Punk rock, dope, Disco Duck. The ’70s were a crazy time to be alive. That ’70s Show often covered real events, social trends, and cultural icons of the era, all through the lens of the Forman family and the gang of basement-dwelling misfits. Here are a few occasions on That ’70s Show when the real world showed through the smoky haze.
1. The Gas Crisis
During the early 1970s, an oil embargo made gasoline prices skyrocket to over 50 cents per gallon. Americans realized they were at the mercy of foreign oil producers, a situation referred to today as “That’s How It’s Always Been, Right?” In the pilot episode of That ’70s Show, Eric ends up getting the iconic 1969 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser as a result of what Kitty calls “The Gas Crisis.” Red has been forced to buy a Toyota to save fuel, but Eric is glad to get the old gas-guzzling Cruiser, even if it is a “pump- sucker.” Happily, that phrase did not survive the ’70s.
Running around naked—the norm for 90 percent of human prehistory—experienced a sudden resurgence as a fad in the 1970s. In 1974 there was even a streaker at the Academy Awards, where host David Niven joked about the man showing his “shortcomings.” On That ’70s Show, a visit from President Gerald Ford prompts the gang to give streaking a try. The show used a digitized Smiley Face to hide Topher Grace’s, uh, shortcomings, although for the record, it was a rather large Smiley Face.
The 1970s were a time of often shocking transformations and radically changing gender roles—and that’s just David Bowie. In 1973, 55 year-old male tennis star Bobby Riggs lost a “Battle of the Sexes” match to Billie Jean King. That ’70s Show tackled the growing feminist movement in the “Battle of the Sexists” episode. Donna consistently beat Eric in sports and games, leading Eric and his friends to question his masculinity. This was long before society realized that it’s not who wins the game, it’s who gets paid 30 percent more to play it.
Disco fever swept the country in the 1970s, creating a huge boom for suppliers of mirror balls, polyester suits, and tiny glass vials. By 1976, when the first season of That ’70s Show is set, the craze had even infiltrated heartland towns like Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the gang ventured to shake their groove things. By Season Eight — and by 1979 in real life — an anti-disco backlash had led to public burnings of disco records, lending the phrase “Disco Inferno” a literal meaning.
5. Gay Rights
In 1970s Wisconsin, leisure suits weren’t the only things that were kept in the closet. The modern Gay Pride movement took off during the ’70s, when the first Pride Day was celebrated in 1970 in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of the previous year. That first year, marches were held in New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. It took a while longer for Gay Pride to reach Point Place, Wisconsin. When Eric’s new lab partner, Buddy (played by a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) turns out to have a crush on him, Eric has to deal with something the actor’s fans would be totally fine with now.
6. The Pill
In the ’60s and ’70s, oral contraceptives — or simply “The Pill” — revolutionized sex. Amazingly, contraceptive pills were not available to unmarried women in all states until a 1972 Supreme Court decision. But after that and before the AIDS crisis hit in the ’80s, there existed a golden age of easy and worry-free sex. Of course, on sitcoms, nothing is ever easy or worry-free, especially sex. The episode “The Pill” is an exciting “whodunit,” at least in one sense of the term. The show spoofed parental fears of their daughters’ newfound sexual liberation with an old-timey instructional film with the double entendre title “Open for Business.”
In the world of video games, before anyone hit on the blatantly obvious idea of having two Italian plumbers as the protagonists, there was only Pong, where two upright lines did battle with a moving dot. Oh, it also went “boop.” This concept was too simpleminded even for Kelso, who takes it upon himself to improve Red’s Pong game and turns out to be something of a Pong savant. On the upside, nobody ever accused Pong video games of making kids violent, unless they lashed out from sheer boredom.
8. The Recession
The 1970s were a time of economic stagnation, hardship, and high unemployment… just like now, except in those days you sent a typed resume to the HR department (who were known as Personnel department) and two weeks later you received a typed rejection letter. In Season Two of That ’70s Show, Red loses the job at the plant where he had worked for years. Set adrift, Red joined a whole generation of guys who thought they would work a factory job all their lives, only to end up living in a Bruce Springsteen song.
9. CB Radio
In Season Two, Kelso put a CB radio in his van to meet hot chicks. In the ’70s, CB radio amazed people by allowing them to talk to each other in their vehicles. The technology was so impressive it hardly mattered that most of your conversations were with truckers on a 4-day amphetamine binge. Thanks to the hit 1975 song “Convoy,” the ’70s echoed with trucker CB slang like “Breaker, breaker,” “Bear in the air,” “10-4 Good buddy,” and other things that made modern texting abbreviations like LOL and OMG seem like Marcel Proust.
10. Cable TV
In the 1970s, deregulation of the cable TV industry lead to the rapid expansion of cable to ever-increasing numbers of subscribers. By the end of the decade cable reached over 16 million households. One of them was the household of Red Forman, who finally broke down in Season Six and got cable TV, which was promptly hijacked to the basement by Hyde. Once confined to a handful of broadcast stations, thanks to cable our nation now finally has an adequate supply of WWII documentaries, cooking shows, and airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.
11. Space Invaders
Most of the 1970s was the era of pinball with its silver ball, flippers, buzzers, bells, and lights a-flashing. But as the decade waned, change was in the air, and the age of video arcade games dawned with powerhouse shooting games like Space Invaders. During Season Four of That ’70s Show, Kelso was behind the curve, buying a stake in the pinball machine at The Hub. Fez turned the Bally tables on him by having the pinball machine replaced by a brand new Space Invaders game, which had just launched in 1978. And Space Invaders would continue to delight gamers for decades, at least until the release of the Adam Sandler vehicle Pixels in 2015.
In the era before television shows were streamed, downloaded, or DVR’d, they were watched on a device called a television. Then in the mid-70s, manufacturers introduced the first home video cassette recorders. This enabled viewers to watch the Tony Orlando & Dawn Rainbow Hour while recording Baa Baa Black Sheep (and yes, some sadist actually scheduled those two shows against each other on Tuesdays at 8 in 1976). That ’70s Show paid homage to this era in an episode where Red buys a Betamax videotape recorder. Beta was a doomed technology, beaten out by the technically inferior but better-marketed VHS. Red’s Betamax is undoubtedly in a landfill somewhere alongside his 8-track tape and Laser Disc players.
No, not like today’s marijuana, where you take a doctor’s note to a dispensary and vaporize a pinch of connoisseur cannabis that could incapacitate a herd of wildebeests. In the ’70s, pot was illegal, cheap, and you needed to smoke up a Dust Bowl-sized cloud to get a buzz. And back then, pot was treated just like it was treated in many states today —everybody was obviously smoking it, but it was technically taboo, so it was never mentioned. The gang sat in the famous “Circle” in a cloud of smoke every episode for eight seasons without explicitly saying what they were explicitly doing. Not until the finale of Season Seven did Red catch the kids, and even then it was never flat out stated what he caught them doing. Marijuana goes down as the biggest — and uncredited — star of That ’70s Show.