What Families can Learn from 60’s and 70’s Sitcoms (and Classic Films)
60s and 70s TV Sitcoms offer a variety of “nice families” who are generally put at risk by “not so nice” people, while their “niceness” usually prevails in the end. As such, they generally use the “Charlie Brown” engine of comedy (if you’re nice you end up in a defacto leadership position where everyone depends upon you and nobody appreciates you, and yet you have a kind of karmic protection). To put it another way, you never really saw things like “The Don Rickles Family Hour” on 60’s TV. Meanwhile, 40s through 60s movies often use the “Jesus” engine in which the noble/humble/righteous American prevails despite all betrayals against them. Both are excellent models for how to live your life, if you understand them correctly.
Beaver, Opie, and Peter Brady all are compelled to stand up to the school bully (by their family code of honor), and in each case their nice families encourage them to use dispute resolution, including “nice” intervention with the bully family. Of course, the bully/bully family (being from the world of “not nice”) is incorrigible, and Beaver/Opie/Peter are coached to ultimately pound them (as they do successfully since they are wielding the fists of righteousness). These are actually excellent parables of family life, and are from an era where “niceness” (which involves practice, skillsets, energy, and restraint) prevailed, and its practitioners were default leaders (you generally see that although some try to get into Ward’s/Andy’s/Mike Brady’s grills, their skillful finessing of niceness carries the moral hammer, in the Abe Lincoln tradition). In the more cynical times to follow, we were given “Married with Children”, “Modern Family”, and a slew of “not so nice” families (which may have also sold niceness by counterpoint). As much as we are tempted to “waste” the bragging neighbor, the overbearing boss, or the neighborhood bully, we must always remember the Brady Bunch rule: “niceness prevails in spite of itself”. The following is a show by show treatment of niceness at work.
Leave it to Beaver (1957–63)-Eddie Haskell, Lumpy, Larry, Whitey and others are entitled, oily, conniving liars, and yet June in particular bakes them cookies and treats them nicely (one wonders why she even lets her boys hang out with them). As a child I was afraid of Ward, but I now consider him a marvel of wisdom and restraint. The episode where Beaver falls into a giant coffee cup on a dare would get many kids sent to military school, but Ward patiently explains the downsides of friend coercion and moves on. Life Lesson: Exposing your kids to imperfect kids is the beginning of a life of tolerance and good citizenship, if not annoying.
Andy Griffith Show (1960–68)-The first season tried Andy as basically Gomer, and that didn’t work out so they made him a country sage, with Barney and Gomer as his clueless sidekicks. Barney/Opie are the starting point for many a life’s lesson. What’s interesting about Andy is that he weaves some “tough love” in with the niceness. He is a cop after all. Did this niceness/tough love extend to black people? We may never know since there was only one black person with a speaking part in the history of the show, Opie’s coach “Flip” Conway. Life Lesson: When Opie kills the mama bird with a slingshot, it’s effective to lay on the guilt. Otherwise, slyly outsmart and “Columbo” the felons in Mayberry.
Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–66)-Rob and Laura Petrie are eternally vigilant, clever, and above all…nice. Though Rob does not seem quite as funny a gag writer as Buddy and Sally, you imagine that he is more broadly funny and sensible. Laura seems an awfully good Wife/Mom for being a great-looking chick. Alan Brady and Mel Cooly can be antagonistic (as can many in Rob/Laura’s orbit), and yet funniness/niceness prevails. Life Lesson: Being funny/nice has gotten Rob the head writer job (as it did for creator Carl Reiner, another funny/nice guy). Rob/Laura seem to suffer from having a sarcastic kid, Ritchie. Rob is not as gag funny as Buddy, but he’s a hell of a lot more likable, Laura not as funny as Sally but a lot better looking. Thus, it helps to be good looking in the funny/nice business.
The Brady Bunch (1969–74)-The Brady family seems downright naïve and foolish by today’s standards, and yet they succeed in spite of themselves. Mr. Brady has some abstruse reasoning, yet everyone respects him. Alice, though more weird than funny, somehow provides comic relief. Marsha might be a kind of white bitch through another lens, but taken together the Brady family prevails, mostly because they are a team. Life Lesson: Even if some of the individual players have weaknesses, teamwork often wins. Not noticing the taunts of the other team also allows you to succeed by shear enthusiasm. Maybe one shared bathroom is the secret to all of this teamwork?
Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970–77)-Mary is a saint, but you’d never know it by the travails her fellow cast members put her through. That Lou is cynical seems to tickle Mary’s nurturing side. That the other characters are half crazy seems to affirm Mary, who is basically Laura Petrie unleashed. Life Lesson: That Mary puts up with it all is a testament to her loyalty and perseverance. That any man wouldn’t sacrifice anything to bed or marry her is beyond belief.
Bob Newhart Show (1972–78)-Bob Newhart is your basic “sane man in an insane world” character, and this show uses that setup to the extreme. This is also one of the first shows to make light of the highly-permissive “psychobabble” that was starting to creep into our culture from the 60s onward. Newhart fields it all with incredible patience, which makes you wonder about his abilities as a Psychologist (ever wonder why is he not a Psychiatrist?) Life Lesson: Patience is a virtue. “If you can keep your head when others about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…you’ll be a man my son”-Rudyard Kipling. Has anyone ever read the words of Kipling’s “If” and wondered if anyone other than Newhart and Superman were able to live by them?
If TV Sitcoms are the Charlie Brown “niceness prevails against an irresponsible world”, then great films are often a retold Jesus parable, something like “perseverance for a higher cause prevails in the face of compromise and betrayal”
Doris Day movies aside, movies more often utilize the Jesus setup than the Charlie Brown. This is the classic story of the hero (usually a man) with an idea that he feels is noble, and he protects it against all odds, with the help of his loyal woman. I guess these noble themes fit better in a long, uninterrupted format, than a short one besieged by corn flakes and Chevy commercials.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)-A boy scout leader (James Stewart) is elected to a Senate position by happenstance, then gets accused of corruption by accidentally uncovering the workings of machine politicians. He and his legislative assistant (Jean Arthur, who falls in love with him) must singlehandedly convince the Senate that they are innocent. Life Lesson: Mr. Smith, propelled by Jean Arthur (ruff!) gets lucky when the senior Senator from his State (Claude Rains…spoiler-alert) confesses to a conspiracy, over guilt at betraying boyish/virtuous Smith. Can you imagine Lindsay Graham doing a similar confession (not!). The same act basically got Jesus crucified.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)-Famously, a Jesus parable in which a man (Stewart again), seemingly lives a life of no meaning with many overly dependent upon him, ultimately learning by accident that his life is indeed important. Life Lesson: Our lives are more important than we think, but honestly George Bailey’s was a lot more important than most of ours (who might see that Bedford Falls changed for the better if they weren’t born). That Bailey didn’t arrange for Mr. Potter to “disappear” puts him up for Christian sainthood.
The Fountainhead (1949)-Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) is an architect that believes in modernism, and won’t compromise his work (or his personal standards) for the masses. He is assisted by lover Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal). A Capitalism versus Socialism parable. Life Lesson: A kind of funny-book sketch of good ol’ American individualism versus “but we’ve got to please the masses” force-fed by power-hungry media. So far it sounds like a Donald Trump narrative, until you realize that someone like Bill Gates is the “individual” sketch and Trump actually the power-hungry media/usurper trying to appease the masses. Funny how Roark/Cooper won’t compromise in love either, which leads to a kind of doggy/kitty cat sex with his female counterpart (Francon/Neil). Not exactly Jesus, except the part where he doesn’t compromise his ideals.
High Noon (1951)-Marshall Will Kane (Cooper again) is a successful Sheriff who is retiring and getting married (to Grace Kelly) even as three thugs let out of prison are looking to kill him. He asks for help from all the people he protected over the years, but ultimately must face the bad guys alone. Life Lesson: This is kinda like the part where everyone betrays Jesus, except if (more spoiler-alert) Mary Magdalene had intervened and “smitten” Judas and Pontius Pilate with a sturdy olive-branch.
Shane (1953)-Shane (Alan Ladd) is a former gunslinger trying to go straight by working as a ranch hand. The farm family he works for is threatened by cattle rustlers, and he must reluctantly return to his violent past. Life Lesson: Shane is kind of a righteous warrior, in the mold of Sampson or Joshua (remember the jawbone of the ass?) His (even more spoiler-alert) kills are not exactly in the Jesus “turn the other cheek” mold, more righteous Old Testament mercy kills (smites?). Good of him to leave (die?) before Jean Arthur/Brandon DeWilde (wife/son of his boss Van Heflin) fall completely in love with him.
On the Waterfront (1954)-Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a former compromised boxer who tries to go straight at the urging of his priest (Karl Malden) and his girl (Eva Marie Saint), by standing up to corrupt Longshoreman boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb) Life Lesson: The truth shall set you free? Again, Malloy gets (yet-another spoiler-alert) lucky, gets the girl (Saint) and doesn’t get killed. Jesus was not so lucky. For all we know, the movie code at the time required this happy ending.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)-Luke (Paul Newman) is sent to a chain-gang prison for a short term, which soon gets extended due to his unwillingness to conform. The key line is spoken by Strother Martin after yet another beating given to an unrepentant Luke, “What we have here…is failure to communicate!”. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t represent any particular philosophy other than not wanting to be a caged animal (plus being very, very cool). Life Lesson: Don’t compromise. By this time the movie code had ended and (final spoiler-alert) a truly Jesus-type of ending was possible.
Pillow Talk (1959)-And finally, there is Doris Day as Jan Morrow in “Pillow Talk”, in which she rebuffs hunky/arrogant Brad Morrow while falling for shy Rex Stetson (both played by Rock Hudson). Day is sort of where “nice” meets “perseverance”. You can imagine that its easier to be “nice” for 23 minutes in a sitcom than for a 110 min. movie, in which one needs to be “nice but firm”. Life Lesson: Day’s being so efficient, nice, and hard to get makes the male viewer really, really root for Hudson to bed her at the end. What rascals we are!