February 1962: John Glenn was going into space; I was ensconced in third grade. Some perspicacious adult thought we children should witness this historic moment and so arranged to have an obliging mom pull, in a wagon, her heavy, rabbit-eared black-and-white TV to school. We were ecstatic. A holiday mood prevailed, which slowly ebbed in the face of the technical reports and the static image of a rocket sitting on a launch pad. His patience exhausted, one kid rolled his eyes and said, ”Can’t we watch Huckleberry Hound?”
That, in a nutshell, was the choice TV in the ’60s provided: coverage of astounding history-making events or entertainment programs offering little more than featherweight amusements. The news divisions put into our living rooms jarring scenes of police drenching civil rights marchers with fire hoses and of GIs on patrol in the Mekong Delta. And much has been written about how the moving images of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and funeral legitimized TV in the eyes of a mourning public. But those four days of coverage had little impact in elevating the overall standards of the industry: The distance between fiction and reality remained immeasurable. The entertainment divisions pushed shows about talking horses and talking cars. News of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination disrupted The Flying Nun and Bewitched. Bobby Kennedy’s burial preempted Petticoat Junction.
The music and movie industries were quickest to react to the thunderous events of the ’60s. TV — run by execs who unswervingly protected their bottom line — showed little interest in taking risks artistic or political. Ed Sullivan hosted the Rolling Stones, then stopped them from singing ”Let’s Spend the Night Together.” CBS’ plan of airing controversial entertainers began and abruptly ended with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. There were courageous exceptions: In 1965, I Spy showed a black man and a white man working together in the national interest, a remarkable statement just one year after the murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.
In retrospect, the era did offer some splendid programs (The Defenders, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Star Trek). Still, relative to this turbulent decade, the bulk of TV’s offerings were, in the literal sense, timeless. For better or worse, in the ’60s, it was a medium of cowpokes and physicians, serene moms and befuddled dads, square-jawed cops and stranded castaways, all going about the business of ignoring the outside world.
THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW: THE FIRST OTTOMAN PRATFALL
Sept. 26, 1962
In the second season’s opening credits, Van Dyke instantly cemented his rep as TV’s most agile physical comedian by tripping spectacularly over the Petries’ living-room ottoman. Creator Carl Reiner filmed an alternate version with Van Dyke sidestepping the obstacle — and aired them in a random rotation. ”People were placing bets on whether I would or wouldn’t [trip],” recalls Van Dyke. Thirty-three years after CBS’ hit left the air, fans still think of him as a fall guy: ”They say, ‘Would you fall over something for us?’ And I say, ‘I can still do it, but now it hurts.”’ Rank 51
THE TONIGHT SHOW: JOHNNY CARSON TAKES OVER
Oct. 1, 1962
As Ed McMahon tells it, right before he and Johnny Carson were to tape their first show, he turned to Carson and asked, “How do you see my role tonight?” To which Johnny replied, “Ed, I don’t even know how I see my own role. Let’s just entertain the hell out of them.” That might sound corny to post Letterman cynics, but what other American entertainer can claim being the most popular in his field for 30 straight years? Previous hosts Steve Allen and Jack Paar may have built NBC’s Tonight Show into a growing concern, but once Carson arrived, late night became Johnny time. Unfortunately for the heirs to his throne, many viewers continue to think so. Rank 10