Arrivals and (mostly) Departures on TV

The past week or so on TV has brought quite a bit for viewers to absorb. Firstly, the 2017-18 season has just come to an end, with many of my personal favorites getting the chop, much to my dismay. Others ended on their own accord, but it’s no less unfortunate to see quality programs wave good-bye.

Among those series that were not renewed (in no particular order):

Lucifer – A Fox show based on characters in the DC Comics universe, this quirky and highly entertaining series focuses on the Devil (or Lucifer, played with a suave sleeziness by British actor Tom Ellis) who has quit his job in Hell to live the high life in L.A. — running a nightclub and indulging in every hedonistic pastime imaginable, while also assisting by-the-book L.A. police detective, Chloe Decker

(Lauren German). Lucifer is quite taken with the detective, who, unsurprisingly, doesn’t take his claim of being the devil at all seriously. They manage to solve murder cases with impressive regularity, despite Lucifer’s often heavy-handed (devilish?) approach to catching the bad guys. But there’s so much more to this show. Alas, we only got to see three seasons.

Scorpion – This cancellation really hurts. Scorpion never grabbed much of the spotlight, but it was a reliable performer, mixing science, suspense, and quite a good deal of humor in each episode. The Scorpion team of young geniuses, guided by their agent from Homeland Security, are called upon to fix a wide variety of crises that would put thousands, if not millions of people in danger, but which must be dealt with unbeknownst to the public. While most of the team’s missions, and

their way of rescuing each other from precarious, nail-biting predicaments, are quite far-fetched, that’s part of the fun. A slew of clever one-liners by the colorful cast punctuates each episode.  Scorpion was cancelled after its fourth season.

Designated Survivor – This series started with a bang, in every sense, as a bomb explodes in the Capital building during the president’s State of the Union address, leaving a sole cabinet member, Secretrary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman (Keifer Sutherland), to assume the duties of Commander-in-Chief. The series follows his struggle to adapt to his new role, in the wake of a devastating national catastrophe.

The ongoing plotline becomes more complex as F.B.I. agent Hannah Welles (Maggie Q) leads the hunt for the terrorists. Other crises, domestic, foreign, and even personal, continue to challenge Kirkman as his term progresses. While the program often brings to mind the classic The West Wing, it lost much of its audience after the first season, as the plotline became less focused. Still, it has been a quality show centering on a president who serves with dignity and strong ethical standards, which is especially welcome these days, even if it’s only fiction.

Timeless – A time travel series in which a secret government team of good guys (including their invaluable female member, a history expert) chases a team of bad guys (“Rittenhouse”) through time, via high-tech pods. Rittenhouse, having stolen one of the pods, is determined to make changes in history, as dictated by their own evil agenda, which would inevitably affect the world in the present day.  Each episode, therefore, takes place in a different time period, on the verge of a history-defining event, which will either occur as we know it, or with a disturbingly significant twist.

As of this writing, the show has not been officially canceled. However, it would come as no surprise if that happens. Timeless was canceled once before, in May of 2017, triggering a wave of protest from loyal viewers, which prompted NBC to revive it earlier this year. In terms of sheer entertainment, with a healthy dose of history, it’s been a near-perfect show, with an engaging cast, including TV veteran Goran Visnjic (ER, among others), and Abigail Spencer. Poor ratings apparently have caused Timeless to run out of time, which is especially unfortunate, considering how those who protested so passionately for its return seemed to have lost interest, even as the quality of the storylines continued to improve.

There are other series that have just ended their runs voluntarily, specifically the sitcoms The Middle (whose finale is this week) and The New Girl.  I confess I hadn’t tuned in to The New Girl (starring Zooey Deschanel) after its third or fourth season, but the series finale (at the end of its seventh season) was quite satisfying. It was nice to revisit the characters after a long absence, although I wasn’t aware at the time that I was watching the series’ final episode. It ended well.

The Middle, whose finale is this week,  is another of those long-running sitcoms (nine seasons) that has never made headlines, but has been a consistent, truly funny show that gives a weekly shout-out to struggling suburban families, who have let various repair jobs around the house go unfinished, due to a never-ending effort to stay within a frighteningly modest budget.

Patricia Heaton serves as the backbone of the Heck family, attempting to stave off her natural “why bother” cynicism with efforts to cheerlead her teenage offspring as they face life in high school and college.

Thank heaven for syndication, Netflix, Hulu, On Demand, and good old-fashioned dvds, where most, but not all, TV series are able to stay with us after they leave the prime-time network schedules. If you’ve missed out on any of the above programs, it’s worth seeking them out in their after-life.

  

Also on TV in the past week: coverage of yet another deadly school shooting, courtesy of the U.S.A., and a picture-perfect Royal wedding, courtesy of the U.K. It has been a dizzying contrast of images and emotions, representative of where our respective societies stand at the moment. I’ll say no more.

Until next time…

 

A Tribute to Our Funniest Sitcom Moms

In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, I’d like to show my appreciation of my favorite–and funniest–sitcom moms since the turn of the still fairly new century/ millennium.

Sitcom moms from television’s earlier decades (or “Golden Age,” if you insist), are celebrated for reasons that are becoming increasingly difficult to fathom with the passage of time. And, let’s face it, most of them were not terribly funny as characters. Only in the most recent years have a number of television’s funniest and most eccentric mothers been given the opportunity to shine, in all of their dysfunctional glory. My personal faves, in chronological order:

Lois–Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). Perhaps no mother in sitcom history has instilled the “fear of God” in her children quite like Lois, played by Jane Kazmarek (by the way, there is no surname given to Malcolm’s family throughout the series’ run). With three mischievous and destructive boys close in age and often deliberately getting themselves in trouble to suit their own immediate needs (including Malcolm, who has a genius-level I.Q. and should know better), and husband Hal who prefers to avoid confrontation at all costs, Lois doesn’t think twice about using various acts of emotional–and sometimes physical–

torture on her beloved sons. Her volcanic temper is legendary in the family, and among friends and neighbors (who have permanent “For Sale” signs on their front lawns). The boys always know they’ve gone too far when her face indicates an oncoming explosion of rage, and subsequent punishment. How Jane Kazmarek did not win multiple Emmys for her role is a question for the Ages.

Virginia Chance —Raising Hope (2010-2014), played by Martha Plimpton. This hilarious series never got the attention it deserved, but it is worth seeking out. It centers on the Chance family, especially teenage son Jimmy, who decides to raise his baby girl Hope, born out of his brief fling with a twenty-something girl named Lucy. Lucy gives birth to Hope in prison, where she’s about to be executed for being a psychotic serial killer (and yes, within the context of the show, it is funny).  Jimmy’s mom Virginia, and father Burt are happy to help, and we know Hope will be raised in a loving family. The Chances are all well-meaning, but their combined I.Q.s  don’t add up to very much. Martha Plimpton is fabulous as Virginia, who considers herself to have the most common sense, despite her own habit of mangling historical facts, and the English language. Plimpton received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her performance.

Claire Dunphy–Modern Family, played by Emmy-winner Julie Bowen (2009-present). Anyone who knows me also knows that Modern Family battles for the top of my All-time Favorite Sitcom list (with only The Honeymooners and All in the Family challenging it for the #1 position). As Claire Dunphy–business executive, mother of three, and wife of child-like husband Phil–Bowen is a marvel to behold, seamlessly juggling street-smarts and total geekiness, and equally adept at getting one family member out of trouble while landing herself in her own cringe-worthy predicament. As a comic actress, Bowen’s eyes can convey anything from fear, to skepticism, to embarrassment, to quiet desperation, even when the rest of her face projects a happy mom and loving wife.

Frankie Heck–The Middle (2009-2018), played by Patricia Heaton. Like the Chance family on Raising Hope, the Hecks are a lower middle-class family, and have long ago stopped bothering to present themselves as otherwise. Their home is physically falling apart at the seams, yet somehow retains its coziness. Frankie, as mother of three teens and wife of laconic husband Mike, keeps a kitchen drawer full of coupons (even though they’ve already expired), and has been worn down by life’s everyday struggles and minor setbacks, but still tries to muster enthusiasm for her kids’ rare accomplishments, and clings to the little things that bring her some degree of solace, like watching her favorite TV mini-series before the cable TV service gets discontinued for unpaid bills.

Beverly Goldberg–The Goldbergs (2013-present), played by Wendi McLendon-Covey. Based on the program creator’s real-life family (the show uses their real names and old home video clips), mother Beverly is the ultimate loving, smothering mom who insists on calling her offspring by embarrassing terms of endearment, even in the presence of their friends (as opposed to husband Murray, who commonly refers to them as “morons”).  Bev has no qualms calling her youngest son Adam her favorite, while his siblings Erica and Barry look on. McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is a whirlwind of motherly nurturing run amuck, determined not to let the ways of the world hurt her kids, while she employs whatever means possible to slow down their growth and eventual exit from the nest.

Whether she’s interfering with her kids’ life in school, or browbeating the school principle into submission for any perceived slight or reprimand he’s given them (usually deserved), Bev can be counted on to go too far, thus sabotaging her own best intentions, but is eventually forgiven for her motherly zealousness by her exhausted but understanding family.

Katie Otto–American Housewife (2016-present). Katy Mixon made her mark on Mike & Molly before getting the lead on this ever-improving sitcom. The Otto family reside in wealthy, trendy, and rather snooty Westport, Connecticut, due to husband Greg’s college teaching job,

where they stick out like a family of sore thumbs, for they are neither wealthy or trendy. Katie, however, is no pushover, and returns the town’s overall snootiness in kind, clashing with younger, thinner trophy wives who look down their reconstructed noses at her strictly middle-class ways. She also uses her natural cynicism and tough exterior to keep her own kids in line, and sentiment at bay, whenever she suspects they’re in the midst of putting a scheme over on her. The eldest girl, Taylor, is a jock

sorely lacking in book smarts–or any smarts, for that matter. Middle child Oliver is a corrupt business mogul in the making, and the youngest, Anna-Kat, has a touch of O.C.D., but is especially bright, and quite good at bending her parents to her will. Even when dealing with the kids’ various problems, Katie encourages them not to be swayed by their classmates’ more privileged lifestyles.

A truly mixed bag of TV sitcom mothers, for sure, but each is achingly funny, and a treat to watch in action for her own particular idiosyncrasies and methods for attaining some semblance of appreciation from her family. Tune in and check them out!

And Happy Mother’s Day…

No Laughs, Please

The old show biz chestnut really is true: an excellent comedian can become an excellent actor, but dramatic actors rarely make good comedians.

As Groucho Marx wrote in 1959,There is hardly a comedian alive who isn’t capable of doing a first-rate dramatic role.  But there are mighty few dramatic actors who could essay a comic role with any distinction…All first-rate comedians who have played dramatic roles are almost unanimous in saying that compared to being funny, dramatic acting is like a two-week vacation in the country.”

The great comedy producer Hal Roach maintained, “The great comedians imitate children. To be a great comedian you have to be a great actor, and to be a great actor you have to portray something. There is not a great visual actor that I know whose every movement is not that of a child…”

While not every comedian has the inherent skills necessary to give a convincing dramatic performance, the list of those who have succeeded is rather impressive, and even includes a few surprises, from Charlie Chaplin to Robin Williams.

With the post-war years and Television Age, many established comedians dared to take on dramas on both television and in film. Red Buttons was an established burlesque comedian who gained a national following with his own TV show in 1952, and who surprised many by winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sayonara in 1954. He also made a fine dramatic contribution to the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, and, in his later years, his acting earned him an Emmy for a heartbreaking guest role on ER. Comedian Shelley Berman said of Buttons, “I could name just a few [comedians as good actors], and whenever I am asked to name them, I have named Jackie Gleason, as an actor; I remember Jack Benny being a beautiful actor, and the other beautiful actor who’s a comedian is Red Buttons.”

Ed Wynn had already achieved legendary status as “The Perfect Fool” on stage and radio, and regarded as a comedy master by his peers, almost thirty years before taking on dramatic roles in the late 1950s. In 1956, after a painstaking rehearsal process, he received an Emmy nomination for his role as Army in Rod Serling’s live TV classic Requiem for a Heavyweight. Serling later cast Wynn in two episodes of The Twilight Zone. Wynn continued to find work in other dramatic roles on television, and also appeared in the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank, for which he received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Dussell.When he had a chance to do it,” Red Buttons said, “Ed Wynn was a wonderful, wonderful actor in the twilight of his career.”

The aforementioned Groucho Marx considered it an honor to be given the opportunity to act in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” on The Bell Telephone Hour in April of 1960. He played Ko-Ko the Lord High Executioner. “There were greater talents around to perform the operetta,” Groucho wrote, “but certainly no bigger Gilbert and Sullivan fan than myself.”

Two more of television’s comedy pioneers, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason, also found success in dramatic roles.  In 1961, Gleason co-starred with Mickey Rooney and Anthony Quinn in the film version of Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Gleason gives an intense performance as Maish, the downtrodden, debt-ridden boxing manager. That same year, he played Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, starring Paul Newman. Gleason’s portrayal won him an Academy Award nomination. “I knew that I liked dramatic work,” he said in a 1984 interview for 60 Minutes,

“and I was fortunate enough to be successful at it. I was between two heavyweights, Paul Newman and George C. Scott. And they’re awful good. And if you don’t want to look like a wimp, you’d better wind up and throw a couple. So you had to act in self-defense.” Comedy director Garry Marshall said of him, “Jackie Gleason was mostly known as a comedian from TV but he was also a heck of an actor and did some wonderful work in films, and probably did not receive enough accolades as an actor.”

As for Berle, forever known as “Mr. Television” for almost single-handedly jump starting television’s popularity with his variety show in 1948, took the plunge into drama and received an Emmy nomination for his role in “Doyle Against the House,” an installment of The Dick Powell Theater, televised in October of 1961. In a straight role,” he explained, “there’s no going after laughs, no pauses or waiting– ‘if this is supposed to be funny shall I take three beats?’ It is much more difficult to be funny and to get laughs…” Gleason, by the way, praised Berle’s acting, saying “I have known many comedians–Berle is one–who were superb in serious drama, but there are

very few serious actors who do comedy well.” Berle made numerous appearances in TV dramas throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and, in January of 1995, appeared in an unlikely program, the youth-oriented Beverly Hills, 90210, as a nursing home patient suffering from Alzheimer’s. He sensitively portrayed a frightened man unable to maintain a firm command of his lucid moments, and received another Emmy nomination for the part.

Jonathan Winters’ comic improvisations on stage and television delighted audiences as well as his peers, and made his best-know dramatic role appear virtually effortless in an episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “A Game of Pool.” In it, he plays a deceased local pool-playing legend sent back to Earth to teach a young hotshot player (Jack Klugman) some humility.A lot of people who’ve seen me do a couple of dramatic things come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know you could act–I thought you only made noises.’ They forget that all of us can act; what else are we doing up there?”

Carol Burnett did some moonlighting from her comedy-variety show in 1974 to star in the TV drama Friendly Fire. Burnett once said,I have seen comedians switch over to drama with greater success than I have seen straight actors switch to comedy. Straight actors who aren’t really comedic force something too much.”

Another TV legend, Dick Van Dyke, will be forever associated with his classic sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show, and several beloved Disney musical comedies. A recovering alcoholic in real life, he tackled the issue of alcoholism head-on in the 1974 TV drama The Morning After, in which he portrayed a successful man in denial of his drinking problem, until his world begins to unravel. That same year, he played a cold-hearted murderer on the Columbo episode “Negative Reaction.” In the 1990s, he found more success with his series Diagnosis Murder.

George Burns was never called upon to try his acting chops in a serious drama, but he played opposite Walter Matthau in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (his best friend, Jack Benny, had planned to take on the role, but died of cancer before filming began). At the age of 80, Burns won the 1975 Oscar

for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. When asked at the time to evaluate his own acting abilities, he replied, “Good acting is when Walter Matthau says to me, ‘How are you?’ and if I answer ‘Fine,’ that’s good acting.  If Walter Matthau asks me ‘How are you?’ and I answer ‘I think it fell on the floor,’ then that’s bad acting.” His Oscar win led to starring roles in comedies including Oh, God! and Going In Style.

And then there is Peter Sellers, who, to this day, stands above all others as a comedy actor, best remembered as Inspector Clouseau in Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films.  However, Sellers turned in a remarkably subtle and quietly magnetic performance as the quiet, simple-minded gardener Chance, in the 1979 film Being There, co-starring Shirley MacLaine and Melvyn Douglas.. Powerful millionaire Douglas and his wife MacLaine befriend him and somehow mistake his inane statements for brilliant insights. Soon even the President (Jack Warden) and TV talk show hosts fall under Chance’s spell as they hang on his every word.

Sellers read the novella, by Jerzy Kozinski, in 1972, and in the intervening years campaigned to play Chance But he revealed at the time that, the day before shooting began, he panicked about how to play the role. He said to his wife, “I’ve had this thing for six years and, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to play Chance. I thought I knew everything about him, how he spoke, how he walked, acted, thought, but I realize now that I have to go and do it tomorrow, and I really don’t know.” He figured it out soon enough. This was Seller’s next-to-last and certainly his finest among many of his brilliant film performances. It is one of incredible restraint; he speaks just above a whisper (with an American accent) and confines his physical movements to slow, deliberate gestures. The role earned him his only Oscar nomination.

The list goes on: Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Robin Williams ventured from their familiar comedy techniques to play dramatic roles with considerable success. Williams won a Best Supporting Oscar  in 1998 for his performance in Good Will Hunting, and Murray was nominated in 2003 for his role in Trainspotting. “It may sound funny,” Murray once said, “but [dramatic roles] are fun. They’re important, because they let people see another side of you. I think comedy’s a little harder. To play comedy, you have to be able to play straight. The way you modulate it and deliver it is what makes it become funny–but you have to be able to play straight.”

Jerry Lewis suffered the slings and arrows of his critics almost perpetually throughout his solo film and television career of the ‘50s and ‘60s (with the exception of The Nutty Professor). Only in his last decade or so did his comic genius receive proper appreciation, especially from his fellow comedians. But he earned praise for his dramatic performance in the 1983 film The King of Comedy as a late-night talk show host stalked and kidnapped by social misfit Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). Lewis plays it straight throughout, giving an utterly believable, restrained performance, like nothing he had done before or since. He said years earlier that “the hard job is doing comedy. That’s what’s rough. Acting is a snap, but acting for an actor is hard work…because that’s all he does.” In referring to Groucho’s comment about acting, Lewis concurred, “It is like two weeks in the country. Christ, that’s a pleasure, and easy…that’s nowhere as naked as being a comedian.”

So there you have it.  Until next time…

 

 

Happy 40th Anniversary, home videos!

This year marks 40 years since the introduction of the portable video camera/recorder for the public. Today, anyone casually browsing videos on YouTube can’t help but be impressed–or annoyed– by how personal video recording has become such a part of our everyday lives, thanks in large part to the fact that we can record a party, concert, Little League game, or even a horrific accident, natural disaster, or crime just by tapping a button on a cell phone. As effortless as it is to record on video now (digitized, that is, not on tape), it’s easy to forget–as is the case with so many modern conveniences–how exciting it was to first see the prospect of home videos become a reality.

But before video cameras were introduced to the market, it behooves us to first take a step further back a few years to the introduction of another revolutionary device, the VCR.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s when TV programs could be preserved for posterity. The arrival of the kinescope, a mechanical unit created basically by pointing a film camera at a studio monitor as a television program aired live, was officially announced on September 13, 1947. It was the result of a joint project between Kodak, NBC, and DuMont. The first kinescope unit was unveiled at an NBC affiliates convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The process worked like this: after a live program was televised, and recorded off a kinescope monitor onto film, the film was then processed, and copies were physically shipped to TV stations elsewhere in the country, to air at times of their own discretion.  It was an inexpensive and relatively simple way of strengthening the concept of a true TV network among stations dotted across the country. And, while it was a somewhat crude method, the kinescope helped preserve countless classic (and not-so-classic) live TV broadcasts throughout the late ‘40s and early 1950s.But the kinescope picture quality was a frequent source of complaint by station managers, television critics, and viewers.

Videotape changed that forever when it was first demonstrated in 1956 by Alexander Poniatoff, founder of the Ampex Corporation. Almost immediately, commercial television had a far easier way to record, preserve, and distribute any program that wasn’t shot on film.

In June of 1965, Sony introduced an early commercial home video recorder set using reel-to-reel tapes within a large console unit, with a price tag of $995.00—downright astronomical in 1965.

In 1972, Sony introduced the U-Matic VCR, which used ¾” tape cartridges in a player-recorder touted in its ad copy as “a revolutionary new means of communication.” The ad goes to considerable length simply to explain the basic concept of a videotape system, its capabilities, and possibilities for broadcasting, commercial—and especially medical—use.  Ironically, the ad copy includes just a single phrase to suggest that “perhaps, someday, there’ll be a U-matic in every living room.”

In the spring of 1975, Sony introduced the Betamax, but only as part of a console with accompanying built-in TV monitor. Less than a year later, though, the stand-alone Betamax recorder hit the market, making it a far more desirable item, and greatly spiking sales. As the introductory ad explains, the Betamax “can actually videotape something off one channel while you’re watching another channel” to be easily played back at a later time. Not only that, the machine’s timer “can be set to automatically videotape that program while you’re not there.” This concept seems ho-hum now, maybe even quaint, but it was almost too good to believe for TV addicts—and just about everyone else—at the time.

That same year, JVC introduced the VHS format, whose tape cartridges were bigger than Betamax tapes, but also ran twice as long—two hours to Beta’s one-hour. While there was the slightest loss of picture sharpness, a fierce competition for the public’s favor ended when VHS overtook Beta as the format of choice by the majority of American users (other home video formats competed for the market place in the early days, but soon failed). By July of 1987, fully half of the households in the U.S. included a VCR, and the number increased to over 75% by the mid-1990s.

With the VCR revolutionizing the way we watched television, it was just a matter of time, and a very brief time at that, before a portable video camera for consumers would endanger the life of the home movie camera, and become the next big thing—emphasis on the big.

The year was 1923 when, for the first time, the average person could record an event or family occasion with a movie camera. Developed by Kodak, the home movie camera and projector used black & white, 16mm safety film, and showed considerable promise. The next progressive step came in 1932, with the introduction of the smaller 8mm format (still using b&w film). Color film became available for 16mm in 1935, and for 8mm the following year. For the average user, the 8mm format remained set (and for manufacturers, profitable) for decades, with still further innovations coming along in later years, such as Super 8 in 1965, using easy-to-load film cartridges, and the arrival of Super 8 sound in 1973.

Then came the home video camera. To an early owner of the new hi-tech toy, the initial excitement of owning a first-generation video camera, whose videotapes could be viewed and enjoyed on a TV immediately after taping any occasion or event, was nonetheless accompanied by a bit of physical effort—and a sore shoulder. The “portable” video camera and recorder pictured here, made by JVC, weighed a hefty 20 pounds.  Still it was the inspiration for the first generation of amateur videographers, who delighted in recording not only family events for posterity, but many also began to explore their own creativity as aspiring cameramen, directors and actors.

In the summer of 1980, Sony chairman Akio Morita held a press conference  to present to the world a working model of a four-pound combination video camera/recorder, or camcorder, that could record while resting on the cameraman’s shoulder. The “Video Movie,” as Sony called it at first, was aimed at replacing the Super 8 film format. Video cassettes would record twenty minutes of material via a battery with a 40-minute charge capability. However, an adaptor would be necessary to play the tapes on a TV, or dub them directly onto a Beta or VHS recorder.

Sony’s competitors had no choice but to step up development of their own formats. At the same time, Sony had to be careful not to repeat an earlier mistake by resisting industry standardization, when the Betamax format found itself overtaken by VHS. Smaller formats appeared throughout the ’80s, and as video cameras became smaller, the average consumer benefitted, at the very least, by seeing the bulky portable deck rendered obsolete.

Alas, the march of technological progress into the 21st century–the DVD, the DVR–has led to the virtual extinction of the video tape (except in my household), making conversions onto discs or flash drives necessary.

But, for those of us of a certain age, that initial excitement of the home video era will always remain unique.

Until next time…

 

The real-life married couples of comedy

As I was researching information for a book I’m writing (or, more accurately, trying to write), I realized the peculiar fact of how common it was, in a particular period of entertainment history, to see real-life married couples join forces as comedy partners. Of course, most of us can think of many celebrity couples today who either act together, sing or dance together, and, let’s face it, seek attention however they can together. Some can be suspected of having married in the more to appease their publicists’ fantasies than out of feelings of lifelong love.

But I digress.

Burns & Allen.

The couples I’m referring to came to national attention on radio in the early 1930s, when that medium virtually exploded with programs starring comedians who had already made names for themselves in vaudeville.  Several of them may have begun as solo performers on the stage, but at various points in their mediocre careers in vaudeville struck gold by adding their spouses to the act, thereby setting it off in a new, and more successful direction. By the end of 1932, there were no fewer than

Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone.

five real-life husband & wife couples performing regularly on network comedy programs:  George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jesse Block and Eve Sully (whose popular stage act was very similar to that of Burns & Allen), Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone (real name: Sadie Marks), Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, and Goodman Ace and his wife Jane, who starred in the very popular and highly-praised 15-minute program, Easy Aces. Goodman wrote every script himself, creating Jane’s character as  one whose dialogue was filled with malaprops and mispronunciations.

Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa.

These radio stars by way of vaudeville were among the many married teams–comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats–who performed and traveled together for financial as well as creative reasons.  The case of Fred Allen and Portland Hoffa, who started doing a vaudeville act together shortly after they were married in the mid-’20s, was common at the time. Allen explained, “In vaudeville, when a comedian married he immediately put his wife in the act. The wife didn’t have to have any talent. It was economic strategy. With a double act a comedian could get a salary increase from the booking office.  The additional money would pay for his wife’s wardrobe, her railroad fares and the extra hotel expenses.” Luckily, most of the wives did have talent, even

Goodman and Jane Ace.

if some felt more comfortable as performers than others. Mary Livingstone famously suffered from stage fright, but out of all the wives, only her on-air character deviated from the “dumb dora” type. As part of Benny’s method of using himself as the butt of jokes, Mary usually got the last word in their scenes, at Jack’s expense. And, while it could be argued that married couples performing together run the risk of creating issues the rest of us don’t face, these early stars beat the odds. As Jack Benny pointed out, “We all remained married to our original mates. I know that people assume actors and actresses are bad marriage risks, yet not one couple in that group was ever divorced.”

The same goes for yet another married couple, Jim and Marion Jordan, former vaudevillians who co-created and wrote the legendary radio comedy “Fibber McGee and Molly.” The program, premiering in 1935, wasn’t an immediate hit, but within a few years, its audience and popularity increased to the point where it became radio’s top rated series in the late ’30s and throughout the ’40s. One of the many recurring gags on the show was McGee’s opening of a hall closet so fully stuffed with junk that the program’s sound effects man got a good workout conveying the ensuing avalanche that would half-bury McGee each time.

Lucy and Desi.

Television brought us other married couples who teamed to make audiences laugh, most notably Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (who divorced in 1960). I hesitate to include Ozzie and Harriet Nelson to the list, despite their long-running sitcom; they were known in the years leading up to their program as a musical couple, i.e. Ozzie was a popular bandleader, Harriet his singer. (and, let’s face it, the comedy on their sitcom barely passed as such).

 

Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss.

Richard Benjamin and his wife Paula Prentiss garnered much attention for the launch of their sitcom He and She in 1967, but that show lasted a single season (although they remain married to this day) due to tough competition from shows like The Beverly Hillbillies. The list of married couples collaborating on sitcoms through the decades goes on, but most latter-day examples honestly aren’t as impressive–to me, anyway. I still prefer the true legends.

Until next time…

 

Virginia O’Brien: An Appreciation

There have been many entertainers in Hollywood’s long history who, for one reason or another, and despite their talents, weren’t quite able to achieve or maintain the kind of first-tier stardom that our most famous show business legends have enjoyed, even decades after their heyday. It could be said that Virginia O’Brien was one of those entertainers, and who could have been an even bigger star than she was in her prime.

She possessed one of the most distinctive–and funniest–singing styles of all popular singers throughout the 1940s and beyond, and carved a unique niche for herself as a comic performer, known for maintaining a deadpan, unblinking expression as she sang, regardless of a song’s lyrics or tempo. It earned her nicknames such as “The Diva of Deadpan” and “Miss Frozen Face” early in her career.

Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, she first made a name for herself while appearing in an L.A. production of the musical Meet The People.  As legend has it, her opening night jitters grew into full-fledged stage fright, to the point where she could do little more onstage than sing with a completely blank, frozen expression on her face.  It was a hit with the audience, who assumed she was doing it as a gag.

Soon afterward, she got her big break when MGM signed her as a contract player in 1940.  Just before beginning her stay at studio, she appeared on Broadway in the Jimmy Durante review Keep Off the Grass. Variety described her as “a deadpan singer who convulses the audience by removing the ecstasy from high pressure music.”

However, MGM either didn’t know quite what to do with Virginia, or simply chose to use her in a severely limited capacity.  Her sole requirement, more often than not, was to sing a novelty song or two in her trademark style, and perhaps toss a few pithy one-liners, without having much involvement in the plot.  But she never failed to shine with the limited screen time she was given, and succeeded in making a name for herself among movie-goers with the opportunities she had.

She appeared in 17 MGM films between 1940-48, averaging two or three per year, with a high of four in 1946 alone.  She played alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Lucille Ball. One of her earliest appearances came in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store.  The brothers’ film career was on the downward slide at the time, but O’Brien, young and strikingly beautiful, shined in her brief role as a department store salesgirl. As part of an overblown production number,

“Sing While You Sell,” she gives one of her funniest “frozen face” singing performances of her career, performing a swing version of “Rock-a-bye Baby” (while rather forcefully rocking a small cradle at her side). At the end of the number, Virginia and Groucho enter an elevator, and as the door closes it’s clear that she can’t restrain herself, and lets out a smile.  When asked years later what Groucho said to her, she thought for a moment and said, “Probably something dirty.”

The following year, she appeared in the first of five films throughout the ’40s that served as vehicles for Red Skelton, in which Virginia wisely moved beyond her “frozen face” routine. Some of her more memorable singing performances from the Skelton films include “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club

“Salome.”

Savoy” (from 1942’s Ship Ahoy), and “Salome,” (from Du Barry Was A Lady, the following year), a number in which she gracefully glides her svelte figure across a nightclub dance floor while singing with considerable (and amusing) expression–confirming that her talents weren’t limited to her deadpan schtick.

In 1942, she married Kirk Alyn, who would become best known for being Hollywood’s first actor to play Superman on film, beginning with a 15-part serial in 1948. They had two daughters and a son together, but divorced in 1955 (Virginia had two more marriages since, and had another daughter).

The spooky fade-out shot of “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again.”

The 1944 film version of Meet The People features Virginia performing “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again,” a song with some of the most bizarre and gruesome set of lyrics ever written.  In it, she serenades her absent lover (by singing to an empty chair at the kitchen table), and lightheartedly speaks of his rather vicious homicidal tendencies toward her. Virginia manages to make it delightfully comical despite the cringe-worthy lyrics.

When given the chance, she displayed her comic acting skills well. Merton of the Movies, a 1947 Skelton picture set in the silent film era, gives Virginia considerable screen time as Phyllis Montague, an actress who takes bumpkin actor Merton (Skelton) under her wing, as the film studio struggles to make him a silent picture star.  As his chaperone of sorts, Phyllis teaches Merton the ropes of moviemaking–and, in the process, also teaches him how to kiss.

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less than impressed with the film overall, but conceded that Skelton “does manage to massage one’s funnybone in the kissing lesson sequence with Virginia O’Brien…Miss O’Brien, by the way, provides competent support as the sympathetic actress who takes the gullible Merton in tow in Hollywood.” Variety went several steps further:  “Virginia O’Brien proves herself a capable leading lady without recourse to deadpan vocaling [sic].  The erstwhile canary doesn’t have a number to chirp throughout and sells herself strictly on talent merits in the romantic lead opposite Skelton.  The manner in which she delivers should further her career.”

MGM decided in not to renew Virginia’s contract in 1948, after which she continued performing live, and ventured into television.  On December 8, 1949, she made her TV debut on The Ed Wynn Show (the first TV stop for many top entertainers of the time).  After engaging in a bit of banter with Wynn,  she launched into “Bird in a Guilded Cage.” Her friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were reportedly in the studio audience, watching from their balcony seats (they would also be Wynn’s guests just two weeks later).

Virginia appeared in only two more films, nearly 20 years apart: Francis in the Navy (1955), and Gus (1976), while continuing to perform in nightclubs, nostalgic revues with others from an earlier era, and in an occasional musical.

Entertainment historian and author Bill Cassara, member of the Laurel & Hardy fan organization Sons of the Desert and founder of its “tent” in Monterey, California, recalls a time when Virginia was a guest at one of the tent’s anniversary banquets.

“This was in the mid-80s, and every year we’d try to get celebrities—someone meaningful to Laurel & Hardy or the old-time movies.  In 1988, we were able to get Virginia O’Brien up, along with the producer of her latest LP collection of her hits. He drove her up with her husband. The night before the banquet, we received them and the other special guests at my house in Monterey. At some point in the evening, we put on her newly-pressed album. Everyone was in a good mood, and she started belting out simultaneously with her recorded vocals—it was a special moment.”

Virginia passed away at age 81 in January of 2001, leaving behind an often overlooked but fun-filled legacy of music and laughter.  Not many stars of any era have been able to do produce both, and at the same time.

Until next week…

Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?

 

Comedy teams don’t really exist anymore–and that’s a mystery of sorts. They were quite plentiful throughout most of the 20th century–on the stage, in films, on radio, and TV. But they’ve become virtually extinct. It could be argued that the style of comedy that teams once offered has become outdated, but what’s to keep a new team today from collaborating and performing with a fresh approach?

Vaudeville and burlesque provided the training ground for most comedy teams in the early decades of the century, even those we associate more closely with films or radio. Many teams from that time would not likely ring a bell: Weber & Fields (phenomenally popular at the turn of the century) or Smith & Dale, and their brilliant “Dr. Kronkite” sketch, for instance.

And teams came in a variety of guises. Some consisted of two partners (such as Abbott & Costello), some had three (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, the Marx Brothers–not counting Zeppo). Some were married to each other (George Burns & Gracie Allen). One team, created to star in their own series of comedy shorts, consisted to two women (Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, discussed in an earlier blog of mine). Most teams also clearly identified the straight man and comic, but with others, that distinction  wasn’t so clear, or didn’t exist

at all. With Laurel & Hardy, the greatest comedy team of all time (not opinion, just simple fact), there were no set straight man/comic roles, because each made their audiences laugh, if for different reasons. Stan might accidently demolish a piece of Ollie’s furniture, which would be good for a big laugh, but then we’d see Ollie’s exasperated look to the camera, which would provide another laugh. Or, he might retaliate by throwing an object at Stan in anger, only to have said object bounce off the wall and hit Ollie in the head. No straight man per se, but twice the laughs.

Bert Wheeler (left) and Robert Woolsey.

Other teams were popular on stage and in films in the 1930s, but are scarcely remembered today, which is a shame. But on YouTube and elsewhere, you can still discover the likes of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey (Wheeler as a somewhat naïve but good-natured lad, Woolsey as the fast-talking schemer),  and Bobby Clark & Paul

Bobby Clark sported painted-on eyeglasses, much like Groucho’s greasepaint moustache.

McCullough (Clark as the chatty, boisterous instigator, McCullough as his amused follower). Both teams flourished into the mid-’30s, until McCullough took his own life in 1935, and Robert Woolsey died in 1938.

The post-World War II years brought us Martin & Lewis–and a few poor imitations–whose energetic nightclub shows often bordered on delirium. Dean crooned as good as he played straight for Jerry, who could be relied upon to

interrupt Dean’s songs in the most outrageous ways, such as bounding onto the stage mid-tune dressed as a waiter carrying a tray full of dishes (which might soon be reduced to rubble). They first teamed in 1946, made a number of films that sent them to the top of the box office mountain, and hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC in the early ’50s, before parting in 1956,exactly ten years after forming the team–and the same year Abbott & Costello also called it quits.

Speaking of Abbott & Costello, it behooves us (and I don’t use the word “behooves” lightly) to not only praise their chemistry as a team, but to appreciate Bud Abbott in particular as the greatest straightman who ever lived. By the time he and Lou first teamed up in 1936, Bud already had an encyclopedic knowledge of vaudeville and burlesque comedy routines, many of which he taught Lou in their early days. And, to show how skilled a

straight man he was, consider the immortal “Who’s On First?” routine. It’s still up to debate as to whether the team wrote it themselves (with their longtime writer, John Grant), or more likely developed it as an amalgam of other routines that indulged in varying versions of “who” and “what” wordplay. But the next time you watch or listen to Bud & Lou perform the routine (again, easily seen on YouTube), consider this: For years, audiences enjoying the two banter back & forth at breakneck speed about the players’ names on a baseball team, were laughing mostly at Bud without even realizing it. Notice that it is Lou who is asking the questions, while Bud, explaining the players’ names, provides the answers/punch lines. Of course, Lou’s growing confusion and exasperation throughout is wonderful, but don’t underestimate Bud Abbott’s talents as a straightman. There was none better. Lou got the laughs, but Bud served them up on a silver platter.

The later decades of the century produced more comedy teams, most often seen on television. The Smothers Brothers’ unique blend of folk singing and onstage arguments–with child-like Tommy deliberately causing a song to veer off-course, causing an interruption during which Dick would brilliantly berate his brother’s behavior– earned them not only an avid following in clubs, but also a short-lived sitcom in 1965. Their variety show, beginning in 1967, became a hurricane of controversy on more than one occasion, as the brothers themselves, plus an assortment of their musical and comedy guests, dared to include political commentary in their performances (mostly in protest against the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration), which eventually led to the team’s dismissal from CBS.

In the same era, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit it big as the hosts of Laugh-In, after having struggled for years in small-time clubs before eventually breaking into the big time. Dick’s imbecilic, girl-chasing persona was swiftly challenged by Dan’s calm, knowledgeable demeanor (talk about a great straight man. Dan, like Dick Smothers, was severely underrated).

Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber also made a number of memorable appearances on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, mostly with variations of their “Taxi Driver and Passenger” routine, with Schreiber as a weary cab driver who always seems to get irksome chatterbox Burns as a passenger. The team did well as guests on programs like The Flip Wilson Show, as well as on their own summer replacement variety show in 1973. They also recorded “The Watergate Comedy Hour” album that year.

The era of the comedy team pretty much ended when the Smothers Brothers retired from show business in 2010. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why comedy teams have died out. But it’s also satisfying to acknowledge, and still enjoy, those teams who contributed so much to the history of great comedy in the past century.

Until next week(?)….

 

 

 

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!

Two milestones for how we ate in ’68

“Popular culture” is a phrase that can refer to a number of things that, collectively, identify our tastes in what we like to do with our leisure time.    I usually refer to it in terms of entertainment, such as movies, television, music, and whatever else we indulge in to amuse ourselves.

This year marks a pair of milestones that relate to everyone’s favorite pastime: eating. I personally eat to live, rather than live to eat. I have my favorite dishes and snacks, just like anybody else, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about food. However, two innovations which first presented themselves to the public in 1968 deserve at least a brief mention on their 50th birthday: for dining at home,the microwave oven; for dining out, the Big Mac.

The microwave oven has become such an integral part of virtually every kitchen that it would be unusual to walk in and not see one nestled into a corner of the countertop.  For the sheer convenience of defrosting or heating a quick meal, it has become one of the most relied-upon appliances in the house. And its existence is the result–as is the case with many modern conveniences–of a curious mind being sidetracked while working on technology for an altogether different purpose.

Credit for the microwave oven can be traced back to Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer working for the Raytheon Corporation in the 1940s. While working on radar-related experiments in the Raytheon labs in 1946, Spencer began testing a new vacuum tube called a magnetron. Standing beside the device one day, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He later tested several kernels of popcorn, and then an egg, all of which reacted as we would expect them to do under strong heat. Spencer concluded that they had been exposed to low-density microwave energy, and turned his attention to devising a crude box to contain the energy and thus heat whatever object he placed inside.

Raytheon engineers began work on Spencer’s discovery, and by late ’46, the company filed a patent for an oven that could cook food via microwaves. The following year, the first such oven for commercial use (mostly in restaurants) hit the market, and was named the Radarange. But there were drawbacks: the bulky unit stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and cost about $5,000 each. It also required special plumbing to water cool the magnetron tube.

Refinements continued, and the cost began to come down, but the unit and the cabinet in which it was encased still took up as much room as a refrigerator. Raytheon licensed its patent to Tappan in 1955 for the purpose of developing a home use version of the oven, leading to the first home model selling for just under $1,300, but still with an unwieldy size.

In 1965, Raytheon took over the Amana Refrigeration company, and less than three years later, the 100-volt, countertop microwave oven, seen here, was introduced to the general public. Some fear by consumers over the perceived dangers of frequent use eventually faded (even though the term “to nuke” a meal has persisted), and by 1975, the use of microwave ovens first exceeded that of gas ranges.

On September 18, 1999, Percy Spencer, who died in 1970, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

For those who had not yet warmed up to the microwave oven (pun intended) in 1968, there was a new reason to stop at the local McDonald’s restaurant whenever a hunger pang struck. McDonald’s had already been America’s most successful fast food chain, having opened its 1,000th restaurant that year–when Jim Delligatti, manager of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania McDonald’s, saw his gastronomic creation become part of the company’s permanent menu. Delligatti, who first became a McDonald’s manager in 1957, tried in the mid-’60s to convince the company honchos

Delligatti and his creation.

that they needed to sell a bigger burger, and suggested they consider his own super burger invention, only to be turned down. The corporate chiefs finally agreed to let him sell it in 1967, provided that he use only ingredients already supplied to each franchise. Delligatti sold the first Big Mac in his Uniontown store that year, and was successful enough to encourage the company to hold further consumer tests throughout the Pittsburgh region. The Big Mac began

selling nationally in 1968, for 49 cents. Delligatti didn’t receive any extra remuneration for his world-famous, 540-calorie invention, but he did receive a plaque. The Big Mac ingredients, of course, became an often-repeated litany in its advertising campaign jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.”

For those whose appetites didn’t require such a hearty snack, the chain’s hot apple pie was also introduced in 1968 (consequently, cases of burning the inside of one’s mouth reached historic levels).

Delligatti passed away in 2016 at the age of 98. And, while McDonald’s has taken its lumps in recent years, especially with cultural trends favoring healthier choices (even in fast food), the Big Mac has, for better or worse, become part of our culture–not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Until next week…