Short-Lived Sitcom Potpourri (VII)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’ve got another Sitcom Potpourri, where I’ll briefly discuss several of the short-lived comedies I won’t have the chance to highlight in full — offering drive-by commentary that culminates in the selection of an episode that I think best represents each series at large (based on what I’ve seen). Both this post and last week’s feature shows affiliated with Get Smart, which we just wrapped on Sitcom Tuesdays…

 

THE GOOD GUYS (Sept 1968 – Jan 1970, CBS)

Premise: The misadventures of two longtime friends — a diner owner and a cab driver.

Cast: Bob Denver, Herb Edelman, Joyce Van Patten

Creator/Writers: Jack Rose, Mel Tolkin, Milt Rosen, Leonard Stern, Perry Grant & Dick Bensfield, Jerry Davis, Arnold Horwitt, Albert E. Lewin, Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf

Thoughts: Following the cancellation of He & She, Leonard Stern executive produced another multi-cammer for Talent Associates — this one a revamp of his favorite short-lived gem, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, which we talked about here. If you’ll recall, that was an early ‘60s update of The Honeymooners, specifically via its use of the “buddy comedy” design with an emphasis on slapstick. Well, The Good Guys follows that mold, with Herb Edelman standing in for John Astin, Bob Denver (off the recently cancelled Gilligan’s Island) as Marty Ingels, and Joyce Van Patten as Emmaline Henry. The biggest difference between the two, aside from the setting and differing professions, involves the personas of the leading men, particularly Bob Denver, whose reputation for juvenile fare precedes him, coloring both the material he’s given and the way he handles it. To wit, he makes the physical comedy appear less artful than it did on Dickens/Fenster (more like Gilligan’s than The Honeymooners), while also engendering, starting in his performance but moving outward into the storytelling, a reduced fidelity to logic, especially in comparison to Stern’s other multi-camera shows from this era, which feature actors more associated with realism and believability, and who are more comfortable playing in that modus operandi. In fact, I’m tempted to call The Good Guys a throwback because of the Gilligan’s style that Denver encourages as its de facto ambassador, not to mention that its inspirations, both The Honeymooners and even Dickens/Fenster, are also sillier and less character-led than both the forward-thinking He & She and even The Governor And J.J. (which we’ll be discussing next week). But this sensibility is not uncommon in the late ‘60s, and its popularity relative to those shows proves that it wasn’t out of place, nor was Denver, who isn’t on the same level of genius as Art Carney (and maybe even Marty Ingels), but is as likable and watchable as ever.

Also, based on what I’ve seen, The Good Guys — which was created and run by Jack Rose, produced for most of its life by Jerry Davis, and creatively shaped by Dickens/Fenster’s Mel Tolkin (former head scribe for Sid Caesar) with some help from He & She’s Milt Rosen — has slightly better character work than I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, for its leads are better defined… despite the elevated goofiness and the fact that there’s not as much evidence of their definitions in the storytelling, as they don’t really motivate plot, instead forcing narratives to be conventional and formulaic (a lot of “get rich quick” schemes in the Kramden/Norton vein), often based around gimmicks, like the recurring use of Denver’s former Gilligan’s costars, Alan Hale Jr. and Jim Backus, both of whom are funny, but undermine the sanctity of The Good Guys through the metatheatrical wink suggested by their very presence. Speaking of Gilligan’s, Denver wasn’t at ease with the multi-camera format and so Rose reluctantly dropped the live audience upon the series’ renewal, turning it into a full-fledged single-camera show in its slightly retooled and abbreviated second year, which moved to the beach, replaced Tolkin with former I Love Lucy scribes Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf, and accordingly became even goofier — an actual throwback. That said, the basic problems with the show transcend both seasons — broad hijinks that aren’t supported by a reliable character-based story apparatus (as the similarly liminal He & She developed) and performances that aren’t as genius as those on their predecessors (The Honeymooners and even I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster). To give you a soundbite: these people not only made better shows, other people made better versions of this show.

Episode Count: 42 episodes produced and broadcast; 25 from S1 and 17 from S2.

Episodes Seen: 11; from Season One: “Let ‘Em Eat Rolls,” “A View From The Terraza,” “The Courtship Of Miles Butterworth” [a.k.a. “Big Tom Gets Married”], “Love Comes To Annie Butterworth,” and from Season Two: “Fireman, Save My Diner,” “Biggest Madre Of Them All,” “No Orchids For The Diner,” The Eyes Have It,” “The Chimp,” “Communication Gap,” and “Art A La Carte”

Key Episode (of Seen): #3: “Let ‘Em Eat Rolls” (10/09/68)

Why: Produced as the pilot but aired third, this entry reveals the series’ intentions and therefore has a little more dramatic weight than the rest of the run. Also, it was shot before an audience, which bolsters the energy of the comic performances — something missing in the single-cam entries (even though Bob Denver clearly was more comfortable there).

 

THE DEBBIE REYNOLDS SHOW (Sept 1969 – April 1970, NBC)

Premise: A Los Angeles housewife longs to be a newspaper journalist like her husband.

Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Don Chastain, Tom Bosley, Patricia Smith, Bobby Riha

Creator/Writers: Jess Oppenheimer, Phil Sharp, Joseph Bonaduce & Ann Marcus, David Ketchum & Bruce Shelly, Phil Leslie

ThoughtsI Love Lucy creator (and temporary Get Smart producer) Jess Oppenheimer’s third post-Lucy sitcom — following Angel and last week’s Glynis — is this multi-camera vehicle for Debbie Reynolds, and like everything he wrote, the parallels to Lucy are obvious, for he establishes a premise where Reynolds plays a housewife who longs to be in the career of her husband… not show business, but journalism, and newspapers specifically. And as with Lucy Ricardo — a seminal, influential example of how a comic objective can be used in weekly story to spark regular situation comedy, and a figure whom Oppenheimer deserves the most credit for creating — Debbie is willing to resort to all kinds of broad, wacky hijinks in order to get what she wants. That’s where the problem comes in, for Debbie Reynolds suffers like everything Oppenheimer and his early Lucy cohorts, Bob Carroll Jr. and Madelyn Davis, wrote after their shining collaboration: their ideas about character and situation comedy are stuck in the era of their greatest triumph, and now no longer as fresh. That is, they were writing weaker, outdated versions of I Love Lucy, and just as with The Mothers-In-Law and even some of Lucille Ball’s later series (for which Carroll and Davis contributed), the stories, the jokes, and the designs all indicate a mid-‘50s ethos that became more grating the more it ignored contemporary trends.

In this case, The Debbie Reynolds Show of 1969 is on the cusp of the sitcom’s move towards realism, so the heightened foolishness of Debbie and her single-dimensional objective is already barely palatable, while the two-couple construct is tired, and the plots (some of which are blatant remakes of old Lucys) are hackneyed. Never mind that, A) Reynolds is no Ball — especially when it comes to physical comedy, which this star strains to motivate (and like Denver, Reynolds forced the show to drop its live audience during the middle of its first season) — and B), the characters are all less defined than they were on I Love Lucy (particularly the husbands — we don’t talk enough about how Desi Arnaz’s unique qualities shaped a characterization for Ricky Ricardo that elevated the series and made it excellent), for the simple fact is I Love Lucy is a seminal work to which all character-based sitcoms owe much of their understanding of this genre, and The Debbie Reynolds Show is an inferior copy of Lucy in an era that needed to use its lessons to move forward (like He & She and Mary Tyler Moore), rather than looking back via a shoddy imitation. (And, incidentally, don’t be fooled by the myth that Reynolds quit her show over a noble stand against cigarette sponsorship. It was an expensive production that failed to maintain a 30-share; even if the network hadn’t negotiated out of its two-year guarantee with her, it’s likely they would have dropped it after 26 weeks anyway.)

Episode Count: 26 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: 20 — all but “A Present For Jim,” “Paper Butterfly,” “Casanova’s Kittens,” “Guru-vy,” “Mission: Improbable,” and “Those Dangerous Years” (incomplete copy)

Key Episode (of Seen): #10: “You Bet Your Wife” (11/25/69)

Why: This is the show’s funniest installment, utilizing the gimmicky game show construct — a common sitcom device that can either be used to exploit characters in a known format or to derive situational laughs based on the narrative trappings. Naturally, with ill-defined leads, this entry (co-written by Joe Bonaduce, who contributed to Dick Van Dyke, He & She, and That Girl) goes for the latter, contriving a scenario that allows for an amiable farce with mistaken and performed identity, all driven by Debbie’s desire to play on a game show with her neighbor filling in as her husband. This is a story-led motivation that, for instance, we could possibly see on a show like I Love Lucy… but it’d likely be better motivated there by Lucy’s macro objectives (like breaking out of the home), and propped up by better defined characterizations throughout, making it much more of a character-rooted affair. So, while this isn’t exactly a Lucy story (like some blatant ripoffs are), this one displays the series’ shortcomings, and its similar-yet-now-dated comic bent… but with results that are, by these lower standards, decent.

 

THE PARTNERS (Sept 1971 – Sept 1972, NBC)

Premise: Two bumbling detectives cause as many problems as they solve.

Cast: Don Adams, Rupert Crosse, John Doucette, Dick Van Patten, Robert Karvelas

Creator/Writers: Arne Sultan & Earl Barret, Don Adams, Bruce Howard, Ed Simmons

Thoughts: Don Adams reunites with Get Smart producer Arne Sultan in this single-camera comedy about two bumbling police officers who stumble into crime-solving despite being generally buffoonish, and with the star continuing to play a variation of his established persona best embodied by Maxwell Smart, the two series are obviously similar. However, after a pilot infused with a winking parody of the police drama — in the same way Adams’ earlier hit was about the spy genre — the rest of the run downplays satire as its major comic source, instead focusing on situational plots (some of which also include former Get Smart recurring player Robert Karvelas) and the easy laughs that come from two clumsy goofballs. Also, this time everyone is allowed to acknowledge the leads’ ineptitude, which creates both self-awareness and a more pronounced sense of realism — aided by the premise (which is naturally grittier) and the fact that it’s the early ‘70s, where lower concept attitudes make it easier to craft motivated humor from the characterizations. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean The Partners has well-defined characters — no, Adams is the star and more of a screw-up than his partner (played by Rupert Crosse), but it’s hard to decipher individual personalities for either, and the latter especially, as sometimes he’s a straight man, and sometimes he’s equally as silly, with no explanation. Additionally, the format makes scripts beholden to the weekly narrative, and the cop genre is generally less sexy and fun than the spy biz, meaning ideas are less unique and memorable, more routine… Thus, while some elements of this show reveal an improvement over Get Smart  — like the de-emphasis of parody (which isn’t sustainable), and the decision to let the regulars acknowledge what’s apparent to the audience — The Partners isn’t any better written, with its characters or with its ideas. Today, it’s best known as the sitcom that, because of CBS’ last-minute schedule changes, went up against the top-rated All In The Family in the fall of 1971 (for 15 first-run episodes; the last five were burned off over the summer), legitimizing the supremacy of the Norman Lear machine and the irreversible changes he would spark.

Episode Count: 20 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: All 20.

Key Episode (of Seen): #1: “Here Comes The Fuzz” (09/18/71)

Why: The series’ hilarious pilot is able to do something that the rest of the run can’t — balance a parody of the cop genre with an earnest buddy comedy, where the leads’ incompetence is acknowledged by the other regulars and made to help motivate both the plot and the laughs. This is an improvement over Get Smart because it means believable characters and big idea-driven hahas can coexist with less opposition — as long as the parodic elements aren’t the driving narrative force, or the primary source of humor. The rest of the show drops this balance, focusing more on the stories than the satire, but with less help from internal givens (like character). In that regard, this premiere shows promise that would go unfulfilled.

 

FUNNY FACE (Sept 1971 – Dec 1971, CBS)

Premise: A UCLA student originally from the Midwest works as a commercial actress.

Cast: Sandy Duncan, Valorie Armstrong, Kathleen Freeman, Henry Beckman

Creator/Writers: Carl Kleinschmitt, Albert E. Lewin, Ron Friedman, Dick Bensfield & Perry Grant, Susan Silver

Thoughts: There’s no tangible link between Funny Face and Get Smart, but I include the series here because it was quickly succeeded by The Sandy Duncan Show, which is featured below and has a deserved reason for being on this list. So, what’s important to know about this earlier iteration is that it was created by Carl Kleinschmitt, who wrote for The Dick Van Dyke Show and That Girl, the latter of which is very obviously evoked in this similarly single-cam vehicle for another young darling, Sandy Duncan, who plays a small-town girl now alone in the big city, booking odd jobs as an actress. In Sandy’s case, she’s a student who’s studying to be a teacher, and books acting gigs (mostly commercials) just to pay the bills — while Ann Marie wants to be an actress but sometimes has to book outside gigs just to pay the bills. Yet, minus this and Sandy’s lack of core relationships with a father and a regular boyfriend, the premise is clearly reminiscent, as is the style of writing, which, like That Girl, isn’t totally ridiculous or heightened, but can be overly cutesy to the point of falseness, with less of a consistent link between the characters and motivated stories. Meanwhile, Kathleen Freeman and Henry Beckman are fine character actors, but there’s really not much of an ensemble surrounding the leading lady, which means the opportunity for great character writing is narrow. I think this would be less glaring if the show existed in the ‘60s — which it feels more like — than the early ‘70s, where it sat in CBS’ Saturday night lineup with All In The Family, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, all of which were more realistic and ensemble-led. However, despite being the clear weak link in this group and regressive in terms of spirit (with not a lot of seeming ability to improve in a meaningful way), Funny Face was a Top Ten hit because of its time slot. And it’s only because of Sandy Duncan’s medical emergency — she needed eye surgery — that the series was paused at midseason but invited back for the following… where it’d be tweaked to become more contemporary and address the concerns voiced by critics.

Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: Three; “A Lesson In Courage,” “A Star Is Born On A Stretcher,” and “Don’t Worry, I’ll Manage”

Key Episode (of Seen): #10: “Don’t Worry, I’ll Manage” (11/20/71)

Why: Truthfully, my commentary on Funny Face is limited because of how little I’ve been able to see of it, and I know, simply based on their loglines, that there are better offerings than the ones I’ve sampled. But this is the best of those three, not only because it’s written by Mary Tyler Moore’s Susan Silver, but because it uses the central premise — Sandy being a small-town girl having to fend for herself in the big city — in a comedic plot about her trying to manage their apartment building for the weekend. While others boast gimmicks, this one boasts the premise.

 

THE SANDY DUNCAN SHOW (Sept 1972 – Dec 1972, CBS)

Premise: A student teacher works part-time as a secretary at an advertising agency.

Cast: Sandy Duncan, Marian Mercer, Tom Bosley, M. Emmet Walsh, Pam Zarit, Eric Christmas

Creator/Writers: Arne Sultan & Earl Barret, Carl Kleinschmitt, Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses, Charlotte Brown

Thoughts: Although Kleinschmitt is still the credited creator, this significant retooling of Funny Face dropped all of the previous support around Sandy Duncan and put its heroine in a new format by head writers Arne Sultan and Earl Barret, both coming off the above-mentioned The Partners. But while the previous series for Duncan was a commercial hit, albeit not a critical one, The Sandy Duncan Show ended up being neither, for CBS moved it out of its guaranteed Top Ten spot (behind All In The Family), and evolved the premise into little more than a shameless copy of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That’s right; if Funny Face was an update of That Girl, this was a steal of Mary Tyler Moore, with its lead also taking a regular job in an office, and getting more of a true ensemble in both her personal and professional worlds, from which stories bounced. Now, this is the better design of the two — more support in the cast and a permanent work environment gives the show regular givens that can build emotional continuity, making it easier to find motivated comic story. But in being such a blatant mirror of Mary Tyler Moore, comparisons in the quality of their writing were inevitable, and Sultan and Barret, although they worked on The Governor and J.J. (and Sultan had worked on He & She), which was more realistic and character-based than its contemporaries, don’t have pedigrees in the same league as Mary Tyler Moore’s, and so the disparity in their leads’ depictions — the way they’re defined, the way they’re able to propel story — is huge, enough to make this seem like even more of a pale imitation than Funny Face was of That Girl… despite it actually being, for my money, a better constructed and better written endeavor than its predecessor. (And I’d still like to see more, especially the outings by MTM scribes Charlotte Brown and Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses.)

Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: Three; “Richer The Third,” “Write On,” “Dream A Little Recurring Dream Of Me”

Key Episode (of Seen): #13: “Dream A Little Recurring Dream Of Me” (12/31/72)

Why: Again, I haven’t seen enough to create a well-rounded picture of this series or choose its strongest episodes — I know there are better out there — but of the three I’ve watched, this, the series’ last aired installment, is the most modern, with a plot about Sandy having a sex dream. It feels like it belongs in 1972… as opposed to every other story I’ve seen from both of these shows, which are old-fashioned and comedically tired.

 

DIANA (Sept 1973 – Jan 1974, NBC)

Premise: A divorced British designer relocates to NYC and works at a department store.

Cast: Diana Rigg, Richard B. Shull, Barbara Barrie, David Sheiner, Robert Moore, Carole Androsky, Richard Mulligan

Creator/Writers: Leonard Stern, Sam Bobrick & Ron Clark, Arnold Kane & Gordon Farr, Arne Sultan, Jerry Mayer, Charlotte Brown

Thoughts: Another knockoff Mary Tyler Moore, this vehicle for The Avengers’ Diana Rigg displaces its thirty-something single gal (coming out of a divorce — not just a dashed romance) from the U.K. to NYC, where she’s forced to take an entry level position in the fashion industry, as stories jump between her work and home, showcasing the ensemble around her, including strong cast members like Robert Moore, Richard B. Shull, and Barbara Barrie (who replaced Mary Richards’ mother, Nanette Fabray, after the pilot). Did I mention how reminiscent it was of Mary Tyler Moore? Well, that goes for its design and intent anyway. In terms of actual writing, I’m afraid they’re as far apart as Sandy Duncan was, mostly in the depiction of character, for the strength of Moore’s show — and all of the MTM efforts — was its ability to create believable, palpable humans who were nevertheless well-defined and capable of anchoring motivated story. Diana, based on what I’ve seen, struggles to do this, and with such a close association to a superior effort, its shortcomings are magnified. This extends to its leading lady as well, for she’s simply not much of a comic actress (and shouldn’t be in a sitcom), despite being likable.

As for the Get Smart associations, Diana was created and executive produced by Talent Associates’ Leonard Stern, who probably felt like his take on Mary Tyler Moore would have some weight given his prior stint on He & She, which gathered many of the key talents that would go on to MTM, creating stylistic associations between the two. But, if you’ll recall from our coverage, He & She was an aesthetically liminal property, and, like the succeeding Governor And J.J., its character-driven realism certainly wasn’t on par with The Mary Tyler Moore Show of the early 1970s. And Diana doesn’t have the excuse of liminality to justify why it isn’t as sharp. Another thing it doesn’t have? Forward-thinking writers like Allan Burns, for it instead claims a staff who were mostly on the fringes of this and other ‘70s greats, like veterans from the not-quite-MTM New Dick Van Dyke Show and the campy-as-heck Paul Lynde Show, where its titular lead played a version of Archie Bunker. (Speaking of Archie, Diana was paired on NBC’s schedule with another All In The Family lookalike, Lotsa Luck, a fellow single-season multi-cam that we’ve discussed.) So, outside of small contributions by Bob Newhart scribes Jerry Mayer and Charlotte Brown (who eventually became the head writer of Rhoda), Diana wasn’t working with people who knew how to match MTM’s ethos, and it showed, making this a wannabe Mary Tyler Moore, with — like Sandy Duncan — a comparable form, but not comparable content.

Episode Count: 15 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: Six; “The Lady Comes Across,” “The Gilt Complex,” “Queen For A Night,” You Can’t Go Back,” “Long Shots And Fat Chances,” and “Kung Who” + audio of another, “Take My Father, Please”

Key Episode (of Seen): #15: “Kung Who” (01/07/74)

Why: The series’ final aired episode is its only script credited to the aforementioned Charlotte Brown, whose strong, comedic writing is capable of evoking MTM’s concurrent classics. Also, Get Smart’s Dick Gautier guests and since this post is highlighting those connections, I knew it was the one to feature. (I mean, I also could have cited the episode where Patrick Macnee appears, but it’s a gimmicky show that’s not as funny and isn’t as relevant to this blog.)

 

WHEN THINGS WERE ROTTEN (Sept 1975 – Dec 1975, ABC)

Premise: The legend of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

Cast: Dick Gautier, Dick Van Patten, Bernie Kopell, Richard Dimitri, Henry Polic II, Misty Rowe, David Sabin, Ron Rifkin

Creator/Writers: Mel Brooks, John Boni & Norman Stiles, Lawrence H. Siegel, Bo Kaprall & Pat Proft

Thoughts: This wild and often hilarious lampoon of Robin Hood has Mel Brooks’ name on it, preceding his 1993 film Robin Hood: Men In Tights, and places Get Smart vets Dick Gautier and Bernie Kopell inside an entire cast of funny performers, all playing familiar roles from the popular English legend. Naturally, with a more specific source work as the engine of its parody, all the leads are better defined than those on the similarly premised and high-concept Get Smart (also created by Brooks), but the storytelling is just as limited, for the legend is restricting and the characters are equally as unbelievable, as a result of the writing’s heavy focus on satire. Now, as a short-lived series, this problem doesn’t reveal itself to be fatal. Yet even in this brief 13-episode run, it’s clear the guffaw-seeking scripts have to rely more on out-of-the-box gimmicks (like musical numbers and fourth wall breaking, both staples of Brooks’ style) in place of the sitcom genre’s more traditional relationship between characters and story, and the law of diminishing returns asserts itself fairly early in its output. Essentially then, this is, once again, more a sketch than a sitcom, and though it’s probably fine for a half hour every week, it couldn’t sustain itself for many weeks, as the central comic idea — even with great stars, like Sid Caesar, who appears in the second entry — is itself single-dimensional and would get old fast (faster than Get Smart). However, like all of Brooks’ oeuvre, it’s worthy of a cult following, and its DVD release I’m sure will delight viewers who are able to enjoy it simply for what it is.

Episode Count: 13 episodes produced and broadcast.

Episodes Seen: All 13.

Key Episode (of Seen): #1: The Capture Of Robin Hood” (09/10/75)

Why: In the absence of any real episodic standouts, I’m singling out the premiere because it benefits from the freshest use of the high-concept premise.

 

 

UltimatelyI say you should FORGET The Debbie Reynolds Show and Diana. Because I need to see more, I’ll mark The Good Guys, Funny Face, and The Sandy Duncan Show in the STUDY pile (though they’ll likely prove forgettable), next to The Partners. And if you can, ENJOY When Things Were Rotten for what it is, along with the best entry here, The Partners’ pilot.

 

 

Come back next week for my thoughts on The Governor And J.J.! And stay tuned Tuesday for a sitcom rerun!