Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re discussing The Joey Bishop Show (1961-1965, NBC/CBS) and its tortured evolution, focusing on how it — always a mediocre sitcom — intentionally became more like both The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964, ABC/CBS), the series off from which it spun, along with the superior but similarly constructed The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS). I’ll also share some picks for the series’ best and/or most important episodes. First, though, an encapsulation: The Joey Bishop Show begins as a workplace bachelor comedy with a non-traditional domestic component and a show biz veneer, very much in The Bob Cummings Show mold, but without the characters that made that series so watchable and fun. The arc of this series is then one towards reality, specifically Joey Bishop’s actual reality, as Season Two gives him a wife and makes him a TV star, keeping the work/home balance but now with a personal life that more resembles its parent, Danny Thomas, and its sibling, the company’s emerging hit, Dick Van Dyke, the best and most realism-based of these comedies and the one that Joey Bishop primarily tries to invoke in its self-referential yet more down-to-earth final season. However, the characters are never fully developed enough on Joey Bishop, and as a result, the show’s storytelling is never able to escape mediocrity and become a classic.
I’m going to be blunt. Joey Bishop is the runt of the Rat Pack — probably the least enduring member of that crew. He’s also not inherently likable on his own, an opinion I don’t enjoy sharing, but one that’s unshakable after forcing myself to watch 123 half-hours of a situation comedy built around him, only to find that he’s never an asset to his own series, never someone we know well enough to like, or like well enough to want to know. Unlike the sincere Danny Thomas and the jolly Dick Van Dyke, Bishop is guarded, less accessible. In fact, by all accounts, he was better displayed on his late-night talk show — the second Joey Bishop Show of the 1960s, where just as in the Rat Pack, Bishop could be remembered as an associate of other, more talented people. This has to be considered when we discuss his sitcom, because he’s only as good as those around him, and any show that stars Joey Bishop is especially beholden to its surroundings: its writers, its ensemble, its structure. And it’s no wonder then that the series spends almost the entirety of its four years in a state of flux, as Bishop and his evolving crew seek to develop the show into something that better reveals him and is more sustainable — never actually succeeding, but making efforts that seem to suggest an awareness of the problems. Needless to say, this show isn’t close to Van Dyke’s or Thomas’, although it looks a lot like them both. Even from the beginning, when Bishop first appeared in a backdoor pilot on the latter’s series, in a March 1961 entry called “Everything Happens To Me,” the premise was similar — a star vehicle for a man in show biz with a work vs. home construct. Yet it wasn’t totally like the other series. Joey, initially given the surname Mason, was rather on the fringes of the industry, playing a befuddled West Coast PR man who counts Joe Flynn as his boss and still lives at home with his family, a mother (Madge Blake), a father (Billy Gilbert), and two sisters (Mary Lee Dearring and Marlo Thomas, the latter being the daughter of you-know-who). The pilot really plays up the would-be regulars, all the while giving business to Danny, and thus leaving Bishop just to anchor. It’s not a great sample of a possible series, but it’s not horrible.
However, when sold to NBC, the network made further changes before its September 1961 premiere — gone were Gilbert and Dearring, as Joe Flynn went from boss to brother-in-law and Virginia Vincent was added as the new married sis, alongside Warren Berlinger as a younger brother, John Griggs as a new boss, and Nancy Hadley as a secretary love interest. By building up the regulars, the show gave Bishop, now playing Joey Barnes, more help, for though the premise, like Thomas’, made room for guest stars via Joey’s job as a PR lackey, it clearly knew it needed a solid main cast. I compared it above to Bob Cummings of the 1950s because early episodes hammer in that Joey is a bachelor, within a familiar dynamic. Think about it: Hadley is a more glamorous Schultzy, recurring Jean Carson is the Rose Marie secretary pal, Blake is Rosemary DeCamp’s Margaret, the younger siblings (together) represent Dwayne Hickman’s Chuck, and the married pair serve as a contrasting influence, à la Harvey/Ruthie. Unfortunately, none of Bishop‘s leads are as well-defined, or bold. The most pinpointable is Blake as Joey’s mom, but she’s more a performative presence than anything else. Meanwhile, much has also been made of Flynn possibly stealing the show as Joey’s lazy brother-in-law, but truthfully, that’s merely because he’s the one-dimensional scapegoat used to push unoriginal conflict. Actually, early episodes are only notable when they rely on their story interests, including guest star gimmicks (Jack Paar, Barbara Stanwyck, Danny Thomas)… although, frankly, even without cameos, the year is always beholden to its episodic ideas for value, as there’s no tangible understanding of character. Perhaps this should be no surprise, for the head writer of this first season was producer Marvin Marx, the Honeymooners vet whose strength was funny ideas, not well-rounded characters. And even when supported by Danny Thomas writers, like Fox/Elinson, Singer/Chevillat, and Crane/Dreben, whose natural inclination is to play up the family, no great strides are made… least of all when, about a third into the year, terrible reviews forced changes: dropping Flynn and his wife, replacing Griggs with Bill Bixby and Hadley with Jackie Russell, and generally trying to update the Joey character so he was less a harried Hollywood grunt and more a smooth-talking quipster — like the Bishop viewers knew from Jack Paar.
Making this evolution within the initial structure was deemed impossible — even after Joe Besser was introduced as Jillson, Joey’s quirky neighbor and odd confidant — and so the year’s final two scripts pivot the show entirely, transforming Joey from PR underling to host of his own TV show. It comes out of nowhere — this character has never shown any talent — and yet, even though it doesn’t make sense, the series is trying to make Joey Barnes more like Joey Bishop, and this is something we want, since we’re craving honesty and, hopefully from there, character comedy. So, when the show returns for Season Two — now regularly in color (as opposed to a few one-offs the prior year) — it’s all NEW. Joey is now a well-known variety/talk TV personality in New York, and his family has disappeared. Now he interacts with his agent, played by Guy Marks, his apartment’s janitor, Jillson (the only carryover), and Mary Treen as Hilda, the housekeeper. Oh, and most importantly, he has a new bride, Ellie, played by Hennessy‘s Abby Dalton, who debuts in a premiere akin to the CBS opener for Danny Thomas: a honeymoon entry with a work/home drama where the new wife quickly dispels the fear that she’ll get in the way of his career. Well, hindsight will say keeping that as a regular conflict may have been wise, because the series remains an unfunny, character-less mess, with some of the most clichéd sitcom stories you’ll find. And the changes, which inevitably make the show more like Thomas’ — including the use of a live audience (in the Desilu style), a new head writer in Thomas’ Milt Josefsberg (Marx held on as lead producer for half the season), and a format that enables even more star cameos — can’t overcome basic character issues. At the same time, as much as these shifts make the show Danny Thomas-esque, it’s here Bishop’s true intent emerges: emulating Dick Van Dyke, which also had its lead working in TV, a wife closer in age to Dalton than Marjorie Lord, and a pair of old-timers in support — that is, Jillson and Hilda, though at home, are more like Buddy and Sally than Rusty and Linda, and this makes sense, for Bishop reportedly wanted his show, now on Saturday nights, to be kid-free and “adult,” a word we’d pair more with the sophisticated Dick Van Dyke than the family-friendly Danny Thomas.
If this adultness never made it onscreen, that’s not only the fault of scripts — contributed by many of the same teams as the previous year, but now with future Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke scribe Garry Marshall coauthoring teleplays — but also because Dalton surprised the company when she announced she was pregnant, triggering a clause in her contract that forced the show to write in her blessed event, making the Barneses expectant parents for a storyline that began in March and culminated in a May birth. This seems like the gimmick of all gimmicks — a way to drive up the ratings, which were adequate but still suggested the need for ongoing tinkering, such as the firing of Marks allegedly because he got more laughs than the overly sensitive star, and Marks’ quick replacement with Corbett Monica as Joey’s head writer, Larry, a mini-me version of Joey with fewer story opportunities. But, no, the baby was not a stunt Bishop invited — he didn’t want a family show — and yet, ironically, it ends up actually helping, simply because, as a gimmick, it provides focused story ideas that, okay, aren’t character-driven, but at least feel more personal than the guest star-driven or routine husband/wife fare seen earlier in the Marx era. And if the second half of Two isn’t much of an improvement — aided only by a few appearances from a pair of comic laundry ladies, introduced in the series’ best episode (see below) — the numbers improved, allowing Bishop to convince the network to renew his sitcom (and not foist him into an hour-long variety series, as intended), launching a third season that, thankfully, does see an uptick in quality. This isn’t because anything’s really changed beyond the baby, but because the show is starting to get smarter scripts. Most of the same writers persist, only now there are efforts by Jack Benny‘s John Tackaberry, and a handful of simultaneous Dick Van Dyke scribes, including Ernest Chambers, the soon-to-be famous Bill Persky & Sam Denoff, and Jerry Belson, who became a team with Marshall — providing scripts as a duo to Joey Bishop, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke, all in the same season!
Truthfully, we’re still dealing with third-tier efforts, below both Dick Van Dyke and Danny Thomas, but these scripts have better ideas, and a few even come close to understanding that the Joey character needs to be flawed, making him the butt of several jokes about his singing in a few key entries (like “Joey And The Andrews Sisters”), which work because they’re starting to give him a characterization that can be exploited for laughs and make him more likable through self-deprecation. Additionally, there are more signs of wannabe-Dick Van Dyke-ness, both with the use of flashbacks (which Reiner employed regularly and more successfully than any other sitcom auteur at the time) and in a characterization of Ellie that begs comparison to Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura. Again, it’s not terribly successful — Danny Thomas was making similar strides during the same season, 1963-’64, in an effort to have more of Dick Van Dyke‘s modern realism, and doing it with better results — but it’s notable and valiant. Despite all this, the network was tiring of the show’s increasingly lackluster performance, and starting to force even more guest stars. So, amidst some decent regular situation comedy episodes by these Van Dyke writers, the first half of the year also sees about 50% of its output riddled with visiting personalities, which make for (mostly) lazy scripts that don’t offer many character rewards. It gets even worse in the back half of the season, where guest stars invade about two out of every three weeks (including the notoriously scrapped show featuring Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader, who filmed his episode right before the assassination). The last batch of these were overseen by Garry Marshall, who briefly took over for the departing Josefsberg but didn’t manage to make much of a dent in terms of quality or popularity, leading to a cancellation by NBC… and then a pickup from CBS, which quickly needed an extra comedy with some name-value to put up against the titanic Bonanza. This CBS move brought more changes; aside from a reversion from color back to black-and-white, there was a new head writer in Charles Stewart, one of the last Danny Thomas leaders and co-author of Bishop’s initial backdoor pilot.
Stewart oversaw scripts from Fox/Elinson, along with Marshall/Belson (then preoccupied with Dick Van Dyke), and the new duo of Carl Kleinschmitt and Dale McRaven, who’d both jump over to Dick Van Dyke by the end of the year. In front of the camera, the series changes scenery, adds a new recurring character — a pediatrician played by Joey Forman — and implies that it will do fewer guest star shows, dedicating itself to the regulars. And, for the most part, that’s exactly what it tries to do — sure, there’s a three-episode arc with Rusty Hamer playing his character from Danny Thomas, but this role was originally written as Ellie’s brother, and it was Thomas who encouraged giving his TV son some extra work; otherwise, the show actually tries to be more legitimate. And much of this effort stems from a larger push to be more realistic and self-aware. To wit, the premiere is about how Joey’s TV show was cancelled by NBC and then picked up by CBS… only for them all to learn that he will be facing Bonanza. Now, this wink to the audience, and the ongoing enhanced intelligence the year seeks to suggest, doesn’t compensate for ill-defined characters who can’t propel comedy or story, so the problems with the show remain. Again, though, we can see effort being made to reach this Dick Van Dyke ideal. Also, Dalton became pregnant again, giving the show the chance to do more pregnancy stories — this time more honestly — but it only had so many weeks with Ellie, so it had to be strategic about scheduling, for the last handful would be without her. By this time, the show got a new head writer (Sid Dorfman), introduced a new recurring pal for Joey (Allan Melvin), and had moved to a new time slot in a last-ditch effort to remain viable, but it was all too late. The series ran out of chances — it strove to become as humorously real and sophisticated as the heralded Dick Van Dyke, but merely emulating that great show missed the point: all of Reiner’s characters were so well-built, and that’s why they could be both realistic and funny at the same time. Joey Bishop, sadly, never figured itself out… Still, I have scoured the show’s catalogue — after decades out of circulation, all episodes are now seen on Cable TV and purchasable on DVD and Amazon Prime — and I present my picks for the series’ best and/or most notable below in airing order (this may go against online guides, which tend to have inaccuracies).
Season One (1961-1962, NBC)
01) Episode 7: “Five Brides For Joey” (Aired: 11/01/61)
Joey’s family members each try to set him up with a prospective bride.
Written by Si Rose & Seaman Jacobs | Directed by David Lowell Rich
Admittedly, this decent entry makes this list because I need to highlight at least one from the critically unpopular and narratively contrived first year, which began with a premise more like The Bob Cummings Show than Danny Thomas. This installment is indicative of the early design, with a story about the family thinking Joey needs to settle down and then trying to set him up with a wife. His scheme to discourage their efforts is to convince his secretary love interest (the sexpot version of Schultzy) to pretend to be his regular gal… only she has an ulterior goal of her own. It’s one of the few shows with motivated behavior and plenty for everyone around Joey to do. It’s also one of the five first season offerings that were filmed in color.
Other memorable episodes from Season One include:
“A Windfall For Mom” — Barbara Stanwyck guests
“This Is Your Life” — Danny Thomas guests, fine display of original show biz angle
“Charity Begins At Home” — premise-y show of gang getting arrested
“Help Wanted” — best entry for Joe Flynn’s character
“The Income Tax Caper” — affable dream sequence
“Double Exposure” — Joey plays himself here; key to what lies ahead
“Very Warm For Christmas” — Jillson debuts
“A Show Of His Own” — start of the retooling, also a Danny Thomas plot
“The Image” — first attempt to find conflict with new work vs. home construct
Season Two (1962-1963, NBC)
02) Episode 46: “Joey’s Lucky Cuff Links” (Aired: 12/15/62)
Joey’s search for a missing pair of cuff links takes him to the laundromat.
Teleplay by Fred S. Fox & Iz Elinson | Story by Garry Marshall & Fred Freeman | Directed by James V. Kern
If you’re looking for the funniest episode of the entire run, it’s this one — an imaginative yet not unrealistic premise that starts by rooting itself in a quirky insecurity of Joey’s, his need to perform with his lucky pair of cuff links, which slightly fleshes out his personality and makes him feel like a real person, and then takes us to the laundromat where we’re introduced to Jane Dulo and Muriel Landers as Natalie and Mildred, the daffy co-owners who mistakenly come to believe that Joey’s quest for his missing cuff links is just a pretense to snooker the two of them on Candid Camera. It’s hilarious — and these ladies have the distinction of being the best laugh-out-loud characters on the whole series; that’s why they were used three more times within the next nine months, but never again so effortlessly or originally as here. A gem!
Other memorable episodes from Season Two include (the underlining is for emphasis):
“Penguins Three” — Hilda debuts, Guy Marks clowns
“Joey Takes A Physical” — Danny Thomas story, with a Dick Van Dyke routine
“Double Time” — funny premise, but remake of a Season One show
“Jillson And The Cinnamon Buns” — another funny premise, but one-joke and illogical
“Freddie Goes Highbrow” — more Guy Marks clowning
“Joey’s House Guest” — best use of Larry in story
“The Baby Formula” — Joey and Larry in the kitchen, amusing
“Joey’s Dramatic Debut” — fine centerpiece, wish it was better motivated
“Joey And The Laundry Bag” — laundry ladies back on TV
“My Son, The Doctor” — dream sequence sketch-like comedy with famous ad lib
“My Buddy, My Buddy” — Buddy Hackett and Danny Thomas guest
“The Baby Cometh” — birth show, derivative of Lucy and Dick Van Dyke
Season Three (1963-1964, NBC)
03) Episode 68: “The Baby’s First Day” (Aired: 09/21/63)
Joey is overprotective when his son comes home from the hospital.
Written by Harry Crane and John Tackaberry | Directed by James V. Kern
Contrary to what some online episode guides say, this is the season’s second offering, and the first with Joey Jr. back from the hospital. I feature it here because it’s the best of the baby shows, a genre of story that gives the series some much needed narrative ammunition and generally precludes the over-reliance on unnecessary guests. There’s lots of fun in this one, particularly from Joey himself, whose overprotectiveness around the baby helps to motivate a memorable climax in which he’s mistaken for a burglar (because of the mask on his face).
04) Episode 76: “Joey And The Andrews Sisters” (Aired: 11/16/63)
Joey hopes to join the Andrews Sisters in a song when they guest on his show.
Written by Harry Crane and Garry Marshall | Directed by James V. Kern
Next to the aforementioned classic with the laundry ladies, this is probably the only other segment of Joey Bishop that deserves any real attention, and I discussed it above in the essay because it’s the series’ first significant attempt to exploit one of Joey’s flaws for comedy — in this case, his inability to sing. This is glorious — not only is it connected to his off-camera persona (as a member of the Rat Pack), but it’s essential to character-driven comedy, as Joey’s failure to croon is a self-deprecating form of humor akin to Jack Benny’s cheapness, or more similarly, his apparently awful violin playing. This script, for its incorporation of this character idea — while also making great use of its guest stars — is therefore the series’ smartest.
05) Episode 81: “Jack Carter Helps Joey Propose” (Aired: 01/04/64)
Joey and Jack Carter recall how Joey proposed to Ellie.
Written by Harry Crane and Garry Marshall | Directed by James V. Kern
One of many narrative examples throughout the series’ run of singular episodes that are very plainly attempting to copy Dick Van Dyke, this installment is the first of Three’s two flashback shows — an idea-driven gimmick that Carl Reiner employed with frequency, because it allowed him to explore his characters with the extra oomph inherent to this gaudy device. Now, flashbacks worked well (most of the time) on that series because it had the characters to support them, and Joey Bishop can’t claim the same, but this entry, guest starring Jack Carter and his wife Paula Stewart, is cute, funny, and comes close to being what it wants to be.
06) Episode 84: “Joey’s Hideaway Cabin” (Aired: 01/25/64)
Joey and his crew head up to a rustic cabin that turns out to be rundown.
Written by Paul Bregman and Harvey Helm | Directed by James V. Kern
It’s possible this outing could have been kept with the Honorable Mentions, but I think it’s more memorable than what I’ve assembled below, for despite its routine rundown rustic cabin plot, which invites amiable physical gags that are nevertheless unoriginal, it also includes a cameo from Don Knotts as Barney Fife of The Andy Griffith Show, another series under the Danny Thomas umbrella (although not one Joey Bishop sought to imitate). And it’s fun.
Other memorable episodes from Season Three include (the underlining is for emphasis):
“Joey Plugs The Laundry” — last appearance of the laundry ladies
“Joey’s Mustache” — Persky/Denoff script, appealing low-concept (but familiar) premise
“Danny Gives Joey Advice” — very gimmicky guest appearance by Danny Thomas
“The Baby Sitter” — low-concept, Joey does his act
“Joey’s Lost What-Cha-Ma-Call It” — original idea, Stanley Holloway and Jack Benny cameo
“Joey Meets Edgar Bergen” — Victorious Premise of Bergen helping do talking baby prank
“Joey’s Surprise For Ellie” — unoriginal story, but amusing moments
“Two Little Maids Are We” — Joey and Larry work well as a duo, expansion of earlier idea
“Double Play From Foster To Durocher To Joey” — funny idea featuring Phil Foster and Leo Durocher, and with a Persky/Denoff script, but no character concerns whatsoever
“Joey The Comedian Vs. Larry The Writer” — feels self-referential, appreciate the honesty
“Joey, Jack Jones, And The Genie” — the year’s dream sequence show, about Joey’s singing
Season Four (1964-1965, CBS)
07) Episode 103: “The Nielsen Box” (Aired: 11/01/64)
Joey and Larry are convinced that Hilda has become a Nielsen viewer.
Written by Sam Locke & Joel Rapp | Directed by Jerry Paris
Unlike the season premiere, which relishes in its newfound realism by being self-referential on the series’ cancellation and move to CBS, this offering goes beyond its story interests and showcases the same intelligence through established character relationships. That’s right — for with Joey and Larry self-conscious about the ratings for Joey’s new show, they erroneously come to believe that Hilda has become a Nielsen viewer (someone whose viewing habits inform the ratings that networks use to decide shows’ fates), forcing them to treat her nicer than they ever have before. No other entry is as able to project both the year’s self-awareness with an admirable understanding of character. Also, note that Dick Van Dyke‘s Jerry Paris directs.
Other memorable episodes from Season Four include (the underlining is for emphasis):
“Joey Goes To CBS” — so self-referential about the move, this signals new style
“Joey Goes To A Poker Party” — fine, comedic premise, not unbelievable
“Jillson’s Toupee” — one of the few shows for Besser’s character
“A Hobby For Ellie” — all built to get the gag of Joey and Larry fighting while painting
“The Weed City Story” — Cliff Arquette guests as Charley Weaver
“Joey Entertains Rusty’s Fraternity” — third and final Rusty show, excuse to get men in drag
“The Do-It-Yourself Nursery” — old routine of the two guys making a mess of the nursery
“Larry’s Habit” — enjoyable comic premise, lots of Larry
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Danny Thomas!