Believe it or not, there was a time when TV was so scandalous that parents would not let their underage children watch it. This happened much earlier than the ‘90s era of the butt-exposing NYPD Blue or the vomit and variety acts of Beavis and Butthead (and later, Jackass). This goes way back to the ‘60s, when, along with the rest of popular culture, the networks shifted priorities in a way previously unimagined – and parents promptly pulled the TV plug, so to speak.
On the one hand, the homespun values of the cornpone sitcom, country rube ribticklers like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres supported the die hard belief at that time that viewers wanted nothing but wholesome, ‘hick flavored’ fare. The shows’ unparalleled success left critics confounded (the #1 rated Hillbillies was once referred to by a journalist as “one joke - nine years”) and advertisers like Jell-O and Alka-Seltzer ecstatic.
Yet there was a sly and subversive trend taking place all across the dial, a desire to tap into the raging counterculture idealism that was reshaping American society. While three martini and blue steak studio suits weren’t about to champion outright the hippie or the yippie, they did find some elements of the peace movement a bit easier to embrace - like the ever-changing music scene, Carnaby street fashions, and pop art. One has to remember that this was a creative cabal that waited until 1968 to feature an African American woman in a prestigious (read: non-servant) role as the lead in a broadcast comedy. The short-lived sitcom, Julia, would make singer Diahann Caroll a symbol for the still struggling cause of civil rights. It’s a circumstance that, some 40 years later, seems almost unfathomable.
But that’s the way network television was way back when. As the purveyor of living room amusement, as instrumental to the lives of the average family as the station wagon, the supermarket, and the submissive spouse, the Big Three felt an obligation to match money with moralizing. After all, with only a trio of television networks determining all the content for the medium, they were used to having their cake and commercializing its consumption, too. Naturally, they were not beyond exploiting a situation, or taking a fad and driving it directly into the ground. But certain subjects would remain strictly forbidden on the glowing cathode ray tube—and no matter the status of some “revolution”, sex was still considered illicit.
As a reflection of the communal mindset, TV’s treatment of interpersonal physicality was long considered laughable. In the Ike-oriented ‘50s, Lucille Ball’s pregnancy couldn’t be discussed in the tabloids or on the tube—at least not directly. Whenever the subject of her impending motherhood was broached, I Love Lucy was forbidden to use the word “pregnant”. Elvis Presley’s hip shaking was considered so scandalous that shows like Ed Sullivan only shot him from the waist up. The Rolling Stones were asked to change the lyrics of their song “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “let’s spend some time together” and acts like The Doors found themselves banned from the airwaves when they didn’t comply with such censorship demands (they, unlike the Stones, would not change the words to their hit “Light My Fire”).
These are the classic examples of the business end of the television of the times, a place where profiteering battled policy for a questionable sense of right and wrong. But on the home front, parents everywhere could see the permissive writing on the wall. They began taking control of what their children saw—and two shows landed directly in their guardian site lines: 1968’s Laugh-In, and 1969’s Love, American Style.
Rowan and Martin’s variety tease, an hour long sequence of innuendo, corniness, and severely cleaned up Jokes from the John, pushed so many buttons among the Puritanical populace that its notoriety seems ridiculous in retrospect. After all, these self-appointed moralists were complaining about catchphrases like “You bet your sweet bippy” and character names like ‘Ferd Burffle’. While gyrating women in body paint and bikinis offer a kind of flower power nostalgia, the vast majority of the show today plays like burlesque without the nightclub entertainment format’s reliance on bosoms or baggy pants blue humor.
But it was Love, American Style that really sent parental watchdogs over the edge. An affront to everything the standard suburban ethos valued, the anarchic anthology series is rather silly in the light of a 2008 overview where Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives truly push the permissive envelope. But what many forget about the show’s original run was that subjects such as divorce, adultery, single parenthood, living together, casual sex, mid-life crisis, birth control, and free love were not typical TV material – yet Love, American Style addressed these issues. Indeed, many of these topics had yet to make it into the mainstream dialogue, let alone become part of a primetime broadcast. But ABC, desperate to find a counterprogramming response to other network’s efforts (like the powerhouse Carol Burnett Show), gave Love, American Style a chance, and the rest is revisionist history.
A recent Paramount DVD release of selected episodes from season one argues for the show’s dated nature and lasting wistfulness. The basic framework for an hour-long installment of the series matched three or four self-contained vignettes with black out sketches, running gags, and occasional one-off oddities. Drawing from a wide variety of known (Broderick Crawdford), popular (Bill Bixby), and up and coming (Harrison Ford?) actors, Love, American Style‘s freewheeling approach created slapstick alongside social satire (Conservative types literally falling on their face), the occasional character based-whimsy circumvented by outright attempts to be hip, hot, and happening (lots of love beads and psychedelic set designs). With the always inappropriate laugh track along to remind viewers when to chuckle, the 12 to 15 minute skits soared by on sitcom scripting, psychedelic surrealism, and a heaping helping of dirty old man snickering.
Oddly enough, a show that wanted to be taken seriously as a reflection of the modern romantic scene was incredibly chauvinistic when it came to male/female relationships. The gals were always groovy and good looking, but their seeming independence frequently waned in favor of fidelity, marriage, and homemaking. The men, while side burned and beaded, still had that “barefoot and pregnant” mantra marking their every action toward women. In Love, American Style, we have laments about “the pill” placed alongside promises of chastity until marriage, loose morals and virtues voided by decisions toward commitment and the sanctity of a certain sacrament. Like most media reactions to reality, Love, American Style filtered its so-called freedoms through a lucid looking glass of priority, conservatism, and station standards and practices. Just because the world had gone gratuitous didn’t mean the FCC was turning a blind eye.
The clear ‘old fashioned’ quality of the narratives remains one of the more compelling elements of Love, American Style, especially viewed across the prism of critical reconsideration. The show’s slapdash style of wit has not worn well. As a matter of fact, some of the episodes offered on the season one DVD are downright goofy in their reliance on comic standards like the overprotective parents who show up for the honeymoon (“Love and Mother”), countrified rednecks finding themselves at a swingers shindig (“Love and the Wild Party”), and the post-hangover matrimonial partnership with a woman you just met the night before (“Love and Who?”).
The aforementioned overdubbed laughter leaves little to the imagination – they’re merely post-production stiffs signaling every supposed gag with a less than compelling group guffaw. As with any show staunchly symbolic of the era, there is bad hair, lame fashion, and generation gaps o’plenty. Practically every episode focuses on newly liberated young people pressing their recently discovered advantage with parents or formulaic authority figures—or worse, the ‘old folks’ carousing like 20-year-olds. It’s a lot like watching your 50-plus parents doing the Hustle – that’s a dance from the ‘70s, youngsters. Love, American Style represents a stodgy white guy’s gut reaction to the sexual revolution—whatever that term ultimately meant.
Indeed, few in the business understood what the new found liberation from amorous hang-ups meant, entertainment-wise. Certainly taboos remained some (homosexuality, interracial romance) as strong and strident as ever, while a vocal and youthful minority supported any and all erotic experimentation. The rest of the demographic, however—especially the one aimed at by most advertisers—were still stuck in the missionary position. As with most previously prohibited activities suddenly given a legitimized social license, the openness experience by the younger generation was crossing over. With movies (the new post-modern sensibility and reliance on Method acting) and music (from the Beatles/Beach Boys to brown acid) already a cultural casualty, it wasn’t long before TV would take a turn for the perverse, right?
Well, not exactly. Love, American Style was not a seismic hit. It didn’t become a watercooler conversation lynchpin like Laugh-In. It ambled along for a few seasons before heading off into half hour syndication. The hot topic of racism would soon take the place of raunchiness with the arrival of All in the Family, and it wasn’t long before every sitcom had a Norman Lear-inspired consciousness. By the time disco drove the final nail into a hindered human sexual response, TV was already embracing the tawdry and the titillating. Oddly enough, in reruns around the world during the mid-‘70s, Love, American Style was looked at as a pleasant little piffle, a weird work of unbridled innocence that just didn’t grasp the greater psycho-sensual dynamic in the public sphere during the ‘60s. Today, it stands as a footnote, less than a paving stone in the path of TV’s more classical conceits.
In the medium’s background is perhaps where Love, American Style truly belongs. It’s worth pointing out that the series was the starting point for the entire ‘50s nostalgia craze (“Love and the Happy Days” would serve as the pilot for the soon to be ‘70s megahit) and a rare minority welcomed its cheery, bright and perky take on subjects still whispered about in even the most enlightened homes. Yet Love, American Style actually signifies the moment when tradition in television (the variety hour, the now standard 30 minute sitcom) took a dive into more lurid subject matter.
Love, American Style‘s debut was at the very instance when everything censors and prudes had worried over seemed to bubble and blister just beneath the social surface. The show’s fleeting success showed broadcasters and their money men that people could tolerate a little ticklish T&A, and it would be this ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ attitude that would guide the programming decisions of the next decades. Besides, no matter the morals involved, sex sells. Any advertiser will tell you that.
Perhaps another way of looking at Love, American Style is as a simple alteration of the priggish positions that once stymied all expression, an “if you can’t beat ‘em, distract ‘em” design that seemed to work…at least for a while. Today, we can see beyond such arch acquiescence and recognize the series as the laughable lark it always was. But never forget that, four decades before, adults lived in fear of the unimaginable influence such “frank and open” discussions could cause.
Somehow, members of the ‘60s-era ‘establishment’ wanted to blame their lack of complete control and a disintegrating communal conformity on a bunch of British mop tops who were turning up the volume, a collection of radical writers like Joseph Heller and Ken Kesey, a maverick group of moviemakers like Ken Russell and Tony Richardson, and the boob tube’s literalizing of its nickname, ala Laugh In, et. al. Of course, there was much more to be worried about besides a show like Love, American Style—the radical anti-war movement, the assassination of our leaders, the growing influence of drugs. TV was clearly the easiest thing to monitor. It also stood as the filter through which all change was monitored and accepted. Maybe parents weren’t so misguided, after all.