Why were so many of those TV people single?

Brian Keith’s character had no wife, although he had Mr. French to help with the kids.

I don’t mean the actors; I mean the characters they played.

Robert Ariail raised the question in a comment back on that post about the picture of all those CBS stars:

One more comment since you brought up Ernest T. It took me a while to realize this , but do you know why everyone in the Andy Griffith show was so happy? No one was married.

Excepting Otis , the town drunk and Clara( was that her name?) Bee’s friend who was a terrible gossip and we never even saw her husband.

Just sayin’…

Well, that got me going to where I thought I should turn my response into a separate post. So here goes…

The Ernest T. reference he mentions was this, which I posted in response to a video from Bill.

As a former Ernest T. impersonator, let me point out, Ernest T. wanted to be married. He wanted it more than anything. That was the whole point of sprucing himself up to go to Mrs. Wiley’s mixers. And it was his main motivation in other episodes. It’s even why he wanted a you-nee-form

That aside, you’re completely right — not so much that people were HAPPY because they weren’t married, but that they simply weren’t married. (I don’t think Clara was married, either, was she?)

And this went way, way beyond “The Andy Griffith Show.”

I remember that dawning on me at some point in the ’60s. It was noticeable. In the world in which I grew up, grownups were married. My parents, and the parents of pretty much everyone I knew, were married. Some of them may not have been on their first marriage, but they were married, generally speaking. It was like it was a rule. (At this point, someone will rush to point out that “that’s because you had a privileged upbringing!” Well, no. Kids today know a lot more grownups who aren’t married, and yes, it’s a phenomenon that goes up as you move down the economic scale. But I think it you look at demographics from the 50s and 60s, you’ll see it was far more the norm.)

And I think it was simply a matter of giving the writers of shows more to work with. An unmarried person is in a position for his (and as you’ll see, we’re talking mostly men) life to go in more different directions. The viewer can wonder, “Will Miss Ellie Walker be the one for Andy?” But no, along comes the nurse, Peggy, and of course later on, Helen Crump. And others briefly in between. It gave the writers more possibilities for plots.

Everybody on Gilligan’s Island was single except the Howells, and who cared about them? From the perspective of Boomers, they were absurdly old. You had Brian Keith on “Family Affair,” and the show that was actually called, “Bachelor Father,” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” And of course, it was “My Three Sons,” not “Our Three Sons.”

Yep, they were mostly men — if they were parents, and leading characters. Probably because the plight of the single mom was seen as sad — and of course even today, it’s more of a predictor of economic distress. If you wait to the 70s, you get “One Day at a Time,” which was sometimes funny, but even the title suggests a certain state of hardship. It took awhile to get to Murphy Brown. (Sure there were some earlier examples such as “The Ann Sothern Show,” and Lucille Ball’s efforts after Desi. But Ann Sothern was kinda before my time, and I have little memory of those later Lucy shows.)

Of course, all of the Clampetts — Jed, Granny, Ellie Mae and Jethro — were single, as was Miss Jane. Which was very important to the plots. From that same comedic universe, no one on “Petticoat Junction” was married, either. Not even Uncle Joe, who’s a movin’ kinda slow. Although with Kate Bradley, we did have a lead who was a single mom.)

Never mind comedy. Think about the leads of “The Rifleman,” or “Bonanza,” or any of the Warner Bros. Westerns. All single, near as I can recall (I’m not really familiar with some of those Warner Bros. shows). And that’s just one genre.

Speaking of Miss Ellie… Of course, there were  shows about married people. Elinor Donahue was the official older daughter on “Father Knows Best” and other shows like it. But I ask you, which was funnier: “The Donna Reed Show,” or “The Beverly Hillbillies?”

I rest my case. It was all about giving the writers more potential plots to work with…

Would Ellie be the one? As it turned out, no…

13 thoughts on “Why were so many of those TV people single?

      1. Bob Amundson

        A classic. Watched Heart perform “Stairway” at the Kennedy Center with Jason Bonham again today. Plant and Page had tears in their eyes.

    1. Barry

      She did have a son, – Gale or Gail. She mentioned him once and hinted that he stayed at home well into adulthood before moving out.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You have updated it, young fella!

      I was trying to keep it within the timeframe of “The Andy Griffith Show” — partly because that’s where we started, and partly because that’s when I remember first noticing the phenomenon, as a kid — but there’s no reason at all to have limited it.

      So thank you.

      And you know what you’ve done? You’ve tied three posts together — this one and the CBS picture one were already united, and now you’ve pulled in the “friends” one, as I cited “Seinfeld” as a show that was about young single friends.

      So… should my next post be related, or should I break out?…

  1. Rose

    Clara was widowed. She mentioned her late husband in the pickle episode. That’s one of my teen son’s favorite episodes so we’ve watched it over and over. And over.

  2. Barry


    If Andy Taylor had been married, Barney and his antics become extremely aggravating, rude, and downright creepy.. Since Andy was single, plot devices like double dates, jealousy, and messed up dates become entire shows.

  3. Norm Ivey

    Early 70s–Julia starring Diahann Carroll played a widowed mother. And there were the Partridges, of course.

    There were plenty of married couples as well. The Bunkers, Cunninghams, the Jeffersons, Good Times (Evans?), the Munsters and the Addamses, the Petrie’s and the Bradys.

    I think you’re probably right that it provided the writers with more options.

    During my time as an ELA teacher, I would read young adult novels with my students. In many of those books the parents are nonexistent or essentially background scenery. Seldom did they ever contribute to the main character’s growth during the story.

    Here’s a tidbit I heard years ago: if you are at least 40 years old and married to your first spouse, and your biological parents are both living and married to each other, you are in a group that includes less than 1% of the population.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      So you’re saying that, despite the extreme drop in my income that occurred in 2009, I’m in the 1 percent.


      As for those somewhat misleadingly named “Young Adult” novels — yes, you’d want to fade the adults to the background if you wanted to keep it interesting, for two reasons.

      First, because as I said earlier, there’s nothing less interesting to kids than grownups.

      Second, for the reason we’ve explored in this post: So the story can develop.

      There’s nothing more stabilizing to the life of a kid than the presence of both, married parents. Without them, more interesting things are more likely to happen. Mind you, I’m not saying better things. I just mean, things that can drive a plot…

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