April 11, 2014
Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies. Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.
Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity. Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories. Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones. Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”
A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead. Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes. The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM. A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer. It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.
Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run. “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”). After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone. Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.
In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation. Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played on television by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise. In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home. Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather threadbare little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.
The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College). Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently on television. Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts. Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie. More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.
If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese. Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties. Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking. Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards. Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than to delivering exposition. A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.
Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them as well as pleasurable running gags. Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty. Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.” Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.
Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm. Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment. Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even to fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman). Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense. He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.
By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life. “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way. Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes. Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead. Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.
Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that , say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies). Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a reflection and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda. And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie. If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist. (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.) For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.
Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy” – even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, a rather reductive, slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women. Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-object-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia). But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women. One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust. The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex. Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.
The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex. Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia. As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then. The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a marvelous grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.
The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation. The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble. Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.
During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome. Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).
At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that Shulman’s sensibilities represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors. It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.
this weekend next week for the second half of this essay, in which I’ll consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.
November 21, 2012
TV Guide named it as the fortieth best television episode of all time. On lists of favorite sitcoms, or favorite holiday episodes, it invariably ranks even higher. WKRP in Cincinnati’s seventh episode, “Turkeys Away” begins as a wholesome, almost bland, Thanksgiving show. Around the midpoint, though, the standard-issue sitcom setup – Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), orchestrates a secret radio station promotion – takes a spectacularly morbid and off-color left turn, one that sets up punchline after hilarious punchline. The last line of the show (which can be viewed on Hulu, albeit with substantial cuts and music replacement) has become one of the most oft-quoted gags in the history of television.
This month, in a series of entirely new interviews, members of the show’s cast and crew (along with the “real” Herb Tarlek) reminisced about the making of this historic half-hour.
HUGH WILSON (creator and producer of WKRP in Cincinnati): The starting point was that I was a young, kind of new writer at Mary Tyler Moore Productions – MTM.
MICHAEL ZINBERG (director of “Turkeys Away”): It was in the heyday of MTM. We often referred to it as Camelot, which it was. Those shows were hand-crafted. It was a remarkable group of writers and directors and producers, headed by Grant Tinker. Hugh Wilson came out from Atlanta, and in three years was creating his own show. That’s what the possibilities were.
CLARKE BROWN (radio executive): Hugh first started in the business as an account executive for Burton-Campbell Advertising. He was about to get fired, and they said, “Wait a minute, don’t fire this guy. This guy could be a great writer.” They moved him into a copywriting position, and he became arguably the best copywriter that’s ever been in Atlanta, Georgia. Later he became the creative director, and ultimately he became the president of the agency. Then he abruptly left. He got a divorce, and without a job or anything, he moved to California and ended up almost immediately getting a job with Mary Tyler Moore.
HUGH WILSON: Grant Tinker, who was Mary’s husband, let it be known one day in the most casual of ways that if anybody had any show ideas, they should tell him. I know pilot season [now] is more important than Versailles, but in the day he just said that. Anyhow, I was working on a short-lived show, two seasons, called The Tony Randall Show. Tony had had great success with The Odd Couple, and we did this. It never quite worked, but that was what I was doing. Anyhow, I got this idea for a radio station [series], and I told Grant, and we went over to CBS, and they all said, “Yeah, hey, great.” What was lucky for me was that most of those guys . . . had at one time or another been in the radio business. I hadn’t counted on having that kind of built-in affection for the idea.
So I went back to Atlanta, where I had some real good friends, at what was the number one rocker there, and I sat down with the station manager and told him what was going on. He was very excited, because it was [about] radio and also because it was good publicity.
CLARKE BROWN: WKRP was based on the radio station WQXI in Atlanta, and there were several characters who were very much based on people at QXI, and the others were sometimes amalgamations and sometimes just completely fictionalized. I was Herb Tarlek.
HUGH WILSON: Clarke Brown was a salesman at WQXI, and I based Herb Tarlek on him, although Clarke’s a pretty cool guy. But Clarke was dressing in these pretty bizarre polyester outfits back in the day.
CLARKE BROWN: Not to that extreme, but I was kind of known for dressing wildly, mod clothing and so forth. But he was making fun of me, essentially. It just made me laugh.
HUGH WILSON: The character of Johnny Fever, he was based on a guy I knew in Atlanta called Skinny Bobby Harper. That was funny, because he was the morning guy, so Skinny had to get up at four in the morning to get in there. But he also loved being in the bars at night. He was like Fever – in the pilot, I said [to Howard Hesseman], “You’ve got to play it like you’re sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by eight, but eight is just when you’re going out.”
CLARKE BROWN: Jerry Blum was “the Big Guy,” Arthur Carlson, and there was another guy that some of his personality was in the character also. His name was Doug Burton, and he was the Burton of Burton-Campbell.
HUGH WILSON: Jerry Blum was a little bit of Mr. Carlson, and Carlson is actually more of a wonderful man that I worked for in Atlanta advertising. He was my boss. He was a great, great guy.
CLARKE BROWN: The location was [changed to Cincinnati] because of its central location, with no accents. And obviously, “WKRP,” “W-crap” was the pun intended.
Hugh kind of worked with me in the mornings. One day he’d go and sit in the control room, and then one day he’d sit in the sales office, and he absorbed the actual workings of a radio station firsthand in that manner. Then, of course, he and I were drinking buddies, so he heard every story that was worth repeating over the years. When Hugh was writing the show, a lot of the incidents were real.
HUGH WILSON: I was allowed to see everything, and then Jerry Blum, the station manager, told me about a promotion – I believe in Texas, and I want to say Dallas, but I’m not sure – in which he threw turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn’t fly. They crashed to the ground, it was just a horrible disaster, and he wound up losing his job over it. So I said to him at the time, “Jerry, I think you just won me an Emmy.”
CLARKE BROWN: The turkey drop was actually a real incident. It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists. It was a Thankgiving promotion. We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners. All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly. Of course, they went just fuckin’ splat.
People were laughing at us, not with us. But it became a legend. There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much. Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show].
HUGH WILSON: I didn’t dream up the helicopter. My memory is Jerry said a helicopter.
CLARKE BROWN: It just ended with, the joke’s on us. And of course, our guys played it up. It turned out to be a great little unintended publicity gimmick, the fact that it failed the way that it did. Probably got more mileage out of it being screwed up than had it not been.
HUGH WILSON: Since that time, a couple of people have claimed that story, but Jerry said it was him. He’s the one that said to me, “You know, Hugh, turkeys can’t fly.”
CLARKE BROWN: It is very possible that another radio station at some point in time had done something similar. But I know for a fact that we had no conscious awareness that it had been done elsewhere, successfully or not. We weren’t deliberately trying to clone somebody’s promotion. Not that we wouldn’t do that, because clearly we would, and have. But not that particular day.
HUGH WILSON: It didn’t matter to me whether it was true or who did it. I knew I could use it on the show. We decided that we would make it our Thanksgiving show of the first season, which I think was the sixth one we did.
The teleplay for “Turkeys Away” is credited to the late Bill Dial.
HUGH WILSON: He was a friend of mine from Atlanta, from the agency I worked with, that I had brought out too, because I thought he was good, and also I felt that somehow or other I had been let past the guards at one of these great studios, and now my job was to sneak in as many friends as I could.
CLARKE BROWN: A lot of people from Atlanta were involved with that show – his writers and music people. A guy named Tommy Wells, who just recently died, did the music for the show and wrote the theme song.
HUGH WILSON: I just thought [Bill Dial] kind of missed it completely. Dial, bless his heart, would tell you the same. He got the credit and I think he kind of dined out on it, but you know, I pretty much wrote every word.
The premise of “Turkeys Away” is a kind of continuation of the pilot, in which station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) begins to feel left out and unappreciated following WKRP’s format change under the new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy).
HUGH WILSON: That made sense to me. The pilot was about a whole change there, and it would make sense that this guy, a dear man but an inept man, would want to reinsert himself into it. It would be fun [to have] him to engineer it, rather than the angry Herb Tarlek. It was good that Herb be his lieutenant. Herb and Les, they kind of sided with the old guard, so it was great to have all of them on the wrong side of this.
Seeking to ingratiate himself with the staff, Carlson makes fumbling overtures to all of them. To African American deejay Venus Flytrap, he proffers a watermelon.
TIM REID (“Venus Flytrap”): That actually came from a true story! This was way back in 1968, about four years removed from the [start of] the Civil Rights movement. I’d just come out of college. I was claimed as the first black hire to be a marketing representative for this company. I’m not going to call the company’s name, but it was a major corporation and I was the first black hired in management. Anybody with a college degree in a white company was looked upon as just landed from PlanetUniversity. Nobody really knew quite how to deal with us. We were all in training together, and there was a lot of joking, a lot of racial joking, and everybody got their turn in the barrel.
The person who [gave me the watermelon] was from the Deep South and I was from the South, and we had really been giving each other a pretty good row at the time. I had given as much as I got. It was a touché kind of thing, because I had really done something to him earlier. Let’s just say I showed up in a sheet. [Laughs.] But that one topped it. Then the shit hit the fan. Everybody realized, Oh my god, this really isn’t funny. This has gone too far. So then the pressure all came to me as to how am I going to respond to it. Which I never thought was quite fair.
That person and I never became great friends, but we – I saved his job, actually. They were going to fire him because of that when word got around. He came to me, very sadly, and asked, and I called [the bosses] and said, “Look, this was a give and take. I don’t want to waste my opportunities on this one. Let me save them for when I really need a chit.” I knew he had learned his lesson, and I certainly had learned mine.
A lot of things in our lives became seeds of a story, or elements of a story. Oftentimes when Hugh was writing, he’d talk to you, and you’d say something and he’d laugh and walk away. Then you’d look up and it would be in the script. Hugh would say, “Can I tell that?” And I go, “I dunno.” So, suddenly, innocently, Carlson doesn’t know what to do and he handed me a watermelon!
“Turkeys Away” has an extraordinarily slow build to its famous ending. Arthur Carlson’s much-hyped secret promotion doesn’t emerge until the second act, and just what it is not revealed until the last few minutes.
HUGH WILSON: If you’ve got a real hot piece of comedy that you like, you sure don’t want to put it up front. I tried hard to make it the climax, where the climax is supposed to be.
MAX TASH: We started with the table read on Mondays, and we would shoot on Fridays. There would be a big rewrite Tuesday nights, and then usually a smaller rewrite on Wednesday night.
TIM REID: It was a great table read. We’d get the script a day or so before table read, so you know going in whether or not you’ve got something that’s going to be a lot of fun to do. And we all just couldn’t wait to get there. I think it’s one of the first times in four years that we were all ever on time for a table read.
The classic payoff commences when Les Nessman’s live broadcast from the shopping center’s parking lot quickly becomes a bloodbath – one that echoes another famous disaster.
HUGH WILSON: I put in the thing that Les would be present, and I wrote that whole thing that made it sound like the Hindenburg and all of that.
TIM REID: The opportunity to see Les Nessman recount the falling of the turkeys in the style of the Hindenburg was just, tears to your eyes. I mean, who takes on the Hindenburg, and does a comedy? Takes one of the great tragedies in this country, and puts it in a comedy show? We went there.
People don’t give us credit for a few firsts, but WKRP was the first television show to do an episode about Vietnam [“Who Is Gordon Sims?,” in which Venus Flytrap is revealed to have been a draft dodger]. Lou Grant did one after us, but we were the first, and it was so touchy and so difficult, that they sent the military to sit in the stands every day in the rehearsal. It was literally going to be up to a commander from Camp Pendleton, that somebody had brought up as our advisor. He was going to watch us rehearse for at least two to three days, and it was going to be his decision. And if he said “no,” we were not going to do the episode.
MAX TASH (production associate): “Turkeys Away” was probably the most famous episode we did of that whole series, but there was an episode we did called “Les on a Ledge,” which had Les Nessman on the ledge of the Flimm Building, contemplating suicide because one of the Cincinnati Reds baseball players made a comment about Les after he had done an after-game interview, saying, “What a queer little fellow he is.” So he took that to mean they think he’s gay. And it was the third or fourth episode that we produced of this brand new sitcom, that was dealing with this issue, in a very funny way. But that episode, to me, stood out even more than “Turkeys Away” because it showed the direction that the series was eventually going to go in.
Les quotes the famous line from Herbert Morrison’s radio coverage of the Hindenburg crash: “Oh, the humanity!”
HUGH WILSON: You know what, we’d put in a line, and invariably somebody from the network would say, “I don’t believe people, particularly younger people, know what that line about the Hindenburg means.” And my answer was always, “So what?” They were always deathly afraid that we would be going over people’s heads. We did a commercial once that was for a beer where it said, “Look for the smiling face of Archduke Ferdinand on every bottle!” Somebody said, “Hugh, it was his assassination that started World War I.” And I said, “So what?”
The oft-told story is that Richard Sanders (“Les Nessman”) closely modeled his performance on Morrison’s broadcast.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN (guest star as the “Shoe Store Owner,” and Richard Sanders’s friend and writing partner on several WKRP scripts): We both listened to it together at one point. It was Richard’s idea. He said, “Why don’t I announce it as if it were [the Hindenburg broadcast]?”
TIM REID: We all did! We all sat in the room and we watched the actual crashing of the Hindenburg as it was recorded [in newsreel footage], over and over, and we sat there as he [Sanders] did it. And he did it so well. If you look at him and look at the guy who gave the report on the Hindenburg, you’ll see the similarities.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN: Richard is an interesting guy. Very – oh, what’s the word? Very ordered. Kind of strait-laced, kind of tight. Sometimes we’d have little battles about that. He had a very dramatic, teutonic kind of personality. It had to be this way or that way. He was very much like Les Nessman. Compulsive, a little bit. But a good guy, at base.
GARY SANDY (“Andy Travis”): Richard Sanders was my favorite character on the show. I thought Richard was incredible in that part of Les Nessman. He knew what he was doing every single second, every moment that he was on camera. But, everybody was funny on that show. Frank Bonner was funny in that episode. I was young and cute. [Laughs.] Everything kind of worked.
As Les Nessman narrates the unexpected demise of hundreds of ill-fated turkeys, most of the other characters – Andy, Venus, Johnny Fever, and Bailey Quarters – listen in disbelief from the booth.
HUGH WILSON: That was all shot just as you see it. They were in their set, and [Sanders] was in the swing set – that’s a set that you don’t see every week. He was right there next to them on the stage; we didn’t shoot it separately and cut it in. We did everything we could to make it work for the live audience.
MAX TASH: There were a few more extras [needed] than we had budgeted for, so our runner, Tim Womack, was one of the passersby when Les Nessman was doing the play-by-play. In the background of that shot, also, was Hugh’s secretary, Lissa Levin, who eventually became a story editor and a renowned writer on her own. And there were other production people and office staff who were in that episode as background people. We were always throwing friends and family into the shots.
MICHAEL ZINBERG: You never know what you have until you get it in front of the audience. Then when the laughter started, and turned into howls when those turkeys started coming down, it was hard to keep doing the show, because we were laughing so much watching the show.
HUGH WILSON: They were cracking it up. There’s probably some good outs from that – I don’t know where – where they just started laughing and we had to cut.
TIM REID: We just could not keep from laughing throughout the whole taping of it.
HUGH WILSON: Richard Sanders never did that. He was really amazing. He could have the whole soundstage fall and he never broke character. But the rest of them, being human . . . . Particularly Gordon Jump, if he said something that amused him, he was sure as shit going to laugh himself. Actually, those kind of things I enjoyed, because the audience loved to see somebody make a mistake. They felt like they were on the inside.
FRANK BONNER (“Herb Tarlek”): My most fond memories of “Turkeys Away” are Richard Sanders’s (a very good actor) use of the reporter’s description of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster – [and then] “…the turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement.”
HUGH WILSON: That line was mine.
Before the turkey drop, Les reads aloud the text of the banner trailing behind the helicopter – even, slowly, the station’s call letters, as if he’d never seen them before.
HUGH WILSON: Where he had to read it? That was his gag. I’m pretty sure that that came up in rehearsal, and Richard did that. Isn’t that good? They were a funny bunch of people, all of them.
Jennifer (Loni Anderson), the station’s receptionist, fields a call from the Humane Society: “But, Mr. Colley, a lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving.”
HUGH WILSON: That I don’t think I wrote. I think that’s from Dial.
Finally, Arthur Carlson and Herb Tarlek return to the station, dazed and disheveled.
HUGH WILSON: I was a real grizzly about keeping to the lines. There was a great deal of respect for writers at MTM. Tinker and Mary were always right behind the writers. I guess that started with Jim Brooks being so key to her show being a success. So [the cast] stayed to the lines, but invariably they found funny things. A lot of times they would find something and I would say, “Augh! Nope, don’t do that!” Then they’d try things and I’d go, “Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much.” I must say I didn’t write it in the script that Gordon would show up with – Frank and him had makeup put those little feathers on them. When I saw it, I fell down in laughter, so they realized I supported that.
No turkeys actually appear on-screen in “Turkeys Away.”
HUGH WILSON: No, thank God. And I sure didn’t want one on the set, after Jerry said the turkeys attacked the people. He was the one that said they landed and decided they’d let them out there so the people could grab them, but the turkeys were vicious to the people. So I put that right in the script, too.
MAX TASH: I thought the funniest lines were happening because the audience was imagining what was happening. You never saw turkeys thrown out – you only saw how it was being described. You saw the aftermath when Carlson comes in with feathers in his hair. So the funniest laughs were in the audience’s imagination.
Finally, Arthur Carlson re-emerges from his office, and utters the ten lines that would immortalize “Turkeys Away.”
GARY SANDY: The famous line from that show, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly,” is famous because, at the moment – and it’s like it was yesterday, I can see it – the genius of Hugh Wilson and Gordon Jump came together. Gordon Jump was one of the nicest men that ever lived, really, he truly was, and I think his humanity, who the man was – he got by with a lot of stuff because he was just a great human being. Gordon Jump was a very religious guy, so somehow or another “as God is my witness” is coupled with all that.
HUGH WILSON: Yeah, I wrote that. That was from my mother. She was always using God as her witness. “As God is my witness, I have never in my life seen a boy,” etc., etc. [I was] an only child who got caught for everything. I mean everything. I have five children, so I never really know who did what, but when you’re an only child, you’re screwed.
Jump does not utter the “As God is my witness…” line until after the end credits have begun to appear.
MAX TASH: The thing we learned from Hugh was: you tell the joke and you get out of there. Don’t be hanging around.
HUGH WILSON: At the time, the show hadn’t been on the air [yet], and these were people [in the live audience] who were out vacationing, who were given these tickets at Universal’s [studio tour] and all, and they really wanted to see a show they had seen for years on TV. They weren’t too happy to come in and see a show they hadn’t seen yet. But that was the biggest success in terms of audience enjoyment up to that time. So we were real excited about it. So was the network. People were just pitching fits.
MAX TASH: There were so many big laughs that you do end up cutting out laughs, because you’ve already established how funny the joke is, and you’ve already heard the audience, and if they went on maybe twice as long with a particular laugh it just takes away from the program time.
HUGH WILSON: That’s the kind of problem you prayed for.
MAX TASH: So, yeah, we did [trim the laugh track], but it wasn’t unusual on WKRP to do that.
Although it was meant to air the week before Thanksgiving, “Turkeys Away” was actually first broadcast on October 30, 1978. The ratings-challenged series spent the holidays fighting for its life.
HUGH WILSON: I think after the sixth or eighth show we were taken off the air and put on hiatus for, quote, “repairs.” That’s what Variety, I believe, reported that CBS said, that they were having a second look at the show and they were “tweaking it.”
Well, in point of fact, I just sat there and waited. I didn’t tweak anything. I went to some meeting where we all agreed that it should be funnier. And then I turned in some scripts that they hadn’t seen, and they thought that they saw in there a reaction from me from that meeting. But they’d been written way before that. I just changed the dates on the drafts, so it would look like they were written after we were taken off the air.
I think, in a way, “Turkeys” saved us from getting cancelled, because it got a lot of talk. Anecdotal, around town kind of talk. Those people, of course, were ruled by necessity by Nielsens, but they also wanted to be involved with something that was thought around town to be good.
TIM REID: Today, not only could you not get away with that, nobody would get it.
HUGH WILSON: I meet people for the first time, and if we get to talking and it somehow comes up that I created WKRP, they immediately start saying, “As God is my witness, I didn’t know turkeys could fly.” It’s rather amazing that the line itself is [legendary]. I’m just thrilled and tickled to death by it. People either say “Oh, I love that show,” or they go right to “As God is my witness…” It seems like half and half.
GARY SANDY: It’s not surprising to me that this has become what it’s become, because that moment was etched in my memory as being something really special.
Thanks to all of the participants in the above, and especially to Hugh Wilson, whose generosity in opening his rolodex made this piece possible, and to Justin Humphreys, who introduced me to Hugh. For more “Turkeys Away” stories, check out the DVD audio commentary featuring Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson, and Frank Bonner.
November 5, 2012
Q: “What was Dorothy about?”
A: “Two weeks.”
– Archive of American Television interview with Bob Carroll, Jr.
In August of 1979, a situation comedy about a middle-aged woman who served as a sort of den mother for a quartet of rambunctious boarding school girls debuted on Friday night, in the 8:30PM time slot.
No, it wasn’t The Facts of Life. It was Dorothy.
Although the “summer tryout” was and remains an unusual method of launching a series, the networks that year, in their boundless imagination, used it to test-launch two nearly identical shows in the same month. The Facts of Life, on NBC, became a modest but long-running hit that lasted for seven seasons and enjoyed a strong syndicated afterlife. Dorothy, on CBS, vanished into obscurity after its initial batch of four episodes were broadcast.
The Facts of Life (which actually featured seven girls at the outset, pared down to four a year later) starred Charlotte Rae as the teacher / surrogate mother figure. Dorothy was named after its star, Dorothy Loudon. Both Rae and Dorothy Loudon were Broadway veterans – they knew each other, had vied for some of the same roles – but while Rae had become familiar on television as a character comedienne, playing regular parts on Car 54, Where Are You? and Diff’rent Strokes (from which The Facts of Life was a spin-off), Loudon was a pure theatre performer. She had made a brief splash on television in the early sixties, taking Carol Burnett’s comedy-and-songs slot on The Garry Moore Show, but before and after that Loudon stuck mainly to nightclubs and the stage. After fifteen years as a sort of Susan Lucci of Broadway, consistently earning the best reviews in a series of high-profile flops, Loudon had won a Tony Award in 1977 for her role as Miss Hannigan, the conniving head of the orphanage, in Annie.
Dorothy was a classic high-concept “package,” a Hollywood entertainment that attemped to fuse disparate but proven elements. Often those packages are assembled by agents, trying to get jobs for several clients at once, but Dorothy was the brainchild of a Warner Bros. executive named Alan Shayne. A former casting director (for East Side/West Side and N.Y.P.D.), Shayne had seen Loudon in Annie and thought she would be a natural to headline her own series. Even though Miss Hannigan was the villain of Annie, and not at all enthusiastic about little girls, it made sense to exploit the connection to the hit show by placing Loudon in a similar setting. Separately, Shayne was also taken with Linda Manz, the teenaged actress who had played Richard Gere’s sister in Days of Heaven (1978) and whose thick Brooklynese provided the film’s unusual narration. Manz (below) would play the most prominent of the girls featured in Dorothy, a tough-talking tomboy very similar to Jo (Nancy McKeon), a character added to The Facts of Life in its second season.
The third element that informed the construction of Dorothy was Alice, the blue-collar Linda Lavin sitcom that was at the time Warner Bros.’ most successful television property. Shayne, as the studio’s executive vice president in charge of television, oversaw Alice and drafted its executive producers, former Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., to develop Dorothy. “They were my mainstays,” Shayne said in a recent interview. “They would, in a pinch, always save any show that was in danger.” The premise devised by Carroll and Davis – who shared a creator credit with Nick Arnold, a name that was not mentioned in publicity for the show and that Shayne could not recall – had Loudon playing Dorothy Banks, a former showgirl reduced to teaching music and drama at a run-down private school.
To direct, Shayne hired television’s top comedy director, John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show; All in the Family). Though Rich was been a director on Alice, Shayne had awarded the famed pilot director a royalty for every future episode of the show in order to screen the uneven early episodes and suggest some critical changes. (Alice ran for eight seasons and Rich probably earned more from a few hours’ work than some directors make in a whole career.)
With all those heavyweights involved, how did Dorothy turn into such a massive flop – grotesque and all but unwatchable even by the middling-at-best standards of lowbrow fare like Alice or The Facts of Life?
One clue may be in the chronology. Loudon committed to the Warner Bros. Television deal in 1977 or 1978, while she was still in the cast of Annie, but the show had to wait once Loudon committed to star first in Ballroom – a musical adaptation of the made-for-television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom – on Broadway. Only after Ballroom closed, earlier than expected, on March 24, 1979, did Loudon go to Los Angeles for Dorothy, and only then did “format and script work” commence on the series.
Loudon’s limited availability boxed the entirety of conception, writing, casting, and taping into a period of just over four months. Little wonder, then, that Manz’s character made no sense – she looked and spoke like a street urchin, but had a vaguely identified patron whose charity kept the school from closing, and therefore from expelling her – or that the other principal girls were barely developed beyond the teen-Charlie’s Angels stereotypes of blonde (Elissa Leeds), brunette (Michele Greene), and nerd (Susan Brecht). Shayne cast another broadway star, Russell Nype (Call Me Madam), as the spineless headmaster, but Nype seemed stiff and ill at ease, while the two actors who played Dorothy’s fellow teachers – Priscilla Morrill (French) and Kenneth “Kip” Gilman (biology) – were shrill and overbearing.
The process of casting Gilman was an example of the haste that went into assembling Dorothy. Davis and Carroll remembered him from Loves Me, Loves Me Not, a short-lived sitcom with Susan Dey, and hired Gilman without a formal audition. “The two of them were just the sweetest people in the world,” Gilman recalled. “They basically were saying, well, you’ve got the role, do you want to do this? They had a piano in their office, and just out of the enthusiasm of the meeting, I sat down and started fooling around, and I think that’s maybe where they got the idea that I might also be able to do some musical stuff with Dorothy. I don’t think they had that in mind originally, because I was the science teacher.”
To write the four episodes, Davis and Carroll assembled three pairs of comedy writers: themselves; Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage (The Carol Burnett Show); and Vic Rauseo and Linda Morris (Welcome Back, Kotter). All but Davis and Carroll were relatively new to the business, but the most of the jokes could have been pilfered from Buddy Sorrell’s gag file. (Some examples: “While our students were looking at fish, Mimi and I were going to make a few waves!” “You shouldn’t be intimidated by Mr. Foley just because he’s headmonster … er, headmaster.”)
Loudon hinted at conflicts with the writers when she did publicity for the series, telling one journalist that she’d had to show them clips of her appearances on the Tony Awards broadcasts as a guide to the kind of material she could do. According to associate director Gary Shimokawa, Loudon clashed with the writing staff – “I think she just didn’t think they wrote to her, wrote enough to what she could do” – but found an ally in Rich (now earning his Alice windfall, it would seem). “I think John managed to keep her together on that, and she trusted him. He was a big personality as a director, and so I think that helped a lot,” said Shimokawa.
Even Gilman (below, with Loudon), who was inclined to focus on the positive and who sidestepped most of Dorothy’s behind-the-scenes conflicts, spoke out about the scripts:
Even though I was having fun with it, I [wanted] it to be a little bit more subtle and not as much on the nose. I remember saying something to John Rich, and I think Dorothy might have felt the same to some degree, that I felt that somehow we were doing like a radio show, where some of the jokes were – they had some crust on them. They were a little old. And John’s response to that, as the director, he said, “Well, you’ve got to understand, Kip, this is television, and these [gags] are like old friends!”
Since Loudon’s claim to fame was as a musical comedy star, one element that Rich had deep-sixed from Alice became central to Dorothy: an abbreviated but showy song or two in every episode. In the four produced episodes Loudon performed “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” (with Gilman), “Strike Up the Band,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” (with the girls). The selections were probably made by Loudon, who had used some of them in her nightclub act. “Changes” was one of two songs she had performed in a 1946 audition for the talent agency MCA that had launched her professionally, and she once described singing “Hannah” “on top of a piano in a bar in Troy, New York” as the worst job of her life. Loudon also performed Dorothy’s title tune, which was written by Bill Dyer and the distinguished film and television composer Billy Goldenberg (Duel; Columbo), who probably got involved because he had made his Broadway debut with the score for Ballroom.
The songs were arguably the show’s main draw but they created a plausibility problem, as Alan Shayne pointed out:
When we did Alice, we did a couple [of episodes] and it was a bomb. I mean, it wasn’t going at all, I thought, and one of the things John Rich said was – at that point, Linda Lavin was going to sing a number in each show – and one of the things he said was, “Let her sing on somebody else’s show, but not on Alice, because she seems like a loser. If she sings great, what is she doing as a waitress?”
Well, in a similar way, with Dorothy, it was more about her being a performer, and when she did her number, you kind of thought, “Why is she in this girls’ school?” But I loved her performing. I must say, I loved her when she sang.
But Shayne’s hoped-for successor to Alice died on arrival. “It simply didn’t work,” he said recently. What no one had told Shayne was something that the company of Annie had discovered very quickly: that Loudon, in the words of the show’s composer Charles Strouse, “really, genuinely, sincerely, hated children . . . . She was very ill-natured, in that respect.” Loudon would shoo away not only the many little girls in the show’s cast but also the dog, Sandy, whom she also despised. Doubtless she was less than thrilled that, in her bid for more widespread recognition, the baggage of Annie made youngsters an unavoidable part of the package.
While Loudon’s pedophobia might have been perfect for the larger-than-life hostility of Miss Hannigan, it couldn’t work for a den-mother sister to Mrs. Garrett. “Dorothy really didn’t like the kids, I don’t think,” Shayne said. “And although she was at war with the kids, you had to feel that she also loved them. That didn’t really work. Dotty was a tough lady, you know. She had a lot of hostility.” Loudon’s husband, a television arranger and composer named Norman Paris, had died unexpectedly just six weeks after she won the Tony for Annie, upending her personal life just as she reached her professional peak.
Kip Gilman also observed Loudon’s discomfort around her young co-stars, and thought that Manz – a casting director’s off-the-streets discovery whose experience up to that point had been limited to Terrence Malick’s highly idiosyncratic style of moviemaking – was especially ill-at-ease with the demands of performing comedic material in front of a live audience. Gilman suggested that, as a consequence of all that, the other three episodes may have been altered to reduce the girls’ roles and build up the screen time of the (still underdeveloped) faculty characters.
That was a miscalculation, since the juveniles were more appealing than any of the adults on display. The closest Dorothy came to being any good was in the premiere episode (it was the second one taped), “The Bookworm Turns.” Loudon was less manic in this one than in the other three, and it ends with a sweet moment in which she consoles her gawkiest charge (the appealing Susan Brecht, above) over an unrequited crush on Gilman’s character, Mr. Landis (also a totally implausible romantic interest for Loudon, who was old enough to be Gilman’s mother).
When Dorothy premiered on August 8, the publicity marked it as a lame duck. Loudon hemmed and hawed over whether she really wanted to do television or move to Los Angeles, all but publicly apologized for the writing, and suggested that if the show were renewed, the school setting might be dumped, and her character could make a return to the stage. But the reviews were surprisingly kind. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News compared the show unfavorably to Our Miss Brooks but felt that “[s]till Loudon is a welcome addition to television.” Variety hedged: “Loudon was forced to work awfully hard for the laughs she got – but the point is, she got them.” Jerry Krupnick of The Star-Ledger wrote that “[t]he plot is ordinary, the rest of the cast is merely competent, but Dorothy Loudon is sensational.”
Only later, after the show was safely buried, did the knives come out. “Dorothy, you may recall … was a total disaster,” was how Krupnick reversed himself in 1983. “It was loud, frantic, senseless, unfunny – with Dorothy reduced to a desperate series of leers and triple takes.” On her website, Michele Greene (the only one of the four girls to have a durable career as an actress) calls the show “horribly idiotic.” Loudon herself must have realized, from the first moment she saw herself on screen, that no one had succeeded in scaling down her broad, stagy style. In later years, she told interviewers about a mortifying premiere party that she spent sitting in a corner, drinking wine. “Thank goodness nobody saw [Dorothy],” she said in 1982. “I watched the first episode and cried all the way through.”
Sources: Author’s telephone interviews with Kip Gilman, Alan Shayne, and Gary Shimokawa; Archive of American Television interview with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.; Charles Strouse interview, Life After Tomorrow DVD (2008); John Rich, Warm Up the Snake (University of Michigan Press, 2006); Kay Gardella, “Loudon sounds off for songs,” New York Daily News; August 1, 1979; Kay Gardella, Dorothy review, New York Daily News, August 8, 1979; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy is dazzling in long-overdue return,” Star-Ledger, August 8, 1979; Arthur Unger, “‘Bound to have viewers begging for more,’” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1979; Stephen M. Silverman, “Dorothy has high hopes for her sitcom,” New York Post, August 14, 1979; Dorothy Review, Variety, August 15, 1979; Richard Christiansen, “Singing, clowning, touring, winning: Loudon’s dues are paid in full,” Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1982; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy Loudon: Musical comedy star adds a distinctive note to ‘Best of Everything,’ Star-Ledger, September 18, 1983.
This piece was an outgrowth of my work on a project of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to digitize Dorothy Loudon’s papers, which were donated to the Library following her death in 2003. I am also writing about Loudon for the Library’s blog.
As of this writing, the episode “Lies and Whispers” is available on Youtube, along with some clips from other episodes of Dorothy. The Paley Center for Media has copies of all four episodes in its collection.
July 29, 2011
I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show. North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies. Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him back from whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched. What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber. And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together. Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction? What does Jay North get from these people? Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone? Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.
Jay North: Rebel without a comb.
Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March. Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.
My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson. This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled. Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell). The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.
Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag. The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands. Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive. Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself. Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy. (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.) It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take. But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.
My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction. Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner. The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward. The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes. But they are, at least, mildly surprising. The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.
But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format. The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat. Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.
(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week. See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)
Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot. It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory). But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?
There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach; if you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing faux-family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh. But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material. Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions. He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hatable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season). Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin. In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson. A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic is an intriguing source of unease. But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.
And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, as if he’d been trained to expect a Tootsie Roll for every successfully completed punchline. On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill. I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner. Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable. Not only did Beaver have an indelible secondary cast, but it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness. If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.
Earlier I wrote that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true. Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson. This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision. Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake. Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”). Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”). Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”). And so on. The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over. So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.” (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)
On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood. But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash. It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace. Still, I’m not unsympathetic. As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13. Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.
Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.
(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television. Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers. Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)
As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel. In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West. He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.
Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire. Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency! A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists. My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s. The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.
Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview. I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well. As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.
Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year. Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters. According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set. A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits. Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.
Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters. Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
February 12, 2011
“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003
Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year. His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time. McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week. “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.
John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades. Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors. Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output. He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard. His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems. Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies. According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”
When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family. Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.
“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”
Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen. As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students. Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies. But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing. Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.
Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start. McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected. Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures. His wife was a frequent co-star.
Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York. John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter. But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim. He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions. Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz. (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)
In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work. One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.
At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles. McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work. McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.
A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959. A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half. McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson. He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade. For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful. They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”
Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside). McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week. “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey. McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series. “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.
During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run. Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie. McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.
The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner. Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain. Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series. Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.
According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show. Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.” But the identification was more complex than that. At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).
McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy. McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series. “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on. They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.
Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses. McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.
The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series. Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials. His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.
When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing. Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back. “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey. “It was liberating, almost.”
April 19, 2010
Last month I bought a copy of the first season of The Bill Cosby Show for six dollars in a remaindered DVD store on Sixth Avenue. That probably goes some way towards explaining why it’s taken Shout Factory, which distributes The Bill Cosby Show, four years to get around to releasing the second and final season, and only as a direct-mail exclusive.
If you’re confused about how anything Cosbyfied could lapse into obscurity or unprofitability, you should note that I’m talking about The Bill Cosby Show (1969-1971), not The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The latter is the mega-popular, audience-friendly family sitcom that kept NBC in business during the eighties. The former is the black sheep of the Cosby canon, a forgotten but far superior series in which the comedian took chances, engaged with the realities of the immediate post-Civil Rights era, and apparently annoyed the network (also NBC) enough to trigger a premature cancellation. The first name makes all the difference. Original recipe Cos is the one you want.
Backed by triple Emmy wins for his work on I Spy, Cosby executive-produced The Bill Cosby Show himself, independently. It doesn’t look or feel like any other situation comedy from the time. There’s no laugh track, no ensemble of colorful sidekicks mugging for attention. A lot of the action in The Bill Cosby Show takes place outdoors (and off the backlot). Many of the directors (Harvey Hart, Ralph Senensky, Seymour Robbie) had more experience working with dramatic material than with comedy, and the writers took care to depict Cosby’s character as a rounded, multi-faceted individual, an organic part of a well-defined environment. It would be an overstatement to call The Bill Cosby Show a “dramedy.” But it takes place in the real world, not in sitcomland.
The other aspect of The Bill Cosby Show that distinguishes it from most television comedies is that it has no set formula. It goes in all different directions. Each episode is very different from the others in its plot, setting, and even the style of humor. Cosby plays Chet Kincaid, who in press materials about the show is usually identified as a high school gym coach. That’s accurate, but incomplete, because this is not a workplace comedy. Chet is, first and foremost, a black man in Los Angeles.
In the first episode, “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet stumbles into a series of increasingly serious misadventures while out for a morning jog. That activity is the only clue to his profession, which the series explores at its leisure. Later episodes build out the character of Chet, gradually introducing members of a large family (siblings, sister-in-law, niece & nephews, parents), various girlfriends, colleagues from work. Chet’s life at school dominates more episodes than any other subject, but many segments deal exclusively with his family relations, his sex life, or simply the scrapes that an average citizen gets into while going about his daily life.
My favorite episodes of The Bill Cosby Show fall into that last category, because they are the most unpredictable. Unencumbered by all the usual sitcom fallbacks, Cosby and his head writer, Ed. Weinberger, could craft scenarios out of any whim that struck them. “Rules Is Rules,” one of the funniest farces I’ve ever seen on television, pits Chet against an implacable public school bureaucracy in his quest to purchase a single valve that he needs to re-inflate his supply of basketballs. “A Word From Our Sponsor” sees Chet accept a role as a cereal pitchman – because, he makes clear, he needs the money. Rather than follow standard sitcom rules, the writer, Marvin Kaplan, offers a series of formless set pieces, climaxing with a howler of a TV commercial shoot in which the hapless Chet is soundly defeated by a precocious child actor and a misbehaving box of Corn Wispies. The episode falters only because Cosby seems to have improvised at length, and his timing was altered when these sequences were trimmed to fit the half-hour frame. It’s hard to imagine an episode of That Girl having that problem.
A comparison to Seinfeld may be too easy, but the best of The Bill Cosby Shows are, indeed, about nothing. This appealing minimalism reached its apex with Henry Fonda’s guest appearance in “The Elevator Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Instead of giving the movie legend a meaty star turn, Stan Daniels’s teleplay casts him as a meek English teacher who gets trapped in an elevator with Chet. The pair pass the time with word games and breath-holding contests. Fonda does get to deliver a touching monologue near the end, but for most of the show he seems liberated by the chance to riff with Cosby in a series of long-take two-shots.
Cosby seems to have insisted on that setup as much as possible. In “Home Remedy” there’s an amazing four-and-a-half-minute improvisation between Cosby and Lee Weaver (a semi-regular, as Chet’s married brother), in which they reminisce about faking illnesses to score sick days when they were children. Long takes suit Cosby because he really gets going when he has strong, adult performers off of whom he can play. (Cosby is less entertaining when he’s playing with children, or doing solo schtick. The comedian foregrounded those elements in his second eponymous series, which was likable but not nearly as funny as the first one.)
Even more than Fonda, small-part actors who were often stuck playing exaggerated comic types in other shows came alive in the company of Cosby. Kathleen Freeman must have drawn on her own experience as an acting coach in “A Word From Her Sponsor,” in which she plays a drama teacher who puts a hopeless Chet through a series of detailed and authentic-sounding acting exercises. In “Let X Equal a Lousy Weekend,” Chet subs as an algebra teacher and gets stuck on a tough word problem involving amounts of candy. Enter Bill Zuckert to deliver a hilarious aria as a candy shop owner who decides that Chet is crazy when he requests a hike in prices so they’ll match his math problem exactly.
And Fran Ryan, never one of my favorite character players, is a revelation as the stern school administrator in “Rules Is Rules.” She’s playing her usual battle axe type, but it occurred to someone that Ryan’s Mrs. Beal should respond to the charm that Cosby aims at her. With a hint of a smile, Ryan betrays a secret pleasure as Chet outwits the inane red tape that Mrs. Beal is charged with enforcing. A cliched situation turns complex, warm, and real through the byplay between the two performers.
My favorite of Cosby’s sparring partners is Joyce Bulifant, the perky blonde who later appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Murray’s wife. Bulifant plays a hip guidance counselor, Marsha Paterson, who has a lively, sexy chemistry with Chet. But she disappears after a few episodes. That a romance between Chet and Mrs. Paterson (carefully identified as a married woman in the scripts) remained off-limits brings us around to the issue of race, which lies palpably under the surface of The Bill Cosby Show.
Supposedly Cosby and Robert Culp, his co-star in I Spy, agreed that the camaraderie between their characters on that series “was the statement.” Their interracial friendship was more powerful because race was never mentioned. Cosby took the same approach when he got his own series. Racial discrimination and identity politics form an important structuring absence in The Bill Cosby Show.
In “The Fatal Phone Call,” Chet gets picked up by the cops because he resembles a vague description of a burglar they’re looking for. He is a victim of racial profiling. But Cosby hedges his bets by casting African Americans as two of the police officers, and then by playing the actual criminal himself in the closing gag of the show. Chet’s uncanny resemblance to the thief means that the cops can’t be faulted for overt bigotry.
Is that a cop-out? I’m not sure. Casting a squat, bald black man who looked nothing like Cosby would have made a powerful statement, but that’s not the kind of show Cosby wanted to do. He’s more concerned with a minute study of how Chet deals with the problem: he gets exasperated, then alarmed, but he contains his emotions and plays it cool. Most TV shows in the sixties either ignored racism or railed against it, and I’ll bet that Cosby’s down-to-earth attack on the subject held more meaning for viewers who actually faced systemic racism in their daily lives.
In “The Gumball Incident,” an innocent Chet gets arrested for breaking a merchant’s gumball machine. Chet has the option of paying off the complainant, but he submits to the arrest because of his faith that the system will vindicate him. Cosby does a funny routine where he has trouble holding his booking sign the right way as the police (who are, again, multiracial) take his mug shot. The sequence conveys no explicit political message, but it’s freighted with a meaning that would not be there if, say, Ted Bessell posed for a booking photograph on That Girl.
(In case you hadn’t noticed: That Girl is this week’s banal-sitcom whipping-post.)
At the end of “The Gumball Incident” Chet reconciles with the surly storekeeper. In the interim, he has received scrupulously fair treatment by the police and the courts. The plot of the episode evokes the specter of the Watts riots – a black man is accused of vandalism by a white business owner – but Cosby chooses to paint the situation in the most optimistic terms imaginable. It’s possible to take this as naïve, and I wonder how African American audiences reacted to it back in 1969. The Bill Cosby Show’s approach to matters of race is non-confrontational in the extreme. Whenever Cosby addresses the subject, he’s pointed but indirect. A photo of Dr. King or a Ray Charles album on prominent display in Chet’s apartment contextualize him within African American politics and culture. But no one ever mentions the color of anyone’s skin.
The most potent of these unreferenced images of blackness involve Chet’s sexuality. To put it in modern terms, Chet is a player. He’s an unapologetic bachelor who lays a good line on a different beautiful black woman in nearly every episode. Chet has game, and a sex appeal that will surprise anyone who only knows Cosby as Cliff Huxtable. Chet never gets serious about any of his lady friends, and then when he does – in “The Blind Date,” which features a lovely, relaxed Cicely Tyson as a potential soulmate who breaks his heart – it carries a great deal of meaning. The Bill Cosby Show debuted just before the blaxploitation era of aggressive African American pimps and studs, at a moment when Sidney Poitier faced criticism for muting his own sexuality in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in order to court a wider (or whiter) audience. In his typically subtle way, Cosby crossed one of the last barriers for black leading men.
That’s why I’m curious about Joyce Bulifant’s departure, and why The Bill Cosby Show poured cold water on her character’s flirtation with Chet. Did Cosby oppose interracial dating? Did he worry about provoking a controversy that would overshadow his quietly progressive take on race relations? Did Cosby sacrifice Bulifant’s contributions in order to preserve the opportunity to place a variety of attractive black women in front of the camera? Or was NBC simply too squeamish to put an interracial relationship on the air in 1969?
Since I started this blog, I have acquired a reputation as a Scroogy McScrooge who doesn’t like to laugh. Except maybe when I’m kicking puppies or insulting dead actors. Yes, that’s right: a sitcom-hater. My detractors will be delighted to learn that I must be getting soft in my incipient middle age, because I have started watching Love American Style and I think it’s very funny. Sometimes.
In purely formal terms, Love American Style, which also debuted in the fall of 1969, was as novel as The Bill Cosby Show. An hour-long anthology, Love assembled three or four unrelated comic stories each week. Interspersing with these were a half-dozen or so blackout gags, all less than sixty seconds in duration and featuring a regular cast of bit players. The looseness of the format made the show feel more like a variety show than a sitcom, even though the material was typically sitcomic, right down to the laugh track. The success of NBC’s free-form Laugh-In the previous year probably inspired ABC to dilute Love‘s structure and content to appeal to a wider audience.
A popular, five-season hit in its day, Love American Style has since acquired a reputation as a uniquely cringeworthy relic. The show is redolent with nehru jackets and paisley party shirts, but the reason it’s dated now is because it didn’t tell much truth. If the show had anything real to say about love or sex or relationships, its disinterment for DVD in 2007 wouldn’t have inspired a long say wha? in the New York Times, of all places. Love took the easy route – it reduced its subject to a card-file of cliches, hoary vaudeville routines, and adolescent male fantasies.
The premiere episode, which was probably shot and broadcast first because it broached a “controversial” topic, concludes with a sketch entitled “Love and the Pill.” The segment unfurls a dialogue between the parents of a teenaged girl and her mod young boyfriend. Revealingly, the character who’s absent while the other parties discuss her reproductive rights is the teenager who may or may not be using the pill. The big joke – wait for it – is whether or not the parents (Robert Cummings and iconic TV mom Jane Wyatt) will opt to mash up a contraceptive and spike their daughter’s food with it.
Love American Style is always like that. Its default perspective is vaguely establishment and relentlessly male. It takes a traditionally “female” genre (romance) and twists it into leering sex farce. The funniest episodes are those in which a dweeby or creepy young man comes up with some clever trick for wearing down the resistance of a beautiful woman. (If that sounds familiar, it may be because Judd Apatow’s modern, acclaimed “adult” comedies and their imitators founder on the same shoals of arrested development.) Segments that revolve around middle-aged or elderly couples, or African Americans, usually play like musty old vaudeville routines. Likely that’s because the youngish, white, male executive producers, Jim Parker and Arnold Margolin, couldn’t be easily budged from a point of view that came naturally to them.
Were a viewer to marathon-watch Love American Style today, the casual sexism would grow toxic. But I did say that I liked this show, didn’t I? Yes, that’s the shame: within its limits, here and there, Love American Style delivers laughs.
One reason for that is the anthology structure. If you got tired of dropping in on Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell year after year, you could click over to Love American Style, safe in the knowledge that this week’s quibbling couple would make their exeunt in twenty minutes or less. This knowledge must have appealed to the writers even more than to the viewer, because they could end a script without having to return their characters to the same stasis they were in last week and would still be in next week. Occasionally, a Love American Style segment takes advantage of that freedom and goes in for a bawdy laugh or out on a strange tangent.
“Love and the Living Doll,” in which Arte Johnson romances a blow-up doll in order to make a neighbor girl jealous, teeters intriguingly on the boundary between icky and cute. “Love and the Watchdog” fetches some clever telephone humor out of a dognapping scenario (the owner wants to hear the dog bark before she’ll pay a ransom). “Love and the Dating Computer” chronicles a botched blind date between two guys whose names are Francis and Marion, who find that the computer matched them perfectly in every other regard. What sounds like an exercise in homophobia turns witty and endearing once it becomes clear that the writers, Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, aren’t going to coat the budding bromance with a layer of gay panic. And the casting is inspired: Broderick Crawford has great fun playing against type as a sensitive, lonely bachelor.
Then there’s the segment in which newlywed Stefanie Powers tells husband Gary Lockwood that his mouth is too small, and he tries to prove her wrong by fellating a doorknob. It’s called, yes, “Love and the Doorknob.” I really don’t know what to say about this absurdist gem, except that suddenly I want to know more about the private lives of Doris and Frank Hursley, the soap opera royalty (they created General Hospital) who wrote it.
Only two things are worth mentioning about the tiny throwaway sketches that Love American Style used as a connective tissue between the main segments. The first is that they made a star of sorts out of the rubber-faced Stuart Margolin (brother of Arnold Margolin, and later to play Angel on The Rockford Files), who was the only actor in the seven-member ensemble with any talent. The second is that the “Love American Style Players,” as they were billed in the closing credits, were interracial (two black, five white). That makes these otherwise innocuous vignettes as much a snapshot of network television’s take on race at the end of the sixties as The Bill Cosby Show. It’s no surprise that Love American Style’s ideas on this subject are far more squirm-inducing and out of date than Cosby’s. Partly that’s an accident of casting: Buzz Cooper, the African American romantic lead of the group, deployed an array of slack-jawed, sho’ nuff expressions that Willie Best would have envied. (Cooper was replaced for the second season.)
But the more troubling aspect of the short sketches is that while the cast is interracial, the couples are always of the same race. The vignettes pair off the seven performers in every possible heterosexual combination, except for mixed race couples. After the first few episodes, Love American Style’s avoidance of that possibility becomes a pregnant case of passive racism. I never understood why it was such a big deal when, in March of 1969, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols enjoyed an interracial kiss in an episode of Star Trek. Now I’m starting to get the picture.
Correction (1/22/14): The original version of this piece misidentified the writer Frank Shaw (as Frank Davis).
February 11, 2010
Quick rundown on the wave of great New York City-based TV shows from the early to mid-sixties: East Side / West Side, Naked City, The Defenders, The Nurses, The Patty Duke Show, Coronet Blue, N.Y.P.D. . . . .
Wait a minute: The Patty Duke Show?
Yes. For its first two seasons, this rather innocuous Hollywood-style sitcom was actually filmed in New York. That’s a fact that few television histories have dwelled upon. Indeed, while I had guessed that The Patty Duke Show was lensed in New York based on some of its guest stars, I wasn’t sure my theory was accurate until the first season appeared on DVD last year.
This aspect of geography might seem trivial. But since I am, admittedly, not a great enthusiast when it comes to mainstream sitcoms, it was the element of The Patty Duke Show about which I was most curious when I took my first look at it.
There weren’t too many comedy series shot in New York after the live era. The important ones that come to mind are Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, both of which have a funky, nonconformist vibe. They’re full of hustlers and oddballs, and in a sense they’re humorous counterpart to some of the dramas mentioned above, especially Naked City.
But The Patty Duke Show was something of a Trojan horse. Despite its New York pedigree, this family sitcom sought the same tone as the Hollywood-based domestic comedies that preceded it: Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, The Donna Reed Show. The parents were competent, the kids affable, the real world a safe distance away. Apart from the presence of one foreign relation (more on her later), The Patty Duke Show focused on the same traditional nuclear unit that comprised most of the families in family comedies: father, mother, and two kids.
Consciously or unconsciously, The Patty Duke Show sought to minimize its Brooklyn roots, even as it revealed a Manhattan skyline in the background any time someone in the Lane household opened the front door. Whether due to budgetary limitations or ideology, The Patty Duke Show scrupulously avoided images of the city itself. In the eighteen episodes I screened, the show’s characters stepped outdoors only once, in a brief scene in “How to Be Popular.”
Though they lived in urban setting, the problems of the Lane family were essentially suburban. And although The Patty Duke Show debuted during the twilight of Camelot (in September 1963), most of the early plotlines could have been lifted from any domestic comedy of the fifties. Dopey dad thinks the fishing license Patty obtains for him is actually her own marriage certificate (“The Elopement”). Little brother Ross goes reluctantly on a first date (“The Birds and the Bees Bit”). Eccentric Aunt Pauline comes for a visit. And so on.
It’s no surprise, then, that the creators of The Patty Duke Show were veterans of classic Hollywood comedy. William Asher, the original producer and director, had been the primary director of I Love Lucy. Sidney Sheldon was a screenwriter of MGM musicals, slumming in television for a decade before he found his way into a third career – one which would earn him billions – as an author of trashy novels. Both men worked on The Patty Duke Show immediately prior to producing the two iconic fantasy sitcoms of the sixties: Asher’s Bewitched (1964-1972) and Sheldon’s I Dream of Jeannie (1965-1970).
The one element of The Patty Duke Show that distinguishes it from its domestic predecessors is one that, though merely implausible, anticipates the outright supernatural element of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Sheldon and Asher cast Duke not only as a typical American teenager, Patty Lane, but also as her identical cousin from Scotland, Cathy Lane. (It’s worth remembering that Elizabeth Montgomery and Barbara Eden, the stars of Bewitched and Jeannie, both played recurring dual roles on their shows.)
The Patty Duke Show never tried to explain the biological unlikelihood of identical cousins, although the title song’s irreverent lyrics did an adequate job of encouraging the audience to accept rather than question the premise. I wonder if Sheldon made the Lane girls cousins rather than twins just to put a little distance between The Patty Duke Show and The Parent Trap, the popular 1961 Disney film from which its premise seems to have been lifted.
Like many successful TV series, The Patty Duke Show underwent a great deal of turmoil before finding the right mix of on- and off-camera talent towards the middle of its first season. The series’ pilot was re-shot, with William Schallert replacing Mark Miller in the role of Patty Lane’s father, and most of the original footage was recycled into an “origins” story that became the final episode of the first season, “The Cousins.” The most obvious alteration in the reshoots was Duke’s hairdo, which was changed from a frumpy bob (similar to Hayley Mills’s in The Parent Trap) in the pilot to the lighter, longer wig she wore for the rest of the series. The Patty Duke Show was produced by United Artists, a “mini-major” film studio which never produced much television. Its other big show of 1963 was East Side / West Side, which presented UA with the same problem: a pilot that varied so greatly from the rest of the series that it couldn’t be dropped seamlessly amid the subsequent episodes. East Side / West Side was such a ratings loser that UA finally aired the pilot without explanation. The Patty Duke Show, at least, merited enough funding to produce “The Cousins,” but in the meantime UA managed to thoroughly confuse viewers by mixing footage of Duke wearing both hairdos into the first season’s opening title sequence. It was an indifference toward continuity that wouldn’t be tolerated by today’s audiences.
The Patty Duke Show churned through three producers in its first year. William Asher left around the time the show debuted on ABC; in his excellent memoir When the Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, supervising editor Ralph Rosenblum wrote that Asher was fired and his contract bought out due to his continual indecisiveness. Part of Asher’s payoff may have been a co-creator credit; until midway through the first season, Sheldon alone was listed as The Patty Duke Show’s creator. Replacing Asher were producer Robert Costello (later of Dark Shadows) and director Stanley Prager (who eventually took over the producing job as well). Prager was a blacklisted actor and Broadway director who remains surprisingly little-remembered today, perhaps because he died young in 1972.
Costello and Prager, longtime New York-based producers, may have gotten on better than the outsider Asher did with a distinguished crew that included: Rosenblum (later famous as Woody Allen’s editor during the seventies; line producer Stanley Neufeld and art director Robert Gundlach, recent veterans of Naked City who were probably very happy to come in out of the cold for the studio-bound Patty Duke Show; and composer Sid Ramin, who must have had the world’s best agent. Ramin receives not only an unprecedented credit in the opening titles, but also a second solo title card in the end credits. He is forgotten today, but had, at the time of The Patty Duke Show, just won both an Oscar and a Grammy for orchestrating Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story.
So far I’ve focused on the minutiae The Patty Duke Show’s production history without saying much about its content. Regarding the latter, I’m relieved to be able report that the series will prove at least tolerable to sitcom-phobes like myself, and probably delightful to everyone else. The show excels for one reason alone (or maybe two, depending on how you count): Patty Duke. My memory of her work in the few other productions in which I had seen Duke – The Miracle Worker, the treacly “Mrs. McBroom and the Cloud Watcher” episode of Ben Casey, the horrid high-school comedy Billie, Night Gallery’s “The Diary,” and of course Valley of the Dolls – was that she tended to come across as shrill and overbearing. Now I suspect my impressions had more to do with weaknesses in the material than with Duke’s talent.
Here, Duke is never less than likeable, and often funnier than the bland material. In “The Birds and the Bees Bit,” obnoxious Ross says that he’s lost one of his marbles; Patty’s comeback (“Whaaaaaat an opening!”) is so obvious it’s barely a joke, but Duke cracked me up with her delivery. When the show shifts occasionally into light drama – as in “The Birds and the Bees Bit” when Patty recalls her own childhood awkwardness, or “The Drop Out,” a turgid stay-in-school treatise with an odd emphasis on the economic disparity between Patty’s family and her boyfriend’s – Duke reminds us of her Helen Keller bona fides.
The Patty Duke Show reveals not only Duke’s versatility, but also a technical proficiency in her work that is as startling as Meryl Streep’s. I suspect Sheldon was drawn to The Parent Trap’s dual-role gimmick because he understood that Duke would be wasted playing a standard-issue teenaged girl. Cathy’s Scottish accent would have been enough to cue the audience as to who was who, but Duke developed an extensive catalog of mannerisms and facial expressions to distinguish between the brainy, reserved Cathy and the conformist chatterbox Patty. Cathy’s crinkle-eyed giggle and Patty’s open-mouthed exuberance (as captured in the first season opening titles) were trademarks of each character:
It would be cringeworthy to suggest that Duke’s later diagnosis with bipolar disorder had something to do with her skill at switching between two opposite personalities within the same project, except that Duke makes that very point in a new interview that appears on the DVD. (Also intriguing is the fact that Sidney Sheldon, who created the Lane cousins while Duke lived with his family for a few weeks, suffered from bipolar disorder as well.)
Contrary to my expectations, The Patty Duke Show does not overuse the Parent Trap-derived device of identity-switching between the identical girls. Fewer than a third of the episodes have Patty and Cathy changing places to fool someone, and in most of those the swap is incidental rather than central to the plot. As someone who got tired of Durwood or Major Nelson falling for this kind of switcheroo far too often, I’d like to give Sidney Sheldon credit for anticipating his audience and underusing the obvious gimmick inherent in The Patty Duke Show’s premise. But what actually happened, I suspect, is that Sheldon became captivated by Patty Lane’s freewheeling enthusiasms and intricate, mile-a-minute slang, to the extent that Duke’s Cathy Lane became a supporting character in her own show. Even though her exotic background might have been expected to launch more than her share of storylines, Cathy, like the other members of the Lane family, developed into a straight man (straight person?) for Patty’s antics.
It’s fascinating to watch Duke come alive as Patty Lane in a way that she does not as Cathy. Patty is assertive and unflappable; though she has a firm grasp of the status quo and little desire to challenge it, she also does not deny herself any pleasure or goal that it occurs to her to seek out. In that way, Patty may be placed in the company of more obvious pre-feminist women of early sixties television, like Laura Petrie of The Dick Van Dyke Show or Liz Thorpe of The Nurses. She also reminds me, even though she’s quite unlike either character, of Allison Mackenzie and Betty Anderson of Peyton Place, which would debut on ABC a year after The Patty Duke Show. The ethereal Allison and the grasping Betty were teenagers defined by their trajectory out of youth (and their small town home) and into adulthood (and the city). It’s equally possible to view the slightly younger Patty Lane as a prototypical adult rather than an average teen. This quality comes through mainly in Duke’s boundless confidence, which the show met with storylines that had Patty Lane engaging in atypically mature endeavors – pursuing a sexually experienced older man (“The French Teacher”) or adopting a Korean child (“Patty, the Foster Mother”).
Although the episodes I’ve seen maintain Patty’s good reputation, there is just a hint of a sexual subtext to her precocity. The show saddles Patty with the dopiest boyfriend in the history of television: Richard Harrison (the funny Eddie Applegate), an easygoing underachiever to whom Patty seems attracted mainly because he obeys orders willingly. If Patty was assertive with Richard in all other things, might she not have tugged him behind the bleachers and urged him toward or second or third base? Patty Lane, in contrast to her cousin, strikes me as the kind of teenager whose natural curiosity and impatience would extend to the functions of physical intimacy; my mother, who was about Patty’s age in 1963, might have called her “fast.”
It would feel creepy to pick up on a sexual component in the performance of a sixteen year-old actress, if not for the facts we now know about Patty Duke’s offscreen life: that she was sexually abused before or during the production of the series by her guardian and manager, John Ross (who also scored an associate producer credit on The Patty Duke Show); and that Duke married Harry Falk, Jr., a young assistant director who worked on her show, a year before it went off the air in 1966. So sexual awareness was indeed an component in the actress’s own teenaged development, even as familial warmth was not; in her interview for the DVD, Duke touchingly points out that she enjoyed making the show so that she could bask in the illusion of a standard-issue family that Sheldon had created for her.
That brings us around to my original entry point into The Patty Duke Show, the seemingly anomalous decision to shoot the series in New York City. I had guessed that perhaps Duke has some theater commitment or family roots that led United Artists to bring the show to her, rather than Duke to Los Angeles. It turns out that the motive was more sinister. As William Schallert reveals in his interview for the DVD, New York was chosen solely because it allowed the producers to circumvent California’s stricter child labor laws. Duke would have been restricted to a five-hour workday in Los Angeles – difficult for any teen with a regular part in a TV series, but impossible for one cast in a dual starring role. In New York, she could work a full twelve-hour day. Paul O’Keefe, who played Ross Lane, had an even more herculean workload; he shot his scenes while appearing in the title role in Oliver!, eight times a week, during part of its 1963-1964 Broadway run. Neither of them spent much, if any, time with an on-set teacher. The Patty Duke Show was a far distance from the suburbs, all right.
December 2, 2009
Usually I don’t post DVD news here, but this is too big a scoop to resist.
I’ve been informed by a reliable source that The Goldbergs, the Jewish family comedy first telecast from 1949-1956, will be coming to DVD in a big way in early 2010.
This Goldbergs release will be a “complete” series set, compiled by a well-known DVD producer and distributed by another label that specializes in classic television. “Complete” appears in quotation marks because The Goldbergs was, of course, staged live during all but its final season, so many of the episodes no longer exist. But the DVD set will gather all of the surviving kinescopes from the series’ various incarnations – it had runs on CBS, NBC, and DuMont, with a number of cast changes along the way – as well as all thirty-nine segments shot on film for the show’s last season. I don’t know the exact tally, but it will be over sixty episodes.
The 1950 feature film version of The Goldbergs (a Paramount property) will not be included. But the DVD set will contain some segments from the radio version of The Goldbergs, which ran on NBC and CBS for nearly twenty years, as well as the pilot for Berg’s next series, Mrs. G Goes to College.
I’ve only seen one episode of The Goldbergs and have no idea how well the show will hold up, as a comedy, today. But its cultural significance is enormous. The Goldbergs was the most popular of the “ethnic” situation comedies that thrived in the early fifties but died out as TV expanded outward from New York and Chicago into America’s less diverse regions. Maybe even more importantly, The Goldbergs was the first TV series with a female “showrunner”; Gertrude Berg, the creator, star, and frequent writer, reportedly had total control over the show’s content.
Of course, I’ll have more to say about this exciting development once it becomes a reality.
November 14, 2008
In 1958, ABC lobbed an eight-year nightmare of emasculation onto the airwaves, cloaking it under an innocuous title: The Donna Reed Show. Less blatantly Freudian than the same year’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, this domestic situation comedy nevertheless postulated its housewife protagonist as a superwoman capable of rendering the male of the species all but obsolete. The surname of Reed’s emblematic TV family was Stone – same as the stuff they build prisons out of.
The eponymous star kept her own first name as the all-purpose wife/mother. Two kids (teenaged Mary and younger son Jeff) and work-at-home pediatrician dad Alex made up the rest of The Donna Reed Show‘s prototypically nuclear clan, huddled together in a cramped-looking suburban two-story.
The standard rap on The Donna Reed Show is that it presents Reed as an impossibly idealized image of domesticity. But in digging through the first ten or so episodes, I was struck by how far Donna’s superpowers extended beyond the regimen of mending clothes and packing lunches.
The debut outing, “Weekend Trip,” has Donna scheming to clear the family schedule so they can enjoy a brief vacation together. And I mean scheming: think Lady Macbeth. Donna manipulates Alex’s colleagues and friends into covering his patients or dropping their demands on his time. She even usurps his professional status, figuring out a psychological motive behind a boy’s illness that eludes Dr. Stone. Alex still manages to wreck things at the last minute, by forgetting to deliver an important phone message – Carl Betz’s “oh, fuck” reaction shot is the biggest laugh in the episode – but Donna has this problem solved in seconds, and doesn’t even deign to issue the expected scolding. From the outset the message is clear: Hubby might be the breadwinner, but his stethoscope is as limp as his … well, you know.
With each new episode, Donna seems to annex another sector of masculine territory. She teaches Jeff how to box (episode two, “Pardon My Gloves”). She takes a group of boys on a camping trip (episode three, “The Hike”). Finally the question of Donna’s incontrovertible superiority comes to the fore in the fourth segment, “Male Ego,” which really chucks poor Alex under the bus: Mary delivers an overblown speech extolling her mother’s virtues, and dad comes off as a whinging ingrate when he bristles at being undervalued. By the time the infamous twin beds turn up in the spousal bedroom during in the final scene of “Male Ego,” you can’t help but muse that it’s Donna who decides if and when they get pushed together, and Alex who’s on the bottom during the activity that ensues.
The punchlines to these gags undercut a full-on feminist reading. Hopeless at tent construction and other outdoor skills, Donna hires a caterer to provide the hunter’s stew. But the overwhelming impression is of a family unit in which husband and even kids are superfluous appendages.
It’s possible to assess much of the popular American entertainment of the fifties as a post-war retrenchment of traditional gender roles. This is especially relevant in television, where the major works of the first generation of dramatists (Rod Serling, Reginald Rose, Stirling Silliphant) often retreated into all-male worlds, or unfolded as one-sided and rather hysterical monologues on female sexuality and independence. (Silliphant’s early Route 66 segment “A Lance of Straw,” available on DVD, gives this type of anxiety a rigorous workout.) In that context, The Donna Reed Show seems less about female empowerment (or its opposite) than male fear.
I have, of course, offered a somewhat radical counter-reading here. But I think the worthwhile comedy shows of the fifties sustain these kinds of sidelong interpretations, and even encourage them. Programs like The Donna Reed Show or Father Knows Best are thought of as reinforcing social norms – the Eisenhower ideal of the nuclear family, pounded into your head until you want to impale yourself on a white picket fence. But humor derives from the defiance of expectations, so it follows that only the most banal (and now forgotten) early sitcoms could have failed to challenge, in some way, the institutions that they depicted.
For instance. I’ve always thought of Leave It to Beaver not as a wholesome family show but as an exercise in witty insult humor. You have June’s cheery putdowns of Ward’s stuffiness; his slow-on-the-uptake double takes; Lumpy Rutherford and his father Fred, sharply etched caricatures of mediocrity; and of course Eddie Haskell, a human diarrhea of sarcasm that splatters all over every totem of ethics or decorum. And watch Wally Cleaver closely. Tony Dow’s “aw, shucks” delivery, and the long penumbra of Ken Osmond’s more verbal Eddie, conceal a steady, passive-aggressive stream of unanswered rebukes to every correction offered by his parents, and a devastatingly accurate assessment of “the little creep”‘s (Beaver’s) shortcomings. It’s the prototype for a later, raunchier classic of spoofed suburban malaise, Married with Children, and I’m very much convinced that Beaver’s original audience was in on the joke.
Apart from a few clips, I’ve never seen The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but I’m fascinated by Tim Lucas’s considerations of the surrealism and technical innovation in that series – qualities which would seem to refute, or at least sidestep, the common perceptions of the Nelsons’ fourteen-season opus as a simple-minded exercise in domestic harmony. Lucas’s work strikes me as a useful example of how to look at media that might seem dated or irrelevant today: through contemporary eyes, but with a close and open-minded examination of the texts.
Fifties sitcoms seem particularly vulnerable to brutalization at the hands of ideologues. Nostalgists respond to them with misty-eyed diatribes exalting the narrow-minded, conformist “family values” of the fifties. In this limited view, The Donna Reed Show becomes a club to wield against today’s more permissive popular culture or even (by devaluing that which the Stones’ world excludes) against the sort of social progress that has made possible the election of a black president. Where’s that African-American version of the Stone family? Oh, right – they were busy getting block-busted out of the suburbs over on East Side/West Side.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve run into academics who see fifties sitcoms as objects of condescension or ridicule. When I was in film school, the old cliche of June Cleaver wearing pearls while doing housework came up as an example of how out of touch shows like Leave It to Beaver were with the reality of their own era. When I pointed out that June wore pearls because the cameraman sought to conceal Barbara Billingsley’s unattractive neck – and cited a source, Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 – no one was particularly interested. But to me, such clues are critical in trying to gauge the gap between reality and representation.
I’ve drifted pretty far away from The Donna Reed Show, which I had not sampled until its first season appeared on DVD (in an attractive, well-produced set from Arts Alliance). Is the show any good? It’s certainly competent: there are a few laughs in every episode, and more wit and intelligence than I expected.
I wish I knew more about the production history of the series. The producer was Tony Owen – Reed’s husband – and the associate producer, William Roberts, who is also credited with creating the characters, was apparently the same screenwriter who co-wrote The Magnificent Seven. Roberts penned the funniest episode I’ve seen so far (“Change Partners and Dance”), but The Donna Reed Show doesn’t appear to be the work of a single distinctive voice. Instead, it’s a professional, anonymous effort assembled by a large pool of busy freelance comedy writers. The scripts are inconsistent, not only in quality but in sophistication. “Pardon My Gloves” includes a Hitchcock joke and a subplot about a mangled local theatre production of A Doll’s House that’s only funny if you know a little bit about Ibsen. But in the same episode, Jeff comes home with a black eye (and then another one), and each time his family seems concerned primarily with whether or not he succeeded in beating the other boy even more savagely.
The direction, mostly by Oscar Rudolph, is routine, although the timing and energy of the cast is pretty lively. Someone made the clever decision to write all of Jeff Stone’s lines at an adult level, and Paul Petersen’s delivery of these precocious throwaways is often hilarious (much more so than Danny Bonaduce’s obnoxious take on a similar character in The Partridge Family). Petersen and Shelly Fabares have a fast-paced, natural chemistry, and – as in Leave It to Beaver – their banter is more insult-based than one might expect. (Sample lines from the episode “Change Partners and Dance.” Mary: “What a revolting little freak . . . He makes me sick. I think if I had my way I’d drown all boys at birth.” Jeff: “A formula guaranteed to get rid of ten pounds of ugly fat . . . Cut off your head!”)
Even Carl Betz, a total stiff in his dramatic turn as Judd For the Defense (for which he won an Emmy), proves a nimble straight man.
Oddly, the weakest member of the ensemble is Donna Reed herself. Reed is monotonous, even cloying, in her unflappability; her perma-smile has a robotic quality, like an android grandma from The Twilight Zone. Much more than the material, it’s the star’s unwillingness to bestow any hint of human frailty upon Donna Stone that gives The Donna Reed Show its Stepford reputation. Donna Stone is the antithesis of the warm (and, not insignificantly, ethnic) mama figure of Molly Goldberg.
It’s easy to imagine a child burying his or her face in Mrs. Goldberg’s ample bosom for comfort, but in a similar scene on The Donna Reed Show, I’d be scrutinizing Reed’s face for subtext: will this embrace muss my hair or wrinkle my apron? She’s the kind of parent whose perfection most kids would compare themselves against and come up lacking. How could Jeff and Mary hope to reach their twenties without becoming seething, rebellious head cases? Now that’s one made-for-TV reunion movie I would have liked to see.