The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

T’was the sixth night of Hanukka, and Christmas Eve to boot. The Steinberg family’s traditional holiday get-together was well underway.  Boxes of gifts wrapped in shiny paper sat patiently on the floor off to one side of the room, with a table of New York-style Sloppy Joes and potato pancakes on the other. Richard Steinberg lived snugly (some would say smugly) in Westchester, New York, with his wife Linda and their two children, Andy and Marcy. Richard enjoyed the idea of establishing a family tradition of inviting his brother Ken and his wife Barbara (whom Ken usually brought along just to fill out the foursome).

The family gathered around their menorah to light the candles and chant the holiday prayers. The brightly lit menorah reminded Andy and Marcy that there were only two more nights of this toy-cluttered frenzy to go. As they took turns lighting the candles, they glanced back and forth to each other and to the pile of goodies beside them, awaiting their zealous ravaging.  The adults chanted the holiday prayers with a reverence intended to outshine their off-key performance.

Suddenly, just as the family was reaching a full-throated crescendo, an odd sound emanated from the bowels of the dormant fireplace.  It was a scraping, rustling sound that got progressively louder, and decidedly menacing, with each passing second. The family members abruptly halted their singing and focused on the muffled commotion from inside the fireplace. Perhaps it was a wild animal, like a raccoon, making its way down. The idea was quickly dispelled when the noises culminated in something that sounded remarkably like “Ho, ho, ho.”

The Steinbergs stood aghast as a pair of black boots and red flannel trousers clumsily lowered themselves into view, to the accompaniment of still more ho-ho-hos. The owner of the stubby legs had apparently eased his way down the chimney backwards, and displayed some difficulty crouching down and backing his ample posterior out of the fireplace and into the room. He grunted and coughed, pulling with him a large, soot-covered sack, filled with unidentified contents. The sound of broken glass and loose bits of metal suggested that few items in the sack had survived the descent undamaged. All family members stood watching as the rotund man with a bushy, white, soot-speckled beard struggled to maintain his footing. He turned around, offering a hearty:

“Ho, ho, ho!  Merry Christmas, everybody!”

His greeting met with stunned silence.  Nobody moved. Nobody spoke.  It remained so for several torturous seconds, as the family remained slack-jawed at the sight. Finally, Marcy’s wonderment broke the silence.

“It’s Santa Clause!” she squealed.

“No it isn’t,” corrected Linda, pulling Marcy against her. “Richard, call the police.”

“It is Santa Clause!” confirmed Andy.

“No, there is no Santa Clause,” admonished Richard. “And even if there is, it’s not this guy.”

Santa cleared his throat and forged ahead with his prepared text. “It’s great to see you all on this wonderful night!  I must be a bit early.  I like to leave my gifts when everyone is already asleep.  But such adorable little children!  If you’ve been good this year, I have some toys for you!”

Richard’s primal instincts had him bounding in front of the kids and spreading his arms outward in a protective, if overly dramatic, gesture.  Ken, known to have a fuse shorter than that of a trick birthday candle, was having none of this.

“Listen, pal,” he snarled, clenching his fists,  “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you get your butt out of here before we do it for you.”

Linda took a decidedly more diplomatic tact.

“Will you two calm down?  Listen, Santa, we appreciate the sentiment, but our name is Steinberg. We’re Jewish, and we’re celebrating Hanukka tonight. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Santa stood glass-eyed and flummoxed. He struggled to recapture a cheery expression despite his befuddlement. His reputation, after all, demanded that he maintain an unflappable jollity at all times, without exception.  He had to think fast.  Unfortunately, thinking fast was not one of his more finely-honed attributes.

“Well, uh, we all can celebrate Christmas in our own way!” he cackled. “Ho, ho, ho!”

“Well actually, no, we can’t, Santa,” Linda said, almost apologetically, “No offense intended.  We just don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Evidently, Santa was not very well-versed in adopting the proper protocol when inadvertently dropping in on Jewish households. He fumbled for a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and reviewed its contents, but didn’t find anything of help for this current faux pas.

Richard again felt a need to gently–but firmly–set Santa straight on a few things.

“Well Santa, ya see, Christmas is historically the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, even though he wasn’t really born at this time of year anyway. But in any case, we’re Jewish, and therefore we don’t celebrate that event. I don’t deny that it’s a nice holiday, but going strictly by the numbers, most of the world’s population doesn’t celebrate it, either. Not just us, but your Muslims, your Hindus… I’m surprised you haven’t run into this situation before.”

Santa could only shrug his shoulders.  He didn’t want to admit as much, but he had no idea Christmas was a religious holiday.

“And as for delivering toys for my kids,” Richard continued, “I like to think I’m a good provider on that score, thank you, so you can save whatever you have for them and give them to children perhaps a bit more needy. I know for a fact that Ted Thornton down the block took a bad hit on Wall Street this year…”

Linda felt a need to come to Santa’s aid. “I think Santa is attempting to represent the more secular aspect of Christmas good will. Isn’t that right. Santa?”

Richard shared his brother’s skepticism, although with considerably less aggression.  “Well, that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to–”

“Aw, let him stay, Daddy,” pleaded Marcy. “I want more toys.”

“What did I tell you about asking for toys? Always with the toys.”

Linda was not about to be deemed a poor host, regardless of the circumstances. “At least offer him a drink. Richard.  Santa, would you like something to drink?  We have hot, cold, and maybe a Sloppy Joe? We have brisket, turkey…”

Santa wasn’t sure how to respond. Being somewhat slow-witted by nature, he resorted to his increasingly tiresome ho-ho-hos in an effort to stall. Linda pressed on.

“Come on, you look like you could use a snack.”

“Are you kidding?” cackled Ken, “Another snack and he’ll pop like a tick.”

The obese Yuletide icon felt some relief  by Linda’s unexpected glimmer of hospitality.

“Yes, a drink will be fine, thank you. And perhaps a Messy Joe.”

“Sloppy Joe.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Linda gave Richard a firm don’t-forget-your-manners nudge. He picked up on it and attempted a friendlier disposition. He turned with a weak smile to the red-clad, soot-covered, chimney-spelunking intruder.

“Might as well have a seat, Santa.  It’s probably not healthy for a guy like you to eat standing up.”

“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

Santa eased himself into an easy chair—Richard’s easy chair—and let out a sigh of exhaustion.

Ken wanted some answers.

“Now let me get a few things straight, pal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. Just what is your name, anyway?  Is it St. Nick? Santa Clause? Father Christmas?  And do you really visit every house in the world on this one night?  How do you pull that off, anyway?”

The chubby sleigh jockey wasn’t accustomed to such an interrogation, but at least nobody was phoning the police just yet, so he managed to blurt out his safely evasive reply:

“Oh, that’s a secret.  It’s magic.”

Barbara had almost grown accustomed to the embarrassment her spouse often provoked in social settings. She spoke up, partly because she hadn’t had any lines for a while.

“Kenny, don’t be rude. The man’s obviously confused.”

“I just want to know if he’s been to, say, Belgium already this evening, or maybe New Zealand.”

Santa valiantly pressed on.  “I bring gifts for good little boys and girls everywhere. Christmas is for everyone!” he sputtered, wiping visible flop sweat from his forehead.

“This guy’s smooth enough to run for Congress,” Ken muttered.  “And all those toys are from that one sack?”

“Uh, that’s magic too, my fine young man,” stammered the flustered, reindeer-herding oaf.  Feeling a touch of dry mouth, he leaned to the side to address Linda across the room. “Say, is that soda coming along all right, dear?”

Ken took his brother aside.

“Rich, we’re in the middle of everything here, lighting the menorah, exchanging the gifts, and if he ho-ho-hos one more time I’m gonna have to belt him one.”

“I’ll try to get him out of here as soon as I can.”

Linda and Barbara presented Santa with the meal of the evening.  He graciously accepted the plate and drink and immediately began his examination of the sandwich.

“And this is…?”

“A Sloppy Joe,” Richard said. “Roast beef, corned beef, turkey, slaw, and a pickle on rye bread.  We also have it on pumpernickel, if you prefer.”

“Very interesting!” nodded the corpulent party crasher.  “No ham?”

“No ham.”

“Still, it looks delicious.”

Linda needed to shift Santa’s bag on the floor to give herself room to sit beside him.

“Here, let me help you, dear,” offered the portly, wool-suited fashion disaster.

He grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder. The shifting weight threw him off balance, causing him to lose his grip on the sack, as it sailed through empty air and head-on into the lit menorah.  Santa stumbled face-first into the wall as the menorah toppled onto the stack of the gift-wrapped presents, igniting the wrapping paper from the burning holiday candles.

“Fire!” shrieked Andy.

“Throw it in the fireplace!” somebody yelled.

“No! You’ll burn yourself!” somebody else yelled.  “Get the fire extinguisher!  It’s under the kitchen sink!”

Richard hurried to the kitchen and returned with the extinguisher, as the smoke alarm on the ceiling pierced the air with its ear-splitting chirping.  In his blind panic, he opened the nozzle in the general direction of the blaze. However, Santa found himself on the receiving end of most of the foam.  It was difficult to tell where his beard ended and the foam began. The kids hurried to rescue their presents as Linda and Barbara attended to the mealy-mouthed,  jackbooted vandal.

“This guy’s a menace!” Ken growled, now with an even better case than before.

“I’d have to agree,” nodded Richard as he turned to Santa. “Come on, Gramps, out you go.”

Santa was either not on the same page as the others, or was wizened to the ways of deflecting blame. “It probably isn’t safe to allow your darling children to play with matches and candles in the house,” he offered.  “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Linda turned to her husband with her eyebrows down-turned, at a well-practiced, disapproving angle. “Richard, he’s stunned.  He could be hurt.”  She and Barbara continued to wipe the foam off the portly, hirsute stumblebum.

“He brought it on himself.  I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but we didn’t ask for him to disrupt our evening.”

“No, no, he’s right,” Santa conceded.  “I’m sorry. I’ve made a dreadful mistake.”  He then noticed how comforting Linda and Barbara’s warm, soft hands felt as they wiped away the extinguisher foam from his rosacea-afflicted cheeks.  “I should be on my way.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine. Perhaps, though, I’ll use the front door on my way out, if I may. I’ll arrange to meet with my reindeer elsewhere in town later this evening, after I’ve seen to all the good children here in your neighborhood.”

Andy had a special request on that issue.  “Please don’t go to Tommy Keegan’s house, Santa. He bit me in the head last week.”

“He really did,” Linda confirmed sadly.

Marcy, for her part, didn’t want the excitement to end, or see the cherry-nosed arsonist leave. “Let him stay!” she demanded. “He’s cool!”

“He’s not really,” snarled Richard. “And he’s here by mistake.  So come on, whoever you are, time to go.”

He helped Santa retrieve his battered, smoldering bag and showed him to the front door. “Start at that far end of the street down there, and keep going in that direction. That’ll keep ya busy.  And don’t forget Ted Thornton’s house.”

Linda brushed past her husband and escorted Santa outside into the crisp December air.  They stopped at the foot of the driveway. Once she was out of view from the others peering from the front window, she produced Santa’s share of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and slipped it into his coat pocket.

“A little something for the road tonight, Santa. Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, young lady.  And happy Honolu—”

“Hanukka.  Don’t ask me how to spell it. There are about five different ways.”

“Yes, well, happy Hanukka to you and yours.”

And with a merry wave, Santa turned to continue his Christmas Eve mission.  Linda needed to assist him just one more time by turning him around and sending him off in the proper direction.  He smiled and was on his way again, heading toward the house he thought was Ted Thornton’s.

And to all a good night.

 

Retro Review: The Beautiful South

One of the reasons for writing this blog is to introduce whatever readers I have to a variety of entertainers, historical figures, inventors, and events that may have escaped your awareness. And, since music has always been a passion of mine, I thought I’d devote a few postings to singers and bands that have won my loyalty, but have rarely, if ever, captured much attention in the U.S. (not surprisingly, most are from the U.K.).

So, I’ll label these postings “Retro Reviews”–not exactly hot off the CD presses, but in the music world, discovering any music that becomes a new personal  favorite, even on the late side, is better than never discovering it at all.

In that spirit, I’d like to pass along the strongest of recommendations for a band called The Beautiful South, formed in 1988 and hailing from Hull, England, a port city on the northeastern coast.  My awareness  and enthusiasm for the group is due to my friend Linda, who lives in Hull, and who, many years ago, sent me a tape of the band’s first Greatest Hits collection, Carry On Up The Charts.  

Singers Paul Heaton, Brianna Corrigan, and Dave Hemingway.

The band had its beginnings following the break-up of a previous Hull band, the Housemartins, led by singer-songwriter Paul Heaton (who could pass as a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad). When the Housemartins called it a day, Heaton and fellow Housemartin singer Dave Hemingway formed The Beautiful South, with Irish native Brianna Corrigan as the group’s third singer. Her presence provided Heaton with the impetus to write some relationship-themed songs that included the female’s point of view (the other band members were Sean Welch on bass and Dave Stead on drums, plus Damon Butcher, who played keyboards on the albums, but was never listed as an official member of the group). The Beautiful South rarely favored a heavy guitar sound, preferring instead to emphasize keyboards, acoustic guitar, and additional instruments.

Their first album, 1989’s Welcome to the Beautiful South, produced two Top 10 singles, “Song For Whoever,” and “You Keep It All In.” A third single, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone,” also landed in the Top 40. From that point on, the band continued an impressive streak of successful albums and Top 40 hits.

One of the first things I noticed upon my initial exposure those hits was how many of the songs would combine somewhat quirky lyrics, with an occasionally crude phrase, description, or four-letter word, with a downright beautiful, plaintive, and very catchy melody, often enhanced with a superb string and/or horn arrangement. The juxtaposition between the elegant music and offbeat lyrics can be a bit jarring at first, and might require some getting used to. But, while Heaton’s lyrics have been known for their sarcasm, cynicsm, and stinging political messages about British politics (most of which are lost on this Yank), many of his strongest and most heartfelt songs deal with relationships, and how they can either

deteriorate over time, or grow stronger well into middle-age, and beyond. The best two examples are found in the tender songs “The Prettiest Eyes” (from their fourth album, Miaow) and” ‘Til You Can’t Tuck It In” (from the exceptional Painting It Red album, released in 2000). Both songs are, shall we say, better appreciated when you’ve reached a certain age. If you can listen to either without getting a lump in your throat, check to see if you still have a pulse.

Heaton developed an interesting modus operandi for writing the songs. Periodically, he would spend several weeks alone in an out-of-the-way town in the Netherlands, writing miscellaneous sets of lyrics in his notebook while sitting in pubs, his hotel room, or meandering through the town, where he could go unrecognized. Upon returning to Hull, he and Rotheray would choose a warmer, sunnier locale to travel to for writing each song’s music. Back in Hull, they would then work out the melodies and arrangements with the full band (the composers always split all earnings for the band, including song royalties, evenly amongst the members).

After the release of their third album, 0898 Beautiful South in 1992, Corrigan left the band, partly to explore a solo career, but also in protest of what she considered to be offensive or misogynistic lyrics in some of the songs, such as  “36D” (not likely to become an anthem for the #MeToo movement) –a charge Heaton conceded had some merit.

Corrigan’s replacement, Hull native Jacqui Abbott, joined the band in an unlikely way. She and a friend once attended an after-show party for the band, during which her friend nudged Abbott to sing for Heaton. Reluctantly, she did so, and Heaton made a mental note of her talents. When Corrigan announced her intentions to leave the band, Heaton made the effort to find Abbott’s friend, in order to arrange a more formal audition.

“Blue is the Colour,” from 1996, features the hits “Don’t Marry Her” and “Rotterdam,” both with solo lead vocals by Jacqui.

Abbott’s sultry, husky voice won him over, and she quickly went from grocery store shelf-stacker to singer in one of the U.K.’s most popular bands of the ’90s (she’s also simply one of the coolest women on the planet). Her solo vocal tracks are impressive enough, but Heaton took particular delight in the sound of their duets. As with some of his earlier compositions, he continued writing songs that alternate between the male and female point of view. And, when sung with Abbott, the results can be exquisite.

After the band recorded Painting It Red, Abbott left to devote more time to her two-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with autism.  After a break, the band continued recording and touring, with singer Alison Wheeler replacing Abbott. The Beautiful South split for good in early 2007, famously citing “musical similarities,” although some of the members continued working together in various combinations.

Heaton continued fronting a new band, and in 2011, contacted Abbott to ask if she’d like to participate in a few performances of a new musical work he had been touring with. Even though they had lost touch for nearly a decade, they each found working together again to be invigorating, and, in 2014,  released an album of new material, What Have We Become?  This kicked off a new round of live performances and guest appearances on the top British TV morning chat shows (much to the delight of their longtime fans, as well as the program hosts), in which Heaton praised Abbott, and expressed his joy over working

with her again. The feeling was mutual, although Abbott is considerably more shy and soft-spoken on camera than Heaton. Now that they’re together again and performing in venues big and small, the two haven’t rested on their laurels by relying on The Beautiful South’s many hits for their concert gigs. In fact, they’ve since recorded two more albums, Wisdom, Laughter and Lines in 2015, and Crooked Calypso in 2017.

Thankfully, there are numerous clips of both The Beautiful South and the more recent Heaton/Abbott performances on YouTube for you to discover, such as the two below. And, all of the aforementioned albums are available on Amazon.com.  So, as long as you’ve got your face in your screen to read this anyway, why not stop over at YouTube and give them a chance?

 

 

Until next time…

 

There ARE Such Things as Ghosts!

It’s that spooky time of year, when we turn our attention to all things creepy, scary, or even terrifying. So, why not indulge in a look at a genre of reality programs that boasts those characteristics all year round, i.e. ghost-hunting series.

I’ve always tended to believe in things that most people have not: the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, ancient aliens, present-day aliens, psychic mediums, ghosts, etc. Why do I believe in such things? Simply put, because I have no reason to doubt their existence, and I’ve seen evidence that has convinced me. To those stubborn skeptics who so easily dismiss such anomalies on our planet, with no real interest in keeping an open mind–well, I dismiss those people just as abruptly.

Ghosts in particular have been a hot subject, and targets of “hunters” on cable TV channels for the past decade or so. There is little sign of let-up in the airing of programs featuring teams of investigators who have been able to demonstrate, using hi-tech equipment, that ghosts do exist. The names of the programs might not sound familiar to you, nor the cable networks on which they air. But they’re all fascinating, and, to me, convincing accounts of capturing traces of energy of the deceased, in a wide variety of locations. On these programs, ghosts have been recorded, photographed, videotaped, and have even engaged in real-time “conversations” with investigators.

While it is not on the air anymore, you might be familiar with Ghost Hunters, which blazed the trail for this genre. It ran on what used to be the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy)  from 2004  to 2016, as it followed the investigations of TAPS, The Atlantic Paranormal Society, co-founded by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. While the turnover of team members began to add up as the seasons progressed, the one constant that remained was the way in which they conducted their investigations, i.e. planning to debunk supposed evidence of ghosts inhabiting a given

TAPS in 2010.

location, be it a private home, restaurant, hotel, former prison, etc., then making note of the instances in which they had no answers other than to attribute the evidence to non-physical entities. While the team’s equipment was at first limited mostly to standard video and audio recording equipment, later additions included infrared cameras, motion sensors, and devices that detect changes in electromagnetic fields. Their investigations often yielded

It never hurts to include some eye candy on a ghost hunting team: Amy Bruni and Chris Williams.

fascinating–and convincing–results. In 2008, Ghost Hunters begat Ghost Hunters International which, as you might guess, featured a team of investigators  at various sites throughout Europe, such as castles, taverns, and museums.

Two TAPS members, Amy Bruni and Adam Berry, left TAPS/Ghost Hunters to continue investigating cases of families troubled by paranormal disturbances in their own homes. Bruni had shown an astounding ability to carry on extensive “conversations” with ghosts during her stint on Ghost Hunters, and, with Berry, produced the series Kindred Spirits, beginning in 2016 on TLC.

The title derives from the duo’s belief that most occurrences in private homes are due to relatives of the homeowners who have passed on, but feel a need to make their lingering presence known. As with other programs in the genre, Bruni and Berry use hi-tech equipment, and sometimes their searches lead them to surprising twists in their investigations.

In 2008, the series Ghost Adventures first aired on the Travel Channel, which follows a team led by the rather intense Zak Bagans, who seems to have a strong physical sensitivity to the presence of an entity, and sometimes reacts accordingly.  One team member, Nick Groff, left in 2010 to continue his investigations on the series Paranormal Lockdown, in which he and Katrina Weidman would spend 72 straight hours confined to a reportedly haunted location, in order to have uninterrupted exposure to whatever may or may not be inhabiting the house or building.

The year 2014 saw the premiere of Ghost Asylum on the Destination America channel, in which a group of investigators, known at the Tennessee Wraith Chasers, specialized in seeking out trapped entities in long-abandoned and decaying hospitals and sanitariums, most of which are from an era in which patients were often treated deplorably. When I first happened upon the show, I did snicker at this group of good-ol’-boys with twangy Southern accents referring to their sophisticated ghost-hunting equipment. But they got results, and took

The team tests one of their contraptions.

their missions seriously, even inventing new devices to not only detect, but trap ghosts (especially the nastier ones).  The group can now be seen on their current Travel Channel show, Haunted Live, on which they conduct their investigations live, each Friday at 10:00p.m. The show simulcasts the camera angles set up by the team, and invites viewers to message the broadcast in real time, in case they see an unusual occurrence missed by the team at the location. Unfortunately, some of the more fascinating moments, heightened by the live format, are interrupted by commercial breaks.

It can be tricky keeping these shows straight, even for me, as I write this post. Some investigators stand out more than others, but the real focus of each program is on finding and/or making contact with the entities in question. There have been several other similar programs that have come and gone in the past decade or so, and the sum total of their efforts are impressive. I don’t feel as if this is a matter of “believing” or “disbelieving” the existence of ghosts, but you may be far more skeptical. Even so, these programs are rarely less than interesting,entertaining and, of course, always very spooky. And that’s just the kind of show we can enjoy as Halloween approaches.

Until next time…keep your night light on!

Comedians vs. technology, Pt. II : The radio stars

At the same time movie “talkies” were revolutionizing the industry, radio was becoming a viable mass medium, and by the early 1930s, both had become irresistible to many comedians, with radio attracting those who had more of a verbal act. What could be easier than to stand in front of a microphone and perform a well-rehearsed routine for millions of listeners, without the hassles of traveling from city to city all year long as a vaudevillian? As it turned out, it wasn’t so easy.

The first true radio comedy star was Eddie Cantor, who was popular in vaudeville for his seemingly boundless energy. He would sing and hop and clap his hands, tell stories and jokes, while going through a catalogue of facial expressions (his nickname was Banjo Eyes), whatever it took to get a reaction from the audience.

Cantor became the star of The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1931, making him the first radio comedian not only to perform weekly in front of a live audience, but the first to encourage the audience to respond audibly while the show was on the air. At the time, studio audiences were invited to attend

radio broadcasts in person, but they were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the programs, and to even suppress their laughter during comedy segments. Performers would face the audience, but with a thick sheet of glass, or “glass curtain,” hanging between them. The logic behind this remains elusive, but broadcasters at the time apparently felt the distracting sound of audience laughter during a broadcast would confuse, even unnerve, those listening at home. George Burns said, “Keeping an audience under glass was one thing, but asking them not to react made working in front of them really tough. We would do great material, and these people would sit there smiling loudly.”

During one broadcast in his first season, Cantor included a spontaneous burst of slapstick during a sketch, that had the audience laughing uncontrollably. He was expecting a stern reprimand from the sponsor afterward, but instead, received praise for enlivening the show with the audience’s participation. So, the glass curtain’s days were numbered, and it soon disappeared, but then another issue came to light.

In the early ‘30s, verbal comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and Ed Wynn were all beginning their rookie seasons on radio. But some of them, like Cantor and Wynn, were still accustomed to going for laughs visually as well, for the benefit of the studio audiences. But they hadn’t considered how this would play on radio.

Wynn agreed to star as the Fire Chief for a new program sponsored by Texaco, as long as he could do so in front of a live audience that was permitted to laugh out loud during the broadcast, and  that he perform the show in costume– a fireman’s hat and coat, plus assorted accessories. He once explained,

“I can’t act funny unless I dress funny. I have to look the fool in order to play the fool.” But including visual bits of business created the risk of alienating radio listeners at home, who would often hear laughter without hearing any joke preceding it, thus shutting them out of some gags by catering primarily to the live audience in the auditorium. It took some time to break old habits. When Wynn was about to begin a new program in early 1937, he announced, as part of a New Year’s resolution, “I promise to remember I am performing for my listeners, not my studio audience.”

With millions of people across the country able to hear a comedian’s best material on a single night—material that may have taken months or years to perfect. But those same millions of listeners certainly didn’t want to hear the same material the following week. Quoting George Burns again, I guess the biggest adjustment we all had to make between vaudeville and radio was that in vaudeville seventeen minutes of good material could last for years, while on radio seventeen minutes of good material would last seventeen minutes.” A good number of talented vaudevillians soon found their creative wells running dry. Burns said, “I don’t think any of us realized how much material we would need…By the end of the third or fourth week we were out of new material. So we began hiring writers to work for us full-time.”

Thus, the creature known as the modern-day “comedy writer” was born.

Only Fred Allen and Ed Wynn were known to write most if not all of their weekly scripts themselves, and even they had assistants to look up old jokes that could be updated or adapted for the programs, because the workload of having new material ready each week was so great.

Even as radio’s popularity grew throughout the ‘30s, comedians were also considering the future of television. Some took part in early experimental broadcasts, and in 1936, Eddie Cantor announced his intentions to begin memorizing his lines for radio, rather than relying on reading his scripts in front of the microphone each week, in order to prepare himself for live TV.

In the years following the end of World War II, as television became more of a reality than a concept, a horde of radio comedians came to TV, in 1950 and ’51.  They realized how they had to learn new things such as how to stay in camera range. And, even more importantly, TV was live, so lines couldn’t simply be read off a sheet of paper–they’d have to be memorized. There were no chances for second takes, unlike in movies.

The Burns and Allen Show originally aired live from New York every other week for the first two seasons, beginning in 1950. Gracie struggled with memorizing a half-hour script. She said, “All I could think about was ‘What’s the next line?’ I haven’t memorized anything for twenty years…There may come a time when I forget, and I shudder at what I’ll do then.” Two years later, the show became a weekly series filmed in Los Angeles. Filming scenes out of sequence didn’t help Gracie’s memorization struggles, either.

Fred Allen, for one, was not happy with television, either as a performer or viewer. He didn’t like Milton Berle’s landmark show, He said, “Berle isn’t doing anything for television. He’s photographing a vaudeville act. That’s what they’re all doing.” He didn’t like how television took away the ability to use the imagination, saying, “In radio, even a moron could visualize things his way; an intelligent man, his way. It was a custom-made suit. Television is a ready-made suit. Everyone has to wear the same one…”

He also confessed, “We all have a great problem–Jack Benny, Bob Hope, all of us. We don’t know how to duplicate our success in radio. We found out how to cope with radio and, and after seventeen years, you know pretty well what effect you’re achieving. But those things won’t work in television. Jack Benny’s sound effects, Fibber’s McGee’s closet–they won’t be funny in television. We don’t know what will be funny, or even whether our looks are acceptable” (he most notably became a panelist on What’s My Line?).

As for Ed Wynn, he said, in the early days of his TV show, “I’m still figuring out how much I can talk, and how much time I can be permitted to walk around the stage, without slowing up the show.”

The vaudevillians-turned radio stars-turned TV stars still had a bit of on-the-job training to do, also they but managed to keep audiences in stitches while doing so.

Until next time…

 

Comedy legends vs. new technology

In the beginning, there was vaudeville.  It was entertainment in its purest form: performers would tour the country virtually year-round, repeating their new or established acts for a different audience, in a different town, for modest pay. Vaudeville existed as such, unchanged, for over 50 years.

The Palace Theatre in New York–the Mecca of vaudeville for twenty years.

But in the early decades of the 20th century, new technologies allowed for more and better mass communication and entertainment. In the late ‘20s, silent movies became sound movies, the radio networks were born, and, eventually, television enabled entertainers to reach millions of people at a time. With so many new creative doors open for comedians, they still faced unexpected challenges.

Stan Laurel (far left, seated) and Charlie Chaplin (holding life preserver) with Fred Karno’s troupe in 1910.

The more visual stage comedians were naturally drawn to motion pictures, and the early silent film stars came from either American vaudeville, or, in the case of people like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and others, British Music Hall acts.

With the arrival of sound, adjustments needed to be made. Even the most accomplished silent film comedians had to face the new reality in the late 1920s. They simply didn’t know what talkies would do for, or to, their established comedy, because now they would have to flesh out their screen characters with voices and funny dialogue—things they didn’t need to think about before. Some adapted to sound well, and even looked forward to it; others, not so much .

    Hal Roach, the legendary comedy producer who created Our Gang (a.k.a. the Little Rascals) in 1922, and teamed Laurel with Hardy in 1926, kept pace with the sound revolution better than his main competitor Mack Sennett, even though the industry as a whole was still uncertain  about how sound would affect film comedy in general.

Roach stars Laurel & Hardy weren’t intimidated by sound films, and were the first major silent film comedians to take the plunge into sound successfully.  At first, they planned to use dialogue sparingly, without forcing it on either themselves or their audience, although Fate had given them the voices that perfectly suited their characters’ mannerisms and body language, as did their dialogue.

Laurel & Hardy’s transition to talkies was a fairly smooth one. Despite Roach’s intention to keep dialogue sparse in his talkies, the team’s first sound film, Unaccustomed as We Are plays almost like a television sitcom episode, with considerable (and necessary) dialogue throughout. In addition to the dialogue, the film uses sound for several  gags, including the closing shot of the film, in which we see Stan and Ollie say goodbye in the hallway of the apartment building, after which Stan disappears at the top step of the stairs. Then we hear a long series of thuds and crashes, knowing that poor Stan is tumbling his way to the first floor. Even in this first talkie, the creative team had found ways of using sound for gags.

As Stan once explained, “In that scene we removed the pain, by having the camera stay looking at the top of the staircase. The sound effect of the fall lets the audience visualize its own scene, and that just made it funnier to them.”

Harold Lloyd  also became a star at the Roach studios, and was one of the most revered and highest grossing film stars of the 1920s. After leaving Roach, Lloyd’s first sound film, Welcome Danger, wasn’t originally produced to be a sound film at all.

Scene from “Welcome Danger.”

He had completed filming, editing, and even began to show it to preview audiences in 1929 when he saw how the movie business was undergoing the sound revolution. When he previewed Welcome Danger for about the third time, there was a one-reeler sound film also on the bill, and he saw how the audience was in hysterics over it–even shots of  pouring of water, the frying of eggs, the clinking of ice in a glass. Lloyd said, ‘We worked out hearts out to get laughs with gags, and just because they’ve got some sound, the audience is roaring at these things.”

He realized it was time to make the transition, so he revamped the film by re-shooting major portions, and adding dialogue and sound effects, at the cost of almost one million dollars.

Buster Keaton felt no anxiety about making the transition to talkies, and in fact welcomed the arrival of sound, knowing that even a sound comedy could still be comprised primarily of slapstick anyway. Adding dialogue wouldn’t necessarily hurt the visual gags he was such a master at creating. There was no reason why Keaton couldn’t continue just being Keaton.

It was not sound that threatened his career, but rather the callous treatment he received from MGM studios, which, having acquired his contract, quickly and inexplicably stifled his ability to control his own material. The studio even partnered him with Jimmy Durante for a few films, before conceding that the two of them had no comedy chemistry. It also didn’t help that Keaton had been going through a divorce and an increasingly worrisome drinking problem.

 Harry Langdon, on the other hand, had trouble, due in great part to the character he created to great success in silent. His rather eerie baby face,

Langdon in his first talkie, a 1929 short film welcoming him to Hal Roach Studios.

enhanced with ample make-up, and childlike mannerisms necessitated him to take on a young voice to match. But the sight–and sound–of a grown man looking and speaking like a shy child comes off as somewhat disturbing. This was, not the only reason, but one reason why Langdon’s career faltered in the sound era.

As for Chaplin,  it was no secret that he had been resistant to making sound films. He vowed to continue making silents , even if it cost him millions of his own money. But there was a great deal of anguish behind his defiance.

He saw sound films as a threat to his very career, and was finding it increasingly difficult to justify making non-talking films in the sound era. But seeing how sound pictures were changing the film business had him truly torn between the past and future of the industry. He later wrote, “Occasionally I mused over the possibility of making a sound film, but the thought sickened me, for I realized I could never achieve the excellence of my silent pictures. It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable, for the first word he ever uttered would transform him into another person.” It became clear that Chaplin was fighting a losing battle with progress.

Next week, Part II:  How comedians adapted to the challenges of radio.

“Death in Paradise”

I’m interrupting my summer break from blogging just so I can try to spread the word a bit about a TV program I’ve recently discovered that deserves attention.

It can be an especially satisfying experience to discover a TV series entirely by accident (even if it’s been on the air for some time, under your very nose) and quickly become a big fan. This has happened to me and my wife Karen in just the past month or so. The series to which I refer (drum roll): Death in Paradise, a BBC murder mystery series airing on PBS.

The program, created by Robert Thorogood (who writes a good number of the episodes), premiered in the UK in 2011. It takes place in the fictional town of Honore, in the equally fictional Caribbean island of Saint Marie (and is filmed on Guadeloupe). In some ways, each episode plays as a rather traditional–but brilliant– whodunit, in which a seemingly unsolvable murder confounds the island’s team of detectives, led by the Detective Inspector. But add the gorgeous scenery, and the regular cast of immensely likeable characters, and you have the elements of a richly entertaining show. It has been steadily gaining popularity in the UK and Europe with each season it’s been on the air.

British comedian Ben Miller played Detective Inspector Richard Poole for the show’s first three series (or seasons, to us Yanks). Each series, consisting of eight episodes, is filmed over a five-month period on location. I must confess that, at this writing, I’ve yet to see the episodes with Miller in the lead, so I can’t comment on his performance just yet, but I’m basically working my way backwards through the series, with jumps back to the present run each week.

At the beginning of series 4, Kris Marshall took over as D.I. Humphrey Goodman. I had been familiar with Marshall mostly from his role as a goofy teen in the long-running Britcom My Family. He caught my eye as I was channel surfing one night recently, so I thought I’d give the show a few minutes of my time, not knowing a thing about it. Here, he plays the affable detective who can be socially awkward one moment, but the next moment suddenly finds himself solving a murder, with all of the loose ends neatly tied in his mind, including one final clue that had escaped the notice of the others. The “payoff” scene of each episode places three or four suspects gathered as he reveals the murderer, and then methodically

Florence and Humphrey.

explains how he managed to piece together the details, which had been so efficiently collected by his team.

The team includes Josephine Jobert as Detective Sergeant Florence Cassel, Danny John-Jules (famous as “Cat” on the legendary Britcom Red Dwarf) as veteran officer Dwayne Myers, and Tobi Bakare as younger officer JP Hooper. They are often visited by the imposing figure of Commissioner Selwyn Patterson (Don Warrington, another British TV veteran). The camaraderie among the group is impressive; at the end of each day, they unwind together with drinks at the town’s open-air bar. And, each episode is

Commissioner Selwyn.

careful not to needlessly direct attention away from the murder case with a bothersome subplot. However, the “B” story usually involves a romantic crisis of some sort for one of the characters, which lightens the mood of the episode without getting in the way.

At the conclusion of series 6, Saint Marie sees another transfer of the Detective Inspector title from Humphrey to London detective Jack Mooney, played by Ardal O’Hanlon, who is known to Britcom fans as the cheerful idiot Father Dougal McGuire on Father Ted. The transition takes place  in a two-part episode, during which Humphrey and Florence travel to London and team up with Mooney to solve an especially tough case. Without giving away

Ardal O’Hanlon as Jack Mooney.

too much (I hope), Mooney temporarily fills in for Humphrey back on Saint Marie, while Humphrey remains in London. But why do they make the switch, and how temporary is the arrangement? I’m not telling, but it’s a treat seeing O’Hanlon as Mooney, who appears to be a bit more easygoing than Humphrey–and sometimes just as bumbling–but when there’s a case to solve, his focus becomes laser sharp.

Addressing the suspects in the “payoff” scene.

Hopefully, this may remind you of an old, familiar American police detective, with an average-Joe appearance, but with a similar talent for solving perplexing murders. If you’re a Columbo fan (and if you’re not, I don’t think I want to know you), you’ll no doubt appreciate and enjoy Death in Paradise. Unlike Columbo, of course, you don’t get to know the killer’s identity right off the bat, but chances are you’ll be knocked out by how the Detective Inspector and his team solve each crime–and, until they reveal the murderer, you’ll probably pick the wrong suspect more often than not.

The BBC began airing series seven in January, with plans for an eighth series next year. So, do yourself a favor and give Death in Paradise a try. One of my local PBS stations (WNJN) airs it on Saturday evenings at 10:00, but yours might carry it on a different night, or not at all (it is available on DVD–try your library, if it has a decent collection, or wherever you can find the show online).

We now return you to your regularly scheduled summer.

A Couple of Film Classics For Summer

This is my 40th blog post since my very first entry this time last year. Simple math will tell you that my aim to post a fresh blog each week has fallen a bit short. It isn’t an easy task, although I do acknowledge that many bloggers, journalists, and columnists manage to do so each day, and I’d tip my hat to them, if I had a hat.

I’ve attempted to bring interesting and/or little known facts about entertainment history and pop culture to each of my entries, and I intend to continue doing so, but after a brief break to recharge my mental batteries. I’m also busy with other projects that will hopefully prove more generous to my wallet, if my patience pays off.

Just so I don’t take my break without leaving at least a few recommendations…

Two of my all-time favorite films happened to air on two different movie channels this past weekend. They couldn’t be further apart, no matter how you look at them, but they each stand out as stellar examples of their respective genres.

The first, 12 Angry Men, was written by Reginald Rose for the live drama series Studio One, airing on September 20, 1954. Henry Fonda was so impressed with the production that he bought the rights in order to adapt it to film, using his own money, and hiring some of the television cast to repeat their roles (Bob Cummings, known mostly for light comedic roles, played Fonda’s part in the TV production). The film was released in April of 1957.

Taking place almost entirely in a jury room, the story opens as the jurors in a New York City murder trial begin their debate as to the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic man, probably not even out of his teens. There doesn’t seem to be much debate necessary, as it looks like an open and shut case, pointing to the young man’s guilt. In their initial vote, eleven of the twelve men vote for conviction, with a lone holdout (Henry Fonda), dissenting, arguing that the accused deserves a decent debate before being sentenced to the electric chair. He resists pressure from the

others to change his vote, and instead slowly begins to cast doubt about the circumstantial evidence in the case.  Locked in a spare, hot room on a rainy day, tempers flare, personal prejudices reveal themselves, and reasonable doubt grows stronger among the men. Eventually, one bitter juror (Lee J. Cobb) finds himself alone as he continues to insist on the boy’s guilt.

Rose’s writing is brilliant in its verbal economics, allowing us to learn just enough about each juror to understand why he has voted for conviction in the beginning, and then why he changes his vote as the deliberation proceeds. The cast, of course, consists of many of the finest actors of the 20th century, all of whom achieve sheer perfection here, and nothing less. The closing minutes in the jury room, and the brief final scene outside on the courthouse steps, are especially memorable. When my wife Karen asked me “Why are we watching this for the thousandth time?”  I simply answered, “Because it’s magnificent.”

If you happen to be among the disadvantaged few who have yet to immerse themselves in this lesson in truly great writing and acting, please don’t delay! Seek out this film!

Now, which film might be considered to be the cinematic polar opposite of  such a powerful drama? I submit my choice for the funniest comedy film ever made, The Return of the Pink Panther, which also graced one of the movie channels this past weekend. It is the third film in the Pink Panther series; the original, released in 1964 and starring, of course, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (and David Niven as the jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton), led to the sequel A Shot in the Dark, released later in ’64, and bringing Sellers front & center, rather than as more of a supporting character in the original.

Clouseau accosts a street beggar (John Bluthal).

A decade later, the often tempestuous working relationship between Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards found the two reuniting for  1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, with Christopher Plummer as the supposedly retired Sir Charles.

For anyone inclined to dismiss any of these films as little more than indulgences in silly slapstick, look a little more carefully. Edwards’ comedy techniques are easily identifiable, from having a character fall completely out of frame (instead of having us watch him fall), to bringing back a gag just when the viewer had nearly forgotten it (most brilliantly used in a sequence involving two small delivery trucks), to using

Catherine Schell caught laughing on camera in this scene. It was the only usable take after she had broken up so many times at Sellers’ antics.

slow-motion, instead of the more commonly used fast-motion, for some gags. And, of course, there is Sellers himself, the greatest and most versatile comic actor who ever lived, playing Clouseau as an earnest law enforcement agent who never doubts his own skills, even when he is wreaking havoc and destruction all around him.

Sellers is helped by a hilarious supporting cast including Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, Burt Kwouk as his servant Cato, and Graham Stark (another Edwards’ stalwart) as Pepe, a sniveling underling of a Sidney Greenstreet-style crime boss. The story meanders through France, Gstaad, and the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Lugash, as Clouseau searches for his prime suspect.

Enough summarizing. This is a film created by masters of comedy, whose purpose was solely to entertain via hilarious characters, situations, dialogue, and unforgettable sight gags. Find this film, sit back, and laugh, as I’ve been doing since seeing it upon its premiere, with a theatre full of hysterical movie-goers, waaaay back when.

So, now begins my summer break, but please feel free to check out any or all of my previous blog postings, thanks to our newly-added button on my web site’s home page. It’s not too late to leave a comment or two, either!

Until next time…

 

Remembering the Birth of the Jet Age

Not long ago, I wrote about the sad passing of the 747, a magnificent airliner first flown for the public in 1970, whose manufacture has come to an end among all U.S. airlines. I haven’t been on a plane (747 or otherwise) in many years, but I still remember the excitement of taking a flight to a new destination, when getting there was half the fun. I do know that flying today isn’t what it used to be. In addition to extra fees for services that used to be free, seemingly excessive security probes, and smaller, more cramped seats for those on a budget, we hear stories almost daily about in-flight incidents with angry passengers, angry flight attendants, angry pets, and who knows what else. No doubt my rose-tinted memories will get a smack of reality the next time I fly.

But there was a time when it was all new, exciting, and life-changing. And it began sixty years ago, in 1958. The eventful arrival of passenger jets forever changed how we travel by air, by drastically cutting flight times–in effect shrinking the planet–and by offering more frills to a greater number of passengers on each flight.

It should come as little surprise that the jet engine—a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes—was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. Three years later, BOAC instituted a jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking

aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, but was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents, the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.

In the United States, a genuine competition between the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jets in the air. By the landmark year 1958, a new “first” in jet aviation occurred every few months:

May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base.

August 24 –Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.

 

Juan Trippe’s second “Time” magazine cover, 1949

October 26 — Pan Am, under leadership of its founder and commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refueling), with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own aircraft.

August 26, 1959 — Flying a new Boeing 707-320, with a greater fuel capacity, Pan Am made the first non-stop New York – London flight, solidifying Pan Am as the American leader of international passenger jet flight. The airline had purchased jets both from Boeing and Douglas, although some airlines, such as United and Delta, opted for the Douglas DC-8.

The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service changed the world in countless ways. Long distance travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable.

Pan Am may have been the first American airline to offer 707 jets to the flying public, but it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies. On July 19, 1961, after testing the feature earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by their addition to international flights the following month.  Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section.  Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard.

The first film to be shown was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr.

But the first account of an in-flight movie can be traced back to April of 1925, as described in the British magazine Flight:  “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

The TWA system remained the standard for in-flight entertainment for a quarter-century, until the mid-1980s, when wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. Alas, with laptops, phones, and tablets now providing passengers with much of their own private means of entertainment throughout a flight, even seat-back screens are becoming a dying feature, and no newly-constructed airliners will be including them (not good news for those who own none of the above devices).

I’d better get back on a plane soon, before I feel like Rip van Winkle.

Until next time…

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 who 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 subsequently harsh 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 gave birth to Hope in prison, while waiting 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 (most of which have already expired), and has been worn down by life’s everyday struggles and minor setbacks. Still, she 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 resides 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, slimmer 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…