Mary Kay and Johnny – America’s First TV Sitcom

By Tabea Stöhr and Anne-Sophie Daffertshofer

For the past decades, sit­coms have been omnipresent in our every­day lives. On TV, in mag­a­zines, or on the Inter­net – it’s hard to escape the stars and sto­ry­lines of How I Met Your Moth­er, The Big Bang The­o­ry, or Two and a Half Men. But when did this phe­nom­e­non begin? That’s easy: On Novem­ber 18, 1947, Mary Kay and John­ny, the first sit­com ever broad­cast on Amer­i­can TV, pre­miered on DuMont Tele­vi­sion Net­work. Mary Kay and John­ny was a domes­tic sit­u­a­tion com­e­dy fol­low­ing the real life of new­ly­wed cou­ple Mary Kay and John­ny Stearns. By the time they start­ed the show they had been mar­ried for about one year. The plot focused on the cou­ple build­ing their life togeth­er in the Big Apple with John­ny work­ing at a bank and Mary Kay liv­ing the life of a typ­i­cal house­wife in their Green­wich Vil­lage apart­ment. So what exact­ly made this show extraordinary?

Believe it or not, the first time a cou­ple shared a bed on tele­vi­sion was on this show. Even in lat­er, much bet­ter known sit­coms like I Love Lucy – which aired from Octo­ber 1951 until May 1957 – the pro­tag­o­nists were sleep­ing in sep­a­rate beds. Also, Mary Kay and John­ny was the first pro­gram show­ing a woman’s preg­nan­cy. When Mary Kay was expect­ing a baby in 1948 and her preg­nan­cy became impos­si­ble to hide, the pro­duc­er sim­ply added it to the script. On Decem­ber 31, 1948, their new­born son Christo­pher also became a char­ac­ter on the show.

Since 1926, there had been many very suc­cess­ful domes­tic come­dies on the radio, but Mary Kay and John­ny was the first pro­gram to bring this for­mat on TV. John­ny Stearns, who wrote the script, took great inspi­ra­tion from their own lives – such as Mary Kay get­ting stuck in an ele­va­tor – in order to cre­ate con­tent that peo­ple could eas­i­ly relate to.  Above all, it was Mary Kay who con­tributed to the show’s suc­cess. Her expe­ri­ences as a young moth­er – such as fuss­ing over her new­born son or encoun­ter­ing dif­fi­cul­ties in buy­ing the right baby car­riage – seem so sim­ple, yet accu­rate­ly cap­ture the charm­ing essence of the show.

But how pop­u­lar was Mary Kay and John­ny real­ly? Since mea­sur­ing TV rat­ings only start­ed in 1950, no num­bers exist to prove its pop­u­lar­i­ty. In order to find out how many peo­ple were actu­al­ly watch­ing, the show’s spon­sor, Anacin, came up with an idea which was quite sim­ple: They offered free pock­et mir­rors to the first 200 view­ers who con­tact­ed them. Instead of the 400 esti­mat­ed peo­ple, about 9.000 view­ers answered, there­by sur­pass­ing their expec­ta­tions by far and prov­ing that Mary Kay and John­ny was indeed a hit.

In the 21st cen­tu­ry, it is some­times hard to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between what is real and what is not. Although we don’t the exact ratio of what was script­ed and what was real, the fact that their son Christo­pher was added to the cast only a few weeks after his birth does give us some indi­ca­tion about the close con­nec­tion between their pri­vate lives and the show. Since the show end­ed due to Mary Kay’s sec­ond preg­nan­cy, it seems quite like­ly that Mary Kay and John­ny felt the bur­den of steadi­ly increas­ing pub­lic pres­sure. Mary Kay and John­ny not only influ­enced sit­coms in gen­er­al, but also a for­mat which has become immense­ly pop­u­lar in the past decades – real­i­ty shows.

For every­one who’s curi­ous about the real Mary Kay and John­ny Stearns, here’s an inter­view with them from 1999.

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Tabea Stöhr and Anne-Sophie Daf­fertshofer are two young Amer­i­can Stud­ies stu­dents, both in their fifth semes­ter in the bach­e­lor pro­gram at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty in Berlin. While Tabea has come to love Amer­i­can cul­ture dur­ing a year abroad on Long Island as an Au Pair, Anne-Sophie has cho­sen Amer­i­can Stud­ies as her major after she spent some time at the Amer­i­can Stud­ies cen­ters in Milan and Pas­sau. With their minors, Media Stud­ies and Art His­to­ry, they share a com­mon inter­est in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture as well as cul­tur­al his­to­ry and love to watch movies and TV shows or vis­it muse­ums and art galleries.