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!