How TV comedy lost its way in the 1980s

Written by By Staff Writer Getty Images At a time when sitcoms have become synonymous with the most watched shows on television, the half-hour comedy had a difficult transition in the late 1980s when…

How TV comedy lost its way in the 1980s

Written by By Staff Writer

Getty Images

At a time when sitcoms have become synonymous with the most watched shows on television, the half-hour comedy had a difficult transition in the late 1980s when television had evolved to focus on the pursuit of celebrity by novices looking to bust through their roots of TV stardom.

Despite heavy criticism, popular sitcoms had a hard time in their own right in the early ’80s. Former network affiliate “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher” focused on comic monologues, while the popular cable series “In Living Color” was satirizing the world of stand-up comedy.

The shows were popular with a young audience, and ABC’s Sunday night block of four sitcoms — “Roseanne,” “Home Improvement,” “Night Court” and “Coach” — drew enormous numbers for the network, sometimes reaching as many as 20 million viewers.

But the household ratings were generally paltry, and as college students, when watching the shows, many left the show in record numbers and moved on to the next adult drama, starring popular actors like Patrick Swayze or Diane Lane.

ABC started to fix its Sunday lineup with the 1985-86 release of “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” a series with the slogan “Be warned, the night is dark.”

The program, which ended with a feature film in 1989, was met with much criticism for the crude nature of its women wrestling matches.

The delay in releasing new episodes led to a reprieve for the broadcaster as it had been running repeats. But with the release of “The Facts of Life” in 1987, and “Diff’rent Strokes” the following year, ABC’s Sunday lineup began to be called into question once again.

The two series, though popular with older viewers, brought in equally tiny audiences. The complaint was that television had been turned into a commodity for TV’s young, impressionable viewers, while any feature of adult issues were be “slipped in” in post-rolls at the end of commercial breaks to appeal to parents.

Production costs had also been ballooned with the more expensive “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” putting additional strain on a company that was already struggling financially.

Other shows in the ABC lineup, like “Dynasty” and “Cheers,” also saw low ratings, making the network heavily reliant on these two sitcoms. But with “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes” pulling in more than 10 million viewers each on average, they were enough to keep their position as ABC’s strongest ratings on a weekly basis.

However, as the ratings for both declined, ABC slowly began to notice. The network finally became concerned enough to replace “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1988 with a new sitcom, “Full House.” However, while “Full House” remained popular, and would later find several years of success under its belt, the following years saw the network promoting “Neighbors” starring Mary Tyler Moore, in its place.

Despite ABC’s investment in them, both “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” were canceled in the 1990s.

Several attempts have been made to revive them, none of which ended in success. “This Is Your Life,” a game show based on the “Full House” sitcom that many had hoped would be revived, was brought to you by the almost-moribund NBC, who has previously unsuccessfully brought “Perfect Strangers” and “1st Born” to the small screen.

But by the early 2000s, the popularity of these shows had started to fade. As the popularity of young-skewing shows like “The OC” and “Gossip Girl” began to rise, these well-established franchises had lost the broad appeal they had achieved years earlier.

The last new episode of “The Facts of Life” aired in 1999, and the last episode of “Diff’rent Strokes” aired the following year, in December of 2001.

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