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SITCOM HISTORY


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


“The Goldbergs” got its start as a radio situation comedy and aired from 1929-1946. It crossed over to television in 1949, where it remained until 1957 thanks to its large and loyal audience.



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.

CBS



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.

Desilu Productions



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.

Desilu Productions



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.

Desilu Productions



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.

Gomalco Productions



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


1968: ‘Julia’ presents a Black female lead in a sitcom


While the show, which first aired on Sept. 17, 1968, presented Diahann Carroll as the female lead and was considered groundbreaking for doing so, many people of color complained that it presented a sanitized view of their lives and was not an accurate portrayal. “Julia” remained on the air until 1971.NBC Television // Getty Images



1969: ‘The Brady Bunch’ portrays a large, blended family


On Sept. 26, “The Brady Bunch” debuted and featured a family of eight brought together through a second marriage. Though the show was wholesome and mention was never made of what happened to Carol Brady’s first husband, creator Sherwood Schwartz always insisted that Carol was divorced. You may also like: Best and worst Al Pacino moviesParamount Television


1970: A groundbreaking sitcom for women in the workplace debuts


On Sept. 19, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” would change the face of television for its portrayal of an independent, career-minded, single woman. The show would remain on the air for seven seasons and broach relevant topics like the wage gap between men and women.Bettmann // Getty Images




1971: ‘All in the Family’ is the first show to come with a warning


The show debuted in 1971 and came with the following warning: “The program you are about to see is ‘All in the Family.’ It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.” Another Norman Lear show, “Hot l Baltimore,” which premiered in 1975, featured a disclaimer before every show due to its controversial content.Tandem Productions


1972: ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ explores the wage gap


In the Season 3 episode "The Good Time News,” Mary learns that the male producer who held her job before her was paid more. After confronting her boss, Mary learns that she earns less because she is a woman. She fights back and eventually gets the same amount as her predecessor.Bettmann // Getty Images



1973: ‘M*A*S*H’ features male nudity


Season 2, Episode 10, “The Sniper,” featured one of the first instances of male nudity in prime-time television in the U.S. The scene reveals Radar's backside when he tries to escape sniper fire by running into the shower tent, and his towel slips.20th Century Fox Television


1974: Lucille Ball ends her long run on CBS


The beloved redhead spent 23 years as a Monday night fixture on the CBS television schedule. Ball informed the network that she would not continue on with her weekly series, “Here's Lucy.” The actress ended one of the longest prime‐time runs in television history. You may also like: Best and worst Leonardo DiCaprio moviesLucille Ball Productions



1975: Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake dies on ‘M*A*S*H’


In the Season 3 finale, Lt. Colonel Henry Blake dies when his plane is shot down. The death is not seen; instead, Radar reports to the hospital staff, “Lt. Colonel Henry Blake's plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors."20th Century Fox Television


1976: A sitcom theme song becomes a #1 Billboard hit


The “Welcome Back, Kottter” theme song becomes a #1 pop hit on the Billboard Hot 100. In the year prior, “S.W.A.T.” became the first theme song to hit #1 on the pop charts. The ex-Lovin’ Spoonful singer John Sebastian wrote and performed the song.The Komack Company Inc.



1977: ‘Happy Days’ jumps the shark


The Season 5 premiere of the popular sitcom featured Fonzie literally jumping over a shark while on water skis in his signature leather jacket. The moment created a term that would become a part of television vernacular. Coined by John Hein for his website, “jumping the shark” refers to when a show is unofficially past its prime and does something gimmicky to attempt to win back viewers.Miller-Milkis Productions


1978: ‘Taxi’ debuts on ABC

Taxi premiered on Sept. 12, and though it only ran for five seasons, it won 18 Emmys. It also launched several successful careers for many of its stars. Actor Jeff Conaway, arguably the show’s biggest star due to his appearance in the movie “Grease,” left during the fourth season.John-Charles-Walters Productions



1979: 40.2 million Americans tune in for the “All in the Family” series finale


The sitcom remains one of the top 10 most-watched season finales. The episode focused on Edith pushing herself to cook St. Patrick’s Day dinner for Archie’s Place, even though the doctor warned her to stay off her feet. When Archie discovers that Edith kept the truth from him, he makes her promise to never do it again, and then Archie tells Edith that he is nothing without her. You may also like: 100 best movies of all timeTandem Productions


1980: Edith Bunker dies on “Archie’s Place”


Jean Stapleton, who played Edith, wanted to leave the show, so Edith was already dead in Season 2’s opening episode. We discover Archie grieving the death of his wife after she died of a stroke a month prior. In honor of Edith’s death, Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions started a $500,000 Edith Bunker Memorial Fund supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights.Tandem Productions



1981: The sitcom ‘Soap’ airs for the last time


‘Soap’ was a prime-time parody of daytime soap operas and addressed many controversial topics in its four-season run. It was an important stepping stone for Billy Crystal and led to tremendous career success for the actor. The sitcom was written and created by Susan Harris, who would go on to create “The Golden Girls.”Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions

1982: ‘Cheers’ debuts on NBC

The sitcom premiered on Sept. 30 and aired for 11 seasons. Bartenders were replaced, as were lead actresses, but the show consistently received solid ratings. It is considered by many to be one of the greatest sitcoms in television history.Aaron Rapoport/Corbis // Getty Images



1983: ‘M*A*S*H’ becomes and remains the most-watched TV series finale


More than 106 million people watched ““Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” when it aired on February 28, 1983. The finale wrapped up an 11-season run, and advertising spots airing during the show’s final episode sold for a whopping $450,000 for a brief 30 seconds. When the show ended, an estimated 1 million viewers in New York City went to the bathroom, and 6.7 million gallons of water moved through the sewer system.20th Century Fox Television


1984: George Clooney gets his first recurring role

Ironically, megastar George Clooney’s first recurring role was on a sitcom called “E/R,” where he played an EMT. This role came a decade before he would be cast in the hour-long drama series “ER,” where he played Dr. Doug Ross. You may also like: Can you answer these real 'Jeopardy!' questions about movies?Constant c Productions



1985: ‘The Golden Girls’ brings life after 50 and marriage to the masses


The show, which premiered on Sept. 14, 1985, featured four women who were either divorced or widowed, navigating aging in a world that wanted to ignore it. Susan Harris, who created and wrote the series, told The New York Times, “There is life after 50. People can be attractive, energetic, have romances.” Harris, no stranger to trailblazing, wrote the controversial abortion episode of the 1972 Norman Lear sitcom ''Maude'' and created the sitcoms ''Soap'' and ''Benson.”Touchstone Television


1986: Shelley Long leaves ‘Cheers’

Actress Shelley Long left the show at the end of Season 5 at the height of its popularity. Long wanted to pursue film roles, and her character, Diane Chambers, postpones her wedding to Sam and goes off to write her novel.Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions



1987: ‘Designing Women’ features a storyline about a character with AIDS

The episode “Killing All the Right People” featured Tony Goldwyn as a man and fellow designer who is dying of AIDS. He asks the women to design his funeral. Producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s mother contracted AIDS after receiving an HIV-infected blood transfusion and died shortly before the episode was written.Bloodworth-Thomason


1988: Roseanne debuts and depicts a real working-class family


On Oct. 18, 1988, Roseanne debuted—and it was a show unlike any of its contemporaries. The honest portrayal of a “just getting by” family was identifiable to many viewers who understood and appreciated the comfortable, lived-in Conner household and the real issues they faced. Roseanne lasted for 10 seasons.Wind Dancer Productions



1989: The longest-running animated sitcom debuts

“The Simpsons” debuted on Fox on Dec. 17, 1989, as a Christmas special. The animated sitcom got its start as a cartoon short in 1987 on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” Created by cartoonist Matt Groening, it is currently in its 32nd season. You may also like: Movie trivia for the top 100 films of all timeGracie Films


1990: ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” addresses racism


In the episode "Mistaken Identity,&qu