Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have a chance to highlight in full — offering drive-by commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode (or a handful of episodes) that I think best represents each series at large, based on what I’ve seen. For this post, every sitcom is a multi-cam associated with Laverne & Shirley (and most are from Paramount)…
BUSTING LOOSE (January 1977 – November 1977, CBS)
Premise: A recent college graduate moves out of his parents’ house and starts life on his own as an adult.
Cast: Adam Arkin, Paul Sylvan, Danny Goldman, Greg Antonacci, Stephen Nathan, Ralph Wilcox, Barbara Rhoades, Jack Kruschen, Paul B. Price, Pat Carroll, Louise Williams
Creator/Writers: Lowell Ganz & Mark Rothman, Greg Antonacci, David W. Duclon, Deborah Leschin, Babaloo Mandel, Barry Rubinowitz
Thoughts: Lowell Ganz & Mark Rothman, the creators of Laverne & Shirley, along with a handful of scribes who contributed to that already-hit series, prove what they can do with the “hangout sitcom” format when not under the aesthetic thumb of Garry Marshall’s brand, in this similarly low-concept comedy about a 24-year-old Jewish boy (Arkin) living on his own for the first time in the big city. Others in the cast include his meddling parents (played with gusto by Kruschen and Carroll — the latter is particularly funny) and both his boss and colleague at the shoe store where he works. But this is neither a family sitcom nor a workplace sitcom, for the main action concerns Arkin, his hot neighbor Melody (think: Penny from The Big Bang Theory), and his posse of four male friends. Now, there are probably two too many friends — a couple are hard to distinguish from each other — but otherwise, this is a surprisingly character-rich show, with everyone else being well-defined and unique, and lots of story opportunities suggested by the various parts of the ensemble. Indeed, sans the nostalgia and slapstick requirement of Laverne & Shirley, the scripts here retain some of that series’ easy-going silliness, but in a more realistic, contemporary package that makes the comedy more conducive for — and thus more driven by — the leading players, all of whom are amusing, as is the influx of ideas inspired by the low-concept premise. Currently, I’ve only seen the first eight episodes of the run — which aired 21 entries over the course of two half seasons — but I’d love to view more. It has all the makings of fine sitcommery — probably done in by the fact that it was on CBS at a time when that network’s lineup wasn’t strong enough to cultivate such a non-gimmicky new series. And it’s a shame, for though it’s not quite MTM, it’s in that vein — a version of this decade’s low-concept character-driven sitcom, but in acknowledgement of the mid-‘70s Marshall-inspired trend towards less seriousness. This could have been a winner.
Episode Count: 25 produced, 21 broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: Only the first eight aired episodes.
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #2: “Five’s A Crowd” (01/24/77)
Why: Annie Potts makes her first of three appearances as the neurotic Helene, whom the leading man takes to meet his parents in a hysterical centerpiece that showcases the characters and the central “busting loose” theme very well. The laughs are big — broader than mid-’70s MTM — but they exist in a mostly believable place because of the aesthetic realism that comes from consistent characters. And while the leads all shine, Potts lights up the screen — there’s a reason she was brought back twice more before this short run concluded.
BLANSKY’S BEAUTIES (February 1977 – June 1977, ABC)
Premise: A Las Vegas den mother cares and choreographs for a bevy of showgirls.
Cast: Nancy Walker, Caren Kaye, Lynda Goodfriend, Eddie Mekka, Scott Baio, Pat Morita, Johnny Desmond, Bond Gideon, Taaffe O’Connell, George Pentecost, Gerri Reddick, Rhonda Bates, Shirley Kirkes, Antoinette Yuskis, Jill Owens, Garry Marshall
Creator/Writers: Garry Marshall, Bob Brunner, Arthur Silver, Warren S. Murray, Marty Nadler, Joe Glauberg
Thoughts: This notorious effort from Marshall with Miller-Milkis was the second of Nancy Walker’s two failed attempts at headlining a sitcom during the 1976-’77 season (the first being The Nancy Walker Show, from Norman Lear’s camp). Its gimmicky premise about a den mother for Vegas show girls has often been linked with the campy mindlessness of so-called “Jiggle TV.” And, yeah, it’s pretty bad — much of the cast is clearly here because they look hot in skimpy costumes, which would be fine… if this were a different genre. But the situation comedy requires a strong situation (which, as we know, means characters) to yield comedy, and this series falls short, particularly with the former, for despite having a dynamo in Nancy Walker, who is effortlessly funny even with rotten material, the thin one-dimensionality of the leads, the lack of humanity that indicates a rejection of realism — both literal and aesthetic — and the over-reliance on sight gags for humor, most of them not even attached to character, all make this a lame effort. Of course, these traits also make it an accurate ambassador for the Garry Marshall style. (As if regular appearances by Scott Baio, Lynda Goodfriend, Eddie Mekka, and Pat Morita as Arnold, a recurring bit for Garry Marshall himself, and the stunty guest shots by Roz Kelly as Pinky Tuscadero and Penny Marshall as Laverne weren’t making it obvious!) The main difference between this show and his earlier hits, Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, is that this one is higher concept, which gives the weekly storytelling even more of a crutch to avoid writing for its leads. Oh, and it also has a dog credited in the opening — the universal sign of a bad sitcom. However, even though I can’t overstate what a bad sitcom this is, I admit it’s not the worst I’ve seen — perhaps its reputation precedes it so much that I was expecting worse, or maybe I’m just a sucker for Nancy Walker. That is, when Nancy Walker is traipsing about doing some outrageous physical comedy, I laugh… not because this is what I want from a sitcom, but because how could I not laugh at Nancy Walker traipsing about doing some outrageous physical comedy? That’s the best I can say for Blansky’s Beauties, so I’ll end it here. (If only Marshall ended it here; he took half the cast and retooled the series, sans Walker, as Who’s Watching The Kids?)
Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All, except “Anthony Falls In Love,” Nancy Meets Francie,” “Dear Nancy…” and “Nancy Breaks A Leg”
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #1: “Blansky’s Biking Beauty” (02/12/77)
Why: No, I’m not singling the premiere out for the shameless Pinky Tuscadero appearance, but for the climax where Nancy winds up on stage with the showgirls. Not every episode has shtick as slapsticky, but with the showgirl aspect forming a big element of the series’ identity, reinforcing it through a moment of big comedy that honors the radiant star is a bullseye.
ON OUR OWN (October 1977 – April 1978, CBS)
Premise: Two young single secretaries hope for advancement at a big New York ad agency.
Cast: Bess Armstrong, Lynnie Greene, Dixie Carter, John Christopher Jones, Gretchen Wyler, Dan Resin, Bob Randall
Creator/Writers: Bob Randall, Jim Rogers, Andy Smith, Nick DeMarco, Jennie Blackton, Joe Goodson
Thoughts: This NY-produced and set buddy comedy about young women is clearly a side effect of Laverne & Shirley’s quick success, but with a quiet gentle quality that seems wont to avoid slapstick, thereby evading genuine comparisons. In fact, if we’re seeking to make a connection between sitcoms, then more than anything else, On Our Own presages Kate & Allie (coming up soon), another NY-produced and set sitcom with two leading ladies whose friendship is the core, and which also claims Bob Randall, the creator of this series, as a producer. (Also, both shows boast one half of Dick Van Dyke’s Persky & Denoff — this one has Denoff; Kate & Allie has Persky.) But the comparisons really end there, for although Kate & Allie is also a generally quiet comedy next to its contemporaries in the genre, it’s bolder than On Our Own, perhaps largely thanks to its strong twosome, both of whom play comedy better and also get to share more of the narrative spotlight as equals. Here, there’s a decided lack of closeness between the leads, who, incidentally, aren’t roommates — Bess Armstrong is more of the star, while Lynnie Greene (young Dorothy on The Golden Girls) is an obvious second banana — and they both tend to underplay, leaving room for other ensemble members like Gretchen Wyler and Dixie Carter (the latter in maybe the most over-the-top role of her life, and that’s saying something) to steal focus and stand out in contrast. Unfortunately, these side players are not enough to truly distinguish the mild On Our Own comedically, as story remains fairly generic and not totally satisfying, for even though the particulars of the situation itself are relatively believable, with more literal realism than most sitcoms, the two leads have trouble pushing laughs via well-defined characterizations. As such, the big problem with this series is a dearth of humor, even in a handful of shows in the middle of the run that go broader and more ostentatious with their stories, as seldom are the leads actually sourcing the hahas. So, ultimately, this is a show that proves why the sitcom is an art — it takes talent and skill; having the right elements but not maximizing them is just as much a problem as not having them. (Note: this is the sole series on this list that is not associated with Paramount in some shape or form.)
Episode Count: 22 produced and broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All but “Never Trust An Actor With His Clothes Off,” “Blind Date” and “That’s Entertainment III”
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #5: “Julia In The Dark” (11/06/77)
Episode #11: “The Naked Summer” (01/22/78)
Episode #12: “Some Like It Glazed” (01/29/78)
Why: “Julia In The Dark” is the best of the quieter shows, for although it separates the leading ladies, it has an extended, very human exchange between Armstrong and guest James Naughton that indicates the nature of this series’ amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny ethos. In contrast, I recognize two loud outliers from the middle of the run — “The Naked Summer,” which uses the clichéd nudist camp twist for a story nevertheless more overtly comic than most, and “Some Like It Glazed,” which puts the leading ladies in a donut factory for a few Lucy-esque centerpieces that remind of Laverne & Shirley — the only time this type of humor and storytelling is evidenced on On Our Own. These last two are not great, just notable.
THE TED KNIGHT SHOW (April 1978 – May 1978, CBS)
Premise: A divorced man and his brother run an escort service in New York City.
Cast: Ted Knight, Norman Burton, Tom Leopold, Iris Adrian, Cisse Cameron, Fawne Harriman, Ellen Regan, Tanya Boyd, Janice Kent, Deborah Harmon, Claude Stroud
Creator/Writers: Lowell Ganz & Mark Rothman, Martin Cohan, David W. Duclon, Ron Leavitt, Barry Rubinowitz, Richard Rosenstock
Thoughts: Though structured as an ensemble workplace comedy, setting a series in an escort service (SEX! SEX! SEX!) makes for an overarching one-joke premise and a burlesque wink that, with these writers, crowds out the chance for any meaningful degree of sincerity, the absence of which is not only a threat to literal realism, but aesthetic realism too, as the titillating topic is allowed to matter more than the people within it, robbing them of the strength and consistency otherwise needed to drive believable comic story. As a result, The Ted Knight Show is essentially late ‘70s jiggle TV at its worst — sexy, but shallow, with not enough comic dexterity to justify its lack of humanity in a structure that craves it. To say it’s a comedown for Ted Knight from the very human, character-driven, and sincere Mary Tyler Moore would be an understatement. (And it’s not nearly as smart as Busting Loose, which aired the backdoor pilot.)
Episode Count: Six episodes produced and broadcast (not counting the backdoor pilot from the second season of Busting Loose)
Episodes Seen: “Strike,” “Sweet Sixteen,” and “The Honeymoon Game”
Key Episode (of Seen): N/A
Why: I could pick the premiere, as it gives us the best indication of what the series is, but frankly, I don’t want to dignify this show with a key episode.
ANGIE (February 1979 – September 1980, ABC)
Premise: A middle class waitress marries a wealthy doctor, joining their families.
Cast: Donna Pescow, Robert Hays, Sharon Spelman, Debralee Scott, Doris Roberts, Emory Bass, Diane Robin, Tammy Lauren, Valri Bromfield, Susan Duvall, Nancy Lane, John Randolph, Richard Beauchamp, Tim Thomerson
Creator/Writers: Garry Marshall, Dale McRaven, Alan Eisenstock & Larry Mintz, Sheldon Bull, Emily Marshall, Emily Levine, Thad Mumford, Leonard Ripps, Dan Wilcox, Bob Ellison
Thoughts: This is a rare sitcom from the Miller-Milkis-Boyett bunch that delights in maintaining a sense of quiet realism, thanks to its familiar low-concept premise of star-crossed lovers from different economic classes. Unfortunately, such a design, which seems primed for juicy clashes between characters within two boldly juxtaposed families, requires that the central twosome be emotionally strong enough, and therefore well-defined, to anchor all the sounding drama, and, I’m afraid, as is often the case with these opposing family shows (see: The Mothers-In-Law, Bridget Loves Bernie, etc.), the main couple is both collectively and individually without personality, asking that all comedic character-based drama come from other members of the family, particularly his snobby sister and her earthy mother (the latter played by Doris Roberts, who’s clearly the standout of the cast). Now, sometimes this family angst does cause narrative tension for the two leads, but sadly, not often enough, and after a handful of shows early in Season One that get to exploit the routine, expected developments of a quick courtship and marriage (this pair conjoins even quicker than Rhoda and Joe — again, to their detriment), it soon becomes difficult for scripts to concoct story, not just for the undefined leads, but even for the other members of the family too, as the series shies away from opposing them in ways that would yield heightened comic conflict. It would rather be gentler, milder.
And instead of using these premised relationships for story, which would heighten the characters but allow them to drive both premise-validating laughs and plots, scripts quickly come to rely on formulaic sitcom notions — like ye old game show visit (Family Feud) — and gimmicky guest star appearances, both of which are hacky. Then comes several attempted reformattings, first at the top of the second season, via some changes to the cast (dropping his niece and Angie’s pal at the diner) and then at the end, when Angie’s workplace moves from the diner to a beauty salon that she runs with her mom. But by this point, the show has no idea what it is, for with leads who don’t have definition and aren’t inspiring conflict (even positionally), stories lose all narrative focus. This essentially renders it a bland, amorphous sitcom with thinly defined regulars who aren’t being pushed for comedy, wrapped around a pair whose insubstantiality is very crippling, and apparently contagious, as no one is allowed to take off in character-driven plot. Thus, while one wants to appreciate Miller-Milkis-Boyett for trying a show that isn’t goofy or ridiculous or conceptually hinged on some ostentatious idea-driven notion, it still doesn’t have the characters needed to make a good situation comedy. And, because of this low-concept design that has no adopted hooks like nostalgia or slapstick to divert attention, without strong characters, the series doesn’t have much comedy either.
Episode Count: 36 produced and broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: All 36.
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #2: “Wedding Wings” (02/15/79)
Episode #3: “The Elopement” (02/22/79)
Episode #13: “Angie’s Old Friends” (09/11/79)
Episode #18: “The Thief” (10/30/79)
Episode #20: “Uncle Cheech” (11/13/79)
Episode #21: “Family Feud” (11/20/79)
Episode #26: “Angie And Brad’s Close Encounter” (01/14/80)
Why: I’m singling out two segments from the first season because they portend the most interesting comic drama between the two families — courtesy of the first meeting of her mom with his dad, and later her mom with his sister. The second season outings I’m largely highlighting for their gimmicks — “The Thief” guest stars the late Peter Scolari, “Uncle Cheech” boasts Danny DeVito, “Family Feud” is self-explanatory (and referenced above), and “Angie And Brad’s Close Encounter” has a young Rhea Perlman. They’re all memorable in large part because of these beyond-the-series hooks. As for “Angie’s Old Friends,” the second season premiere, I appreciate it because its story tries to create an inner dilemma for Angie, as she entertains her old school chums, who say that she’s now a snob — forcing her to examine whether or not she’s changed. Like all of Angie, it’s far too timid to be funny, and while most of her friends recur throughout the second year, the idea itself doesn’t really come up again in a meaningful way. But it’s a step towards a more character-driven style of comedy centered around the leading lady. I’d have liked to see much more of that.
WORKING STIFFS (September 1979 – October 1979, CBS)
Premise: Two janitor brothers try to work their way up in their uncle’s office building.
Cast: Jim Belushi, Michael Keaton, Val Bisoglio, Allan Arbus, Lorna Patterson, Phil Rubenstein, Paul Reubens, Neil Thompson
Creator/Writers: Bob Brunner, Harry Colomby, Arthur Silver, Marc Sotkin, David W. Duclon, E. Jack Kaplan
Thoughts: From several Laverne & Shirley scribes comes this goofy buddy comedy about two blue-collar pals trying to make it on their own — and like their distaff counterparts, this involves a lot of well-performed slapstick, which stars Jim Belushi and Michael Keaton deliver with exciting finesse right from the start. Indeed, Working Stiffs is a more job-set series that nevertheless emits a similar tone as our current Sitcom Tuesday subject, in large part because of this focus on slapstick and the lack of aesthetic realism or genuine interest in crafting well-defined multi-dimensional leads. To wit, this series is exclusively gag-happy, with shtick emanating from simple ideas that aren’t well-propelled by the characters and thus don’t make for anything resembling an ideal situation comedy — on our metrics, it’s awful — but for a few amiable half hours of silly comedy performed by wonderfully silly fellas, this can be real fun.
Episode Count: Nine produced; four broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All four broadcast, plus “The Bosses” and “Pal Joey”
Key Episode (of Seen): Episode #1: “The Preview Presentation” [a.k.a. “Pilot”] (09/15/79)
Why: Penny Marshall directs the series’ debut, which claims a fine slapstick centerpiece in which the leads find themselves out on the ledge, where they get to perform a classic bit with a giant clock, à la the great Harold Lloyd (and also Laverne & Shirley, which had done a similar routine). It’s an indication of the influence Garry Marshall’s work, and particularly Laverne & Shirley, had on the genre in the late ‘70s, broadening it considerably and removing the seriousness that had crept in during the decade’s earlier Lear and MTM era. As you know, this is not my preference, but with stars like these at the top of their games (early in their careers), it’s sublime.
BOSOM BUDDIES (November 1980 – March 1982, ABC)
Premise: Two young single ad men pretend to be women to get a room in an affordable apartment building.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Peter Scolari, Donna Dixon, Holland Taylor, Telma Hopkins, Wendie Jo Sperber, Lucille Benson
Creator/Writers: Robert L. Boyett & Thomas L. Miller, Chris Thompson, Howard Gewirtz & Ian Praiser, Leonard Ripps, David Chambers & Jack Carrerow, Terry Hart, Gary H. Miller, Jeff Franklin, Stu Silver, Roger Garrett
Thoughts: Miller and Boyett originally intended this series to be a male buddy comedy in the Laverne & Shirley tradition, but the network demanded a Some Like It Hot crossdressing high concept that they, and head writer Chris Thompson (also of Laverne & Shirley), clearly knew couldn’t sustain a sitcom. (Maybe a couple of years on a six-episode-per-season British series, but not in America!) The inevitable trajectory for Bosom Buddies then had to become about underplaying and pivoting away from this high-concept trap, into the loose, original format. This journey was aided by its great ensemble cast — not only the two headlining guys, both of whom went on to bigger and better, but also Holland Taylor, Wendie Jo Sperber, and in Season One, Lucille Benson — with each having a decently defined persona. Okay, the two guys aren’t as superbly delineated as, say, The Odd Couple, but, like Laverne & Shirley, there’s a basic distinction that pairs well with the rest of the group. The problem is that, despite everyone having basic personalities, the storytelling never fully uses them for plot, instead resorting to structural romantic trappings or weekly gimmicks, even after drag is minimized at the top of Season Two (when all the regulars find out), and the workplace moves from the ad agency to the commercial house, which invites a string of disconnected episodic notions that, at their best, are comedic, but for the most part, have nothing to do with the characters — the situation.
And, of course, the biggest problem with the series is its situation — a premise is a promise to the audience, and by setting up such a difficult one, the show is forced into a Catch-22: either it leans into its limited idea and burns out quickly, or it moves away and develops into the vague, low-concept “hangout comedy” of the second season, abandoning its promised design. Neither is a great option, but by choosing the latter, the show needs better characters, stories that flatter said characters, and/or more directly star-making material — like slapstick — to justify the rejection of its identity. And I’m afraid Bosom Buddies never gets there. That was my hang-up when I first examined the series for potential Sitcom Tuesday coverage back in 2015. Now, I’m happy it’s here in a Wildcard, because the stars do make this enjoyable, and while there are no classic episodes in the context of our study of the genre as a whole, there are a dozen or so that I think are fun within the context of this series specifically, particularly if you’re fans of the people involved, or the high-octane improvisational, late-night sketch quality of Season Two, which doesn’t have much going on textually as a sitcom, but is gag-stuffed and really led by the immense talent of the players, who are experimenting and inventing. So, this is no lost gem, but it’s an interesting stepping stone for several key people, and worth seeking out for those curious.
Episode Count: 37 episodes produced and broadcast over two seasons.
Episodes Seen: All 37.
Key Episodes (of Seen): Episode #6: “Kip And Sonny’s Date” (01/08/81)
Episode #8: “Revenge” (01/22/81)
Episode #14: “Only The Lonely” (03/12/81)
Episode #19: “Cahoots” (04/30/81)
Episode #25: “WaterBalloonGate” (12/11/81)
Episode #26: “All You Need Is Love” (12/18/81)
Episode #28: “The Slightly Illustrated Man” (01/08/82)
Episode #30: “CableVision” (01/22/82)
Episode #33: “Hildy’s Dirt Nap” (02/18/82)
Episode #34: “The Way Kip And Henry Were” (03/04/82)
Episode #35: “Who’s On Thirst?” (03/11/82)
Why: #6 furthers the central romantic arc and has the amusing notion of a purple-haired lady, #8 is not the kind of show I typically enjoy but it features everyone in the ensemble well inside a propulsive narrative, #14 is the first season’s best entry for Holland Taylor, and #19 uses the core ensemble smartly in a story they drive with their established romantic objectives. From Season Two, #25 has a comic premise, #26 is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and guest stars Rita Wilson(!), #28 is full of fun improv, #30 is close to a variety show, but with a lot of laughs and a cameo by Penny Marshall, #33 has another comic premise, #34 utilizes the flashback device to explore the characters and their relationship with Holland Taylor’s Ruth especially, and #35 is a great showcase for the two stars by themselves. None are brilliant, but all are watchable if you like the late-night, sketch-like improv style of comedy not common to sitcoms, but emerging throughout the ‘80s as an influence in all forms of televised humor.
Ultimately, I say… FORGET BLANSKY’S BEAUTIES, ON OUR OWN, and THE TED KNIGHT SHOW; STUDY ANGIE; and ENJOY what you can of BUSTING LOOSE, WORKING STIFFS (for what it is), and BOSOM BUDDIES (for who it has).
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned for the next potpourri post, along with more Laverne & Shirley — coming soon!