Short-Lived Sitcom Potpourri (VI)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m resurrecting our old Sitcom Potpourri template, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have the chance to highlight in full — offering drive-by commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode (or two) that I think best represents each series at large (based on what I’ve seen). Both this post and next week’s will feature shows affiliated with Get Smart, our current Tuesday focus…

 

GLYNIS (Sept 1963-Dec 1963, CBS)

Premise: A mystery writer solves crimes as research, to the chagrin of her lawyer husband.

Cast: Glynis Johns, Keith Andes, George Matthews

Creator/Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Leo Rifkin & Jerry Seelen, Arthur Julian

Thoughts: From I Love Lucy creator and temporary Get Smart producer Jess Oppenheimer comes this single-cam Desilu comedy that isn’t exactly a spoof (like Get Smart), but nevertheless uses its weekly crime-solving trappings to derive a similarly high-concept premise with laughs dependent on the format. Now, like Lucy, Glynis has a clear objective, but her narratives are more reliant on weekly externals — the high-concept murder/mystery/crime. So, while the focus of a typical Lucy is on how its character motivates Act II’s big comic climax, and basically every show works as long as there’s a fidelity to her established persona, Glynis is about putting its lead in the middle of some sort of crime — per the premise — and seeing how she helps save the day. This could work with the same regularity, if the lead was depicted in a way where the crimes and/or their resolutions were hinged, like Lucy’s antics, around either her personality (flaws, objectives, perspectives) or the givens of the show. But with so much time having to go into setting up the episodic externals — the premise-affirming plots — her character naturally is secondary, which means offerings remain situational, or hit-and-miss, and never as satisfying as they could be. That’s the problem with high-concept sitcoms that ignore character. It’s a shame too; daffy Johns and stoic Andes have good chemistry and can handle comedy (though slapstick isn’t their forte) — a simpler husband/wife show, like He & She, would have played better, allowing them to sink their teeth into more believable, well-defined roles.

Episode Count: 13 produced and broadcast + a pilot that aired on Vacation Playhouse 

Episodes Seen: Six: “Three Men In A Tub,” “Ten Cents A Dance,” “Keep It Cool,” “Mr. Butterworth Does It Himself,” “Agents Are Murder,” “This One Will Kill You”

Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Three Men In A Tub” (09/25/63)

Why: It’s the most comedically forceful of the six I’ve seen — I can understand why it was selected to air first as the official series premiere — with a guest appearance from Harvey Korman and a lot of slapstick that punctuates the plot and maybe suggests flaws/quirks for Glynis that could have defined her characterization (and inspired humor) going forward.

 

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF HENRY PHYFE (Jan 1966-May 1966, ABC)

Premise: A mild-mannered accountant is asked to assume the identity of a dead enemy agent.

Cast: Red Buttons, Fred Clark, Parley Baer, Zeme North, Marge Redmond

Creator/Writers: Luther Davis, Nat Perrin, Hannibal Coons & Harry Winkler, Leo Rifkin

Thoughts: Premiering a half-step behind Get Smart, Filmways’ Henry Phyfe seemed in early 1966 like a derivative copy, even though it had a radically different comic personality at its center (Red Buttons) and a more traditional high-concept sitcom premise at its fore — the dork masquerading as the suave spy — which textually acknowledges why its “secret agent” bumbles and is thus sans the superseding parodical intentions that limited Get Smart’s ability to make a clearer, more honest link between the characters and their stories. However, like all high-concept comedies, Phyfe’s weekly ideas matter most, so while this show had the capacity for creative longevity due to a healthier relationship with its lead — frankly, had it premiered a season earlier, I think it could have run several years at an okay quality — it still would have taken time for the characters to develop, and during its brief life, it simply wasn’t competitive with Get Smart, which had the more material-elevating Don Adams and funnier ideas that were immediately gratifying. Oh, Phyfe’s writers were no slouches… but they weren’t Leonard Stern, Buck Henry, and Mel Brooks. And on this type of show’s terms, that makes a huge difference.

Episode Count: 17 produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: Only six: “Phyfe On A Ferry,” “Whatever Happened To Yesterday,” “The Reluctant Lover,” “Phyfe’s First Felony,” “The Unfriendly Persuasion,” and “Jailbird Phyfe”

Key Episode (of Seen): #5: “The Reluctant Lover” (02/10/66)

Why: This entry utilizes the major contrasts between Phyfe and the secret agent whose identity he’s assuming to craft a comic scenario that gets its jollies by juxtaposing their personas. It’s therefore one of the more character-rooted offerings I’ve seen of this series and a sign of how Henry Phyfe might have been able to sustain itself with a decent run (if Get Smart never existed).

 

THE HERO (Sept 1966-Jan 1967, NBC)

Premise: A bumbling TV western star is the exact opposite of his heroic character in real life.

Cast: Richard Mulligan, Mariette Hartley, Victor French, Marc London, Bobby Horan

Creator/Writers: Leonard Stern, Arne Sultan, Don Hinkley, Sam Bobrick & Bill Idelson, Roswell Rogers

Thoughts: The success of Get Smart had Leonard Stern and Talent Associates hoping to riff on another ubiquitous ‘60s genre: the TV western. But in attempting to create the same comic irony enjoyed by their recent hit, The Hero makes the mistake of depicting its lead as competent at his job yet incompetent in real life, which is an amusing sketch-like idea but renders it impossible for said comic irony to be used in conflict, for unless his personal ineptitude actually affects his professional world (as Max’s does), then The Hero is really nothing more than a sitcom about a goofy husband/father who happens to work in TV. This requires the sort of low-concept character building (in both the text and the performances) that, minus the gratuitous western stuff, we saw on Dick Van Dyke. Unfortunately, though, that doesn’t exist on The Hero, which wants to merge Get Smart and Dick Van Dyke, but can’t reconcile the proper tone with the right understanding of its characters. He & She would also have a similar problem at first… until it became more realistic and then character-focused as its run progressed. Sadly, the high-concept (and single-cam) The Hero just doesn’t seem like it was evolving in that same direction.

Episode Count: 16 produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: “The Big Return Of Little Eddie” and “I Have A Friend”

Key Episode (of Seen): #14: “I Have A Friend” (12/15/66)

Why: I don’t have much to choose from here — but this outing at least employs the comic idea of its bumbling lead being a terrible singer (Mulligan, who’s less at ease on this show than he’d become on Soap, which displayed his talents more generously), and benefits from some guest work by Bernie Kopell, indicating this series’ association with Get Smart.

 

RUN, BUDDY, RUN (Sept 1966-Jan 1967, CBS)

Premise: An innocent man goes on the run from a mob boss determined to kill him.

Cast: Jack Sheldon, Bruce Gordon, Nicholas Georgiade, Gregg Palmer, Jim Connell

Creator/Writers: Leonard Stern, Jack Elinson, Norman Paul, Mel Tolkin & Ernest Chambers, William Raynor & Myles Wilder, Budd Grossman

Thoughts: Again, Stern and Talent Associates thought they could replicate Get Smart’s genre-spoofing success by setting their sights on another form — this time the “running man” drama, best embodied by The Fugitive and Run For Your Life. However, this is more dramatically confined than the spy world, so it’s even more sketch-like, with less to actually spoof, thus forcing — because of its intrinsically high-concept setup, which prioritizes the premise — a non-parodic (and uncomedic) adoption of the conventions of the genre we otherwise expect it to mock. And unlike Get Smart, which boasts the one-of-a-kind persona of Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart, Buddy has Jack Sheldon, who — though interesting — gives the show little with which to work comedically. Of course, that’s a two-way street, as scripts don’t take the time to help him cultivate a personality either, and in fact, given that the show’s design has the mob (as the active agent) chasing the star, Buddy (as the reactive agent), the characters more conducive to definition (and motivated comedy) are the bad guys… and I’m not sure that’s what either the series intended or the audience wants. Ultimately, then, this is a flawed, unsustainable premise for a weekly sitcom, and even if it could have had more comedic ideas than were displayed during its brief run, its dire character support would have likely prohibited long-term success.

Episode Count: 16 produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: Nine: “Steam Bath And Chicken Little,” “Win, Place, Or Die,” “The Death Of Buddy Overstreet,” “The Bank Holdup,” “Wild, Wild Wake,” “Down On The Farm,” “I Want A Piece Of That Boy,” “Grand Mexican Hotel,” and “Buddy Overstreet, Forgive Me”

Key Episode (of Seen): #15: “Buddy Overstreet, Forgive Me” (12/26/66)

Why: The penultimate episode inverts the series’ typical premise by having the mob boss finally accept the man he’s been chasing into his syndicate, switching up the relationship dynamics — in a way that actually puts the characters together more directly than they are at any other point in the run. This means we get to know them a little better via interactions, and there are more chances for earned laughs. Obviously, this couldn’t have been done every week, but it reveals what the series was fundamentally lacking — and why Get Smart was easily superior.

 

MR. TERRIFIC (Jan 1967-May 1967, CBS)

Premise: A mousy gas station attendant gets superpowers from a special pill.

Cast: Stephen Strimpell, Dick Gautier, Paul Smith, John McGiver

Creator/Writers: Budd Grossman, George Balzer & Hal Goodman & Al Gordon & Joel Kane, William Raynor & Myles Wilder

Thoughts: One of two superhero parodies that debuted in January 1967 (on the same night), Mr. Terrific was produced by occasional Get Smart contributor Budd Grossman and starred Hymie himself — Dick Gautier — as the lead’s best friend. But unlike Get Smart, and the below-mentioned Captain Nice, this show quickly moved away from satire as the primary source of its humor and instead focused, like Henry Phyfe, on a more traditional sitcom construct that put the comedic onus on it lead character, or at least, the idea of him: an incompetent goofball, who, contrary to Maxwell Smart, everyone recognizes as being unideal for his job (which means they’re all more emotionally sincere). However, once again, this is still a high-concept laffer, with an emphasis on ideas, and although it’s built with more of an opportunity for the central character to propel conflict, the basic plot elements are driving… which is why it’s unfortunate when the series seeks to differentiate itself from Captain Nice during its run and scripts actually begin to underplay the superhero angle, instead concocting familiar spy/CIA yarns with only a touch of the higher-concept supernatural shtick laid on top. This is even less satisfying than a normal high-concept comedy, for character is still subordinate to plot, but now the premise isn’t well-used either. Also, while there are some funny ideas — and the design allows Mr. Terrific to be more comedically active than Captain Nice — the inability to regularly marry story with both character and the concept leaves this series to become more disappointing as it goes along, undermining its premise instead of merely exhausting it.

Episode Count: 17 produced and broadcast + an unaired pilot.

Episodes Seen: All 17 + the unaired pilot.

Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #3: “I Can’t Fly” (01/23/67)

                                          Episode #5: “The Formula Is Stolen” (02/06/67)

Why: The third episode makes the best use of the series’ premise, while the fifth is the funniest, with a lot of responsibilities thrown to second banana Dick Gautier, who’s up to the task.

 

CAPTAIN NICE (Jan 1967-May 1967, NBC)

Premise: A police chemist mama’s boy drinks a secret formula that turns him into a superhero.

Cast: William Daniels, Alice Ghostley, Ann Prentiss, Liam Dunn, Bill Zuckert, Byron Foulger

Creator/Writers: Buck Henry, Peter Meyerson & Treva Silverman, Peggy Elliott & Ed Scharlach, Arne Sultan, Mike Marmer & Stan Burns, David Ketchum

Thoughts: Airing a half hour later than Mr. Terrific and on another network, Captain Nice was conceived by Get Smart co-creator Buck Henry, who left the latter during its second season to helm this series. As with the above, it’s a knowing spoof of a superhero show — and the camp-filled Batman, specifically. However, unlike Mr. Terrific, Captain Nice aims to satirize its genre more directly, à la Get Smart, finding the majority of its hahas from the comic irony of a caped crusader actually being a lame mama’s boy who still lives at home with his unseen father and overprotective mother, played by the hilarious Alice Ghostley. Speaking of which, Henry does a better job here of establishing amusing relationships that can motivate their own yuks (and story) — not only with Ghostley, but also with Ann Prentiss (sister of He & She’s Paula) as a potential love interest who’s much better defined than Agent 99. But alas, superhero shows were on the way out — Batman itself was already on the decline — and being that Captain Nice is a lampoon of a lampoon, this premise isn’t as comedically fresh as Get Smart’s. Plus, with a lead who has the emotional shallowness of Maxwell Smart (because Henry’s understanding of satire being both series’ main attractions prohibits their ensembles from being fully aware of any ineptitude), while lacking the rich comic persona of Don Adams, Captain Nice just isn’t set up for success in the same way as Get Smart, even with better support in its cast. (Incidentally, I also think it was a mistake to have Mama be “in” on the secret of Captain Nice’s identity; for the sake of comedic jeopardy, the series should have kept closer to Batman there.)

Episode Count: 15 produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: All 15.

Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “The Man Who Flies Like A Pigeon” (01/09/67)

                                        #14: “One Rotten Apple” (04/24/67)

Why: Buck Henry’s pilot establishes the premise and all the leads with a lot of laughs in the Get Smart vein, and the series’ penultimate episode (co-written by future Mary Tyler Moore scribe Treva Silverman) memorably guests the great Bob Newhart, who’s, well, as great as ever.

 

UltimatelyI say you should FORGET Glynis, The Hero, and Run, Buddy, Run; you should STUDY The Double Life Of Henry Phyfe, Mr. Terrific, and Captain Nice; and ENJOY, well, if nothing else, then the two episodes I have singled out as “key” from Captain Nice.

 

 

Come back next week for another potpourri! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Get Smart!