I sit around here playing on the internet with my imaginary friends, and I don’t watch TV much any more. Well, I don’t watch it directly. I do manage to see it out of the corner of my eye when my wife or daughter have it on. Luckily, that’s not all that often. It’s usually a drama show they like (Buffy, for example), or a movie on video or the classic movie stations (my wife is a sucker for the old musicals and romantic movies), or it’s the sitcoms.
I enjoy the sitcoms fairly well. I got hooked on Seinfeld when they started showing it in syndication and must say I’ve enjoyed every episode of that at least twice. My daughter got hooked on Friends which is shown in syndication just after Seinfeld every day. It seems to me that without the concept of fucking around and sex for sex’s sake, that show would have nothing to discuss. And that’s the way it is with most of the sitcoms these days, isn’t it? At this rate, they will showing full penetration with a laugh track in a couple of years. (Come to think of it, it is pretty funny when you do that. Ever look in a mirror during? You think you’re not an animal?)
Anyway, it makes an old dude nostalgic for the old days when kids didn’t grow up so fast and making discoveries about this stuff was still possible, even though you had to go outside the house to do it.
One of the first sitcoms I remember is The Life of Riley. This had been a radio show from 1941 to 1951. William Bendix was the most well-known actor playing Chester A. Riley on the radio. The show went to this new thing called television in 1949, and the first season had Jackie Gleason as Riley. This was Gleason’s first shot at the big time. He was a starving young comedian before this launched his career on television. His work on this show only lasted one year, however. He was replaced by Bendix for a run of the show from 1953 to 1958. Both of these efforts were on NBC.
Riley was an overweight teddy bear of a man who would normally turn any little household incident into a total disaster. This was the forerunner of so many which would follow, that it would be hard to name them all. But just think of the shows where the husband is a lovable goof married to an angel, with a couple of kids. His long-suffering angel of a wife, Peg, was played by Marjorie Reynolds. The two kids were Bab and Junior and they, along with the mom, were always faced with the task of trying to undo what Riley had wrought.
Chester worked a blue collar job, shooting rivets into aircraft carriers. His co-worker was Gillis, and they were best buds. This, also, would be copied ad infinitum in sitcoms to come. Another popular character was Digby "Digger" O’Dell. He was the undertaker in their town and would usually exit stage left with his trademark line, "Cheerio, I’d better be shovelling off."
The debut was October 4, 1949, on TV. It was the first show which was filmed especially for TV. It was shot with a 35mm and then reduced to 16mm, so the visual quality would be noticeably poor by today’s standards. But the story lines were well done and there was little competition back then, so it was quite well received.
The creator and producer was Irving Brecher. In the first incarnation with Gleason, there were 26 episodes. Each episode was filmed in one day. Gleason was paid $500 per episode. When the Bendix era came along, there were 39 episodes a year with 13 reruns in the summer, so the show was on every week all year long. This was typical for episodic TV in those days.
Brecher maintains that the sponsor, Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer (which had also sponsored the radio series) paid him $8200 per episode, but that each episode cost him around $10,200. (This is coming from a guy named Irving.) But he says that he was earning money from scriptwriting elsewhere, like MGM, so he operated the show at a loss. This explains, according to Irving, why the opening theme song was a ditty which he paid a girl $100 to whistle, thus cutting down the cost of hiring an orchestra.
I don’t know if you’ll ever get a chance to see any of the episodes of this show, but if you enjoy old reruns of Leave it to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, the Andy Griffith Show or some other sticoms from back in the day, I think you’d like this one; for historic value if nothing else. It sure would help clean your ears out from some of the stuff you hear on the sitcoms they put on TV nowadays. If Riley could hear what goes on on Friends, I’m sure he’d utter his tag line (which was in every episode, as far as I know):
"What a revoltin’ development dis is."