The American TV Sitcom Turns 75!

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re celebrating the 75th anniversary of what historians widely call American television’s first network sitcom: the husband-and-wife comedy Mary Kay And Johnny, which starred real-life couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns as a version of themselves — young marrieds living in lower Manhattan.

Initially a live 15-minute weekly program on the DuMont network (which was then just a small connection of stations based in New York City), Mary Kay And Johnny premiered on November 18, 1947. In October 1948, the series expanded to a half hour — the traditional length of a sitcom — for its second season, which was now on NBC (except for a few brief months — March to June 1949 — when it was instead broadcast over CBS’ northeastern affiliates). During the summer of 1949 (and back on NBC), the series reverted to its original 15-minute form for a nightly show, before once again returning to its half-hour weekly glory in its final season, by which time Mary Kay And Johnny had started to gain national exposure. Its final episode aired in March 1950, partially at the consent of the tired Stearns, who had produced the entire run.

Mary Kay And Johnny is best known today for its “firsts” — not only being this country’s first regularly scheduled network TV sitcom, but also for showing a couple in the same bed, likely for the first time in either the sitcom genre or any regularly scheduled series. Additionally, Mary Kay And Johnny predated I Love Lucy by four years in showcasing the first pregnant woman on a TV series, as the starring couple’s real-life blessed event was written into the action, and baby Christopher Stearns made his debut on the show in January 1949.

Unfortunately, so much of what we know today about the live Mary Kay And Johnny is from oral legend and written accounts, for only one episode is known to remain extant. It’s the June 13, 1949 broadcast from the series’ 15-minute summer run on NBC. This entry, which is housed at the Paley Center (I reviewed it here back in 2014), is interesting because it uses a story that would later be adapted on I Love Lucy. You can read my first impressions in the link above, but in 2022, I remember this one brief sample indicating a fairly light program with mild characterizations that relied on familiar tropes — he, the banker husband who thinks he knows best but doesn’t, and she, the slightly daffy homemaker who means well but is prone to confusion — and while it was amusing, it wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Perhaps the half-hour iteration had more comedy, but reviews indicate that it was always relatively light.

Nevertheless, in celebration of this show’s 75 anniversary, I want to share with you a clip from a 2002 episode of the documentary series Inside TV Land (“Taboo TV”), which included flashes of Mary Kay And Johnny’s one surviving 1949 broadcast in its segment on the TV Code’s rules about sex — and specifically, the marital bed. Most of the footage has (shallow) commentary or music over it; below is the only uninterrupted clip from that special longer than three seconds — a quick glimpse at an important piece of TV and sitcom history: a quiet foundation for a genre soon to thrive in this new medium. (See the full segment and credits link removed.)



Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical theatre rarity!