America’s First Sitcom

With the new TV season almost here, offering fresh episodes of new sitcoms and returning favorites, it behooves us (well, it behooves me, anyway) to take a look at the first original sitcom to appear on prime time TV, Mary Kay and Johnny.

The series premiered on the Dumont network in November of 1949, starring real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, two young New York stage actors. Mary Kay heard of a job opening at DuMont studios (located in the basement of Wanamaker’s department store in Herald Square in Manhattan), in search of a hostess/model for a 15-minute fashion program, sponsored by dress manufacturer Jay Jossel. After displaying the fine points of each outfit, Mary Kay would make a quick change as a short film was shown. But Jossel eventually realized that most TVs at the time were situated in bars, whose clientele were not very receptive to watching fashion shows on the tube. Jossel was about to give up his sponsorship of the time slot when Johnny asked if he could take it over to try a radio-style situation comedy show, starring himself and Mary Kay. Jossel agreed.

On November 18, 1947, Mary Kay and Johnny premiered. Johnny wrote each episode, but he was the first to admit that he was not a professional writer. However, by adapting the couple’s real-life experiences living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village into comic plotlines, he brought a realistic, natural feel to the show. The fictional version of Mary Kay was a perky, enthusiastic screwball, with Johnny as a strait-laced bank teller having to get her out of various minor crises from week to week.

Johnny became the de facto producer/director as well as sole writer, literally calling the shots from the control room on the air. When he was on camera, a technical director sat at the control board to switch shots between the two studio cameras. And, due to the shoestring budget, the furniture for the set consisted of pieces borrowed from Wanamaker’s window displays.

After the show had been on for half a year, Mary Kay became pregnant with the couple’s first child, so Johnny simply wrote it into their scripts, making her the first pregnant female character in TV history. And, while it is often mentioned how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy had to sleep in separate beds, Mary Kay and Johnny shared a bed on the show–three years before I Love Lucy debuted–and yet our civilization managed to keep from crumbling to the ground.

A new sponsor and a switch to NBC brought a bigger budget to the show, which found a new home at the Rockefeller Center studios. It also expanded to a half-hour, and while Johnny was aided by a small writing staff, he found that only he could capture the couple’s real-life stories just right for the show. The writing chores became strenuous for him, but he was also able to call upon many of his actor friends to take supporting roles on the show, including Jack Gilford, James Whitmore, and Howard Morris, soon to become one of Sid Caesar’s comic foils.

The Stearns’ son, Christopher, was born on December 19, 1949, only a half-hour before airtime, for which Johnny crafted an episode of himself pacing nervously in the hospital waiting room. Mary Kay missed only two episodes due to Christopher’s birth, and even the baby appeared in his first episode when he was less than two weeks old.

The program continued to make changes in time slots, networks, and running time, until it finally ended its run in March of 1950, mostly due to Johnny’s exhaustion. He and Mary Kay remained married a total of fifty-five years, until his death in 2001.

Mary Kay and Johnny interviewed in 1999.

The first several months of Mary Kay and Johnny were recorded on kinescopes, but in 1975, the vast majority of all DuMont programs were destroyed–dumped into the East River–to make room in the storage warehouse of DuMont’s corporate successor, Metromedia. A single complete episode of the program still exists today, at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles–a most unfortunate fate for a program of such historic significance.

You can learn still more about the show and the DuMont network in my book For the First Time on Television, available at its publisher’s web site, www.BearManorMedia.com, and Amazon.com (if prodded, I might be convinced to do a future post about the DuMont network and its brief but fascinating history).

Until next week…