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

Enjoy the new TV season!


America’s First Sitcom

With the new TV season almost here, offering fresh episodes of new sitcoms and returning favorites, it behooves us (well, it behooves me, anyway) to take a look at the first original sitcom to appear on prime time TV, Mary Kay and Johnny.

The series premiered on the Dumont network in November of 1949, starring real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, two young New York stage actors. Mary Kay heard of a job opening at DuMont studios (located in the basement of Wanamaker’s department store in Herald Square in Manhattan), in search of a hostess/model for a 15-minute fashion program, sponsored by dress manufacturer Jay Jossel. After displaying the fine points of each outfit, Mary Kay would make a quick change as a short film was shown. But Jossel eventually realized that most TVs at the time were situated in bars, whose clientele were not very receptive to watching fashion shows on the tube. Jossel was about to give up his sponsorship of the time slot when Johnny asked if he could take it over to try a radio-style situation comedy show, starring himself and Mary Kay. Jossel agreed.

On November 18, 1947, Mary Kay and Johnny premiered. Johnny wrote each episode, but he was the first to admit that he was not a professional writer. However, by adapting the couple’s real-life experiences living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village into comic plotlines, he brought a realistic, natural feel to the show. The fictional version of Mary Kay was a perky, enthusiastic screwball, with Johnny as a strait-laced bank teller having to get her out of various minor crises from week to week.

Johnny became the de facto producer/director as well as sole writer, literally calling the shots from the control room on the air. When he was on camera, a technical director sat at the control board to switch shots between the two studio cameras. And, due to the shoestring budget, the furniture for the set consisted of pieces borrowed from Wanamaker’s window displays.

After the show had been on for half a year, Mary Kay became pregnant with the couple’s first child, so Johnny simply wrote it into their scripts, making her the first pregnant female character in TV history. And, while it is often mentioned how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy had to sleep in separate beds, Mary Kay and Johnny shared a bed on the show–three years before I Love Lucy debuted–and yet our civilization managed to keep from crumbling to the ground.

A new sponsor and a switch to NBC brought a bigger budget to the show, which found a new home at the Rockefeller Center studios. It also expanded to a half-hour, and while Johnny was aided by a small writing staff, he found that only he could capture the couple’s real-life stories just right for the show. The writing chores became strenuous for him, but he was also able to call upon many of his actor friends to take supporting roles on the show, including Jack Gilford, James Whitmore, and Howard Morris, soon to become one of Sid Caesar’s comic foils.

The Stearns’ son, Christopher, was born on December 19, 1949, only a half-hour before airtime, for which Johnny crafted an episode of himself pacing nervously in the hospital waiting room. Mary Kay missed only two episodes due to Christopher’s birth, and even the baby appeared in his first episode when he was less than two weeks old.

The program continued to make changes in time slots, networks, and running time, until it finally ended its run in March of 1950, mostly due to Johnny’s exhaustion. He and Mary Kay remained married a total of fifty-five years, until his death in 2001.

Mary Kay and Johnny interviewed in 1999.

The first several months of Mary Kay and Johnny were recorded on kinescopes, but in 1975, the vast majority of all DuMont programs were destroyed–dumped into the East River–to make room in the storage warehouse of DuMont’s corporate successor, Metromedia. A single complete episode of the program still exists today, at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles–a most unfortunate fate for a program of such historic significance.

You can learn still more about the show and the DuMont network in my book For the First Time on Television, available at its publisher’s web site,, and (if prodded, I might be convinced to do a future post about the DuMont network and its brief but fascinating history).

Until next week…


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…




TV Likes, Dislikes, Pet Peeves, & Pets!

With the new TV season just around the corner, I’ll have a number of TV-related postings in the coming weeks, mostly with a historical bent. For now, I thought I’d just jot down a few random things I see and hear on TV these days that either make me laugh, or make me livid.

Dislike: I’ve griped about this before, but the overuse of the word “iconic” in today’s popular culture bothers me to no end. It seems that everyone, from news reporters, to TV documentaries, to reality show hosts, insist on using this adjective for just about everything they deem to be “really good.” Doesn’t anyone know how to use a thesaurus anymore? Please, throw a few synonyms for “iconic” into the mix once in a while. How about “famous,” or “legendary,” or “classic,” or “highly-revered”? Don’t be so lazy, fellow English-speakers! Make an effort! Try another word on occasion! You’re too laconic if you keep using iconic!

Like: Any funny commercial with dogs. From the Subaru family of yellow labs out for their drives, to the Running of the Bulldogs–if done well, these become instant classics.

Dislike: Why is it that when TV parents refer to each other in front of their offspring, they almost invariably say, “What your father is trying to tell you…” or “Your mother thinks we should clean the house” instead of just “What Dad is trying to tell you…” or “Mom thinks we should clean the house”? Is there some fear that viewers might mistake the parents and children as belonging to the same generation? This doesn’t occur only on older shows, it’s still very prevalent today (and yes, even on my beloved Modern Family). Really, writers, just have them say “Mom” and “Dad.”

Like: Ancient Aliens. Don’t laugh. I’ve been a firm believer in the Ancient Alien theory since I was about 14, after seeing the mid-’70s Chariots of the Gods feature documentary in the theatre.

Since then, many discoveries around the world have revealed fascinating evidence of beings from elsewhere in the universe visiting Earth, possibly dating back tens of thousands of years. Ancient Aliens, airing Friday nights on the History Channel, is a well-produced series with gorgeous cinematography, literate and persuasive narration, and a roster of authors/researchers/archeologists who present a compelling case for the theory. Even while offering mind-blowing evidence, the show allows for the kinds of questions a well-meaning skeptic would ask, then presents its argument in support of the theory. It is not interested in presenting a 50/50 balance, nor does it need to. It has a theory to present, and it does so with great conviction. There are those who claim to have debunked the theory, its proponents, and the program itself, but I have no doubts (at some point in the coming months, I’ll write a posting about its compelling cousin series, The Mystery of Oak Island. Ask me about it sometime).

Dislike: Pharmaceutical commercials. Low-hanging fruit, perhaps. But something must have happened, or some legislation must have been passed a few years ago, to allow for the current tsunami of pharmaceutical commercials on television. They seem to comprise almost half of all commercials on the air these days. You know them–the first ten seconds sing the praises of a drug that could improve your life dramatically if you suffer from such-and-such an ailment. The next forty seconds warn you how the drug can cause a myriad of horrifying side-effects, including death (all while running scenes of people living life to the fullest, romping on the beach, or riding on rollercoasters), with the final ten seconds telling us again how wonderful the drug is. It’s enough to make me miss the good old days when we were besieged by a jumble of ads for cars, McDonald’s, Alka-Seltzer, and more cars.

Like:  Cat Deeley. You may have never seen So You Think You Can Dance, the summer series dancing competition on Fox. This is not a reality competition that wastes viewers’ time with auditions of hopelessly clumsy dancers who resemble bulls in china shops. These are talented young people (even though I can never match their dances to the storylines they claim to tell through their movement).

As host, Cat Deeley–tall, blonde, and British–has received multiple Emmy-nominations, and has a wonderfully natural and spontaneous chemistry with the judges and competitors, for whom she takes on a big-sister role–celebrating their victories, and consoling them in defeat with a warm embrace. Since the show is produced each summer, she even hosts a July 4th bar-be-que at her home for the dancers and program staff. In an era where nary a word spoken on the air seems truly off-the-cuff, Deeley is refreshingly real and appealing–unless she’s a better actress than Meryl Streep.

The same can be said for Erin Andrews on Dancing with the Stars, a program that has taken its lumps from the critics (and a grumbling portion of the public), but Andrews, as co-host with Tom Bergeron, can hold her own on live TV with a quip or response to an unforeseen on-air glitch. And, being a former contestant herself, she knows what the celebrity dancers are going through during their rigorous rehearsals. Anyone who doesn’t like either of these ladies is no friend of mine.

That’s all I’ve got at the moment. The upcoming television season will provide further opportunities for observations, criticism, and praise in this space, so please visit again! And leave a comment or two!

How Jerry Lewis Saved American Film Comedy

You’ve probably heard it all before, about how Jerry Lewis was both a comedy genius and hopelessly difficult egomaniac, how he raised billions of dollars for muscular dystrophy, while also making personal enemies (either real or perceived) as naturally as the rest of us breathe.

What often gets overlooked in reviews of his life and career, however, is the fact that he almost single-handedly revived American film comedy, i.e. real, pure, slapstick comedy, after a full decade of creative drought. As fashionable as it became for cinema snobs to denigrate him and his comic style, Lewis can be credited with helping American film comedy crawl out of its doldrums, which, throughout the 1950s, was no laughing matter.

Just as the magnetic attraction of films and radio lured vaudevillians off the stage in the ’30s and placed them in front of microphones and movie cameras, television in the late ’40s and early ’50s exerted its own irresistible influence on performers–in many cases, those very same former vaudevillians. Television represented the future. Radio comedians abandoned their medium with TV’s rise to dominance, but movie comedy in the ’50s suffered from an even greater vacuum. At the time, those veteran movie comedians who didn’t turn their attention to television simply left the film industry outright. By the end of 1950, the motion picture business found itself without all of its true comedy giants, such as W.C. Fields (who died in 1946), Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.

” A Night in Casablanca,” 1946.

Here are the specifics: The Marx Brothers ended their movie career with their last film, Love Happy, released in March of 1950. Love Happy was made mostly because Chico was broke and needed money, even though it is Harpo who dominates the screen time, with Groucho doing little more than serving as narrator, and appearing in a brief scene late in the film. This swan song was only their thirteenth film in twenty years. Groucho had long lost his enthusiasm for making films, but was riding high as the host of the radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, which would make a successful transition to TV later that year.

Laurel & Hardy, after making a handful of inferior comedy features for an uncaring 20th Century Fox studio in the mid-1940s, released their own disastrous final film in 1950, Atoll K, which was made in Europe with a confused, multi-national, multi-lingual production team, and with a very ill Stan Laurel. After Stan recovered, he and Ollie resumed their career, most notably with a British stage tour, but they had left their movie days behind them.

As for comedy’s other elder statesmen of the screen, Charlie Chaplin, having appeared as his “Little Tramp” character (without speaking) for the final time in Modern Times (1936), offered only two features in the 1950s–Limelight in ’52, and A King in New York in ’57. His friend/rival Buster Keaton enjoyed a new lease on life on television (much to Chaplin’s chagrin), starring for a time on his own syndicated program, as well as in numerous commercials.

Abbott & Costello’s films, wildly popular throughout the 1940s, suffered a steady decline in quality after 1950, as they too turned more of their attention to television. They began their stint as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951, and stared in their own half-hour sitcom the following year for two seasons.

Even the Three Stooges’ comedy suffered throughout the 1950s, first from the loss of Curly Howard, who was forced to retire in 1946 after a series of strokes (he died in 1952). Shemp Howard dutifully stepped in for his brother, but despite his own considerable comic abilities, his films with the Stooges did not have the comic impact as Curly’s had. Shemp died in 1955. His successive replacements, Joe Besser, and later Joe DeRita, joined too late in the game to make much of their own mark on the franchise. More significantly, Columbia Studios, the Stooges’ home for a quarter-century, closed its short subject division in 1958, and chose not to renew the team’s contract.

But what about Jerry Lewis, you ask? Don’t worry, we’re getting to him.

The break-up of Martin and Lewis in 1956, exactly ten years after they first became a team, dealt another major blow to comedy. They had been the darlings of the entertainment world, complementing their successful film career (where they became the country’s #1 box office attraction), with legendary nightclub stage shows and rollicking sketches as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour.

But Dean, growing weary of Jerry’s onstage antics–with at times interfered with Dean’s earnest attempts to sing–decided it was time for the two to go their separate ways.

Later that same year, Abbott & Costello, considerably older than Martin & Lewis, and just as tired of each other’s company, released their final film together, Dance With Me, Henry. They split up after twenty years of tremendous success in every mass medium there was.

There were still more developments that did not bode well for comedy as the decade neared its end. Gracie Allen retired from show business in 1958, leaving George Burns to carry on without her. Lou Costello, who had been enjoying life as a frequent TV guest without Bud Abbott, died in 1959. He was only 52 years old.

On the silver screen, the meager output of feature film comedies by decade’s end was such that it’s almost possible to count on one hand the quality comedies produced by major American studios in that ten-year span. Only Born Yesterday, The Seven Year Itch, Mister Roberts, Pillow Talk, Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards’ directorial debut), and Billy Wilder’s much revered Some Like It Hot have demonstrated any true staying power in the decades since their release. However, even these films did not star established comedians, but rather light comic actors, such as Judy Holliday, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, and Jack Lemmon–similar to how the screwball comedies of the 1930s starred the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, and Cary Grant. But being a comic actor does not make one a comedian.

In 1960, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lamented how true slapstick, so popular in the silent comedies of the 1920s, and revived via montage tribute films such as When Comedy Was King, assembled by producer Robert Youngston, had given way to bland, suburban comedies like Please Don’t Eat The Daises. “Considering the pallid quality of most screen comedy these days,” he wrote, “it is gladdening but saddening, we must tell you, to look at When Comedy Was King.”

If there was anyone to assume the role of the shining knight on a white horse coming to rescue comedy at that time (even if he was prone to slipping halfway off), it was Jerry Lewis. The critically maligned genius had a lot to live up to, following his decade of onstage and onscreen madness with Dean Martin. But history shows us that it was Lewis who brought true slapstick comedy back to films after the nearly comatose decade of the ’50s.

Miming to a big band number in “The Bellboy,” filmed at Miami’s Fountainbleau Hotel.

He began his solo film career soon after the break-up of the team, but it wasn’t until he took full control–writing, directing, starring, editing–that his films took on their special quality. These films of the early ’60s, such as The Bellboy, Cinderfella (both 1960), The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy (both 1961), and, of course, The Nutty Professor (1963), may have lacked anything resembling comic subtlety or restraint.

But to his credit, and despite the grumbling from the critics, Lewis kept throwing his gawky screen persona and preposterous sight gags straight at his audience’s heads, without let-up. He provided what had been missing from films for so long: an anything-for-a-laugh philosophy favoring silly, often surreal sight gags and a plethora of pratfalls (which led his considerable discomfort and addiction to pain-killers), designed to do nothing more than to keep filmgoers in stitches.

As comedian Gilbert Gottfried said in tribute to Lewis this week, “The French were right all along.”


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!



Summer Reruns, New and Old (Part 1)

It’s never too late to discover, or rediscover, a TV show that you may have found late in its original run, or have never seen at all. Thanks to a plethora of cable networks that need to fill their schedules with a mix of old and new programs–plus the networks that were specifically created for nostalgic baby boomers in mind–its easy to indulge (even without the help of Hulu, YouTube, or other on-line sites) in shows you haven’t seen yet, whether they’re still on the air in their first runs, have recently ended, or haven’t been on for decades.

So, here are a few recommendations for shows that you may have missed at first (as I did, in some cases), or that have slipped your mind in recent years, but can be found in reruns somewhere on the schedule grid if you look carefully enough. This week, let’s look at sitcoms that are either currently on the air, or have just ended their original runs. Next week, we’ll reach a little further back in time.

Bonnie and Christy in a rare tranquil moment.

Mom (CBS) – I missed the entire first season of this terrific show, but once I gave it a try, I was instantly hooked. The main characters, Bonnie Plunkett (Allison Janney) and her adult daughter Christy (Anna Faris), are both recovering alcoholics/drug abusers, struggling to stay sober and make something of their lives. We see them meet regularly at AA meetings with their close friends and sponsor, and seek happiness in meaningful relationships. Sounds like a downer? It’s not. It’s hilarious.

Creator/producer Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) has the characters tackle tough personal issues, and suffer occasional setbacks, but the show sustains its often cynical humor throughout, which is quite a remarkable achievement.

American Housewife (ABC) – Katie Mixon, who stole scenes regularly as Molly’s stoner sister Victoria on Mike and Molly, stars here as Katie Otto, the strictly middle-class mother of three, in a decidedly upper class town of Westport, Connecticut.

As a pudgy, unkempt,harried housewife living among the town’s younger, slimmer, and wealthier trophy wives, she’s determined to push back against the snobbery, while still keeping her dignity intact–which proves a tall order. Katie is no stranger to public humiliation. Her laidback husband Greg, a college professor (Diedrich Bader), spends much of his time attempting to ease both family and community tensions, often brought on whenever Katie finds herself on the warpath.

This show got off to a bumpy start when it premiered last fall, but quickly found its way, and will follow Modern Family on Wednesday nights in the upcoming season–a perfect combination, and part of a superb line-up!

The Middle (ABC)– Often described as an unsung but reliable sitcom on the ABC schedule, The Middle is about to enter its 8th and final season. It’s clever, funny, and often scarily relatable, as it follows the financially-struggling Heck family (again–three kids, two in college now).

The appealing thing about the show, led by perpetually-exhausted matriarch Frankie (Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond) and husband Mike (Neil Flynn, Scrubs),is how they cope with their outdated, faulty appliances, piles of store coupons, and their struggles to pay the bills on time (give or take a few weeks).

Sue celebrates her teeth without braces. Finally.

Their only daughter, Sue (Eden Sher), is a stand-out, thanks to her almost relentlessly sunny and optimistic–if often naïve– disposition, even when faced with failure and rejection on a regular basis.

2 Broke Girls (CBS) – Yes, if you’ve ever seen an episode, you already know that the humor is juvenile, the dialogue is crude, raunchy, even shocking, crammed with references to various sex acts and bodily functions. You can almost see the actors thinking “I can’t believe I just said that on network TV” after uttering an especially risqué line.

BUT…the two leads, Max Black (Kat Dennings) and Caroline Channing(Beth Behrs) are utterly charming as diner waitresses struggling to succeed in their cupcake business. Caroline was once worth billions, but all was lost when her father was convicted of stock fraud and sent to prison.

Max’s frequent references to her rough and delinquent childhood, promiscuous mother, drug use, and worse, successively top each other from week to week, or scene to scene (but we can tell she’s exaggerating, if only a little bit). The other characters at the diner, owned by diminutive, put-upon Korean owner Han, have become a family over time. The show was canceled at the end of this past season, but it already lives on, in all of its very naughty glory, in syndicated reruns.

That ’70s Show – The oldest show on this week’s list aired its final original episode in May of 2006, after eight seasons. I didn’t get around to sitting down to watch an entire episode until season seven.

The cast is faultless, the characters will remind you of people you knew in high school, and the writing is consistently just plain funny. Even though it takes place in the mid-1970s, references to the pop culture and world events of the time flow naturally through the dialogue and stories, and are never dragged out just to remind us, “Don’t forget, we’re in the ’70s!” (the same can be said for another current favorite of mine, The Goldbergs, which takes place in the ’80s). As I write this, Comedy Central runs a dozen back-to-back episodes of That ’70s Show on weekend mornings. It deserves the weekly marathon.

These are just a few of the sitcoms whose reruns are as entertaining now as when they first aired, and are worth seeking out if you’ve never gotten around to them. Next week, we’ll take a look at older comedies and dramas that are being given a second chance for us to find again on nostalgia networks and local stations.

Until then, happy watching!


Bossa Nova Summers (with Jobim)

Anyone who knows me fairly well also knows that the music I listen to almost exclusively in the summer is Brazilian bossa nova–a mellow jazz style that evokes images of lounging in a hammock strung between two palm trees on a sandy beach. I’ve even shared a number of videos by Brazilian artists on my Facebook page through the years, hoping to spread the word. Here, while I’m neither an expert nor a musician, I’ll offer a bit of history and a few recommendations, in case you might be so inclined to add bossa nova to your music collection (sorry, hammock and palm trees not included).

Bossa nova (rough translation: New Wave), first appeared in the late 1950s, descended from established South American styles such as samba and salsa. But bossa nova arrived as the mellower, more quietly sensual musical cousin, deliberately replacing samba’s harder-edged percussion with soft brushes on the drums, and shakers. The lead instruments most often include a gently-strummed or picked nylon-string classical guitar, piano, and flute or saxophone. Of course, there have always been variations in arrangements, instrumentation choices, and tempo, but it doesn’t take long to identify true bossa nova and distinguish it from its musical relatives.

Joao Gilberto and “Tom” Jobim serenade the ladies on Ipanema Beach.

The men who can be considered the “inventors” of bossa nova, composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto, lived in Rio de Janeiro–Jobim as an arranger and producer, Gilberto as a musician in jazz clubs–when they recorded the first-ever bossa nova hit song and album, Chega de Saudade, in 1958.

As composer (with lyricist and Brazil’s cultural diplomat Vinicius de Moraes) and producer/arranger, Jobim quickly established his reputation. Other hits from these early years that would soon become standards include “One Note Samba,” “Desinfinado,” “Corcovado,” and, of course, “The Girl From Ipanema.”  You might not know them all by name, but chances are good you’d know them if you heard them.

A compilation album, The Legendary Joao Gilberto, contains all of these original recordings, spanning between 1958-’61 (and available on CD). Many other top singers and musicians in Brazil were soon contributing to the genre, Sergio Mendes becoming the best-known in America.

Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes

By the early and mid-1960s, several American jazz musicians, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Charlie Byrd, and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, had gotten wind of bossa nova, and began making their own recordings in the genre, both with and without Jobim or Gilberto by their side. Unfortunately, some of these individuals rarely gave proper credit for bossa nova to their innovative Brazilian counterparts. Being a purist, my bossa nova collection consists solely of Brazilian artists, and some of these albums contain not a speck of English. But the Portuguese consonants somehow take on a pleasantly soft, mellow sound when sung (unlike Spanish, which to me sounds harsh and chattering).

Jobim and de Moraes began working more independently of each other, and with other collaborators, in the ’70s. De Moraes died in 1980, while Jobim continued writing, recording, and performing. Always a passionate environmentalist and conservationist, Jobim wrote and recorded “The Waters of March” in 1974–music and lyrics, in both Portuguese and English. The song is a celebration of nature; brilliant in its simplicity, it consists of little more than a few, repetitive notes coupled with lyrics that basically list many of the little things we rarely notice that make up life. It has been called “his masterpiece” and “his most perfect composition” by music historians, and is still my favorite song of all time (yes, including the Beatles).

It has been covered hundreds of times by artists all over the world, but to me, the definitive version was recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’77 for their album Pais Tropical.

While bossa nova began to lose favor in the mainstream by the late ’60s and early ’70s, many up & coming singers and musicians, boasting a deep devotion to Jobim in particular, were determined to keep the genre alive. And, a still younger generation continues to do so today.

These followers include Jorge Ben, Oscar Castro-Neves, Djavan, Leila Pinheiro, Ana Caram, Elaine Elias, and Celso Fonseca. Jobim honored his disciple and student Caram on her debut album by playing on some of her renditions of his classics (he died in 1994 from complications following surgery).

Elias is a sort of Brazilian Diana Krall, i.e. a world-class jazz pianist with a soft singing voice and tremendous respect for her musical predecessors. She, like Ana Caram, has recorded several albums consisting only of Jobim’s songs, giving her unique interpretations of them.

Even the pop singer Basia, born and raised in Poland, and whose early ’90s hit “Time and Tide” established her in America, is a devoted bossa nova fan. She lists Astrud Gilberto, former wife of Joao and original singer of “The Girl From Ipanema,” as one of her singing heroines.

Basia co-writes her own songs, and her albums are chock full of her and collaborator Danny White’s tasteful bossa nova arrangements (she covered “The Waters of March” as well).

By the way, the albums by all of the above artists are available at, so they’re not as tricky to find as you might think.

There are so many more recordings I can recommend (feel free to contact me for details), but I’ll close for now, and head out into the summer sun with bossa nova on my iPod, and mentally replace the pretty but common maple trees here with exotic, gently-swaying cocoanut palms.

Until next week…