(Pictured: L to R, Margot Chapman, Jon Carroll, Taffy Danoff, and Bill Danoff of the Starland Vocal Band.)
The limited-run summer variety series was a staple of 70s TV. Networks signed various performers to appear in four- or six-episode shows to burn off airtime in the season when viewership was the lowest. A sure-fire way to draw eyeballs was to surround a popular singer with a company of actors. Since many of the summer series were a half-hour long, all it took to make an episode was two or three songs linked with a handful of comedy bits.
In the summer of 1976, the Starland Vocal Band took “Afternoon Delight” to #1. The next winter, they won two Grammys, including Best New Artist. So in the summer of 1977, CBS gave them a six-week variety show. The Starland Vocal Band Show premiered on Sunday, July 31, tucked between Rhoda and the CBS Sunday Night Movie. Each episode features several performances by the group, shot in various places: a club in Washington, DC (the group’s hometown), a concert at Pepperdine University, an outdoor stage in Great Falls, Montana, and a recording studio in Los Angeles. Other recurring bits have the group attending a Renaissance fair, and exploring an abandoned amusement park in surreal video bits.
Linking all of these are comedy segments, often performed by a young man who functioned as the program’s host: David Letterman. (Some of Letterman’s stuff, collected here, will remind you of bits he would do in years to come.) Also in the cast is Jeff Altman, who plays several recurring characters including Billy Carter and a nature-show host; he and Letterman do a recurring bit in which Letterman interviews a character played by Altman and ends up punching him in the stomach. The show also includes brief segments by political humorist Mark Russell taped at a Washington hotel with the members of the group in the audience, and scattered appearances by Firesign Theater veterans Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman.
So The Starland Vocal Band Show was not the traditional Hollywood soundstage variety show. That doesn’t mean it worked, though. A regular viewer would quickly learn the difference between “recurring” and “repetitive.” The opening and closing credits are exactly the same pieces of tape each week. The musical numbers come from the same four venues. Some of the recurring comedy bits, and many of the jokes, land with a thud. Proctor and Bergman’s stuff seems particularly toothless given their background, and while Russell could be razor-sharp (as on his long-running series of PBS comedy specials), he’s fairly tame on this show. Letterman is always watchable, but he had a lot of clunkers to dismiss, in the same way he would for the rest of his network TV career: with an expression, an inflection, or a throwaway line that makes clear how dumb something is, just as the viewer is having the same thought. In 2015, group member Jon Carroll told USA Today, “It wasn’t all bad. It was mostly bad.”
I watched all six episodes, which are available at YouTube and linked in the Jon Carroll interview above. The producers missed a bet by not featuring Margot Chapman and Taffy Danoff more than they did, because Margot has some acting chops and Taffy is gorgeous. But there is one moment that blew me away: in the final episode, aired September 5, 1977, the group performed a stunning acapella version of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”
Given its oddball comedic tone, the surreal amusement park videos, and some weird linking bits featuring a squawking goose and the group watching a video monitor in the middle of a hayfield, it’s clear that the show was aimed at a sophisticated viewing audience—young, urban, hip. The problem with that is the Starland Vocal Band itself. Some of their songs are almost comically bland, and at one venue, Taffy and Margot wear long dresses like something from Little House on the Prairie. Their rock songs sound OK, but rockin’ or not, they tend to come off pretty square. If CBS hoped to capture the young, urban, hip crowd that stayed up late for Saturday Night Live, The Starland Vocal Band Show wasn’t going to get much of it.
(Pictured: Adam West with Burt Ward and Julie Newmar at the launch of the Batman DVD series, 2014.)
I think I’ve written before how Batman, which premiered in the middle of my kindergarten year, was the first TV program I ever loved. At my tender age, I took it at face value, spending many a Thursday worrying about the predicament into which Batman and Robin were stuck at the end of Wednesday night’s episode. It wasn’t until I watched it again in adulthood that I saw past the storylines to the sendups—the way the camera tilted when showing each villain’s lair, the hilariously detailed labels on every piece of equipment in the Batcave, and the famous onomatopoetic fight scenes. I noticed how as Commissioner Gordon, Neil Hamilton would occasionally break the fourth wall, but also how Adam West never did.
West, who died over the weekend at the age of 88, played Batman absolutely straight, and it turned out to be one of the great performances in all of television. West’s Batman bridged the many different ways one could watch the show: straight, as we kindergartners did; campy, as our older brothers and sisters could; or as a satire on pop-culture crimefighters, as many adults could. In the middle of the roiling late 60s, his hopeless squareness (and that of his alter ego, Millionaire Bruce Wayne) would have run against every conception of what was cool—but it fit so perfectly into the world that the show was creating that it came out cool, too.
The single clip that best sums up the appeal of both West’s performance and Batman itself comes not from the TV show, but from the movie made between the first and second seasons, in which Batman is continually thwarted while trying to dispose of a bomb. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you get a great deal of insight into the character West played from the way he reacts to the various obstacles put in his way. And it’s not just the way he reacts, but also the way he acts. He never breaks character, never allows himself to appear exasperated or fearful, but keeps trying to find a way out of his predicament in a scene that lasts over a minute-and-a-half. And, most important to his character’s integrity, he never breaks the fourth wall.
Since the Batman movie franchise was launched in 1989, Batman has always been the Dark Knight, a tormented figure doing a job he’d rather not be doing in a city where nobody would choose to live. Fans of the comic books tend to prefer the Dark Knight (and many of them who had read the series before 1966 hated the TV Batman). Warner Brothers, which owns DC Comics, naturally preferred him too. (It’s been reported that Warner Brothers kept 20th Century Fox, which produced the TV show, from releasing it on DVD for a long time.) Although I’d never seen him described as such before the weekend, Adam West’s Batman was the Bright Knight. Active philanthropist and pillar of the community Bruce Wayne loved and served his day-glo, go-go metropolis, and so did his Batman.
When I bought the first season of Batman on DVD, I was surprised to find that I simply didn’t enjoy it—that the plots were repetitive and some of the performances were painful to watch. But that doesn’t change how I felt about it 50 years ago. Neither does it affect the brilliance of the character Adam West created. For those of us who were the right age in 1966 (and during the 1970s, when Batman was frequently seen on after-school TV), Adam West will always be our Batman, and that day-glo, go-go metropolis will always be our Gotham City.
(Note to patrons: because I have a lot of June posts to draw from, posting will be heavier than usual at One Day in Your Life this month. Sign up over there to get them e-mailed to you, or look for the latest posts linked in the right-hand column of this blog.)
(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today.)
The video embedded above represents the most enjoyable half-hour I’ve spent in a long time. It collects 38 vintage K-Tel ads, mostly from the US, a few from Canada, and a couple from the UK, spanning the early 70s to the early 80s.
K-Tel ads shilled albums featuring “original hits, original stars” to distinguish them from knockoff albums of sound-alikes by the Sound Effects or the Countdown Singers. Albums generally cost from $3.99 to $5.99, with another buck or two if you wanted an 8-track or cassette, although K-Tel also marketed two-disc sets that often went for $9.99. K-Tel would release a new compilation every few months, mostly with songs that had recently been hits, although they often included a song or two that went back a year or two, and sometimes a minor hit or a never-was to fill out the track list.
During their 70s heyday, the albums generally contained 20 songs (sometimes more), a number often featured in the compilation title, such as 20 Explosive Hits or 20 Dynamic Hits, 10 to a side. If you bought a K-Tel album, and I have a lot of them, it was always caveat emptor: K-Tel was famous for making their own edits to shorten songs, snipping intros or hacking out entire verses. (I can still remember the clanging disappointment I felt when I heard their edit of Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” on the 1975 release Disco Mania.) They did this less as time went on, until by the 1980s you could count on getting lots of full-length versions.
K-Tel did not sell only compilations of recent hits. There’s no one my age who doesn’t remember the ubiquitous Goofy Greats collection of novelty songs. An album of 50 kids’ songs (“Old MacDonald,” “London Bridge,” etc.) sounds positively hellish. A polka compilation featured such famous names as Frankie Yankovic, Myron Floren, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, and there were collections of country hits, rock ‘n’ roll oldies, and even metal.
Watching 38 K-Tel ads in a row reveals how cheaply made they were. The same announcer is on most of them—not a mellifluous radio voice but a shouting hard-seller of the kind you’d hear on a car dealership or dragstrip ad. The spots are tightly edited, usually, to cram as much information as possible into 30 or 60 seconds. The graphics are simple, often just the names of featured artists appearing with a snippet of their songs or scrolling by in an endless list, and sometimes both. Artist names are sometimes misspelled—Dianna Ross, Steelers Wheel, Alvin Bishop, Roy Clarke, and Dotty West, to name a few. The ad for 50 Children’s Favorites features a skeevy-looking bearded dude and a nightmarish giant rabbit. The oldies album Girls Girls Girls, made up of songs with girls’ names, is advertised with a bizarre spot in which a middle-aged man lying in bed is teased by visions of pretty young women, but they disappear before he can get to them. Some of the women are beautiful in a distinctly 70s way, although the talent budget did not buy gifted performers: the girl in the spot for Right On! dances without actually moving her feet.
It occurs to me that K-Tel’s oldies compilations might have represented my first exposure to stars of the 50s—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and such. The ads would have been all over after-school TV in the early 70s, when we came home to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Flintstones. I would have taken from them that such people were important—important enough to be on a K-Tel album like more familiar artists from the radio. It seems reasonable to think that the ads may have planted a seed for something I would recognize in later years when I finally heard “Tutti Frutti,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Great Balls of Fire” for real.
So take a half-hour and watch the video, which was compiled by a YouTuber called FredFlix. After you’re done, explore the other compilations on the FredFlix channel—it’s a remarkable trove of vintage TV with lots of stuff I haven’t seen anywhere else.
(I did not realize until I started researching this post that our friend HERC has a site devoted to K-Tel compilations. If you will excuse me now, I’m going over there to get lost for a few hours.)
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.
(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.
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.)