Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (I now have a stockpile!)
Jay W Zahn says… I am following up with a conversation we had about The Odd Couple… Would CBS have put The Odd Couple on its 1970-71 schedule?
That would depend on whether The Odd Couple could have met the “socially relevant” criteria that network president Bob Wood and new VP of Programming Fred Silverman were establishing for CBS’ new offerings during the 1970-’71 season, as all their freshman sitcoms that year reinforced this desired trend: Mary Tyler Moore, Arnie, Andy Griffith’s Headmaster (which wasn’t exactly a new sitcom, but occupied a half-hour slot), and the intentionally controversial All In The Family, which was readied for midseason. Using those shows as a benchmark, I don’t think The Odd Couple, particularly as written by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, is as relevant, for while it does have the youthful, modern, urban appeal of most Neil Simon efforts (and therefore might have been attractive in the late ’60s — à la Hey, Landlord!), it undersells its possible social interests (related to divorce and single urbanity) to prop up more trite, familiar buddy comedy antics. So, I can’t imagine it would have been more appealing to the brass given their stylistic objective. As for whether it was relevant enough to get another show cancelled so it could take its place, the only truly “bubble” sitcoms from 1969-’70 that got renewed (that is, with lower than a 30-share) were The Governor And J.J. and To Rome With Love, and the former was kept because it was a favorite of the executives, many of whom regretted dropping Talent Associates’ He & She and wanted to give J.J. the chance that its predecessor never got, while To Rome With Love was kept because it had the kiddie demo and was good for an earlier time slot. I don’t think The Odd Couple would have been seen as more beneficial to the network than either of those, and with Wood fighting just to convince Paley to lose Petticoat Junction, it’s very unlikely that any other comedy still in the Top 40 would have been cancelled either. Thus, no, I don’t think The Odd Couple would have fit on CBS during 1970-’71. (And regarding whether it might have been sold a year later; considering that the network would have just seen the failure of ABC’s Barefoot In The Park, another Neil Simon adaptation with involvement from Marshall and Belson, I think The Odd Couple’s fortunes would be low.)
Lee writes in after my comments on All In The Family in the Clip Show post… Curious as to how your assessment of All in the Family as an idea-driven vehicle in which situations and characters exist solely to ridicule Nixon-era conservatism incorporates episodes like Amelia’s Divorce, Games Bunkers Play, Edith’s Final Respects, Love Comes to the Butcher, The Battle of the Month, and other shows which ignore politics except in the most tangential way and often portray Archie in a relatively positive light. He is never shown to be right intellectually, but there are so many instances of his character being granted subtler shadings of more admirable qualities that it feels reductive to say the entire series and all the characters exist merely to advance an intellectual parody. How do you interpret those stories in context of your view of the series?
You’re asking if my conclusion that All In The Family has an idea-driven objective that uses its characters, and particularly Archie, for a singularly didactic sociopolitical goal, can also account for dimensional, sympathetic leads and stories that aren’t always sociopolitical, right? If so, I urge you to revisit March’s Maude Rerun post, for I think you’ll see that my study of Lear’s work already agrees with both points, explaining why these leads are relatively well-defined and palpably human (he channels their theoretical purposes through relatable emotional bonds in a low-concept realistic construct), while also pinpointing how and why the show, like all of Lear’s efforts, has to turn away from topicality with time (because it’s running out of fresh ideas that can foster its desired relevancy, which itself is no longer novel). In other words, I see these elements of the series’ identity not in opposition to my depiction of its precise idea-led focus, but as reinforcements that inform my adjudication. In fact, I think the episodes you cited actually corroborate my view of the material, for tellingly, not a single one is driven by the regulars. But the two that manage a balance of thoughtful drama with rewarding comedy (“The Battle Of The Month” and “The Games Bunkers Play”) use their leads to explore thesis-related notions that said leads are purposely positioned to support — the first a basic clash between the women on feminism, the second a rare comment on Mike’s ideological stridency — with all perspectives existing in relation to Archie’s, whose exaggerated beliefs are omnipresent even when he’s not central to the plot. Meanwhile, the other three examples come from later in the run, by which time the show has lost its grip on topicality and is hoping we care enough about the leads — and are invested in the sincere, nuanced performances of O’Connor and Stapleton — that it can get the same results without having the same conflicts they were first built to sustain. And, unfortunately, these segments prove they can’t: the laughs are muted and the drama is unearned (in other samples, it’s the reverse), because stripping the series of the ideas it once channeled through its relational structures leaves them alone to compensate, and though ideally supportive, they’re not ideally productive. Heck, look at those three later segments: two have plots sparked by outside forces, while the other (“Edith’s Final Respects”) is led by circumstance.
Thus, these characters still need the right sociopolitical ideas directing them into earned comedy and drama; they can’t reliably push it themselves because they weren’t designed to push it themselves… As for how a sympathetic portrayal of Archie can coexist with him being the focus of Lear’s targeted effort to ridicule Nixon era conservatism, I’ll reiterate that Lear puts his regulars in relatable emotional dynamics for the purpose of giving them an underlying humanity that will support his didactic aims. (“A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”) If you look at how Archie’s character is utilized in the early seasons, his humanity is deployed with calculation: to offset the caricaturization of his worldview and make him identifiable enough for an audience that Lear wants to teach. That is, depicting Archie as sympathetic is rarely the point of story in these first (and best) years, for seldom do laughs or conflict come from his being complex; they come from the opposite — when something undermines his mockably rigid worldview. Indeed, that’s what he’s positioned to have happen to him in story, and that’s what the show is therefore concentrated on emphasizing. And as it becomes harder for the series to come up with original ways to challenge Archie’s rigid worldview, then it falls back on his humanity, hoping that the emotional investment we have in him can compensate. But, again, as those later episodes prove (along with all of Archie Bunker’s Place), although we may like him more now and remain invested because of the sustained familiarity, he’s not allowing for the same big laughs and rich conflict he helped supply during early (peak) All In The Family. Why? Because he wasn’t built or developed to offer more, as his humanity was never the intended focus — just a tool to aid the intended focus, in the absence of which, again, these characters, and the show, are not able to provide commensurate rewards. So, no, I don’t think it’s reductive to say that everything on All In The Family was designed to support the validation of Lear’s political thoughts when the series’ successes validate those thoughts and its failures reveal the eventual shortcomings as a result of being so fixated on validating them in the first place. This seems to me a fair summation based on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, which have to first be distinguished as the basis of any commentary, especially one that seeks to track quality.
Kevin O. says… I recently came across a clip on YouTube of an ABC sitcom I had never heard of before — “The Corner Bar.” It aired 1972-73 and features Anne Meara, Eugene Roche and Ron Carey, among others. I looked at its Wikipedia page and it alleges it was the first show to feature a gay man as a regular character. Any chance you might do something on this show? It looks like a precursor to “Cheers.”
I screened two episodes of The Corner Bar — one from each season — and wrote about them many years ago. Looking back, I see the show as wanting to jump on the Lear bandwagon, with a diverse cast of topical issue-generators and a storytelling model that mines humor from ideas, not characters. I preferred what I saw from the second season, with Meara and Roche, because it was a little more supported by relationships, but otherwise, I left with the impression that it never took advantage of its low-concept premise, which should push the regulars into the fore for conflicts that they can motivate. And as for Cheers, as argued in my piece on Park St. Under, the bar setting is not unique enough of a premise to overstate similarities between these shows, especially in the case of Cheers, which is so driven by its characters — and in a way that The Corner Bar, Park St. Under, and even the earlier Duffy’s Tavern can’t even pretend to be. However, I’d love to see more of The Corner Bar — it was produced by Alan King and Howard Morris, and several scribes went on to work at MTM (with a credit on “Rhoda’s Wedding”) — and I remember that it made me laugh.
V.B. asks… What do you think is the best sitcom episode from my birth year, 1974?
I think Rhoda’s “Rhoda’s Wedding,” and the second half of it in particular (Part II), is the best sitcom episode of 1974. Beyond just being iconic — a symbol of this era’s trends and the magic of MTM’s character-focused brand — it’s also well-written, with earned sentiment and big laughs. (Incidentally, I have a lot of favorite episodes from 1974, but a few others that I feel like mentioning at this particular time include… Sanford And Son’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” All In The Family’s “Lionel’s Engagement,” Maude’s “The New Housekeeper” and “Lovers In Common,” and Mary Tyler Moore’s “Will Mary Richards Go To Jail?”)
Raul J. was inspired by our The Governor And J.J. post… I am very interested in your thoughts on “Benson”, another show about life in the Governor’s mansion of an unnamed state which seems to be largely overlooked today, even though it lasted longer than its parent series and boasted a very talented cast. Was it the first sitcom to feature a Black lead and an all-white supporting cast?
To answer your question, no, the first network sitcom with a Black lead is believed to be The Laytons (1948, DuMont), which starred the great Amanda Randolph. Read more about it — and a script from an episode — here. As for my thoughts on Benson, I think it’s yet another example of the late ’70s’ and early ’80s’ blend of character-based and idea-based interests, with an ensemble of leads who have distinct personalities, but in a higher concept premise that indeed makes it easier for episodic conflict to rely on externally derived narrative notions, independent of its regulars’ depictions. Additionally, though I’m interested in the show because many of the best scribes from The Golden Girls cut their teeth on Benson and the rhythmic joke-writing during their tenures are very similar, the quality of the character work is miles apart as a result of the way story is predicated here, and this series’ corresponding foolishness — due largely to the gimmicky comic plots it’s accommodating, which in turn adversely affects the regulars too — makes it a difficult sitcom to study and appreciate on any textual merits. However, I’m still open to doing so; I’ve watched about 30 episodes of the series over the past five years and I’ve yet to find a favorite worthy of highlighting on this blog — if you have any recommendations that might change my current perspective, I’m always ready for positive persuasion!
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Come back next week for more Barney Miller and another new Wildcard Wednesday!