HE & SHE Turns 50: Why I Love the Single-Season ’60s Gem

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s entry, we’re celebrating the classic single-season sitcom He & She, which debuted on CBS 50 years ago tonight on September 6th, 1967. Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of this forgotten multi-camera gem, as I’ve blogged about the show three times already – and shared my selections for the series’ best episodes. But the most recent He & She post was over three years ago, and just as this blog has chronicled my progression through television’s history, it’s also chronicled my growth as an author and a TV lover. So, in honor of its golden anniversary, I want to give this show the treatment now customarily afforded to all sitcoms seen here (i.e. a lengthier look). Specifically, I want to discuss why I love He & She, and then by extension, why I think it didn’t succeed – with some commentary and historical analysis along the way. (Of course, for more on He & She and its individual episodes, check out our other posts! And please watch the videos below.)

To refresh your memories: He & She stars real-life marrieds Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss as Dick and Paula Hollister. He’s a wry cartoonist and she’s a big-hearted tourist aide at the airport. They live in New York City and their best friends include egotistical Oscar North (Jack Cassidy), star of the TV adaptation of Dick’s cartoon, “Jetman,” kindly Harry Zarakartos (Kenneth Mars), a firefighter who works in the building next door (and literally adjacent to the Hollisters’ window), and bumbling Andrew Hummel (Hamilton Camp), an elderly handyman who seems to do more damage to the building than he does repairs. Produced by Talent Associates in conjunction with CBS, He & She was sponsored by both General Foods and Lever Brothers, and scheduled on CBS at 9:30 on Wednesday nights, following Green Acres and preceding a single-season Western called Dundee And The Culhane. After its first year of 26 episodes, He & She was cancelled due, without question and as usual, to unsatisfactory ratings. However, the series went on to earn five Emmy nominations – winning one for writing. In fact, CBS’s then Senior Programming VP Mike Dann reportedly called He & She “the best show I ever cancelled,” and future network president Robert Wood (the man who’s often blamed for the perhaps erroneously labeled “Rural Purge” – discussed at length here during a post on My World And Welcome To It) thought so much of He & She that he scheduled reruns of it in the summer of 1970, hoping to prepare audiences for his upcoming shift towards “relevance” (by way of classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and eventually, All In The Family).

Today, critical commentary often can’t avoid the cliché of calling He & She “ahead of its time”; I myself have been guilty of this somewhat lazy thinking in the past, especially because there are legitimate connections here with the best-written comedy of the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and they deserve to be discussed. Also, these associations appear valid because He & She was said to represent the kind of series of which Bob Wood wished he’d had more in 1970, making it symbolic of CBS’s future direction. However, I now think that aesthetically pairing this show, solely and with too great an emphasis, to works that came later isn’t an accurate interpretation of its own particular qualities – for this ignores some of its key charms and attempts to ascribe a surface explanation for its failure. Rather, the most truthful way I know to define this series is by its liminality – caught between the broad, wacky, silliness that typifies the best sitcoms of the middle ‘60s and the realistic, relatable, humanness that’s projected by the best sitcoms of the early ‘70s. You see, He & She is as much 1965 as it is 1970; it’s as much a prototype for the ‘70s sitcom as it is a maturation of the ‘60s’. But this is an odd place to be. While the ongoing evolution of style within American television comedy has generally been fluid for the past 70 years, there’s never been a break so drastic as the one represented somewhere in the half-decade between, say, 1967 and 1972, when escapism bowed to realism.

He & She arose near the start of this period of upheaval, and we can certainly look to the show as representing an early rung on a very tall ladder for CBS – taking us from fare like Green Acres to something topically radical like All In The Family. That is, He & She could figuratively exist on a timeline that represents the top network’s journey from pure escapism to material better reflective of then-contemporary life — and also with a more admittedly urban point-of-view. However, if He & She can indeed be seen as the premature sign of a programming revolution, it’d nevertheless still be a stretch to consider this show a ‘70s sitcom that premiered in ’67, for simply, it’s not there yet. (Beat. I’m going to assume that you’ve seen this series before. If you haven’t, scroll down to the full-length episode featured below. It’ll aid your understanding of the forthcoming commentary.) Contrary to what you may have heard, I think a fresher study will find that He & She‘s scripts constantly reinforce, with varying degrees of explicitness, the parts of its identity that are more commonly found in other ’60s comedies (and not in the harsher, bleaker, early ‘70s) — specifically, the decade’s two big S’s: slapstick and sweetness. (Again, see the clips below.) We can’t, therefore, separate He & She from the decade of which it actually sprung. However, true to the liminal moniker, these “’60s” qualities also stand alongside a directive to motivate its humor through believable, identifiable characterizations – and again, within an urban world. Frankly, this is why I appreciate He & She; it’s one of the very few sitcoms where the ‘60s and ‘70s genuinely collide. More on this in a bit…

First, why is there a natural inclination to remove He & She from 1967, when it actually premiered? I think part of this feeling of displacement arises because the show simply doesn’t look like the hits of ’67-’68, corroborating only some of what comes to mind when we think of the era’s best. As an illustration, let’s compare the series with the four sitcoms that made the year’s Top Ten. 1) He & She does not resemble the rural The Andy Griffith Show and its character-y, folksy humor. Although similarly character-driven, this is a city show that seeks louder laughs. 2) It’s not the uproarious The Lucy Show (the only multi-cam in the Top 30), with its star-focused physical centerpieces. Although multi-cam and laugh-wanting, this show caters to no star and seldom treats slapstick as the pièce de résistance. 3) It’s not the cartoonish Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., with its amiable distractions from harsh truths. Although amiable and not harsh, this show does seek truth (and usually via character). And 4) It’s not the sweet Family Affair, with its triumph of domestic warmth. Although there’s room for warmth and sweetness, this is an adult show about working people whose idea of domesticity involves two jobs and no kids. So, while we can find individual shared traits in character, humor, attitude, and warmth, He & She still does not physically resemble any of these hits. Nor is it like the Holy Henning Trinity of rural hijinks, on which our collective conscious fixates when discussing ‘60s sitcoms…

You know, I think we can do a better job of connecting He & She to 1967 by looking outside the Top 30. First, let’s note that the show’s pronounced modern (and urban) slant isn’t new to the decade – even if the biggest hits don’t tell the story. Actually, if we turn our gaze away from the top-rated CBS, we see that both NBC and ABC had made plays throughout the decade for the younger, city-based demo (which CBS eventually claimed to court under Wood). Just examine some of the new comedies from the season prior, 1966-’67. NBC programmed both Hey, Landlord! (discussed here in 2014), a Garry Marshall sitcom (and rare multi-cam) about two bachelor roommates in NYC, and Occasional Wife (coming up here in December), a farce from former Gilligan’s Island and Andy Griffith writers about a Manhattanite pair who pretends to be married. Both were goofy and only lasted a year, but they screamed of cosmopolitan youth — as did two of ABC’s new contributions, Love On A Rooftop, a sweet comedy from Bernard Slade and Harry Ackerman (who shared a credit in Bewitched) about newlyweds in San Francisco (I hope to discuss it eventually – I only have 23 of its 30 episodes right now), and this lot’s only renewal, That Girl (covered in 2014), which was created by Dick Van Dyke upstarts Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, and concerned a single aspiring actress who moves to New York City. (Incidentally, these four new comedies finished that season at #67, #64, #68, and #57, respectively. They weren’t popular and CBS counter-programmed the heck out of ’em.)

Although three of these four failed to earn a second year, and CBS wasn’t yet about to change its whole modus operandi for a Top 70 strategy, He & She actually can be viewed as the network deciding to dip its figurative toe into the pool of this “young, urban” trend. (Indeed, He & She was promoted as having such an appeal — this was a conscious move towards something new for CBS.) And it wasn’t the year’s only dipped toe. Aha — this is where one mini-trend collides with another, for ’67-’68 (a sparse year for sitcoms) contributed just six new comedies. Yet for the first time in a while, half were shot with multiple cameras in front of an audience. (The new single-cam entries were Accidental Family, The Second Hundred Years, and The Flying Nun — with only the last earning a renewal.) Although the ‘60s were always dominated by single-camera comedies, the multi-cam genre had heretofore been propped up by several classics – notably, Lucy, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke. However, by 1967, only The Lucy Show was around and using this technique – for the prior season’s sole new multi-cam offering was the disastrous Hey, Landlord! So, ’67-’68 saw an attempted resurgence of the style, which wouldn’t finally come back into fashion until 1972 (thanks to Mary, Archie, and an Odd Couple). But each of ’67’s three new multi-cams, structured this way intentionally, came from different places and had unique goals — united only by one big aim: becoming a ratings hit.

NBC’s new multi-cam was The Mothers-In-Law (covered here in 2014), the only one of these three to earn a second year after placing in the seasonal Top 40. It was executive produced by Desi Arnaz, created by Lucy’s veteran scribes (commonly and affectionately known as Bob and Madelyn), and starred former sitcom heavyweight Eve Arden. Many referred to it as “I Love Lucy without Lucy,” for its sense of humor, its storytelling, and its performances were analogous to the classic’s. It sought big laughs and often got them, but within stories that stretched credulity, seemed overly familiar, and didn’t always do right by the characters – especially because this was 1967, not 1951. However, NBC’s goal was to bolster its comedy game – only Get Smart had made the prior Top 40 – so, why not look to the makers of the most syndicated comedy in the world for help? It didn’t intend to skew young, for its goal was broader. CBS, on the other hand, was also banking on the past in the hopes of finding new success — but now with an eye towards the more youthful crowd. Still smarting over 1966’s early departure of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the wisest and most character-driven comedy of the 1960s (and the most anachronistic hit of the decade), the network attempted to reassemble those same ingredients. Persky and Denoff, Van Dyke vets (now from ABC’s trendy but not winning That Girl), put together a Reiner-like structure: split between young marrieds at home and in his office. But for the demos, they progressed the previous hit’s more retro (read: ‘50s) sensibilities (a kid, vaudevillian support, East Coast setting) to something more “modern” (no kids, younger support, West Coast setting) – and made the lead a Los Angeles radio disc jockey.

The show was Good Morning World (discussed here in 2014), but it wasn’t long for ours. With leads not comparable to the show’s it was trying to emulate, and writing without Carl Reiner’s genuinely human vision, the comedy touted as the next Dick Van Dyke, but with a younger-more-urban appeal, was a bust – not just by the numbers, but also by the critics. (In case you’re interested, Variety liked He & She and The Mothers-In-Law, but disliked Good Morning World. The L.A. Times only liked He & She. The New York Times disliked all three.) Ironically, it was the year’s third new multi-camera show, also from CBS, that would later earn more deserved comparisons to Van Dyke’s. Yes, that’s He & She, which is often referred to as the missing link between The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Accurate? Somewhat. First, let’s concede that the two titans are indeed broadly alike, for they’re both multi-cams that employ the work/home structure, share the presence of Mary Tyler Moore, and exist as their respective decade’s most character-driven properties. And despite the absence of Moore, He & She is one of the only candidates from between 1966 and 1970 that falls into a similar category. So, visually and with regard to merit, this seems an appropriate association. Also, He & She looks more like Dick Van Dyke than any other ’60s classic — they both feature a young, likable married couple performing better-than-good scripts. But does He & She progress traits found in Dick Van Dyke, moving the realism ball closer to MTM’s figurative goal post? Well, yes and no…

He & She certainly, like Carl Reiner’s work, seeks truth in character, but it’s comedically wackier than The Dick Van Dyke Show, which had been rooted in Reiner’s experiences (having written for Sid Caesar) and structurally resembled Sheldon Leonard’s realistic The Danny Thomas Show – all closer in temperament to the ‘50s than the ‘60s. In contrast, He & She is much more a ‘60s show, based on how we broadly define what the decade, at its core, offered: diversionary goofiness. In addition to the slapstick that most of the era’s comedies considered a must (including Van Dyke’s), there’s an accompanying ethereal whimsy that the otherwise reality-grounded Dick Van Dyke Show tended to avoid. You see, the latter tried to renew faith in the American Dream with feel-good, human, relatability; there were comedic lines it couldn’t breach, as certain ideas had to be validated within projectable truths. It was, you might say, the ultimate and most perfect embodiment of the prior decade’s domestic comedies — one could escape in its joy, if not its circumstance. He & She, meanwhile, was, to many, explaining a new dream (city-livin’, two incomes, no kids yet) for the CBS audience. Its existence had a slightly expository function — not based in such an established type — and in order to find a broad comedic connectibility (to be a CBS winner), the humor decided that it had to be bigger, too — just as in the era’s other hits. So, the series looked to its peers as comedic examples, and thus, it used more of the heightened charm we find elsewhere in the decade. Guffaw-seeking physical comedy? Check. Deflectionary optimism? Check. Purposeful sentiment (cued by syrupy music)? Check.

This is, clearly, a 1960s sitcom – or more accurately, a mid-‘60s sitcom – filled with banana peels and heart, and with an outlook that reinforces the era’s main escapist concerns, even if CBS wasn’t yet used to designing a show that so explicitly hoped to expand their base by attracting a demo younger and more metropolitan. To this point, while He & She seems between Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore with regard to its design and its laudable character-based aims, I also think it’s important to associate this series not with the ’60s by way of Van Dyke‘s, but with a peer that better symbolizes the decade’s mainstream; although Reiner’s masterpiece is also sublime and utterly human, its ’60s-affirming idealism stemmed less from modernity than from the brilliant comedic refinery of what was already familiar. He & She, in contrast, chose to look more directly at the changing times, and though a precedent was slowly being set (see: the ’66-’67 quartet mentioned above), this territory still hadn’t been broached successfully. (Of course, if anyone was going to make this a trend, it would be the #1 network…) So, the series turned to humor as a gap-bridging existence-justifier. But in doing so, it often broke from Van Dyke‘s comedic mold (itself better reflected in the otherwise mediocre and inferior Good Morning World, which used the same kind of stories but lacked the strong character definition).

Accordingly, when we’re looking at comedic style, it’d really be apt for us to aesthetically place He & She in the middle of Moore’s series and a ’60s piece more representative of the decade’s middle years: a classically kitschy, cartoony, wide-eyed comedy. Let’s use, for instance, Get Smart, whose premise also banked upon a modern-seeming sexiness, but mitigated this notion’s potential cultural threat with an equalizing inanity. Here, we might call He & She the missing link between Get Smart and Mary Tyler Moore. One is very of the ‘60s, with its distracting silliness, and the other is very of the ‘70s, with its revealing humanity. Together, they make He & She. Okay, naturally, He & She is not fantastical like Get Smart, but I think a gander at the pilot reveals the show sharing as much a comedic kinship with the rowdy Get Smart as it does the grounding Dick Van Dyke, for its sophisticated, urban appeal also belies the former’s giddy blending of realism and ridiculousness, where truth matters, but isn’t all – sometimes kooky things happen to people who respond mostly relatably. Of course, truth matters more on He & She than it does on Get Smart (or even the previous year’s similarly premised Love On A Rooftop, which shared a familiar design but came from folks who’d hopped over from Bewitched, where things were sweet and optimistic). He & She is slightly less idealistic — its telling nobly intends to prioritize human-to-human realism over comedic convenience, even if it thinks it needs the latter, too.

To wit, we call this show a “missing link” because these distractible Get Smart sensibilities are matched by those character-based truth-seeking elements that would go on to inform The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Nowhere is this evident duality more visible than when studying the histories of its core staff members. In fact, the reason I chose above to draw connections with Get Smart is that He & She’s creator, Leonard Stern, was the Executive Producer for Maxwell Smart’s first three seasons. (Note: Stern never wrote for Dick Van Dyke.) Although those eager to note the forthcoming MTM parallels might seem wont to downplay it, Stern was the primary conceptual force behind He & She, which he started to develop in 1964 as a property about a young couple who moves into her old Chicago brownstone (“it”). By 1967, this evolved into the premise with which we’re now familiar, the characters relocated to the splashier Manhattan, and the wacky intrusive presence (the “it”) became Jack Cassidy. He & She was and had always been Leonard Stern’s – not Arne Sultan’s; not Allan Burns’. I hammer this point here to halt the discussion surrounding this series’ perceived progressive nature. (Again, let’s not wrest He & She from 1967: five years after the launch of Henning’s rural dynasty, three years after The Munsters and The Addams Family were both Top 30 sensations, two years after Stern’s Get Smart debuted, a year after ABC decided to take a chance with That Girl, and the year Gilligan’s Island was cancelled when it didn’t make the Top 40. Keep it all in perspective.)

Having written in the ‘50s for The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show, Stern’s comedic basis was big laughs driven by big personalities – witnessed in another single-season gem from ’62-’63 that he created: the multi-cam charmer I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. These works tended to go broad (slapstick even!), but their worlds were relatable, and somewhat stark – optimism wouldn’t deny us a good, honest joke. However, Stern’s work became less realism-dependent as he adapted to the emerging rules of the ’60s, moving in 1965 to the future classic Get Smart, a veritable live-action cartoon that nevertheless tried to capitalize upon the country’s fascination with the modernity-based appeal of developing technology during the Cold War. (Then he created a few short-lived comedies like Run, Buddy, Run and The Hero, both of which embraced these similarly animated notions; they looked a bit “hipper” but were comedically in-formula for the decade.) So, coming onto He & She in ‘67, Stern was certainly bringing his learned ways of the ‘60s with him – only now he was able to go back to a more valid world and within the multi-camera format that he preferred. His deputy this time was Arne Sultan, a night club comic whose credits included writing for Steve Allen’s and Judy Garland’s shows. Sultan would go on in 1969 to co-create The Governor And J.J. with Stern and then worked on the first two years of Barney Miller. Interestingly, Sultan had previously written for Richard Benjamin on a 1966 Desilu pilot called My Lucky Penny, which in many ways also seemed to be young, mod, and urban.

Other He & She staff writers included Milt Rosen, who had spent most of his career thus far on variety shows while making freelance contributions to many sitcoms (like My Three Sons and The Flying Nun); the team of Allan Burns & Chris Hayward, who pitched what eventually became The Munsters and then created the legendary My Mother, The Car; and the team of Arnold Margolin & Jim Parker, who’d written for My Mother…, Hey, Landlord!, That Girl, and the seventh year of Andy Griffith. The show’s Associate Producer was David Davis, a familiar name who nevertheless was not credited for writing a single script. Now, as many of you read this list, I’m sure you’ve recognized the big MTM connections: both David Davis, who produced Moore’s series, Newhart’s ’70s series (more on that below), Rhoda, and then went on to become one of the co-creators of Taxi, and Allan Burns, who co-created and executive produced The Mary Tyler Moore Show (along with many other MTM offerings – some of which we’ll be highlighting next month; stay tuned…). Further MTM associations came via Treva Silverman, who is credited as providing the story for one episode, and He & She’s resident director Jay Sandrich, who had served in an assistant capacity on I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and then was a producer on the first year of Get Smart. This was his first staff job as the director – a position he’d hold again on Moore’s series.

As noted, these are all legitimate connections to MTM – as strong as those to any of the aforementioned ‘60s shows. But they’re simply more exciting to discuss, for if we recognize The Mary Tyler Moore Show as being the purest example of a character-driven comedy, then finding its staff director and its co-creator collaborating on a multi-cam reality-leaning sitcom with well-defined characters (including one who seems very similar to Ted Baxter – that’s Oscar North, of course) three years ahead of when we thought they first joined rank — well, it’s nothing short of miraculous! And indeed, in watching an episode of He & She – particularly from later in its life (see Hayward & Burns’ Emmy-winning script, produced in the middle of the series’ run, below; it’s a mediocre example of what we’re discussing, but a great sample of the series) – you’ll find tonal similarities with how the show plots its slightly off-kilter stories through the established personas that are motivating the biggest laughs. As a comedy that doesn’t condescend to its audience, is tailored for adults, and looks closer to the America that more 30-year-olds in the late ‘60s now knew (city life, two jobs, no tots, single bed, friends = family), He & She and Mary Tyler Moore belong to the same family tree that yielded character-driven honesty. And in this union, Allan Burns is the connecting branch, responsible for more of the text than anyone here other than his partner (Hayward, with whom he wrote ten scripts – no person/pair offered more) and the series’ guiding influence and architect, Leonard Stern, who touched every word.

Yet, just as Leonard Stern coupled his ‘60s Get Smart clowning with that solid character experience from the ‘50s, Allan Burns pairs the palpable humanity he’d illustrate at MTM in the ‘70s with the more ludicrously absurdist material with which he was associated in the ‘60s, specifically on My Mother, The Car. (It’s strange, but true: My Mother, The Car and The Mary Tyler Moore Show share a creator; He & She is Burns’ midway point between the two – his own personal missing link.) So, even when we look to Burns as supplying a healthy dose of some commendable MTM qualities, also remember that he came from My Mother, The Car – and this show exists in the middle of those two oppositional tentpoles. Nonetheless, in the world of zany ‘60s comedies, Get Smart is far smarter than My Mother, The Car, so when we’re discussing He & She’s situation between two different eras and their respective timbres, it makes more sense (and is more flattering) to draw comparisons from the former – especially because I think a big part of He & She’s charm is that it makes use of two wildly unalike styles and both of them uniquely add to the comedy. That is, while I revere Moore’s show and what MTM did for the sitcom’s use of character (which is closer to how I think the genre best functions) – and therefore delight in the shrewdness with which He & She also comes to craft its regulars – I’m also happy to find a series that revels in the laugh-wanting, pratfall-laden joy of a typical ‘60s classic. It’s because all of these elements are engaged that I think so highly of He & She.

As you likely know, I not only call He & She one of the best single-season sitcoms I’ve ever seen, but I regularly cite it as a distinguished gem. I love watching it, I love thinking about it, and I love talking about it. Heck, when it came time to make a list of ten favorite episodes, I went ahead and chose 12 – just to give the series some added honor that it had long been denied. (Today, I’d only choose ten – the first two highlighted would be Honorable Mentions, along with the held-over “What Do You Get For The Man Who Has Nothing?,” which I would emphasize as being the best of this close-to-the-list lot; I digress…) However, I’m also careful not to misrepresent the show. In the same way that I’m hesitant to make He & She’s ‘70s ties seem stronger than its ‘60s ties (because I think the very fact that it exists in between these two eras is the strongest symbol of it being of its time), I also want to qualify how the series makes use of these two regularly competing styles – often all at once, but not always in a perfect balance. Frankly, there are many episodes here that one could theoretically label as being either more “’60s” or more “’70s,” and just as He & She represents an evolution, the series evolves, too – beginning closer to a raucous ‘60s romp, before developing into a more ‘70s-seeming character piece. Yet, this curious trek comes in fits and starts, and isn’t a smooth, traceable run.

Pause. I know I have many reading this who love the sitcoms of the ‘60s. I do, too! (Little is more joyful than a good Gilligan’s Island.) However, He & She works better when it’s closer to a ‘70s show – when it drops the external, broad, comedic idea and focuses on how the characters and their relationships can provide the humor. The early episodes, in which Stern is more often explicitly credited, are gaggier and don’t play as well, relying more upon whimsical, sentimental, and leap-needing impulses. Now, I say this not only as someone who thinks the character-driven style of writing honed by MTM makes for more satisfying offerings, but also as someone who thinks Stern designed and intended his series to reside more in this latter (forward-thinking) vein. He didn’t hit that mark 26 times – and maybe not even once – but I believe he tried. So, when I say that I love He & She, I’m really saying that I love what it represents as much as I love what it is. I like that it’s moving towards the ‘70s, but is still so of the ‘60s. This combination is a relative novelty in a landscape that went from Petticoat Junction to The Mary Tyler Moore Show over a single summer. Those two are very different, so it’s no surprise that He & She, in engaging with these opposing styles, embodies a certain tension. In fact, this angst makes for a fresh arrangement in which an entry can have literate character-based patter within a big block comedy scene… But this isn’t easily calibratable. Thus, unlike most shows we label brilliant, He & She has its fair share of duds. It has illogical stories, in which we don’t believe the characters’ choices, and moments of unearned sentiment, which don’t find the needed humor in support. Also, the tonal liminality can be disorienting, for we don’t know what to expect.

Yet even so, the show, as a whole, is a noble experiment for 1967, when no other sitcom could honestly claim to be as simultaneously reflective of its era as it was creatively propulsive. This makes its moments of actual brilliance all the more victorious, signaling a whole genre of comedy – slapstick meets smarts, silly meets truth – that we were mostly denied in the late ‘60s, while the networks prolonged their inevitable shifts and were neutering possible dissenters (like Julia and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a uniquely rebellious, but stylistically contained, variety series that premiered on CBS in February ’67 and was cancelled in ’69, a year before the supposed start of the “Rural Purge”). The ladder climb from Green Acres to All In The Family could have been smoother – if only we’d had more He & Shes along the way. And that’s an amazing notion – warts and bumps and duds and all. (Side note: it should go without saying, but I’m also mad about the cast; Benjamin is a dryly excitable George Burns – a cross between Gracie’s husband and Dick York’s Darrin Stephens — and Prentiss is the most unique line-deliverer in the business. She makes jokes funny and exposition funnier. Meanwhile, the supporting cast of Cassidy, Mars, and Camp are an A-team of laugh-providers, adding humanity in the process.) So, I appreciate He & She because it’s imperfect. The series is a look at TV comedy in the tremulous 1967, and it’s a shame that audiences didn’t get to see more of this era’s inherent tension. Instead, they were given a whole lot of the successful, but fading, same ol’, same ol’ — mucho comfort, but spotty reflection — for a little while longer, anyway…

Speaking of audiences, I also promised to share why I think the series tanked. Low ratings will always be the honest answer – the show failed to make the year’s Top 40, which was usually the threshold for survival on the top-rated CBS. However, the reasons for He & She‘s poor numbers can be debated. Some say it didn’t belong in a block with Green Acres, as the two sought “different” viewers, or that it was hurt by the 10:00 Western, which did so poorly that it was pulled mid-season. Others blame its failure on the competition – particularly from ABC, which aired a weekly movie that, on many nights (especially in the season’s first half), won its two-hour slot, even with CBS’s Green Acres finishing the year as the season’s #15 most watched. (This means that the shows after Green Acres were behind ABC’s time slot victory.) But there are some misconceptions about the numbers that I, having scoured Variety for data, can end – the first being that He & She was a coastal series that didn’t play well in the heartland. No, my research indicates that it did about as well in New York City as it did anywhere else. So, there wasn’t a specific regional appeal. Also, the argument that the show flopped out-of-the-gate and never fully recovered is only half-true. In the first weeks of the new season (in September and October ’67), He & She made the Top 40 – which means it had an okay first few showings. While it would indeed fall out of this group by year’s end, a fair number of viewers tuned-in initially. This fact complicates the traditional narrative that claims the show only found an audience in the spring, after it didn’t make the new schedule, but before CBS officially released its option in May.

To this point, some say the show was held in limbo for a few extra months as insurance in case Doris Day’s new comedy fell out; others say it came down to He & She and the new Blondie (or, in another variant, Stern and Jack Rose’s The Good Guys); still, others claim CBS wanted to save it for midseason when something inevitably failed, but were hesitant to make a commitment. At any rate, He & She‘s fate was sealed in May (the month it won an Emmy) — although by February, when the competition was dwindling, ABC’s Movie wasn’t as hot, and He & She was only just starting to crack the weekly Top 25, many were already banking on a cancellation. In fact, by November ’67, the press was made aware of He & She’s tenuous position, even as it was still hovering around 40, for its shares were so low in relation to ABC’s Wednesday Movie: the only program in the 9:30 slot to earn above a 30 for the months of October-December ’67. (‘Twas bad news for He & She, whose Trendex share cut by more than half between weeks one and two, when ABC offered a new pic!) All of this is to note that He & She seems to have begun and concluded acceptably in the ratings, but suffered from an inability to win its time, which inevitably impacted its total standing, and first and foremost, made it (to CBS) a losing property. Why the heck didn’t the network move it to a better slot? Well, while CBS liked the show, it’s also a bit of a myth that it opened with rave reviews. As we’ve seen, He & She was well-received by Variety and the L.A. Times, but local publications were mixed – with many hating the slapstick frequently on display in the opening excursions. Also, TV Guide’s Cleveland Amory was not amused — calling it the season’s worst comedy. (In pilot test data, the biggest complaint was that Dick and Paula weren’t suitable for broad physical comedy.)

Remember, He & She was still a lot like its ‘60s contemporaries – especially in its first outings – and this very fact I think may have been a reason why, after opening in its initial weeks within the Top 40, it buckled under increased competition and was too weakened during the critical “deciding period,” mid-January, to look like a good Tiffany prospect. People did tune in… but then they tuned out. Perhaps it didn’t live up to the “new, modern” expectations that were set. Again, the series had been marketed as a shift for CBS – a sophisticated break from their usual rural fun and family-based warmth – designed for young urbanites and appearing to signal the demo-targeting to which all the networks paid lip-service in the ‘60s, before CBS finally seemed to start putting its money where its mouth was in 1970. But when viewers and critics turned on He & She and found Get Smart laughs in a Love On A Rooftop package, things weren’t as fresh as they seemed. Once the show did start to find its originality – I’d say the scripts began crackling with character comedy around November 1967 – ABC’s strategy with the movies was paying off, and it took several more months for word of mouth to return to He & She’s side (and even this only came after the season was starting to wind down, when the weekly competition was less steep). Therefore, I believe that because it debuted as more of a familiar ‘60s sitcom than a modern predictor of the ‘70s sitcom, with which we often liken it today, He & She — with its below-30 shares and a total ranking slowly being edged out of the Top 40 — looked like a disappointment in the fall and didn’t warrant a renewal from tough-minded CBS. It wasn’t that He & She was too comedically different from The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres; the problem was that it wasn’t different enough – at least, not as much as CBS promised.

But, of course, the show did become more different – and it became better, too. It became a truly character-focused and rewarding affair, just as most comedies do once they get a better handle on their players. Also, the writing started to supplant the fanciful frivolity of early excursions with more pressing humanity – even by way of some unearned schlocky ‘60s sentiment, which the series trotted out for a few weeks in an attempt to be like its peers. (Thankfully, this is jettisoned soon after.) By its final month, He & She actually started to look like a sitcom closer to the future – the laughs become broader and the energy is lighter than in an MTM or Norman Lear series, but the characters are in first position and the low-concept premise no longer has to be bolstered by crazy external stories: the kind initially used to create conflict between Dick and Paula, whose chemistry is so believable that the show quickly learns that contriving wedges to put between them doesn’t work very well; they function better as a team, and any drama must be honest and well-motivated. The narratives, then, become more relatable, and while most of their beats underscore a wonderful ‘60s charm (though more like That Girl‘s than Green Acres‘), the text is looking ahead, offering something genuinely different from the rest of CBS’s line-up. It’s finally the show that everyone remembers, and always intended, for it to be. The final five episodes, in particular, are relatively outstanding, and while it’s easy to love the show He & She was becoming – born of ’67 (no doubt about it), but cruising towards ’70 – I also, personally, love the journey: the bumpy ride we were denied actually seeing on most shows during television’s most transitional era.

If you can’t tell, I think He & She is fascinating, and before I close this valentine of an anniversary post, I just want to make clear a few more points. First, I don’t think being a “’70s sitcom” is inherently synonymous with quality, or that being a “’60’s sitcom” means comparative inferiority. Rather, I think the eras had oppositional outlooks when it came to their obligations to the audience, and they generally used their characters differently as a result. However, I also think that as the ‘60s progressed, its comedies didn’t grow in tandem, for they failed to balance their escapism with more of the truths that viewers so obviously craved – and while the decade’s shows were terrifically entertaining, the networks were still depriving their audiences of comedic variety and intellectual honesty. For this reason, it’s much more exciting and satisfying to see He & She adopt more of these “’70s traits.” Second, I want to reinforce the strength of the cast, and note that Jack Cassidy, whom many fans remember fondly (and love to point out as being Allan Burns’ inspiration for Ted Baxter; Cassidy also went on to play that character’s brother), appears in just (if my math is correct) 17 of the 26 shows – and only six from the final 13. Was he being phased out? It’s hard to say. Reviewers tended to adore him, for his comedy was the most immediately gratifying – he was the largest character – but Stern says the network fretted about Oscar’s dubious sexuality, which some interpreted to be queer. I think this is a lot of over-analytical hysteria, but it’s interesting to wonder if the show was forced to use him less often… Whatever the case, while he’s always hilarious – and the best episodes, by design of the premise, feature him – the show is smart to put more of its faith in Dick and Paula, who are wonderfully real, relatable, and unique humans. I mean, Cassidy is funny, but they are He & She. (Of course, all three were nominated for their work at the 1968 Emmys.)

Lastly, I want to bring this back around to the subject of liminality. We used this “missing link” idea to analyze how He & She proved its ties to the ’60s, and then we looked at the genuine connections (in personnel and the principle of character-centricity) between this show and the flagship comedy in MTM’s enterprise, which premiered in 1970 right after Wood re-ran He & She. We left off with the idea that it might be somewhere in between Get Smart (not Dick Van Dyke, which looks more like He & She, but is too comedically removed from the rest of the ’60s to count) and the iconically ’70s The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I want to complicate this pithy notion by reminding us not to overdo the MTM comparisons. He & She does try to project what will become key MTM characteristics, and it also builds an ensemble of people who aren’t bound by blood. But the two structures are different, for Moore‘s nucleus is the leading lady herself, as she traverses between work and home. He & She‘s nucleus is the couple, and while we venture to both of their workplaces (his more than hers), the show resides in the domestic realm, for that’s where the pair meets. This design not only attaches the series to other trends from the mid-’60s, but also makes different the employable narratives — especially as it’s harder for He & She to assemble its entire ensemble. In this way, He & She more structurally resembles MTM’s second hit, The Bob Newhart Show, which could expand upon the company’s just-cultivated ensemble-around-a-star design by splitting its time between a modern husband-wife conceit and a new workplace comedy. This is closer to how He & She functions, but again, without the refinement that would come, from MTM, in the next decade. Thus, to end the “missing link” debate, I’ll call He & She the missing link between Get Smart and MTM’s philosophy-affirming The Bob Newhart Show. (Of course, my tongue rests partially in my cheek!)

So, as we conclude this entry on the show’s 50th anniversary, I want to reward my regular readers who’ve long known of my appreciation for this quirky, original, fun-to-discuss gem of a forgotten sitcom. If you’re interested in receiving digital copies of the last two episodes – among the show’s best installments (highlighted on my 2014 list) — please subscribe to this blog (if you haven’t already) and kindly comment below. Both entries are ideal representations of the solid character-based comedy of the ’70s meeting the naturally broader and more externally secured humor of the ’60s. (One silly episode happily guest stars Fernando Lamas, and the other operates with a farcically manic energy — but each also offers character-rooted delights, too.) I present them to you in honor of Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Jack Cassidy, Kenneth Mars, Hamilton Camp, Leonard Stern, Arne Sultan, Allan Burns, Chris Hayward, David Davis, Milt Rosen, Jim Parker, Arnold Margolin, and Jay Sandrich. They made beguiling television with He & She, bringing many of us, including yours truly, much joy. Hopefully one day we’ll all own pristine full-length copies of this fine, era-emblematic showcase. Till then, we’ll enjoy its rareness… along with our notions of what might have been, and what, for a little while, was.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for Newhart!

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