As a typical child of the ’70s, I grew up in front of a TV. Within the colored pixels of that faux-wood-paneled Magnavox floor set was the double-helix that formed my DNA. Everything I am today can be traced back to lessons I learned from the classic shows of my youth.
Lesson #1: The Muppet Show — Don’t take yourself too seriously.
When this show started in 1976, I was 11 years old and thought I was too cool for what I thought of as Sesame Street leftovers. Then I watched it. The humor was quick and hip. The big name guest stars that appeared on the show were in on the gag. They got it and happily played along. Bob Hope, John Cleese, Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, Alan Arkin and many more were all more than happy to join in on the shenanigans at The Muppet Theater. If they could let go and enjoy themselves, then I could to.
Lesson #2: The Bob Newhart Show — It’s okay to seek therapy, get help and talk about your problems.
I was raised in what I think was the traditional Catholic ethos of the time: If you have problems, swallow them, push them down deep and never talk about them with anyone. Ever. As far as the outside world is concerned, everything is fine. Then I was exposed to my first psychologist, the great Bob Hartley. I didn’t understand what Elliot Carlin’s problems really were or why Mr. Peterson was so shy and timid, but watching Bob try to talk them through their misery was a revelation to me. It was okay to open up about what was bothering you and talking it out with others might even help. Yes, it’s a little terrifying that I had to learn this from a sitcom, but watching this show may have been the deep-seated reason why I have a college degree in psychology. (I’ll leave that to a trained professional to decide.)
Lesson #3: Barney Miller — How to deal with diversity in the workplace.
The detectives’ squad room of New York’s 12th Precinct was a melting pot for the ages. It was also the template for every workplace I encountered in my adult life. Of course you have to work with all sorts of different people when you grow up, but as a kid I was surrounded mostly by people who looked just like me (granted they weren’t all as devilishly handsome, but you know what I mean). Watching Barney, Wojo, Fish, Jack, Chano and Harris working together made diversity what it always should be… a non-issue. This show was also my first exposure to gay people. Granted, the recurring Marty and Darryl characters were stereotypical depictions consistent with the era, but the show treated them as real people too, no more or less damaged than everyone else in that squad room.
Lesson #4: Good Times — Learn to look at life from someone else’s point of view.
Granted, this wasn’t a very realistic depiction of living in the projects at the time, but as a white kid growing up in southern New England, this was my very first exposure to living that kind of life. Just seeing the streets of Chicago and the Cabrini-Green projects in the opening credits was a real eye-opener. It helped that no matter how hard the Evans family had it, they never gave up. If boy genius Michael could persevere with all the craziness going on around him, then why couldn’t I? Plus he got to date Janet Jackson. “Scratchin’ and surviving” indeed.
Lesson #5: M*A*S*H — Sometimes you have to take a stand against the powers that be.
Not only did I attempt to assimilate Hawkeye Pierce’s witty banter into my own still-forming personality, he also taught me that sometimes you had to stand up and fight authority. Whether it was meaningless school propaganda early on or the corporate ineptitude encountered later in life, I learned you should never bow to authority when what you’re being told doesn’t make sense. No one knows what’s best for you better than you.
Lesson #6: Happy Days — Being tough isn’t always the most important thing.
In the ’70s, there was no one cooler on the planet than Arthur Fonzarelli. He was the ultimate tough guy, but the more we got to see the Fonz interacting with the Cunninghams the more we realized that being tough and cool only counted for so much. What really mattered was surrounding yourself with people you love and that love you back. Even if your cousin does wear his bandana on his leg for some unknown reason.
Lesson #7: Three’s Company — Don’t jump to conclusions and act impulsively.
Every week there would be some type of misunderstanding involving Jack and the girls. The problem would be compounded when Mr. Roper would automatically assume the worst, jump into action without thinking and make everything ten times worse. If he had just taken a stroll down to the Regal Beagle to think things through over a beer, everyone would have been a lot better off.
Lesson #8: TAXI — Be comfortable in your own skin.
There’s a great scene in the pilot where Alex Reiger looks around at all the cabbies in the garage and rattles off what they supposedly do for a living. “You see that guy over there? He’s an actor. The guy on the phone, he’s a prizefighter. This lady over here, she’s a beautician. The man behind her, he’s a writer. Me? I’m a cab driver. I’m the only cab driver in this place.” Reiger knew his place in the world and was content with it. There’s more to life than money and fame. Find your center and be happy.
Bonus Life Lesson: Charlie’s Angels — This is the show that proved there was a kind and benevolent higher power watching over all of us. How else to explain this blessed hour of jigglicious television premiered just as I started my journey to manhood.