Somewhere Between HE & SHE and MTM: A Look at THE GOVERNOR AND J.J.

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing some thoughts on a short-lived sitcom that I initially planned to include in our recent Potpourri series, until I realized I had too much to say about it. As teased last week, the show in question is The Governor And J.J. (1969-1970, CBS), a 39-episode multi-cam from Talent Associates that ran for a season-and-a-half before it was bumped from the network’s schedule to make room for a newcomer: All In The Family. That’s right; The Governor and J.J. premiered on the cusp of so much change in TV comedy, and exploring the ways in which it predicted what was to come, or failed to, has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, especially because it was helmed by two of the key writers who a few years earlier had worked on my beloved He & She. In fact, tracking the aesthetic evolution from that series is also a line that my coverage aims to follow… And while I should note now that I’ve seen all of the 13-episode second season that aired in the fall of 1970, but only five entries from the first, I’ve read scripts for several others and have examined both production credits and detailed summaries for all the rest. So, I’m ready to share my analysis of the series with you, starting with a modified version of the Potpourri rundown…

 

THE GOVERNOR AND J.J. (Sept 1969-Dec 1970, CBS)

Premise: A widowed governor tries to manage both the state and his free-spirited adult daughter J.J.

Cast: Dan Dailey, Julie Sommars, James T. Callahan, Neva Patterson, Nora Marlowe, Ed Platt, Doris Packer

Creator/Writers: Leonard Stern, Arne Sultan, Earl Barret, Chris Hayward, Bill Manhoff, Burt Prelutsky, Allan Burns

Episode Count: 39 episodes produced and broadcast; 26 from S1 and 13 from S2.

Episodes Seen: All of S2 and “The Second First Lady,” “There Go The Judge,” “The Return Of Doctor Livingston,” “Charley’s Back In Town,” and “Second Opinion” from S1

Initially a vehicle for Julie Sommars, The Governor And J.J. quickly became what we might call a two-hander, built around the chemistry between the two stars playing its eponymous leads (Sommars and Dan Dailey), with their father/daughter dynamic supplying a low-concept central relationship to a premise that, unlike Leonard Stern’s and Talent Associates’ previously relationship-centric multi-cams — He & She and The Good Guys — had a political setting that allowed it to be higher concept. The show was created by executive producer Stern and producer Arne Sultan, an old Steve Allen cohort whom Stern had brought along for both He & She and Get Smart, the latter of which Sultan was still overseeing as producer during the 1969-’70 season. It was their second multi-cam together, following their first, He & She (1967-1968, CBS), which, as we’ve explored, enjoyed a fascinating but not always well-calibrated blend of Stern’s sketch-born, idea-driven, and comically heightened sensibilities, and the more realistic and character-first situational humor supplied by forward-thinking scribes such as, specifically, Allan Burns, who’d go on to co-create the most seminal character-driven sitcom of the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS). Interestingly, J.J. didn’t claim any writers from He & She beyond Stern and Sultan, and Burns only contributed one early script; he was busy on the new half-hour dramedy Room 222, where he’d align with Jim Brooks to develop Mary Tyler Moore, which would premiere during J.J.’s second season (when, incidentally, Get Smart‘s Ed Platt joined the recurring cast, taking over a role that Carroll O’Connor had played in the 1969 pilot). So, this show offers us the rare chance to determine how much their style at the moment of Mary Tyler Moore‘s inception resembles that classic, and without the creative force from He & She that gave the series its most potent association to MTM — someone on whom we could attach the ensemble-heavy character-based realism that arose over its short life. (The second most potent association, for the record, is Jay Sandrich, who was the resident director of both He & She and Mary Tyler Moore, but only did a handful of J.J.’s.) Ultimately then, I’m studying this series to see what it says about (a) what Stern and Sultan learned from He & She and (b) how capable they would have been, circa 1970, to do their own Mary Tyler Moore. 

With regard to the first point, it wasn’t a straight line for Stern and Sultan from He & She to The Governor And J.J., for they both returned to the aging Get Smart and Stern, by himself, went on to oversee another multi-cam — The Good Guys (1968-1970, CBS), which we touched upon last week. That show, while not anachronistic for its era, was nevertheless a step backwards for Talent Associates and Stern, as he had just come off the poster child for “young, urban, contemporary” fare in He & She and then opted to go with a project modeled off his early ’60s flop I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (1962-1963, ABC), inevitably failing to deliver something as character-driven, believable, or even as comedic as his most recent credit. This was perhaps largely due to an uncomfortable dynamic between the series’ star (Bob Denver) and its low-concept material, but it also indicated something of an identity crisis for The Good Guys too, as it existed in Stern’s newly cultivated brand of progressive character-based realism, and yet had a premised attempt at evoking the broader, yuk-heavy but character-subjugating fare of Stern’s more sketch-like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (which had been more of a creative triumph because its era’s standards of comic truth were lower, while its text and performances both managed to exceed expectations). Thus, The Good Guys did not build on the momentum from He & She and seemed to suffer for it. (Well, to be fair, it did have the best run of any of Stern’s ’60s multi-cams, with a longer second season than J.J.’s, but it was less valuable, as it gave up its aesthetic fight, turning into a lame single-camera effort with more idea-led hijinks and no concern for character realism.) Obviously, J.J. — which got renewed in spite of inferior ratings, due to a belief that, if it caught on, it would soon be more profitable than Petticoat Junction — is a step forward from The Good Guys, with a greater sense of believability, aided both by more assured performances, and by a premise that seeks elevated realism through an interest in present-day politics and politicians. This provides the show with a flashy hook on which it can hang its generation gap drama between a widowed father and his adult daughter, as stories are now dressed with the givens of a (relatively conservative) governor and his (relatively liberal) proxy first lady, along with the comical duties that come from their career obligations.

In turn, this yields a high-concept engine — including a mild spoof of the era’s political norms and figures (some real-life governors appeared) — that makes J.J. more realistic than The Good Guys, but also gives it an excuse to remain not as character-dependent as He & She, which was far more low-concept. (The only thing the latter mocked was the superhero TV trend, and that never overtook the characterizations.) Indeed, more stories on The Governor And J.J. employ conflicts that arise from the governor’s profession instead of his relationships, including the centralized father/daughter drama of different generations and therefore beliefs. Accordingly, this political premise also gives J.J. an excuse to not be as character-led as the MTM comedies of the early ’70s — a cover that they, along with He & She and The Good Guys, never had. Now, perhaps this is a smarter design, for it gets ahead of its shortcomings in using the leads’ depictions for weekly plot, which is the central tenet of character-driven writing and something even He & She struggled to do, only coming around to it near the end of its evolutionary run, and with a tonal unevenness as a result of said struggle. But J.J., which is aesthetically smoother thanks to He & She‘s strife (and because of Stern/Sultan’s tighter grip), is also no worse at motivating story… even though it’s sometimes harder to tell because of the higher concept, which penetrates (to varying degrees) every plot. Additionally, most of its leads are well-defined, if not slightly better defined than He & She’s, for they’re less broad and have more detail-oriented precision; despite structural hooks mostly determining personas, we nevertheless get a very human idea — via small beats that make them more relatable and real — of the Governor, J.J., and key ensemble players, like James Callahan as the administration’s high-strung press secretary, and Neva Patterson as the Governor’s dry assistant. However, none of J.J.‘s regulars are as bold as He & She’s — the egotistical TV star, the childlike fireman, the daffy handyman — so they’re not nearly as valuable when it comes to both story and comedy. And though they maybe have more nuance, there’s nothing to show for it in story or comedy, which suggests that He & She’s biggest qualitative discovery — how to become more character-driven — is not actually improved upon, thus indicating more maintenance than progress.

Meanwhile, the show’s lack of boldness speaks to the general gentility of The Governor and J.J., contrasting it against both the occasionally gawky He & She and even Mary Tyler Moore, which was warmly sincere but always unflinching with how it defined its leads and their humor, often putting them in direct conflict. And unfortunately, despite designing itself for a political clash of opposites, The Governor And J.J. too often avoids having its leads oppose each other in fundamental differences of opinion (like, for instance, Norman Lear knew he had to do on All In The Family if he was going to get credit for finally turning the sitcom topical and realistic without sacrificing humor). The result is comically deflating and narratively narrowing, for while, sure, sometimes J.J.’s antics, particularly as a zookeeper (we’re supposed to find her whimsical) complicate the Governor’s political standing, this refusal to let them really go at it decentralizes the series’ thesis, which is supposedly their relationship, making it easier for the show to instead remain more idea-driven by his professional circumstances. What’s more, avoiding politics as a source of disagreement weakens the series’ claim on realism, because everything about them suggests they’d be opposed, and denying this fact leaves them less different, or distinct, diluting their depictions and rendering them less defined — not as conducive to comic story. As such, the show is avoiding character-driven conflict and comedy, and not using its premise well — both the central relationship and the higher concept political trappings. However, I can’t say I’m surprised, for this basic gentility — far less brash than He & She and The Good Guys (both of which, incidentally, were broader and more slapsticky than J.J., but were also better able to build, like Mary Tyler Moore, to non-physical centerpieces too, never lacking an anticipated crescendo) — actually fits its era, specifically 1969, which stood at the precipice of a huge change in situation comedy, motivated by 1970-’71’s overt crusade for “social relevance” at the hands of CBS’ new network president Bob Wood, who wanted more modern fare that didn’t shirk from dealing with present realities,. This led to groundbreaking shows, such as the radically genuine Mary Tyler Moore and the radically political All In The Family, which cleared J.J. from the schedule with a force it couldn’t have matched.

As we know, ’60 sitcoms had a reputation for being escapist — fantastical, either narratively or emotionally — and not until late in the decade, starting with the “young, urban, contemporary” push that sparked a spate of Barefoot In The Park wannabes (including He & She), did we see a creep towards the ’70s’ low-concept realism, which, because it was rare, felt subversive. The variety genre had some hits in this vein — like the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In — but the sitcom had no success until 1968’s Julia, the genre’s first show with a Black star since Amos ‘N’ Andy. Boasting an inherent social value, Julia was a forerunner to the openly political shows of Norman Lear, yet it was uncontroversial in every way but her presence, with scripts and stories treating her identity gingerly and with little mind for how it could fuel comic conflict. To wit, Julia wasn’t funny, and neither were the similarly “relevant” shows that cropped up in 1969, like The Bill Cosby Show and the aforementioned Room 222, which wasn’t a sitcom at all, but fed into this genre-muddying trend, where half hours could be serious, especially if they had social concerns or an air of modernity (like My World And Welcome To It). All of them claimed some degree of realism and palpable humanity, but they were largely unfunny, and their characters often had to compete with an idea-driven, and typically political, premise, which actually wasn’t well-used, for even if the text was unsubtle about its desired relevancy, they were neither mining these issues for comic conflict that fit the genre nor being frank enough about them to earn points for honesty, thereby jeopardizing their supposed reality. If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s how I depicted The Governor And J.J., indicating this show’s fidelity to that trend. (It’s also worth noting that the series’ story editor was a former Julia scribe named Earl Barret, who, as we saw, later paired with Sultan on both The Partners and The Sandy Duncan Show.) Yet, if it’s not as riotous or as honest as Lear’s All In The Family, J.J. is still more amusing than most from the 1969-’70 season, both because of the multi-camera format, which requires laughs, and also because of Stern and Sultan, who came from the joke-predicated sketch world. And, if J.J. also isn’t as amusing as a few of their other efforts — not to mention Mary Tyler Moore — it’s still, again, more aligned than its contemporaries with the sitcom’s established standards.

By that I mean, The Governor And J.J. is still a show with merit, even if, in being unable to illustrate an improvement on He & She‘s character-driven capabilities, it also doesn’t reveal the kind of evolution needed to suggest that Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan would have been able to develop something like The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, when Allan Burns took his knowledge of the sitcom’s comic and narrative structure (a lot of it learned on He & She) and married it to Jim Brooks’ wild imagination and knack for creating big, beautiful characterizations — all of which merged within a shared pursuit of realism that they had solidified in the otherwise non-comedic and less character-rooted Room 222, a stepping stone to the very funny and supremely character-rooted Mary Tyler Moore. In other words, Stern and Sultan were heading in the right direction relative to the rest of the genre, only not to the extent that Brooks and Burns were, and He & She is a more important stop on this journey to Moore’s series, not only given Burns’ inclusion, but also for the palpable progression that occurred over the course of its run, and doesn’t occur on J.J., which is the beneficiary of He & She’s strides, but takes none of its own. In fact, you’d expect its second season — which aired concurrently with Mary Tyler Moore — to at least become more modern and character-led in tandem, but no such luck, for while the abbreviated sophomore year’s “reelection campaign” arc focuses plots in the high-concept premise, the central relationship remains comedically and narratively toothless, hindering believability and comic story. Now, you may be thinking that I’ve seen too little of the first year to make this adjudication about J.J., but I’ve screened and/or read half of One’s episodes, studied detailed summaries of the others, and can confirm that the same creative forces were in control for its entirety. So, I’m comfortable applying the following verdict to the whole series: it was equally of its time as He & She was of its time, but it wasn’t as courageously forward-moving with character, and thus never came close enough to Mary Tyler Moore to be considered analogous. As for its best episodic samples, because I know there are better ones in the first season than those I’ve seen, I’m only going to stick with citing entries from the second. So, here’s a no-frills bullet point list of my picks, with a brief explanation as to why.

  • Episode 27: “And The World Begat The Bleep” (09/23/70) — a comical contemporary story where J.J.’s modern attitude and impulsivity yields conflict
  • Episode 29: “Read That Leg To Me Again” (10/07/70) — a typical plot using a clash related to the leads’ structural differences (careers) as opposed to their personas
  • Episode 30: “File Safe” (10/14/70) — an old-fashioned story, but one of the only entries with a strong climactic set piece, featuring the great Edward Everett Horton
  • Episode 35: “The Making Of The Governor” (11/25/70) — a lampoon of ’60s politics within an arc-driven plot, guest starring He & She‘s Jack Cassidy
  • Episode 38: “P.S. I Don’t Love You” (12/23/70) — another narrative related to the year’s arc, but with even more contemporary ideas and laughs, plus Joi Lansing

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for a musical theatre rarity!