A VERY COLD OPEN
Two and a Half Men was the most popular sitcom on television last year, averaging 13.1 million viewers. In the 1987-1988 season, The Cosby Show averaged 30 million viewers. In fact, 19 sitcoms that year had more viewers than Two and a Half Men, including Night Court (20.2M), Kate & Allie (15.9M), My Sister Sam (15.2M) and ALF (14.4M).

With thousands of cable and DirectTV channels to choose from, along with Netflix streaming and AppleTV and the ever-expanding World Wide Web, fewer people watch the same shows.

Maybe that’s why sitcoms don’t feel the same anymore.

There are still funny jokes (Family Guy) and smart writing (30 Rock) and complex characters (Modern Family) and talented actors (Jim Parsons, Melissa McCarthy). In fact, the sitcom genre hasn’t really changed in 60 years. But the way we watch sitcoms has changed dramatically.

“It used to be that if you missed a show when it was on, you missed that show, period. That was it,” says Greg Malins, writer and executive producer of Friends and Will & Grace. “When I was a kid, if you went to school and hadn’t seen the Happy Days from the night before, you weren’t one of the cool kids.”

Now, thanks to On Demand, DVR and TiVo, it’s virtually impossible to miss a show. But it’s also very unlikely that a show’s audience will watch an episode at the same time. At the water cooler you’ll typically find one person talking about last night’s Modern Family episode and three people holding their ears, manically chanting, “Don’t-say-anything-don’t-say-anything-I-TiVo’d-it-shh-shh-shh…”

As a result, the “sitcom moment”—Sam proposing to Diane on the boat, “Master of Your Domain,” Lucy at the chocolate factory—has died. To eulogize and celebrate the sitcom moment, we asked a dozen of the most respected writers and actors working in the genre to share their favorite moment in sitcom history, which we will share with you this week in five segments.

Are these “the best” moments? That’s up for debate. But whether it’s sad, regrettable or just inevitably the way things have to be, the fact remains that sitcom moments like these will never affect us the same way again.

We’ll begin with our favorite moment, which occurred on Thursday, April 30, 1992, at 8pm…

The Cosby Show series finale was scheduled to air at 8pm, as it had every Thursday for the previous eight years. However, in the 24 hours leading up to the final broadcast, 18 people had died in race riots throughout Los Angeles, and hundreds more were seriously injured. The city was on fire.

As a result, KNBC-TV (NBC’s LA affiliate) announced that all regularly scheduled programming, including The Cosby Show, would be preempted by ongoing coverage of the riots. (At the time, the three major networks’ local news teams were solely responsible for reporting on emergencies. To break from that coverage at such a critical point in the crisis, in KNBC’s estimation, would have been irresponsible.)

“As Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley worked to restore order to a war-torn Los Angeles,” recalls TV historian Darnell M. Hunt, “he offered perhaps the greatest testament to the social significance of the series: he successfully lobbied KNBC-TV to broadcast the final episode as originally scheduled and urged everyone on the streets to return to their homes, stay close to their families and watch The Cosby Show together.”

It was highly unusual—unlawful, even—for an elected official to lobby a media outlet as Bradley did. But there had never been riots in Los Angeles. And there had never been a sitcom like The Cosby Show.

I was a 13-year-old white kid from Connecticut and had more tennis racquets than African-American friends. And yet, for 30 minutes every Thursday night, I imagined myself as the sixth Huxtable child: slightly older than Rudy, slightly younger than Vanessa and slightly whiter than Denise. When Theo crossed the line to the point that even Claire’s evil eye and fast-talkin’ ultimatums were foiled, that’s when Cliff stepped in. And when Cliff stepped in, I listened. And learned. 53% of Americans with television sets did, too.

It’s understandable, then, that Mayor Bradley urged rioters to take a break from burning Los Angeles to the ground and watch The Cosby Show. Fittingly, in the final episode, the family is gathered for Theo’s graduation. At the ceremony, the dean welcomes everyone by saying, “Here before us are the leaders of the new millennium.” Cliff shakes his head and smiles. He’s proud of his son, and we’re proud of Cliff.

The series ends just as it began: with our favorite moment in sitcom history.

—C.B.S.
 

PART TWO: “The 20 Year Callback” – Newhart Finale

Click here for more information about the sitcom writers and actors featured in this series.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith