Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re concluding 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.
Last week I opined that the second season of this classic comedy has a diminished rate of excellence compared to its freshman predecessor. Before we discuss why, I want to reiterate that we’re still dealing with a show whose regular quality far exceeds most of its contemporaries and, out of all the sitcoms we’ve covered here from the ’62-’63 season, it’s still one of the best. So, as we saw with Season One, there are many great episodes. However, there are also many not-so-great episodes too. I previewed part of the problem in our previous post when recognizing why idea-driven series like creator Nat Hiken’s tend to exhaust themselves early, for when comedic notions are paramount, a show is only as good as its comedic notions. And despite a sturdier foundation of both character and premise making Car 54 a more legitimate sitcom than Phil Silvers, only Hiken is able to successfully replicate the guiding voice — his voice — that informs the way story exists on his series; once he tires, the show tires. This is also what happened on Phil Silvers, right before (and then certainly after) he departed, as the ideas upon which scripts were founded grew less comedically sharp and interesting, in part because the series’ reliance on its careful but trademark plotting became more templated and less surprising. Additionally, Car 54 uses its characters less often as a springboard for story in Two, principally because Hiken was deliberately attempting to minimize the usage — mostly in the back half of the year — of Joe E. Ross’ Toody, which in turn means there’s less time given to the series’ main relationship between Toody and Muldoon (Fred Gwynne), whose dynamic is supposed to be its continuity-providing bedrock. And while the show has always successfully enjoyed employing notable guest stars and offering material to funny peripheral players like Al Lewis and Charlotte Rae, both of whom have more to do this year under the guise of this becoming more of an ensemble effort, with the series’ core duo in the figurative backseat, the dramatic sincerity that helped distinguish Car 54 from Phil Silvers, and elevated its baseline by reducing mediocrity, is rescinded, and it becomes even more reliant on its weekly (often gimmicky) ideas.
Now, although I find Two’s diminished returns palpable — and not solely confined to its back half — I’m sympathetic to the writer’s plight, for the only reason Hiken sought to shrink Ross was because of the actor’s notorious difficulty, which allegedly got so bad that Ross was nearly fired midseason. But Hiken couldn’t follow through on the threat of dropping his comic star, and this angst manifested itself in his work — not only did he ration Ross’ weekly airtime, he also seems to have divested himself emotionally from the series. In fact, Hiken apparently intended to hand off Car 54‘s keys, as he did at the end of Phil Silvers‘ second year, so he could go on to helm a new show whose pilot he hoped would be picked up, The Magnificent Montague, a radio sitcom he tried several times to bring to TV. Yet, again, no one could step into Hiken’s shoes and truly fill them, and with tension mounting, he lashed out at the most likely candidate to replace him, longtime collaborator Billy Friedberg, whom he let go in the middle of the season. By this point, Car 54 had slid in the ratings; after making the Top 30 and being a worthy rival for CBS‘ Ed Sullivan in 1961-’62, the series had fallen to 40th place in late ’62, and both NBC and sponsor Proctor & Gamble were disappointed in its performance. Simultaneously, Hiken — who always resented network interference — was fed up with the brass and threatened to end his show entirely. Nobody wanted this though — NBC, P&G and Hiken all wanted Car 54 back, but with changes. They all agreed it should get a different time slot, and NBC offered to move the show from 8:30 on Sundays to 7:00… contingent on Hiken selling a portion of his ownership in it. Once he refused, the series was officially cancelled by NBC, rendering Hiken’s other pilot formally rejected as well. P&G and Hiken still held out hope for a potential Car 54 deal with CBS, but it was too late and the series ended after just two seasons, driving off into syndication where it would remain a popular but less iconic vehicle than the decade’s other classics. However, these lists prove definitively that Car 54 was a quintessentially ’60s sitcom and made the most of its two years, leaving behind many hilarious half hours that deserve our attention. I have selected ten that I think exemplify this year’s finest.
01) Episode 31: “Hail To The Chief” (Aired: 09/16/62)
Toody and Muldoon are chosen to drive the President of the United States.
Written by Tony Webster | Directed by Nat Hiken
Inherently enjoyable comic stories rule the day here in Season Two — we like episodes if we like their central ideas — and this Victory In Premise is a prime example, as its rather ambitious narrative has Toody and Muldoon being selected to drive President Kennedy upon his visit to the city. Naturally, they’re terrible choices because Toody says too much and Muldoon is so nervous about the responsibility that he faints whenever the president is mentioned. Yet the highlight of this silliness is the comic climax where Muldoon’s anti-depressants make the duo a slaphappy mess while they’re all being briefed. Phil Silvers‘ Billy Sands appears.
02) Episode 32: “One Sleepy People” (Aired: 09/23/62)
Muldoon and Lucille fear that they’re developing feelings for each other.
Written by Terry Ryan | Directed by Nat Hiken
A relationship-driven farce with a lot of moving parts, this outing deftly uses television (as several shows this year do) to spark a story where Muldoon and Lucille can’t help but fear that they’re falling for each other, just like characters on a TV drama they watched. This leads to the expected comic complications, particularly when Sylvia gets involved because of the broadcasted show’s apparently widespread side effects. Good work by the ensemble.
03) Episode 39: “Toody Undercover” (Aired: 11/11/62)
Toody infiltrates a group of gangsters and proves to be an excellent crook.
Written by Terry Ryan | Directed by Nat Hiken
My choice for the year’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Toody Undercover” is one of the only worthy showcases for his character here in Two, which otherwise underutilizes Joe E. Ross due to his difficulty and Hiken’s aforementioned attempts to work around him. The fact that this entry features him — one of the series’ most reliable sources of humor — is key to its success, as is its amusing Victory In Premise, in which Toody infiltrates a ring of gangsters and finds himself better at crime than policing. This is the perfect story for the blissfully unaware and incompetent Toody, who means to help his boys in blue, but keeps fouling up their plans. So, with some of the biggest laughs of the season, and a spotlight shining on Ross, this is a standout. Also, note that Barnard Hughes, Bruce Gordon, and Barney Martin appear.
04) Episode 40: “I Hate Captain Block” (Aired: 11/18/62)
Toody accidentally teaches Captain Block’s mute parrot an unfortunate saying.
Written by Ben Joelson & Buddy Arnold | Directed by Stanley Prager
Almost every Car 54 offering has its proponents, but this seems to be quite popular, with a well-liked story where Toody accidentally teaches Block’s bird to say “I hate Captain Block,” a phrase that gets picked up by other birds and snowballs, in true Hiken fashion, into an absurd comic crescendo. I think the basic narrative core is a little “typical sitcom” and has scant to do with this series’ particulars, but I can’t deny both the big laughs here and its laudable plotting.
05) Episode 41: “A Star Is Born In The Bronx” (Aired: 11/25/62)
Sylvia’s ego swells when she’s chosen for a television commercial.
Written by Terry Ryan | Directed by Stanley Prager
There are a handful of installments this season that basically serve as star vehicles for Rae’s Sylvia — such as “Remember St. Petersburg” and the below-featured “The Loves Of Sylvia Schnauser” — but this is clearly the one that lets her shine the brightest, with several big comic moments that take advantage of the gutsy, unique, high-energy persona that fuels Rae’s work and proves why she’s one of this series’ funniest performers. David Doyle appears.
06) Episode 43: “142 Tickets On The Aisle” (Aired: 12/09/62)
The policemen try to get group tickets for a Broadway show.
Written by Tony Webster | Directed by Stanley Prager
The season’s best “show biz” story, this lampoon of the theatre is appealing today for the ways in which it acknowledges the actual shows running at the time, giving us a chance to look at this era of Broadway. However, it’s also enjoyable as a very funny spoof of the business, and how perceived salacity drives the public’s interest, with many citable gags but most importantly, some great character work as Lucille’s and Sylvia’s moral attitudes are juxtaposed.
07) Episode 49: “Toody And Muldoon Meet The Russians” (Aired: 01/27/63)
Toody and Muldoon are selected to give Soviet dignitaries a taste of American capitalism.
Written by Nat Hiken & Billy Friedberg | Directed by Stanley Prager
Perhaps a piece of Cold War propaganda, this installment also wrestles with a premise I don’t immediately champion — it’s got a lot of one-off characters, and foolishly separates Toody and Muldoon intentionally — but I must admit that its comic climax is not to be missed and elevates the whole half hour. This is the one where the buttoned-up female dignitary goes to a burlesque show and is so inspired by what she sees that she’s compelled to do her own strip. It’s goofy, but where else would we see this except Car 54? Jules Munshin, B.S. Pully, and Greg Morris guest.
08) Episode 52: “The Biggest Day Of The Year” (Aired: 02/17/63)
Nobody at the station can figure out what Toody means when he says it’s an important day.
Written by Lou Solomon & Bob Howard | Directed by Stanley Prager
Among the series’ most beloved excursions, I can’t say this is a totally original premise — we’ve seen the “why is this day important?” story used elsewhere — but the value here comes from how Hiken’s structural style ratchets up the comic momentum and turns the idea into a well-paced testament to human foible, as an error no one bothers to question leads to everyone in the precinct trying to figure out why today should be a cause for celebration. It’s the same kind of build we saw in last year’s “The Beast Who Walked The Bronx,” only it’s prideful ignorance that propels this story, and in that way, it’s the Car 54 effort that comes the closest to evoking Phil Silvers’ iconic “The Court Martial.” An MVE contender.
09) Episode 53: “Here Comes Charlie” (Aired: 02/24/63)
The cops try to rehabilitate their drunk friend Charlie by finding him a steady job.
Written by Nat Hiken & Billy Friedberg | Directed by Stanley Prager
Fans of recurring cast member Larry Storch will especially appreciate this installment, in which his character, Charlie the perpetual drunk, is allowed to anchor a story in which the police try to find him regular employment, eventually settling on a place where he can’t drink: a diamond-cutting factory. There the central comic idea takes over, of the cops’ frequent “inspections” (to check on Charlie) driving the other straight-laced teetotaling workers to paranoid distraction, and naturally, the bottle. Guests include Ossie Davis and Margaret Hamilton.
10) Episode 58: “The Loves Of Sylvia Schnauser” (Aired: 03/31/63)
Sylvia helps expose a phony publishing company, but her commissioned book causes a panic.
Written by Tony Webster & Nat Hiken | Directed by Stanley Prager
Another strong show for Rae’s Sylvia, as she gets to test her acting skills when called to help the cops bust a phony publishing house, this outing also claims a classically Hiken display of paranoia when word gets out that Schnauser’s wife is writing a Peyton Place-like book about her many loves… which her husband is convinced includes half the precinct. It’s more big hahas — not much Toody and Muldoon, but Al Lewis does great work: typical of this final era — featuring guest star turns from David Doyle, Kenneth Mars, and Charles Nelson Reilly.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “A Man Is Not An Ox,” the year’s strongest Toody/Muldoon show, “Je t’adore Muldoon,” a funny and range-providing piece for Fred Gwynne, “That’s Show Business,” another highly amusing show biz offering, “The White Elephant,” which uses the well-worn template of the cops inadvertently stopping crooks from their mission, “Benny The Bookie’s Last Chance,” which has a fine comic premise but not for the regulars, and “Lucille Is 40,” which was the closest to the list and has several funny moments, particularly for the two wives. I should also like to cite the strong work of Molly Picon in the well-remembered “Occupancy, August 1st” (her best Car 54 showing), and the seemingly popular “Pretzel Mary,” which really puts a lot of weight on guest Sybil Bowan. (Incidentally, note that Nat Hiken was nominated for an Emmy this year, likely for his script “Puncher And Judy,” which boasts both Shari Lewis and Sugar Ray Robinson.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Car 54, Where Are You? goes to…
Come back next week for The Beverly Hillbillies! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!