Happy 50th Birthday, Laugh-In!

I can hardly believe I just typed “50th birthday” and “Laugh-In” in the same sentence. But it’s true. After airing a pilot episode in September of 1967, NBC placed Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on its regular schedule in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (sorry, Bill Parisho).

To those television viewers who were comfortable with the more genteel, moderately-paced variety shows and sitcoms at the time, Laugh-In shocked them with an onslaught of one-liners, blackout gags, songs, sketches, and a lot more, all coming at breakneck speed and psychedelic colors. The cast of versatile, genuinely funny cast members during that first year included Artie Johnson, Joanne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, and Alan Sues–with plenty of celebrity cameo appearances thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, hosting the madness in their distinguished tuxedoes were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, both 46 at the time, and who had already been performing as a comedy team for the previous decade.

Laugh-In was the result of the duo’s collaboration with producer George Schlatter, who found himself on the same creative wavelength as Rowan & Martin, and who oversaw the writing, editing, and overall tone of the show. As explosive as the show was in 1968, with its breakneck pacing and topical humor about politics, the Vietnam War, pollution, and Women’s Lib, it did have its predecessors. Earlier satirical comedy programs, such as the 1964 American version of the British hit That Was The Week That Was, and The Smothers Brothers Hour, which debuted in 1967, laid the conceptual foundation for the outspoken and often risque nature of the show. This in turn led to many a challenge by NBC censors to a good deal of material. The show quickly acquired the

George Schlatter.

reputation as pushing the envelope of acceptable, prime-time network comedy, in part because just about everything that had come before it had been so very bland and inoffensive.

In 1968, Time magazine called it “the smartest, freshest show on television…it has an artful spontaneity, a kind of controlled insanity, emerging from a cascade of crazy cartoon ideas.” Actually, the show was aimed most directly at teenage audiences, who promptly lapped it up, yet who could still watch it and enjoy it with their adult parents. The jokes were often in the style of the vaudeville era (or earlier), the sight gags ranged from a cast

member–usually Judy Carne–or guest getting splashed with a bucket of water, to quite clever gags, dance numbers, and news reports presenting “news of the future, twenty years from now…”Bikini-clad girls, covered in graffiti consisting of puns and one-liners, shimmied against psychedelic backgrounds. It was all presented in good, silly fun. In addition

to a first-rate cast of comedians, the show continued to attract an impressive range of A-list celebrity guests, who didn’t always completely grasp what was going on during the energetic, even chaotic tapings. I won’t even go into the countless characters and their catchphrases that emerged from the program, and that quickly found their way into daily conversation.

 

As a kid in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived for Monday nights and Laugh-In. So did my friends. We spent long hours reciting jokes and re-enacting gags we had instantly memorized while taking in each episode. One of my friends and I even attempted to create our own Laugh-In episode on my ever-present cassette tape recorder. When our own 6th grade standard of material ran out, we turned to a few of the most recent Mad magazine issues, and read them into the microphone within the Laugh-In format (believe it or not, I actually still have those very tapes today).

Throughout its five-season history, the show’s cast went through a number of changes, with only Rowan, Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens appearing in every episode. The last episode aired in May of 1973, by which time the flower-power/hippie era that pervaded much of popular culture at the show’s birth had faded, with Watergate becoming the defining issue of the early ’70s. But thanks to nightly syndication on the Decades network, we can enjoy seeing some cast members before they moved on to still bigger accomplishments in their careers. Who would have

 

thought that the young, giggling Goldie Hawn would one day become an Academy Award winner, or that Lily Tomlin would win several Emmys, and a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show?

For all of its goofy silliness and hit-or-miss approach to gags, Laugh-In remains a classic, fifty years after taking the nation by storm. Times have definitely changed, and some examples of the show’s comedy wear better than others when we watch it today; it was a program of its time, of course, but the sheer cleverness and energy that permeates each episode is undeniable, and it can still give us a strong sense of what was going on in our culture, and our world, during a unique era in our history.

So, Happy Birthday, Laugh-In! Thanks for the laughs, and the memories!

Until next week…

Nostalgia in the New Year

In this New Year, I’ve just been looking back on the blog posts I’ve done in 2017, and I look forward to writing more in 2018. Yes, my blogs are really quite all over the place, not emphasizing any one aspect of pop culture history over another, because my own interests tend to be quite varied.

This might be working against me in a way; unlike other bloggers who specialize in one field or another, I’m not often thought of as the go-to guy for any specific knowledge. I just like to do my research, absorb information, pick out a few choice facts or stories that aren’t well known by the general public, and offer it to you in an entertaining and (hopefully) concise way.

People like me, who sometimes like to get pretentious by calling ourselves “pop culture historians,” are susceptible to being accused of living in the past, and indulging in movies, music, television, and social fads of long ago that the majority of people today don’t take much time to think about.

 

Indeed, when I was only about 14 years old, I was listening to big band music of the 1940s, and enjoying movies and listening to recordings of radio shows from decades going even further back. In a way, I was living in the past– not my own past, but that didn’t matter to me.  Of course, I had my favorites among the current TV shows at that time, too, and I listened to the Top 40 hits on the radio, but I also felt drawn to entertainment of earlier eras that wasn’t as familiar to me. What can I say…I liked it!

I am selective, however. I’m not the kind to say that everything today is “junk,” and everything back in the good ol’ days–even the days before I was born– was wonderful. But I like teaching myself about how everything today grew from that which came before. And I enjoy my meager attempts to shed some light on entertainers, films, music, TV shows–from both past and present–that you may not have been aware of, or have had the chance to learn much about.

So, for those few of you who have been gracious enough to follow this weekly blog in 2017, I have a few ideas lined up for 2018 that I hope you’ll enjoy, and might even learn a thing or two, in a fun way, requiring about 1,000 words or less (that’s where my dubious skills as a self-editor come in).

Have a happy New Year!

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, “Magical Mystery Tour”!

Photo by David Magnus / Rex Features The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios for the ‘Our World’ live television broadcast, London, Britain – 1967

Earlier this year, on  June 1, Beatles fans around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the Fab Four’s masterpiece. The album created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for launching the “Summer of Love,” highlighted by the live worldwide TV special “Our World” on July 25th, for which the Beatles premiered yet another instant classic “All You Need Is Love.”

Brian Epstein and Paul in the studio.

But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had been arranging their countless personal appearances and concert tours around the world, but in August of ’66 the group decided to end touring forever. Epstein’s responsibilities were drastically diminished, but he was not out of the picture. Even before Sgt. Pepper was released, Paul came to him with an idea for the group, by which they would create and direct their own film, exactly as they wished, without outside interference from a film studio. Paul had become interested in the current trend of  avant-garde filmmaking by somewhat pretentious young artistes, and was dabbling in making short films himself at the time.

He presented his vague film idea of a magical mystery tour to Epstein. Such coach tours were common then, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving too much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. Contrary to a common assumption that Epstein probably wouldn’t have approved of the film, especially had he lived to see its final form, he encouraged Paul to pursue it, and had other top Beatles employees, such as Alastair Taylor and publicist Tony Barrow, lend a hand with the logistics.

George and John speak shortly after hearing of Epstein’s death.

Upon Epstein’s sudden death in August, the Beatles found themselves shocked, confused, and fairly directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even as Epstein’s death was still so fresh on their minds.

So, in mid-September, with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals–plus a small film crew–the “Magical Mystery Tour” began filming, mostly in Devon and Cornwall. Any ideas to produce it with little notice from the general public were quickly foiled, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from each filming locale. Many who were present never really knew if a particular stop was simply to have a meal, film a scene, or both. It was, by all accounts (including those by the Beatles themselves), a mostly

 

unplanned two-week excursion. There was some preparation involved, for costumes, signs, and building the few makeshift sets needed for certain scenes, filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.

“Your Mother Should Know” and other indoor scenes were filmed in this West Malling hangar.

After filming, the Beatles spent the next several weeks taking turns editing the footage–sometimes undoing each other’s editing decisions from the previous day–and the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). However, at that point in BBC history, only the lesser-watched BBC-2 had begun broadcasting in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film broadcast in drab black & white, severely hurting the overall effect (Tony Barrow still argues that the initial, black & white airing hurt its impact greatly, from which it never recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed plot–not really a plot at all–made little sense. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good. The saving grace for Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves:

“I Am The Walrus.”

“Magical Mystery Tour,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” But even most these self-contained musical sequences were somewhat surreal in nature, no doubt catching a great many viewers off-guard.

After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely criticized in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, which didn’t help. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP,

or Extra-Play record, is a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side). In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs in late November, with additional Beatles songs from earlier in the  year: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”

The film, to this very day, has never been broadcast in its entirety on a major American TV network. The American album version was released with a 16-page booklet of stills from the movie, but Americans could make no sense of them, without having seen the film itself.

Magical Mystery Tour has suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ few creative failures, but it can be argued that it has also received a bad rap. For its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilities of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers. Psychedelia was in, remember?

I first saw Magical Mystery Tour at the Beatlefest convention many years ago, and I hated it too–loved the songs, hated everything in between.           It was always saved as the last item on the convention schedule, usually shown at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, presumably to clear out the last remaining attendees. Few people stayed to watch it all the way through,  and it felt like a depressing end to an otherwise festive weekend.

But my opinion has changed greatly since then. I now see it as a strange, nonsensical, goofy, but fun film with classic songs. In case you’ve ever seen it and hated it, your opinion might change too. Why not give Magical Mystery Tour another chance sometime? Fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned!

Until next time…

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP — Part 2

As we continue our look at the current revival of vinyl LP records, a brief review…

The many formats with which the public has listened to music have gone through a fascinating progression in the past century. Edison’s popular wax cylinders eventually gave way to the 78 rpm record platters, which in turn led to 33 1/3 LPs, and 45 singles (in addition to reel-to-reel, 8-track, and cassette tapes). Between 1948 and 1958–the year stereo recordings were first ready for mass consumption–sales of records increased 20 to 25 per cent every year. Not least among the factors was the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record stores, after hearing the latest hits on radio.

However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (except for classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). Not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace their trusty hi-fi set. And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo recording right away. The Beatles famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so, along with their producer George Martin. But when it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had to the stereo mix.

Interestingly, in an August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote regarding what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”

In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding, especially considering that research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both the Philips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk.  In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standardized set of specifications, including disk size, which were initially approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during the birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).

Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings and premium Original Master recordings issued on high-quality vinyl had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.

But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

In August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was released–initially in Japan only–on October 1, 1982.

 

Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player, as unveiled for the public in this ad. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.

 

In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the release of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums.

What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already been clearing room in their bins, originally designed for 12″ albums, to make way for CDs (conveniently enough, the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that 2 units could fit neatly across a bin already sized for LPs).

The pristine sound of the CD proved too-tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what was often described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.

In recent years, even the CD has shown to be vulnerable, in the digital age of downloading and streaming music from various ethereal sources online. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding an artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades (myself included).

Which brings us to 2017. This past June, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it will begin pressing vinyl records again in March 2018, for the first time in nearly three decades. A factory near Tokyo is being fitted with new record-cutting and pressing machines. CNN reports that this is a direct reaction to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations–some of whom have grown up never having used records. Vinyl now comprises about 18% of all “physical music revenue,” which might not sound like much, but the number is growing.

So, feel free to indulge here in any number of clichés…Past is present, everything old is new again, Viva la Vinyl, etc.!

Until next time…

 

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since then, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since that revised edition (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after their repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 awaits the talk show to begin (guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a single-camera, fly-on-the-wall comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 as the series opens, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most phone inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises among them and the rest of the employees, as well as dealing with the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she embarrasses herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…

The Father of Television

The new TV season is finally here. Once again, it’s time to welcome new episodes of returning favorites, and mercilessly judge the worthiness of new programs scrambling for our attention. In my mind, it’s also a good time to honor the Father of Television, Scotsman John Logie Baird.

While several key individuals can be credited for contributing their genius to help make TV a reality, Baird was the first to successfully send live, recognizable images through the air from a transmitter to a receiver. He gave the first of his public demonstrations in March and April of 1925, in London’s Selfridges department store. The images were merely moving silhouettes (generated mechanically by what was known as a Nipkow disk, the technical details of which we won’t get into here), but they captivated the public and made headlines around the world.

A few months later, as Baird continued his experiments, using ventriloquist dummies (his favorite was named Stooky Bill) to act as his subjects in front of his “televisor,” he decided that he wanted to see a live person’s image on the receiver. Working in an upstairs loft on Frith Street in the Soho section of London, he stopped downstairs to ask a young office clerk, William Taynton, to take part in the experiment. Taynton readily agreed, and, sitting at the televisor, became the first person ever to appear on a TV screen–even though his image only traveled the length of Baird’s laboratory.

Baird’s business partner, Oliver Hutchinson, in the first-known photo of a televised moving image.

By early 1926, word of Baird’s successful experiments spread around the world. In January of that year, the New York Times announced, “John L. Baird, who has perfected television after years of research, has been giving practical demonstrations here [in London].” A few days later, he demonstrated his apparatus for members of the Royal Institution, and for the press.

Baird continued with his work, even as others, mostly in the U.S. and Germany, did the same to improve on the basic workings of the Nipkow disk. For every advancement achieved by others, Baird raised the stakes still higher.

Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover takes part in the famous experiment.

A landmark television transmission via telephone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York on April 27, 1927, covered a 230-mile distance. Only a month later, Baird successfully sent a television signal (also via phone lines) from London to Glasgow, Scotland, a distance of 438 miles.  In February of 1928, Baird even set up and successfully achieved the world’s first overseas television transmission, from the London area to Hartsdale, New York, with several witnesses and reporters present on both sides of the Atlantic. The images were fuzzy, of course, but the experiment was nonetheless a success, thirty-four years before the launch of the Telstar communications satellite.

Baird’s achievements continued. In July of 1928, he unveiled perhaps the most astounding of his many innovations of the time, when he demonstrated what we would today refer to as a video disc. His creation involved creating a double groove in a phonograph record; one to reproduce sound, and another to carry moving images in synchronization with that sound. He dubbed the invention “phonovision,” but didn’t pursue it to any great degree at the time. Some fifty years later, video discs became commercially available and actually played in a manner similar to phonograph records, before laser technology made compact discs and digital video discs possible.

Meanwhile, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his own apparatus for the public in 1928, which incorporated an electronic means of transmitting TV images. He continued refining it and eliminating the  motor generator, thus creating the first all-electronic TV camera. This would eventually render the Nipkow disc, even with ongoing modifications, obsolete.

In 1936, the BBC, after several rounds of comparison between an electronic system developed by EMI, and Baird’s mechanical system, chose the advanced EMI system. The same year, Germany debuted its own electronic TV system in time for the notorious Berlin Olympic Games.

There’s more to Baird’s story, of course, and it’s worth exploring further. You can read more details about Baird’s “firsts” in my book For the First Time on Television, available on Amazon.com.

Enjoy the new TV season!

 

A Brief History of “The Odd Couple”

In a previous post, we took a look at sitcoms that were given new life after their original runs ended. I deliberately left out one series that has been given several lives, The Odd Couple. This is because the full life of The Odd Couple reaches back over fifty years, and has seen so many incarnations on stage, screen, and TV, it deserves its own blog at the very least–if not a full-length book (don’t think I haven’t considered it). So, here’s a much-abbreviated history of what is arguably the most successful American comic creation of the past half-century. It’s a play close to my heart, and one that I memorized back in high school, just for my love and reverence for Neil Simon’s brilliantly hilarious dialogue (I know a few of his other plays by heart as well. He’s my comedy hero).

Danny and Neil.

The original play was based on  Simon’s older brother Danny–a top comedy writer and teacher for decades–and agent Roy Gerber. In the early 1960s, both had been divorced, with alimony and child support to consider. They decided to move in together to help cut down on expenses. They also ventured on double dates, some of which Danny insisted on hosting and cooking for, again to save money. But their differing personalities–Danny being partial to keeping the apartment neat and clean, and Gerber indifferent about arriving home on time for dinner–caused more than a few heated squabbles. Encouraged by Neil to turn their clashing habits into a play, Danny tried, but couldn’t get past page fifteen or so, and offered Neil to take over. Neil gave Danny a small percentage of the royalties (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years), but no story credit, which perturbed Danny to a considerable degree.

The play, starring Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix, opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York on March 10, 1965. During the casting process, Matthau expressed his desire to play Felix, considering the role would be more of a stretch for him than playing Oscar, but Simon and director Mike Nichols refused his request. He held out hope that at some point later in the run the two lead actors might get to switch roles, but that never happened.

Carney as Felix, with the Pigeon Sisters (Monica Evans and Carole Shelley).

The play received rave reviews, following Simon’s previous smash hit, Barefoot in the Park (also directed by Nichols, and starring Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley). Ticket sales for The Odd Couple allowed the show to recoup the initial investment after only 29 performances. Paramount Pictures, eager to film Barefoot in the Park, plus whatever play Simon would write next, bought the film rights to both plays after Simon gave the studio only a one-sentence description of The Odd Couple. He would later regret agreeing to the deal.

In October, seven months after opening night, Art Carney left the production due to depression and nervous exhaustion, and/or a worsening drinking problem stemming form his failing marriage. He was let out of his contract, replaced by Eddie Bracken. Matthau left the play in November to film The Fortune Cookie, directed by Billy Wilder and co-starring none other than the future film version of Felix, Jack Lemmon. Who replaced Matthau as Oscar on Broadway?  None other than the future TV version of Oscar, Jack Klugman. Matthau intended to return to the play, but suffered a heart attack during the filming of The Fortune Cookie. Klugman was asked to stay on for another year, but quit three months later in a salary dispute. Pat Hingle then took over as Oscar. The original Broadway run ran a total of 964 performances.

The film version of the show retained the original stage dialogue nearly word for word. One of the few outdoor scenes was shot at Shea Stadium, just before a Mets-Pirates game. The production crew was given a half-hour to film the scene. The script called for the Mets to make a triple-play, just as Oscar gets called to the phone to answer a question from Felix about that night’s dinner. Oscar misses the play, and is not pleased. Pirates star Roberto Clemente was asked to hit into the triple-play, but he refused. Bill Mazeroski agreed. The scene required two takes for the last-place Mets to execute a perfect triple-play for the camera.

It’s no small feat that the span of time between The Odd Couple opening on Broadway, the release of the film, and the premiere episode of the TV series was only 5 1/2 years. Unfortunately for Simon, by agreeing to sell the film and TV rights to Paramount years earlier (after listening to bad advice from his business manager), he didn’t earn a penny from the profits of the TV series.

The program, starring Klugman and Tony Randall, debuted on September 25, 1970 on ABC (coincidentally on the same night the network premiered an all-black sitcom version of Barefoot in the Park). Originally filmed with a laugh track added to each episode, the stars hated the results, and demanded that the series be filmed before a live audience, which it was beginning in the second season. In addition, they were also among the first sitcom stars to participate in the writing sessions. With an ever-constant demand for stories, some of the more far-fetched plots stemmed from Randall’s interest in opera and ballet, and Klugman’s fondness for horse racing. The series ran for five seasons before its cancellation in 1975.

A second TV version, with an all-black cast, premiered in 1982. Demond Wilson (Sanford and Son) starred as Oscar, and Ron Glass (Barney Miller) as Felix. The series lasted only thirteen episodes.

In the early 1980s, Joan Rivers and Nancy Walker pleaded with Simon to write a female version of The Odd Couple, imagining themselves playing the leads. After some reluctance, he agreed to listen to the two actresses read the original play out loud, after which he agreed to adapt it for female versions of the characters. Ultimately, Rita Moreno and Sally Struthers became Olive and Florence, starring in the show on Broadway in 1985. It received mostly disappointing reviews, but ran for 295 performances.

Thirty years after the film version delighted audiences, Simon wrote the film sequel, The Odd Couple II, in 1998 (beware any film that includes a Roman numeral in the title). The project reunited Lemmon and Matthau, with the story of Felix’s daughter marrying Oscar’s son, and the two leads making a disastrous effort to get to the wedding. It was panned by critics, and was a failure at the box office.

A more successful revival of the original play came to Broadway in October of 2005 for a limited run, starring Nathan Lane as Oscar and Matthew Broderick as Felix, with Brad Garrett (Everybody Loves Raymond) as Murray the cop. Lane and Broderick were hot on the heels of their run in Mel Brooks’ Tony Award-laden The Producers, so their reunion in The Odd Couple resulted in the new production breaking Broadway advance ticket sales records at the time. It ran for 249 performances.

In 2015, yet another TV version appeared, starring Matthew Perry as Oscar and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911) as Felix.

The updated version was enjoyable in its own way, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the play, film, or the Klugman-Randall version, but it did run for three seasons of 13 episodes each.

Have we seen the last revival of The Odd Couple? Odds are, not yet!

Sitcoms Redux

One of the new TV series already receiving a good deal of hype this fall isn’t a new series at all. Will & Grace, which ran for eight seasons and won multiple Emmys before leaving the air in 2006, will return for a 16-episode run on September 28, starring the original cast. Beyond this season, NBC has ordered a tenth season, to consist of thirteen more episodes.

This is certainly not the first time a popular program has been resurrected after its initial run. Throughout TV history, a great many series have returned to the airwaves with new episodes after their original runs had ended (we’re not counting spin-offs or one-shot reunion movies). But the vast majority of these have been dramas; very few sitcoms have fared well in their attempts at a second life. Will & Grace has a good chance, thanks to having its core cast returning, plus the fact that it was still riding high in popularity when it left the air over a decade ago (has it really been that long?)

So let’s take a look at the sitcoms that returned to the air years–and even decades–after their original runs. We begin way back in the early years of network TV.

Gleason as Riley, before “The Great One” found his footing as a sketch comedy genius.

 

The first network program to re-appear on TV screens after the conclusion of its initial run was The Life of Riley. This early sitcom was first a popular radio series starring William Bendix as bumbling family man Chester Riley. When it was decided to move the series to TV in 1949, Bendix found himself too busy with movie commitments to continue as the star. Up & coming comedian Jackie Gleason replaced Bendix, but the show didn’t have much life to it, and was canceled in March of 1950.

It was then revived in January of 1953, with Bendix back in the lead, along with an entirely new cast. The show enjoyed five more years on the air, ending in 1958 (I wonder whatever happened to Jackie Gleason during that time).

 

The Munsters, a genuinely well-written and wonderfully acted sitcom (yes, you read that right), lasted for two seasons, from 1964-66.

It reappeared twenty-two years later in syndication as The Musters Today, with a new cast, including John Schuck (McMillan & Wife) as Herman, and Lee Meriwether (Barnaby Jones) as Lily.

The New Munsters, in and out of make-up.

It was doomed for comparison with the far more clever, and even charming, original version, but the revival still produced a total of 72 episodes, which was two more than the original series.

A year after The Munsters premiered, another quality sitcom, Gidget, following the life of California surfer teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence (Sally Field), lasted only a single season in 1965-’66.

 

It reappeared as a syndicated show in 1986, and renamed The New Gidget. This revamp, like The Munsters Today, starred an entirely new cast, with Gidget as an adult mom, running her own travel agency. Here, though, it’s her teenage niece who caused most of the problems, but any similarity between this bland remake and the original series lies solely in the title. It did, however, manage to run forty-four episodes.

More recently, the daffy sitcom Arrested Development, following the trials and tribulations of the wealthy but dysfunctional Bluth family, enjoyed three seasons on Fox between 2003-’06. It gained a strong cult following, as well as several Emmy awards, but low overall ratings caused its cancellation. Seven years later, a groundbreaking deal between the producers and the online streaming service Netflix led to a new, 15-episode season, for which all of the episodes debuted on May 23, 2013. It has also been confirmed that a fifth season, comprising seventeen episodes, is coming in 2018.

You may be wondering, “What about The Odd Couple? Wasn’t that revived, too?” Yes, it was–several times. But I’ll be giving the history of The Odd Couple it’s own posting very soon.

And, I’ll have more interesting TV history to come, as the new season looms on the horizon.

Until next week…

 

 

 

35 Years with Marshall Crenshaw

I enjoy marking certain pop culture milestones and anniversaries. It helps bring largely forgotten creative achievements back into the light, years or decades after they first made a splash. In keeping with that spirit, this summer marks thirty-five years since I first heard the just-released debut album by a rather unassuming rock singer/songwriter from Detroit named Marshall Crenshaw (the album’s title being, appropriately enough, Marshall Crenshaw). In 2017, it remains one of the finest pop-rock albums of its kind ever made.

Crenshaw’s band on this debut consists of himself on guitar, his brother Robert on drums, and Chris Donato on bass–a small combo playing Crenshaw’s songs in a pop style positively oozing with the influences of Buddy Holly and other late-’50s rockers, and, of course, the early Beatles (with a little rockabilly thrown in for good measure).

Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, with Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens.

In fact, Crenshaw had once portrayed John Lennon in the touring company of the ’70s stage show Beatlemania (well, nobody’s perfect), and had a small role as Holly in the 1987 feature film La Bamba.

The sound on the Marshall Crenshaw album is free of frills and clutter–just the trio, with a few vocal and guitar overdubs to enhance the overall sound. But oh, those songs! Crenshaw is an intelligent, clever, and straightforward lyricist, able to give age-old themes of love found and/or lost a fresh look, without clouding the picture with time worn clichés, pesky metaphors, or obscure meanings. This becomes evident in the first few bars of the brilliant opening track, “There She Goes Again,” which sets mood for the rest of the album. The tempo is upbeat, and the melody ridiculously catchy, but Crenshaw sings of how he often catches sight of his ex-girlfriend driving past his home with her new guy in tow. Even though he had convinced himself he’s over her, he admits:

“…It makes no difference how I’ve tried,
I get that feeling when she drives on by,
And there she goes again with another guy…”

He would continue to write a truckload of incisive and frighteningly relatable songs about the ups and downs of romance, both recent and long past. Listening to them, you don’t have to suffer from paranoia to suspect Crenshaw has been spying on you during some of the most joyous and heartbreaking moments of your life. Many of his songs seem to say, “I’ve been there, pal. I know what’s going through your mind.”

Robert Crenshaw, Marshall, and Chris Donato.

The best known track on this debut album is perhaps “Someday, Someway,” which was released as a single and became Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit.  As bouncy and fun as it is, though, it’s not even the strongest song on the album; that’s how good this debut collection is. Crenshaw and his band retain an amazing consistency throughout. Other highlights here include the sock-hop energy of “She Can’t Dance,” the mini-classic “Cynical Girl,” the lovely “Mary Anne”–oh, hell, it would make more sense just to list all of them (but I won’t). He also throws in his cover of the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” which fits in well among the originals.

Crenshaw has never been one to crave superstardom, even during the heady days of this first album. At that time, MTV was only a year old, but had already become a pop culture sensation. Record companies quickly learned the promotional value of music videos, and got busy cranking them out for their artists. The New Wave of British acts, with their techno-pop sounds, quirky clothing, make-up, and dyed hair (and that was just the guys) was especially perfect for MTV. Alas, Crenshaw wasn’t.

He didn’t seem to want any part of it. His sole “concept” video–as opposed to an excerpt from a live stage performance–was for the single “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” off his follow-up album, Field Day. In it, he doesn’t look particularly comfortable or happy, which no doubt led to it becoming his only such promotional clip. He also wasn’t the best interviewee, being a man of few words and frustratingly brief answers (even Dick Clark wasn’t able to get much out of him during their chat on American Bandstand). But, as the cliché goes, he’s always preferred his songs to do the speaking for him. You can, however, catch an interview or two with him on YouTube.

From Field Day onward, Crenshaw experimented with production techniques, additional instruments, and tunes that needed a few listens for them to sink in. Field Day pretty much picks up where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off, but with a muddier sound that many listeners weren’t crazy about (including me). The songs, however, continue to make memorably pointed comments and observations about life and love.

As much as his resistance of crass commercialism may have affected his record sales, Crenshaw continued to release several superb albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s, all chock full of his recognizable, jangly guitar sounds and catchy riffs. And, again, the Beatlesque quality of his songwriting remained top-notch from one album to the next, although he began to collaborate more often, and include a higher number of cover versions with each successive album.

His most consistent albums include Mary Jean and 9 Others (1987), Life’s Too Short (1991), and #447 (1999). There are just too many impressive songs to give the attention here that they deserve, ranging from slaphappy romps (“Wild Abandon” on Mary Jean and 9 Others, “Fantastic Planet of Love” on Life’s Too Short) to melancholy break-up songs (“All I Know Right Now” on Field Day, and perhaps his most remarkable composition, “Walkin’ Around,” on Life’s Too Short).

This excellent “Best of” album is probably the most convenient way to hear a well-chosen sampling of twenty-two of his best songs, including his first single, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” a blast of pure pop-rock energy from 1981.

In recent years, Crenshaw  has given up releasing full-length albums in favor of EPs, a form popularized in the 1960s as 45 singles that contained three or four songs instead of just one on each side. Today, he still performs in smaller venues, often as a guest performer with other bands, just to let us know that his genius is still alive and kicking.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this week’s post, do yourself a favor and hop on over to YouTube, find “There She Goes Again” and give it a listen. If it hits you the way it hit me back in ’82, you’ll probably want to sit back and enjoy more of Marshall Crenshaw. If not…well…better check your pulse!

Until next week…

 

 

 

Summer Reruns, New and Old (Part 2)

Last week, I recommended a few sitcoms that may have flown under your personal viewing radar in recent years; shows that are still on the air–or have recently ended their original runs–and whose reruns can be seen on local stations and/or one of the several nostalgia TV channels that give classic (and not-so-classic) programs a new chance to be discovered.

This week, I offer a few older programs–sitcoms and dramas–that you can find without the need for YouTube, Hulu, Netflx, or other sites or online services, or buying DVD sets (although I do like DVD sets). But you would need to search your local TV grid for each week.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker – If your cable system carries the nostalgia channel MeTV, you have the privilege of being able to catch this stylish and quirky show, which was rare for its time in combining horror and humorous flair–decades before Buffy the Vampire Slayer did the same. Kolchak ran for a single, 30-episode season in 1973-74.

McGavin stars as news reporter Carl Kolchak, working for the Chicago bureau of the low-budget Independent News Service. His only wardrobe, apparently, consists of a seersucker suit and battered straw hat (we never see him wearing anything else). Kolchak has a penchant for disregarding the stories assigned to him by his blustery boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), in favor of reports he comes across involving citizens who have come to suspicious, even bizarre deaths.

Short-tempered Tony strongly suggests that Karl drop another of his outlandish stories.

His film noir-style voiceover fills in the details of each week’s story as Kolchak investigates various ghouls, monsters, and evil spirits throughout Chicago. He can be relied upon to pester police precinct captains and others who are less than willing to confirm his steadfast belief that the victims have run afoul of supernatural perpetrators. Each episode climaxes with Kolchak taking matters into his own hands, and vanquishing the monster of the week without the benefit of witnesses, save for his trusty camera (which usually gets confiscated and/or damaged before his photographic evidence can come to light).

In today’s terms, the monsters aren’t especially terrifying, but each Kolchak episode moves briskly, and there are a few genuine frights to be had. This is a thoroughly enjoyable series, both suspenseful and funny, and a perfect follow-up to MeTV’s run of the classic Columbo in the earlier time slot on Sunday nights.

NYPD Blue – Any self-respecting police series probably wants to be described as “gritty,” and many have been through the years, but NYPD Blue could well be the grittiest. Advanced hype before its premiere in 1993 reported that famed producer Steven Bochco (the gritty Hill Street Blues,  and not-so-gritty L.A. Law) was going to give viewers an R-rated drama series. It certainly pushed the boundaries of language, violence, and partial nudity on network television, and, in its first season, became the center of controversy because of it.

The cast at the beginning of season seven.

The ensemble cast, as detectives in New York’s (fictitious) 15th precinct, went through a number of changes during the program’s twelve seasons; the one constant lead character being detective Andy Sipowicz, a bigoted, crude talking cop whose most benign comment could still drip with sarcasm, and who carries a lifetime of anger simmering just beneath the surface. He has seen it all, and has suffered morale-crushing defeats both on the job and in his personal life, often endangering his recovery from alcoholism.

Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) worked as Andy’s partner for five seasons.

However, in between solving often perplexing cases, we get to see a few happier moments for him as well, in which he manages to briefly crack a smile. He even marries twice during the series’ run; to D.A. Sylvia Costas (who would be killed in a courthouse shooting, leaving Andy to raise their baby son alone), and later to fellow detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross), whose occasional babysitting for Andy Jr. leads to romance with the senior Sipowitcz, and their eventual marriage.

Connie becomes a rare source of happiness for Andy.

Dennis Franz’s portrayal of Sipowitcz is simply breathtaking throughout, from the series premiere, to its bittersweet finale twelve years later. He deserves the four Emmys he received for his of portrayal. The rest of the cast members are no slouches, either.

NYPD Blue is currently airing on the Heroes and Icons network.

Scrubs – This, my friends, is one brilliant and hilarious sitcom, worthy of being included among the best of the past twenty years. Fast-moving and innovative, it brings us inside Sacred Heart teaching hospital, seen through the eyes of neurotic and child-like John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff), whose interior monologues serve as narration throughout his progress towards becoming a resident at the hospital.

His on-again, off-again romantic relationship with the equally self-absorbed and insecure fellow doctor Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), provides the comic spine of the series; beyond that, anything goes. Flashbacks, surreal fantasy sequences, musical numbers, and rapid-fire cutaway gags occur regularly, as J.D. finds himself confronted not only with patients he needs to heal, but also by his near-sadistic superiors, Drs. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), and Chief of Medicine Robert Kelso (Ken Jenkins) who prefer to dole out verbal abuse rather than anything resembling encouragement. Having a pesky janitor around, known only as “Janitor” (Neil Flynn), who constantly plays various mind games on J.D., doesn’t help either.

J. D. and Turk indulge in a musical sequence.

But J.D. finds solace in his bromance with best friend and surgeon Turk (Donald Faison), who has considerable maturing of his own to do.

By the end of each episode, J.D.’s voiceover reveals a more thoughtful side of him, as he learns a life lesson via a personal relationship, a patient he’s been treating, or simply by observing his colleagues in the hospital. It provides a nice balance to the comic invention and overall goofiness of the show that make it such a blast. For you weekend early birds, Comedy Central airs two back-to-back episodes on weekend mornings, and a three-hour block on weekday mornings.

I could cover many other terrific series, from ER to Gilmore Girls, that have perhaps been relegated to the back of our minds in recent years, but are still easily found as reruns today. My goal, though, is to keep each week’s blog to a reasonable length. Plus, I’m never good at making tough choices!

Until next week, when we might explore a totally different pop culture topic, have a good one!