Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, I’ve got another Clip Show post, where, just like I did with Good Times, I’m sharing some thoughts on other previously discussed sitcoms that have come up in our recent coverage of Barney Miller, adding valuable context to the study. Don’t worry, my picks for the best of Barney Miller’s fifth season will come tomorrow — this is just a bonus Sitcom Tuesday (making up for one of the two that I owe you from February), a chance for me to support my thesis that the finest comedies from the late ’70s offer some kind of calibration of the character-driven and idea-driven aesthetics represented this decade by MTM and Norman Lear’s efforts, respectively. I’m also eager to address Night Court, which is going to be a guiding point of reference for tomorrow’s Barney Miller entry, so let’s go…
01) SOAP (Season One)
Episode 21 (Aired: 02/21/78)
Elaine meets Danny’s family; Jessica’s trial begins.
Written by Susan Harris | Directed by Jay Sandrich
This parody of daytime soap operas created and helmed by former All In The Family and Maude contributor Susan Harris, who notably penned “Maude’s Dilemma,” is not only reminiscent of Norman Lear’s similarly conceived (but non-sitcom) Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it’s also a very obvious descendant of his philosophy, for although Soap isn’t exactly politically motivated, it too is an idea-driven comedy hinged around satisfying specific narrative notions while also reveling in the taboo topicality (see: Corinne’s romance with a Catholic priest) on which Lear’s shows thrived. Accordingly, Soap is more than just an idea-driven comedy from the late ’70s, it’s a non-Lear extension of Lear… However, true to what we’ve discussed, the best comedies from this era simultaneously indicate the decade’s dueling styles, and Soap balances its Lear-ian elements with Mary Tyler Moore alum Jay Sandrich as its resident director. His inclusion for over half the run speaks to a low-concept relationship-based character ethos that exists within Harris’ high-concept storytelling structure, and I use this strong installment from Season One as an example of how the show is still spoofing daytime serial tropes — mob families, courtroom scenes, illicit affairs — but building out those centerpieces with comedy that’s, yes, broader than we’d find in the earlier part of the decade (see: Burt’s invisibility, Chuck & Bob, etc.), but still largely dependent on well-defined leads. Take, for instance, Jessica’s trial, where the laughs and jeopardy come from her behavior, not from the clichés being mocked. In this and so many other outings, Soap offers a nice pairing of characters and ideas — and its MTM and Lear associations, to be precise — making it one of the best sitcoms from this period (and a precursor to Harris’ lower concept The Golden Girls).
02) THREE’S COMPANY (Season Three)
Episode 53: “Triangle Troubles” (Aired: 05/15/79)
Jack conceals his living arrangement from his new girlfriend, who has a similar situation…
Written by Al Gordon & Jack Mendelsohn | Directed by Dave Powers
As with Soap, I consider Three’s Company to be a descendant of the Lear aesthetic, not just because it was created and run by Nicholl/Ross/West (of All In The Family and The Jeffersons), but also because it, too, was based on a mildly topical British series that enjoyed titillatingly taboo topicality — only, again, not quite politically motivated, but more socially, and in this case, sexually (with a character pretending to be gay — something that wouldn’t have been fathomable on TV prior to Lear). Now, it may seem odd to draw such comparisons between Lear and Three’s Company, since the latter is so obviously goofy — part of the concerted swing back to broader, less serious fare — but this show’s capacity for social relevance given its premise’s exploitation of changing mores can’t be understated. What’s more, it’s another fundamentally idea-led show, not exploring characters, but exploring how this scenario can lead to farcical plots that yield the series’ desired slapstick, at which this cast (particularly John Ritter) is proficient… And yet, farce is an oft-misunderstood style of comedy, for while it’s situational, and story beats take precedence over character beats, the best farces require clear objectives and well-established perspectives that can justify them. Frasier does this well, and Three’s Company, though its leads are less intelligent and the stories therefore feel less intelligent too, deserves more credit than it gets for how it crafts plot. As for this episode, I chose it because it honors the show’s concept and includes Chrissy’s father, a reverend who reminds of the Lear-ian social dynamics and indicates its need for strong, unique perspectives. Okay, I’d never claim the series has excellent character work, but it usually satisfies its non-lofty idea-based interests and has a socially intriguing dramatic weight otherwise absent in the other silly comedies of the late ’70s.
03) THE JEFFERSONS (Season Six)
Episode 113: “A Short Story” (Aired: 09/30/79)
George gets an award for being a small businessman — that is, a short businessman.
Written by Neil Lebowitz | Directed by Bob Lally
We’ve talked a bit about The Jeffersons recently and where it fits within Norman Lear’s oeuvre, recognizing how it offers strong characters and well-defined relationships that give emotional aid to its socially relevant premise, making it more possible to maximize comedy and drama, regardless of whether the thesis is explicit every week. But it’s worth reiterating because, as with all idea-led Lear efforts, the novelty of concept soon dwindles, and it’s a testament to these characters that the series is able to carry on for a while without becoming as dire as Good Times, navigating the previously discussed “Very Special Episode era” by making said special episodes feel a bit more earned, for, just as with comedy, there’s more support from the personified tangibles than on, say, One Day At A Time or the lifeless Archie Bunker’s Place. In fact, The Jeffersons, which I’d call Lear’s best ’70s hit to outlast the decade, manages to be decent through Season Seven. This is vaguely commensurate with All In The Family, even though I’m tougher on the latter because its standards are higher, particularly with character. To that point, when crediting these leads for helping The Jeffersons achieve a long run, I also have to admit that part of its survival involves trafficking in broad stories and hacky yuks that are indicative of this looser era but require the leads to exist more like caricatures than those on All In The Family, rendering this show far less sincere, even if it’s as structurally sound. Eventually there will come a point of no return for The Jeffersons, as there always is with Lear, but in the years where it’s a contemporary of Barney Miller, it’s still a mostly fun watch, with lowered standards of logic but a generally comic reflection of how Lear’s idea-driven endeavors are adapting to this liminal era — utilizing characterizations that can enable, or at least exist within, the kind of broad notions necessary to sustain comedy/drama despite a downplayed central premise. This installment, with a jokey, convenient plot is proof: it has little to do with the series’ dramatic thesis and reduces its leads’ believabilities, but it’s an easily funny idea that works for George’s persona, justifying the big reactions other Lear shows only wish they could motivate.
04) WKRP IN CINCINNATI (Season Two)
Episode 35: “God Talks To Johnny” (Aired: 12/31/79)
Johnny is convinced that God spoke directly to him.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Just as The Jeffersons shows how an actual series from Lear’s idea-first stable adjusts to changing times, WKRP is fascinating because it’s got the MTM logo stamped on its rear end, giving us a chance to talk about the evolution within the company that spearheaded the ’70s’ character-driven sitcommery. And indeed, this series was created by Hugh Wilson, who wrote for Bob Newhart (and Tony Randall), and it’s structured like late-run Mary Tyler Moore: as an ensemble workplace comedy that also goes to their homes. However, despite this design and, as in MTM’s best, generally distinct and well-defined leads who are basically believable due to their consistencies, WKRP is much more narratively interested in Lear-ian social relevance than the rest of Moore’s brand. A good chunk of stories, especially in the middle of the run, concern topical events or sociopolitical commentary that guides focus away from the regulars, who weren’t prepared to offer such serious moments, especially within the series’ heightened modus operandi, where there’s a comic broadness that’s typical for this era but not for MTM. Of course, that’s because this show is less character-oriented en masse; its best episodes — “Turkeys Away,” for one — all deal with funny, gimmicky ideas that are perhaps supported by the premise, but less affiliated with the leads’ depictions than those on MTM’s other hits. Accordingly, we can see MTM in the late ’70s becoming less exclusively character-driven and considerably more conceptual (comedic or didactic) — an active adoption of Lear’s ideology. Personally, I think that makes this show less rewarding, for the character work suffers while the stories, especially when there’s political posturing, feel unsupported. But this excursion is one of WKRP’s more favorable examples, for it picks a subject — religion — to spark its comedic and dramatic engine, while also showing off the leads’ separate characterizations, each having a different understanding of God and the afterlife. In this regard, there’s a blend of the ’70s’ competing sitcom doctrines, per the best of this transitional era.
05) TAXI (Season Three)
Episode 54: “Latka’s Cookies” (Aired: 02/05/81)
Latka’s grandma’s special cookies have cocaine in them.
Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles | Directed by James Burrows
If Soap and Three’s Company are descendants of Lear because they’re idea-led sitcoms created by scribes who had worked on his shows, then Taxi is MTM’s equivalent, for it’s a character-led sitcom created by folks directly from the company — all of whom wrote on the mothership (Mary Tyler Moore), and were closer to the original MTM aesthetic than WKRP’s Hugh Wilson (working for MTM). So, this is much more character-oriented than those above, with a maintained focus in story on how precision and consistency can create well-built leads and actually give them an internal emotional truth, even if they’re broader than the norm. And, yes, Taxi‘s got a few leads who are certainly broader than MTM’s norm — Latka, Jim, Louie, Simka — and they help enable the kind of loud, bolder comedy that typifies most of the late ’70s’ output, making the quieter Barney Miller stand out as an outlier, because, hey, even a show like Taxi — known for a similar sensitivity afforded to its palpably human leads (even the dastardly Louie gets depth!) — is indulging sitcom tropes and comedically conceived idea-based centerpieces, like dream sequences and flashbacks, which prohibit the concept of total truth. Meanwhile, although there’s not an obvious Lear-ian influence — well, perhaps Louie, an antagonistic force who also has some emotional fortification, is trackable to the success of Archie Bunker — the storytelling does allow for ideas to dictate character usage. Take this entry, which I cite because it’s Taxi’s version of Barney Miller’s “Hash.” Comparing the two, Taxi’s is also motivated by the funny idea (not its characters), but it’s significantly more extreme, for while there’s more specificity to each lead — they react differently when high, in accordance with their personas — the climax is a gaudy sketch-like encounter between Latka and Famous Amos. Thus, stronger characters pair with grander comic ideas to make a show that displays a shift away from MTM’s more realistic, sincere ethos (and also reveals obvious differences from the natural Barney Miller), but ultimately finds a balance that usually hits better than WKRP’s and the other contemporaries’ discussed above, for Taxi’s big, gaudy notions are often created by, or at least tailored for, its brilliantly defined and relatively believable leads, which lets it claim better character work, smarter ideas, and consequently, more memorable episodic gems.
06) CHEERS (Season Two)
Episode 29: “Old Flames” (Aired: 11/17/83)
Diane wants Sam to give up his little black book, prompting a fight.
Written by David Angell | Directed by James Burrows
Cheers was referenced in our Barney Miller coverage to illustrate how another workplace sitcom with believable characters could eschew procedural story trappings — the guest of the week — to instead put its leads directly in conflict, for Cheers’ regulars are clearer and stronger because of their direct, relational usage, with laughs and drama centered on them. The trade-off, though, is that Cheers gives in a bit to narrative clichés and the heightening that’s an intrinsic side effect of juxtaposition and spotlighted exposure, which Barney Miller is usually not willing to do — that’s a threat to total truth — instead opting to put most of the comedic and dramatic burden on the revolving door of cases and criminals, sparing the leads of potential damage… and the triumphant reactions they could help earn. The episode I’ve selected from Cheers’ second season capably illustrates its differences from Barney Miller, for its plot is sparked by the arrival of a guest into the bar, but the drama is about what his presence does to Sam and Diane and their relationship, which supplies the humor and the tension, not the guest or the job. Now, I also mention Cheers because it’s a descendant of Taxi — coming from James Burrows and the Charles Brothers — and indicates an evolution away from the late ’70s’ broadness, back to more low-concept, exclusively character-driven interests, along with more of a relationship bent that can uphold some of the latter’s comic bigness. Speaking of which, while this series and these leads do heighten considerably over the course of its 11-year run, the early seasons display deliciously well-defined regulars whose reliable identifiabilities and emotional trackabilities render them seemingly true. And because of Cheers’ character-poised design, which wants its leads to propel A-stories, the show is able to deliver some of the finest half hour samples ever produced for this genre — with a near-unrivaled consistency, progressing the MTM DNA into the ’80s: bigger than Mary Tyler Moore, but just as genuine and well-motivated.
07) NIGHT COURT (Season Four)
Episode 69: “Murder” (Aired: 01/08/87)
Harry doesn’t believe a woman’s confession of murder; Dan considers donating sperm.
Written by Reinhold Weege | Directed by Jeff Melman
Night Court is relevant here because of creator Reinhold Weege, who started contributing to Barney Miller during its second season, rising through the ranks to become a producer during its fifth (his last). We’ve seen how his style is broader and more laugh-seeking than Barney Miller’s baseline, with a boldness about procuring reactions — both guffaws and tears — that occasionally threatens the show’s realism. It’s worthwhile, then, to study how his own series utilizes elements of Barney Miller — like an ensemble workplace design that prefers to stay on the job for procedural idea-driven narrative trappings, which also get to carry a good portion of the comedic and dramatic load in episodic story (sometimes didactic) — while also embracing qualities unique to Weege, like more of a traditional understanding of how characters should exist in plot. That is, Weege allows Night Court to give more weekly play to its leads, whom he often puts in A-stories for conflicts that inherently emphasize big personas, which, in comparison, wouldn’t jibe with Barney Miller’s naturalism, and indeed end up inviting a sense of absurdity that permeates both the professional plots and the personal ones. This outing, written by Weege and from one of the show’s best seasons, is notable not only because its guest is Florence Stanley (Mrs. Fish), but also because it uses ideas very reminiscent of Barney Miller, like the jokey interest in sperm banks, a topical notion with mild social relevance. Aesthetically, it’s also a great example of how this show balances a procedural plot that’s bold and goes for huge comedy and drama, with a personal yarn of equal weight — for the show’s largest character, Dan — earning equitable emotional responses as a result, particularly humor that veers towards realism-poking exaggeration (see: both the partner-less detective, and the climax with Dan and the sperm bank lady). This wouldn’t work on Barney Miller, but Night Court has more of a capacity for silliness, and as long as character is invoked in healthy support (and the hahas feel fresh), it works — not as consistently as the more character-driven Cheers, since Night Court’s apparatus is half idea-based and thus less reliable, but enough that it can often be enjoyable on Weege’s own terms, which, well, are NOT Danny Arnold’s. More soon…
Please submit all questions related to my thoughts as expressed in this post on the “Ask Jackson (Q&A)” page, which you can find in the menu bar above. Or stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry to discuss the Night Court/Barney Miller connection, specifically!
Come back tomorrow for the best from Season Five of Barney Miller!