In 1978, my dad was a student enrolled in the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. Mom raised my brother and I while Dad attended classes. At night, Dad sat in a sagging brown easy chair and studied his chemistry books while Mom earned tips as a cocktail waitress at a nightclub.
We would have been poor in any economy. But as cliched as it sounds, I had no idea we were broke.
But I do recall vague waves of uneasiness. Jimmy Carter was on the black-and-white TV a lot. Our toothiest President once pre-empted my Popeye Valentine’s Day Special cartoon to deliver some grim message about the recession or the energy crisis or the Iranian hostage situation. I never forgave Jimmy. When he spoke, his oddly non-presidential visage was featured on every channel. There were only three channels.
It wasn’t just the President who delivered the dour news on such a limited media palette. We had our earthy commentators in Maude Findlay and James Evans. We received pithy social sound-bytes from Alex Reiger, which were interpreted for the common man by Archie Bunker. Hell, even Flo could be relied on for a wry observation before the more expected invitation to kiss her grits.
Without 300 news channels, Oprah, and a billion bloggers, it was up to prime-time TV to make sense of the world’s problems – accompanied by a laugh track and a few words from the sponsors. We didn’t have Hannity & Combs. We had Archie and Meathead. Alex P Keaten and his Dad. Kermit the Frog and John Denver, too.
For variety, you never knew who was going to pay a visit to the Evan’s or the Bunker’s or the Jefferson’s. One evening it was a Vietnam draft dodger. The next, a closeted homosexual, or an unwed pregnant girl, or Sammy Davis Junior. Mixed with the laughs and pratfalls, once might receive a little lecture on racism, sexism, radicalism, or Don Knotts. You never knew.
Like everything, the socially important situation comedy became a victim of its own success. Was it too much when Dudley was drugged and nearly fondled by the Gordon Jump-like child molester? Or when Blair smashed her face in a car accident? For me, it was when Jennifer Keaten became a little too crazy about saving the environment. The messages were old. Worse, they weren’t even funny.
There’s nothing comical about date rape. Or child prostitution. Or abortion. Or spousal abuse.
On the latter, I recall a Dick Van Dyke Show episode that actually made a game attempt. Turns out, a new young couple had moved next door to the Petrie’s. The man alludes to some kind of problem he had in the past, and Rob and Laura spend the entire episode trying to figure out what it is. By the end of the show, the Petrie’s are sure it’s alcoholism.
“No!” announces the new neighbor jovially. “I used to have a problem hitting my wife!”
The Slap-Happy Neighbor then assures the Petrie’s that he’s on the road to recovery. The episode’s closing joke is Rob raising his fist to Laura and threatening to knock her lights out. I suspect that this episode set the socially important situation comedy back by twenty years.
Today, we have any number of “news” programming to tell us what to think. In addition to podcasts, online newspapers, and poorly researched blogs (like mine). Rare do we find situation comedy taking a stab at making a point. Perhaps after a half dozen seasons of A Different World, that’s a good thing.
However, I might watch a very special episode of How I Met Your Mother.