Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing a seldom-seen episode of the single-season classic I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (1962-1963, ABC), a multi-camera favorite that was created by the great Leonard Stern (The Honeymooners, The Phil Silvers Show, Get Smart, He & She, McMillan & Wife) and starred The Addams Family‘s John Astin with funnyman Marty Ingels as a pair of carpenter best friends, always finding themselves in slapstick shenanigans and often to the amused chagrin of Astin’s TV wife, played by future I Dream Of Jeannie co-star Emmaline Henry. You may be aware of this series, courtesy of a 2012 DVD release that contains 16 offerings: the first half of the 32-episode run. (That the entire series wasn’t made available, and probably won’t be made available, is one of the saddest TV-on-DVD tragedies.)
The show — which featured recurring support from David Ketchum, Henry Beckman, Frank De Vol, and Noam Pitlik as the main duo’s work chums — became a Friday night favorite for lovers of physical comedy, as the antics of the well-cast central leads were likened to classic bits performed by great silent film legends. More accurately, however, their beautifully crafted routines were reminiscent of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney’s work on The Honeymooners, on which creator Stern had been a key contributor. In fact, there are quite a few similarities between these two series, both grounded by a central friendship between goofy screwballs, one constantly aggravated (Astin/Gleason), the other constantly aggravating (Ingels/Carney), whose hijinks together — most of them involving slapstick — inspire the episodic stories. If anything, Stern only refined the format for I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster by A) having the two men be coworkers, making it easier to pair them in plot, and B) dropping one of the wives, allowing for another distinction between the two characters: one is a somewhat settled married man, and the other a swinging, carefree bachelor… which provides more conflict.
Other frequent writers included long-time Sid Caesar vet Mel Tolkin, along with Don Hinkley, Stern’s pal from The Steve Allen Show, and Jerry Davis, future producer of Bewitched, That Girl, and The Odd Couple (not to mention Stern’s The Good Guys). But the show truly belonged to Stern, who seemed to count it as the favorite of his short-lived classics — it was the first he sought to get released, right before his unfortunate passing in 2011 — and so the comparisons to his earlier work, specifically The Honeymooners, hold extra water. And to that point, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster also shares flaws with that series — namely, a weakened emphasis on character, for they’re in deference to the funny idea, or rather, the weekly slapstick moments that define the series’ creative reason for being. To wit, this isn’t a venue for character in the same way that other physically-laden shows like I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show (to which this series is sometimes compared, erroneously) also managed to be. And it certainly doesn’t have the MTM-esque humanity that other scribes would help impart to Stern’s future efforts, like my beloved He & She and even The Governor And J.J. after that… Nevertheless, I’d say this show is a step in the right direction, with more believable and emotionally rich regulars than The Honeymooners, and indeed, I think that’s also a credit to the performers, who can do more than just pratfalls; they make you care about them and their relationship, too.
So, I wish I was able to make a list of favorites. But with only half the series currently available, I can’t. Oh, sure, I could mention funny half-hours like “Nurse Dickens,” “Part-Time Friend,” “The Acting Game,” “The Toupee Story,” and “How Not To Succeed In Business,” while saying that the best episode, BY FAR, is “The Joke,” which was broadcast on December 7, 1962, written by Stern, Hinkley, and Tolkin, and concerns a violent debate over whether or not a joke is funny. (Such a simple premise — the story is credited to Fred Freeman and a young Garry Marshall!) But I don’t know how they stack up against the run’s latter half, which includes “Table Tennis, Anyone?” — an entry one critic compared to Lucy’s “Job Switching” and Silvers’ “The Court Martial.” My hunch is that’s likely hyperbolic (see a clip here), but I’m sure it’s great, and underscores how impossible it is to make a solid, significant study of only half a series… However, I have a few unreleased outings, and I want to share one here: the last original entry, “Hotel Fenster,” in which Fenster finds himself playing host to a bunch of stray friends. It was first broadcast by ABC on May 10, 1963, written by Jerry Davis and Mel Diamond, and directed by Leonard Stern. Enjoy!
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for Danny Thomas!