Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the first in a duo of entries highlighting the television comedy research that I conducted in Los Angeles over my Spring Break (three weeks ago). I spent one day at the West Coast branch of the Paley Center for Media, and one day at UCLA’s Cinema Archives. Today, we’re covering the shows I viewed that originally aired in the ’40s and ’50s. (Next week, the ’60s and ’70s!)
01. Mary Kay And Johnny (1947-1950, DuMont, CBS, & NBC)
Untitled Episode (Aired: 06/13/49 — NBC) Long cited as American television’s first situation comedy (which isn’t true, if we choose to count local sitcoms), this live audience-less domestic series starred real-life couple, Johnny and Mary Kay Stearns and aired for three years on three different networks in slots alternating between 15 and 25 minutes. Interestingly, the Stearns were the first couple to share a bed on TV, and pre-dating Lucy, the series featured the first on-air pregnancy, as the couple’s real life blessing was incorporated into the series. Lacking an audience, like most sitcoms from the era, there’s little emphasis on laughter and writing designed to invoke it; instead, the stories are crafted to be ‘realistic’, amusing, and simply feel-good. Mary Kay is a charming naif who talks with a Snow White voice, and, though not dumb, lacks the pure logic of Johnny, another charming and naive character. Unfortunately, because the show was broadcast live, there’s only one episode known to still be in existence… This is the one I viewed, a 15-minute installment that aired in June 1949 on NBC. The story, about Johnny’s attempts to deal with a salesman who takes advantage of Mary Kay’s lack of “sales resistance,” is strikingly similar to the 1953 I Love Lucy episode with an alike premise (and a familiar title: “Sales Resistance”). When a salesman sells Mary Kay a broom, Johnny is determined to get a refund upon the salesman’s return visit. Naturally, Johnny ends up buying something even more expensive than his wife — “The Jim Dandy Mechanical Maid” — a complicated gadget that doesn’t work nearly as well as it should. He tries to hide the new toy from Mary Kay by placing it under the coffee table, but she (thankfully) sees it right away. To prove that his purchase was a sound one, he bets Mary Kay that the Mechanical Maid can pick up ALL the dirt that he’s just thrown on the floor, and that whatever it doesn’t pick up, he will eat himself. Mary Kay makes the bet, only to later tell her husband that the building electricity is out. It’s cute, predictable (partly because we saw it done eerily similar on a more polished later series), and only funny in its fulfillment of cuteness and predictability. Still, there’s something invigorating about seeing this live show — one of the first — that makes every moment fascinating. And, like Mary Kay, it’s utterly charming.
02. Your Show Of Shows (1950-1954, NBC)
Untitled Premiere Episode (Aired: 02/25/50) One of only two shows I screened over break not classified as a situation comedy, you can read about this 90-minute comedy/variety series in my February tribute to Sid Caesar here. “Your Show Of Shows (NBC, 1950-1954) … also featured Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Bill Hayes, Judy Johnson, The Hamilton Trio, and soprano Marguerite Piazza. For 90 minutes every Sunday evening, viewers were treated to LIVE excellence in sketch comedy, situation comedy (“The Hickenloopers”), musical acts, pantomimes, movie parodies, and more. Stemming from a brief live 1949 program entitled The Admiral Broadway Revue, Your Show Of Shows was produced and directed by Max Liebman, and boasted a writing staff that included: Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Carl Reiner, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, Joe Stein, Mel Tolkin, and Tony Webster.” The episode I viewed — the first full length episode I’ve ever seen of the series — was chosen for two reasons. Not only is it the premiere installment, but it also features the wonderful Gertrude Lawrence as a guest. There was lots of music in this opening installment — opera and otherwise. The standouts were Coca’s “Smorgasbord” number, Gertie’s comedic solo, “I Don’t Know,” and a big production number with the boys and Coca as a famous actress (a takeoff of Lillian Russell). The comic highlights of the first episode include a sketch in which Sid Caesar plays a bumbling Christopher Columbus, a monologue in which Caesar plays a man walking down the wedding aisle, a bit in which the Professor speaks about pain control, a pantomime in which Caesar and Coca play an innocent young couple on the day that he chooses to propose, and an extended sequence in which Lawrence plays Caesar’s unfaithful wife in two contrasting sketches: one deemed ‘real life” and the other, a parody of a Noel Coward play. Not everything in the 90-minute show was a hit, but it’s easy to see why it was so popular. The theatricality, enhanced by the liveness, is tantalizing, and the variety — though my focus is mostly on the comedy — makes for rich viewing. Would love to see more of these released; such talent!
03. Meet Millie (1952-1956, CBS)
“The Masquerade Party” (Aired: 01/02/54) After a year on radio, this “gay, new comedy about the life and loves of a secretary in Manhattan” transitioned to television (once again, live) in 1952. The series starred Elena Verdugo as Millie, a smart New York secretary living in Queens with her mother (Florence Halop in the TV version), who’s constantly looking to marry off Millie. Other regulars included Marvin Kaplan as their aspiring poet/composer neighbor Alfred Prinzmetal, Millie’s regular beau, her beau’s father — also her boss, and her beau’s mother, played by Isabel Randolph. Very successful during its original run, the liveness, once again, has contributed to its relative obscurity. In the episode I viewed, from the series’ second season, Mama hears wedding bells for Millie when a wealthy Texan comes to visit, only to learn that he’s already engaged — to a young French girl. But when Millie learns that his honey, Babette (played by 1950’s television’s queen bitch, Doris Singleton) is a gold digger, she schemes with Mama and Alfred to break the couple up at the masquerade party to which they’ve all been invited. Mama dresses in the same outfit as Babette, Alfred dresses like the Texan, but every time Mama gets the Texan alone to break up with him, it turns out to be Alfred. This continues several times until the real Texan overhears Babette’s nastiness and breaks the engagement. The story is predictable, but the episode is fairly funny — with the party sequence easily taking the prize for the installment’s highlight. Verdugo is sharp as Millie, and though not given a lot of comedy, plays everything with an appealing naturalness. Meanwhile, Falop, aged thirty years to look like an old woman, is entirely too hammy. While she has the best lines, I couldn’t help but wish she wasn’t so self-conciously determined to steal scenes. Meanwhile, Alfred is expectedly nerdy and weak-willed. As for the guests, Singleton — with her faux, but not totally unbelievable French accent — is a strong presence, and an always welcome one. This episode didn’t offer a lot of interplay between Millie and her boyfriend, so I can’t remark about that dynamic. I would really like to see more of this series — if only to get a better grasp of the storytelling and how it used its ensemble.
04. My Favorite Husband (1953-1955, CBS)
“The Big Fight” (Aired: 02/13/54) Yes, this is the television adaptation of the radio series that starred Lucille Ball and Richard Denning, and served for the inspiration of I Love Lucy (1951-1957, CBS). Unfortunately, without Ball or those radio scripts — most of them later parlayed into episodes of I Love Lucy — the television version has a lot to prove. The series aired for two and a half years on CBS and starred Joan Caulfield and Barry Nelson. The first two years were live — with an audience, but the shortened third season, which starred the recast Vanessa Brown, was filmed. The secondary couple, the Cobbs, were played by Bob Sweeney (one of Our Miss Brooks‘ later accomplices) and Alix Talton. Few episodes have been seen since the original run, though many seem to exist in the archives and in personal collections. “The Big Fight”, from the middle of the TV incarnation’s first season (and I Love Lucy‘s third) is a typical battle of the sexes that starts between a third couple — Harry and Barbara — while they play scrabble with the two couples mentioned above. Naturally, even after Harry and Barbara leave, an argument breaks out between the Cobbs and between the Coopers. The wives end up staying the night in Liz’s room (good thing there are twin beds), while the husbands wind up downstairs on a pull-out mattress. Harry and Barbara return (with their baby) and each go to their separate corners. Finally, hunger brings everyone together when the couples’ bachelor friend comes over with a full meal. Not only is the story painfully ordinary — with the requisite trite argument to launch the proceedings– but there’s also nothing distinguished, memorable, or funny about the storytelling. Sorry to say, I did not laugh — nor did I feel like laughing — once during the screening. Meanwhile, the regulars are bland. Plain and simple. The only redeeming thing about this series, judging from this episode, is the liveness, which forces the action to occur with a limited number of actors on a limited number of sets. The episode really does feel like a one act, and though it’s not comedically (or even dramatically) satisfying, there’s a visual intimacy that, at the very least, can be appreciated. But if you’re in the mood for My Favorite Husband, stick with the radio series!
05. Mister Peepers (1952-1955, NBC)
“Mrs. Gurney Learns To Drive” (Aired: 03/07/54) Probably one of the best of the live sitcoms ever (and the best that I viewed over my break), Mister Peepers starred Wally Cox as a shy Junior High science teacher. Others in the regular cast include Tony Randall as history teacher Harvey Weskit, Georgann Johnson as Harvey’s wife, Marge, Patricia Benoit as Nancy Remington, Peepers’ eventual wife, and Marion Lorne (yes, Bewitched‘s Aunt Clara) as the the often befuddled English teacher Mrs. Gurney. 127 episodes were broadcast live (with an audience), and approximately 102 survive on 16mm kinescopes. The first 52 existing installments have been released on DVD. I do not own this collection, and one of my reasons for selecting an episode to screen at UCLA (who helped produce the sets), was to test the waters before making a purchase. (To buyers of these sets, be aware that although they are labeled as Seasons One And Two, they’re not grouped accordingly. The first set goes until mid Season Two, and the second set goes to early Season Three.) Excitingly, I can report that I was pleased with what I saw! I chose this installment, from the third season and not yet released on DVD, because I felt that, coming in the middle of the run, it would be an ideal candidate for representing the series and its humor. Also, I knew that the episode, given its title and premise, would feature a lot of Lorne. Additionally, I was aware that the supremely funny Reta Shaw (you may remember her from Mary Poppins or even as Aunt Hagatha on Bewitched) appeared in this installment in her recurring role as Mr. Peepers’ throaty Aunt Lil. Fed up with riding the bus, Mrs. Gurney heeds the advice of Peepers and Weskit and decides to learn how to drive. Using Aunt Lil’s 1928 car (seen earlier in a hilarious scene in which Aunt Lil proves herself to be a veritable speed demon), Peepers, Weskit, and Aunt Lil each take turns teaching the nervous English teacher how to operate a motorized vehicle. (Sounds dangerous, right?) Fortunately, no one gets hurt, despite some fearful expectations. Mrs. Gurney eventually gets her license, but then realizes, what good will it do her? She doesn’t own a car. Lorne shines brightest in this episode, and there are many laughs, even though the writing never tries to hit you over the head with humor. It’s gentle — even with Lorne’s clowning. Great ’50s television!
06. The Marriage (1954, NBC)
“Inside Bobby Logan” (Aired: 08/12/54) This series, another live (with a small audience) television adaption of a radio series, starred real life couple Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The sitcom — if we can even call it that — which lasted for a mere eight episodes, was a short summer replacement series, and is notable today only because it’s the first scripted series broadcast in color. Of course, the episode that I viewed was in black-and-white, which is actually a good thing; free of the mystique of glorious color, I could assess the series based solely on its quality. Unfortunately, despite believable performances and that anticipated intimacy predicated by the liveness, I can report that the TV version of The Marriage is better left as a footnote. However, while I was prepared for the narrative to get short shrift as a result of the color technology, I wasn’t prepared for an actually solid story, simply devoid of humor. Thus, the greatest disappointment about what I saw was not that it was poorly told, just that it was told without laughs. The story concerns the bonding of Tandy’s character with her daughter’s boyfriend (the title’s Bobby Logan) while Cronyn works and the daughter’s away. After a mildly uncomfortable dinner in which the clumsy Logan (played by William Redfield) makes a pest of himself, the two take a stroll in the park where they have a moment of genuine bonding. When Cronyn comes home and has a mild argument with Tandy, Redfield sticks up for her, before making an embarrassed exit. And though the couple quickly makes up over ice cream bars, Tandy must later reunite her daughter (played by Susan Strasberg) with Redfield, who initially brushes her off in favor of a “mature” woman. So, there’s some sophistication in the storytelling, and it’s realistically and brilliantly played. The writing is good, but not exceptional. Though, if it’s laughs you want, you’ll be disappointed. Simply, not a situation comedy — just a situation.
07. Norby (1955, NBC)
“Premiere” (Aired: 01/05/55) Like the above series, this one was notable for its color. However, unlike The Marriage, Norby features none of that solid storytelling, and instead, most odiously, serves as one long commercial for Kodak color. The entire premiere exists — in color — at the Paley Center. Running 13 episodes in early 1955, Norby starred David Wayne as the vice president of a small loans bank in suburban New York. Shot single camera with no audience (and no laugh track), the series, created by the same man who created Mister Peepers, is almost as unfunny as The Marriage. The premiere installment features Norby’s promotion to vice president. In his over-eagerness, he breaks his desk, annoys his neighbor, and runs home to tell the good news to his wife. They take a taxi back to the bank where he plans to show off his desk and reveal the good news in front of his co-workers. Unfortunately, his new desk (the one he broke) was taken away for repairs during his lunch break. He explains this to his neighboring co-worker, who agrees to let him use his desk instead. Things end happily, though there are no laughs. What amused me less, however, despite its wonderful fascination, were the fifteen introductory (and eight conclusory) minutes, in which Kodak lectured on the merits of its technology. This was no more than a showcase for color. Obviously not a showcase for comedy. No need to watch, unless intrigued by early color technology.
08. Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956, CBS)
“The Dream” (Aired: 03/11/55) You can read all about Our Miss Brooks, perhaps the best unreleased sitcom of the 1950s, in a trio of Sitcom Tuesday posts from August and September of 2013, in which I chose my favorite episodes. For those who may need a premise refresher: “Miss Connie Brooks, an English teacher at Madison High, often clashes with her pompous principle, Osgood Conklin, Jr., while trying to educate the rambunctious Walter, her student and close confidant, and attempting to snag Mr. Boynton, the clueless biology teacher across the hall. Miss Brooks’ other friends include Mrs. Davis, the eccentric widow who rents her a room, and Conklin’s preppy daughter Harriet.” The cast included Eve Arden, Gale Gordon, Richard Crenna, Robert Rockwell, Jane Morgan, and Gloria McMillan. At the time of writing those three posts, which can be read here, here, and here, I had only seen the 126 episodes in my possession (of the 130 produced). Since then, I have seen and obtained one of those missing installments (thanks to a kind reader, Ron), but am still lacking three for my collection. “The Dream,” which I viewed at UCLA, is one of those three. Like another dream episode, “The King And Miss Brooks” from Season Four, this episode’s enjoyment comes from the wackiness of the premise, in which Miss Brooks, after reading a book entitled “Maternity Ward,” dreams that she and Boynton have finally married and are expecting a child. Additionally, Conklin announces that he too is going to have a child, while the Dentons (as Harriet has finally married Walter, to whom she was just engaged in the real world) are expecting MORE kids of their own. A later dream shows the Boyntons growing old together, and worrying about their young daughter, Cleo (played by Arden), who’s been going around with that rascal Conklin, Jr. (played by Gordon, of course). Aside from our delight in seeing Connie win her man (like she did in another dream episode — “The Magic Tree”), what struck most amusingly about this episode was the series’ self-acknowledgement that Walter seemed to have been in high school forever. The jokes about him being a married father while still at Madison are riotous, and the best bit occurs in the later dream, in which Connie tells Philip that Walter’s finally graduated high school and will be able to join his kids in college! However, I’m usually not a fan of dream sequences and this episode is no exception. The last dream doesn’t quite work for me, and the whole episode lacks a real conclusion or purpose. It would not have made my “best of” list, though I’m glad to have finally seen it. (If anyone has this — or the other two I’m missing: “The Bakery” and “Blood, Sweat, And Laughs” — I’d still love to add it to my collection!)
09. The Bob Cummings Show (1955-1959, NBC & CBS)
“Double Date” (Aired: 11/15/56 — CBS) You may remember that I highlighted this series on a past Wildcard Wednesday post in February. You can reread that (and see five rare full-length episodes) here. To recap: “The Bob Cummings Show… starred Bob Cummings as Bob Collins, an aviator bachelor and Hollywood photographer. He lived with his widowed sister, Margaret (Rosemary DeCamp) and her teenaged son Chuck (Dwayne Hickman).” Created by Paul Henning, this series, later retitled Love That Bob in syndication, boasted serialized stories, adult situations, and a talented ensemble! In this episode, from the third season, Chuck’s 18th birthday brings about a world of shenanigans when Uncle Bob forgets a promise that he made to his nephew two years prior: on Chuck’s 18th birthday, the pair would finally double date! Unfortunately, Bob has a date tonight with Boom Boom LaVerne, a buxom stripper who refuses to get the brush-off from Bob. Meanwhile, Chuck decides to blow-off his regular girlfriend Carol, so that he can find a mature woman to take along on the big double date. (Boom Boom suggests her sister, Tassels LaTeur.) Lots of calling and coming and going ensue, but Boom Boom eventually walks out on Bob (after giving Schultzy a black eye), and meets Chuck in the hallway, who asks her to be his date tonight. She gleefully accepts. When Bob and Margaret find out who Chuck’s date for the evening is, she demands that Bob do something to keep her son from taking out a stripper. The final scene shows Bob with his date Schultzy (and their matching black eyes — courtesy of Boom Boom) at a drive-in with Chuck and his date, his mother, Margaret. Very funny episode, with a delightfully risque premise, some firmly rooted misunderstandings, and a couple of great lines. The best occur when Carol (thinking she’ll be doubling with Bob) comes by Bob’s office to ask what his date will be wearing. Carol asks if they’ll be going to the Air Force base. Bob declines, but Schultzy pipes in with, “Why not? Your date’s right at home on a runway.” Carol asks if she’s a pilot, and Bob responds, “No, but she has taken off quite a few times.”
10. Mr. Adams And Eve (1957-1958, CBS)
“Typical” (Aired: 01/11/57) This two season series has fascinated me for years. Like several shows featured in today’s post, this single-camera sitcom stars a real-life married couple, Ida Lupino and Howard Duff. They essentially play themselves. Or rather, how people expect them, a pair of movie stars, to behave. Interestingly, it took a while for shows about people in the industry to catch on, and this was believed to be the major reason that Mr. Adams and Eve never became a huge success, despite Lupino’s double Emmy nominations. My biggest question walking in, having never seen longer than a two-minute clip, was: how’s the writing? The answer, if the episode I screened at Paley — the second from the first season — is any indication, is that the series shows lots of promise, but never completely lives up to its full potential. I realize it’s difficult to make such a blanket statement about the series after having only seen one episode, so that’s not my intention. But I picked an episode that seemed like the best representation of the series I could find. The premise, in which Howard and Eve, after a comment from their agent about them being unable to play a “typical” husband and wife because their lives simply aren’t, try to prove the agent wrong by leading a “typical” life, is excellent. Two movie stars are going to try their hand at being normal people; loads of comedy potential there. There’s some fun early in the morning when the pair has difficulty waking and then try to make their breakfast (sans housekeeper), but things derail after that with Eve’s attempts to converse with the neighbor while stringing laundry in the backyard, where the writers try to squeeze humor from awkwardness. There’s a nice conclusion, but no comedic crescendo, and with such a promising story, the script almost demanded one. (Also, I think a multi-cam set-up may have benefited this series; the single camera, unless justified by the use of special effects or overly wacky storytelling, can sometimes make older comedy seem colder and more distant.) I need to see more of this series to properly adjudicate. Premises of both the series and this episode were solid, it just wasn’t all it needed to be — or all it could be.
Come back next Wednesday for more from my Spring Break research! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!