TV Way Back When

Each week we take a look back at an historic moment in television history--today we remember the Jackson 5.

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It was Feb. 21, 1970, when the Jackson Five made their first appearance on "American Bandstand." You can watch the entire clip right here, and it's every bit as fantastic as you'd think. It's impossible to watch a young Michael Jackson sing this song and NOT think about all the insanity that came afterward. What we're left with after his death are these indelible moments of pure joy, and they're quite a legacy.
EMPTY_CAPTION"Imagine living in a country called... AMERIKA." If you grew up in the '80s, you remember that tagline all too well. ABC's Red Menace miniseries debuted Feb. 15,1987, a dystopian tale about the USA coming under the occupation of Mother Russia. This was a legitimately scary premise back in the 80s. If they were remaking it today, they'd make China the occupying country and the tagline would be, "Imagine living in a country called... AMERIKONG."
Feb. 5, 1967 saw the premiere of the "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," hosted by siblings Tom and Dick Smothers. I'm too young to remember this show, and so I never thought of the Smothers Brothers as all that revolutionary. But they were! The "Comedy Hour" showcased an incredible array of comedic and musical talent: Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Bob Einstein, The Doors, Cream, George Harrison, and many, many more. They were so controversial for their time that CBS fired them in 1969.
EMPTY_CAPTION"Late Night with David Letterman" debuted Feb. 1 on NBC, with Dave welcoming Bill Murray as his first guest. While Dave was never able to assume Johnny Carson's throne, he has become Carson's spiritual heir. His innovations - from stupid pet tricks, to goofy remote segments, to commenting on how his show is produced WHILE it's being produced - have inspired legions of imitators, making Dave as the gold standard for what a late night show was and will be. But I wish it was still called "The World's Most Dangerous Band."
It was Jan. 23, 1976, that ABC premiered Donny & Marie Osmond's prime-time variety show. I dare say that no variety show since has mixed together comedy bits, lite music, and ice skating as deftly as the Osmonds. They also deserve credit for being among the first-ever Mormon television superstars, paving the way for the likes of that one dude from "Napoleon Dynamite." Wait, they're responsible for that guy? You've got some nerve, Osmonds.
EMPTY_CAPTION"All in the Family" premiered on CBS Jan. 13, 1971. Norman Lear's fabled sitcom became legendary for tackling taboo topics such as homosexuality, rape, abortion, breast cancer, and racism. I swear, there were also jokes as well. I'd also like to thank Lear's show for introducing America to the concept of the "lovable bigot." Thank goodness we didn't stereotype all bigots as bad people. "All in the Family" was also the first show to ever feature the sound of a toilet flush, though that may have just been Jean Stapleton singing.
ABC began running the "Schoolhouse Rock!" animated shorts on Jan. 6, 1973, between Saturday morning cartoons, teaching millions of American kids the finer points of Constitutional law, multiplication, conjunctions, and more. Despite being just a few minutes long each, the cartoons have had remarkable staying power, getting parodied on "The Simpsons" and spawning a full album of cover tunes, because children of the world learn better when they're listening to Pavement.
It was this week all the way back in 1938 that NBC operated the first mobile television van in New York City. Since that day, mobile TV units have flourished all across the country, sending out brave local news crews to ask people on the street what they think about things like vaccines, animal cloning, and the fall Romanian dictatorships. I don't know about you, but any time I see a mobile news van, I know that STUFF IS GOING DOWN.
Did you know there was once a time when being pregnant on TV was taboo? It's true. Fifty-nine years ago today, CBS censors forbid the use of the word "pregnant" on "I Love Lucy," forcing them to use the word "expecting" instead. Other taboo-for-TV topics included musical taste, wrestling, dyslexia, over-the-counter meds and whipped butter. One other note: Lucille Ball's need to rest during her second pregnancy was the reason Desi Arnaz invented the TV rerun. Find me a person in 2011 who thinks pregnancy is anywhere near as offensive as reruns. YOU CAN'T.
Grown men were reduced to blubbering babies on Nov. 30, 1971, by “Brian’s Song,” starring Billy Dee Williams as NFL great Gayle Sayers, and James Caan as his terminally ill teammate Brian Piccolo. It remains the single most enduring TV movie ever made. No lie. What other TV movie has ever had this kind of shelf life? Definitely not the 2001 version, I’ll tell you that. Pour out a Colt 45 for Brian Piccolo.
Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) broke new ground on Nov. 22, 1968, by staging TV's first ever kiss between a white man and a black woman. Cleverly, writers for the show shattered this taboo gently, making the kiss a byproduct of Kirk falling under the telekinetic spell of the evil Platonian leader, Parmen. The result was a muted furor, and TV history.
On Nov. 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon steadfastly maintained his innocence in the Watergate scandal by declaring, "I am not a crook." You can watch the video of his proclamation here, it remains an utterly searing moment. Nixon's final words, "I've earned everything I've gotten," would prove true in ways that he probably didn't expect.
EMPTY_CAPTION"Sesame Street" first aired Nov. 10, 1969, on PBS, and its patented blend of gentle education and adult pop-culture references has served as the blueprint for virtually every children's show to come afterward. It's one of those rare shows, like "SNL" or "The Tonight Show," that has an indestructible format, one that can accommodate new characters and changing times effortlessly, and man I wish my kids liked it more than "Team Umizoomi."
EMPTY_CAPTION"Diff'rent Strokes" premiered Nov. 3, 1978. It ran for eight seasons, coinciding perfectly with my childhood. It was the first live-action sitcom that I remember watching, and what a baptism that turned out to be, tackling issues like racism, child molestation, crime, puberty, drug use, and more. I'm not sure it was ever actually funny. But since I was a sheltered white suburban kid, this show represented my first ever exposure to American race relations, and actually did a pretty good job. It focused on tolerance, acceptance, love, and sassin' ignorant white folk--can't ask for more than that. Tragically, Conrad Bain (Mr. Drummond) has now outlived two of his TV children (Dana Plato and Gary Coleman).
Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" debuted on ABC radio this week back in 1947. Three years later, the show moved to NBC and became a TV/radio simulcast. It was the first game show to be syndicated, so you have Groucho to thank for the modern luxury of being able to watch "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune" after your local newscast every night of the week. Also this week, the Stones appeared on Ed Sullivan (scandalous!) and "ET" came out on VHS, a full six years after it was released in theaters. I swear this was a big deal at the time. The 80's were a desperate era.
Madonna raises her game to a whole new level on Oct. 21, 1992, with the release of "Sex," a collection of what is essentially soft-core art porn featuring the Material Girl, inspiring MTV to air "The Day in Madonna," discussing the book and her upcoming album, "Erotica."
EMPTY_CAPTION"Saturday Night Live" debuted Oct. 11, 1975, hosted by a reportedly very-stoned George Carlin and featuring musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian. While it took a few episodes to settle into its format (Carlin did three stand up acts), the first show included legendary set pieces like Weekend Update, Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” singalong, and a short film by Albert Brooks. Looking back, it’s amazing to see this much comedic talent packed into a single program: Carlin, Belushi, Radner, Chase, Brooks, Kaufman, Michael O’Donaghue… even the freakin’ Muppets appeared.
On Oct. 13, 1971, Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente went 3-for-4 and teammate Bruce Kison pitched 6 1/3 scoreless innings in relief to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 4-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the first World Series game to be played at night, attracting more than 61 MILLION viewers for NBC. You’ll never see that many people watch a baseball game on TV again. Unless aliens land on the infield or something. The Pirates would go on to win the Series in seven games, and oh how long ago it was that the O’s and Buccos were actually respectable.
The BBC aired on Oct. 5, 1969, the premiere episode of "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which still stands as the finest sketch comedy show in TV history. It abandoned traditional setups and punchlines in favor of high-minded lunacy. It was so groundbreaking that a lot of modern comedy just doesn't stand up to it. You certainly don't see fish-slapping dances on network TV, and we are a poorer nation for it. Five of the six Pythons are still alive and kicking today. The legendary Graham Chapman died of cancer in 1989.
“Grace Under Fire,” a working class sitcom in the mold of “Roseanne,” debuted on Sept. 29, 1993. Starring comedienne Brett Butler, the show lasted 6 years before ABC abruptly cancelled the show when they decided Butler’s drug addiction made it impossible to continue. Sound familiar? In fact, “Grace” was created by the very same fellow who created “Two and a Half Men”: Chuck Lorre, who clashed with Butler and left the show before ABC dumped it. The two have since reconciled. Think Lorre will do the same with a certain winner?
Then Sen. Richard Nixon, who was a vice presidential candidate, was facing accusations of improperly using funds from his backers. Desperate to quell the scandal, Nixon took the to airwaves on Sept. 23, 1952, to make an emotional plea to the nation, during which he said, "that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep" one gift, a dog his daughter had named Checkers. You can listen to it here.
The premiere episode of "Bonanza," on NBC chronicling the trials and triumphs of the motherless Cartwright clan, begins its 14-year run on Sept. 12, 1959. The show, which finished in the top 10 for a solid decade—including a 3-year stretch at #1--starred Loren "Alpo" Green, Michael "Jesus of Malibu" Landon, Pernell Roberts and Dan Blocker. Awesome theme song.
Elvis Presley, whom Ed Sullivan has previously dismissed as "Elvis the Pelvis," makes his first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Sept. 9, 1956, drawing more than 60 million viewers, accounting for more than 80% of the total TV audience.
Walter Cronkite, hosts the CBS Evening News on Sept. 2, 1963, as it expands from its 15-minute format to become the first 30-minute evening news program in television history. Cronkite would remain on the desk until 1981.
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