, however, was to say nothing. They would portray a world where race was a non-issue. “[Cosby] came in and he said, ‘Listen, our television series is a statement by being a non-statement.’ I said, ‘Done,’ and we shook hands on it,” recalls Culp. “We never talked about it again.” Unlike many taut crime dramas before it, “I Spy” ventured into new territory by shooting in exotic locations and using famous landmarks as backgrounds for the duo’s crime-fighting adventures. Despite a rough start, in which comedian-turned-actor Cosby was nearly fired by the series producer, Sheldon Leonard, the fledgling actor turned in gifted performances, and he earned three Emmy Awards for his work on the series.

“Police Woman”

Actress Angie Dickinson starred in this crime drama series that successfully cast the first woman in a lead role. Dickinson portrayed tough-minded Pepper Anderson, a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department, who often went undercover to nab the criminals. “Police Woman” was an immediate hit when it debuted in 1974, and its success paved the way for other female-lead crime dramas that followed, such as “Charlie’s Angels” and “Cagney & Lacey.” “I was a heroine. I loved being a heroine,” says Dickinson. “And I loved that [Pepper Anderson] was allowed to be sexy and still a hero. It’s not an easy combination.”

Funny Ladies

Comedy crosses boundaries, and in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, many female entertainers struggled just to enter the male-dominated world of stand-up and television. Self-deprecation, acting dumb and playing down their looks were some of the strategies these funny ladies employed to be taken seriously. While many comedians today get their laughs from shock value, racial and sexual characterizations or expletives, the first female stars of network television had no such fallbacks and instead entertained with pure talent and screen savvy. “They are just funny — silly as hell,” is how Betty White describes these pioneers, who are also her peers.

Phyllis Diller entered the profession of comedy in the 1950s, an era when gender roles were often exaggerated. Diller’s outrageous personality and jokes that mocked her looks and disdain of housekeeping flew in the face of the then stereotypical image of the ideal housewife.

Carol Burnett first tried to make it as a musical theater performer, but it was her comedic twist on the Elvis craze that got her noticed. Her parody song, “I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles,” presented as an ode to the U.S. Secretary of State, landed her performances on both “The Tonight Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957.

Joan Rivers pitched “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” for seven years before they booked her in 1965. The producers thought she was “too rough, too wild, and talked about things a woman shouldn’t be talking about,” Rivers remembered.

When show settings eventually moved from homes to the office, the funny ladies of television took on the male-dominated workplace with sass and humor, laying the foundation for future stars.

“The Carol Burnett Show”

The critically acclaimed hit series “The Carol Burnett Show” debuted on CBS in 1967 and made America laugh for eleven seasons. The variety show used musical numbers and skits with guest stars to riff off anything from popular culture to classic films. Shirley MacLaine sang about fan mail, Joan Rivers did stand-up routines, and sketches included spoofs of popular television at the time, such as “The Walnuts,” a take-off on “The Waltons.” Burnett was charming and quick, frequently sending her co-stars into barely controlled fits of laughter and endearing herself to both a live studio audience and those watching at home.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show”

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” premiered on CBS in 1970 and was the first TV program to feature a single, professional career woman as the protagonist. The character Mary Richards was not divorced or widowed and she independently supported herself as an evening news producer. Over the course of seven seasons, the show won three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. Moore was at first hesitant to take on the role out of concern that her breakthrough television role as the stay-at-home wife in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” would suffer in comparison.

“I Love Lucy”

“Riiickyyyy!” Everyone recognizes the familiar cry of Lucy Ricardo on the much loved sitcom “I Love Lucy.” Starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the show won five Emmys during its six-year run from 1951- 1957. As silly and scheming as Lucy was and as bossy as Ricky could be, there was heart underneath their incessant bickering. The entertainers were married for 20 years and jointly owned the show’s production company, Desilu Productions. Ball, nearly 40 when the sitcom premiered, became one of America’s most beloved funny ladies. Thanks to unprecedented ratings, “I Love Lucy,” raised the profile of television in the 1950s because of Arnaz’s producing expertise, the writers’ daffy situations and a wonderful ensemble that featured Vivian Vance and William Frawley.

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