The Comebacks

posted Mar 1, 2012, 1:55 PM by Terrence Moss   [ updated Aug 24, 2014, 3:31 PM ]

And the 90s live again…

Last fall, Tim Allen returned to ABC series television with the new sitcom Last Man Standing – 20 years after his monster hit Home Improvement premiered, also on ABC. This time around, Allen plays Mike Baxter, the head of marketing for a sporting goods store in Denver. He records the store’s weekly webcast, during which he often airs his grievances. Mike is a long-married husband with three daughters and a grandson by the eldest of the three.

The shadow of any previous success will always hang over the next one and Last Man Standing had a daunting task – to exist on its own merits while still allowing Mike Baxter to be an older, less goofy Tim Taylor without seeming derivative.

Parallels can be drawn to Home Improvement in the form of the three daughters (instead of three sons), the weekly webcast for the store (instead of cable show Tool Time) and the long-suffering but loving wife played by Nancy Travis (instead of the stellar Patricia Richardson). Fortunately, none of those elements make Last Man Standing seem like Home Improvement Revisited.

13 million viewers tuned in to the show’s September premiere and the series has settled into an average viewership of over 7 million viewers in a tough self-starting 8pm timeslot on Tuesdays. It’s a far cry from the Top 10 status Home Improvement enjoyed throughout its run, but it’s a solid performer for ABC these days – particularly against NCIS on CBS and Glee on FOX.

Tim Allen isn’t the only 1990s sitcom star returning to series TV. Roseanne Barr, whose own top-rated ABC sitcom ran from

1998-1997, is filming a new pilot for NBC called Downwardly Mobile. She will play the proprietor of a trailer park and mother figure to its residents. In a throwback to her own prior success, former TV husband John Goodman will play a friend of hers who works at the park.

Tim Allen and Roseanne could be the latest in a long line of TV stars who have had the rare fortune of two TV successes. But what makes for a second TV success?

Obviously, there’s no formula for it outside of all the right people being available at the right time for the right audience. One thing is key – having a talented headliner who can draw upon that earlier success while introducing new elements that audiences will accept. It’s a balancing act that few TV stars have achieved.


Lucille Ball
I Love Lucy (1951-1957), The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and Here’s Lucy (1968-1974)
Key element: physical comedy

After starring in the biggest ratings hit in TV history, one would think I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball would rest on those laurels and enjoy the benefits of worldwide syndication.

Not so. To save the studio she had recently purchased from ex-husband and Lucy co-star Desi Arnaz, Ball returned to series TV in 1962 with The Lucy Show playing Lucy Carmichael, a widowed mother of two. Though initially based on the book Life Without George by Irene Kampden (in theory), the “comeback” series quickly reverted back to the more familiar Lucy format and enjoyed a six-year run firmly entrenched in Nielsen’s Top 10. The Lucy Show peaked at #2 for the 1967-1968 TV season (its sixth and final).

In 1967, Ball sold Desilu Studios to what is now Paramount. Since she no longer owned The Lucy Show, Ball ended that series the following spring but returned that fall with Here’s Lucy -- the third series featuring her famed scatterbrained Lucy characterization. Her real-life children Lucie and Desi, Jr. co-starred. Here’s Lucy spent its first four seasons in the Top 10, peaking at #3 for the 1970-1971 season (its third) and falling out of the Top 25 by the end of its run in 1974 – the first time for a Ball series.

 

Bill Cosby
The Cosby Show (1984-1992) and Cosby (1996-2000)
Key element: the comedic pause 

Already well-known for his comedy albums, his Emmy-winning role in I Spy (1965-1968), his first sitcom The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971) and his long-running children’s series Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids (1972-1985), Bill Cosby reinvigorated the dying sitcom genre as well as NBC’s Thursday night lineup with The Cosby Show in 1984.

The Cosby Show was an immediate hit, with seven seasons in Nielsen’s Top 5, including four consecutive years at #1 (1986-1989). Even as ratings fell in its eighth and final season, the show still ended its landmark 1984-1992 run in the Top 20.

Four years later, Cosby returned with Cosby for CBS. Based on the British series One Foot in the Grave, it co-starred Cosby Show co-star Phylicia Rashad. In this “comeback” vehicle, Cosby played a blue-collar employee phased out of a job due to corporate downsizing. Though hardly the same ratings hit as Cosby’s landmark series, Cosby ran for four seasons – its first two in Nielsen’s Top 30.

 

Bob Newhart
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978) and Newhart (1982-1990)
Key element: quiet humor 

In The Bob Newhart Show, Bob Newhart played Bob Hartley, a Chicago based psychiatrist. Part of CBS’s legendary early 1970s Saturday night lineup, the show spent its first three seasons in Nielsen’s Top 20 and ended its run in 1978 after six seasons.

Four years later, Newhart returned to CBS with Newhart playing Dick Loudon, the owner and proprietor of a Vermont Inn. For the first six of its eight seasons, the show ranked in Nielsen’s Top 25, peaking at #12 in its fifth (1986-1987) and sixth (1987-1988) seasons.

For its surprise twist of waking up next to his TV wife from the earlier series (Suzanne Pleshette) and revealing his entire just-ending series to have been a dream, the 1990 finale of Newhart is considered one of the best in TV history.


Dick Van Dyke
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and Diagnosis: Murder* (1993-2001)
Key element: versatility 

Dick Van Dyke’s eponymous 1960s sitcom remains a TV classic and the standard by which many other great sitcoms have been compared.

After struggling to find an audience in its first season, a plea by Executive Producer Sheldon Leonard to the sponsors led to a renewal. The show was then scheduled for the lead-out position of upcoming new series The Beverly Hillbillies – which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the 1960s. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a Nielsen Top 20 show for the remainder of its run, peaking at #3 for the 1963-1964 season (its third).

Though Van Dyke had moderate ratings success with the The New Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1970s, he became more well known for his 1993-2001 CBS procedural Diagnosis:Murder as a crime-solving medical doctor Mark Sloan. Diagnosis:Murder was a spinoff of Jack and the Fatman (itself a spinoff of fellow ’60s TV sitcom icon Andy Griffith’s ‘80s hit Matlock) in which Van Dyke made an appearance as the good doctor.

Though the latter series only peaked at #25 for the 1997-1998 season (its fifth), it found a greater life in syndication – particularly on the PAX Network (now ION).

 

Andy Griffith
The Andy Griffith Show* (1960-1968) and Matlock (1986-1995)
Key element: down-home humor 

Andy Griffith had been a well-known comedian in the 1950s. His appearance in a 1960 episode of The Danny Thomas Show served as a backdoor pilot to Griffith’s eponymous sitcom that fall. The episode had Thomas’s nightclub entertainer Danny Williams trying to fight a speeding ticket he received passing through the town of Mayberry. While in jail for refusing to pay, Danny watches as Griffith’s Andy Taylor deals with all the problems the townspeople bring to him.

Interestingly, Don Knotts, who won five Emmys for the role of Barney Fife (1961-1963, 1966, 1967), did not appear in this episode. And Frances Bavier, who won an Emmy in 1967 for her role as Aunt Bee, appeared in this episode – but not as Aunt Bee. She hilariously played a widowed townsperson seeking assistance from Andy Taylor.

The Andy Griffith Show ran for eight years, each of them firmly entrenched in Nielsen’s Top 10. For its eighth and final season (1967-1968), the show finally hit #1. Only two other shows hit #1 in their final seasons – I Love Lucy in 1957 and Seinfeld in 1998.

Griffith attempted five comebacks throughout the ‘70s with The Headmaster in 1970, The New Andy Griffith Show in 1971, Adams of Eagle Lake in 1975, Salvage 1 in 1979 and The Yeagers in 1980.

It wasn’t until Matlock that Griffith once again achieved TV series success. NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff had seen Griffith playing a lawyer in a movie and asked former NBC President-turned-TV-producer Fred Silverman to develop a legal drama for Griffith.

Matlock was an immediate success, landing at #15 in the Nielsen ratings for its first season and remaining in the Top 20 for its first five. After a time slot change in its sixth season and a switch to ABC for its final three seasons, the show fell out of the Top 25 and then the Top 30 but continues to enjoy a healthy life in syndication.

 

Jackie Gleason
The Jackie Gleason Show/The Honeymooners (1952-1957) and Jackie Gleason’s American Scene Magazine/The Jackie Gleason Show (1962-1970)
Key element: characterization

CBS President William S. Paley brought Jackie Gleason over from the flailing Dumont Network, where his variety series Cavalcade of Stars was one of their top programs. With a few changes (including replacing Pert Kelton as Alice Kramden with Audrey Meadows in the Honeymooners sketches), The Jackie Gleason Show premiered in 1952 but didn’t hit Nielsen’s Top 10 until the following season.

After peaking at #2 for the 1954-1955 season behind I Love Lucy, Gleason spun off his wildly popular Honeymooners sketch into its own series. The standalone series ranked at #19 for the 1955-1956 season. Fearing that the quality of that series couldn’t be sustained for another year, Gleason reverted back to the variety series for the 1956-1957 season – ending its run at #29.

After a notorious flop with You’re in the Picture in 1961 (for which he apologized live on the air the following week), Gleason returned to his old variety series format the following year (just as his fellow ‘50s TV icon Lucille Ball did) under the title Jackie Gleason and His American Scene Magazine. The show was a Top 25 hit in each of its first seven seasons, peaking at #5 for the 1966-1967 TV season (its fifth).

Honeymooners sketches continued throughout the 1960s – including color episodes and musical segments, but for thirty years, only the 39 full-length episodes from the 1955-1956 season were seen in syndication. In the mid-1980s, the live sketches from the 1950s Jackie Gleason Show were discovered, released and eventually joined the other 39 episodes in syndication.

 

Jack Webb
Dragnet (1951-1959) and Dragnet ’67-’70 (1967-1970)
Key element: realism 

Jack Webb had created Dragnet, a crime drama procedural that followed two Los Angeles Police Department detectives as they solved cases, for NBC Radio in 1949. He also served as the star and orchestrated the shows’ transition to television in 1951 (though it still played on radio until 1957).

The series was an immediate success, ranking in Nielsen’s Top 20 for each of its first six seasons and peaking at #2 for the 1953-1954 season behind I Love Lucy. That year, it even achieved what was long thought impossible when it momentarily passed Lucy in the ratings.

The show fell out of the Top 30 for its final two seasons at which point Webb decided to move on to other projects.

Like Gleason and Caesar (below), Webb came back to TV with essentially the same program. He revived Dragnet in 1967 as a midseason replacement (the only major change was the casting of Harry Morgan instead of the unavailable Ben Alexander from the previous incarnation). Though never as highly ranked as its predecessor, the revival hit Nielsen’s Top 25 for each of its first three seasons before falling out of the Top 30 in its final season in 1970.

The revival enjoyed a healthy life in syndication followed by a long run in the 1990s on Nick-at-Nite and TV Land. It also spawned two spinoffs – Adam-12 (1968-1975) about the lives of two Los Angeles police officers and Emergency! (1972-1978) about the fledgling paramedic division of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Webb was mounting yet another revival of Dragnet when he passed away in late 1982. A Dragnet movie, a comedic version of the series with Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks, was released in 1987. Two more TV versions then followed – The New Dragnet in 1989 with Jeff Osterhage and Bernard White and LA Dragnet in 2003 with Ed O’Neill and Ethan Embry.


Sid Caesar
Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957)
Key element: improvisation 

Sid Caesar had been the star of NBC’s Admiral Broadway Revue until it was cancelled when the sponsor, TV set manufacturer Admiral, couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Producer Max Liebman brought Caesar and much of the Admiral team to the new Your Show of Shows, a weekly 90-minute live variety series that ran for five seasons – three of them in Nielsen’s Top 20. The show peaked at #4 for the 1950-1951 TV season (its first).

The show remains the gold standard for comedy-variety and is the inspiration for The Dick Van Dyke Show, created by Caesar alum Carl Reiner and itself the gold standard of TV situation comedy. Other alums include Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen (the inspiration for Rose Marie’s Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Mel Tolkin.

After Your Show of Shows ended in 1954, Sid Caesar returned with another live variety show called Caesar’s Hour. The successor series brought over many of the cast, staff and writers (adding Larry Gelbart) from the previous series and lasted three seasons. Unlike Your Show of Shows, Caesar’s Hour never cracked Nielsen’s Top 30.

Both series are considered landmarks of live sketch comedy, particularly in light of the caliber of writers, producers and directors that went on to work on classics such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H as well as inspire The Odd Couple.

Unfortunately most of these live shows no longer exist as most of the tapes from the 1950s were destroyed by NBC to make room for new tapes or recorded over as a cost-saving measure. It was the common practice at the time as few people in those days saw the future value of reruns. 

Here's a classic "clock" sketch that did survive:


Ellen DeGeneres and Drew Carey are worth mentioning for their initial prime-time successes and then subsequent success in daytime:

Ellen DeGeneres**
These Friends of Mine/Ellen (1993-1998) and The Ellen DeGeneres Show (2003-present)
Key element: neuroticism

Drew Carey**
The Drew Carey Show (1995-2004), Whose Line is it Anyway? (1998-2004) and The Price is Right (2007-present)
Key element: dive bar humor 

After her landmark sitcom was cancelled in 1998, DeGeneres stumbled with another sitcom in 2001. Rave reviews for her voice work in 2003’s Finding Nemo led to a popular daytime talk show.

Drew Carey’s eponymous sitcom was one of the few shows to survive the 1995-1996 TV season, peaking at #14 for the 1998-1999 TV season (its fourth). At the same time, Carey hosted the improv comedy show Whose Line is it Anyway? Though never a ratings success, it was a solid utility player for ABC for a few years.

Bob Barker retired from hosting The Price is Right in 2007. After taping the pilot for The Power of 10 for CBS, Drew Carey was selected by them to take over hosting duties and has done so since then.

 

It remains to be seen whether or not Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr will achieve TV sitcom success a second time. Allen’s Last Man Standing is in the middle of its first season and Barr’s Downwardly Mobile has been bought by NBC with a script commitment plus a penalty if it doesn’t go to series.

It is unlikely those earlier successes will be replicated from a ratings standpoint, but with 4 broadcast networks (5 if you could the CW -- which I don't), and 10,000 cable networks (some of which draw NBC-sized audiences), the standards for TV success are much different than they were 20 years ago.

 

Notes:

There were exclusions to the above listing. It only included star vehicles (meaning the show was created for and around them). It does not include spinoffs or single-year series. Mary Tyler Moore (The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Beatrice Arthur (Maude and The Golden Girls) and Kirstie Alley (Cheers and Veronica’s Closet) are not included because of their TV successes weren’t for star vehicles.

An argument can be made that Arthur should be included since she was specifically approached to do The Golden Girls. However, that show was more of an ensemble piece – especially in comparison to Maude, which was built completely around her. Though it was a spinoff of All in the Family, an exception could have been made since Maude wasn’t a regular character on All in the Family

But for the purposes here, Arthur (God rest her soul) is not included.

Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith were included even though Diagnosis:Murder and The Andy Griffith Show were technically spinoffs. However, as was the case with Beatrice Arthur and Maude, their appearances on their show’s parent series were one-time-only for the purposes of spinning them off.

Also not included are Carroll O’Connor (All in the Family/Archie Bunker’s Place and In the Heat of the Night), Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple and Quincy), Ann Sothern (Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show), Robert Young (Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD) and Ted Danson (Cheers and Becker). Though all five were the stars of two hit series, both series weren’t created for and built around them specifically. 


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