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Diatribe: When Did Sitcoms Get So Dirty?

10/04/2012

Long ago, when I was a kid, our televisions only received three network channels and a couple of local stations.  Not every household had a television and many were still watching black-and-white sets.  Like today, families would arrange their evenings around their favorite television programs.

Prime Time television programming was focused primarily between the the hours of 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m., presumably, because children were watching with their parents.  Families would watch programs like Leave It To Beaver, I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Mr. Ed, Get Smart, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch … all “wholesome”, “clean”, “family” entertainment.  Programs with more “mature” themes were scheduled later in the evening, after the children went to bed.

My parents did a wonderful job of monitoring what I watched on television.  At least they did until I got my own room and learned that I could use the headphones that came with my transistor radio to listen to the small black-and-white television that I was allowed to have in my room.  I would stay up late to watch Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Monty Python’s Flying Circus just because I thought I wasn’t supposed to!

Eventually, comedies evolved to find humor in the inclusion of storylines involving topics such as politics (All In The Family), racism (The Jeffersons), Abortion (Maude), homosexuality (Soap), sex (Married With Children), feminism (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) , divorce (Rhoda) and masturbation (Seinfield).  While these sitcoms introduced controversy into the television comedy landscape they, more often than not, did it in a poignant and truly funny manner.  They didn’t appear to be dirty for the sake of being dirty.

My how sitcom times have changed.

I’m not a prude by any means, but I frequently find myself surprised by the gratuitous vulgarity on today’s Prime Time situation comedies.  Last season’s breakout hit Two Broke Girls, for example, is ridiculously dirty.  Don’t get me wrong … I think it’s funny, but I certainly wouldn’t want to watch it with my kids or my grandparents.  Seriously … how many times does an audience need to hear the word “vagina” before it stops being funny?

Casual sex and excessive drinking are common themes on shows like How I Met Your Mother, New Girl, Happy Endings and Cougar Town.  And controversy for the sake of controversy appears to be the appeal of shows like South Park, The New Normal and Tosh.0.

Of course, the major networks are competing in a comedy marketplace that includes premium cable juggernauts like HBO, Showtime and Comedy Central that appear to have limitless boundaries within their writers and producers must work.  “Make it funny” and “Make people watch” are at the heart of the matter when it comes to creating a market for comedy.  And, as the old adage proclaims, sex sells.  So does shock.  Witness the success of programs like The Jerry Springer Show, Jackass and Fear Factor.

It appears that people will watch what they think they’re not supposed to see.

The world has changed dramatically since the days when Gomer Pyle walked the streets of Mayberry and so have television audiences.  Viewers have grown to expect and require much more than Lucy sneaking onto the stage at Ricky’s Copa in order to make them laugh and to keep them entertained.  Perhaps we no longer have the patience, in our instantaneous-internet-driven world, to wait for a set-up before a punch line.  We want our laughs to be fast and furious.

Like everywhere else, supply and demand are at work on network television.  As long as viewers keep watching vulgar and controversial programming, and it continues to make money, programs of this nature will continue to thrive.

Personally, I’d rather watch ten vulgar/sexual/controversial sitcoms than one episode of Dance Moms, Honey Boo Boo or anything with a Kardashian in it.  And I have at least two remote controls that will turn my television off when I stop enjoying it.

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16 Comments
  1. Well, I can’t talk three of my fond childhood memories of series were Maude, All In The Family and Hot L Baltimore… not the cleanest of shows but so funny.

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  2. “Viewers have grown to expect and require much more than Lucy sneaking onto the stage at Ricky’s Copa in order to make them laugh and to keep them entertained.”
    Oh, I do.
    I still love Lucy.
    But I also like some cutting edge stuff, too. Maude!
    That old compromisin’, enterprisin’, anything but tranquilizing,
    Right on Maude.

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    • I imagine the boundaries will continue to get pushed. Personally, I only watch the shows that make me laugh because they’re funny … not because they’re “outrageous”.

      Maude was a warrior!

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  3. I was overjoyed a few years ago when the original “Perry Mason” shows were released on DVD. I bought the first season (1957) and was shocked at my reaction upon viewing. Years of “Law and Order” made those Perry Mason episodes seem almost comically vanilla, like something your elementary school could put onstage. It’s definitely a different world.

    Apparently, sexual innuendo, if not sex itself, has replaced smoking on TV — just about everybody smoked in 1957. (Della Street rarely smoked onscreen, but with that baritone voice of hers, you know Barbara Hale had to be a two-pack-a-day girl off-camera.)

    Of the old comedies, for me nothing beats “I Love Lucy”, “All in the Family” or “Maude.” But the rest of the shows I eagerly watched as a kid (“Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island”) I now find utterly witless. “Modern Family” is in another league from those, as were “Bewitched” and “Mary Tyler Moore” in their day. As for the new comedies, I’m glad to see how quickly most of them get canned. David Letterman put it best when he commented on how many new shows ABC had canceled in one season: “That network has tested more bombs than India.”

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    • Right on! It’s amazing to me that so many of the shows that we consider “classic” were really only broadcast for a short time. Did you know, for example, that there were only 24 original episodes of The Jetsons and just 98 of Gilligan’s Island?

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  4. Amen! You just triggered flashback memories to when I was in 4th grade and I would ride home from school on my bike each day so that I could be home for reruns of “Leave it to Beaver” at 4pm and “Gilligans Island” at 4:30pm. My own kid now races home so that he can watch reruns of the trashy shows on MTV.

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    • I would hurry home from school to watch Match Game with my mother. Then, when she’d start dinner, I’d switch to Gilligan’s Island or The Munsters while I did my homework and she fixed dinner. I would get SO angry if she called me to eat before the program ended because, in the last few minutes, the plot was resolved. (Even if I’d seen the episode before!)

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  5. I loved Maude & All in the Family. I am also so disappointed in the quality of today’s sitcoms, so I watch very few of them. I prefer drama now, they seem to have at least a little bit of a plot. I just wish people would stop watching all the “reality” TV, so we could get rid of the worst of those shows.

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    • I enjoy the “competition” programs like The Amazing Race, Survivor and even Big Brother because they (sort of) have a point. But the “reality” shows where cameras follow people around hoping to catch them doing something stupid. I refuse to watch anything with a Kardashian, people from New Jersey, a housewife, a Dance Mom or Honey Boo Boo.

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  6. The League was a pretty filthy show when it comes to dirty-talk, but damn if that’s not one of the funniest new shows I’ve ever seen. As much as I do like the clean stuff, you do run the risk of becoming Pleasantville if you don’t reflect what actual people talk about… and maybe it’s just my friends and I, but sex and other offensive topics tend to pop up a lot.

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