I’ve always found stories of media censorship and attempted restraint interesting, because what offends people can be so arbitrary (and sometimes silly). This “oral history of taboo-breaking TV comedy” (as the subtitle has it) presents a collection of concerns over some of the best TV shows of all time, as told by the creators and executives involved.
The opening chapter serves as a brief history of the sitcom, including some reminiscences of Your Show of Shows and The Dick Van Dyke Show and discussion of the single advertising sponsor era and how network Standards and Practices came about. Then each chapter covers another classic show from the historical debate over The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour through the anarchy of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In to the ground-breaking Mary Tyler Moore Show. Also covered are All in the Family, M.A.S.H., Maude, and Soap.
The last show tackled is Seinfeld, which doesn’t really belong here. They make a case for it being revolutionary in both format (so not a typical sitcom) and content (with the first discussion of masturbation, for example), but both the tone and era are so different that it doesn’t match well with the previous.
Each chapter opens with a terrific caricature by Glen Hanson. They’re all very readable, entertaining, and informative, with quotes grouped by topic. When key principals disagree (as in the Laugh-In chapter, where everyone wants to take credit for the idea), their statements are presented without judgment. Reading these memories really took me back to some great television episodes and series. I’m tempted to ask “why can’t we get shows this good these days?”, but as Neuwirth acknowledges in his introduction, a whole ‘nother book could be done about the 80s and 90s, with such shows as The Cosby Show and The Simpsons.
It was a different time back in the 60s and 70s, though, when a few powerful executives (such as Fred Silverman) could make decisions to get and keep shows like this on the air. If the right people liked the program, it could be allowed to grow and find its audience. And with only a few choices, viewers would try quality programs that maybe showed them something other than their own experiences. Of course, those decisions were still, at this time, made by older white men — while exploring a variety of viewpoints, and while there were a few female writers (whose presence is noted and included here, particularly with Soap, created by Susan Harris), the majority of comments are by those guys, many of whom all knew each other. It was a different era in a lot of ways.
Great book, though. Particularly when it points out that they were doing things in the 70s that wouldn’t be allowed to air today. Leads to some intriguing ruminations on how our society has progressed and how it hasn’t.