70. Chapelle’s Show: I never saw this show during its original run on Comedy Central, so I wasn’t exposed to it until the fall of 2004. Spending the semester in London, I would often drop by my friends Jan and Becky’s room, and we’d watch an episode or two. It was riotously funny– and the only truly subversive humor to hit the mainstream since George Carlin or Richard Pryor (oh, how we could use both of those men today!) It addressed, openly and honestly, the great unresolved questions of race– a true necessity for an America that wrongly believes itself to be post-racial. The most famous skits (how slavery reparations money would be spent, the blind black guy who is unaware of his race and writes racist screeds from a secluded environment, Wayne Brady) hold a mirror to our time. Small wonder that when James Lipton had to choose any guest as host for an Inside Actor’s Studio centered around himself, he chose Chapelle.
69. Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The only reason this show ranks so low is because I haven’t yet had the chance to unearth very much of the series. Very few shows have their own lexicon quite like this: there is a whole generation of people who are aware of fish-slapping dances, cross-dressing lumberjacks, spanish inquisitions, ministries of silly walks, argument clinics, and dead parrots. While not everything Monty Python did was brilliant, you had a once-in-a-generation collection of complementary talent working in tandem. Well, maybe twice in a generation. George Harrison once said that whatever magic The Beatles had went into Monty Python when they broke up. It is difficult to disagree.
68. MASH: Like I Love Lucy this show ranks so low not because of it’s own quality, but because of my limited awareness of the show. I owe my MASH debt to my girlfriend, Heather, who introduced me to the show– a sentimental favorite in her family, as her grandfather was a Korean War veteran. With well-developed characters and poignant parallels to Vietnam, this was justifiably the most popular show of the 1970s. Indeed, this show has 1970s written all over it: grand ideologies and formulaic consensus are called into question all over the place; the only recourse in such events is in the relationships one cultivates– in that sense, it matches the decade’s great turn inward to a tee. But what makes this show great is its heart– there really are character arcs that turn a cynical group of figures into lovable, sympathetic figures. My great regret in all of this is being within 20 feet of Mike Farrell at a conference in South Dakota celebrating George McGovern’s career, and not having the interest in MASH at the time to bother approaching him.
67. The Colbert Report: Tom Lehrer once famously said that awarding Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize made satire obsolete. Perhaps it merely rendered satire comatose, for Stephen Colbert has revived satire and elevated it into an art form for the national audience. Every episode of Colbert deflates the self-importance and the armchair patriotism of our time– all the while skewering how the presentation of news has gone from the ideal of objectivity to the prerogative of the announcer’s biases. This is usually a boon to his guests, even conservative ones– Colbert frames his questions in such an absurd way that he actually creates red herrings for them to destroy. It is nothing less than astounding that the show’s conceit hasn’t collapsed or become tiresome in all the years it has been on the air. He is, indeed, America. And so can you.
66. Wheel of Fortune: Wheel of Fortune is a show I have watched since I was 3 or 4 and have felt ambivalent about for each of the succeeding 25 years. I thought Vanna was pretty, it was fun watching the big wheel turn, and the prizes seem nifty. My opinion of the show hasn’t changed substantively since then. Not as cerebral as Jeopardy, nor as contestant-driven as The Price is Right or even Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the show hinges– and ultimately fails– in it’s reliance on the banter between a host and a letter-turner who are both criminally smarmy and uninteresting. I once told my friend Betsy that I appreciated the concept of Wheel of Fortune, but the problem was Pat Sajak. This is particularly troublesome when there’s not much to the game itself– during the course of show, you ~might~ get to 7 puzzles; a good Jeopardy game that exhausts both boards will have 60 questions. Despite the novelty of having a Polish-American brother like Sajak on prime time television, I continue to use 7 pm as Wheel of Fortune time whenever I’m at my parents’ house, knowing full well why I do so, but not liking it one bit.
65. Lawrence Welk Show: This is a good example of a show that belongs in what I call the “Comfort food” category. Welk and his trademark “champagne music” served up some wholesome entertainment nearly every Sunday evening on PBS. It is particularly interesting to see his clean-cut young men and women attempt the songs of the 1960s and 1970s– watching them do Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” in the straightest possible manner was fascinating. Welk’s total control over the show’s output is manifest everywhere– the tight orchestration, the inoffensive tone, even the corn-fed teams of brothers and sisters singing on the show. (Saturday Night Live was absolutely dead-on in it’s parody of this– with a younger sister with severe behavioral problems and a large forehead interrupt the proceedings.) This show is the whitest thing ever– the only African-American I ever saw perform was the tap dancer. A troubling show, but so entertaining in it’s troublesome nature.
64. Zoobilee Zoo: This is one of the few children’s television shows I watched that was aired on neither PBS or Nickelodeon. It follows 6 Zoobles– essentially men and women in anthropomorphic animal costumes and makeup– who live in a community under the leadership of a cheetah named Mayor Ben (Ben Vereen). While one or more characters learn some kind of moral lesson or take part in some kind of activity, the crux of the show was about the different skills each Zooble possessed that made them interesting and worthwhile in their own right. Look-out Bear is an adventurer, Van Gogh Lion is a visual arts buff, and Whazzat Kangaroo loves music and dancing. One other character, looking back, might have been the gayest character on ’80’s children’s television (and that is a formidable distinction.)– Bravo Fox, a fabulous devotee of the theatre, who was constantly putting on ill-conceived and increasingly campy shows. Maybe, looking back, this show was trying to teach me something else.
63. Fraggle Rock: For a few weeks every year, HBO would give the homes in our media market a free trial. How my brother and I loved those weeks, for it was time for Fraggle Rock. While it was fun to see new output from the ‘golden age’ of the Muppets– in hindsight I appreciated the symbiosis the show presented. There is a subtle but fragile harmony between the workaday Doozers, the Fraggles above them on the food chain, and the race of giants whom the Fraggles avoid. There is one episode where Mokey urges the Fraggles not eat the Doozers’ elaborate radish structures that they spend their lives building. When the Fraggles agree, the structures continue to proliferate and grow until the whole community is overrun by them– nature’s balance had been perturbed. If Captain Planet was brazen about it’s environmentalism, Fraggle Rock performed this task in a quieter way– and the characters– from the hippie-ish Mokey to the adventurous Gobbo, to the eccentric Wembley– were always at the forefront. It’s a pity this show didn’t last longer– and wasn’t on a more easily accessible network. It might have been much higher on the list.
62. All in the Family: There were two types of Americans in the 1970s: those who laughed at Archie Bunker, and those who laughed with Archie Bunker. This was, like Welk and Wheel of Fortune and a number of other shows on the list, one of my grandfather’s favorites. He was caught up in a difficult place on the All in the Family matrix– he shared many of Archie’s concerns about the direction of the country and was roughly of the same generation as he. But as a proud Polish-American, he also had a soft spot in his heart for the meat-head son-in-law. Beyond these sentimental attachments, All in the Family is the 1970s historian’s dream. Nothing conveys the less overt aspects of white backlash more than this show– the hatred of affirmative action, the unease with women’s increasing independence, the movement of minorities into one’s neighborhood, the rise of a counterculture that seems to deride all that one holds dear. Archie Bunker was one of the least silent members of Nixon’s “Silent Majority”– and the first seeds of the culture wars are demonstrated in the internecine battles between Archie and his family. This was a smart show, and we will never again see one that so effortlessly and artfully addresses the major issues of it’s day in sitcom form.
61. That 70’s Show: As I’ve mentioned many times– 1970s home decorations and cloth styles and musical tastes have always been fascinating to me. This show is a clever take on that era– with some of the smartest casting I’ve ever seen– I mean, they were able to get a 13-year-old Mila Kunis, a talented Topher Grace, and future heartthrob Ashton Kutcher for 3 of the 6 leads. While not exactly Mad Men in it’s devotion to recreating the feel of an era, it still does a good job at finding the right 70’s home decor and clothing and records to make the show believable.