For Subscribers Only… A Look at BAREFOOT IN THE PARK (1970, ABC)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! To complement yesterday’s rerun post on the first year of All In The Family, this week I’m sharing — for subscribers who comment below — an episode of another comedy that premiered during the 1970-’71 season: ABC’s adaptation of Neil Simon’s hit play (and movie) Barefoot In The Park, which, incidentally, aired on Thursday nights at 9:00 — right before the TV iteration of another classic Simon property, The Odd Couple (1970-1975), covered here in 2014. Barefoot In The Park has an interesting creation story, for one could argue that the play itself inspired a mini-trend in late ’60s television involving young newlywed couples embarking on a shared — big city — life together. (Love On A Rooftop and He & She are the most visible examples.) So, by the time Paramount produced a pilot for CBS in late ’68 with Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson attached as writers (and Jerry Paris as the director), the Barefoot premise already seemed a little old hat, and its chances of being picked up were not considered high. Of course, there were other factors prohibiting the purchase of that first pilot, too — the first being the cast, the second being the content.

To the first point, the proposed series’ cast included Phillip Clark and Skye Aubrey as the leading couple; Skye Aubrey was the daughter of controversial former CBS network president Jim Aubrey, better known as “The Smiling Cobra.” There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm to get involved with that family again — even if the rest of the ensemble was to include such fine folk as Jane Wyatt and Hans Conried. (The pilot also included Norman Fell and Frank Campanella.) More importantly though, the Tiffany Network went into ’69-’70 needing a couple of comedies for 7:30 early evening slots, and Barefoot, with its opening stanza about a young couple searching for the perfect bed, didn’t exactly scream “family friendly” to Mike Dann. (Instead, he opted to snag Get Smart from NBC’s trash bin for the early Friday berth — a decision that didn’t work out too well for him.) Therefore, Barefoot In The Park was a no-go for CBS… However, you can view a condensed version of this pilot in the first season of Love, American Style (1969-1974, ABC), which broadcast a 19-minute cut of this Barefoot as “Love And The Good Deal” on November 24, 1969. Having seen this show on its initial DVD release, I’d say that while some of the supporting players shine, the script is cloying and the leads are generically depicted. Both Love On A Rooftop and He & She gave its central players more definition — from the start.

However, Paramount still thought there was potential in the concept, and knowing that ABC had always prided itself on a more youthful image, they got another pilot commissioned in summer ’69 for the Alphabet Network, to be considered as a midseason replacement. But now there would be a hook; with NBC recently finding in Diahann Carroll’s Julia its first Top 10 sitcom since Hazel, and Proctor & Gamble deciding to dump The Mothers-In-Law for a new comedy headlined by Bill Cosby, ABC believed that the familiar Barefoot In The Park could assert its own claims on social modernity if centered around an African American couple. Although everyone involved seemed to recognize this decision as nothing more than a gimmick — a way to sell the show and get people to watch — if taken to series, this would mark the first time since Amos ‘N’ Andy in the early ’50s that an American sitcom would have a pair of black leads, not to mention a married couple… With Harvey Miller and Bill Idelson as writers, this new Barefoot starred Tracy Reed and Scoey Mitchlll, along with an ensemble that included Thelma Carpenter, Nipsey Russell, Vito Scotti, and Harry Holcombe. The ABC brass liked what they saw and put the series on their 1970-’71 schedule, pairing it with the other aforementioned Simon comedy, The Odd Couple, on which Belson and Marshall were now attached. (They retained “Executive Consultant” credits on the Barefoot series.)

But several days before the show was to make its debut, Scoey Mitchlll was fired after allegedly striking a Paramount executive. Apparently there was tension on the set surrounding the actors’ distaste for the material and their anger over the lack of black talent behind-the-scenes. (Incidentally, among the contributing Barefoot scribes included future showrunners William Bickley, Susan Harris, and Stanley Ralph Ross.) With only 12 of the 15 ordered episodes completed, the show shut down as a replacement for Mitchlll was sought… However, the search didn’t go very far, because once the series premiered to generally unfavorable reviews and less-than-expected numbers, it was decided that production didn’t need to resume; Barefoot In The Park would conclude when its 12-episode run ended in December. (The Odd Couple, on the other hand, with slightly worse numbers but more critical favor/goodwill at the network, was moved at midseason to Friday nights, where it saw its weekly standings increase slowly from the Top 70 to, at least once before the year ended, the Top 40.) Episodes were eventually seen again when they (or the majority of them, anyway) were added to the Love, American Style syndication package. That’s presumably how TV Land was able to run them; in fact, that’s the source of the episode I am able to offer today — for subscribers who let me know below of their interest!

Titled “The Bed,” this is the series’ version of that original CBS pilot (which you can, again, see on the Love, American Style DVD). It credits the same authors (Marshall and Benson) and director (Paris), and was broadcast by ABC as Barefoot In The Park‘s second installment on October 01, 1970, following the Idelson-Miller pilot that aired the previous week as the series’ official premiere. Although I don’t have the second pilot for comparison to the first, this sophomore outing actually makes a more direct point of reference, considering that it’s using the exact same premise and a version of the script. (And, interestingly, Love On A Rooftop also did its own episode about the young couple’s bed back in 1966; Bridget Loves Bernie, from the same creator — Bernard Slade — would also do a similarly themed entry in 1972.) In my opinion, the ABC series’ take on “The Bed” benefits from an elevated energy and a more modernistic production design than what’s observed in the stilted, bland 1969 offering (which took all its charm from its guests). Also, the players have better emotional chemistry and comedic rhythms… However, the “tweaks” here to make the teleplay seem fitting for this melaninated cast are essentially surface at best, and insulting, at worst. Frankly, it seems the show is using its “unique” casting decision as a way to define its originality, which is otherwise in short supply from both the characterizations and the text’s framing of them. The slapdash slang (along with other similar superficial clichés) doesn’t suggest dimensionality.

Ultimately, this is still a relatively flavorless and diluted affair — quite unlike ABC’s adaptation of The Odd Couple, which embraced its source material’s well-drawn characterizations by emphasizing their extremes — and the hook of having a black cast actually only showcases the shortcomings in this series’ grasp of character, for the impression now is that the scripts need this sense of novelty to provide any value. (The New Odd Couple, from 1982-’83, represented a similar concern.) And, sure, while the cast indeed mitigates some of the inherent familiarity (because it is rare to see a regular black couple on a scripted comedy in 1970), defining characters by their pigment, and doing so without actually digging deeper than surface stereotypes, represents a problem twice-over… Are there things to enjoy? Absolutely. Not only is it more engaging than the CBS pilot, but this particular cast is strong — everyone here is likable, memorable — and they collectively acquit themselves as being deserving of material that could better indicate their palpable humanity. Also, the piece’s natural optimism is contagious and seems reflective of a specific part of this most transitional cultural era. And, to this last point, the piece remains — like everything we discuss here — a fascinating historical document worth studying. So, once again, for subscribers who’d like to see this episode, comment below and let me know! For everyone else, here’s just a little taste.



Come back next Wednesday for more Wildcard fun! And tune in Tuesday for another Sitcom rerun!