Mary Kay and Johnny and Company: The First Sitcoms

We are in the midst of our “They Were the First” blog series. In past weeks we’ve learned about the first crime drama and the first news show. Today we take a peek at some of the first sitcoms on the air.

She Was the First Lucy, but Where Is the Love?
Mary Kay and John Stearns Photo: gr8erdays.com

The very first sitcom I could find evidence for was Mary Kay and Johnny which debuted in 1947. This show was only on three or four seasons, but it produced 301 episodes so it was on more often than once a week. The description on imdb.com is that it’s about the “adventures and misadventures of the strait-laced bank employee Johnny Sterns and his zany wife Mary Kay.”

Real-life spouses Mary Kay Stearns and John Stearns played the married couple that the show centered on. Nydia Westman played Mary Kay’s mother and Howard Fischer played Howie. When the Stearns had a baby named Christopher, he also became their son on the show.

The show was shot live in New York and sponsored by Anacin. During the first season, Anacin tested the market to see how many people might be watching the show because TV ratings had not been collected at that time. They offered a free mirror to the first 200 viewers who submitted comments about the show; to their surprise, more than 9,000 viewers sent letters.

Believe it or not, this was the first married couple to share a bed. At some point, networks rethought this decision, because it would be a battle for years during the fifties and sixties.

So, what were some of the other earliest sitcoms? Here are a few of the other sitcoms that were on during the early years of the golden age.

the laytons | THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!
Photo: jacksonupperco.com

The Laytons. This short-lived show was on the air from August to October of 1948 on the Dumont network. However, it was notable in that it was the first show to feature an African American in a recurring role. I could only find detailed information for one episode which starred Vera Tatum as Ruth Layton, Amanda Randolph as Martha, and Elizabeth Brew as Ginny Layton. From what I could determine it moved to Dumont after running locally for a month.

Growing Paynes (1948-1949) | New york broadway, Elaines, Theatre poster
Elaine Stritch Photo: pinterest.com

The Growing Paynes. From 1948-49, this show followed the “trials and tribulations” of an insurance salesman and his screwball wife.  I’m not sure why all the wives were screwballs in the forties. The show had a cast overhaul after the first couple of months. John Harvey and Judy Parish were replaced by Ed Holmes and Elaine Stritch. The sponsor was Wanamakers Department Store. This show is historically important because it was the first sitcom to work the sponsor’s business into the script. Despite the change in casting, the show was cancelled after ten months.

Golden Age of Radio: Program #123 | WMKY
Photo: wmky.com

The Aldrich Family. This well-known family made the leap from radio to television in 1949. The show centered around the Aldrich son Henry and his family who lived on Elm Street in Centerville.  Imdb.com lists 18 episodes but five seasons so it was on sporadically apparently like The Jack Benny Show when it began on the small screen. I’m not sure how this show survived five seasons. While Jameson House played Sam Aldrich, during the 18 episodes, there were three different women playing his wife Mary and five different actors who showed up as his son Henry.

The Life of Riley. This show also began life as a radio show. There were two versions of the show and the second version was the better known one.  In this earlier version from 1949, Riley is played by Jackie Gleason and his wife Peg is Rosemary DeCamp. Their son Riley Jr. was played by Lanny Rees and Gloria Winters took on the role of their daughter Bab. The other cast member was Jim Gillis, Riley’s friend, played by Sid Tomack. The show primarily focuses on Riley’s home life though we hear about life at the aircraft plant he works in as a riveter. His catchphrase was “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

The Life of Riley: A matter of perspective | CharlesPaolino's Blog
Photo: charlespaolino.com

The show only lasted for 26 episodes; at that time, a full season was 39. Their sponsor was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and part way through the year the company decided it would rather put more money into the Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, a boxing show.

This show also made history. It was the first sitcom to win an Emmy, beating out The Silver Theater and The Lone Ranger.

William Bendix could not accept this role because, oddly enough, he was filming a movie, The Life of Riley. He would perfect the role in the second television version which debuted in 1953.

Amazon.com: I Remember Mama TV Show (aka.- Mama Television Series ) : Peggy  Wood, Dick Van Patten, Judson Laire, Rosemary Rice, Robin Morgan, Don  Richardson: Movies & TV
Photo: amazon.com

Mama. This show ran from 1949-1957, producing 178 episodes. Peggy Wood starred as Mama Hansen and Judson Laire played her husband Papa Hansen. A young Dick Van Patten appeared as their son Nels, Rosemary Rice was daughter Katrin, and Robin Morgan was daughter Dagmar.

The show chronicled the lives of a family who recently immigrated to San Francisco shortly after 1910. The movie starring Irene Dunne was also very popular. Many viewers fondly recalled the series as a heart-warming and tender show. Like, most of these early shows, it was shot live so there are no reruns available for this much-loved show.

It, too, made history, being the first show listed as a comedy drama which was not the new thing that we thought it was in the 1970s.

Beginning in 1950, the sitcom genre would become the king of the television schedule. That was the year one of my all-time favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show aired and the two popular, but disgraceful shows, Beulah and Amos ‘n Andy hit the air.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show | TIME
George Burns and Gracie Allen Photo: timemagazine.com

It was interesting to go back to learn about the first sitcoms which are not well-known or available for viewing. It’s television history we don’t want to lose. These were the pioneers of classic television, and it’s amazing how each series made history of its own that often would not be repeated for several decades.

Not Everything is Black or White

As Black History Month comes to an end, I wanted to look at the early years of television featuring African American characters.  I don’t know if young people today realize how much culture has changed in the past fifty years.  While there are a lot of negative changes that have occurred in the movie and television industry, there have been a lot of positive changes as well.

It’s hard for young adults to realize today how different things are.  When I was growing up in the sixties, married couples on television had twin beds; you could not say “pregnant” on the air; black people and white people were not friends, and certainly did not date or marry; the “jobs wanted” ads in the newspaper were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women; and if a married woman wanted to join the armed forces, her husband or father had to sign a letter giving his approval.

Sometimes we get so caught up in how far we are from the journey’s end, we forget to appreciate how far we have traveled.  Looking at the current television schedule we see a variety of shows about capable women.  While certainly racism and gender discrimination exist, most people don’t think twice about whether a lead character is a man or a woman; is black, white, or Asian; or single or married.

Just a quick review of shows on the air reveal complex, intelligent characters who are African American.  We see this in Black-ish, This Is Us, Empire, Scandal, House of Lies, Last Man Standing, and Gray’s Anatomy, just to name a few.  This was far from the reality of early television.

We often think of that era as the golden age of television, but honestly, it was the white age of television.

In 1950, two shows debuted with main characters who were black:  Amos ‘N Andy and Beulah.  A radio transplant, Amos ‘N Andy dealt mostly with Kingfish’s schemes to gain wealth, often at the expense of his friends. Beulah also got its start on radio where she was a character in Fibber McGee and Molly.    She worked for a well-to-do middle class white couple with one son.  Both of these shows were demeaning and stereotypical.  In 1953, they were both yanked from the air due to NAACP protests.

Unfortunately, it would take almost 20 years before another show would feature a black character as a star.  In 1968, Julia debuted.  Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, was a black woman with a young son Corey (Marc Copage).  Her husband is killed in Vietnam and she moves to LA to start a new life in her nursing career.  Like Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she is raising a son; like Doris Day she is a working mother; and like Ann Marie on That Girl, she has a fabulous wardrobe.  She is hired at Astrospace Industries, an industrial-health office where she works with Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan).  Her life is normal.  She goes to work, takes care of her son, and goes on a few dates, but the concept of an African American, or a woman, starring in a show as the sole breadwinner, intelligent and fashionable, was not normal for the times.  The show was on for three seasons until 1971.

Julia was a controversial show at the time, but it scored high in the ratings and became a popular series.  I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism today.  The show gets complaints because during the time of the Watts riots, sit-ins, and so much racial unrest, it portrayed Julia living a fairly normal life.  I think people forget how groundbreaking it was to have a working woman or a black character star in a show.  I think the fact that she was able to live a “normal” life gives even more credit to not bowing to stereotypes of the late sixties. It’s like criticizing someone who is just learning to walk for not running and doing handstands.  They might be small steps, but they are steps going forward. I am one of those people who actually prefer not to see too much “real life” in sitcoms.  Honestly, I watch them to escape real life.

I also wanted to mention a few other shows that were featuring black characters in their cast during the time Julia was on the air: Hogan’s Heroes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller.

Hogan’s Heroes had a diverse cast, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe, striving to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show included a quirky news staff including weatherman Gordy Howard played by John Amos.  Barney Miller centered around a police department made up of personnel who each had their own dysfunctions.  One of those members was Lt. Ron Harris played by Ron Glass.  Each of these shows quietly featured black characters.  The races of any of the characters could easily have been switched during an episode and the character would not change.  It was just real people living real lives and some of them happened to be white and some black. After these creative and well-written shows, I prefer to ignore the Norman Lear era of shows.  They may have their merits, but I couldn’t stand All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, or Good TimesThe Jeffersons was tolerable, but I would not choose to watch it either. In the mid-1980s, television began to get more diverse.

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Don’t get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect in the world of television and movies, but we have made a lot of progress.  We have a lot of work to do, but just think how many choices Diahann Carroll would have today if she wanted to develop a television series. She could pick any career she wanted, including the military without anyone’s else’s approval; she could marry a white man and not sleep in twin beds; she could announce on the air she was pregnant—small steps but 5280 small steps turn into a mile. So, let’s devote one day to appreciate the hundreds of miles we have come before getting too caught up despairing about the hundred we still have to go.