American sitcom television hit an early milestone on this day in 1949 with the debut of The Goldbergs, a comedy-drama about an immigrant Jewish family living in the Bronx. If this groundbreaking sitcom dished up “chicken-soup sentimentality” (The Sitcom Reader, 2005), it was the “progenitor of every overtly ethnic show that has come after it, from The Nanny to All-American Girl, from Life with Luigi to Chico and the Man, from Bridget Loves Bernie to Everybody Loves Raymond” (Sitcoms, 2007).
The Goldbergs is also on the historical record for a different sort of mold making, and breaking. The show was written and produced by its star, Gertrude Berg, herself born to immigrant Jewish parents living in Harlem. Berg created, wrote, directed, and produced the original version of The Goldbergs, which was a popular hit on radio for seventeen years. She also wrote and starred in the stage version, which ran on Broadway for over four months. She kept the show going on television for six seasons by finding new sponsors, switching networks three times, and tweaking the storyline formula for the changing times — until immigrant-ethnic humor lost its vogue, and “suburban families with names such as Stone (The Donna Reed Show) and Anderson (Father Knows Best) moved in to dominate the genre” (The Sitcom Reader). By masterminding each of these Goldberg variations, Berg became one of the most successful and highest-paid stars of early television, a woman opposite to the stereotypical wife-mother she portrayed on screen.
Media historians and cultural critics continue to explore how 1950s sitcoms both exploited and subverted conventional attitudes toward women. I Love Lucy is generally credited with being the best (and funniest) representative of this double role. As noted in Eric Burns’s Invasion of the Mind Snatchers: Television’s Conquest of America in the Fifties (2010), Lucy still had a lot of “splainin’ to do” to her Ricky, so she was not yet an uppity Maude (Maude, 1972-78) to her Walter: “When he says ‘wife,’ he means ‘possession’.” But neither was Lucy content to be merely the wife of I Married Joan (1952-55), described by hubby in the show’s opening theme song as incomparably mind-snatched:
…What a mind, love is blind, what a wife!
Giddy and gay, all day she keeps my heart laughing,
Never know where her brain has flown,
To each his own, can’t deny that’s why I married Joan….
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.