From the year you were born
Sitcoms have changed so much over the years amid shifting styles, audience tastes, and improvements in technology. They can be a reflection of what is happening in the world, a unique parallel to the most significant events and movements in history.
The sitcom is a shortened version of the term “situation comedy” and found its origins in radio. Though the first television sitcom aired in 1946, Merriam-Webster dates the first known use of the word to 1962. Sitcoms revolve around a fixed set of characters, with situations carrying over or continuing from week to week, and usually foreground their comedic elements.
Stacker looked at various entertainment news sources including The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and IMDb to gather information about the history of sitcoms from the year you were born. The years range from the sitcom’s beginnings in 1945 until the present day, and include debuts, series finales, and important and interesting facts about one of the most relevant genres in the history of television.
Do you remember your favorite sitcom? Maybe you watched it with your parents or a college roommate. Perhaps there is one episode that you’ll never forget, or maybe it’s a famous line or a catchy theme song, or maybe the death of a beloved character.
Whether you were born when the first same-sex marriage took place, the most-watched season finale aired, or the first time that the wage gap between the sexes was addressed—no matter what decade or season, we’ve got you covered.
Join Stacker as we take a stroll down memory lane, back to the year of your birth, to explore the most fascinating, profound, hysterical, and unforgettable moments in sitcom history.
1945: The end of radio’s Golden Age sets stage for television
Commercial television found its beginnings in 1945, which meant big changes for radio, the primary entertainment medium up to that point. Radio shows would begin transitioning to television, including situation comedies. By the beginning of the next decade, television would become a lucrative and ultimately unstoppable medium.
1946: The world’s first television sitcom airs
The 30-minute show "Pinwright's Progress," about a store proprietor's many misadventures, aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The very first sitcom hit the small screen on Nov. 29, 1946. Though the BBC aired a full season made up of 10 episodes, the sitcom was broadcast live, predating television's ability to preserve broadcasts, so no episodes survived.
1947: The first American sitcom airs
“Mary Kay and Johnny,” the first American sitcom, centered on a young married couple in New York (real-life married couple Johnny and Mary Kay Stearns). The 15-minute weekly show, which aired on Nov. 18, 1947, was performed live for a studio audience. It was also the first show to feature a married couple sharing a bed and a pregnant woman on television—though the pregnancy remained hidden, and the birth was later written into the show.
1948: A sitcom features the first African-American actress in a recurring role
“The Laytons” starred Amanda Randolph and ran on the now-defunct Dumont Television Network from Aug. 1948 to Oct. 1948. Randolph was the first African-American actress who appeared in a recurring role on a sitcom.
Gary Winogrand/Picture Post/Hulton Archive // Getty Images
1949: The first Jewish sitcom airs on television
1950: ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’ offers sitcom/variety hybrid
On October 12, George Burns and Gracie Allen brought their radio show "Burns and Allen” to television. The show employed elements of both the sitcom and the variety show, making it an interesting hybrid. Burns was also the first television performer to break the fourth wall and directly address the audience while in the scene.
1951: ‘I Love Lucy’ is the first show filmed for a live audience
The classic sitcom “I Love Lucy,” which premiered in 1951, was not only the first show to be filmed using 35 mm film in front of a live studio audience, but was also the first to use a multi-camera format. And unlike many television shows of the time, the comedy was produced in Hollywood rather than New York.
1952: ‘I Love Lucy’ created the rerun
The first television rerun came about because of Lucille Ball’s pregnancy. Producers shot extra shows to pad the second season but realized they wouldn’t have enough before Lucy became unable to perform. They realized they could air older shows again, and the first rerun was the "The Quiz Show," which had originally aired on Nov. 12, 1951.
1953: ‘I Love Lucy’ is the first show to write a pregnancy into the storyline
After becoming pregnant in real life, Lucille Ball's pregnancy was written into the show's storyline, though the term "expecting" was used instead of the word "pregnancy." It was the highest-rated episode of the series and saw more viewers than either the inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower or Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. The world met Little Ricky on Jan. 19, 1953, only 12 hours after Lucy gave birth to her son, Desi Arnaz, Jr.
1954: Ozzie and Harriet end their radio sitcom run
One of the first sitcoms to represent the nuclear family on television—and featuring a real-life family—“The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” found its start on radio. In 1952, the show made its television debut while simultaneously airing on the radio. In 1954, the television show continued even after the radio show ended, and it remained on the air until 1966, making it the longest-running sitcom until “The Simpsons” surpassed it.
1955: ‘The Honeymooners’ debuts on Oct. 1
Comedian Jackie Gleason created the show based on a comedy sketch from his variety show. Most of the show unfolded in the Kramdens’ kitchen and featured two couples, the Kramdens and the Mertzes. Though it only lasted for 39 episodes, it found a cult following thanks to famous catchphrases such as, “To the moon, Alice!” and “Baby, you’re the greatest.”
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis // Getty Images
1956: The very first major television sitcom character dies
When the television show "Make Room for Daddy" was transitioning to "The Danny Thomas Show," lead actress Jean Hagen left the show because she didn't like the direction of her character. Instead of dealing with the fallout of featuring a divorce between a married couple on television, the writers killed Hagen's character off instead. While she was the first major sitcom character to be killed off, she wouldn’t be the last.
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives // Getty Images
1957: ‘Leave it to Beaver’ featured the first toilet on television
In an episode that featured the Beav hiding a pet alligator in the tank of a toilet, network executives had to break protocol and show not only a bathroom but the toilet itself on TV. The network allowed "Leave it to Beaver" to keep the scene as long as it didn't show the characters actually using the bathroom for its intended purpose. The first series to feature the sound of a toilet flushing wouldn't come until 1971.
1958: ‘Donna Reed’ becomes the first family sitcom to focus on the mother
For the first time in sitcom history, the ‘Donna Reed’ show focused not on the father or the kids but on the mother. In 1958, it was a groundbreaking and much-needed concept for the millions of stay-at-home mothers dotting the suburban landscape. It was so mother-centric that it was almost called “Mother Knows Best.”ABC
1959: Norman Lear creates his first television show “The Deputy,” starring Henry Fonda, was a Western that ran for two seasons. Lear would move on to create some of the biggest and most thought-provoking sitcoms of the 1970s and ‘80s, including “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “One Day at a Time.” You may also like: Actors with the most Golden Globe wins of all timeTop Gun Productions
1960: The first animated sitcom airs on prime-time television
“The Flintstones” debuted on Sept. 30, and many thought it was an animated version of “The Honeymooners,” though show creators Willian Hanna and Joseph Barbera didn’t agree. The duo, who had a background in animated shorts, wanted a show that appealed to both children and their parents. The sitcom was nominated for an outstanding comedy series Emmy in its first season.Hanna-Barbera Productions
1961: A show about a talking horse debuts in syndication
“Mister Ed” aired in syndication for its first season and on CBS until 1966. Comedian George Burns helped pitch the pilot episode, and Clint Eastwood guest-starred in one episode of the popular sitcom.The Mister Ed Company // Getty Images
1962: Lucille Ball brings divorce to the forefront
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced in 1960. On Oct. 1, 1962, Ball’s show, “The Lucy Show,” premiered. Though the show was based on a book that featured two divorced women living together, the network felt that was too risky, so it made Ball a widow and the friend who lived with her a divorcee.Desilu Productions
1963: Viewers discover how Beaver Cleaver got his nickname
The final episode of” Leave It to Beaver” (“Family Scrapbook”) found the family looking at an old photo album and reliving old memories. They discuss the titular character’s nickname and how it came about. When Beaver’s older brother Wally was little, he couldn’t say “Theodore,” so instead, he called him Tweeter, which eventually became Beaver.Gomalco Productions
1964: An unlikely group of people are shipwrecked on an island
“Gilligan’s Island” debuted on Sept. 26 in the 8:30 p.m. time slot on CBS. The show, created by Sherwood Schwartz, lasted only three seasons, though it gained quite a following in syndication. You may also like: Oscar best actress winner from the year you were bornGladysya Productions
1965: A interracial pair of spies come to prime time
“I Spy” is the first sitcom to portray an interracial pair who were equals. It debuted on Sept. 15 and starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Cosby’s character was considered the brains, while Culp’s character was the playboy.Three F Productions
1966: The first single-girl sitcom airs on television
Marlo Thomas starred as a single woman who moves to New York to become an actress. Though Thomas created the show, she was not credited for it at the time. Her father, Danny Thomas, starred in sitcoms “Make Room for Daddy” and later on the “The Danny Thomas Show” as a widower.Bettmann // Getty Images
1967: ‘The Flying Nun’ debuts on ABC
Though Sally Field starred in the 1965 sitcom “Gidget” and loved the experience, the actress wanted nothing to do with playing a nun, especially a flying one. In a 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey for O, The Oprah Magazine, Field said, “I didn't want to do it. I was trying to figure out who I was, but I knew who I wasn't: a flying nun.”Screen Gems Television