From the depths of television history to the chart-topping hit shows of the 21st century, TV actors have always excelled at providing audiences with a good laugh. Their performances made us laugh and together, they brought comedy acting to the television age. Through the decades, comedic acting has undergone many evolutions, each incarnation leaving its distinctive mark on the genre’s development and acting as a legacy for generations of funny folks eager to learn the craft.
This episode peeks behind the curtain to reveal the backstage techniques of America’s favorite comedic actors, tracing the form from slapstick to improvisation and impressions, from sketch comedy to scripted, narrative banter. Robin Williams dissects his signature frenetic improvisational style first honed during the early days of “Mork & Mindy,” attributing his success to his comic idol and co-star Jonathan Winters. On the opposite end of the performance spectrum, “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” writer-actress Tina Fey explains her measured, highly prepared approach. The episode also highlights Cloris Leachman, the all-time #1 Emmy winner for comedy acting, the dynamic Jimmie Walker (“Good Times”) and the beloved TV icon, Dick Van Dyke.
Episode airs Tuesday, May 6 at 08:00pm (check local listings).
Mork & Mindy
In the late 1970s, Robin Williams took television by storm with different approach to comedy. His spontaneous, manic comedic style was perfect for ABC’s off-centered new sitcom, “Mork & Mindy.” When “Mork & Mindy” premiered in 1978, the premise was so original and the story lines so wacky that audiences never knew what to expect from one week to the next. Critics were skeptical, but the show was a huge hit.
“It came at a time when people are going, ‘What’s this?’ And we got lucky. And then it was just this thing,” marveled “Mork & Mindy” star Robin Williams. “It became, every Thursday night – people going, they want to see how crazy it would be.”
“Mork & Mindy” followed the hilarious daily mishaps of Williams’ Mork, an alien transported to Earth from the planet Ork, and his human friend and eventual wife Mindy, played by Pam Dawber. In the fourth season, classic comedian Jonathan Winters joined the cast as Mork and Mindy’s alien child, Mearth. The sitcom’s popularity grew out of the cast’s relentless energy and infectious chemistry, fueled by dynamic comedy duo Williams and Winters. After four seasons, ABC canceled “Mork & Mindy” and the show began an extremely successful run in syndication.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show & Phyllis
“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.
In 1975, CBS offered “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” supporting actress Cloris Leachman a spin-off series based on her previous role as Phyllis Lindstrom, Moore’s nosy landlady. “Phyllis” premiered that September and rose quickly in the ratings. The sitcom took advantage of Leachman’s ample talents, showcasing her in a variety of both dramatic and comedic scenarios throughout the series’ successful three-season run.
Both “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Phyllis” continue to charm audiences in syndication.
After great success with groundbreaking sitcoms like “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons,” pioneering television producer Norman Lear wanted to create a show that reflected the everyday lives of close-knit, modern African-American families in the US. He designed “Good Times,” which premiered in 1974, as a vehicle for just this purpose – to portray the African-American experience through humor and love.
“Good Times” starred accomplished actors Esther Rolle and John Amos as Florida and James Evans, a working class African-American couple sharing an apartment with their three children in a Chicago housing project. Though the sitcom was set up to be an ensemble production, the breakout star of the bunch was undoubtedly Jimmie Walker. As J.J., the Evans’ teenage son, Walker’s expressive, lanky frame and over the top verbal performance dominated the show’s comedic appeal. Seemingly overnight, Walker’s comic catchphrase, “Dy-no-mite!,” became part of the national vocabulary.
Though Jimmie Walker’s outsized acting was popular from the start, it spurred controversy amongst the “Good Times” cast and crew. Several key members of the show’s staff, including Walker’s onscreen father John Amos and producer Norman Lear, viewed Walker’s act as simple buffoonery, distracting audiences and devaluing the intended social and cultural mission. Despite the disagreements, “Good Times” managed six highly rated seasons before its cancellation in 1979.
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.”
After a highly successful 9-year run writing for NBC’s late night sketch comedy series “Saturday Night Live,” comedian, writer and actress Tina Fey took her talents across the hall to create “30 Rock,” a satirical sitcom based in part on her experience as SNL’s head writer. “30 Rock” premiered in 2006 with a hilarious all-star cast that included Alec Baldwin, Tracy Morgan and Jane Krakowski.
“30 Rock” revolutionized the single camera approach, which gave the show a more realistic appearance and forced the actors to rely on well-crafted scripts instead of audience reactions to fuel their comedic appeal. “30 Rock” was met with extensive critical acclaim, winning multiple Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG awards. However, the quirky, witty sitcom failed to build a substantial viewer base and struggled to stay afloat in the ratings. After seven full seasons on the air, NBC broadcast the final episode of “30 Rock” in 2013.