Category Archives: TV

Farewell and Amen

mash_goodbye

After The Mrs. and I got our first VCR, in 1984, we started building a library of M*A*S*H episodes, taped off the air. So we’re fans from way back. In recent months, we have been watching the last few seasons of the show on MeTV. Not long ago, we reached the end, and I have thoughts.

—One of my main complaints with later seasons of M*A*S*H is that its characters speak in a hyper-jokey, pun-laced patois that makes me want to throw heavy objects at the TV. This phenomenon only lasts a couple of seasons, thank the gods—although it makes me sad to note that they are the seasons in which the esteemed Ken Levine and David Isaacs were running the show.

—I have never been fond of the Winchester character, but it occurs to me that my wisecrack in a post about the show last fall, referring to David Ogden Stiers as Yoko Ono, is unfair to him. The problem with the character is not the actor, but the writers. It takes them more than two seasons before they even attempt to humanize Winchester—but they never allow him to be consistently human. For every episode in which he displays a depth of character, there’s another one in which he’s the pompous cartoon he was at the very beginning. He grows less than any other character on the show apart from Frank Burns—the one-dimensional character he was intended to improve upon.

—Winchester is not the only character who’s written inconsistently; the show frequently loses its grip on other major characters, too. Hawkeye goes from sophisticate to sophomore and back episode by episode; Margaret is alternately a wise counselor and a shrewish prude. By the end of the series, B. J. is essentially a cipher; he’s supposed to be Hawkeye’s best friend, but by the end of the show, they occupy the same space without ever seeming to connect. Klinger and Potter have much better chemistry.

—The first three seasons of M*A*S*H remain laugh-out-loud funny to me, even after having watched some episodes literally dozens of times. As comedy, the later seasons suffer dreadfully in comparison. The jokes are mostly either tired or toothless, and in that context, wacky hijinx seem forced. But as drama, the late seasons far outclass the early ones. The show’s ongoing commentary on the insanity of war works better at the end than at the beginning. Late in its run, M*A*S*H was a dramedy before the word had been coined; the laugh track, which is remarkably obtrusive during the first half-dozen seasons, is entirely gone by the end.

—MeTV did not include the final episode, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” in its repeat cycle, so the series ended with “As Time Goes By,” an episode in which Margaret and Hawkeye clash over what should be in a 4077th time capsule. Although the episode contains a couple of satisfying fan-service callbacks to Radar and Henry Blake, it sputters to a close on a weak joke from the B-plot, which is a fine metaphor for the last couple of seasons.

—Today is the 34th anniversary of the original broadcast of “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”: a grave disappointment, with all of the show’s late-season faults blown up to quintuple length. The plotline involving Hawkeye’s nervous breakdown had me fulminating at the TV that night in 1983, and I still hate it passionately, as a betrayal of the character we spent 11 years getting to know. Much of the episode is spent on dead ends (Winchester and his Korean musicians, Klinger and his Korean wife) before we finally get to what everyone wants to see—these people saying goodbye to one another. There’s a brilliant 60-minute episode in there somewhere, but it was buried by a creative team that worked too hard to blow people’s minds and not hard enough on making an entertaining episode. I haven’t seen “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” since the night it was broadcast, and I can’t imagine sitting through it again.

Despite all I’ve said here, the last half of M*A*S*H is generally better than I remembered. Although I’ll never love it as much as I do the first half, most episodes are worth watching; only a few are complete failures. The final verdict is that whenever you happen to happen upon it, any random episode of M*A*S*H is likely better than most ways you could spend a half-hour watching TV.

Mod Mod World

(Pictured: Goldie Hawn, painted up for Laugh-In‘s “Mod Mod World” segment.)

The single best thing that has happened since the disaster on Election Day might be that the Decades channel has started showing Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on weeknights. These are not the edited half-hours that played in syndication in the 90s, most famously on Nick at Nite; they’re full episodes, although some of the content is doubtlessly missing thanks to the commercial load Decades airs.

From its debut in January 1968 (after a one-shot special in the summer of 1967), Laugh-In got a reputation for being subversive. It really wasn’t, as Kliph Nesteroff documented years ago: “It effectively garnered a genuine hippie aesthetic, but any actual connection to the counterculture was mostly smoke and mirrors.” Head writer Paul Keyes had worked for Richard Nixon during the 1962 California governor’s race, and was on his payroll during the ’68 campaign. Once Nixon was elected, their relationship kept Laugh-In from suffering the same fate as the Smothers Brothers. (In early episodes, Dick Martin frequently jokes about stuff their show does, or doesn’t do, that the Smothers Brothers couldn’t do, or do.)

The topical humor of Laugh-In and the Smothers Brothers made the splash that it did because American network entertainment shows simply didn’t do much topical, political humor before then. Cop and doctor shows often told topical stories, although they frequently moralized about cultural rot and reinforced the values of the Greatest Generation. (Late 60s sitcoms and variety shows had precious little to do with real life at all.) When the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In joked about Lyndon Johnson, the military, sex, or the generation gap, they threw open a window that had previously been opened only a crack. But Laugh-In producer George Schlatter says Keyes used his influence in the writers’ room to keep the show from going too far left, and Dan Rowan himself was a Republican. Apart from casual references to getting high, Laugh-In‘s jokes were more likely to reinforce the Greatest Generation’s values than to criticize them (which is partly what got the Smothers Brothers canceled), but the show’s rapid-fire irreverence worked to hide it. Laugh-In‘s commitment to showbiz values of old is clear in Martin’s leering playboy schtick, which isn’t qualitatively different from what he might have done on a nightclub stage in 1958, and in the old-fashioned production numbers that were part of each week’s show.

Laugh-In looked to the future, however, with early music videos by groups including the Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Bee Gees. It’s possible that there may have been more of these during the show’s original run than we’ll see today; this kind of thing is notoriously hard to clear for repeats, and such performances are often omitted from reruns and DVDs. Several musicians, including Ringo Starr and the Monkees, were guests on the show but didn’t sing.

Nixon is probably the single most famous guest (“sock it to me?”), and he is said to have believed his appearance helped him get elected president in 1968. (The producers offered equal time to Hubert Humphrey, but he turned them down, fearing harm to his dignity.) But the show also attracted showbiz royalty: Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Carol Channing, Michael Caine, and Milton Berle, among others. Sports figures such as Joe Namath, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain made cameos, too.

The biggest star to emerge from the regular Laugh-In cast, Goldie Hawn, is ridiculously fun to watch. She plays the perpetually confused ditz with a sly self-awareness I was too young to notice during the show’s network run, and I’m not sure I caught it when watching the 90s reruns, either. Longtime regulars Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson are pretty great, too. Buzzi is up for anything and usually kills when she does it. Johnson created a stable of memorable characters out of one-liners: the German soldier (“verrrry interestink”), the Russian Mr. Rosmenko, and Tyrone F. Horneigh, who unsuccessfully pursues Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby while possessing the best character name to ever get past the censor.

I have read articles recently suggesting that Laugh-In simply isn’t funny anymore. Some of it isn’t. By definition, topical humor has a short shelf-life—certainly not 50 years. But humor based on characters as indelible as Buzzi’s and Johnson’s, or the long parade of catch-phrases from “here come the judge” on down, can still get laughs today. From me, anyhow.

SNL Moments From ’76

On April 24, 1976, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels did his famous on-air bit inviting the Beatles to reunite on the show for $3,000. Michaels didn’t think they’d really show up, but he also stationed a young staffer at the front door of 30 Rock just in case, fearing that the elderly security guard on the Saturday night detail might not recognize the band members. Nobody knew then that Paul McCartney and John Lennon were watching the show at Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota—or that for a few minutes, they discussed grabbing a cab and heading to the studio.

I don’t remember whether I was watching SNL on that particular night. I’d like to think I was, though, because it makes for an attractive memory: upstairs in my room, late at night, the house is quiet, the windows are open with a spring breeze bringing sounds of the farm in from outside, and the old black-and-white TV lights up the room. (That particular set was one of my oldest and dearest childhood friends. My parents bought it for the basement when I was maybe 10, and it survived long enough to take its place in my first post-college apartment.)

In the end, John and Paul reacted just like regular people often do when confronted with one of those late-night, wild-hair, wouldn’t-it-be-something-if-we-did-it opportunities—they decided they were too tired and didn’t. That’s reassuring, in a way. Not so much that they could be a lot like us, but that we could be a lot like them.

Later that fall, after SNL began its second season, they got one of the Beatles to appear.

The second-season episode of Saturday Night Live that aired on November 20, 1976, is nothing special as comedy. Apart from the opening of the show, which features host Paul Simon in a turkey outfit, and a famous commercial for Quarry, the cereal made from stone, the sketches are among the least clever or interesting in SNL‘s brief history up to that point. It’s the music that makes the show a landmark, and specifically, the musical guest: George Harrison.

Early in the show, Simon and Harrison duet on “Here Comes the Sun” and “Homeward Bound” (above), two unique voices blending with acoustic guitars that is one of the series’ loveliest musical moments. George’s verse on “Homeward Bound” is especially beautiful. The sequence looked great, too, shot through a filter that softened the video and made it seem almost dreamlike.

For the first time, the show began with an announcement that portions of it were prerecorded—later, Simon mentions that Harrison has “brought two films with him.” In a few years, we’d call them videos, for songs from George’s then-new album Thirty Three and 1/3. “Crackerbox Palace” was directed by Eric Idle of Monty Python. (See if you can spot Idle’s cameo. You’ll have to be very quick.) “This Song” would have been on the radio the night of the SNL broadcast. The video features a cameo by Ron Wood as a female juror.

November 20, 1976, represented the moment at which Saturday Night Live completed the arc from buzzworthy new show to must-see to cultural icon. When they could get a Beatle, instead of simply joking about paying them $3,000 to appear, it wasn’t just a TV show anymore.

(Rebooted from a couple of ancient posts.)

Welcome to Korea

mash_title-card_cropped(Pictured: the rarely seen title card that opens the first episode of M*A*S*H.)

We own the first six seasons of M*A*S*H on DVD, but that hasn’t stopped us from developing a new dinner-hour habit these last few weeks: watching M*A*S*H repeats on MeTV. They’re edited (MeTV’s own edits, it looks like, and not the familiar syndication versions) and the commercial breaks are interminable, but as something you can turn on and pay attention to with half an ear while eating dinner and discussing the day with your spouse, you can’t beat ’em.

M*A*S*H was so omnipresent on TV for so long, 11 seasons on the air and an eternal life in syndication, that it takes some effort to imagine it as a new show, back there in the fall of 1972. That fall, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Mission Impossible were still on the air, and Dean Martin and Julie Andrews starred in variety shows. Most of the new fall premieres that year quickly vanished from history. Who remembers Anna and the King or The Sandy Duncan Show—which bracketed M*A*S*H on Sunday nights that first season—or The Little People, or Banyon, which premiered on other networks? Three new shows that fall would earn the status of television classic: M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Bob Newhart Show; The Rookies had a successful run for several years, and Kung Fu would become a cult favorite. I haven’t done the research to determine what sort of batting average that is, but it strikes me as decent.

M*A*S*H is based on the 1970 Robert Altman film, and when the series begins, its Altmanesque roots are perceptible. The M*A*S*H pilot, about a fundraising raffle to send the surgeons’ houseboy to college in America, is remarkably vulgar for 1972 (and on Sunday night to boot), as if the new frankness of the movies at the dawn of the 70s was finally making inroads into TV. M*A*S*H would never again be so gleefully transgressive, however, and whatever Altman influence the show had at first quickly faded.

At the beginning of Season 3, a new group of writers came aboard, and while they continued to sand off the show’s rougher edges, they also added a character that felt like a retroactive nod to Altman: Captain Calvin Spalding, played by Loudon Wainwright III.

The Spalding character, seen in three episodes, was another surgeon at the 4077th, but his main dramatic function was to sing songs that commented on the action of the episodes in which he appeared. “North Korean Blues” is seen and heard in the episode “Rainbow Bridge.” The episode “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse,” in which all female personnel are evacuated from the unit, features an untitled song containing the refrain, “I wonder if they miss us / Now wouldn’t that be funny / Now that we’re without them / We can hardly stand ourselves.” That same episode is framed by “Unrequited to the Nth Degree,” which would appear on a Wainwright album in 1975. “There Is Nothing Like a Nurse” ends with Spalding, Hawkeye, Trapper, and other members of the cast singing the song while dancing across the compound. For his last appearance, in the episode “Big Mac,” Wainwright wrote “Five Gold Stars” on demand, in two hours. (In 2008, he told an interviewer that the experience taught him he could be “a songslinger for hire.”)

Wainwright has told various interviewers over the years that he doesn’t know why he was never called back for further appearances (but he appreciates the royalty checks that continue to come his way). It strikes me that the Spalding character wouldn’t have been a good fit with the less jaded tone of the series after Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell replaced McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers for Season 4—and maybe that’s what executive producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart thought, too.

The end of Season 3 marks the point after which M*A*S*H is never the same. The first two Morgan/Farrell seasons, with Larry Linville still in the cast as Frank Burns, are fine. But in Season 6, with David Ogden Stiers joining the cast as Yoko Ono, I start losing interest, and in the final seasons, when the show is frequently drowning in sanctimony, I can’t watch at all.

MeTV is somewhere in the fourth season now, so we’ll be watching at dinnertime for a while yet.

(Rebooted from a 2012 post at Popdose, but largely new.)

I Think I Love You Still

(Pictured: A still from The Partridge Family shows Laurie wearing a chastity belt, apparently.)

We recently passed the anniversary of the debut of The Partridge Family in 1970. In 2010, I wrote a 40th anniversary tribute for Popdose. Here’s a reboot.

In September 1970, I was 10 years old, with the taste of a 10-year-old kid. And so my first favorite songs were light and happy and catchy and easy to sing. And that made me, and people like me, the prime target for The Partridge Family. For many boys of the ’70s, Shirley Jones would become their first MILF, and for many girls, David Cassidy would be their first celebrity love.

Years later, much of the music featured on the show still sounds mighty good, because many of their songs were written by the biggest cats in pop. The Partridge Family’s recordings were made by the group of Los Angeles session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. Most of the voices were provided by the Ron Hicklin Singers, heard on hundreds of hit songs, movie soundtracks, TV themes, commercials, and radio jingles.

In honor of the anniversary, here’s one fan’s top five Partridge Family songs. Turn up your speakers until you can smell the polyester.

Continue reading →

Here Come the Beagles

TheBeagles-TVLP600In 1965, ABC launched The Beatles, a cartoon series based on the most famous musical group in the world. Because no good idea ever goes without being imitated, a series called The Beagles premiered on CBS 50 years ago this weekend, on September 10, 1966. It centered around two singing dogs and their manager, who came up with crazy schemes to make them famous. Although the songs performed in each episode bore a striking resemblance to Beatles tunes, the characters of Stringer and Tubby were not modeled after real Beatles. (Stringer’s speaking voice may remind you a little of Bing Crosby.)

In 1960, New York ad men W. Watts “Buck” Biggers and Chet Stover created the cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects to sell cereal for General Mills. With its success, they left Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and formed Total TeleVision with Treadwell Covington, another ad man, and Joe Harris, a character designer and storyboard artist. Over the next several years, Total TeleVision created anthology shows featuring several different cartoon elements. Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and The Beagles all appeared on network schedules, but each included episodes of The World of Commander McBragg, Klondike Cat, Tooter Turtle, and/or Go-Go Gophers, as well as King Leonardo. They were animated by Gamma Productions (which also did the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows at the same time), and had a look that was cheap, but distinctive. Like other Total TeleVision shows, The Beagles featured the voice talents of Kenny Delmar, a veteran radio actor who had played Senator Claghorne with Fred Allen in the 40s; Allen Swift, who had been a voice actor and writer on Howdy Doody; and Sandy Becker, another veteran of old-time radio and 1950s TV.

The Beagles ran for two years, one season on CBS and one on ABC, before going off the air in 1968. For a long time, the original masters of the show were believed lost, although Biggers told an interviewer in 2007 that nine episodes (which is all that were made) still existed, but not in complete form. They would have to be reassembled from pieces before they could be reissued. As of 2007, the rights to the show were owned by Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video.

In 1967, the Harmony label, a Columbia subsidiary, released 10 songs on Here Come the Beagles (pictured above). As you might expect, it’s pretty rare. (In 1995, the songs were reissued along with songs by another made-for-TV group, the Banana Splits, but in a thousand-copy limited edition.) The identities of the musicians who performed as the Beagles are long lost. The songs were arranged by Charles Fox, who would go on to score dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s possible that Fox sang on them, although that’s unclear. The four principals in Total TeleVision are credited as songwriters. Biggers died in 2013; his obituary indicates that he wrote the songs and shared the credits with his three partners.

The show’s main theme, “Looking for the Beagles,” has an oddly downcast lyric for such a silly show: “Lookin’ for the Beagles / Not where rich men go / Rich is for the regals / Woe is all the Beagles know.” Many of the Beagles’ songs sound like straight-up garage rock, such as “Humpty Dumpty,” heard in this existing clip from the show. Some add a flute, which seems a little incongruous, as on “I’d Join the Foreign Legion,” which you can hear in the clip here. But the gem among the Beagles’ songs is “Thanks to the Man in the Moon,” on which the anonymous lead singer nails his John Lennon impression. Any resemblance to “This Boy” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is almost certainly intentional. You can hear some of it, and see a toy commercial from 1966 to boot, in this clip.

Whoever they were, the musicians behind the Beagles (thanks to the songwriting talents of Buck Biggers) managed to channel the sound of the British Invasion and the Beatles themselves into a handful of well-crafted pop tunes. And whoever they were, they would likely be surprised to learn that a half-century later, a few people are still listening to them.

(Based on a 2008 post, but mostly new.)

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