The decade surrounding America’s Bicentennial saw significant changes in the nation’s culture, which was definitely reflected by what was on TV at the time. Shows became more adventurous and apt to tackle real-life issues, which was true even in some of the decade’s funniest sitcoms.
But whether you tuned in for laughter or to witness some epic adventures, you had an interesting variety of shows to choose from during the ’70s. Of course, some of them aged better than others. And that’s why we’ve buckled down and ranked the decade’s best.
Three’s Company (1977-1984)
Although Three’s Company was a classic case of the age-old problem of TV shows getting dumber the longer they went on, that didn’t make audiences any less keen to see John Ritter bring the wacky misadventures of Jack Tripper to life.
And between the chemistry he shared with Suzanne Summers and Joyce DeWitt and the quirky intrusions of his landlord Ralph, there was a lot to enjoy about this cozy sitcom.
From a vague description, this might sound like a fairly simple show about a private eye working for a detective agency and then for himself as the series progressed.
However, it’s particularly notable for being among the most action-packed shows ever to hit television by the time it aired. If you didn’t see fistfights, car chases, and shootouts by the time an episode was over, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little disappointed.
One Day At A Time (1975-1984)
If you saw a sitcom that wasn’t afraid to get real in the ’70s, chances were good that it was produced by Norman Lear. And that was definitely true of this Bonnie Franklin-helmed show, which saw her balance her career ambitions with raising two daughters on her own.
But if that doesn’t sound like a recipe for laughs, viewers could always rely on her building’s bumbling superintendent Schneider to keep the mood light.
Charlie’s Angels (1976-1981)
If you want to encapsulate how iconic and cheesy the ’70s could be all at once, one could definitely do a lot worse than revisiting Charlie’s Angels.
Although the ladies of action in this series were more focused on being detectives than the quasi-superheroes we’d see in the movie versions decades later, they still got themselves in some rough situations. And, of course, you’ll get to see the role that made Farrah Fawcett a star!
The Odd Couple (1970-1975)
Even decades after this show went off the air; it remains the go-to reference point for when your roommate is your complete opposite.
And while the premise of a tidy and proper photographer living with a proud slob of a sportswriter could have worn thin quickly in lesser hands, the underrated talents of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman made it work for a respectable five seasons.
Wonder Woman (1975-1979)
Although Gal Gadot is certainly carrying the torch for the classic DC character nowadays, this show was the reason why so many people would immediately think of Lynda Carter if you asked them to imagine Wonder Woman.
And with the confidence and poise she showed while facing no end of perilous situations throughout the show’s run, it doesn’t take much explanation to understand why she remains so beloved decades later.
The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982)
Before they had CGI to aid Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Incredible Hulk, Bill Bixby’s David Banner required some help from bodybuilding star Lou Ferrigno and some green face paint to let his version of the beast out.
But while there was no shortage of scenes where the Hulk smashed through sets to the delight of viewers, the ’70s series was also keen to explore the tragedy that comes from living in such alienating circumstances.
The Six-Million Dollar Man (1974-1978)
Judging by the fact that so many of us can still quote the “we can rebuild him, we have the technology” monologue that drew viewers into the idea of The Six-Million Dollar Man all those years ago; it’s clear that someone landed on a solid premise for a show about a bionic secret agent.
But while anyone who’d want to remake this show now would certainly need to increase the price tag on its main character, we would only hope that they’d keep that endlessly satisfying jumping sound as-is.
The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (1971-1974)
Although Cher is certainly not without a healthy number of fans, she got there thanks to The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
And this charming variety show gave some real insight into why the two were not only funny on their own but also featured both the acting and writing talents of Steve Martin and a wide array of musical guests.
The Brady Bunch (1969-1974)
Sure, the argument can be made that The Brady Bunch was both cheesier and far more squeaky-clean than most of the other shows we’re talking about today. But that kind of light-hearted wholesomeness can make it the perfect comfort show for when we’re feeling down.
After all, there’s a reason why it’s still so fondly remembered and referenced despite how long it’s been since the Brady family finally said goodbye.
Laverne And Shirley (1976-1983)
Although it was an infamously nightmarish show to work on, the blend of wacky characters that came together in Laverne and Shirley’s apartment and the snappy dialogue they traded made the show great fun for its viewers.
Even the charming Yiddish chant that set off every episode made it clear that Laverne and Shirley was a show with its own personality.
Good Times (1974-1979)
As even the theme song suggested, Good Times was a show about trying to make the best of even the serious hardships that come from living in the projects. Making a sitcom out of that would require a lot of heart from its characters, and both the writers and the cast were up to the challenge.
That was especially true of J.J., Jimmie Walker’s aspiring artist who always seemed to be getting into trouble and delighting America with his catchphrase, “Dynomite!”
Welcome Back, Kotter (1975-1979)
More than just the comedy that gave John Travolta his big break, Welcome Back, Kotter was practically defined by the hilarious interactions between the titular Mr. Kotter and a group of rowdy students in his remedial class known as the Sweathogs.
But as funny as each sweat hog was in his own way, Kotter was also exactly the kind of teacher you’d want as a kid. Patient, understanding, and with a sarcastic sense of humor.
Mork & Mindy (1978-1982)
This unlikely spin-off of Happy Days all but introduced the world to the legendary and sorely missed Robin Williams. But it did more than give us a taste of his talents.
It also laid the groundwork for how to play alien encounters for comedy. Because while shows like My Favorite Martian portrayed visiting extraterrestrials as savvy, hyper-intelligent beings, Mork and Mindy suggested that they’d be just as confused about us as we’d be about them.
Happy Days (1974-1984)
It’s a tried-and-true idea in entertainment and advertising to mine nostalgia for decades past, but we can partially put that down to how successfully Happy Days tried it.
But of course, while it’s neat to see what Ron Howard and Pat Morita did before conquering Hollywood, some of the greatest pleasures of Happy Days came from watching Henry Winkler strut his stuff as Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli.
Years before Bea Arthur solidified her die-hard cult with her hilarious deadpan sarcasm in The Golden Girls; she brought her signature personality to the respectable All In The Family spin-off, Maude.
As with many Norman Lear-produced shows back then, Maude walked a delicate balance between tackling the politics of the day and making us laugh. And in some cases, it pushed the envelope enough to get the show in some real trouble. But it was good trouble.
Sanford And Son (1972-1977)
Although this was inspired by the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, Sanford and Son nonetheless had their own distinct vibe that set it apart from the original. Just as the U.S. version of The Office would decades later.
But in this case, that personality came largely from the energy and fearlessness that defined Redd Foxx’s comedic style. So watching him play Fred Sanford was like watching someone catch lightning in a bottle.
WKRP In Cincinnati (1978-1982)
Even for the canon of wacky workplace comedies, WKRP was something special. Between the radio station’s bumbling owner Mr. Carlson, its sleazy sales manager Herb Tarlek, its utterly unpredictable news director Les Nessman, and its witty and burned-out early morning DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, there was something for everyone here.
But of course, none of that would have truly worked if the writers hadn’t just kept the funny lines coming the way they did.
Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980)
Hawaii Five-O was far from the first cop show to hit the tube, but the way it blended its scenic locale into the story and raised the stakes by following an elite unit in the Hawaii state police would serve as a model for police procedurals to come.
It’s no wonder that bringing it back proved so successful in more recent years.
Kolchak the Night Stalker (1974-1975)
It may not have run for very long, but this Darren McGavin-helmed supernatural detective drama still has fans gushing about it almost 50 years later. While Chicago newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak investigated bizarre crimes, he kept finding otherwordly culprits for them and often put himself in mortal peril trying to bring them down.
And, of course, his editor never believed a word of his experiences. Short-lived as it may have been, so many popular shows that explored similar territory (The X-Files, to name but one) owe it a debt of gratitude.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978)
Carol Burnett was one of television’s greatest sketch comedy pioneers, and the troupe that she bounced ideas off of was a true dream team.
Together with Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway, and Harvey Korman, Burnett’s sharp wits brought sketches to life that were so hilarious that even the cast often had a hard time keeping a straight face.
On paper, it just seems like a humble sitcom about a New York taxi company, but the strength of Taxi came from how much talent it was able to fit into one room.
In addition to showing us what a reliable performer Tony Danza could be, Taxi also proved a showcase for Danny DeVito to flex his talent for playing sleazy characters. It even showed the world the indescribable Andy Kaufman and even gave Christopher Lloyd a big break as the loveable space cadet Jim.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978)
Bob Newhart’s understated, stammering style made him a master of awkward comedy before there was such a niche, and it served him well in this smart comedy that saw him play an overwhelmed psychologist.
From Frasier to Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, we can trace a number of great shows that would follow back to Newhart’s trailblazing approach.
The Jeffersons (1975-1985)
In addition to being one of the most popular and respected shows of the decade, The Jeffersons was also one of the funniest.
Not only did Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford have natural enough chemistry to make them feel like a real married couple, but the Jeffersons’ housekeeper Florence and their neighbor Harry were always backing them up with some hilarious lines and antics.
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
As they always say, comedy is in the delivery. And John Cleese and his then-wife Connie Booth ensured that the simple premise of an inept hotel owner trying to keep it together was elevated to legendary status with their clever scripts and solid performances.
From its brilliant and sometimes fourth-wall-bending gags to Cleese’s misanthropic approach to Basil Fawlty, there’s much to explain why this show remains so beloved.
The Muppet Show (1976-1981)
Although the premise of a variety show run by puppets was considered a little too weird to attract many guest stars at first, seeing how the enduring magic of the muppets really worked was eventually enough to attract audiences and big names alike.
Each episode was built around its guest star but teemed with enough personality, adorable character designs, and timelessly funny sketches that it felt more like each guest was simply stepping into the Muppets’ world.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977)
In addition to producing a good number of the shows we’ve discussed today through MTM Enterprises, Mary Tyler Moore truly planted her flag in the world of television with this massive smash hit.
It’s hard to describe the magic she and her castmates weaved as she played a fictitious Minneapolis TV newsroom’s associate producer. Still, her classic interactions with her gruff boss Lou Grant and airheaded anchor, Ted Baxter, were definite highlights.
All In The Family (1971-1979)
The flagship of Norman Lear’s dominant presence in ’70s television, All In The Family ran with the controversial, unflinching, and hilarious approach to tackling the issues of the day.
While the audience clearly isn’t meant to agree with the family’s patriarch Archie Bunker (played brilliantly by Carol O’Connor), he also emerged as a complex and interesting character rather than a strawman to illustrate the creators’ politics.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
While other shows can be said to have perfected the classic model of sketch comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus pushed it forward into exciting and experimental directions with their penchant for unpredictable absurdity and surreal animated interludes.
With each cast member contributing their own creative spark to this now-legendary troupe, the men behind Monty Python cemented the group’s legacy both through some unforgettable sketches and a string of hilarious and smartly-conceived movies.
If we were forced to choose just one TV show that defined the 1970s, it would be hard to find a better candidate than M*A*S*H.
Beginning as an uproarious comedy, the series’ impressive run saw it evolve into a genuinely sobering exploration of how the horrors and follies of war impact the human psyche. While audiences lamented the loss of some favorite characters along the way, M*A*S*H‘s setting allowed their departures to underscore the dramatic and tragic aspects of this legendary dramedy.