Barefoot On The Roof: A Look at LOVE ON A ROOFTOP

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing some brief thoughts on — and selecting favorite episodes of — the single-season ’60s comedy Love On A Rooftop (1966-1967, ABC), which featured Alias Smith And Jones star Peter Deuel and Laugh-In’s Judy Carne as a newlywed couple living in a small top-floor apartment in San Francisco. He was an orphaned working-class architect while she, an art student, came from a wealthy family — in fact, her parents recurred and were played by Herb Voland and Edith Atwater. Rounding out the regular cast were a joke-writing Rich Little and a peppy Barbara Bostock as the younger couple’s friends and neighbors. The single-camera comedy ran for 30 episodes and was co-created and executive produced by Screen Gems’ Bernard Slade (Bewitched, The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family).

Love On A Rooftop has been a long time coming on this blog and we’ve referenced it quite a bit in association with other shows from this era that either claimed a similar premise — the cute couple in the big city — or were part of the same trend in programming: the decade’s increasing outreach to the young, urban demographic. However, with only 23 of its 30 episodes in circulation — and available for screening when choosing favorite episodes — I kept prolonging our look at Rooftop in the hope that I’d one day be able to complete my collection. Now, as we’re revisiting the ’60s, I’ve decided to bite the proverbial bullet and press forward with some basic coverage of the series and selections for the best of what I’ve seen. (Incidentally, the episodes I’m missing are “Going Home To Daughter,” “Let It Rain,” “Musical Apartments,” “Low Calorie Love,” “The Sell Out,” “Debt Of Gratitude,” “Murder In Apartment D,” and my copy of “The Letter Bug” is without its teaser. If you have any of these, please let me know — I’d love to expand the sample upon which this entry is based!) Note that most of the available 23 entries are currently findable, as of this publication, on YouTube. Now, let’s go…

For starters, Bernard Slade, future playwright of Same Time, Next Year, denies any intentional similarity between Love On A Rooftop and Barefoot In The Park, Neil Simon’s hit 1963 play that became a film in 1967, but even before this show premiered, industry insiders were already making the connection. Indeed, it’s hard to miss — newlyweds, flighty wife clashing against a more rigid husband, tiny walkup apartment, the big city, etc. — and it was common knowledge that the play was then being courted for a formal television adaptation, which eventually arrived in 1970 when Neil Simon came to the small screen on ABC’s Thursday night schedule with Paramount’s Barefoot In The Park. That series, which notably starred an African-American couple, only lasted a half-year, while its neighbor, the TV version of Simon’s The Odd Couple, went on to a well-remembered five-year run… At any rate, following the play’s initial 1963 opening, “Barefoot In The Park” became a programming subgenre for the suits and the press, and this subgenre included any comedy that featured a pair of romantic twenty-somethings living in a large city. Beyond Love On A Rooftop, other shows in this vein included my beloved He & She (1967-1968, CBS), about young marrieds in a New York apartment, and even the higher concept Occasional Wife (1966-1967, NBC), another Screen Gems comedy from the same season as Love On A Rooftop that shared an executive producer in Harry Ackerman and concerned the domestic lives of a young cosmopolitan couple… only the high-concept part was that they weren’t actually married and only pretended to be for his career. Obviously, that isn’t a direct take on Simon’s quintessential romantic comedy format, but it uses this as a launching pad and aims for the kind of Broadway farce that, frankly, only writers of Simon’s caliber could do.

Slade is no slouch, however, as his work on shows like the couple-driven Bewitched indicates, and he definitely had a fascination with bringing romantic comedies to TV, for just as aspects of the Samantha/Darrin relationship appear in these early Love On A Rooftop scripts, he essentially took his central ideas for this series — which he forever called his favorite — and applied them again to both Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973, CBS), the controversial post-All In The Family comedy that retained the big city newlywed premise (she’s rich, he’s poor) but added in an Abie’s Irish Rose wrinkle based on their families’ religious differences, and even The Girl With Something Extra (1973-1974, NBC), which merged the supernatural premise of Bewitched with Slade’s couple-focus, but very much wanted to be in the Love On A Rooftop category. Heck, its leading lady, Sally Field (with whom Slade had worked on The Flying Nun) even herself compared these shows. Speaking of which, more precise elements of Love On A Rooftop found their way in these later works, too — including the oft-quoted exchange between husband and wife, “You’re rich?” / “You make it sound like some kind of disease!” — and a comedically broad story about the couple’s efforts to procure a bed: an idea also used, incidentally, on the official 1970 adaptation of Barefoot In The Park… This goes to say that all the couple-coms referenced above, those by Slade and those not by Slade, had much in common — enough to give critics and executives the opportunity to associate them under the “Neil Simon wannabe” umbrella, from the moment Barefoot began until even after the actual TV Barefoot had come and gone.

I belabor this connection because Love On A Rooftop is probably the closest sitcom to the play in question, courtesy of an elemental cuteness that’s imparted by the premise and reinforced by Slade’s tone, but is largely the result of a more direct and conflict-providing depiction of the main characters, which intentionally highlights their differences in both upbringing, and more importantly, attitude. That is, they both share an optimism that’s essential to newlyweds, but with a different way of viewing the world — the free-spirit vs. the grounded, the liberal vs. the conservative, the nonconformist vs. the traditionalist. This is common in the sitcom but it’s always smart because it hinges around clashes of character and seeks to use their relationship to motivate story. Well, ideally… In truth, the best episodes below exploit believable (emphasis on believable) clashes between the two leads, but being a ’60s comedy, there’s a lot of story-driven and external forces that propel plot and hope for hahas, like the one-joke nuisance of Rich Little’s neighbor, who’s likable though non-dimensional, and the predictable incorporation of her parents, the understanding mom and the overprotective dad. They work when they’re truly supportive, but never when they’re asked to do more… At any rate, if Slade’s series doesn’t quite live up to its smart design consistently in story, it at least has a strong foundation in the main couple’s characters, so Rooftop isn’t relying as much on its premise as Occasional Wife or The Girl With Something Extra, both high-concept, or on its supporting players as much as Bridget Loves Bernie, where the main couple is bland and, unsurprisingly, only the in-laws bring the laughs. It’s not even relying on its casting, like ABC’s Barefoot In The Park, which uses its truly novel decision to star a Black couple as an excuse not to define them beyond their color.

On the other hand, Leonard Stern’s He & She is less like Barefoot than Love On A Rooftop is like Barefoot, but I can’t present that as a criticism, for while there certainly are shared attributes — the premise, the couple’s basic depiction, the theatrical quality — it mostly eschews the He vs. She design in favor of a more utilizable ensemble and writing that’s even more low-concept and realistic: a style more like the personnel-sharing MTM shows of the early ’70s than in anything from the ’60s, outside of a few short-lived efforts and the seemingly out-of-place (but not) The Dick Van Dyke Show. Accordingly, though I can’t say it had leads as easily defined as Rooftop’s, He & She’s were realer, and they didn’t need such basic elemental differences to tell us who they were or how they could propel conflict. In other words, there was more nuance — fewer clichés — and in some ways, the kind of character writing Neil Simon was offering on Broadway was better displayed on the multi-cam He & She than on the single-cam Rooftop, even if it wasn’t the singularly focused romantic comedy that both the latter and Barefoot suggested. (It’s worth mentioning that Richard Benjamin had appeared in several Simon shows, including Barefoot In The Park, prior to taking this series with his wife…) Of course, like RooftopHe & She wasn’t able to be what it wanted to be every moment of its single-season run, but once the writing reconciled its interest in the slapstick silliness of the era with the forward-thinking realism it also intended — motivating this through believable, human characters and a central couple that oozed chemistry — it was able to create an elevated baseline that was more laudable than most hits’. To that point, I think He & She is superior to Rooftop — with better, more consistent writing, and on the whole, a stronger, funnier, more reliable cast. (Check out our in-depth piece on the series for more on why He & She is a great ’60s comedy.)

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that although He & She and Love On A Rooftop met the same fate after just one season, it was Rooftop that actually looked primed for more success. Not only did it get more consistently good reviews upon its debut by critics who were eager to push the sitcom into a more honest and modern era, but its early ratings also suggested a bigger hit — at least as far as its network was concerned. (Remember, ABC was in last place throughout the ’60s, while CBS was in first place; the standards to remain on CBS were therefore higher than on ABC.) Unlike He & She, which basically hovered around the magic numbers for renewal throughout most of its run, never quite turning into a clear-cut success, Rooftop premiered strong in its Tuesday at 9:30 berth — when ABC decided to debut all its new shows a week ahead of the other networks’ — and remained competitive (Top 30) for a few weeks. But it slowly eroded during the fall, falling out of the Top 70(!) on a ranked list that included Nielsen ratings for October–December (excluding September and the premiere gimmick). However, given its initially strong performance, the network hoped that it could improve Rooftop’s standing by giving it a better slot — on Thursday nights behind the top-ten-rated Bewitched (ABC’s most popular show). It moved there in January and quickly sank, also dragging down its other neighbor, fellow freshman comedy That Girl (1966-1971, ABC), another youthful urban sample that the network was more committed to salvaging due to its just-outside-the-Top-40 performance that fall. It ended up #57 for the season, as Love On A Rooftop finished at #68 (thanks to September). For reference, all evidence points to He & She having finished the ’67-’68 season somewhere just outside its Top 40. But, again, standards were higher at CBS.

As for “standards,” you’ll notice that all these shows, as usual, lived and died based on the traditional metrics: how they performed within the “total viewers” framework that the networks mostly used to set ad prices. We first discussed this back when we examined the Rural Purge and noted how, with few exceptions (like Mayberry R.F.D.), all of the axed series were killed because they were too costly and/or lost popularity — not because they weren’t reaching a purportedly desired demographic. No, by and large, demo-targeting was always just an excuse to justify why shows were dropped when the answer was the same: the network believed an alternative would be more profitable. Very rarely, if ever in this era, were cancellations dependent on a lack of success with a designated segment of the population, instead of the population as a whole… That said, demo-targeting could be a factor in development, as we saw recently with Dobie Gillis, which was created to reach several key groups, specifically a teen audience for whom, like their younger siblings, the networks wanted to program during each night’s earliest time slots. So, it’s absolutely true that throughout the late ’60s and into the ’70s, the networks hoped to secure types of viewers that they felt were good to have in large supply, for although survival rates were still contingent on how shows performed with the ENTIRE viewing public — did they meet the minimum thresholds? — the idea of courting a younger, more urban crowd (presumed to be more desirable) was practiced via new, and often short-lived, programs.

In fact, Variety‘s first reference to the medium thinking about “demographics” was in 1960 — the same year TV attempted to revamp the suburban sitcom by making it more sophisticated, ultimately landing on Dick Van Dyke — while the 18-49 grouping we still use today made its debut in Television Magazine during 1964, right around the time that the lower-rated networks began trying to redefine the industry’s definition of success by creating shows apparently geared for a specific subset of this bracket, namely twenty-something city-dwellers, hoping to claim victory if they indeed reached them… no matter how these shows performed with the entire public and whether they were even worth renewing. Some of the first sitcoms like this to make it to air include the Tom, Dick, and Mary part of 90 Bristol Court (1964-1965) and Mona McCluskey (1965-1966), both from NBC. But it wasn’t until 1966-’67 when an influx of comedies was developed for this younger half of the 18-49 demo, including NBC’s Hey, Landlord! and Occasional Wife, along with ABC’s aforementioned That Girl and, of course, Love On A Rooftop. Of this lot, the best rated was That Girl and it was the only one to earn renewal. The next year (1967-1968), CBS — the most-watched network and usually the influencer — got reactive for a change and decided to see if it could make a play for this group, offering a Dick Van Dyke wannabe called Good Morning, World and the legitimately unique He & She, which needed time to settle into its identity. Both were cancelled, but by then, other genres had some success, such as variety series like The Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In, and the medium started to cultivate the viewers it had long claimed to want, eventually zeroing in on them even more in the early ’70s when the Prime-Time Access Rule forced a realignment that coincided with the success, for the first time, of the more realistic comedies that had previously flopped.

That’s not to say Love On A Rooftop is a realistic forerunner of these ’70s hits. Probably nobody at the time — save maybe Bernard Slade — was under that impression. Unlike He & She, which was rerun by CBS in the summer of 1970 when its execs wanted to prepare viewers for their new “relevant” (read: youth-appealing) programming in the upcoming season, Love On A Rooftop’s similar summer revival by ABC in 1971 merely occurred to capitalize on the fact that its leads had since found individual success on other shows. Accordingly, Love On A Rooftop, despite Slade’s maintained fondness (and its future comparison to his later efforts), did not receive the same glowing “overlooked gem” and “ahead of its time” coverage that He & She got, and setting aside that I reject the “ahead of its time” notion — He & She, like Love On A Rooftop is OF its time — I think this difference is because Rooftop denies the realism of the ’70s in favor of the false-but-charming romantic quality of the ’60s, which was just one way shows of that era fed into the decade’s escapism trend. That is, Love On A Rooftop wasn’t high-concept or wacky or even overly broad, but it depicted such an idealized way of life that it might as well have been all of those things. And while He & She was a liminal endeavor that combined elements of comedic heightening rooted in the mid-’60s with a push towards low-concept character realism that would blossom in the early ’70s, Love On A Rooftop is even more decidedly ’60s, with its strengths and weakness entrenched in the strengths and weaknesses of this era. We’ve discussed the basic criticisms above — the key one being that it’s forced to rely on external sources for comedy and drama, despite its otherwise straightforward and simple design for clashes between two opposing leads. However, many of the early episodes, written by Slade, actually give an example of what Love On A Rooftop is supposed to be: television’s warm, feel-good take on the newlywed rom-com exemplified best by Barefoot In The Park. Here is a no-frills list of my favorite episodes (of the 23 I’ve had the pleasure to screen).

  • Episode 1: “Pilot” (09/06/66) — sets up the premise beautifully, very Barefoot
  • Episode 2: “117 Ways To Cook Hamburger” (09/13/66) — tonally like the above
  • Episode 3: “My Husband, The Knight” (09/20/66) — situation-driven, à la ’60s
  • Episode 4: “The Big Brass Bed” (09/27/66) — common newlywed fodder
  • Episode 6: “The Chocolate Hen” (10/11/66) — conflict between two characters
  • Episode 21: “Who Was That Husband I Saw You With?” (02/02/67) — fun farce
  • Episode 22: “Shotgun Honeymoon” (02/09/67) — another premise-based farce

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned for more Andy Griffith!