Temporary Employment: Some Thoughts on CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! I don’t have anything tangible to share with you this week (sorry), just some thoughts, for I want to go on record with a brief post about what is, from what I’ve seen, one of the finest short-lived sitcoms of the ’70s — a rare gem that proves the not-so-old adage “if you build it, they will come” to be contingent on where it’s built and how long you’re willing to wait. The title already spoiled it; I’m referring to Calucci’s Department (1973, CBS), an ensemble workplace multi-cam from playwrights Renée Taylor & Joseph Bologna (Lovers And Other Strangers). It starred Last Of The Red Hot Lovers’ James Coco as the eponymous Calucci, the harried supervisor of a New York City unemployment office and its misfit staff of civil servants, including the daffy Candice Azzara as his secretary girlfriend Shirley, along with an assortment of memorable players portrayed by José Pérez, Peggy Pope, Jack Fletcher, Bill Lazarus, Bernard Wexler, and Rosetta LeNoire. Unfortunately, the series was scheduled on Friday nights opposite the second most-watched show of the 1973-’74 season, Sanford And Son, and naturally got dismal ratings that led to a quick demise.

I had to bring up Calucci’s Department now as we’re discussing Barney Miller, for I see it, like the latter, as one of the ’70s’ first favorable modulations of the era’s character-driven and idea-driven divide, only with a unique flavor that’s less consciously connected to the MTM and Lear brands best defining this decade’s progression. And while its ethos is ultimately less real than Danny Arnold’s classic, it’s certainly more comedic, courtesy of a trade-off that deals with the way story is predicated: on its characters. You see, like Barney Miller, Calucci’s Department is a taped live audience multi-cam with an elevated theatricality and, given its unemployment office setting, many opportunities for topical jokes about the country’s politics, government bureaucracy, and the era’s social norms (reinforced by its diverse cast). It thus gets to take advantage of topicality as a source of humor because of Lear’s groundbreaking success, while also embracing the visual style All In The Family made popular. However, in a more pronounced break from Lear’s modus operandi, episodes are never about the anthological revolving door of topics — the claimants, the cases, the issues — they’re about the relationships between the generally well-defined regulars, who anchor plots based on choices they make and problems they have. Unlike the procedural Barney Miller then, Calucci’s Department’s storytelling is more in the MTM mold, where conflicts and jokes are motivated by, or at least tailored for, leads who exist in relation to each other, creating emotional realism via a consistency of behavior and a fidelity to basic logic, as opposed to Barney Miller’s more natural realism, where the leads have to avoid relational story constructs that would emphasize quirks even slightly beyond the norm. This design makes Calucci’s Department more conventional, but it also allows it to be comedically bolder, because laughs are coming from the same centralized place where our chief investment resides — the main characters — and that inherently breeds stronger reactions.

Additionally, as an ensemble workplace comedy that also goes back to Calucci’s home — where he lives with his intimidating Italian mother, played by Vera Lockwood — we see structural similarities both to Mary Tyler Moore and early Barney Miller, although Taylor & Bologna are further away from the MTM aesthetic, specifically, than Danny Arnold and Chris Hayward were. That is, the latter pair was entrenched in TV and had been around works and people associated with MTM, but the former was disconnected from all that, coming instead from the theatre, and indeed, Calucci’s Department was shot in New York, where it was produced by Ed Sullivan’s company in a bid to redirect some sitcom production back to the east coast. (There were several of these efforts in the ’70s — including The Corner Bar.) Appropriately, this locale and these scribes bring more of a stage play’s idea of theatricality, evidenced, for example, in a penchant for monologuing that — as with the unsold Paddy Chayefsky pilot we discussed a few years ago — is stylistic and not true-to-life like Barney Miller, but filled with such humanity that it’s not false, hitting relatable truths that are connectable and earned. For the most part, its characters are similarly great, even though not everyone is as immediately well-defined as, say, MTM’s leads. (It’s uneven; Perez’s, Pope’s, and Fletcher’s personas are clear, along with, naturally, Calucci and Shirley, who have a semi-serialized romance that builds throughout the brief run in an interesting forward-thinking way.) Also, Calucci’s mother occasionally veers into ethnic stereotypes that are broad and not buyable (both textually and in performance). But, to that point, I think, as with Barney Miller, Calucci’s home life would have probably been faded out over time, in tandem with more improved, motivated character work at the office.

Of course, time was the one thing Calucci’s Department never got, for CBS knew it had a good show here and deployed it on the suicide mission of taking on NBC’s #2 ranked Sanford And Son, another Lear-esque (or Yorkin, rather) sitcom that was at the peak of its powers during 1973-’74 and obviously a force with which to be reckoned. This went as expected, and almost immediately, there were a variety of explanations proposed as to why Calucci’s Department wasn’t making a dent in its rival — one of the most popular being that the premise/setting was depressing and/or unappealing because it dealt with hardship. But Sanford And Son takes place in the ghetto, MASH is set at a war hospital, and the leads on Calucci’s Department are in the same economic strata as All In The Family’s Bunkers. It was no harsher than those hits. Another argument is that the show was “too New York.” But that line of thinking suggests people first tuned in to see Calucci’s Department and then determined they didn’t like it, when actually that wasn’t the case — the series NEVER got above a 20 share, even upon its premiere, and this speaks to the enormous popularity of Sanford And Son, which, frankly, was warranted, for it was the most reliably funny sitcom on TV in the fall of 1973. I get it; I, too, wouldn’t want to give up a “sure bet” for an unknown quantity likely to disappear soon anyway. Apparently many affiliates who saw the unaired pilot felt the same, for Calucci’s Department suffered from a relatively low clearance rate, and many of the stations that did carry the program refused to do so opposite Sanford And Son. It’s for this reason, ultimately, that the show was doomed for last place in the annual Nielsens, for not everyone had access to the show, and many who did would have had to find it at odd, inconvenient times. (In fact, although 13 episodes were produced in addition to an unaired pilot, it’s unlikely that any market got to see all 13, for no one was scheduling the series with reliability, even when CBS offered post-cancellation reruns).

You’d think that a good show in a knowingly fatal predicament would have been moved around and given more of an opportunity to survive, especially with quality-seeker Fred Silverman at the helm, but as the famed programming executive told the New York Times (which ran an article — see here — about the series’ cancellation), Calucci’s Department was victim to a CBS schedule that was too hot to rearrange. In other words, he didn’t want to mess with success by putting any of their better-rated comedies in its place; instead, all he wanted to do was axe it, along with its not-strong-enough neighbor, Roll Out, and replace them with two new series that would hopefully do better: Dirty Sally and Good Times. (Both of those newbies got more clearances and did do better, particularly Good Times.) Accordingly, Calucci’s Department’s fate affirms just how much television has always been a numbers game, even when notions of “quality” are part of the PR strategy explaining programming decisions, for the truth is — to go back to the opening metaphor — people will only come to what you build if it’s in a good location and/or you give them time to make the journey, and CBS was very high-priced real estate then — remember, this was the year of the famed Saturday night lineup: All In The Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show — and there was, shall we say, a strict housing code, written by Nielsen and prohibiting patience. Now, I think this system rarely produces and then abandons great stuff, but based on everything I’ve found in research and what I’ve seen — which, admittedly, isn’t as much as I’d like; I’ve read the premiere (“Calucci’s Raison D’Être”), screened another (“Calucci Goes On A Diet”), and viewed clips of a few offerings that Azzara has posted on her YouTube — it looks as if Calucci’s Department was a character-driven show with the space for ’70s relevancy, and in a humanistic, theatrical style that offered big laughs and believable characters. Unlike Barney Miller though, it just never got a fighting chance, making its failure a failure of the system. And we were the ones who lost.

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Barney Miller!

10 thoughts on “Temporary Employment: Some Thoughts on CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT

  1. Jackson, hi.

    I would love the opportunity to sample the entire run from what you have written.

    I disagree though about your take on the unappealing premise. I will grant you that viewers will easily watch a sitcom about characters in a lower economic strata.

    Also, few viewers faced the possibility of ever working in a war hospital themselves, which gave “M*A*S*H” a buffer zone when watching.

    However, no matter your social standing, everybody can and does worry about one being out of work. Likewise, a lot of people have been out of a job through no fault of their own. Finally, the real economy was not on solid ground in 1973. Viewers may really not have wanted to watch a show set in a dilapidated unemployment office.

    Thanks

    Paul D.

    • Hi, Paul! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think it’s more likely that the *affiliates* feared audiences wouldn’t watch for the reasons you stated, hence the limited clearances and erratic local scheduling that doomed the show for failure.

      That is, CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT was actually no harsher than any of the aforementioned sitcoms, and if viewers had even watched it once, that would have been clear to most. Unfortunately, the chance to do so was never afforded to nearly 25% of CBS’ audience (not to mention another 15% who would have had to seek it out, because it wasn’t reliably scheduled). So, since affiliates were making that decision for viewers, and with only 60% of the network’s potential consumers having easy access to the show, can we really say the numbers were bad *because* people were staying away due to the setting? I don’t think so, and I use this clearance data — and the fact that contemporaneous sitcoms with similarly off-putting settings found success — as support for my position.

      Don’t just take it from me though; in addition to the linked VARIETY clipping about clearances in the essay, also check out the L.A. Times article, where there’s a succinct summation of CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT’s struggle: “The show had what the network calls ‘low clearance’ to such a degree that even if everybody else in America had suddenly switched from THE BRADY BUNCH and SANFORD AND SON, CALUCCI would still have had trouble making the Top 40.”

  2. I don’t think I ever saw this show, as Cub Scout meetings kept me that season even from THE BRADY BUNCH, but I remember seeing it heavily promoted on CBS that summer. “The Best Is Right Here…on CBS” (follow the bouncing ball). It looks like a funny show, but like LOTSA LUCK, it may have been too depressing, and as you pointed out, it had a rotten time slot anyway.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      From what I’ve seen, CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT is not as crass or pessimistic as LOTSA LUCK, and it’s much more dexterous with its comedy, largely thanks to more sincere, believable character work. But you’re right; they were both low-concept multi-cams shot on tape and centered around lower-middle class New Yorkers, anchored by round funny men. Several reviews at the time indeed compared them… only to recognize that there was no comparison. Take a look at this excerpt from my hometown paper (The Orlando Sentinel), regretting having made an association between the two shows: https://jacksonupperco.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/The_Orlando_Sentinel_Fri__Mar_22__1974_.jpg

  3. Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay! I absolutely adored “Calucci” when it aired. I was just a kid, but it felt so real and I loved the characters so much, I don’t think I ever missed a minute. I followed the cast’s careers for decades — Perez would be a memorable “Miami Vice” baddie; Azzara seemed to pop up everywhere but never got the gig she deserved; Pope would do a few “Barney Millers,” I think. What a gem. Wish we could see all eps again.

    • Hi, Diane! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Yes, much of this cast went on to other interesting sitcoms, even within the decade — Perez starred in ON THE ROCKS, Coco headlined THE DUMPLINGS, and Pope appeared on SOAP, as did Azzara (who also recurred briefly on RHODA and FAY). It’s a shame CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT wasn’t allowed to give them steady employment!

    • The article with Fred Silverman that I specifically reference and link in my essay is indeed from the New York Times. The “wake” for the show, which I didn’t reference but included for your viewing pleasure between paragraphs, is from the L.A. Times. Two separate pieces.

  4. Jackson, hi.

    Since the cast’s subsequent work has since come up, what kind of Gloria Bunker do you think Candace Azzara would have made?

    Unlike the other three young people in the two pilots, I do not see why she was found to be expendable. Could it have been those often cited ‘prior commitments’ instead?

    Thanks

    • Well, Azzara was in the second pilot commissioned by ABC, following an initial showing that the network found too harsh. Accordingly, she was cast to be gentler than her tougher, mouthier predecessor (Kelly Jean Peters), and she thus played the role with more wide-eyed naiveté. When Lear later sold the series on a 13-week commitment to CBS, he wanted some of the first pilot’s grit back, and since he was now plugging in Rob Reiner (whom he’d considered for Mike from the start), the idea was to not only find someone who could restore a bit of Gloria’s edge, but someone who also projected youth and inexperience. Sally Struthers, then coming off THE TIM CONWAY COMEDY HOUR, fit the bill.

      As for Azzara, I’m sure she could have been directed to play the part more like Lear intended in the CBS series, but I do think — and we can use CALUCCI’S DEPARTMENT as evidence — she’s typically sweeter than Struthers, who, even in the 1971 premiere, is an obvious fusion of the first two “little goils,” and more compelling as a result of this calibration (mirroring the character’s liminal position in the premise).

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