Compared to the many different avenues through which we consume culture, television, as a medium, is relatively young. It’s no internet, but it makes radio show its age, and photographs, the printed page and paintings are downright ancient in comparison. Fifty years ago, though, in 1966, television was still the new kid on the block, one going through its rule-breaking teen phase. There were so few channels you could count them all on one hand. Despite this fact, there was still plenty of good television that aired in 1966, particularly when it came to sitcoms. The year 1966 was a fascinating one for comedy, with a number of traditional sitcoms hitting their peak, right as a variety of inventive, convention-busting programs made it to air. The influence of Ernie Kovacs, who was already famously deconstructing the medium in a variety of eponymous shows as early as 1952, finally flowered in 1966, four years after Kovacs’s death. Let’s look back half a century at this pivotal year for the development of the sitcom, and examine the 10 best comedies that aired in 1966. It may have been 50 years ago, but these shows still resonate today as some of the best ever made.
The Munsters is a fairly cheesy show. It’s about a family of monsters that don’t even make sense as a family unit. (The parents are a Frankenstein and a vampire, but the son is a werewolf?) However, there’s a lot of fun inside that cheese, like the many, many times their adopted human daughter Marilyn brought home a date who freaks out about meeting her family. And then there’s Grandpa Munster, who’s like a Mad Magazine issue brought to life (or, since he’s a vampire, something not quite like life.) Grandpa kept every situation light with his Vaudeville style one-liners—at least when he wasn’t too busy driving his race car made out of a coffin.
Debuting in 1966, That Girl is sort of like a dry run for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s about a single woman, in this case played by Marlo Thomas, trying to make it on her own in the big city, in this case New York. As such, it has the air of importance, but it is also a good show. It lives or dies on how you feel about Thomas, but if you find her charming, the show can be quite pleasant to watch.
Bewitched was one of the last cuts from this list. So why did one show about a supernatural woman and the man in her life not make it, while this one did? Well, both shows have a silly premise, but I Dream of Jeannie steers into that silliness better, with Barbara Eden’s infectious bubbliness and Larry Hagman’s ideal straightman. Additionally, Bill Daily, who would go on to further greatness as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show, regularly stole scenes as Major Nelson’s coworker Roger Healey. On the other hand, I Dream of Jeannie didn’t have Paul Lynde. Still, it’s a slightly better show with a lot of fun goofiness and good actors.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the many notable shows that ended its run in 1966. Here we had a show created by Carl Reiner starring Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. What more could you want from a TV show? It also showed how far the medium of television had come where there could be a sitcom about a guy who works on a TV show. It’s one of the most iconic and popular sitcoms that aired in 1966, or any year. However, it doesn’t quite crack the top five of this list. Part of the problem, which has surfaced on several shows over the years, is that the comedy created by Rob Petrie and the rest of the folks working on the show-within-the-show just isn’t that great. It was a show that was clearly reaching its end. Overall, though, it’s a good sitcom with two great leads.
The Addams Family did not last long. It only ran for 64 episodes. Basically every episode was about regular folks showing up at the Addams’ house and being freaked out by them. A cavalcade of business folks and door-to-door salesmen and occasionally Russian government officials would stop by to meet Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, and occasionally their kids or Lurch the butler. Mostly, though the show was about John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia, and they were both great. Its jokes and weirdness were quite funny even if the show was repetitive and predictable.
As you will see when you’ve read this list in total, 1966 was a year with a lot of envelope pushing high concept shows. The Andy Griffith Show wasn’t that. From the opening credits, replete with the whistled theme song, it was a laid back, slice of life show that was basically a hangout sitcom. However, instead of being about a bunch of twentysomethings in a coffee shop, it was about an idealized small town and the gentle, moral sheriff who had to calmly talk sense into its comical citizens. Don Knotts, won had won five Emmys for his work on the show, was no longer a regular by 1966, and star Griffith was preparing to leave after only one more season. One of the best shows in television history at its peak, it was a little past its prime in ‘66, but still a relaxing, hilarious favorite.
Like The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres took place in a rural setting. That’s where the similarities end. Green Acres was one of several completely bonkers, incredibly silly shows to air in 1966. It was also at the vanguard of the meta sitcom. Green Acres would often comment on the fact it was a TV show and broke the fourth wall frequently. Eddie Albert was great as the straight man in the middle of the show, surrounded by weirdos and bizarre happenings. A pig was a major supporting character. If Andy Griffith wasn’t your thing, Green Acres was excellent counterprogramming.
Get Smart was the perfect answer to the grim seriousness of most Cold War spy stuff. The great Don Adams starred as Maxwell Smart, a spy for the U.S. government who was as bumbling and clueless as James Bond was suave and sophisticated. And that was OK, because CONTROL, Smart’s agency, was fighting against the equally incompetent forces of KAOS. The show was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, if you were wondering if it was funny. It was not necessarily pointed satire, but occasionally they would manage to sneak some sharp bits in there. Mostly, it was just a really funny show about a foolish guy in a position of authority surrounded by people who were exasperated by his incompetence. There have been many sitcoms like that. None of the other ones are about secret agents, though.
Green Acres was out there and meta. The Monkees was pure anarchy. Remember when we mentioned Ernie Kovacs in the intro? Yep—this was pure Kovacs-style madness. It was a completely insane show with no regard for the concept of the fourth wall, or the concepts of logic and linear storytelling. The Monkees get a lot of garbage because they were a prefabricated band who didn’t play all the music on their early albums. To which we respond:
1. The music is still really good, so who cares?
2. The guys in The Monkees were actually talented musicians who ended up contributing quite a bit to the band’s music.
If you like storytelling and character development, The Monkees is not for you. If you want a nonstop barrage of jokes and silliness, then it’s great. It’s the second funniest show to debut in 1966, and also the second best sitcom to air that year. However, despite its many positive qualities, The Monkees just can’t compete with…
Batman is so great. You may not think of it as a sitcom. You may assume it’s some sort of action show. It’s about Batman, after all. Surely Batman wasn’t the central character in a sitcom. Oh, but he was! In fact, Batman is one of the funniest shows of all-time. It feels like a parody corrective to the overly serious Batman films of recent years, except it predates them all. The creators of Batman saw a guy who dresses up as a bat to fight crime and, shockingly, saw this as a transparently funny idea. Batman is arch and campy, pure pop genius from when the ‘60s weren’t entirely depressing yet. Basically everybody on it is amazing, especially Adam West as Batman. To this day, West remains the best portrayer of the Caped Crusader. These days, Batman is the central character in some of the biggest movies of all-time. Back in 1966, he was at the center of the best comedy on television.
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.