Ahh, 1980’s sitcoms. One of the more comforting pop culture artifacts to a nostalgic mind, there were never cozier worlds built in fiction than the ½ hour laugh track-driven situation comedies of that decade. Featuring near-perfect families who lived in gigantic houses and got into weekly shenanigans that may or may not end up in a life lesson, with catchy theme songs that cheerily summed up what the show was about, if only life was as tidy and well-mannered as these tasty, shallow morsels.
Like many things in pop culture, the 1980s seemed to perfect the sitcom formula: take a domestic situation (say, a family) and add a new, unexpected variable (a wealthy childlike father, an orphan kid, a male housekeeper, an English butler, a college-aged male nanny, a robot child, an alien) and you’ve got a situation that’s guaranteed comedic results!
Alternately, take a domestic setting (say, a house) and throw in a new twist on the domestic situation (a house full of retired women, a house full of female interior designers, a blue-collar family, a liberal family with a conservative son, a psychiatrist who practices out of his home) and baby, you’ve got an 80’s sitcom going!
Finally, the “workplace” premise was codified in this decade. Although the 70’s had shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi that were centered around a workplace, the 80’s expanded this to different locales that were just settings outside of the home. Cheers had a bar; Murphy Brown had a TV station; Night Court had a courtroom; and so on. These were “adult” sitcoms that appealed to the 18-and-over crowd (and presumably were intended only for the 18-and-over crowd, but I watched a hell of a lot of Murphy Brown as a young kid, so results may vary).
Anyway, the point being that 80’s sitcoms kind of got it right by making kind-of perfect shows. Not that they were good, per se–in fact, a lot of them were shallow at best and mindless garbage at worst. But if I could praise mindless garbage for a moment: boy, do I love mindless garbage. Sure, reading this site you may think I’m a highfalutin intellectual snob when it comes to film and TV, but I like crap as much as the next guy. Why? Because my brain gets tired of thinking sometimes.
Sure, watching Ingmar Bergman films and waxing philosophic about the brilliant complexity of Arrested Development is all well and good, but sometimes I need to shut my brain off. This is partly why I love 80’s pop culture so much: it wasn’t exactly a deep-thinking culture being produced at the time. And that’s great: sometimes watching some stupid cartoon about pizza-eating ninja turtles or movies about two slackers time-travelling in a phone booth is all you need to relax and not work too hard to meet the low stakes involved on-screen.
Yes, films that deal with the existential struggles that human beings face on both a large and small scale can be moving, significant works of art to experience, but sometimes you just want to watch a goofy flick about a bunch of smarmy scientists fighting ghosts or a show about a smartass alien living with a family in suburbia. Because give me a break, for cripes sake.
Anywhoo, I’ve already written about a lot of 80’s sitcoms elsewhere on the site (for those interested, I’ve written articles on Perfect Strangers, Mr. Belvedere, Family Matters and Full House, so that’s why they don’t appear in this article). So here are some of the significant sitcoms at least I remember from the 1980’s. Keep in mind that I was a young kid during this decade, so my nostalgia for these shows is limited to my memories from then and what I watched in reruns in the 1990’s. Enjoy!
Oh, Growing Pains. Following the wacky exploits of the Seaver family, who live on Long Island, NY and whose patriarch was a psychiatrist that worked out of the home–but he can barely keep his crazy family together! I loved this show as a kid. Hell, I still love this show as an adult. A few years ago I discovered that this show was being rerun twice a day and promptly plunged back into this series, and you know what? It’s still excellent. Sure, the character of Ben Seaver is a total Tuesday that gets worse as the actor gets older, and late addition Chrissy is pointless, but every other element is still pretty rad. Even into the second decade of the 21st century, Growing Pains is a classic sitcom that holds up for those that remember watching it back when it first aired and is a clean (enough) show to safely watch with your own kids today.
What happens when two idealistic hippies have a family and find themselves in the materialistic, go-go 80’s with a hardcore conservative son and a materialistic daughter? Lots of laughs, learning, and love, that’s what. Maybe the most “laughs, then learning” TV shows of the 1980’s, Family Ties was the breakthrough show for Michael “Marty McFly” J. Fox whose conservative Alex P. Keaton quickly became the star of the show. But this sitcom had a lot going for it: a well-written show about the differences between generations that faced various “lesson”-type plots about drinking, guns, interpersonal relationships, and more, Family Ties was one of those shows from the 80’s that probably taught a lot of young people in my generation things they shouldn’t have learned until much later in life–but hey, it was the 80’s, that’s how we rolled back then. Like Growing Pains, I revisited this show a few years ago and guess what? IT STILL HOLDS UP! Sha-la-la-la!
Here’s something you never saw on TV before: a relatively realistic depiction of a family. The Conners were a blue-collar Midwestern family whose parents worked relatively average jobs, they struggled with money, the characters weren’t TV-perfect looking, and their domestic issues were relatable and not easily wrapped up at the end of the episode with a heartwarming speech. In other words, it was like in lifey. And the Conner family–with its strife, crises, and familial support and strain that occurs in all families–were a relatively honest reflection of how actual families function. Of course, this series spun out of control by the end of its run, but for the first five seasons it was one of the best sitcoms of all time.
♫ Here we are/Face-to-face/A couple of silver spoons♫ For some reason a show that’s no longer re-run on television, Silver Spoons was about a super-successful overgrown child business owner who discovers he has a son from a brief marriage some years before. The kid (Ricky Schroeder) moves in and finds his dad too immature, while his dad finds his kid too mature for his age. Can they make each other a little more and less terrible? Probably, who knows. All I remember/care about this show is that the dad had arcade games in his mansion and they had a small rideable train that went through the house–which is boss. Was this show any good? Well, it was a comfortable show to watch, so there’s that. Like, if you ever feel anxious, maybe pop this instead of popping a Xanax. Or do both. I’m sure that’ll be rad, too.
Talk about a great theme song! ♫ Ev-ery-time I turn around (bamp bah na na!) ♫ I see the girl who turns my world around (bamp bah nah nah!) Standing there…/Ev-ery-time I/turn around (bamp bah nah nah!)/Her spirit’s lifting me right off the ground (bamp bah na na)/What’s gonna be?/Guess we’ll just wait and see (bamp bah ba na (arf!) ba na nah! ♫ Oh yeah, and I guess there was a show attached to this song, too. Following the adventures of orphan Punky Brewster who’s adopted by old man Henry, Punky is a peppy young gal with imagination and a positive attitude. With her friends Cherie, dorky Allen, and rich snob Margeaux, Punky gets into adventures and trouble, learning lessons along the way. Oh, it also made an episode that scarred my entire generation, but let’s not talk about that, shall we? Anyway, a fantastic show–at least when I was like 7. Not sure how it holds up because outside of the theme song, and I’m kind of scared to find that it doesn’t, thus ruining my memories. So let’s just say it’s still a good show and move on.
How did this show work as well as it did? An odd setup about a male college student who’s a live-in nanny for a family (well, two families; explanation in a moment), this show was one of those shows that started off on a network (CBS) and then became one of those syndicated dealies that was run on different markets based on whoever bought the bundle, so it appeared all over the place and in reruns forever (except nowadays, for some reason).
This show is split into two different eras: the first family Charles (Scott Baio) lives with are the Pembrokes, who have two rambunctious boys and a daughter I barely remember that Charles wrangles for them. OK, so far so good. Then suddenly the Pembrokes disappear when it went into syndication and he ended up working for the Powells who had two teenage daughters and a son. It was kind of the same but with daughters instead of sons the dynamics changed a bit. Anyway, I just found out while researching for this article that this show was supposed to take place in New Brunswick, NJ, which is in the state I live in, so there’s that. A good, goofy sitcom, I have no idea if it holds up today and don’t care much to find out. Oh, it also has a good theme song, as well.
Samantha! Angela! Mona! Tony Danza as Tony Whatshisface, a male live-in housekeeper for 80’s business lady Angela. He lives in her house, along with his teenage daughter Samantha (the soon-to-be-foxy Alyssa Milano), and although a “yo”-ish Brooklyn macho man, he takes the gender-flipped role of being a maid for (gasp!) a woman! I really don’t know about this show nowadays; I watched a crazy amount of it when I was younger but have no idea if it holds up. I don’t really care to, either. It ate up many half-hours of my life but I can barely cobble together 20 minutes’ worth of memories of this show. And I also can’t do any math more complex than basic algebra. A life well-lived, I say.
Eesh. Well, up until the monstrous horror about Bill Cosby came to light, this was a beloved show. Now, like Woody Allen movies, it’s ruined forever. RIP The Cosby Show.
Nuts to the universe at large: I loved ALF. Hell, I still love ALF. Have you seen it in the past 20 years? Still. Holds. Up. By that I mean it was a ridiculous, cheesy comedy back in the 1980’s and it still comes across as the same today. And it’s fantastic. The premise: a big-nosed alien life form (ALF) from the planet Melmac crash-lands into a family’s garage and ends up living with them. They try to hide his existence from neighbors and suspicious government agencies alike, all while this wise-cracking alien turns their lives upside-down. And it’s excellent–maybe a highlight of 80’s sitcoms. High-concept, completely ridiculous and artificial, and as mindless as possible, ALF still gets top marks now decades after its first run.
Another great theme song, and if we’re talking unbelievably stupid show, this one may be the stupidest show ever made. About a little girl robot a guy builds that lives with his family like she’s his daughter, it’s a completely nuts concept and the delivery is even more out of control. VICKI is the little robot girl that does outrageously superhuman and unregulated madness on the regs and we’re all supposed to sit here like this is a real show we should be watching. I’ve recently re-watched some episodes and it’s actually kind of a parody-of-sitcoms kind of show, which I can respect, but it’s also super-shitty so that’s a problem. If you’ve never seen it, at least check out the opening credits. If that Too Many Cooks-ish vibe works for you, check out a few episodes. I’ll say this: I’ve never seen a sitcom like it before or since.
Since I was a little kid in the 80’s, this is what I referred to as “Grownup Shows”–TV shows my mom would watch that I would watch because it guaranteed I got to stay up later even though I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Otherwise, these were shows that were on during the day in reruns or early pre-primetime reruns.
How much Designing Women could one little boy watch? Well, when he grew up with two sisters, the answer is a hell of a lot. Did I like this show? I’m not sure: I don’t think I understood this show. But I still watched it because I was outnumbered in my house so I didn’t have a lot of say as to what was on TV a lot of the time.
I specifically remember this show because it aired at like 9 or 9:30 PM so I watched it with my mom because it guaranteed another half-hour of staying up. I did not understand one thing that was going on in this show, what being a little kid at the time. But I tried to watch it as an adult, and boy, does this show not hold up. It may be the most dated show I’ve ever watched. It’s unbelievably unfunny and all of the references–then current–are so old and worse, obscure, that it’s difficult to understand the humor of the show now. I guess this makes it one of the most 80’s shows for this reason, but since my frame of reference of the 80’s is as a young child, I don’t really understand many of the specific political and cultural references this show spits out anyway.
Oh, Night Court. Believe it or not, this show is still funny today! Lots of wacky comedy helps make a show kind of evergreen. Watched this a lot as a kid even though there was a lot of adult content in it. Hey, they ran it early in the evening so I watched it before dinner. I thought Bull was funny and the judge was funny and the wacky comedy was funny, so my stupid little kid brain liked it enough. As an adult though, this show is actually still really funny. Check it out if you don’t believe me!
As a kid, I didn’t understand this show; I kind of didn’t understand what alcohol or bars were, though, so there’s that. But as an adult, I don’t like this show, either. It just doesn’t seem funny to me: a bunch of people hanging out in a bar seems more depressing than anything. But also the style of humor is very dated. It’s like trying to watch Taxi today: that style of humor died a long time ago. I also find this show very mean-spirited: it seems like they all hate each other. So it may have been a popular show at the time but who knows why. The 80’s were weird.
How much The Golden Girls could a little boy watch? A lot, considering that my sisters, my mom, and my grandma watched this show! But this show still rules. I don’t even need to write that much about this because it’s a big cult show at this point and remains surprisingly popular even to this day. What else can I say? Still funny, still a stellar show with great dialogue and solid characters, The Golden Girls was a great 80’s sitcom that’s now a classic.