Forty years ago, the National Broadcasting Company decided to try something new on Thursday nights: comedy. Coming out of the 1970s, the big three networks all pretty much showed the same kind of mass-appeal entertainment — family dramas, made-for-TV movies, variety hours, sitcoms, and, of course, cop shows. NBC, though, notably lagged in the comedy department.
CBS had a truckload of future classics on its schedule (All in the Family, One Day at a Time, Alice, The Jeffersons, M*A*S*H, etc.). ABC had gone from worst to first on the rocket ship of comedy, and by 1980 had three nights of top-rated comedy with Happy Days, Three’s Company, Taxi, Mork and Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and others. Third-place NBC had two of the biggest brands in comedy in Johnny Carson and SNL, but there were zero comedies on its prime-time schedule in 1977 and just two in 1978. That was the year Fred Silverman was lured away from ABC to try turning around NBC’s fortunes. Unfortunately, all he did was piss off Carson, the one person at NBC you did not piss off.
Before Silverman was shown the door, however, he tripled NBC’s sitcom stake from two to six, and had made a bold scheduling change. He moved his network’s only hit comedy, the Gary Coleman vehicle Diff’rent Strokes, from Wednesdays to Thursdays to serve as tentpole for a new two-hour comedy block. The man who replaced Silverman at NBC would turn Thursday nights into a money machine.
His name was Brandon Tartikoff, and he was just 32 when he took over the entertainment division. Less than two years later he picked up Cheers, moved Diff’rent Strokes to Saturdays, and propped his new show about a Boston bar where everyone knows your name into the middle of the Thursday-night tent.
Like the breakthrough cop show he'd championed — Hill Street Blues — Tartikoff’s taste in comedy ran ahead of the audience at first. Cheers finished well behind CBS’s Simon & Simon and ABC’s Too Close for Comfort. But one short year later, Tartikoff had assembled his first murderers’ row of comedies: The Cosby Show at 8. Family Ties at 8:30. Cheers at 9. Night Court at 9:30. And just like that, NBC was winning Thursdays.
Over the years the parts would change out, and some worked better than others, but what was truly amazing was how so much of what was dropped into that Thursday-night schedule turned into gold. A Different World, a Cosby Show spinoff starring Lisa Bonet, debuted at No. 1, one of just small a handful of shows ever to do that. Frasier was merely the most successful comedy spinoff of all time. Seinfeld went from the show nobody watched to the show everybody watched. Even Wings somehow developed a loyal following.
Then Warren Littlefield took over, and starting in 1994, NBC turned it up to eleven on Thursday nights. Friends. Mad About You. Will & Grace. Just Shoot Me. A little hospital drama called ER. Littlefield tried for years to replicate the magic of Friends and always fell short, but Caroline in the City, Suddenly Susan and Veronica’s Closet — all with female leads — did show some staying power.
By the early 2000s, though, you could see NBC’s interest in sitcoms waning. Donald Trump was given the 9 p.m. hour on Thursdays in 2004. When The Apprentice signed off for the season, America’s Got Talent signed on. NBC was still developing comedy hits, but on a lower order of magnitude. The Office, 30 Rock, and Scrubs were single-camera comedies that were geared to what network sales people called “key demographics,” though you and I know them as young white people.
Quirky sitcoms defined NBC for the next decade: The Office, Community, Parks And Rec. Then in 2014, NBC miscalculated with two new Thursday comedies that bombed, leaving Thursdays laugh-free for a time. But the ship righted again in 2016 when The Good Place, from Parks And Rec’s Mike Schur, was paired with Superstore, which was moved from Mondays. Now both of those are gone, with memorable finales.
Starting this week NBC is plugging the Superstore gap with the third-season premiere of Manifest, followed by SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime, an SVU spinoff that purports to crack a mob case every seven days (subject to COVID delays). And it feels like the passing of an era. Truth be told, “Thursdays is for comedy!” is a phrase that only made sense when the prime-time schedule was the go-to container for delivering TV shows to viewers. Then DVRs let us record a show on Thursday and watch it on on Sunday. Then came Hulu, and we could stream those shows years after the fact. Now, with NBC Universal rolling out its streaming service Peacock, the time is fast approaching when the company's shows are completely unmoored from nights of the week. Never say never, but March 25, 2021, might be the day NBC’s Thursday comedy tradition ended for good.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.