Jay Sage: Yes, a few weeks ago we touched upon the 1950s in television when a bunch of well-known genres were just beginning to pick up steam. In the 60s, the TV medium ceased to be a novelty and blossomed into a life of its own. Even though cable still hadn’t come along, a wider variety of shows emerged, reflecting both the old school and new wave “hippy” sensibilities of the day.
Feldman: The first show that comes to mind for me is The Andy Griffith Show which began in the fall of 1960 and lasted until 1968. The recently departed Andy Griffith starred as a small town sheriff and was paired with goofy comedian Don Knotts for a long series of comedic situations.
Sage: Of course, we have to mention that just a few days ago the entertainment industry lost Andy Griffith at the ripe old age of 86. These things come in pairs or triplets sometimes, and just the other day Ernest Borgnine who starred in McHale’s Navy, another classic of the 60s, passed away at 95.
Feldman: Borgnine had an incredibly long and full live, so its hard to be too sad by his passing. With the 1960s came the advent of color television which was difficult for some people to comprehend in the early going. The Beverly Hillbillies, beginning as a black and white production still became the biggest show on TV from 1963-1965.
Sage: It was a rags to riches story that most people could relate to their own personal desires, as well as being pretty funny too. In fact, the modern 3-Camera sitcom really took off in this era. As opposed to the entirely “wholesome” variety of show, you saw slightly more peculiar or fantastical ideas cropping up, like Bewitched and The Addams Family.
Feldman: The 1950s was a return to family sort of show, along with more historical based plots like Westerns. The 1960s really stepped out of the box to move along with supernatural, and super silly styles. It was also the expansion of the late night talk show with the legendary Johnny Carson getting his start in 1962 on The Tonight Show.
Sage: And you can see the footprints of Carson everywhere stylistically. Not only in Jay Leno who took over on The Tonight Show, but David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres, and even Oprah all owe their careers to the success of The Tonight Show. It can be estimated that traditional talk shows are just now going out of vogue for the late night audience, but five decades is nothing to sneeze at.
Feldman: Carson was a legendary entertainer, comedian, and wunderkind at practically everything he touched. He carried the Tonight show and the NBC network for 30 years. One show we haven’t mentioned that rather bucked the trend of the 60s was Bonanza (which did begin in 1959) that was a Western show, but in color.
Sage: Bonanza actually spanned three decades from 1959 to 1973, which not many television shows can claim. It was famous for having the typical intrigue of a Western show while also tackling some social issues that nobody really expected from such a typically hypermasculine forum. Included were socially conscious views on racism and anti-semitism.
Feldman: It was one of the first shows to really try to work real world contemporary hot button issues into its own storyline. It was eminently popular and was the most watched show from 1965-1968. While the Western genre clearly remained in the mainstream, science fiction began to really gain traction in 1966 and never looked back with Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek.
Sage: These days, it’s comical to look back at the low production values of the original Star Trek series, but when you consider what they set the table for it’s harder to make fun. Also extremely popular was The Twilight Zone which ran from 1959-1964 and crossed borders between science fiction, horror, terror and fantasy. Those are still fun to watch.
Feldman: The Twilight Zone was one of the first episodic shows to not feature regular cast other than host Rod Serling. It was definitely a new genre for TV viewers to explore and given its timing with the onset of the cold war, it certainly pushed some buttons. I must jump back to Star Trek for a short while, billed as the “Wagon Train to the Stars”. It served as a futuristic soap box to tackle contemporary issues without real worry for offending anyone. Plus spaceships are just awesome and it is hard to deny that “Live Long and Prosper” isn’t an awesome sendoff.
Sage: Star Trek also stands as the first program to ever be saved by its fans. It was set to be cancelled after its second season before a letter writing campaign convinced network executives otherwise. Those Trekkies are still as passionate as ever, of course, in a perpetual battle with the Star Wars franchise. And you’re right that spaceships are awesome. And so are aliens. One last show I want to mention is The Flintstones. Animation had existed for a long time, but the idea to produce an adult sitcom instead of Saturday morning kids’ cartoons was a novelty.
Feldman: It was really an ingenious idea to cut down on production costs, while expanding their range of possibiliites for story lines. It was the precursor to so many cartoon TV sitcoms like The Jetsons, The Simpsons and Family Guy. It borrowed the large husband with attractive wife trope from the Honeymooners while adding kids and a dinosaur to the mix.
Sage: And animation is so successful in comedy because you can accomplish literally anything with a drawing. You wouldn’t have seen a comedy set in prehistoric times as a live action production in the 60’s because the technology didn’t exist yet. Today, you have everything from the extremely low budget South Park to the deftly produced Archer, but they all share one thing in common – that is, you can do whatever you want.
Feldman: You can do whatever you want, and we talk about whatever we want on The Entertainment Bureau. That’ll do it for this edition but be sure to check back for our next episode in this series where we tackle the massive task of breaking down music of the 1960’s into a readable article rather than a 10,000 word dissertation.