Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week I’ve got another Q&A entry, where I answer questions submitted by readers. Thanks to everyone who sent in something — if you don’t see your “Q” here, I just may “A” it next time. (I now have a stockpile!)
Richard Hammer asks… What happened between Ann and Jack Chertok that caused ‘Private Secretary’ to be be renamed ‘Suzie’? And what happened on the Ann Sothern Show that brought about the exit of Ernest Truex and other characters and the arrival of her “Private Secretary’ co-stars Ann Tyrell and Don Porter?
According to my research, Ann Sothern wanted out of her Private Secretary contract in early 1956 so she could do other projects, including a special with Orson Welles. When Jack Chertok wouldn’t grant this, their relationship quickly soured and Sothern sued him for denying her profits in the show’s recent sale to TPA, which now also owned the option for another year of her services. She was especially livid about being sold with no say-so, and tried to renegotiate with TPA, hoping to act as the producer for a final season in which she would also star. But they never reached an agreement, and the show was shelved. TPA and Chertok then threatened to recast Private Secretary without her. Sothern, meanwhile, made a deal to coproduce with Desilu a new series that became The Ann Sothern Show, created by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf of I Love Lucy. It was expressly designed as different from Private Secretary to avoid legal action, but it underperformed Nielsen expectations and the network decided midseason to bring back Don Porter and the original dynamic that had proven more successful. (Incidentally, Ann Tyrell was on Ann Sothern from the first episode, so she wasn’t part of the retooling!)
Issa Kelly writes in with… What are your thoughts on My Favorite Martian? For me, I feel it suffers from the same problem that Jeannie faced: limited premise and limited conflict… But I prefer it to jeannie. My favorite episodes of that show tend to be the ones that explore human themes(,eg a retiring teacher reaching out to Tim to feel appreciated). I just wish there was more conflict between Martin and Tim… Do you think making Martin world weary was the right choice for his characterization? Or should he have been more clueless about the way the world worked…?
Yes, My Favorite Martian has no conflict beyond the pair’s external drive to keep Martin’s identity a secret, which limits the tension — both comedic and dramatic. The show’s also not very good at playing to this conflict in story, for there are no character motivations to propel the use or discovery of his powers (the threats are circumstantial, like his getting sick). Martian is therefore light on action compared to the other fantasy series of its era, and I actually don’t prefer it to Jeannie, for the latter does a better job of elevating Tony’s fear of Jeannie’s outing (and Dr. Bellows’ desire to be vindicated), which ratchets up the mania and accordingly invites a more comedically charged tone, with ideas more forceful in procuring laughs (satisfying the genre’s elemental requirement). Martian, in contrast, is never as fun because its leads’ goals are not as urgent, nor as rooted in their personas, forcing episodic story to be even more situational — like the entry you referenced, which is sweet, but has nothing to do with the series’ premise or its characters, and doesn’t even try to derive comic conflict from any arrangement of Martian’s givens. Additionally, scripts are not adept at exploring the possibilities for tension in juxtaposing the Martian world with the human world, because, to answer your other question, yes, it was a mistake to not emphasize and exploit both characters’ foreignness to each other’s respective cultures and ways of life. So, ultimately, I find Martian poorly built and not rewarding.
Nat says… I noticed there was a sitcom version of “The King and I” in the early 1970s. My question to you is which classic Broadway musical do you think would have made the best sitcom?
If you count something from 1970 as eligible for “classic” status, the show that immediately springs to mind is Stephen Sondheim’s (and George Furth’s and Hal Prince’s) Company, a groundbreaking concept musical about a single man with commitment problems, surrounded by a handful of married friends. This premise has been used on sitcoms since then — like in The Single Guy and Rules Of Engagement, for instance — but I’d love to have seen an early ’70s take from the folks at MTM, a stable that was known for palpable character-forward humanity and an ability to address contemporary realities with comic sincerity. I think part of the development from stage to small screen would involve paring down the number of regulars and then finding some way for most of them to routinely have a reason to get together — either they live in the same building, they’re coworkers, are related, etc. But, otherwise, the premise alone already has the potential to be another ensemble-based low-concept comedy with realistic characters and relatable, modern (for the ’70s) conflicts. And that would be conducive to quality, especially if it involved original cast members whom we know (from our vantage point) could do sitcoms — like Dean Jones, Elaine Stritch, Charles Kimbrough, Barbara Barrie, Beth Howland — and claimed former Topper scribe Sondheim as a contributor or consultant. (Incidentally, MTM’s Paul Sand In Friends And Lovers from 1974 is about a single man and his married brother, but the notion of being bombarded by commitment while struggling with it personally would be unique to Company and something even more character-rooted, ideal for a company like Moore’s.)
Raul J asks… Which of [Betty White’s] two most iconic roles do you prefer, Sue Ann Nivens or Rose Nylund?
Well, Rose Nylund is meatier than Sue Ann Nivens because the latter is mostly used as comic support in an ensemble where other characters are tasked with providing the emotional weight. Sue Ann’s job is typically just to come in and increase the laughs by being outrageous, and although, true to Mary Tyler Moore’s ethos, she’s fleshed out with a remarkable degree of believability and depth, she’s seldom asked to do more than Rose, who has to have a more nuanced, dimensional persona because of all the sincere story she needs to supply. So, Rose is the fuller, better character. That said, the writing for Sue Ann is more consistent because Mary Tyler Moore is more consistent, avoiding the exaggerated comic broadening that seeps into all The Golden Girls’ characterizations in its later years, when Rose (in particular) becomes no longer as dramatically interesting, losing a lot of her believability in exchange for easy hahas. With regard to my personal preference, I like both characters because I like both shows — I find Mary Tyler Moore more influential to the genre, but I know that The Golden Girls will have more staying power, due in large part to its remarkable sense of humor and cast. And as for White’s two portrayals, specifically, I’d say that, again, she’ll be remembered for Rose because of The Golden Girls’ durability, but because her public persona in the first twenty years of her career had been that of “America’s Sweetheart,” the comic juxtaposition of her being a “Happy Homemaker,” who was actually a horny viper, brilliantly took advantage of how the actress herself had been packaged, and further maximized Sue Ann’s comedic punch. And while having her take on Rose a few years later was also a reaction to her recent work as Sue Ann, it came with less of a natural surprise. Thus, casting White as Rose was smart, but casting her as Sue Ann was genius… Now, this probably doesn’t play the same today to younger viewers, whose perception of White is as a “salty grandma” — sort of a bridge between Sue Ann and Rose — but I’d posit that the reason her current persona is funny is because we expect her to be a sweet, timid, daffy darling and she isn’t. That’s exactly what made Betty White’s Sue Ann uniquely hysterical too.
Jon Josephs says… I would love to know what you thought of WandaVision. I’m a Marvel nut and a sitcom lover, and while I really liked what it did within the MCU I’m not sure it’s great by sitcom standards. What say you?
As someone who’s not a Marvel nut (by any stretch of the imagination), I can’t speak on where the show fits within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or how well it accomplishes what it wants to accomplish therein, but as a fellow sitcom lover, I can say I have a basic appreciation for any modern work that so clearly intends to honor the genre’s history and some of its finest creations, like I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke, and Bewitched. I also fundamentally believe that the show’s obvious and stated regard for these great works of television’s past was a guiding inspiration and something that deserves to be lauded, as it’ll expose new viewers to these incredible classics… That said, I think the show’s premise, in which Marvel characters are essentially “trapped” in an evolving sitcom world, inherently emphasizes perceived limitations about the falseness of the format, inevitably indulging in clichés about what we think of certain eras’ comedies, based on the benefit of all-knowing hindsight. And I don’t think this focus on what’s constraining or stylistically exaggerated about “the sitcom” is compatible with the intended reverence for these shows, especially when their counterbalancing excellence — of character, of story, of comedy — isn’t actually exhibited in the text, which seems to prefer trafficking in wink-wink-nudge-nudge “bad” sitcom writing instead of reflecting the great qualities that truly made these series so special. I chalk this up not only to the premise, but also to the fact that it isn’t a sitcom — it’s a Marvel effort, written mostly by people who have never written a sitcom before, let alone one like the gems being evoked to make a dramatic point. Accordingly, it’s not a show where the sitcom genre, and its particular reference points, come off looking like great works of art. So, I resent WandaVision for caricaturing a format I love and misrepresenting classics I love, and the only thing I can hope for now is that more people will go out and watch these original series, seeing for themselves how artful they are.
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Come back next week for Good Times and another new Wildcard Wednesday!