The sitcom was a 30-minute format featuring a continuing cast of characters that appeared in the same setting week after week. Audience laughter (either live or by way of an added “laugh track”) usually featured prominently in these shows, most of which were built around families. The situation comedy had been an enormously popular program type on radio, but it had a comparatively slow start on TV. Some of the most popular early sitcoms included Mama (CBS, 1949–57), The Aldrich Family (NBC, 1949–53), The Goldbergs (CBS/NBC/DuMont, 1949–56), Amos ’n’ Andy (CBS, 1951–53), and The Life of Riley (NBC, 1949–50 and 1953–58). It is noteworthy that these last three shows featured, not always respectfully, Jewish, African American, and lower-income characters, respectively. These groups would see little representation in the sitcom again until the 1970s. (See https://interviews.televisionacademy.com).
Television in the Fifties was replete with family oriented sit-coms, like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and The Donna Reed Show, which have been discussed above. Other TV family sit-coms included Happy Days and My Three Sons. More adult oriented sit-coms included I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball, and The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason.
Amos n’ Andy
Amos ‘n’ Andy was an American radio and television sitcom set in Harlem, the historic center of Afro-American culture in New York City. The original radio show, which ran from 1928 to 1960, was created, written and voiced by two white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who played Amos Jones (Gosden) and Andrew Hogg Brown (Correll), as well as incidental characters. When the show moved to television, black actors took over the majority of the roles; white characters were infrequent. The television adaptation ran on CBS with 52 filmed episodes(1951–53) and continued in syndicated reruns (1954–66).
Amos Jones and Andy Brown worked on a farm near Atlanta, Georgia, and during the first week’s episodes, they made plans to find a better life in Chicago, despite warnings from a friend. With four ham-and-cheese sandwiches and $24, they bought train tickets and headed for Chicago, where they lived in a rooming house on State Street and experienced some rough times before launching their own business, the Fresh Air Taxi Company.
Naïve but honest Amos was hard-working, and, after his marriage to Ruby Taylor also a dedicated family man. Andy was a gullible dreamer with overinflated self-confidence who tended to let Amos do most of the work. Their Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge leader, George “Kingfish” Stevens, would often lure them into get-rich-quick schemes or trick them into some kind of trouble. Other characters included John Augustus “Brother” Crawford, an industrious but long-suffering family man; Henry Van Porter, a social-climbing real estate and insurance salesman; Frederick Montgomery Gwindell, a hard-charging newspaperman; Algonquin J. Calhoun, a somewhat crooked lawyer, William Lewis Taylor, Ruby’s well-spoken, college-educated father; and Willie “Lightning” Jefferson, a slow-moving Stepin Fetchit–type character. The Kingfish’s catchphrase, “Holy mackerel!”, entered the American lexicon.
The main roles in the television series were played by the following black actors:
- Amos Jones – Alvin Childress
- Andrew Hogg Brown (Andy) – Spencer Williams
- George “Kingfish” Stevens – Tim Moore
- Sapphire Stevens – Ernestine Wade
- Ramona Smith (Sapphire’s Mama) – Amanda Randolph
- Algonquin J. Calhoun – Johnny Lee
- Lightnin’ – Nick Stewart (billed as “Nick O’Demus”)
- Ruby Jones – Jane Adams
The program’s portrayal of black life and culture was deemed by the black community of the period as an insulting return to the days of blackface and minstrelsy. The NAACP mounted a formal protest about the show almost as soon as the television version began, describing the show as “a gross libel of the Negro and distortion of the truth.” The NAACP and other civil rights organizations cited the program’s demeaning characterizations as a perpetuation of the “Stepin Fetchit” image of black people. Other harmful stereotypes that bothered the NAACP were Andy being portrayed as a dumb, shiftless lay-about; the Kingfish being a greedy, two-bit hustler who’ll rig up any scheme to keep his money; and Lightnin’, the kid, who helps Andy move into his “house,” is a goofball naïf.
The denunciation of Amos ‘n Andy was not universal. With its good writing and talented cast, the show was good comedy, and soon became a commercial success. The reaction of the black community over this well produced and very funny program remained divided. Even the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the black community’s most influential publications, defended the show in an article appearing in June 1951. Nevertheless, that pressure was a primary factor in the show’s cancellation, even though it finished at #13 in the 1951-1952 Nielsen ratings and at #25 in 1952-1953. CBS finally gave in to pressure from the NAACP and the growing civil rights movement and withdrew the program.
The Honeymooners (CBS, 1955–56), one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history, began in 1951 as a sketch within Cavalcade of Stars (DuMont, 1949–52), and it then became a recurring segment of The Jackie Gleason Show (CBS, 1952–55; 1957–59; and 1964–70). The popularity of the sketches led Gleason to rework The Honeymooners as a filmed half-hour series, which debuted October 1, 1955, on CBS. The final episode of The Honeymooners aired on September 22, 1956, although Gleason sporadically revived the characters until 1978.
As part of The Jackie Gleason Show, the Honeymooners sketches started off as a regular fixture of the series, though it wasn’t tapped into every week. In the 1952 season, those sketches usually ran between seven and thirteen minutes. The following season, those sketches ran for a minimum of thirty minutes, and sometimes longer. Then, in the 1954-55 season, they actually filled the entire hour of The Jackie Gleason Show. The show was doing so well in the ratings that it occasionally surpassed the viewership of I Love Lucy. In all, 39 episodes were produced.
For the 1955-56 season, The Jackie Gleason Show became The Honeymooners, a half-hour sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience. In all, 39 episodes were produced, and these are the ones that are still being broadcast, are the subject of holiday marathons, and so on. They are also the adventures of the Kramdens and the Nortons that are most fondly remembered. The Honeymooners would return once again as a recurring skit on The Jackie Gleason Show (1966-1970), whenever Carney was available. According to Gleason, Carney was “90 percent” responsible for the success of The Honeymooners. By January 1955, The Jackie Gleason Show was competing with—and sometimes beating—I Love Lucy as the most-watched TV show in the United States.
The show followed the lives of New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden (Gleason), his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) and his best friend Ed Norton (Art Carney), who was married to Trixie (Joyce Randolph), as they get involved with various scenarios and schemes in their day-to-day living. Most episodes revolved around Ralph’s poor choices in absurd dilemmas which frequently showed his quick-to-judge attitude in a comedic tone. The Honeymooners was one of the first U.S. television shows to portray working-class married couples in a gritty, non-idyllic manner, as the show is mostly set in the Kramdens’ kitchen in a neglected Brooklyn apartment building. The Kramdens and Nortons lived in an apartment house at 328 Chauncey Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City, a nod to the fact that Jackie Gleason lived there after his family moved from his birthplace at 364 Chauncey Street.
The Kramdens, Ralph and his exasperated wife, Alice, were stuck in the lower middle class existence—a cold-water apartment above a noisy, New York street, without any creature comforts of Eisenhower conformity. Their main possessions were a plain dining table and a depression icebox. They shared their lower-class frustrations with the upstairs neighbors, the Nortons. Slow-witted Ed (Art Carney) worked in the sewers, while his wife Trixie (Joyce Randolph) commiserated with Alice about their common hardships. Unlike the suburban couples on television, the Kramdens and the Nortons were childless, just trying to keep themselves above water.
Ralph is frustrated by his lack of success and often develops get-rich-quick schemes. He is very short-tempered, frequently resorting to bellowing, insults, and making hollow threats. Well-hidden beneath the many layers of bluster, however, is a softhearted man who loves his wife and is devoted to his best pal, Ed Norton. Ralph enjoys—and is proficient at—bowling and playing pool, and is an enthusiastic member of the fictitious Loyal Order of Raccoons. Alice is Ralph’s patient but sharp-tongued wife of roughly 12 years. She often finds herself bearing the brunt of Ralph’s insults, which she returns with biting sarcasm. She is levelheaded, in contrast to Ralph’s pattern of inventing various schemes to enhance his wealth or his pride. In each case, she sees the current one’s un-workability, but he becomes angry and ignores her advice. By the end of the episode, her misgivings almost always are proven to have been well-founded. She has grown accustomed to his empty threats—such as “One of these days, POW!!! Right in the kisser!”, “BANG, ZOOM!” or “You’re going to the Moon!”—to which she usually replies, “Ahhh, shaddap!”
Edward Lillywhite “Ed” Norton, a New York City municipal sewer worker and Ralph’s best friend and upstairs neighbor. He is considerably more good-natured than Ralph, but nonetheless trades insults with him on a regular basis. Ed (typically called “Norton” by Ralph and sometimes by his own wife, Trixie) often gets mixed up in Ralph’s schemes. His carefree and rather dimwitted nature usually results in raising Ralph’s ire, while Ralph often showers him with verbal abuse and throws him out of the apartment when Ed irritates him. In most episodes, Ed is shown to be better-read, better-liked, more worldly and more even-tempered than Ralph, despite his unassuming manner and the fact that he usually lets Ralph take the lead in their escapades. Ed and Ralph both are members of the Raccoon Lodge. Ed worked for the New York City sewer department and described his job as a “Sub-supervisor in the sub-division of the department of subterranean sanitation; I just keep things moving along.” Thelma “Trixie” Norton (Joyce Randolph) is Ed’s wife and Alice’s best friend. She did not appear in every episode and had a less developed character, though she is shown to be somewhat bossy toward her husband. In one episode, she surprisingly is depicted as a pool hustler. Randolph played Trixie as an ordinary, rather prudish, housewife, complaining to her husband on one occasion when a “fresh” young store clerk called her “sweetie pie.”
The Honeymooner’s theme song was “You’re my Greatest Love,” an instrumental. https://youtu.be/UNviIQt6IK4
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
Burns and Allen were an American comedy duo consisting of George Burns and his wife, Gracie Allen. They worked together as a successful comedy team that entertained vaudeville, film, radio, and television audiences for over forty years. Their TV series received a total of 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and produced what TV Guide ranked No. 56 on its 1997 list of the 100 greatest episodes of all time. They were inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1988.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was a half-hour TV series broadcast October 12, 1950 – September 22, 1958 on CBS. The show was initially staged live and broadcast every other Thursday at 8 pm ET. In fall 1952, it became a weekly series filmed on the West Coast. From March 1953 through September 1958, The Burns and Allen Show aired Mondays at 8 pm ET. The show was part variety show and part sitcom. Like a variety show, it had a curtain, direct addresses to the audience, and guest stars. Like a sitcom, the principal set was a living room, the plotlines were standard-issue situation comedy, and it did not include jugglers, ballerinas, and other variety acts. The CBS domestic comedy was set in their home, the first television series to depict the home life of a working show business couple.
Burns and Allen were characterized as a “Dumb Dora” act. “Dumb Dora” evolved out of vaudeville. A “Dumb Dora” character had an airhead persona. She was giddy and scatterbrained. She had a way of engaging in dialogues of “illogical logic” that left her verbal opponents dazed and confused and her audiences in stitches. What set the act apart from all the other Dumb Dora acts was Gracie’s skill as a comic actress. Contrary to the tradition, which is to dress the Dumb Dora in loud, sexy, “funny” clothes, Gracie would dress tastefully in some fashionable, but normal, outfit from the sort of place where all the women in the audience shopped. She was not vulgar or burlesque. There was no suggestion that she was “easy.” At 5 feet tall, 100 pounds, she was hardly the show-girl “babe” type. She was simply dumb, and a little bit crazy. Furthermore, she did not even play dumb, although her naturally high pitched voice helped reinforce the image that she was. As far as you knew it by watching her body language she was a perfectly intelligent woman, completely in the right and sincere about whatever she was talking about. The twist was, she was talking preposterous nonsense. Burns was Gracie’s cigar-puffing straight man. He was the calm center of the storms created by wacky neighbors, nutty friends and, especially, his zany wife Gracie.
Each episode began with Burns standing, trademark cigar in hand, before the proscenium surrounding their living room set. There he presented a brief monologue, then offered the audience a few comments regarding the situation they were about to see. Burns always ended the show with, “Say goodnight, Gracie,” to which Allen simply replied, “Goodnight.” The rotting brown plug of tobacco in George Burns’ mouth was the most widely recognizable prop for one of the greatest straight men who ever lived.
The supporting cast continued in roles established in the original Burns and Allen radio program. Bea Benaderet and Hal March played the Burns’ neighbors, Blanche and Harry Morton. During the run of the series, the role of Harry Morton was subsequently played by John Brown, Fred Clark, and Larry Keating. Bill Goodwin, as himself, played the show’s announcer and friend of the family, and Rolfe Sedan played mailman Mr. Beasley, with whom Gracie gossiped. In the second season, announcer Goodwin left to host his own variety series (The Bill Goodwin Show, NBC) and was replaced by Harry Von Zell. A musical entr’acte entertainment was provided by The Singing Skylarks. The Burns’ son Ronnie later joined the cast as himself.
The theme song, which they used through the remainder of their career, was an instrumental – “Love Nest.” https://youtu.be/4HcjLqUHcA0
I Love Lucy
In October 1951 the debut of the sitcom I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–57), starring the husband-wife team of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, was the beginning of a revolution in American television. The show established new standards for TV programming: it was shot on film rather than broadcast live; it was produced in Hollywood rather than New York; and it followed the style of the episodic series rather than that of the anthology drama or the variety show. The extraordinary popularity of the show guaranteed that these new standards would be imitated by others. I Love Lucy was the most-watched series on television for four of its six seasons on the air, and it never fell below third place in the annual Nielsen ratings. In 2012, it was voted the ‘Best TV Show of All Time’ in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a young married couple living in a converted brownstone on the upper east side of Manhattan. Ricky is the orchestra leader for the Tropicana nightclub; Lucy is a frustrated housewife, who longs to escape the confinement of her domestic role and participate in a larger public world, preferably to join Ricky in show business. They were joined by Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played Ethel and Fred Mertz, former vaudeville performers, who are the Ricardos’ landlords.
The plot line of the show was based on the image of a traditional domesticated wife, which was powerful in the minds of 1950s American audiences. Lucy rebelled against that image. She always desired to be more than a housewife; she longed for a career in show business. Ricky passionately believed that Lucy ought to stay in the home. Lucy continually dreamt of a life beyond domesticity and concocted hilarious (and ultimately doomed) schemes to finagle her way out of the kitchen and into the limelight. In episode after episode, she rebelled against the constraints of her role—taking a job, scheming to make money, disguising herself to perform at the club, and generally messing with Ricky. By entering the public sphere, she inevitably makes a spectacular mess of things and is almost inevitably forced to retreat, to return to the status quo of domestic life that will begin again the next episode.
Lucy is depicted as petulant and childish, and her plans generally end in disaster, leaving Ricky to swoop in and save the day. This depiction of the roles of husband and wife, although taken to the point of caricature for the sake of humor, reflects a notion that was pervasive in the 1950s, namely that women are not the intellectual equals of men. Those who did find work outside the home tended to be relegated to roles such as receptionist, file clerk, typist, or salesgirl. The perception of professions in which women predominated, including teaching and nursing, did not enjoy the prestige—or salaries—of professions dominated by men.
However, I Love Lucy was also nonconformist in one significant way: Ricky Ricardo was Latin American. The vast majority of television shows featured white people in the leading roles, whether situation comedies, variety shows, or the very popular westerns of the day. Whereas historically African Americans accounted for as many as 25 percent of cowboys, all television cowboys were white. Television was meant to portray normal American life, but in the 1950s what it portrayed was white Americans living according to middle-class values. In being asked to play a proper housewife, Lucille Ball was a tornado in a bottle, an irrepressible force of nature, a rattling, whirling blast of energy just waiting to explode. The true force of each episode lies not in the indifferent resolution, the half-hearted return to the status quo, but in Lucy’s burst of rebellious energy that sends each episode spinning into chaos. Lucy Ricardo’s attempts at rebellion are usually sabotaged by her own incompetence, but Lucille Ball’s virtuosity as a performer perversely undermines the narrative’s explicit message, creating a tension which cannot be resolved. Viewed from this perspective, the tranquil status quo that begins and ends each episode is less an act of submission than a sly joke; the chaos in between reveals the folly of ever trying to contain Lucy.
The title music from the second season on was written by Eliot Daniel as an instrumental. Lyrics were written by Harold Adamson, who was nominated five times for an Oscar. The lyrics to “I Love Lucy” were sung by Desi Arnaz in the episode “Lucy’s Last Birthday,” https://youtu.be/_g4-FqbWh9w
I love Lucy and she loves me.
We’re as happy as two can be.
Sometimes we quarrel but then
How we love making up again.
Lucy kisses like no one can.
She’s my missus and I’m her man,
And life is heaven you see,
‘Cause I love Lucy, Yes I love Lucy, and Lucy loves me!
Ironically, Father Knows Best is loved by its fans and disliked by its critics for the same reason: it’s ideal of the “typical American family.” After World War II, Americans believed they had a bright future ahead, and optimism abounded. Father Knows Best reflects this mood, and was an “improvement” on reality, the way TV shows and movies used to be. The program was like a Norman Rockwell painting – filled with cheery lovable characters and a non-threatening humor that was middle America’s idea of itself. It was an air-brushed, touched-up portrait of family life that people could aim for. It spoke to the sunny ideal of how we could live our own lives. Every episode had a message, something to say that would touch the television audience. In outright defiance of the 1950’s sitcom formula of “zany wives, blustering chowder-head husbands and sassy children one step away from juvenile delinquency,” Father Knows Best portrayed a family that was surprisingly similar to real people. The parents managed to ride through almost any family situation without violent injury to their dignity, and the three Anderson youngsters were presented as decently behaved children who respected and loved their parents. A newspaper critic at the time wrote that “Jim Anderson may be the first intelligent father permitted on TV since they invented the thing.”
Like many shows of the period, Father Knows Best began on radio (NBC in 1949), 5 years before becoming a television series. It competed with nineteen other family shows then on the air waves, and out-survived them all. From there, the rest is history. Within a year 19 million households tuned in to watch Father Knows Best on Wednesday evenings. By 1960, it was finishing in the top ten every week, becoming an institution! Over six seasons, 203 episodes originally aired.
Other popular 1950s TV sit-coms are discussed above in the section relating to “The Stereotypical Family of the Fifties.”