The Ten Best THE DANNY THOMAS SHOW Episodes of Season Eight

Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our look at The Danny Thomas Show! This season is not available for purchase, but it is in the current TV package.

The Danny Thomas Show stars DANNY THOMAS as Danny Williams, MARJORIE LORD as Kathy Williams, RUSTY HAMER as Rusty Williams, and ANGELA CARTWRIGHT as Linda Williams. With AMANDA RANDOLPH as Louise and SID MELTON as Charley.

Following a difficult season where Danny Thomas’ plan to phase himself out via the marriage of a recast Terry and her new cardboard cutout husband obviously failed, the company entered Eight with a chip on its shoulder — ready to refute the last year, if not the last several years. “No, Thomas isn’t retiring after all.” (He changed his mind?) “No, Pat isn’t coming back, but Terry might recur.” (She never did.) “Yes, there have been too many guest stars.” (Seven didn’t have as many as Six, but okay…) “Yes, this year is going to focus more on the regulars. Why? Because they’re rich enough to carry the show without the help of any gimmicks or stars.” (Really?)… Well, that’s basically what the show said. And by show, I mean Thomas, resident director/producer Sheldon Leonard, and new “story consultant” (head writer) Milt Josefsberg, the longtime Jack Benny scribe stepping in to replace Arthur Stander, who’d left to helm the new Andy Griffith Show. If Stander’s influence has been debatable, Eight proves that, even though Seven was already in decline, the drop-off here is steeper, making it impossible for this year (and maybe others) to match the quality of his tenure. For the problem that soon arises, amidst the show’s rallying instance that this season would be better than ever (never mind that the last few years were good), is the very thing that’s always kept Danny Thomas from being on the same level as Lucy and Dick Van Dyke: the regular characters are NOT as rich as the show thinks — a fact that had been obscured recently by an elevation in quality assisted by the scripts’ liberation from a tired premise (Five), an increase in guest stars and stunts during a time when the show’s writing was able to handle them (Six), and a story arc that seemed to provide both narrative focus and a distraction from the series’ dwindling authenticity (Seven). Here in Eight, without any external hooks to supply value, it’s revealed the only character with any definition is Danny’s, and that’s because it’s entirely supported by Thomas’ well-known persona. Oh, the kids are still played by some of the best in the biz, but stories for them aren’t as strong as they were before, for with diminishing honesty also comes diminishing laughs. This will be more of a problem next season when Rusty ages and the show panics — he’s still capable of anchoring funny plots now, but this is really his last decent year; stay tuned…

As for Kathy, although Six tried to cultivate a comic personality for her after the newlywed period lapsed, Seven didn’t use her that much, and when it did, it wrote her as a cliché, in convenient stories where she was forced to behave incongruously given her limited, but otherwise amiable characterization. Unfortunately, Eight does the same thing — and more often — depicting her as the personality-less wife who nevertheless gets in low-stakes skirmishes with her husband, forced to propel the same tired beats in the same tired stories circulating since radio. Entries like “Kathy And The Glamour Girl” or “The Woman Behind The Man” not only traffic in unoriginal sitcommery, they also force her to behave broadly, without the necessary character motivation — a detail especially essential on this series, which has always sought to be sincere, even when going for big laughs. Thus, the larger problem is that Eight is simply unable to maintain an ability to suggest that she, or any of these regulars, are real people; they all become more familiar, conventional, false — characters. This sense of falseness, mitigating the series’ trademark heart (and humor), hangs over the whole year, and I’m tempted to claim Josefsberg has something to do with this — he was great with the well-defined personalities of Jack Benny, but when presented with the lesser Danny Thomas, he can’t do anything but play into domestic tropes. Yet the truth is that Eight isn’t any better when he leaves two-thirds through and is replaced by Arthur Alsberg, a Bachelor Father alum who sees out the year, by which time it’s obviously returned to its guest star-driven ways, having realized that, no, its regulars aren’t so rich, particularly at this time. Frankly, I wish I had something better to say about Eight — which is notable for introducing Bill Dana’s José Jiménez, offering the backdoor pilot for The Joey Bishop Show, boasting four episodes with Gale Gordon as a landlord foil, and increasing the use of Sid Melton’s Charley, who’ll become a major presence in Nine, when his wife debuts and this new “two couple” structure (along with their pregnancy arc) provides distractions/opportunities missing here — but, heck, this is just one of those years that’s not so inspired. Still, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify the season’s finest.

 

01) Episode 219: “Kathy Delivers The Mail” (Aired: 10/03/60)

Kathy schemes to deliver mail that Linda has been hoarding.

Written by Ray Singer & Dick Chevillat | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

My choice for the season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Kathy Delivers The Mail” samples the broad nature of the season in a clichéd sitcom plot point — Danny thinking his usually sane wife has suddenly become a kleptomaniac — that asks us to suspend disbelief for the sake of laughs and indicates how these characters are no longer as realistic as they once were. But the script does a surprisingly valiant job of justifying its silliness, first by having Kathy generally annoyed and taking it out on everyone, which enables Danny to ascribe some circumstantial evidence to his diagnosis, and then by allowing us to fully understand that, aside from her initial nastiness, all of her actions are associated with the story of hiding and redistributing the mail that Linda naively took and never delivered, meaning that, again, aside from her initial nastiness (which itself has an explanation), we’re on Kathy’s side and don’t find the plot-pushing behavior illogical. As a result, we’re able to enjoy the gigantic hahas that, despite the conventional story, don’t harm the characters and don’t have any competition this season as significant. So, this is the most flattering, while honest, example of Season Eight. (Incidentally, the guest actors include Parley Baer, Shirley Mitchell, and future Joey Bishop regular, Joe Besser.)

02) Episode 220: “The Report Card” (Aired: 10/10/60)

A teacher’s mistake gives Rusty all A’s on his report card.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

One of the sincerer Rusty outings here, this is also the most familiar, with a story of an incorrect report card: typical fodder for this era. I highlight it to emphasize just how much more fun this idea is on Danny Thomas, a sitcom with domestic elements but otherwise not firmly in that category, in contrast to a traditional staple of that genre, Leave It To Beaver, which uses a similar plot, yet isn’t beholden to an audience for laughs, and is therefore both less funny and, because of its moralizing, less true. Also, Eleanor Audley guests as Rusty’s teacher.

03) Episode 224: “Kathy, The Matchmaker” (Aired: 11/14/60)

Kathy tries to play matchmaker for Danny’s friend, Phil.

Teleplay by Arthur Stander | Story by Tom August & Helen August | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Probably the best episode of the entire series built around Danny’s agent and friend Phil, played by series producer and director Sheldon Leonard, this offering is also the only script credited in Eight to former “story consultant” (a.k.a. head writer) Arthur Stander, and perhaps that’s why, even with a routine premise, it’s infused with more humanity. I also appreciate the more sophisticated humor of Phil’s fake reasons for never settling down. Very Dick Van Dyke. (Also, here’s a place to point out that Leonard won an Emmy for his directorial work this season.)

04) Episode 227: “Danny And The Dentist” (Aired: 12/05/60)

Danny is nervous about going to the dentist.

Written by Ray Singer & Dick Chevillat | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

An easy entry to enjoy, courtesy of a big block comedy scene where Danny, who’s spent the first part of the show nervous about going to the dentist and is forced to have Charley as chaperone, tells the doctor (played by Richard Deacon) that Charley is Danny, which yields both of them having to get work done on their teeth. It all revolves around one joke — the guys being afraid of the dentist — but it’s universal, memorable, and gets the laughs it seeks.

05) Episode 230: “Rusty, The Rat” (Aired: 12/26/60)

Rusty has Linda take the blame for breaking one of Danny’s golf clubs.

Written by David Adler | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

What I most like about this outing, which makes fine use of both Rusty and Linda, is that it’s written and produced like a one-act, with long scenes that play in real time, forcing an intimacy and truthfulness that the season promised to deliver more often, but never actually managed to supply with regularity (because it needed the gimmicks). Again, Hamer and Cartwright are great here and this certainly helps sustain the episode’s multi-cam-lovin’ theatricality.

06) Episode 232: “Democracy At Work” (Aired: 01/09/61)

The family decides to vote on things, as in a democracy.

Written by Benedict Freedman & John Fenton Murray | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Another tight family show, this freelance script by an interesting duo feels like it would be just at home during the end of the Margaret era, back when the series was using fewer guests and more acutely focused on family dynamics and challenging, specifically, Danny’s style of parenting for comedic story. The idea of democratic rule in making domestic decisions is something other sitcoms have and will still employ, but seldom with as much honesty as evidenced here.

07) Episode 234: “The Whoopee Show” (Aired: 01/23/61)

Danny uses Kathy for material in his act.

Written by David Adler | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Okay, this is a fascinating entry, and we should first note that it’s credited to David Adler, the pseudonym for Frank Tarloff, who started offering scripts back in Six and would be an occasional contributor to Dick Van Dyke in its first year. This connection is important, because this outing, in which Kathy gets mad about Danny using her in his act, is exactly the type of recurring problem we’d see with Rob Petrie, a TV writer whose professional and personal worlds (like Danny’s) provided the dramatic relationship at the heart of his show’s premise. Tarloff paired a variation of this story with an old I Married Joan idea to create a definitive Dick Van Dyke segment called “The Curious Thing About Women,” and, consequently, it would later become more frequently templated, post-Tarloff, in Danny Thomas‘ final season, when the series was actively becoming more like Dick Van Dyke in its quest for realism. So, this is a telling precursor of what’s to come, illustrating how connected the two series are.

08) Episode 235: “The Rum Cake” (Aired: 01/30/61)

The Williamses try to convince the landlord not to evict them.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Gale Gordon, after first appearing as Mr. Heckendorn once in Season Seven, makes his second of four appearances in Eight here, as part of a familiar story about the grouchy landlord seeking to evict his noisy tenants. But because it’s simple and doesn’t try too hard (like some of his other episodes), it ends up being the most memorable: a distillation of his character. And while the drunk bit is a tired contrivance, we want to see a schnockered Gale Gordon, so why fight it?

09) Episode 237: “Rusty, The Millionaire” (Aired: 02/13/61)

Danny gives Rusty money, hoping that he’ll learn to budget.

Written by David Adler | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

In contrast to “The Report Card,” which was especially realistic and human, yet conventional and routine, “Rusty, The Millionaire” boasts an original premise that isn’t quite unrealistic or inhuman, but definitely prioritizes its laughs, which come in abundance after Danny’s plot to teach Rusty how to budget money (by giving him more than he’s ever had) creates a miser out of the kid, with wonderful gags about skinflint Rusty and his newfound fortune.

10) Episode 247: “The Magician” (Aired: 05/01/61)

Rusty and Linda’s magic act winds up in Danny’s serious speech.

Written by Charles Stewart & Jack Elinson | Directed by Sheldon Leonard

Admittedly, this well-liked entry only makes this list because of its commitment to a bold climax that combines Rusty and Linda’s earlier established magic act with Danny’s serious speech to the United Nations, making for an affable centerpiece where Danny embarrasses himself (but delights the audience) by unintentionally doing tricks. I find it very easy — idea-based, obviously — like the dentist outing, but there’s some craft involved, and it comes together nicely.

 

Other notable entries that merit mention include: “Danny And The Actor’s School,” which illustrates why this season is weaker — an attempt at an over-earnest character objective (Danny’s) is contradicted by uncomfortably broad and over-the-top contrivances (the acting class and its students), including behavior from Kathy that simply doesn’t jive with her established depiction, no matter what comedic stunt is thrown in to distract us. Others worth noting are “The Singing Sisters,” where Danny and Charley put on an act to get justice for a pair of bilked nuns, “Tonoose, The Boss,” the year’s best Tonoose outing, and “The Four Angels,” a shameless guest star-driven show that works only because of its precocious Rusty depiction. Of more Honorable Mention quality are “Fugitive Father,” a dreadful half-hour with one great physical comedy scene, along with three important episodes, “The Plant,” which is the year’s first Gale Gordon entry, “The Dog Walkers,” which introduces José Jiménez, and “Everything Happens To Me,” the backdoor Joey Bishop Show pilot.

 

*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Eight of The Danny Thomas Show goes to…

“Kathy Delivers The Mail”

 

 

Come back next week for more Danny Thomas and tomorrow, a new Wildcard Wednesday!