‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 70s

Norman Lear's City

Last week’s reminiscences of Taxi made me mourn the passing of 70s-era television, and slowly come to grips with what feels like the inevitable decline of everything good into something interminably shitty. But here at TubaTV, we do our best to hold back the tears, be strong, and mask our sentimentality with some cold, hard academese. So, rather than just narrate the downward spiral of sitcoms since the 70s (which, come to think of it, isn’t even true), we’ll be looking at something more interesting: the refiguration of the American city, over the course of three decades, in that most innocuous and overlooked of cultural forms, the sitcom title sequence.

Three decades is a seriously long time in the lifespan of any city, enough to transform it several times over. But along with those social and material changes (the urban renewals and the urban decays) come the changes in our representations of the cities, themselves: the desires we project upon them, the historical context from which we view them, the neighborhoods we look at and the way we imagine the lives within them. This relationship between the material and discursive, is what Carlo Rotella calls the dialectic between the “city of fact” and the “city of feeling.” And here are three examples of how the two played out in living rooms all over the States throughout the 70s.

1. Brooklyn – Welcome back, Kotter (1975-79)

Back before the hipster diaspora converged onto Williamsburg’s blocks, Gabe Kaplan and the Sweathogs were scheming ways of getting out. Lovin’ Spoonful singer, John Sebastian’s mellow, Bacharachian theme may put you to sleep before you notice the subdued poetry of this opening sequence. A tagged train chuffs past Buchanan High, a pigeon circles over a city block and Sebastian’s bittersweet refrain, “Welcome back / your dreams were your ticket out” describe the urban purgatory that once was the “4th Largest City in America.” (BTW, was Brooklyn in the 70s its own city?)

2. Chicago – Good times (1974-79)

Eric Monte, the creator of Good times, grew up in the infamous Cabrini-Green projects on the North Side of Chicago (shown at 0:12 and after), before hitchhiking to Hollywood to become one of the most important and prolific television writers of the last forty years. These days, Good Times is probably more remembered for the debut of Janet Jackson, Ernie Barnes’ Sugar shack, and charges of black stereotyping (read here about Monte’s horror when his writing staff tried to get John Amos to say “I’se be wantin’ to go down by da ribba” ). Nevertheless, Good Times probably stands as the only sitcom that was set in the projects, which described (in its brilliant theme song especially) the long struggle of African Americans living in urban blight. It was the flipside of the upwardly mobile (but still cynical) Jeffersons‘ American dream. Unfortunately, not too long into its five year run, Monte left, and JJ hollered “Dy-no-mite!” as the show tumbled towards infamy.

3. Queens – All in the family (1971-79) / Archie Bunker’s place (1979-83)

This is really Norman Lear‘s crowning achievement. A bigoted Irishman and his sweet, naive wife sing what seems like a funereal dirge about the alleged death of laissez-faire America (“Didn’t need no welfare state / everybody pulls his weight…”) as the camera pans past a line of rowhouses in Astoria. The layers of meaning here are really wonderful: lyrics are inflected by the strained vocals of Carol O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, and the singing is inflected by an iconic (panoptic) shot of Manhattan teetering slightly off center. Archie Bunker’s place, the spinoff that ran ’til ’83, opens much more steadily, and ’cause of that, lacks a lot of the original’s charms. All in the Family was about the awkward collision of the old white guard and the new post-civil rights era – by the 80s, Archie Bunker already knew his place, in the neighborhood pub.

There are other honorable mentions – Maude‘s opening took its viewers from Manhattan to Tuckahoe, The Jeffersons moved us from Queens to the Eastside, and even Laverne and Shirley gave us a glimpse of Milwaukee’s breweries. But the thing that’s remarkable about the urban landscapes of 70s sitcom intros were just how unsanitized they were. All three examples above show the American city with real folks populating it, the rows of working class homes, project housing, and mass transit that, over the years, sustained it. What happened to that city, man?

– Thumbu Sammy


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Brother of L. Augustus Del Pietro

3 thoughts on “‘City as might have been’: Sitcoms and the 70s”

  1. Sad news: Ernie Barnes, who painted ‘Sugar Shack’ which was featured in the closing credits of ‘Good Times,’ died yesterday at the age of 70.

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