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The ‘bewitching’ 1960s sitcoms were an escape from a troubled decade for many people

By John Toth / Editor and Publisher

There was a time before reality shows, when things were a lot simpler – the 1960s sitcoms.

The ‘60s was a turbulent decade, and for many, the sitcoms were a way to escape from reality. For just a half hour, including commercials, we didn’t have to worry about Vietnam, assassinations, violence or pollution.

It was a perfect world inside the sitcom. Problems arose and were solved in 22 or so minutes, and the theme, for the most part, was as light as a feather. And, it was funny. We could escape into La La Land almost every night.

Sitcoms didn’t start in the 1960s, but the artform was perfected in that decade. And they used the same formula as their predecessors - the family.

The Ricardos in “I Love Lucy,” the show that aired first in 1951 and lasted through 1957, set the pace for family sitcom entertainment and paved the way for the ‘60s.

The Cleavers in “Leave it to Beaver,” from 1957 to 1963, were a quintessential piece of baby boomer lore, extolling the virtues of hard work and marriage. The whole idea of suburban life was a fairly new concept on primetime television.

Then came the Taylors in “The Andy Griffith Show.” This show was a smash ratings hit, and also gave us Don Knotts and Ron Howard.

But what makes this Taylor family (not the Taylors of “Friday Night Lights” - clear eyes, full hearts) revolutionary, is that as a widower, Sheriff Andy Taylor became one of the first single parents on primetime television.

And, there were the Petries in the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” which aired for eight years starting in 1961. This show made Mary Tyler Moore famous, but for the most part, it was just for fun. Nothing groundbreaking here on the surface. Looking a little closer, a single woman is trying to make a go of it in television news. That’s a hard task. But Mary made it look easy.

“I Love Lucy” addressed childbirth on the show, but it was not the first one to do it. When Lucy got pregnant in real life, it was worked into the show. That’s nothing now, but in those days it was monumental.

The first show to do it was “Mary Kay and Johnny,” 1947 to 1950. It was about a young couple who lived in Greenwich Village. She’d get into silly situations; he’d have to get her out. The stars were married in real life. Their names were Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns.

In 1948, Mary Kay had a baby. They wrote the pregnancy into the show, and the baby appeared on screen when he was a month old. Mary Kay and Johnny was also the first situation comedy on network TV.

The show lasted for 300 episodes, but its fate is unknown. Fragments of the show’s last few episodes survive, most on 16-mm film, but are not commercially available.

But back to the ‘60s, when sitcoms were king.

There were many shows and spin-offs of shows that aired on the three networks in the 1960s. You and I have our favorites, but in two surveys I have found on the Internet machine, “The Andy Griffith Show,” placed No. 1.

Regarding the tone of the show, Griffith once said that despite a contemporary setting, the show evoked nostalgia.

Stating in a “Today Show” interview: “Well, though we never said it, and though it was shot in the 1960s, it had a feeling of the 1930s. It was, when we were doing it, of a time gone by.”

The show never finished lower than seventh in the ratings, and landed No. 1 in its last season. It was the ultimate feel-good show.

I had a lot of favorite sitcoms while growing up – “That Girl,” “Green Acres,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Get Smart,” and “Flying Nun,” to name a few. But my favorite was “Bewitched,” with Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha. The show, from 1964 to 1972, was about a witch who marries an ordinary mortal man, and vows to lead the life of a typical suburban housewife.

The plot each week was simple and funny. And while as a pre-teen I had this thing for Samantha, my favorite character was Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor who tried to expose Samantha as a witch, but wound up looking foolish instead.

Most of us have had neighbors like that at one time or another.

Samantha went through two Gladyses and two husbands, but the show kept on working.
You could say that it was bewitching. Now, how corny of an ending is that? About as corny as the 1960s sitcoms.