Watching TV comedies is like extending an invitation to visit your home. Essentially, sitcom characters are your guests. But are they welcome guests?
These days they too often seem like the kind of people you might regret inviting in.
In fact, modern situation-comedy characters are typically so crass, over-sexed, ill-mannered and inappropriate that, in real life, you would probably kick them out.
Worst of all they are distressingly unfunny.
As a result, my wife and I have retreated to the past. That is, we’ve taken to watching older sitcoms.
And by “older” I don’t mean from the 1990s or even the 1980s. I mean really old.
Lately we’ve been rotating “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-66), “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77) and “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-78, the one with Suzanne Pleshette), which are available on DVD and have been showing up on the revolving doors of various streaming sites (currently, Amazon and Hulu, and perhaps others).
So how well do these golden oldies hold up?
Well, the most difficult aspect is getting past the clothing and decorating choices of the Moore and Newhart shows, which seem far more dated than the earlier, black-and-white Van Dyke show.
That might seem odd, but in terms of the visuals, those two color programs are relics of the psychedelic ’70s, particularly in terms of wardrobe choices — plaid pants, leisure suits, wide paisley ties, pastel-colored shirts with flared collars, granny dresses, bell bottoms, etc.
The decade-earlier Van Dyke show got no wilder than thin black neckties and slim capri pants.
The other obvious time-travel aspect that takes some getting used to is the lack of computer, internet and cellphone technology.
Otherwise, all three shows have a surprisingly contemporary feel. And the reason is that they focus on behavior and attitudes that are so universal and timeless they could have been produced yesterday.
Each show is also blessed with a superb ensemble cast, and is written and rehearsed with gag setups that are pitch-perfect, payoffs that really pay off (and sometimes get you thinking), and storylines that touch on issues large and small, and which still resonate. Each sitcom is also very smart.
In addition, they have live studio audience reactions that don’t seem tweaked or forced or artificial, laughter that feels organic and real instead of canned. You can tell because, at home, you’re laughing in the same rhythm.
Perhaps what most distinguishes these shows from so many contemporary sitcoms, however, is that they are populated with people that are likable. No one is mean-spirited or hateful or too obnoxiously self-centered (no, not even Ted Baxter), and even the most sardonic or self-absorbed characters have redeeming qualities (yes, even Ted Baxter).
And they’re funny. Very funny. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
My wife and I smile or titter during every episode, and once in a while we stumble upon one that makes us laugh so hard it takes a few moments to recover.
All three are combination workplace and domestic sitcoms, and for the uninitiated, here’s a rundown:
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” stars Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a writer for a Manhattan-based network TV variety show, with Mary Tyler Moore as his homemaker wife, Laura, and young Larry Mathews as their son Richie. At work, the biggest laugh-getters are Van Dyke’s comedy-writing co-workers, Sally and Buddy, played hilariously by Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam.
On “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Moore is Mary Richards, a single TV news producer at a local Minneapolis station, where her boss is gruff-but-soft-centered Lou Grant (Edward Asner), the anchorman is full-of-himself dim-bulb Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) and Gavin MacLeod is news writer Murray Slaughter. At home, Mary’s best friend is her insecure-but-witty neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper).
Newhart plays psychologist Bob Hartley on “The Bob Newhart Show,” with Suzanne Pleshette as his schoolteacher wife, Emily, and Bill Daily as Howard, their obtuse next-door neighbor in a Chicago apartment building. At Bob’s work in a medical building, there’s perky receptionist Carol (Marcia Wallace), bachelor orthodontist Jerry (Peter Bonerz) and an array of eccentric patients, the most frequent being perpetually dour Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley).
Each show has many episodes that hit it out of the park, but here are just a few.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show”: “My Blonde-Haired Brunette,” in which Laura decides to add some spark to her marriage by bleaching her hair (episode two of the first season); “That’s My Boy?” (episode one of the third season), with Rob in a flashback worrying that they have brought the wrong baby home from the hospital, capped with the perfect last-minute revelation (and which reputedly earned one of the biggest studio audience laughs in TV history); and “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” (episode one of the fifth season), as Laura appears on a talk show and inadvertently reveals that Rob’s TV-star boss wears a toupée.
The most famous episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and it really is hysterical, is “Chuckles Bites the Dust” (episode seven of the sixth season). Chuckles the Clown, host of a morning children’s show, is killed in a ridiculous accident and Mary repeatedly chides her co-workers for making insensitive jokes. But at the funeral, Mary has an unexpected reaction. It’s a riot. And among many others, "Love Is All Around" (episode one of the first season) is exceptional, especially when Mary is in her job interview with Lou, and he perfectly punctuates the show’s most famous line: “You know what? You’ve got spunk.” Mary takes it as flattery, until, after a pause, Lou snarls, “I hate spunk!”
And just last week my wife and I watched two episodes from the fourth season of “The Bob Newhart Show” that had us laughing ourselves silly. The first was “Who Is Mr. X?” (episode nine), which has Bob appearing on a TV talk show with a seemingly fawning host who becomes a pit bull when they’re on the air live. The second was “Over the River and Through the Woods” (episode 11), a Thanksgiving show that has Bob hosting an impromptu party after his wife goes out of town to spend the holiday with her family. In both episodes, the gags slowly build one after another to a crescendo of hilarity, making word association, song lyrics and knock-knock jokes funnier than they have any right to be.
There are lots of other great old sitcoms floating around out there, but at the moment these three hit the spot for us.
The moral, of course, is that if you’re tired of sitting at home and being insulted by modern TV shows, there are plenty of alternatives.
You just have to look for them.