By 1976 television was a thoroughly established entity. A lot of the kinks, so to speak, had been ironed out. There were adults who had never known life without a TV. The world of television was more diverse, and it had been around so long that people were already nostalgic for its past. There was even a Honeymooners reunion show on TV in 1976. For sitcoms, 1976 was a good, if insular, year—three of the shows on this list come from MTM Enterprises, another three from Norman Lear, and three of these shows are spin-offs of other shows on the list. With only three broadcast networks, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to go around, and it’s not surprising that networks would want to stick with producers with a proven track record. After the wave of high-concept sitcoms in the 1960s, the ‘70s saw a renaissance for the form. It was a good time for sitcoms, but sort of an insular one, too, replete with spinoffs—several of which are included on this list. Without any further ado, here are the top 10 sitcoms that aired a season in 1976.
Norman Lear’s satire of soap operas didn’t feel like a traditional sitcom. It was a half-hour, but it aired five days a week, and instead of a network it was syndicated directly to local stations. It couched Lear’s typical focus on hot-button social and political issues (especially materialism, the cultural void of suburbia, and the rise of the mental health industry) within a satirical framework, finding absurd humor in the melodrama that soaps were known for, and in performances that were in some cases intentionally wooden and in others intentionally over-the-top. Despite its ridiculous storylines, the presentation was so dry that it’s easy to imagine viewers not even picking up on the satire. In other words, it was really good satire. It briefly made Louise Lasser a star (she hosted a first-season episode of Saturday Night Live in 1976, between ‘70s icons Elliott Gould and Kris Kristofferson) and introduced Martin Mull and Fred Willard to America. Mull and Willard co-hosted the talk show parody spinoffs Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night after Mary Hartman ended its two season run.
The Jeffersons is one of those shows that completely wore out its welcome over time. By the time it ended in 1985, it had been on the air for over a decade. In 1976, though, it was still new and at the height of its power. This show about a black family that has moved, in the words of the iconic theme song to the show, to a deluxe apartment in the sky was one of the many Norman Lear sitcoms that wasn’t afraid to deal with social and political issues. It was one of a few spinoffs of Lear’s first such blockbuster, All in the Family, and the best of the bunch. It’s not as successful as its progenitor—few shows are—but its importance cannot be overlooked, and in Sherman Helmsley it starred one of the great sitcom actors of all time.
MTM Enterprises perfected the workplace sitcom, but they didn’t have a monopoly on the genre. Barney Miller’s ethnically diverse crew of beleaguered New York City detectives felt less like a family, as so many workplace sitcoms strive for, than a platoon from an old war film. You can tell they’ve seen some shit. Instead of Normandy or the Pacific, though, they’ve been displaced to a dingy police department at the nadir of New York’s 1970s decay. With a great cast headed up by Hal Linden and Abe Vigoda (whose character Fish got a short-lived spinoff of his own), and smart scripts that weren’t usually as broad as silly as you might expect from a sitcom, Barney Miller holds up better today than most sitcoms of the era.
The iconic status of M*A*S*H cannot be denied. Its 1983 series finale is still the most-watched scripted show in the history of television—over 100 million people tuned in, making it the only show in the all-time top 20 that isn’t a Super Bowl. M*A*S*H was also a show that would deal with serious issues from time to time, although there are those who consider that a mark against it. In truth, while M*A*S*H has a lot of things going for it, perhaps time hasn’t been as kind to it as it has been to some other ‘70s sitcoms. It’s still a top 10 show from 1976, obviously, and its cast is incredibly impressive. It’s just not one of the very best sitcoms of all-time, which is what many would have said about it, say, 20 years ago.
Here’s another spinoff, this time from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In the 1970s, spinoffs were clearly far more prominent than they are today. What made Rhoda notable is that it featured Mary Richards’s single gal pal getting married to her beau Joe. However, viewers didn’t take to the married Rhoda, so she ended up divorced during the show’s run. Rhoda was the role Valerie Harper was born to play, though, and she carried the show, whether the character was married or not.
Laverne and Shirley is the highest-ranked spinoff on this list. It almost finished above the show it began on, which will be appearing shortly. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams were a great duo. It feels like Penny did not manage to keep the respect of the general populace like her brother Garry did, but she was really good as Laverne. Plus, breakout characters Lenny and Squiggy were a delight, and introduced Michael McKean (and, uh, David Lander) to the American public. Sure, the ladies eventually left Milwaukee for Los Angeles, and Williams was barely involved toward the end, but for a while, Laverne and Shirley was a delightful show about women doing it for themselves.
However, Laverne and Shirley just isn’t quite as good as Happy Days. Maybe we can chalk that up to The Fonz, who was rightfully iconic. It was also one of the first sitcoms, or at least one of the first successful sitcoms, that really mined nostalgia. It was a show from the ‘70s (and, eventually, the ‘80s) about how great the ‘50s were. Its version of the ‘50s was fun to watch, though. That includes when Fonzie jumped a shark on waterskies.
The influence of All in the Family, and Norman Lear, is undeniable. It was a sitcom that touched on social issues constantly. They used a character that could no longer be the main character of a network sitcom, Archie Bunker, to discuss all manner of pressing issues in the 1970s, from civil rights to women’s lib to rape, abortion and sexual harassment. There’s a reason Archie’s chair is in the Smithsonian. Archie Bunker represented a dying generation, a way of life and thinking about the world that was (presumably) coming to an end. Despite his bigotry and noxious behavior he was still, at times, a sympathetic figure, largely because of Carroll O’Connor’s nuanced and human performance. It had faded a little bit by 1976, but make no mistake: this is one of the best and most important sitcoms of all time.
Here’s some real talk for you: The first seven shows on this list are fine, but the top three are in a league of their own. Happy Days is a good ‘70s sitcom. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is one of the best shows of all time. Mary Tyler Moore is a singular talent, but the supporting cast was so good too. Yes, it was nice that it was a show about a single woman on her own working and taking care of business. Mary Richards went to jail to protect a source. She was awesome. Also, The Mary Tyler Moore Show has maybe the best TV theme song of all time. It’s just a fantastic show, funny and wonderful and poignant and always smart. It’s where the MTM template that heavily influenced almost every major workplace sitcom of the last 40 years comes from. It takes a really impressive show to finish above Mary, Lou, Ted, and the gang.
The Bob Newhart Show is that show. This unfairly overlooked classic had an impact on modern sitcoms that is still felt to this day. It’s almost like a proto-Seinfeld in some ways. It’s a sitcom built on the minutiae of the lives of its main characters, and in how their neuroses manifest themselves. That’s fitting for a show about a psychiatrist. The cast is unimpeachable. Bob and Emily Hartley, as portrayed by Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette, are maybe the best married couple in television history. Howard Borden (Bill Daily) is possibly television’s best wacky neighbor. That’s before we even get to Jerry, Carol, or the legendary misanthrope Elliot Carlin. During the decade that gave us the treacly “very special episode,” here’s a show that was a hit despite never really trying to be touching or moving. Newhart pointedly never wanted the Hartleys to have a kid. It’s just brilliant and hilarious. That’s enough to make it the best sitcom of 1976.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.