Uncle Arthur Plays House: A Look at THE PAUL LYNDE SHOW

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post looks at The Paul Lynde Show (1972-1973, ABC), a single season multi-camera sitcom that starred the one-of-a-kind comedian as a middle aged lawyer whose college aged daughter (Jane Actman) moved back home with her genius, but chronically unemployed, hippie husband Howie (John Calvin). Broadway leading lady Elizabeth Allen played Paul’s understanding wife and Pamelyn Ferdin, best known to TV fans as Edna Unger, played their 14-year-old daughter. The series began life as a CBS pilot in 1962, intended as a possible replacement for the likely-to-be canceled The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS). Based on the play Howie by Phoebe Ephron, the story, like the eventual series, revolved around a lawyer, Lynde, whose daughter married a loafer named Howie. When Van Dyke was saved, Howie was shelved indefinitely.

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Cut to 1972, when Elizabeth Montgomery and Bill Asher are splitting up and she refuses to continue on with another season of Bewitched (1964-1972), for which she and Asher were obligated. Asher’s solution was to create another hit that could take Bewitched‘s time slot. He decided to resurrect Lynde’s pilot, updating it considerably to both appeal to audiences of 1972 and sate ABC’s desire to have a hit along the lines of CBS’s All In The Family (1971-1979, CBS), which was the most watched show in the country. Bearing obvious similarities to Lear’s show, conflict and comedy in the new series was to be created from the generation gap and society’s changing social mores. But ABC wasn’t yet fully committed to programming as progressively, so Lynde’s show, which was more upscale and decidedly West Coast, couldn’t be as hard hitting or political. Instead, controversial issues had to be handled with kid gloves — lightheartedly and without serious commentary.

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The unflattering comparison to All In The Family plagued the series both during its primetime run and in later critiques. However, having seen 23 of the 26 produced episodes (I’m still missing three — “Whiz Kid Sizzles As Quiz Fizzles,” “No Nudes Is Good Nudes,”* and “Barbara Goes Home To Mother” — and would greatly appreciate any help in completing my collection), I am of the opinion that The Paul Lynde Show‘s laughs come from the reactions of Lynde to the world around him; thus, the comedic aims of both series are completely different, and I never found myself wishing that this series was more like Lear’s. Interestingly, the lighter generation gap angle is funnier than one might anticipate it to be, even though it is clearly not a strong enough premise to sustain a series. A lot of this is because of Howie and Barbara, neither of whom are very funny, and more importantly, neither of whom are fully realized characters. This is the biggest problem with the series: the only rich character is Lynde’s, and that’s undoubtedly hinged on the performer and not the role. He’s horribly funny, but nobody else — especially Allen as his wife, who RARELY gets a joke — can compare.

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But, as stated, the series has some big laughs, and almost every episode gives Lynde multiple opportunities to shine. And because of his distinct delivery, the show is quite often hilarious. So I’ve picked seven episodes that I want to highlight today as my favorites of the bunch. (They are in AIRING order.) Also note that the series was broadcast in color, but many of the episodes in circulation are black-and-white copies.

 

01) Episode 3: “The Landlord” (Aired: 09/27/72)

When Howie and Barbara move into the basement, Howie’s separated parents come to visit.

Written by S.A. Long | Directed by William Asher

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Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller make their first of several appearances as Howie’s separated parents, whom Paul hopes to reconcile (so he can get Howie and Barbara off his hands). They’re very funny in each of their three appearances, especially Meara, who gets more to do than her husband. Meanwhile, the script is sharp and provides a lot of good gags.

02) Episode 8: “To Wed Or Not To Wed” (Aired: 11/01/72)

Paul learns Howie and Barbara’s marriage is invalid, so they decide to remarry.

Written by Bud Grossman | Directed by Ernest Losso

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Of all the episodes I’ve seen, this episode probably makes most comedic use out of Howie and Barbara’s “hippie” values, as the pair decide to hold their second wedding (since the first one didn’t take) out in the pool in their back yard. It’s a totally unexpected, but hilarious, development. And once more, Meara and Stiller help make this one a real winner!

03) Episode 9: “Unsteady Going” (Aired: 11/08/72) 

Paul’s disapproval of Sally’s boyfriend leads her to stay out all night.

Written by Robert Fisher & Arthur Marx | Directed by Jack Donohue

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This is the only episode I’ve seen that gives a lot to Ferdin’s character, who is essentially a slightly nerdy, but typical teenager (despite being “flat chested”). But the script is loaded with laughs, and the comedic highlight occurs when Paul visits the dentist, who just happens to be his runaway daughter’s boyfriend’s dad. Another very funny episode.

04) Episode 12: “An Affair To Forget” (Aired: 12/06/72)

Paul and Martha get involved when their married friends have a spat.

Written by Robert Fisher & Arthur Marx | Directed by George Tyne

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One thing about this series: they managed to get some great guest stars! This episode boasts Joanne Worley and Roger Perry as the squabbling couple and Thelma Carpenter as their housekeeper/secretary. It’s a real hammy outing, with everyone giving BIG performances, but it’s all screamingly funny.

05) Episode 16: “The Bare Facts” (Aired: 01/03/73)

Paul is worried about his career when a nude painting of Barbara goes public.

Written by Robert Fisher & Arthur Marx | Directed by George Tyne

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The second episode to feature a premise involving nudity, this installment concerns a nude painting of Barbara (which by today’s standards would be tame) that ends up at the bar across from the courthouse. This threatens Paul’s potential appointment as president of the Bar Association. Given its funny premise, it’s probably one of the show’s most memorable.

06) Episode 18: “P.S. I Loathe You” (Aired: 01/17/73)

Paul’s nasty letter to his partner accidentally gets mailed, causing a rift in their friendship.

Written by Bob Carroll, Jr. & Madelyn Davis | Directed by Jack Donohue

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Although the episode boasts a routine premise, the funny script by two of Lucy’s best writers gives Lynde, James Gregory, and chronic TV barfly Dick Wilson the chance to do a wonderful drunk scene. Lynde is particularly fantastic, and this is one of his best showcases on this series. It’s a stale premise made fresh!

07) Episode 22: “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Your Mother-In-Law But Were Afraid To Ask” (Aired: 02/14/73)

Paul’s crippled mother-in-law drives him crazy during her extended visit.

Written by Robert Fisher & Arthur Marx | Directed by Coby Ruskin

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TV’s favorite mother-in-law makes her second of two consecutive appearances as Martha’s mother in this, probably the laugh-out-loud funniest episode of the season. In addition to great sparring by Lynde and Albertson, this episode also features another great bar scene with Wilson and Alan Hale, Jr. (Skipper!) as a drinking psychiatrist to whom Paul looks for advice.

 

Other episodes worth mentioning include “Pollution Solution,” in which the kids go protesting, “Martha’s Last Hurrah,” the second (of two) episodes featuring Charlotte Rae as Paul’s sister, “Paul’s Desperate Hour,” in which the idiot children knowingly bring a mugger home for dinner, “Is This Trip Necessary?” in which Mabel Albertson makes her first of two appearances as Martha’s mother, and “Back Talk,” in which Paul injures his back. They’re all five very funny episodes, and, like the ones in the list, if you have the chance to see them, take it!

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*Several days prior to this post being published (on Thursday, March 12), I had the pleasure of seeing one of the episodes I’m missing, “No Nudes Is Good Nudes,” at the UCLA Archives. Stay tuned next month for a Wildcard post detailing my thoughts on this episode and some of the other rarities I had the pleasure to screen during my visit!

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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7 thoughts on “Uncle Arthur Plays House: A Look at THE PAUL LYNDE SHOW

  1. Your writeup of this forgotten rarity did not mention the possibility that America just couldn’t accept the premise of the “flamboyant” Paul Lynde in the role of uptight family patriarch.
    Anyway, Paul Lynde seemingly made a guest appearance in virtually every sitcom that aired in the 1960s. For me, he was never better than as the IRS auditor in “I Dream of Jeannie” (“A Renoir …in Cocoa Beach?”). Pure comedy gold.

    • Hi Guy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      The unbelievability of Paul Lynde as the patriarch of an otherwise typical American family goes without saying. In fact, most of the online editorials I’ve found about this show make this a principal argument in their discussions about why it didn’t work.

      But I didn’t want to do that, because frankly, I found that to be the least of the series’ problems. For if the supporting cast wasn’t so underdeveloped and one-dimensional, Lynde’s humor (whether he was believable or not in the role) would have been enough to keep the show from being meretricious, and thus, more earnestly enjoyable.

  2. It seems here, based on what you say about the “kids” here, that Barbara & Howie are another underdeveloped young couple on 60s/70s tv, like Bridget & Bernie and Susie & Jerry. Are Gloria & MIke the only young couple on tv in this era, at least of those paired with older couples, who got full development on tv as characters? Maybe tv producers of that time, except Norman Lear, didn’t want kids to seem too wild.
    I’ve seen “Howie” on YouTube before, and rewatched a bit of it again last night. It’s funny that Paul Lynde was already playing a father-in-law when he was in his mid-30s, but then he’d almost done that in “Bye Bye Birdie”. Maybe he always seemed middle-aged, and considering that he eventually died at age 55, for him he was middle-aged at the time.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You make a good point that I hadn’t really thought about before. It does seem like “kids” in this era of television aren’t afforded the same type of multi-dimensionality as the adults — at least, in the shows we’ve covered here.

      I think THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW is an apt comparison, because the kids are nothing more than a device to bring the in-laws together. In THE PAUL LYNDE SHOW, it’s the same thing: the kids are a device to give Lynde (and only Lynde) something off of which to react. Both are essentially vehicles designed for stars, and only the stars are consistently given strong material (although a case could be made for Herb and Roger on the former).

      ALL IN THE FAMILY’s star was its material, and while the characters were designed to clash, they were all more than devices. I won’t pretend that Lear gave every issue fair play, but there was even character development and it was clearly a priority to keep them human and relatable. And I think it comes across as a more genuine ensemble than either of the shows mentioned above, which both delineate the adults and kids not only by attitudes, but also by the amount of coverage.

      However, I don’t think it’s an issue of “kids” specifically not being allowed equal play. It’s an issue common within star vehicles: the star gets a lot of great stuff, and everyone else supports (to varying degrees of success.). We see this in everything from THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW to THE PRACTICE.

      BRIDGET LOVES BERNIE is an entirely different entity. It’s another show where the premise is the star, except that the “kids” are supposed to be the anchor. But as the MTM shows so wonderfully illustrate, even the anchor has to be funny.

  3. Not sure if there are episodes to view or if the quality of the series is worth reviewing however as ABC added him on in a starring role after tis series. Temperatures Rising and “the New”2nd season would seem a perfect next step for a wildcard Wednesday

    • Hi, Bob! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I have considered doing a post about TEMPERATURE’S RISING (both incarnations), but have no plans to cover the series at this time. Stay tuned, however, because it’s definitely still a possibility!

  4. Pingback: Spring Break Research RECAP: 2015 (II) | THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!

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