Jan 28, 2012

Five 90s Sitcoms You've Probably Forgotten

The 1990s were a decade with VCRs, and eventually, dial-up internet. But they lacked high-speed data-sharing and Doctor Who, so it was hardly living, really. We watched our television when the free-to-air networks told us to, and we never knew that we were often missing bits and pieces that they'd chop out to make the ads fit. If, like me, you spent the majority of your childhood/teens in the 90s, then you'll probably share a certain sensibility about that era's TV: of sitting through rivers of crap waiting for the occasional nugget of gold.

I watched Seinfeld, which began "revolutionising" sitcoms, according to people who know about TV and comedy and such. Thinking back, I guess I could tell it was different, only because they didn't have the Full House-style, soppy "I've learned a lesson" scene at the end of every episode. Although the "TV has really changed" lightning bolt for me was Monica on Friends telling someone she "had to pee". Woah! Never once in all the books I read as a kid, or all the TV shows I'd seen before, had anyone ever said they needed to use the facilities. The Faraway Tree didn't have an amenities block. Mollie and Peter never parked The Wishing Chair to drop the kids off at the pool. Trixie Belden didn't have to take a quiet squat while spying on a suspicious farmhouse.

Apart from that I think the only shows with real comic "credibility" I watched during my teens were the Rik Mayal/Adrian Edmondson brawlfest Bottom, sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf (although some tell me post-season-3 doesn't count) and current affairs satire Frontline.

But I sure as hell watched a lot of sitcoms. Most were American. Most were dodgy. Many of them would be familiar to you: Home Improvement, The Nanny, Married... With Children, Family Matters.

If you can say "Did I do that?" without echoing Steve Urkel's nasally style,
then congratulations.  You are probably capable of conversing with strangers.

But what about the more obscure works in situationally comedic ouevre? Here's a few you probably don't care to remember - if you ever saw enough to forget in the first place.

5. Major Dad (1989-1993)

You know what works in sitcoms? Opposites! Why do you think that They Fight Crime! meme is 97% funny all the time - because it's just so true. People disagreeing about things equals conflict, and conflict creates comedy. We all remember the laugh riot that was the Korean War.

Major Dad was about Major John D. MacGillis, a hard man training hard men at a US Marine Corp infantry school. He marries a liberal journalist, Polly, and must adjust to life with her, her filthy values, and her three daughters. Can this military hardass soften up just a little while still retaining rigid posture and a pert moustache?

I remember very little about this show except for one joke: "Mac" finding out that Polly's middle name was Esther. Geddit? Polly...Esther... hey, I was 11 at the time and that stuff was razor-sharp.

4. Empty Nest (1988-1995)

A spin-off from The Golden Girls, Empty Nest starred the statuesque Richard Mulligan as Dr Harry Weston, a paediatrician living in Miami. His two adult daughters returned to live with him after his wife dies, and the show highlighted their constant bickering, and their and put up with his sleazy neighbour Charley (a kind of real-life Zapp Brannigan). There was also a lovely big dog named Dreyfuss.

My favourite character was Laverne, Dr Harry's tough-talking, wise-cracking nurse. I think hers was the first really Southern accent I can remember hearing, and boy, it was funny. Also, the actor playing her was named "Park Overall", and I never understood that. It sounded like a garment for a council worker.

I was sad to realise while researching Empty Nest that Mulligan died in 2000. I hadn't even realised. He was like the kindly, spindly, determinedly-flat-haired grandfather I never had. Except then I found out that at the height of the show's success in 1992, he married a porn star. Woof, indeed.

3. Blossom (1991-1995)

Mayim Balik has popped up in recent times on The Big Bang Theory, which I've never seen, but seems to have a bunch of 30-something non-nerds putting on bad clothes to play a bunch of 20-something actual nerds. To me, she'll always be Bette Midler as a young girl in Beaches. But after that, she'll always be Blossom.

The show was about a teenage girl living with her father and two older brothers. While it looked incredibly cheesy, it actually dealt with "teen issues". Blossom's eldest brother Anthony was a recovering addict, and her chatty best friend Six had a pregnancy scare. The middle brother, Joey, had a catchphrase - Whoa! - and later on, a music career.

The fashion of this show is so early 90s, it hurts me in the place where I used to wear my Hypercolour t-shirt.

2. The High Life (1995)

Lest all the entries in this list be American, I present this short-lived Scottish sitcom. It was written by Forbes Masson and Alan Cumming, whom you might remember from Bernard and the Genie and some other stuff, and is about two flight attendants working out of Prestwick Airport.

I remember thinking this was hysterically funny at the time it screened, but I can't remember if that was because of the jokes or just the accents. Only one series was made. I seem to recall seeing in as part of some sort of "Saturday Night Classic Comedy" line-up that the TV stations would occasionally do. They'd pull out episodes of George and Mildred, One Foot in the Grave and Are You Being Served? and jam them all together in the hope of entertainment. They never lasted long, mostly because the nostalgia factor was outweighed by the "Oh my God, is this how I'm spending my life now?" factor.

Interestingly, the name of the pilot character in the show was Captain Hilary Duff. And this is before Hilary Duff herself began her career as a child actor. All right, maybe it's not that interesting.

1. Dinosaurs (1991 - 1994)

This is not a parody sketch; this is a thing that actually happened. Dinosaurs was basically The Flintstones but with actual dinosaurs, not people. Well, not actual dinosaurs, people in dinosaur suits, with animatronic heads. Oh God, this is confusing.

But wait, puppets, could this mean...? Yes, apparently Jim Henson dreamt up the whole idea not long before he died, and his son Brian produced it. The show centred on Earl Sinclair, a hard-working megalosaurus dealing with all the pressures of modern family life - in 60, 000, 000BC Pangaea. It's probably most famous for Baby Sinclair, whose catchphrases, including "Not the Mama!", "Again!" and "I'm the baby, gotta love me!" adorned posters and stickers and t-shirts for at least 18 months. They also got a fair workout as witty classroom rejoinders for schoolkids like me.

To be fair, though, one of the most memorable lines of my childhood was from Dinosaurs. For some reason, Earl's company was arguing with another company, and they decided to launch Operation We Are Right to prove their point. I was about 12 at the time, and it took a fricking jabbering puppet to teach me the most succinct definition of war I'd ever heard.

That's my list, for now. Do you have any long-forgotten 1990s sitcoms? Add them to the list in the comments!


  1. Great post. As a kid, my favorite sitcoms were Home Improvement, Married With Children, and Family Matters. I have to admit, I watched Empty Nest when I was a kid--looking back perhaps I shouldn't have. I could never get into Blossom. Maybe it's because all the girls at school loved Joey. Mayim Balik is in The Big Bang Theory, which is a sitcom about 30-something year old nerds who have a love for geeky things like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, DC Comics, etc. Balik actually does a pretty good job playing Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist, who is a geeky as the rest of the cast. FYI, if you do decide to watch The Big Bang Theory, start with Season 1 (Pre-Balik). I really enjoyed reading your post.

  2. Not only did my brothers And I love Dinosaurs, we had the full set of toys from Pizza Hut. I still get a bit excited if I see a car driving past with Baby Sinclair on its towball.

  3. Don't forget that before Mayim Balik was blossom she was also on Macgyver.

  4. I watched a lot of daytime TV on my recent holiday, and Gem seems to play nothing but 80s and 90s sitcoms. I've rediscovered Step By Step, which is so much worse than I remember. I loved Dinosaurs, and so did my Mum! She thinks it was brilliant satire, but I admit I don't remember much about it apart from the baby. Other never-heard-of-again favourites included Grace Under Fire (why?) and Hangin' with Mr Cooper.

  5. I always thought of Dinosaurs as the Simpsons, except with Dinosaurs. Especially early Simpsons which was on at that time.

    Stupid dad, patient mum, son who was cool, girl, baby. Evil boss. Catch phrases (doh, eat my shorts vs the ones stated above).

    Terrible show. I loved every second of it.

  6. Does anyone remember Ghost Writer? A ghost who would help a group of inner city US teens solve crimes by spelling our words near the crime scene onto a computer.

  7. GC - I watched shows like Empty Nest and The Golden Girls, and you realise the adult content they had sometimes - but it just all went over my head! I've been told by a few people that The Big Bang Theory is worth a view. Will have to add it to the already long list...

    Ellen - The Pizza Hut toys! Of course, those were the days. I'm not sure I had all the Dinosaurs ones, but I certainly had all the Ninja Turtles!

    Scottmonster - wasn't everyone on Macgyver?

    Melinda - ahh, Step by Step. Remember when everyone had a Thighmaster, because Suzanne Somers wore short skirts in that show? Grace Under Fire I also watched, and now I'm KICKING myself I didn't include Hangin' With Mr Cooper. Criminal oversight.

    Doyle - I guess it was Simpsons-esque, I probably only thought Flintstones because of the whole dinosaurs thing. And no, I have NO recollection of Ghost Writer at all, but it sounds GENIUSLY TERRIBLE.

  8. 3rd Rock from the Sun; Frasier, a show that i didnt actually get into til it was over...

  9. I've been catching up on sitcoms from the 90's as well. I would watch Dinosaurs every morning while eating breakfast in High School (cause I was cool like that!)
    I recently bought the complete Dinosaurs series during a boxing week sale. LOVE!

    I defintely recommend watching Big Bang Theory. It was interesting to see a pair from Roseanne on there as well, rekindling their love lmao!

  10. I used to love Frasier and Spin City, and I remember wishing I was as cool as Blossom. She had rad style lol. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was another favourite, starring the "fresh prince" himself, Will Smith. And does anyone remember All Together Now, with John English playing the hippy father to twins, one of whom was Steve Jacobs. It had Rebecca Gibney in it too.

  11. aarondoyle - I LOVED Ghostwriter!

  12. Blossum had one redeeming character and that was the older brother played by Michael Stoyanov. He features with Alex Winters in the brilliant cult film 'Freaked'.

    The sitcom that I always found stella from the days a yore was 'The John Larroquette Show'. John Larroquette plays a semi-fictional version of himself as a night time bus station manager battling with getting his life on track after dealing with alcohol abuse. Is was quite brilliantly written (at least in the first season) and launched the career of Chi McBride.

    Carly: I bought the bar.
    John: I bought a bar once. One drink at a time.

  13. Holy crap, the girl from Big Bang Theory was Blossom? Mindsplode.

    Ghost Writer was specifically a kids show though, it wasn't a "family sitcom" like the others were. If you want to go down that road, what about Ship To Shore, or Elly & Jools? I loved those two.

  14. Bah! You can keep all your touchy feeley 90s rubbish!

    The Man!
    The Machine!


  15. Wait! What about Automan!
    He was a computer generated superhero!

    or Manimal!
    He could transform into any animal (but mainly a hawk or panther due to budget restraints)

  16. You know, I thought for forever that Urkel was that fat kid from Hey Dad! You know, the one who appeared in all those toilet paper commercials.

  17. I loved Friends ... got sucked into it big time and still re-visit my DVDs. Sad but true!

  18. I loved Major Dad and Blossom!
    Fast forward a decade and my love of trashy TV continued.....Mile High (a British show about slutty-with-a-heart flight attendants who worked for a budget airline that every rich man in Europe seemed to fly) was a particular favourite that no one seems to have ever seen.

  19. Does anyone remember a family comedy show with a blonde guy (teenager/early twenties) who talked directly to the viewers and whenever he did, the screen would turn black and white? I remember him as Tuck, not sure though..