Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the second in a duo of entries (interrupted last week due to the passing of icon Mickey Rooney) highlighting the television comedy research that I conducted in Los Angeles over my Spring Break (five weeks ago). I spent one day at the West Coast branch of the Paley Center for Media, and one day at UCLA’s Cinema Archives. Two weeks ago, we covered shows I viewed that originally aired in the ’40s and ’50s. Today, we’re in the ’60s and ’70s!
01. He & She (1967-1968, CBS)
“Easy Way Out” (Aired: 12/20/67)
Back during the second week of my blog, I did a Wildcard post that highlighted this unjustly forgotten sitcom, which is probably the best single season comedy I’ve ever seen. I have syndicated copies of 25 of the 26 episodes in my personal collection, and was determined to see the missing episode (entitled “Easy Way Out,” which I’ve yet to own; if you have it, please let me know) at UCLA. A post on my favorite installments is coming to Sitcom Tuesday after the conclusion of our series on That Girl. Here’s a preview from that upcoming post: “Shot with multiple cameras in front of a live audience, television historians often cite the smartly written He & She as the missing link between The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). At a time when most sitcoms were shot with a single camera and centered around the silly, rural, or supernatural, the realistic He & She featured a sophisticated (and childless) working couple, played by real life marrieds Benjamin and Prentiss, as they went about their quirky lives amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City. Though a critical darling, He & She was an anachronism in the 1967 TV landscape, and unfortunately never found a sizable audience.”
The episode that I viewed concerns a poker game. No, not Dick’s, as the opening scene would lead us to believe, but Paula’s! She gathers weekly with Oscar, Harry, Murray Mouse (the accountant), and two other absent fellows for a little friendly betting. On this particular evening, Dick is giving a radio interview about Jetman, and innocently mentions that Paula is at home playing poker. Shortly thereafter, the cops raid the joint, and the cowardly Oscar flees the scene. The majority of the episode concerns the police’s attempts to track down the missing man, and the gang’s refusal to give away his identity. Oscar finally comes to his senses, sparing his friends from jail, and turns himself in under an alias, Oslo Nettleheimer — his birth name. But to spoil a bit of my upcoming post, this installment will not be making my list as one of the best. Simply, it’s a bit more story-heavy than most episodes of this series, with humor arising more from the situation than the characters. Also, a slight thread involving Dick’s mother (a way to give out exposition without directly giving it out) isn’t tied up — a sloppy lack of cohesion that is completely uncommon for this series. However, as with every episode of He & She, there are several laugh-out-loud moments (most involving Oscar’s vanity) and surprising script nuances (like Murray’s use of peppermint wafers in place of poker chips) that make the installment a joy to watch.
02. The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978, CBS)
Untitled Episode (Aired: 03/08/72)
This iconic variety series, which ran for eleven seasons on CBS, starred Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner (early seasons), Tim Conway (later seasons), Dick Van Dyke (briefly in the final year), and, of course, Carol Burnett. I did a post back in September on my favorite Family sketches, but I’ve not covered episodes as a whole. I have no intentions of doing so either, particularly because most of the installments have not been released. In fact, no episodes from the first five years (and this particular episode is from Season Five) are on DVD, and it’s not likely they will be. It’s truly unfortunate, because this series is probably (although arguably) the most respected and well remembered variety show of the ’70s. And it’s not just excellence in comedy, but excellence in music and dance as well.
I chose this particular fifth season episode for two reasons. First, the guests are Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, the stars of The Odd Couple (1970-1975, ABC), the complete series of which I received at Christmas (and will also be covered on Sitcom Tuesdays in August). Secondly, the episode purportedly featured a parody of the 1941 musical Lady In The Dark, which you can read about in one of my old Ripe for Revival posts on Musical Theatre Monday. Unfortunately, the take-off on this classic musical was anything but classic. Seeming more like a Joan Crawford movie than a parody of this brilliant and psychoanalytic musical play, the skit concerns Burnett’s visit to a psychiatrist (Korman), who tells her to become more assertive. So she blackmails her boss (Randall), takes over the company, and becomes a hard-as-nails career woman. She meets the richest man in the world (next to her), played by Klugman, who professes his love for her. Then Randall returns and professes his love for her. After a kissing contest, she chooses Klugman. Where’s the music? Where’s the dream sequences? Nowhere to be found. I was disappointed. The other sketch, in which Burnett’s old lady character, Stella Toddler, goes on a This Is Your Life takeoff, is a comedic improvement. But it’s the musical moments that shine. A short tribute to Broadway that consists of “Adelaide’s Lament” and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is pleasant, but Jack and Carol’s opening duet to his number from Gypsy (1959), “You’ll Never Get Away From Me” is the highlight of the installment.
03. The Don Rickles Show (1972, CBS)
“The Candidate” (Aired: 03/10/72)
Not to be confused with his earlier single season variety series, Don Rickles’ multi-camera (with a live audience) sitcom was saddled with a truly awful Friday night time slot, and was not renewed after its initial midseason run of 13 episodes. (Interestingly, the closing credits are layed over shots of the live studio audience.) Rickles played an advertising executive, and like The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS), stories were split between his work life and his home life — consisting of a wife (Louise Sorel) and daughter (
Joanie Erin Moran). As a fan of Rickles and his humor, I was very curious about this series, which seemed like it was unjustly given short shrift from the network.
The episode I chose to view (the Paley Center has several available for viewing) is the eighth aired, and involves a lampoon of Ronald Reagan — a Western actor looking to enter politics. Played with the perfect amount of smarminess by James Gregory, the political hopeful turns to Rickles’ character for help with his campaign. Unfortunately, unlike Reagan, the man turns out to be a sexist (pinching Don’s wife at dinner, and later inviting a couple of good time girls over for a liaison while his wife’s away) and a racist, who’s not only intolerable to Rickles’ hippie young co-worker, but to Rickles himself. The whole installment treads along predictably — we can tell from the moment he enters that he’s a lech, and at a certain point, it just becomes unfunny. But those are flaws in this particular installment, and the foundation for the series — stemming, naturally, from Rickles’ character — shows distinct possibilities. I would definitely need to see another episode (at least) to pass a more formal judgement on the series’ strengths and weaknesses, as this installment had little to do with Moran and Sorel. Must see more! Anybody remember this one? Comment below with what you thought of it!
04 & 05. The Corner Bar (1972-1973, ABC)
Another series that’s fascinated me for a while, I’ve described this series in the past (before having seen it) as the missing link between Duffy’s Tavern and Cheers. Naturally, the biggest thing that these three series have in common is their settings — a bar. But each one is heavily reflective of its time. While Duffy’s Tavern, of the ’40s and ’50s, has an intense focus on weekly celebrity guest stars, Cheers, from the ’80s and early ’90s, reinterprets the then-in-vogue ensemble comedies of the ’70s by putting a rare serialized spin on the characters and their developing relationships. On the other hand, The Corner Bar, which aired for two short summer seasons on ABC in 1972 and 1973, like most shows of this era, seems concerned with issues and social relevance. Shot multi-cam with a live audience, the ten episode first season starred Gabriel Dell as the bartender and owner of “Grant’s Tomb,” whose clientele included a bigoted cabbie, the requisite drunk, and one of television’s first regular gay characters. The staff included a Jewish waiter and a black cook. For the six episode second season that aired the following summer, only the cabbie, the drunk, and the waiter remained. In place of Dell, “Grant’s Tomb” was now co-owned by Frank and Mae, played by Eugene Roche and Anne Meara, and a new homosexual character — less flaming than the one prior — was introduced. With such a short run and an unexplained change in formats, it’s no surprise that this series never became well known. But how’s the writing?
“Harry And The Hoods” (Aired: 07/12/72)
The fourth episode of the first season, this mildly — very mildly — amusing installment does the Duffy’s Tavern bit by having a guest star. Here it’s Alan King (playing himself), who’s been called in by bartender Harry to threaten a pair of vandals that have damaged his window and are threatening more harm unless he pays them a monthly fee. The result is a takeoff of The Godfather, then popular and easily spoof-able. As I said above, it’s mildly amusing, though tired and predictable. Meanwhile, the ensemble, which we only get to see a little bit of here, seems to have some chemistry. Dell is an understated performer, and he brings a realistic energy to his scenes. Unfortunately, the gay character is rendered less believable — too stereotypical to be taken seriously. All in all, a mediocre episode.
“Mixed Doubles” (Aired: 08/17/73)
The third episode from the second season, I found this installment much more enjoyable. The premise of this one involves a group of teetotalers who have advertised in the newspaper that new members should join them all week at “Grant’s Tomb,” where they’ll meet and show drinkers how they can have a good time WITHOUT alcohol. New co-owner Mae leads the group into believing that the party of four is a table of swingers, and Frank arranges for a sting. But when the cops don’t show up, two of the regulars come to the rescue and disguise themselves to apprehend the perverts. Naturally, the couple they try to pick up are the undercover cops. There are more laughs and more surprises in this installment than in the one above, and while the ensemble pretty much has the same chemistry, I really enjoyed the performance of Anne Meara — who’s always tickled me. However, I’ve gathered that the few who actually do remember this series prefer the initial format, but I’d need to see more from both seasons before making up my mind.
06. Here We Go Again (1973, ABC)
“A Date With Judy” (Aired: 03/03/73)
This is the only series in today’s post that wasn’t filmed (or taped) in front of a live studio audience. However, I don’t think a change in setup could help this series, which starred Larry Hagman (in another attempted sitcom comeback) and aired for 13 episodes as a midseason replacement. Others in the cast included Diane Baker, Nita Talbot, and Dick Gautier. The premise is essentially that Hagman and Baker have gotten married — the second marriage for both — but are still haunted by the recurring presences of their exes. There are kids involved too (though the young ones were mercifully absent from the episode that I viewed).
In this particular installment, the seventh aired, Hagman’s ex-wife, played by the always amusing Nita Talbot, meets a man in a supermarket (while discussing laundry detergent) and begins dreaming of marriage. Baker is pleased because this may mean the end of the alimony payments, but Hagman is suspicious. For good reason: Talbot and Hagman soon learn that the man is already married. Uninspired plot, okay, but a lot of first seasons — even of successful series — feature tired stories. Now it comes down to the quality of the writing: Is it funny? Is it unique? The answer to both is a sadly negative. Talbot is the sarcastically peppy highlight of the series, which is otherwise filled with characters who lack definition and any source of comedy. Hagman and Baker are particularly blah, exactly the opposite of what is required of a series with a premise that’s supposedly progressive and decidedly adult. This was my biggest problem with what I viewed — uninteresting characters. And as my regular readers know, this is the death of situation comedy, which necessitates that stories arise from characters and their motivations. Folks at UCLA, you can skip this one.
07. Doc (1975-1976, CBS)
“Get Me To The Church” (Aired: 09/13/75)
I had secretly high hopes for this multi-cam (and live audience, of course, as they were back in vogue) MTM situation comedy that starred Barnard Hughes as an elderly general practitioner and featured Mary Wickes as his no-nonsense (it’s Mary Wickes, of course) nurse. Also in the cast were Elizabeth Wilson as his wife, and Judith Kahan as his grown daughter. The show ran a full first season to great reviews (sandwiched between The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Jeffersons), and was renewed for a brief second season. But a major change in formatting occurred, replacing most of the characters (Doc was now a widower), and switching the location to a seedy clinic. Only five episodes from the second season aired. I have no idea why the switch was made, and I’d have to see more than one episode to give a viable prediction.
The only episode I’ve seen — the one I screened at Paley — is the first aired episode following the pilot, and concerns Doc’s wife, Annie’s, attempts to get her husband to come to church with her. She resorts to trickery and contacts their reverend, who, instead of convincing Doc to resume his weekly visits to church, joins Doc and his gang for their weekly poker game. At the first game, the reverend cleans up, and Doc has no more money to put into the pot. So they make a deal — if the Father wins, Doc must regularly go to church AND confessional. Naturally, Doc loses the bet and is forced to keep his end of the bargain, which pleases his wife. The premise intrigued me, and that’s why I selected it for viewing. Indeed, the idea of wagering visits to church at a poker table is very humorous, and much of the interplay between Doc and the Father was enjoyable (although, maybe not hilarious). I didn’t see much of the supporting cast in this installment (Wickes included), but I did see plenty of Wilson as Doc’s wife, Annie. Like Suzanne Pleshette of The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978, CBS), she has a relaxed low-key persona that works well for believability and naturalness. Unfortunately, she lacks Pleshette’s slow but rewarding coming punch, making her an essentially humorless character. But since this is so early in the series’ run, I’d need to see more of her, just like I need to see more of this series. Anybody remember this one? Comment below with what you thought of it!
08 & 09. Fay (1975-1976, NBC)
This ten episode wonder, created by Susan Harris, can best and succinctly be described as a more liberal and mature rendition of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Lee Grant starred as Fay Stewart, a 43-year-old divorcee who left her husband and became a secretary at a San Francisco law office. Joe Silver starred as her ex-husband, Jack, and Audra Lindley (the future Mrs. Roper) played Fay’s neighbor and best friend, the modern-thinking Lillian. Other characters included Fay’s 23-year-old daughter and her new husband, Fay’s two bosses, and Fay’s black co-worker and friend. Fearful that the risque subject matter may alienate its audience, NBC reshuffled the intended airing order of the installments, putting the less controversial installments first. This turned out to be a mistake, as the series was off the air by the end of October due to low ratings. Grant, who insists that she learned of the cancellation by a stagehand, publicly criticized NBC and gave them the bird on The Tonight Show. Repeats, along with two previously unaired installments, aired that summer. For her work in these ten short episodes, Grant was nominated for an Emmy Award. Of all the shows I screened over Spring Break, this series impressed me the most.
“Mom’s Realization” (Aired: 09/18/75)
This episode, the third aired, features a visit from Fay’s mother, played by Lilia Skala, whose sole purpose for visiting is to reunite Fay with her ex-husband, Jack. There were several pretty exciting laugh-out-loud moments in this episode, but what impressed me most about the writing was the ways in which the script conformed to the types of things we’ve come to expect from similar stories (i.e. the clash between mother and daughter — not surprisingly given its creator, shades of The Golden Girls) while maintaining a freshness. Furthermore, the script paints the characters — adults — as wonderfully complex, giving them more realistic dialogue and personalities that are more than just two-dimensional placeholders. The anticipated reconciliation of Fay with her mother is a bit syrupy, but I forgive — the script was building to an ending like this, and it works.
“Not Another Mother’s Day” (Aired: 06/02/76)
The second Fay episode I screened was actually the final aired episode of the series. The plot concerns a fight between Fay’s daughter and son-in-law over whether they should start trying to have another baby right away, or if they should wait. (She wants to wait, he wants to start right away.) What worked about this episode, which, though certainly progressive for television, is not unlike some of the conversations had between Mike and Gloria on All In The Family, was its refusal to become too predictable. For instance, although Fay’s indirectly involved in the couple’s quarrel, she actually does a fairly good job of not taking sides, even though she does support her daughter and encourage an open discussion. What doesn’t work about this episode is Fay’s son-in-law Elliot, who is rendered too insensitive for the audience to support. Additionally, this episode was not as good as the one I previously watched. Too much of the kids, not enough of the adults. Still, though, I want to see more! Anybody remember this one? Comment below with what you thought of it!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!