Which is the best sitcom ever made? I suppose the answer depends on which generation you’re from. But what do you think? Will earthlings still be watching reruns of Seinfeld and Friends in fifty years? Perhaps not, and that is why I find it so remarkable that you can still find The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver – two sitcoms from the sixties – on the rerun circuit. And why are they still around? Because they were both amazingly, wonderfully written, funny, real, and filled with great, enduring characters. Of such are great stories made.
A traveling salesman once told me of an experience he had stopping at a rough bar/restaurant in Montana. It was lunchtime and the place was packed and noisy. Above the din, Jerry Springer blared from a wall-mounted TV, but no one was paying attention. The salesman asked the bartender if he could change the channel and at first the bartender refused. Eventually though he relented and happened to turn to the Andy Griffith show with good old Andy, Opie (who grew up to be director Ron Howard), Aunt Bea, Gomer Pyle, and one of the most enduring characters in sitcom history – Don Knotts as Barney Fife. Within five minutes the restaurant was quiet as everyone focused on the TV and watched this G-rated comedy weave its story of characters interacting in a small town in North Carolina.
Leave it to Beaver has had a similar universal appeal over the years. Back in 1979, I was working full-time and attending Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, California about 35 miles south of San Francisco. I was taking a class in Radio and TV broadcasting towards a two-year degree in Social Science. The class was loaded with twenty to thirty year-olds, most of whom had ambitions of being disk jockeys on a rock-and-roll station. Usually classes were quiet affairs, the professor lecturing and most of the class seemingly bored, stoned, and staring out the window or fighting to stay awake. However, one day the professor made the mistake of making an off-hand slightly derogatory remark about Leave it to Beaver – some reference to it being an unrealistic show that could appeal only to straight-laced Americans. I’m sure to the professor, it seemed like a safe comment to make to the mostly long-haired, alternative students in his class. But to his and my surprise, suddenly the class came to life. Eyes opened. Students sat up. Chins lifted from palms.
“Excuse me,” said one long-haired, red-eyed student. “I rush home from school every day at 4:30 to catch the reruns.”
“C’mon,” said the teacher. “June Cleaver (the mother) wearing pearls while she vacuums. Ward, her husband, wearing a suit to dinner every night. How ridiculous!”
“A half-stoned student roused himself and said aggressively, “Every show is like me and my little brother when we were growing up.”
The class buzzed angrily. Voices of agreement peppered the room while the teacher looked bewildered and tried arguing back. A vigorous five minute discussion ensued at the end of which the teacher had to back-pedal on his comments to prevent a riot from breaking out (okay, slight exaggeration).
Leave it to Beaver ran from 1957 to 1963 and was created by former Amos ‘n’ Andy writers Bob Mosher and Joe Connolly who also wrote all 234 episodes. The stories were simple and timeless. Beaver and his older brother Wally deliver newspapers to earn money for a bicycle. Aunt Martha buys Beaver short pants to wear to school. Ward loans Beaver a dollar. Wally’s smarmy friend Edie Haskell, another all-time great sitcom character, gives Beaver a lesson on girls. Simple, gentle stories that nevertheless touched something real and good and timeless in many people. And in its own way, it was much more realistic in its portrayal of children and adolescents than many of the shows I see on TV today. Today, children in sitcoms are given dialogue by the adult writers that all too often portray them as little adults, smarter and more worldly-wise than their parents, and more hip about sex. Now that is what I call unrealistic.
My next post will be something political or perhaps a commentary on the evolution of corporate culture. Or maybe not.