Sitcom: What It Is, How It Works
A History of Comedy on Television:
Beginning to 1970


Richard F. Taflinger

This page has been accessed since 31 May 1996.

In 1939, at the New York World's Fair, there was a special exhibit: RCA set up a bulky box looking much like the radios of the day. However there was one significant difference: there was a window set in the box showing pictures that went along with the sound. This was the first real television.

The credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) for the invention of television could go to a dozen or more inventors going back to 1897 and Sir J.J. Thomson's work on the nature of the electron. Nonetheless, credit is given to the two men who hold the basic patents: Vladimir Zworykin and Philo Farnsworth. Both were working independently in the 1930s and between them they invented the two most important parts for television broadcasting: the orthicon tube (Farnsworth) for picking up the scene to be transmitted, and the Kinescope (Zworykin) for the receiver.

Now in 1939 the two inventions had been put together and television was a reality. The problem now became what to do with it. Consumers knew: they wanted to buy it. Manufacturers knew: they wanted to sell it. And broadcasters knew: they wanted to exploit it. All got their wish. And the FCC stepped in.

The United States government created the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in 1934 to meet the problems of controlling radio broadcasting in the United States. As soon as speculators realized that radio had commercial possibilities they began operating stations, sending out signals on any frequency they desired. This, naturally enough, led to conflicts when two or more stations wished to use the same frequency. Then it became a battle of power. Stations with the highest wattage output could drown out other stations. The amount of radio noise such a situation created was, of course, disturbing to the listening audience and they wanted something done about it. The government determined that the airwaves through which broadcasting signals had to pass were public property and could not be owned by an individual. The FCC was therefore formed to control broadcasting in the public interest, licensing stations to broadcast on a certain frequency at a certain power, licenses issued based on a prospectus written up by the one desiring a license. The FCC would also punish those who abused their broadcasting privileges, revoking or suspending the license or censuring the offender.

The FCC worked fairly well with radio, and when television arrived the government included it in the FCC's sphere of authority. It was therefore authorized on July 1, 1945.

Television broadcasting began in 1939 and lasted for five months. Then there was an interruption: World War II.

In 1945 production of sets began again. One hundred sets were manufactured in that year and they were snapped up by those on the top of a prewar waiting list. But the demand for sets was great. No one wanted to be the last one on the block to have their own personal window on the world.


What follows is a year-by-year look at what happened with comedy-variety shows and situation comedies, their flourishing and declines, with a few comments about special shows, advances and regressions.



In 1950 the most popular form of television comedy was the comedy-variety show. This is the only year when any form of comedy show was more popular than the situation comedy. There were 25 comedy-variety shows as opposed to 11 situation comedies, and of those 25, 11 were reviews and only five were celebrity- centered. 1950 proved to be the last year when there were more revue shows than celebrity-centered.

The star-based shows in 1950 were transfers from radio, and if one looks at the longevity of an individual show, the star- based is the most popular form of comedy. In 1950 the second longest running comedy in the history of television first appeared on the air. That show was THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM, and it ran continuously for 15 years. However, in terms of quantity of shows on the air in any given year, the star-based must rank as the lowest. There was never more than four on the air at one time, and then only in 1952-54. The number steadily declined over the years, down to three in 1955, down to two in 1960, down to one in 1966, and in 1971 the last star-based comedy show left the air and has not been replaced.

In 1950 there were four personality-based shows in the air, andtwo shows that have become synonymous with the Golden Age of Television: THE TEXACO STAR THEATRE with Mr. Television, Milton Berle (popularly known as Uncle Milty), and YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS with Sid Caesar. Though neither show had the extremely long runs that are usually associated with hit shows (TEXACO STAR THEATRE ran seven seasons, the last two as THE MILTON BERLE SHOW, and YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS lasted only four seasons), they were extremely popular with audiences.

Milton Berle's show was characterized by rapid-fire, racous, brash and rowdy humor, where anything could and often did happen. Berle might be playing a piano and hands would start coming out of it playing along with him, pieces would fall off, fireworks would shoot out, and finally the piano would explode. So would the audience--with laughter. On Tuesday nights, Milton Berle was king, and at his peak 75% of the television sets in the United States were turned to NBC to see what insanity would break out next.

Sid Caesar, on the other hand, did not dominate his show as did Milton Berle. He and his regular cast, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris, created situations and characters every week, in which Caesar was often, but not necessarily the leading character. They did a wide variety of comedy sketches, doing everything from take-offs on popular television shows and movies such as THIS IS YOUR LIFE and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, audience participation games, blackouts, monologues, and silent sketches. When YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS went off the air in June of 1954, it was not the end of Caesar or his brand of humor. He continued on the air until 1958 in CAESAR'S HOUR and THE SID CAESAR SHOW.

1950 was the year in which the situation comedy would be at its lowest point ever. There were only11 situation comedy shows on the air in that year, 14 less than the comedy-variety. Several of the shows that year were transfers from radio. These included THE ALDRICH FAMILY, BEULAH, and THE GOLDBERGS. THE STU ERWIN SHOW premiered this year, his bumbling, perpetually confused father and husband setting the tone for male characters in situation comedies for years to come. This is also the year one of the most famous situation comedies premiered, THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW, starring George Burns and Gracie Allen, who continued on the air for eight seasons.

It might be asked why THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW was a situation comedy rather than a star-based comedy show. It was, in fact, similar to the star-based: the performers in general appeared in their own personae, and the stars were confronted with a situation to which they reacted in a personal, character- istic fashion. However, unlike the star-based show the situation always remained the same--the Burns' at home, with the situations arising from this basis. Each episode was devoted to one situation and not a series of short disconnected sketches. Also, the show had characters that were not performing in their own personae. For these reasons the show was a situation comedy.


1951 was a bad year for new comedy shows. Of the nineteen new comedy shows of that year, only seven lasted more than one year, and only one of those seven, I LOVE LUCY, ran more than two.

The one star-based entry was THE VICTOR BORGE SHOW, and that show did not last out the year. Ernie Kovacs tried two different shows, ERNIE IN KOVACSLAND, and KOVACS ON THE KORNER, and neither lasted more than a few months.

Five comedy-variety shows (three celebrity-centered shows and two revues) premiered in 1951. Four, THE DONALD O'CONNOR SHOW, THE DOODLES WEAVER SHOW, THE SPIKE JONES SHOW, and THE FORD FESTIVAL were all canceled in 1951, and SOUND OFF TIME went off the air in 1952.

Of the nine new situation comedies that premiered in 1951, five, THE EGG AND I, MEET CORLISS ARCHER, THOSE ENDEARING YOUNG CHARMS, TWO GIRLS NAMED SMITH, and YOUNG MR. BOBBIN were canceled in 1952 after their first season. Two more lasted until the spring of 1953: A DATE WITH JUDY, and another transfer from radio, AMOS 'N' ANDY.

The last situation comedy that premiered that year ran for five years, the most important five years in the history of the situation comedy. In that year producers didn't consider a thick-accented cuban bandleader and red-headed actress prime candidates for a successful television show. So they put together a show of their own and on October 15, 1951, I LOVE LUCY became the best-loved television program of all time. Though Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball produced new weekly episodes for only five years (179 in all), it has appeared somewhere in the United States continually since 1951, and set the tone for situation comedy.

I LOVE LUCY revolutionized the television industry, and its innovations were many. It was the first television program based in California instead of New York. It was the first program to be done on film rather than live and kinescoped from a television screen. It was the first dramatic program ever to be done before a live studio audience and to be filmed in sequence, using the three camera technique. And it set the pattern for situation comedies for years to come. Henceforth, women would be scatterbrained butextremely clever, men would be loud and indignant, and friends would be dupes and accomplices.


In 1952 the number of situation comedies, for the first time, equaled the number of comedy-variety shows on television. In that year there were 22 situation comedies as and 22 comedy- varieties. There were 13 new situation comedies on the air that year. Although six of those lasted only a year or less, those that did survive are among the most famous. They included MR. PEEPERS and OUR MISS BROOKS.

It was 1952 that and ex-bandleader and his singer-wife put their family on the air and produced the longest-running situation comedy in history--THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET. For 14 years the American viewing public enjoyed watching Dave and Ricky grow up under the watchful eyes of their father (who had plenty of time for his sons since he apparently had no occupation) and their mother.


In 1953, the comedy-variety show continued its decline, with only 20 shows on the air. This was the first year in which the situation comedy outstripped the comedy-variety show, and the comedy-variety show never came close again.

The situation comedy, on the other hand, continued its steady rise. In 1953 it was up to 29 shows on the air, including such new shows as THE LIFE OF RILEY, LIFE WITH FATHER, and one of the longest-running situation comedies, MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY. The latter, starring Danny Thomas, remained on the air for 11 years.

Also in 1953 there arrived the longest-running comedy show of any type ever to appear on the home screen, it being renewed every yearuntil its cancellation on August 29, 1971. That program was THE RED SKELTON SHOW, starring that red-headed comedian and mime artist, Red Skelton. Every fall for 18 years, Red visited his own brand of insanity on a suspecting, and laughing, public.


The comedy-variety show continued to decline in 1954, to only nineteen on the air.

However, the personality-based show was at the highest point it would ever attain, with seven shows on the air. In that year four new personalities had shows, including Johnny Carson and Morey Amsterdam, whose show did not last out the year, and Imogene Coca, who lasted until 1956. The most familiar face was Sid Caesar and his new show, CAESAR'S HOUR.

The situation comedy was at the highest point it would reach until 1964, with 33 shows on the air, including 13 brand-new shows. One of these introduced a new form of situation comedy to television. That show was FATHER KNOWS BEST, the first example of the domestic comedy. Obviously it was a successful attempt at a new form, because FATHER KNOWS BEST remained on the air for 13 years.

With the creation of this new form of situation comedy television moved into a new era.


Television comedy made a general decline during this period, probably due to the fact that the western and adventure programs were coming on strong. Comedy would be in a five-year drought, staying at the lowest level it would ever achieve.


In 1955 all forms of comedy shows declined including the comedy-variety show which dropped to only 15 shows.

The situation comedy lost 24 shows in 1955, with only 13 new shows added, leaving 25 on the air. One of the new shows was YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH, starring Phil Silvers as the conman in uniform, Sgt. Bilko.


The comedy-variety show hit its lowest level ever, with only 10 shows on the air. Spike Jones tried yet another show, but it did not last out the season, as usual.

The situation comedy had only 18 shows on the air. Five new shows were tried, but only one, OH! SUSANNA, starring Gale Storm, lasted more than one season.


The situation comedy made a slight increase, to 20 shows. However, only three of the ten new shows lasted more than one season. Those three were: BACHELOR FATHER, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, and THE REAL MCCOYS.

The comedy-variety show gained one more show, to 11 on the air, with most of the holdovers from the early 1950s, including Jack Benny, Gary Moore, and Red Skelton.


There was only 18 situation comedies on the air this year. Only two of the seven new shows, THE ANN SOTHERN SHOW and THE DONNA REED SHOW, continued more than one season.

The comedy-variety was up to thirteen shows, but none of the four new shows lasted out the season. Andy Williams, Garry Moore, George Gobel, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como, and Red Skelton all continued.


The situation comedy dropped to its lowest level since 1951, with only 17 shows on the air. However, the odds of survival improved slightly, with three of the seven new shows lasting more than one season. They were: DENNIS THE MENACE, HENNESEY, and THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS. Sgt. Bilko (YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH) ended his run this season.

The comedy-variety show declined to its lowest level since 1950 with only nine shows on the air, and neither of the two new shows, THE CHARLEY WEAVER SHOW and THE CHEVY SHOW, survived the season.


The situation comedy made a dramatic rise this season from 17 to 23 shows on the air. Among the new shows were two which were to be long running: THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and MY THREE SONS. The other ten new shows lasted only one season, but this was apparently no discouragement to producers and networks.

The variety show lost yet another, down to only eight on the air. Both of the new shows, THE REVLON REVUE and THE SPIKE JONES SHOW, were canceled within weeks.


The situation comedy went up by four more shows to 27, the number of failures from the 1960-61 season not discouraging new attempts. Included among the 14 new programs this season the comedy classic THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It almost did not make it. However, the network decided to take a chance and leave it on the air to see if it would develop an audience. It did, became one of the top-rated shows in the 1960s, and ran for a total of five years, leaving the air only because Van Dyke himself decided to quit while he was ahead.

The variety show continued its decline, down to the lowest point ever, only seven. Spike Jones had the only new show, but, as usual, it was canceled within weeks.


The situation comedy surpassed its 1953 all-time high with 30 shows. One of the new shows, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, was greeted with critical distaste and public acclaim. It became so popular that the Neilson ratings list it as the 15th most popular program of all time.

The variety show stayed at seven. The six that apparently could not die, Andy Williams, Garry Moore, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como and Red Skelton, continued, with only one new show, THE LIVELY ONES, premiering. THE LIVELY ONES was canceled at year's end.


The situation comedy made a sharp decline this year as eight more shows left the air than were replaced. This would be its lowest point, 22, until 1974. However, six of the nine new shows would run more than one season, including THE BILL DANA SHOW, THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER, GRINDL, MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, and PETTICOAT JUNCTION.

The variety show, on the other hand, enjoyed an upswing, reaching its highest point since 1958 with 11 shows on the air.


The situation comedy made a tremendous surge this year, jumping to 37, with 21 new shows. This would tie with 1976 as the highest number until 1979's 45. This was the biggest year for gimmick comedies, with four new ones including BEWITCHED. However, an old favoriteended a 10 year run: MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY.

The variety show continued to decline, with only 10 shows on the air. Among the new shows was an attempt at satire that was apparently not popular with American audiences, the English transplant THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS. It didn't last out the season.


In this season the situation comedy dropped to 36. Seven of the new shows became hits, including GET SMART, I DREAM OF JEANNIE and HOGAN'S HEROES. This season also saw what has been considered the worst sitcom ever to go on the air, the one used as an example of how bad the sitcom can be: MY MOTHER THE CAR.

In variety shows, there were only nine on the air, and THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ended after 15 years.


The situation comedy began to fall this year. It dropped to 29 on the air, and of the 15 new shows only three, FAMILY AFFAIR, THE MONKEES and THAT GIRL, were renewed at the end of the season.

The variety show rose to 13, but five of the six new shows didn't even finish the season.


The situation comedy dropped to only 22 on the air as 15 more were canceled and only eight new shows premiered. Only one new show, THE FLYING NUN, lasted beyond the season.

The variety show dropped to 10. Of the five new shows, one, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, would be a long-running hit, and another would become extremely controversial: THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR.


This season, with 22 situation comedies on the air, was big on single-parent domcoms with the premieres of THE DORIS DAY SHOW, THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, HERE'S LUCY, MAYBERRY, R.F.D., and the first sitcom starring a black woman, JULIA, with Diahn Carroll.

The comedy-variety show increased to 16, including the premiere of a new form of program based on blackouts and fast pacing, ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN.


The situation comedy gained six this season, going up to 28.

The variety show would be at its highest point since 1954, with 19 shows. This would also be the highest it would ever be again, as it started on a generally downward trend. The one surprise among the new shows was a break with the traditional form of variety show. Ordinarily, the star of a variety show was a popular singer (Perry Como, Andy Williams, etc.) singing popular songs. This season HEE HAW premiered, the first network country-western variety show. HEE HAW would continue, apparently forever, going into syndication when CBS dropped it in 1971.

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