The Ten Best CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? Episodes of Season One

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re starting coverage on the best of Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963, NBC), which you can currently enjoy on DVD and Amazon.

Car 54, Where Are You? stars JOE E. ROSS, FRED GWYNNE, BEATRICE PONS, PAUL REED and AL LEWIS. With CHARLOTTE RAE as Sylvia Schnauser.

Let’s dive right in… Car 54 is both an affirmation and evolution of the influential style nevertheless unique to its creator, Nat Hiken, the respected scribe also responsible for The Phil Silvers Show (1955-1959, CBS), identified here as one of the best and most foundational sitcoms of the 1950s. Hiken’s second and final foray in the sitcom genre is Car 54, and because we’ve already discussed his earlier effort thoroughly — pinpointing how Hiken refined a counterpoint to the model as developed by I Love Lucy and Desilu — I urge you to check out our Phil Silvers essay for a more in-depth look at his work and my theory on the genre’s two contrasting engines. I’m only going to briefly summarize those conclusions, so we can use them in our examination of Car 54, which requires an elemental awareness of Phil Silvers and what we’ve already featured… First, Hiken came from the New York school of comedy, which prized the funny idea — what motivated a sketch on a variety series — over the more sustaining character-based humor that tended to exist in Hollywood as an outgrowth of the need to find vehicles for established stars in demand of a regular persona. With the comic concept as its guiding force, the New York style could employ stars (and indeed was shaped by them, like Phil Silvers), but its goal was more to use them in the execution of amusing notions, which required writers like Hiken to be both fertile thinkers and experts at communication. Accordingly, value was derived both from the strength of a premise and the way it was handled, or manipulated, within a structure. In the half-hour sitcom, Hiken’s genius came from the way he built stories, with carefully plotted beats rising to crescendos and an obvious emphasis on moment-by-moment layering, which reinforced these ideas’ importance while stringing them together in a semblance of crafted cohesion. This focus on plot embodies the origins of the idea-driven, story-driven, premise-driven brand of situation comedy, which would go on to count as adherents everything from high-concept ’60s classics, popular agenda-led hits from the ’70s, and tonal dissenters from the post-cable era, along with many recent gems like Seinfeld and Arrested Development, both of which faithfully opined that structures (form), could be just as funny as their contained ideas (content), and together these, not character, were the primary elements of the sitcom.

Given that Hiken’s Phil Silvers is the premiere representation of the above style, it should be no surprise that Car 54 is another of its exemplars, with a premise that’s merely a launching pad for episodes driven by their stories/funny ideas and the same complicated, Jenga tower plotting associated with all of the author’s sitcom work. So, to say that they share the same ethos is an understatement, for beyond the writing, both were produced in New York and dipped into the same pool of actors — a different set than those usually found on Hollywood shows. (And, of course, Car 54‘s core cast all appeared in some capacity on Phil Silvers, particularly Joe E. Ross and Beatrice Pons, who played battling spouses on both.) Additionally, both of Hiken’s classics are workplace comedies in a highly regimented, male-dominated, uniform-wearing world that can also be set aside for personal stories outside of it. And, because Car 54 really is in New York, it also gets to take advantage of its location — indulging another of Hiken’s trademarks: his fascination with show biz, which didn’t make sense on a Kansas army base, but is more legitimized now via the Broadway connection… However, it’s important to note that unlike on Phil Silvers, this element of Car 54‘s identity does not come packaged to a fourth-wall-acknowledging metatheatricality, for although there are some stars who appear as themselves, there’s a textual fullness to the 53rd precinct and its officers, not to mention an obvious attempt to avoid undermining them with figurative winks. That is, Car 54 makes an evolution in its New York sketch-like comedy by adopting some of the dramatic integrity of its rival strain and instilling in these weekly operations a loyalty to its particulars that strengthens the characterizations and, actually, makes it easier for them to exist in story. In fact, I’d say Car 54 takes itself more seriously, and while that may seem unwise for a comedy, any effort to fortify the tools (character and premise) by which a sitcom earns laughs is beneficial, making this a much better built endeavor than Hiken’s previous. Heck, it’s literally more of a sitcom, with a more formal structure, a more nuanced set of characters, and a more solid groundwork for story. That’s not to say it can’t be silly or unrealistic — it can — but this silliness is approved by a design that permits some heightened hijinks; they’re grounded.

At the heart of this evolution is a key difference: Phil Silvers was anchored — no, dominated — by a singular star, who had less of a characterization than an oversized persona (whose vaudevillian bent enabled the show’s burlesque wall-breaking wink), while Car 54 creates its core in two actual characters, the impulsive Toody (Joe E. Ross) and the cautious Muldoon (Fred Gwynne), contrasting and easily discernible police officers who have enough definition to inspire story and supply the series with a weighted relationship, which itself provides an emotional base that gives this otherwise unsentimental comedy a sustaining dramatic stake within its weekly plots’ situations. In other words, whatever crazy thing happens, Car 54 still has these two strong characters, and their unshakable bond, at its center. It’s also got a richer supporting cast as a whole, for beyond Ross and Gwynne, it has regular haha-providers in the aforementioned Pons, who gets more of a chance to shine than she did on Phil Silvers, and fellow officer Schnauser, played by Gwynne’s future Munsters costar Al Lewis. He joins the ensemble as a regular before the first year’s midway point and represents the series’ official ascension to its desired state, which quickly gets added dimension when the very funny Charlotte Rae is introduced as his wife, Sylvia. These five, plus Paul Reed as the captain — functioning almost like Phil Silvers‘ colonela nominal authority figure — constitute the series’ main ensemble, and they’re more ripe with opportunity than the cast of Hiken’s first series, which was too consumed by Silvers to give anyone more depth, and had a supporting lineup that, while amusing, never was as inspirational regarding story ideas… That said, despite the robust bedrock provided by this roster of players, and the more naturally fruitful setting and premise, Hiken’s aesthetic is, again, one that favors the comedic idea, and its telling in story, above all else, so Car 54, like Phil Silvers, really only lives and dies on the power of its Victories In Premise, with excellence also coming, as usual, if/when its scripts are able to create the same madcap, ever-moving and unpredictable plotting that enlivens its plots and affirms their worth. To that point, the fact that Car 54 is better built is only palpable inasmuch as the design makes it more able to deliver on behalf of its chosen ideas, the series’ chief interest.

Here, the principal dilemma with being story-driven is clear, for even with a sturdier safety net provided by more established regulars who can better sustain mediocrity by supplying continuity, there’s a distinction between ideas that work and don’t, and eventually, with Hiken in total control and unable to find anyone who matches his style successfully, his wellspring of good ideas runs dry. And as we’ll see next week, when we discuss the second and final season, there is a point in even this relatively short 60-episode run where stories, and their construction, are not as excellent as they had been before. We’ll be able to lay some of this blame on Hiken’s own exhaustion, exacerbated by behind-the-scenes issues that we’ll also soon discuss (they have a big effect on the writing, actually), because when someone has a voice as unique as this creator’s, it’s a double-edged sword, for then he’s the only scribe who can write his opus with any degree of authenticity. Additionally, when there’s an emphasis on narrative structure, it’s easy to fall into patterns and templates, and Car 54, in its back stretch, stumbles into a bit of a rut because of this, losing freshness as a result… Although, to be fair, every show’s novelty wears off at some point, and every show also goes through figurative dry spells, so perhaps had the series been allowed to continue, this dip would not have proved long-lasting and this criticism would carry less weight. (I’m skeptical, however, because of Phil Silvers‘ trajectory.) As it stands, there’s still a great baseline of quality here — ask fans which episode is their favorite, and you’ll get dozens of different answers — the first season of Car 54 is probably on par with Phil Silvers’, with an excellence rate of about 70% (seven out of every ten scripts) and most of this weighted to the year’s back half. The second season is somewhere near 60% on this metric, which is still strong, but, as we’ll see, it’s marred by a less ideal use of character and a weakened command on plots and plotting. So, again, Hiken’s first season is king… Now, if you’re seeking a more official verdict on Car 54 in relation to Phil Silvers, I’ll reiterate that it’s better built — a smarter application of Hiken’s style — and it’s more of a sitcom as we define the word, which makes it easier to watch; it’s got better characters, better stories, and a better premise.

Nevertheless, in terms of episodes, there’s nothing here as iconic as “The Court Martial,” Phil Silvers‘ high-water mark and an ambassador for all its classics, which collectively and individually stand out as seminal in a study of the genre. This is not entirely about quality — Phil Silvers is more groundbreaking, while Car 54 is just another in the column to which they both belong. Also, the latter tends not to get its full critical due because it was cancelled after only two years. (Never mind that going up against Ed Sullivan was tough, and… well, stay tuned…) As a consequence of its short run, it’s not viewed today as a quintessential ’60s sitcom — it’s written off as Hiken’s coda to the very ’50s Phil Silvers… and, okay, I get why it seems displaced in its era; not only is Car 54 a pretty literate show for the ’60s, it’s also an outlier because it’s set in New York and has a more realistic world than the escapist decade’s norm. However, I’d argue there’s a lot in it that speaks to the ’60s directly. It’s got a male-dominated ensemble workplace (like many of the military comedies of the day), and it’s also idea-driven like most of the period’s high-concept efforts, putting story first but with indelible characters in support. This is the era’s modus operandi: strong people in stronger narratives. And even if its world looks real, its comedy is frequently goofy and larger-than-life; tonally, it fits too. Plusit’s got a catchy theme song with memorable lyrics that tell us exactly what the show is going to be — what can be more ’60s than that? Seriously though, it belongs in this time for the same reason I wanted to highlight it here: it’s the missing link between the initial sketch-based, idea-driven work of the ’50s and all the ’60s comedies that follow in this category, for in combining Hiken’s style with a more legitimate sense of character and premise, Car 54 gives the era permission to go broader with story-heavy storytelling… as long as the “givens” of people and place are treated seriously enough to remain sturdy — these are the rules of the decade, with Car 54, alongside Dick Van Dyke, providing initial points of reference. So, for all these reasons, not to mention the terrific quality — this is the best collection of sitcom episodes from the ’61-’62 season — Car 54 is a classic. I have picked ten offerings that I think exemplify the finest from this first season, which received three Emmy nominations and one win for Hiken’s directing.


01) Episode 2: “Something Nice For Sol” (Aired: 09/24/61)

A sergeant is worried about his job as Toody and Muldoon try to get him an anniversary gift.

Written by Terry Ryan & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

Produced as the series’ pilot but aired as its sophomore excursion, this entry showcases an emerging structure for Car 54 as competing objectives lead to a misunderstanding, involving slapstick that’s rooted in established motivations throughout the narrative’s twists and turns. Much stronger than the actual premiere, it also suggests a recurring role for Nathaniel Frey, which doesn’t materialize — the void he leaves will soon be filled by Al Lewis.

02) Episode 7: “The Paint Job” (Aired: 10/29/61)

After denting Car 54, Toody and Muldoon become involved with a stolen automobile ring.

Written by Marty Roth & Nat Hiken | Directed by Nat Hiken

An ideal example of Car 54‘s nuanced plotting at the hands of its creator, “The Paint Job” is not only stuffed with funny character moments that, by this time, benefit from the growing comedic dynamic between the two leads, it also ably uses their profession to match the storytelling style that Hiken actively endeavors to offer. Also, Al Lewis, soon to be a regular, plays a different role — a painter aiding a ring of car thieves. Phil Silvers‘ Billy Sands appears.

03) Episode 14: “Get Well, Officer Schnauser” (Aired: 12/17/61)

A teller mistakes Muldoon for a crook when the cops try to bust a bank robber.

Written by Terry Ryan & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Get Well, Officer Schnauser” is the first installment of the entire series that seems to fully employ the most important aspects of Car 54‘s identity, benefiting from the inclusion of the recently introduced Officer Schnauser, who does factor into the plot, and a story that again involves the police profession while using the varying personas of our two main officers to drive comedic conflict — Toody gets to don an ostentatious disguise, and the sweet-but-scary-looking Muldoon inadvertently ends up mistaken for the bank robber they’re trying to nab. This mistaken identity bit, common on all comedies, will become a regular template for Car 54, and mostly with Muldoon (given Gwynne’s impressive stature), but this is one of its finest applications… Additionally, it also includes a terrific performance from future recurring cast member Charlotte Rae, who plays the frightened, mixed-up bank teller, meaning that the entry gets to utilize one of its strongest, funniest performers for the first time too… even if she’s not yet in the role for which she’ll be better known. So, the premise is used well, the characters are used well, and the performers are used well: this is classic Car 54 — fresh and funny. Billy Sands appears again.

04) Episode 17: “Boom, Boom, Boom” (Aired: 01/14/62)

Toody and Muldoon’s singing group helps drive Jan Murray to a nervous breakdown.

Written by Sid Zelinka, Will Glickman, & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

As noted above, show biz stories are a significant aspect of all Hiken’s work, and this beloved offering features Jan Murray as himself. It’s predicated mostly on an unforgettable comic premise, in which the cops’ singing quartet, anchored by Muldoon, auditions for Murray as one of over 100 groups performing the same song, which sticks in his brain and eventually haunts him so much that he’s driven to a nervous breakdown. It’s an ostentatious idea to which the series commits entirely, and as usual, it’ll do shows like this again — more than just the bit about characters driven to paranoia (first seen in the hacky “The Gypsy Curse”), there’ll be another singing group story next season, with Mitch Miller — but never again so comedically.

05) Episode 19: “Toody’s Paradise” (Aired: 01/28/62)

Toody’s undercover assignment leads Lucille to believe he’s got another wife and family.

Written by Sid Zelinka, Will Glickman, & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

A well-laid script with a string of misunderstandings, this is another great sample of the complicated plotting that underscores Car 54‘s best episodes because it’s a manifestation of Hiken’s unique, iconic style, first observed on Phil Silvers. Speaking of which, this outing guest stars Elisabeth Fraser as a female cop whom Toody pretends is his wife when they go undercover… Naturally, Lucille sees them together and thinks her husband has a whole family on the side. The story keeps trucking along from there — one of the series’ best farces.

06) Episode 22: “What Happened To Thursday?” (Aired: 02/18/62)

Toody and Muldoon try to trick Schnauser into believing it’s not Thursday.

Written by Tony Webster & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

Hiken’s knack for utterly original and memorable stories is well on display here in Season One of Car 54, and I posit this entry as being perhaps the greatest showcase for his creativity, thanks to a truly madcap idea of the officers attempting to keep the Schnausers — Rae’s Sylvia was introduced in the offering prior — from having their weekly Thursday argument by making him believe it’s not really Thursday, but Friday. What a setup for silliness — and big laughs.

07) Episode 23: “How Smart Can You Get?” (Aired: 02/25/62)

Toody and Muldoon orient a rookie officer who makes Toody feel inferior.

Teleplay by Tony Webster | Story by Tony Webster & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

TV Guide once ranked this as one of the 100 best sitcom episodes of all-time, but while it’s great, I think if the magazine wanted to pick one segment of Car 54 for its list, there are funnier, more classic possibilities to choose… That said, I actually think this is a sharp character piece — one of the show’s best — for when Toody and Muldoon are tasked with tutoring a rookie officer, the younger cop proves to be a smart conversationalist and strikes up a rapport with Muldoon that leaves Toody feeling inferior. It’s one of the funniest “relationship” shows of the entire series, and I have to note that it stands on the shoulders of earlier less comic outings that did some of the formative bond-building for the pair (like “Change Your Partner,” “The Sacrifice,” and “Toody and Muldoon Crack Down,” all of which are fine, if unspectacular).

08) Episode 24: “Today I Am A Man” (Aired: 03/04/62)

A family mistakes Muldoon’s intentions and believe they’re being held hostage.

Teleplay by Tony Webster | Story by Tony Webster & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

One of the funniest entries of the entire run, “Today I Am A Man” uses the same comedic notion as “Get Well, Officer Schnauser,” for the innocent Muldoon unknowingly finds himself being mistaken for a bad guy… this time by a family of three (mother, father, daughter) whom he joins at a club when he pretends to his buddies that the young girl is his date. But when the confused strangers see Muldoon’s gun, they believe he’s holding them hostage. Their misplaced fear and his complete obliviousness — along with the girl’s turnaround — is hysterical and another great example of why Car 54 is both a primary study of Hiken’s developed tastes and one of the early ’60s’ best sitcoms. Also, Bob Hastings guests.

09) Episode 25: “No More Pickpockets” (Aired: 03/11/62)

Toody and Muldoon end up arrested, thanks to a skilled pickpocket.

Written by Tony Webster & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

Wally Cox guest stars as an unassuming pickpocket at Yankee Stadium whose dexterity with swiped wallets leads to both Toody and Muldoon winding up in jail. Our two officers are made to look especially bumbling here — it’s not unusual for the cops to accidentally step their feet in their own laid traps — but this is the best version of this formula, with a fast-moving teleplay bolstered by a distinguished structure that’s quintessential Car 54. Again, Billy Sands appears.

10) Episode 26: “The Beast Who Walked The Bronx” (Aired: 03/18/62)

The precinct fears that the captain is to be temporarily replaced with a violent taskmaster.

Written by Terry Ryan & Nat Hiken | Directed by Al De Caprio

Mounting uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, is a common source of laughs on this series, and this installment does it better than most, mostly by intelligently setting up a scenario where the precinct erroneously comes to fear a meek, temporary replacement for the captain because they think he’s a “beast” who’ll beat them all into submission. And when one of the officers goes into the office and seems to not come out, naturally they all fear the worst. Very funny.


Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the closest to the above list, “Put It In The Bank,” in which the cops inadvertently cause panic around them simply because they’re cops. Additional offerings that I think need to be cited here include the actual premiere, “Who’s For Swordfish?,” which has a few strong comic scenes, “Home Sweet Sing Sing,” which is built on a sturdy comic premise, “I Won’t Go,” which is the first (but not the best) of three stories featuring Molly Picon, “Catch Me On The Paar Show,” which is a show biz entry with amiable, if predictable comic centerpieces, “The Taming Of Lucille,” a seemingly popular show for the Toodys, “Toody And The Art World,” which is mostly a one-joke show but is also interesting for introducing Charlotte Rae as Sylvia, “The Courtship Of Sylvia Schnauser,” which is Rae’s best showcase this year, “The Auction,” which is laudable only for its auction scene, “Quiet! We’re Thinking,” which is yet another outing with an indelible comic premise, and “I Love Lucille,” which is a terrifically funny show for Beatrice Pons that I really enjoy… even though a few moments are a little too unmotivated to fully support.


*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Car 54, Where Are You? goes to…

“Get Well, Officer Schnauser” 



Come back next week for Season Two! Stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!