Let's Give Them Something to Talk About
In nine seasons ending in 1979, "All in the Family" maintained its status as one of the most buzzed-about sitcoms of all time, tackling an array of subjects—from racism and sexism to menopause and impotence—once deemed unsuitable for network television. And all though the prism of Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), an unexpectedly sympathetic blue-collar bigot. Here, for O'Connor's birthday, are 20 classic TV comedy episodes that caused a major stir, starting with one of the most controversial "All in the Family" episodes of all.
"All in the Family" — “Edith’s 50th Birthday,” 1977
The Emmy-winning CBS sitcom broke new ground on October 16, 1977, with a dramatic hour-long episode in which beloved family matriarch Edith Bunker was the victim of an attempted rape on her 50th birthday. Series creator Norman Lear devoted more than a year to researching and writing the episode, consulting with rape experts, social workers and legal authorities. An estimated 40 million viewers saw one of the first TV shows to directly address the issue of rape, including Edith's struggle to survive the assault itself and deal with its aftermath.
"M*A*S*H" — “Abyssinia, Henry,” 1975
When actor McLean Stevenson decided to depart the hit series at the end of its third season, the show's producers were determined to make a statement about the horror of war. So they put Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake on a plane home…and revealed that it had been shot down in the episode's final scene. The show's fans were stunned by the first death of a main character in a popular TV series. "It was a surprise, because the character was somebody viewers loved," said M*A*S*H co-producer Gene Reynolds. "They didn't expect it, but it made the point. People like Henry Blake are lost in war."
"Ellen" — “The Puppy Episode,” 1997
In yet another landmark TV moment, the ABC sitcom's title character announced she was gay, not long after comedian and star Ellen DeGeneres came out in real life. But the episode, featuring a kiss with guest Laura Dern, was far from universally embraced. The ensuing uproar and protests included a bomb threat at ABC and prompted numerous sponsors to pull their ads. Still, "The Puppy Episode" was an enormous ratings success, won multiple awards and became a cultural touchstone.
"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" — The Hat Toss, 1970-77
This beloved sitcom had many memorable episodes during its seven-year run—from "Chuckles Bites the Dust" to "Lou Dates Mary"—but the show's most lasting, influential image may have been Mary Tyler Moore's freeze-frame hat-toss in the opening credits. Picked by Entertainment Weekly magazine as one of the 1970s' top TV moments, the sequence has since been parodied by the likes of "The Simpsons" and "Saturday Night Live" and recreated whole by Oprah Winfrey, portraying Mary Richards. The hat toss made Moore's character a role model for a generation of working women emboldened by a theme song that proclaimed, "You're gonna make it after all."
"Maude" — “Maude’s Dilemma,” 1972
Maude (Bea Arthur), unexpectedly pregnant at age 47, agonizes over what to do before choosing to have an abortion. The controversial two-part episode in November 1972 sparked heated debate nationwide and proved to be, as the Chicago Tribune put it, "a watershed moment that brought the battle over choice into the prime-time arena." Two months later, life imitated art when the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Roe vs. Wade, effectively legalizing abortion nationwide.
"Seinfeld" — “The Puerto Rican Day,” 1998
The second-highest-rated episode in the sitcom's nine-year run, behind the two-part series finale, which aired one week later in May 1998. Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer find themselves stuck in a traffic jam during New York's annual Puerto Rican Day parade. But things get really sticky when Kramer accidentally lights a Puerto Rican flag on fire and then stomped on it to tamp down the flames. The real-life public backlash prompted NBC to apologize and resulted in the episode being deleted from syndication until 2002.
"Newhart" — “The Last Newhart,” 1990
One of the most-discussed series finales ever ended with what TV Guide called the most unexpected moment in TV history. After eight seasons and 184 episodes, the popular comedy about Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) turned the tables on viewers by revealing that the entire series had been a wild dream. The dreamer: Dr. Bob Hartley, Newhart's character on his hit 1970s sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show." The comedian's former TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette, rolled over in bed to hear the dream's details and then responded by telling her husband he should never again eat Japanese food before going to sleep. "People still come up to me and talk about it," says Newhart, now 88.
"Cheers" — “One for the Road,” 1993
After 11 successful seasons, the bar where everybody knows your name announced last call on May 20, 1993. Despite massive advance publicity, the plot of the 98-minute special—which featured a return by Shelley Long's Diane—was kept tightly under wraps. The "Cheers" finale attracted more than 80 million viewers, making it the second-most-watched TV farewell of all time, after "M*A*S*H." In 1997. A copy of the script signed by the show's cast sold for $10,000.
"Roseanne" — “Crime and Punishment,” 1993
Love her or hate her, Roseanne Barr was never afraid to mix laughs with the real-life problems and issues confronting viewers. This was notably demonstrated in the Season 5 two-parter that started with Roseanne learning that her sister Jackie (Laurie Metcalf) was being physically abused by her boyfriend and ended with Dan (John Goodman) beating up the boyfriend and landing in jail. A defining episode in the original sitcom's nine-season run, it won Metcalf the second of three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
"Family Guy" — “Partial Terms of Endearment,” 2010
Much talked about—but never aired—the animated sitcom's Season 8 finale began with Lois agreeing to be a surrogate mother for a college friend and her husband. But when the couple died in a car accident, Lois decided to terminate the pregnancy. The plot twist caused the Fox network to ban the episode in May 2010, though it aired a month later on BBC Three in the U.K. and was later included in the season's DVD set. "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane defended the discussion of abortion in a cartoon comedy. "There's nothing about the issue that should be any different than doing an episode about gay marriage or an oil spill," he said.
"I Love Lucy" — “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” 1953
One of the most talked-about sitcom moments of all time was also one of the most eagerly anticipated. On January 19, 1953, more than 70 percent of all American homes with television sets tuned in for the birth of Lucy Ricardo's baby boy, "Little Ricky." The episode paralleled comedienne Lucille Ball's own real-life pregnancy: She delivered son Desi Arnaz, Jr. just 12 hours before the landmark TV event aired.
"Diff’rent Strokes" — “The Bicycle Man,” 1983
This truly disturbing two-parter from the NBC sitcom's fifth season made unsettling waves with its not-funny-at-all storyline about pedophilia. Gordon Jump of "WKRP in Cincinnati" played a bicycle shop owner who attempts to seduce Gary Coleman's Arnold with wine and pornography. The two "very special episodes" were meant to initiate family discussions about a deadly serious subject and started with star Conrad Bain stepping out of character to brace the audience. "Good evening, folks," he said. "Tonight, we're going to be covering an issue that we have no rightful business covering in the field of situation comedies." Diff'rent strokes, indeed.
"The Office" — “Diversity Day,” 2005
Unlike the previous week's pilot, the series-defining second episode in March 2005 established that the Hollywood version of "The Office" was not going to be a simple retread of the Ricky Gervais-led British series that inspired it. Though the ratings were poor, critics raved about the discomfiting story of how Michael's (Steve Carell) imitation of a Chris Rock routine resulted in a racial diversity seminar for the entire staff. "It was a benchmark," said Brian Baumgartner, who played Dunder-Mifflin salesman Kevin Malone. "When we were doing 'Diversity Day,' I remember being in the conference room and saying, 'If people give this show a chance, we have the opportunity to do something really special.'"
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" — “Krazee-Eyez Killa,” 2002
While every episode of Larry David's long-running HBO series is fodder for intense discomfort, one of the show's most memorable cringe-worthy moments came in this Season 3 episode. Buddying up to Wanda Sykes' gangsta rapping boyfriend, "Krazee-Eyez Killa" (Chris Williams), David asks, "Are you my Caucasian?" A new catchphrase was born.
"Bewitched" — “Samantha and the Beanstalk,” 1969
It's the sitcom moment that everyone talks about now because no one talked about it then. The Top 10-rated "Bewitched" kicked off its sixth season with Elizabeth Montgomery's lovable Samantha twitching her nose as a new Darrin. Dick Sargent, assumed husband duties from Dick York. But the switch was never explained, and Darrin #2 carried on for the sitcom's final three seasons as if it's perfectly normal for one man to assume the identity of another. We now know that Sargent was pressed into action when York was forced to retire because of a severe back injury.
"The Brady Bunch" — “Her Sister’s Shadow,” 1971
This Season 3 episode is the one that gave rise to one of the most familiar, most parodied lines in sitcom history. Tired of always being compared to her beautiful and accomplished big sister, Jan expressed the anguish of middle children everywhere when she lamented, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!"
"South Park" — “201,” 2010
Series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone took on the subject of censorship by visually depicting and lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, an act forbidden by the Muslim religion. Death threats piled up before the cartoon's 201st show even aired, causing Comedy Central to insist on obscuring all images and bleeping all references to Muhammad. Parker and Stone strenuously objected to the censored episode, which has never been rebroadcast in the U.S.
"The Mindy Project" — “I Slipped,” 2014
Mindy: "Wait, Danny, Danny, that doesn't go there!"
Danny: "I slipped."
TV's first depiction of sex from behind got blasted for its indifference to safety and the fact that boyfriend Danny didn't ask for Mindy's consent before proceeding. A heated public discussion ensued over what, exactly, consent is and what it is not.
"The Simpsons" — “Blame it on Lisa,” 2002
It's the "Simpsons" episode that enraged an entire nation: Brazil. The cartoon family travelled to Rio de Janeiro to track down Lisa's missing pen pal, a Brazilian orphan whose monthly letters had suddenly stopped. The depiction of the city as dirty and rat-infested stirred almost as much outrage as the fact that Homer was kidnapped and held for $50,000 ransom. Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said the episode conveyed a "distorted vision of Brazilian reality," while Rio's tourism board threatened to sue Fox for damaging the city's international image. Simpsons' producer James L. Brooks eventually issued a tongue-in-cheek apology to "the lovely city and people" of Rio de Janeiro. "And if that doesn't settle the issue," he added, "Homer Simpson offers to take on the president of Brazil on Fox's 'Celebrity Boxing.'"
"Happy Days" — “Hollywood: Part 3,” 1977
Nobody much noticed at the time and nobody really cared. But when Henry Winkler's Fonzie jumped over a shark on water skis at the beginning of Season 5, he landed in the dictionary more than 20 years later. "Jumping the shark" is now defined as the beginning of the end, the moment when something that once had value begins a precipitous decline in quality, appeal and popularity. Ironically, the phrase—first popularized by radio personality Jon Hein in the early 2000s—became so popular and overused, it too has jumped the shark.
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