(Pictured: a courtroom photo from the final episode of Seinfeld. It is the official position of this blog that the finale is the single worst episode of the series, but that’s a subject we’re not getting into today. Neither are we getting into the subject I thought we’d get into when I started writing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.)
Twenty years ago tonight, the final episode of Seinfeld aired on NBC.
Seinfeld didn’t make an impact on me until it had been on for two or three years. But like millions of other people, I got hooked on it, and I’d still rank it as an all-time favorite, even though I don’t watch it regularly anymore. My sense of it is that it’s not particularly dated, except for the baseball references that few outside of New York are going to get (Paul O’Neill, Danny Tartabull), and the way it depicts a world where landline telephones still rule. There’s a 1991 episode in which Jerry is shown with a car phone, but cellphones are not part of the Seinfeld universe, and the show aired at practically the last moment when such a thing looked normal.
When I started writing this post, I intended to segue here to a reboot of something I wrote for WNEW.com about the music of Seinfeld, but then I decided I could just link to the damn thing (which I have already reposted here once) and spend the balance of my time today on other items, TV-related and otherwise.
A decade before WKRP in Cincinnati, there was another sitcom about a radio station. Good Morning World ran for a single season on CBS starting in the fall of 1967. Antenna TV is running it on weekends.
The show had a tremendous pedigree derived largely from The Dick Van Dyke Show, which had gone off the air the year before: it was executive-produced by Carl Reiner and Sheldon Leonard and created by Dick Van Dyke writers Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Reiner and longtime Dick Van Dyke director John Rich directed some episodes. Episodes were scripted by some big names, including Rick Mittleman, Bernie Orenstein and Saul Turteltaub, and James L. Brooks. Dave Grusin wrote the music. Like its predecessor, Good Morning World was filmed in front of a live audience.
The show stars Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell as Dave Lewis and Larry Clarke, morning DJs at a small station in Los Angeles. Baker worked in movies and TV from the late 50s to the early 80s, including appearances in the Elvis movie Girl Happy and Gidget Goes to Rome. Schell had been playing Duke Slater on Gomer Pyle USMC and has a face most fans of vintage TV would recognize. Billy de Wolfe plays the supercilious and bumbling station owner Roland B. Hutton, Jr. Lewis’ wife, Linda, is played by Julie Parrish. The inevitable neighbor, Sandy, is played by Goldie Hawn, in her first TV role at the age of 21.
The show is divided between wacky hijinx at the station and wacky hijinx at the Lewis house. On the air, Lewis and Clarke are more silly than funny; the producers decided not to mention real singers or songs, and the invented ones destroy any illusion that theirs is a real radio show. De Wolfe is the funniest member of the cast: Hutton wants to be in control of every situation but they often blow up in his face. The domestic scenes could have been used on The Dick Van Dyke Show almost exactly as written. Parrish does a good job in what’s mostly a thankless part, plus she looks great. Goldie is exactly who you’d expect her to be as a second banana.
While Joby Baker looks the way people in 1967 probably expected a DJ to look, he’s just not a very good actor. The character of Clarke was supposedly created especially for Ronnie Schell after his run on Gomer Pyle, where Sheldon Leonard was co-executive-producer, but Schell plays him with essentially one note. In the end, the characters of Lewis and Clarke are too much alike. It would have been better if the two leads presented more of a contrast, if wacky Clarke were balanced by a more sardonic Lewis, for example.
The show had problems from the start. Persky and Denoff were dividing time between Good Morning World and their more successful series, That Girl; Baker had trouble remembering lines; Parrish had health problems during filming. As for Goldie Hawn, Carl Reiner would later say, “George Schlatter ‘borrowed’ her for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and never gave her back to us.” So despite its solid-gold antecedents and unique setting, Good Morning World (which took its title from a phrase used by New York DJ William B. Williams, and for which he received a screen credit) lasted just 26 episodes.
Should you watch it? Sure. You might find a laugh or two along the way, and contemplating the distance between 50 years ago and now can be interesting. (Or maybe it’s just me who likes to do that.)
Related: We watch a lot of vintage TV at our house, but mostly on MeTV. The channel puts me in mind of Nick at Nite in its late 80s incarnation, or TV Land when it positioned itself as a museum of television, instead of the schizophrenic mess it is now. MeTV’s presentation says, yes, these shows are vintage, but you don’t have to think of yourself as old; let’s just have fun watching. Antenna TV, on the other hand, seems ossified. Its presentation, featuring voiceover guy Shadoe Stevens, is sleepy. And the way Antenna TV split-screens the closing credits of one program over the introduction of the next one is maddening if you consider theme songs and credits to be among of the pleasures of vintage TV.
If atmosphere matters—and on vintage TV channels, I’d argue that it does—it’s easy to understand why MeTV is the more successful of the two. In fact, MeTV is more successful than lots of other, more famous channels. In 2017, it out-rated MTV, BET, E!, Comedy Central, ESPN2, and NFL Network.
Our friend Kurt Blumenau went down a rabbit hole the other day and into the history of the “more to come” bumpers shown during NBC’s Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. As I commented at Kurt’s post, it seems kind of quaint to think that NBC would have filled a local commercial break with music and a more-to-come slide instead of running a public service announcement or a network promo (or a commercial for some but-wait-there’s-more gadget, as they would today), but it was a different world.
Surely some NBC affiliates, late at night, had no commercial inventory of their own to run. They could have filled the time with their own public service announcements or promos, but in the days before compact video formats, running PSAs in particular (and filmed programs in general) was cumbersome. It required a piece of equipment called a film chain, which literally projected film into a TV camera. Stations would keep a reel of film with a bunch of PSAs on it, and load it up when needed. Or not.
Talk of late-night commercial breaks reminded me of a couple of stories from our days living and working radio in Macomb, Illinois. Macomb sat between Peoria and Quincy, about 70 highway miles from each, and we got TV stations from both. In the middle of the 80s, Quincy had only two stations, a CBS affiliate licensed to Hannibal, Missouri, across the Mississippi River, and an NBC affiliate. The Peoria stations did not attempt to sell advertising in Macomb, but the Quincy stations did. I never thought it made sense for Macomb businesses to buy Quincy TV. Putting your ad on a TV station 70 miles away meant that your money was being spent in part to reach people way the hell and gone over in Missouri, and they weren’t going to drive 140 miles to shop at your shoe store or muffler shop or whatever.
One especially popular package was “shop Macomb,” which would start with a short blurb encouraging viewers to visit Macomb, followed by three 15- or 20-second blurbs for individual Macomb businesses. (Many TV stations still sell this kind of community-specific package today.) As TV ads went, they were cheap to buy—but compared to radio ads, they cost a lot.
When The Mrs. was selling radio, some of her clients would occasionally pop for a shop-Macomb spot. One Saturday night, we were watching Saturday Night Live, and we noticed that the NBC affiliate didn’t have any local spots scheduled. They filled every local break with scratchy film-chain PSAs. That is, until the first break after SNL got over, right before sign-off, when they ran a shop-Macomb spot featuring one of her clients.
We have conflicting memories of her reaction to this. When I asked her about it the other night, she doesn’t remember being bothered. I remember it differently. Loosely translated, it was as follows: Why the #%!%@ didn’t they run that thing during Saturday Night Live instead of those $!@%ing PSAs, for #$% sake?
After Saturday Night Live each week, the Quincy NBC affiliate broadcast a news summary. It wasn’t a repeat of the late local news, which is what many stations do now in the wee hours of the morning before turning their airwaves over to infomercials. They’d put up a station identification slide and somebody, most likely the master-control engineer (the only person left in the building at midnight), would read five minutes of news, often just copy ripped from the AP or UPI wire. The broadcast would conclude with the weather forecast before the station played the National Anthem and went dark for the night. In the middle of the 1980s, that little low-tech news update seemed like such a quaint, small-town thing to do that I actually started to look forward to it a little.
Nowadays, technology makes it possible for even the tiniest stations in the middle of nowhere to look like big-time operations. Thirty-some years ago, they had to be what they were.
(Note to patrons: following this post, this blog is going on hiatus. Posting will resume in early December . . . unless somebody else dies before then.)
On November 21, 1970, “I Think I Love You” by the Partridge Family hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But because Billboard was always a bit behind the street and is just one chart besides, the charts available at ARSA tell a more complete and accurate story.
The first station to list “I Think I Love You” was WLCY in Tampa, on a survey dated August 31. KREL in Corona, California, followed on September 2. The first city to go nuts over the record was Seattle, where KJR and KOL both debuted it on September 18. Two other major Top 40 stations, KFRC in San Francisco and KOIL in Omaha, charted it days before The Partridge Family debuted on ABC on September 25, 1970. So did KCPX in Salt Lake City, where it blasted to #1 in three weeks, on the chart dated October 6—before the record had even made the Hot 100. KJR moved it to #1 on its survey dated October 9.
“I Think I Love You” debuted on the October 10 Hot 100 at #75 (the same week WRIG in Wausau, Wisconsin, charted it at #1) and slow-cooked for the rest of the month, going from #75 to #60 to #41. But on October 31, it vaulted into the Top 40 at #17, then went to #7, #4, and finally #1. Its reach across the country was fast, and massive: WLS and WCFL in Chicago both charted it at #1 for the week of November 2. By November 21, it had also reached #1 in Seattle, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Vancouver, Houston, Detroit, Akron, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Memphis, Winnipeg, Syracuse, Miami, San Diego, Boston, Fort Wayne, Flint, Grand Rapids, Toronto, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Fresno, Hartford, and Columbus (where WCOL would make it the #1 song for all of 1970, as would KOL in Seattle). It topped charts in smaller cities too, from Altoona, Pennsylvania, to Muncie, Indiana.
“I Think I Love You” would spend three weeks at #1 and six additional weeks in the Top 10 after that before going 11-15-22-25 and out. During its last week on the Hot 100, February 13, 1971, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted” debuted at #57, and another rocket ride began.
The Partridge Family was must-see-TV at my house; both my brother and I bought Partridge records and other swag in 1971, the year we turned 11 and 9—solidly in the Partridge demographic. I needn’t rehash my adult fondness for the family’s music: played by members of the Wrecking Crew and with vocals by the top session singers in Hollywood, it was far better-made than it needed to be. Neither do I need to revisit its place in the mythology of this blog: “I Think I Love You” was one of the 45s I got for Christmas in 1970.
And on November 21, 2017, 47 years to the day since “I Think I Love You” hit #1, David Cassidy died.
Any online obituary you choose to read will sketch the outlines of Cassidy’s career, so I’m not going to do it here. One thing I will do is suggest you listen to his 1990 Top 40 return, “Lyin’ to Myself,” which is clearly an artifact of its time but worth four minutes nevertheless. I’ll say instead that 47 years after it exploded into American popular culture like a polyester-and-puka-shell bomb, David Cassidy’s Keith-Partridge early-70s young-man cool endures. Who wouldn’t want to look like him, dress like him, or sing like him? I did. And I do.
About that other thing . . . .
(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.)