Looking Back at the Terrible Syndicated Sitcoms of the Late 1980s

At the beginning of the 2011 fall TV season, there were 22 live-action sitcoms on the broadcast networks. Twenty-five years ago: there were 37. Among them were progressive, inventive classics of the form, like Cheers, Newhart, and The Cosby Show. But for the most part, those three dozen sitcoms were horrible, cynically churned out dreck, meant to provide escape from the rapidly declining American family, rising cocaine costs, and 15 percent housing interest rates. The Night Courts were far outnumbered by formulaic, rube-baiting junk like Mr. Belvedere, Who’s the Boss?, My Two Dads, and Easy Street. That one was about Loni Anderson moving in with her uncle at an old folks’ home, because those places are hilarious, and not at all crucibles of death, dementia, and depression.

And yet, these network sitcoms, many with sitcom titles so sitcomy they sound like sitcoms Homer Simpson would enjoy (Gimme a Break! and You Again? = Dumbin’ it Down and The Malarkeys), were not even the worst comedies readily available for public consumption at the time. The worst were syndicated sitcoms, ones produced by some production company then peddled to individual TV stations to be used as schedule filler.

Television syndication, briefly: media distributors buy up the rights to older TV shows or produce new ones, which they then sell to the hundreds of individual TV stations around the country. Syndicators can earn millions (or, in the case of the syndicators of Seinfeld reruns, billions) over time. The local stations then sell the ad space and keep all the revenues generated. And there are two kinds of local stations: network affiliates and independents. Affiliates get big blocks of networking. Independent, or non-affiliated stations, have to program their entire schedule, so they buy stuff from syndicators. The programming itself has to be cheap, in order for local stations to want to or be able to buy it.

In the 1980s, there were about 300 non-network affiliated commercial TV stations in the U.S. Today: far less, because there are five major broadcast networks and dozens of smaller and regional ones for stations to hook up with. That means that there isn’t as much of a demand anymore to fill as much airtime as cheaply as possible.  But let’s look back to the ‘80s, when the airwaves were clogged with not-quite-ready-for-prime-time sitcoms, sitcoms not as good as the already bad ones on the networks, and ones very clearly produced with budgets that were fractions of those of network sitcoms.

You Can’t Take It With You. That Kaufman-Hart play from the 1930s that you and I were in back in high school was turned into a sitcom in the 1980s. If not for the fact that it was a completely dated relic of its time, this should have made a great sitcom, because the play’s plot is basically a sitcom episode: a young woman brings her conservative boyfriend home to meet her zany, wacky family of misfits, kooks, and borderline sociopaths. While the play is an ensemble and the patriarch is whimsical and friendly, the sitcom You Can’t Take It With You made the grandpa a bitter old coot and the main character, although he was played by Harry Morgan from M*A*S*H so at least there was that. However, since budgets were a concern for syndicated comedies, it was wise for producers to pick a property that took place in a crumbling brownstone.

Small Wonder. You fondly remember Small Wonder, but you are so very, very wrong. It’s unwatchable. A robotics scientist (Dick Christie) develops a humanoid servant-bot named V.I.C.I., short for “Voice Input Child Identicant.” But then, creepily, Ted builds V.I.C.I., or Vicki rather, to look like a little girl, and one that wears a Downton Abbey maid’s for some reason. Ted then takes Vicki home to live with his family so the robot can become accustomed to people, because that’s what robots do: they adapt and grow and need love. Vicki is portrayed by the allegedly human Tiffany Brissette, who had that monotonal robot voice down pat. Vicki, as she was essentially a slave, was also routinely roped into schemes by Ted’s son Jamie, played by Jerry Suprian, who did not, as the urban legend says, grow up to be Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins.

She’s the Sheriff. Suzanne Somers has always felt she might be the world’s biggest TV star in an alternate universe. Which explains this show, which gets its premise from an alternate universe. Pervasively sexist, She’s the Sheriff is about the unthinkable novelty of a woman serving as a police chief (Somers). She has no experience and is kind of dumb of course, but she got the job when her husband died. The police deputy (George Wyner) constantly conspires against her, this incompetent lady sheriff who’s mostly incompetent because she’s a lady because he’s jealous he didn’t get the job. The show primarily served as a way to present Somers in a tight-fitting police uniform.

Mama’s Family. This was actually once a network sitcom—a spin-off of “The Family” sketches from The Carol Burnett Show, it debuted on NBC in 1983, five years after Burnett ended. (Other comedies that plodded on for a year or two in syndication, with major cast changes and other budget cuts: Silver Spoons,Webster, Too Close for Comfort, and Punky Brewster.) Vicky Lawrence dressed in aging makeup and Ma Berenstain Bear outfits to star as the shrill-voiced matriarch of a dumb Southern stereotype of a family. NBC cancelled the thing in 1984, but kept running the 35 completed episodes that it turned into a hit. It was revived in syndication in 1986 (minus Rue McClanahan and Betty White, who’d moved on to the exponentially superior The Golden Girls) and stayed on the air until 1990, where it probably aired right before or right after Hee-Haw in most markets.

Out of This World. Perhaps the worst sitcom ever, or at least the most ’80s sitcom ever. On the occasion of her 13th birthday, Evie (Maureen Flannigan) finds out her absentee father was really an alien. She is gifted by her mother (Donna Pescow, the annoying one from Saturday Night Fever) a glowing blue crystal, with which she has regular, episode-capping conversations about growing up, with the voice provided by Burt Reynolds. Also, because Evie is half-alien, she has special powers, notably the ability to freeze time by touching her fingertips together, a handy device for finishing homework in time, preventing precariously placed paint cans from spilling, and waiting out the alien flu, that sort of thing. Out of This World was created by Scott Baio, which is all you need to know about Out of This World. All you need to know about syndicated comedies then is that it was the kind of bizarre wilderness where Scott Baio was allowed to create television shows.

Brian Boone writes things, and brings love and laughter everywhere.

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