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.
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.”