Archive for situation comedy

Estelle Getty: Comedy’s Grandma Moses

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2017 by travsd

We’re in the midst of a Golden Girls Renaissance these days; it seems like entire cable networks are devoted to showing it in reruns. I’m sure this is why it occurred to me to do something on Estelle Getty (Estelle Scher, 1923-2008). When Golden Girls originally aired, I frankly wasn’t much inclined to look at a sit-com about a bunch of old ladies, much as I loved and respected some of the cast members. But in recent months, I chanced to tune into some of these tv marathons, and, discovered that, damn, the writing and acting on the show is so jaw-droppingly funny. And yes, it’s significant that the show’s about a previously overlooked demographic (female senior citizens), blah blah blah, but why waste your time if it isn’t very good? But it was very good.

Getty, people delight in pointing out, was actually younger than Bea Arthur, who played her daughter. But she was petite and compact, and earthy and urban in that first generation immigrant way, which gave one the impression that she was from an earlier generation. And her professional background was very old school. She is said to have gotten her start doing Yiddish theatre, and performing in Catskills resorts.

She was nearly 40 when she got her first big break, playing the mother in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway (1982-1985). At the same time, she began to get small roles in movies like Tootsie (1982) and Mask (1985). The Golden Girls debuted in 1985; that show and its sequels and spin offs kept her employed for a decade. And Getty was pretty great on the show, although, I will say my comparison to Grandma Moses is apt in ways beyond her mere age. Like the famous folk painter, she was a “natural”. She worked in the role because she was perfect for it and she could deliver a funny line. By comparison, Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were histrionic professionals, who could chew scenery and manufacture tears by the bucketful. (Betty White is also an actress but her character on the show, like Getty’s, was more of a joke machine). Getty could do this one thing, and people loved her so much she became a surprise star as a result of the series, even winning an Emmy in 1988. But, I think you’ll notice, in scenes that require depth and pathos, she was uncomfortable with it. She’d much rather bark a salty line.

Getty continued to do guest shots on television until the turn of the century, and was in a couple of notable movies. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) with Sylvester Stalone has been excoriated by critics as one of the worst movies ever (it earned an astounding 4% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). And she played Grandma Estelle in the modern family classic Stuart Little (1999). When she passed away, three days prior to her 85th birthday, she was finally reaching the age of her Golden Girls character, which she’d begun playing when she was only 62.

Andy Griffith: Good Cracker

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2017 by travsd

Andy Griffith was born on June 1, 1926. Look at that face! It seems strange to exist in a world without him. He and his best known character seem like Benjamin Franklin or something, part of the bedrock of America. While he occasionally played villains (in fact, his best known role, apart from Andy Taylor, was a villain), Griffith seemed to radiate decency, a good heart, and sound judgment — our fantasy of what we’d love a small town sheriff to be. (As opposed to the dude who catches you in his speed trap, glares at you impassively through his sunglasses, chucks you in a cell when you can’t pay his “fine” and then kicks the shit out of you while calling you a “Yankee”).

Griffith defied the Southern stereotype in all sorts of ways. Born and bred in rural Mt Airy, North Carolina (on the Virginia border) he discovered singing, acting and playing musical instruments when in high school and was strongly encouraged by some wise teachers in those pursuits. Later he attended the University of North Carolina. Something clicked into place when I read that he appeared for several years in one of Paul Green’s historical pageants called The Lost Colony. I have yet to blog about Green, an interesting figure whom I learned about through my studies of the Group Theatre. Green’s play The House of Connelly was the Group Theatre’s first production. It was one of the things I was thinking about when I named my play House of Trash. 

In the 50s, Griffith first gained widespread notice as a comedy monologist and storyteller in nightclubs. His 1953 comedy record What It Was, Was Football became a popular seller.

This led to him being cast as the lead in the tv, Broadway and film versions of Ira Levin’s No Time for Sergeants (tv and stage versions were 1955; film was 1958). His character in the story was a cheerful rube and bumpkin, which formed much of the basis for the Andy Griffith spin-off series Gomer Pyle, USMC. 

In 1957, he enjoyed what ought to have been a cinematic breakthrough. He was cast as the lead in Elia Kazan’s amazing film A Face in the Crowd. Written by Budd Schulberg, it’s a political story about a seemingly affable good old boy named Lonesome Rhodes who becomes enormously popular on records, television and in films as a folk singer…but then becomes power mad, not just for success in show business but for political office. He’s a crazy demagogue using the power of television just as Huey Long had used radio a couple of decades earlier. It seems clearly inspired by the phenomenon of Elvis Presley, who had no such political designs, but might have been a formidable and damaging force if he had. This dystopian vision would see a later incarnation in the 1968 acid nightmare Wild in the Streets. And then, in 2016, the nightmare became true when a ruthless tv reality star became President of the United States, which is why interest in A Face in the Crowd has been increasing over the last several months, just as copies of The Origins of Totalitarianism have been flying off the shelves.

Anyway, Griffith is incredible in it, just an explosion of raw, animal power. People didn’t know what to make of the film at the time; reviews were mixed. In some ways it might have seemed a career killer for Griffith to play a character so similar to himself, and yet so ugly. (For another example, there’s Milton Berle’s 1949 Always Leave Them Laughing, where Berle’s character is a total jerk who seems oddly like…Milton Berle).

Griffith’s electric performance did not lead to a stellar movie career, but Griffith did come to dominate television for three and a half decades. He had a guest shot on Danny Thomas’s Make Room for Daddy in 1960 in which he played a southern sheriff. This led to his own series, (produced by Thomas and Sheldon Leonard), The Andy Griffith Show, which ran from 1960 through 1968 (Griffith left in 1967).

This show (in re-runs) was a major staple in my home when I was growing up. It’s mesmerizing, not just for the terrific writing and acting, but for its level of FANTASY. In a way, it is just as unreal a TV show as Bewitched or I Dream of Jeanie. It takes place in an idyllic Southern town called Mayberry, North Carolina, clearly based on Griffith’s home town of Mt. Airy. But while it takes place in contemporary times (the 1960s) the town’s quiet, isolated nature feels as though it were happening in much earlier times, decades earlier. People seem to spend all day sitting on porches in rocking chairs, swatting flies, catching fish, having picnics. Most episodes, a stranger will drive into town, stirrin’ up trouble of one kind or another, interrupting the placid stillness of this rural Shangri La.

The only kind of people who DON’T drive up, or live there to begin with, are BLACK people. And this would be exceedingly odd in a North Carolina town, would it not? Furthermore, the entire show aired during the Civil Rights Era, when interracial strife was happening throughout the country. The omission is glaring; it speaks volumes. But the creators of the show were on the horns of a dilemma. More than one actually. This was a time of transition. America was ostensibly past the era of overt, intentional racism in entertainment, the ridiculing of African Americans, the hiring of actors like Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland to be the butt of jokes. And Griffith was a liberal; that wouldn’t have been his style anyway. (He later campaigned for Barack Obama). But, unless you did a period show, there’d be NO WAY to include African Americans without talking about the changes going on in the country (as in later shows like I’ll Fly Away or In The Heat of the Night). And that was far beyond what anyone in tv was ready for at that stage. It wasn’t until the advent of All in the Family (1971) that that line would be crossed. And yet you couldn’t NOT talk about it either! How do you show black people in a Southern town without showing racists? That would be even more of a fantasy! So the solution seemed to be to set the show in an alternate universe where there were NO black people in North Carolina. The unintentional (I think) by-product ends up being just as racist in the long run. The producers didn’t just avoid controversy — they wrote black people out of the story of America. There’s something Orwellian about it.

Griffith said in later years that he was embarrassed about his acting in the first couple of seasons of the show, which hearkened back to the country rube he had played in No Time for Sergeants. But eventually he found his stride, which was, as sheriff, was to be the straight man in a town full of crazies. He kept his cool, and let everyone else in town be the nitwits. In this, he set a template that would be riffed on in many a later show: such as the titular character in Barney Miller, or Alex Reiger in Taxi. The job is to be the sensible guy, who solves everyone else’s problem’s. His genius comedy partner was Don Knotts, whom he’d worked with in No Time for Sergeants. As Deputy Barney Fife, Knotts job was to go overboard, and LOSE his head, and the chemistry and the acting between them was stellar. Other characters included Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier), his son Opie (Ron Howard, who became one of Hollywood’s top film directors), Floyd the barber (Hoard McNear), Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), Goober (George Lindsey), County Clerk, Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson), Otis the town drunk (Hal Smith), Emmet the handyman (Paul Hartman) and the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris) and many others. It all adds up to something like Our Town. But we regret that it exists in a parallel universe that only includes Anglo-Saxons. Which I guess means it’s not YOUR town?

Griffith left the show early and very much on purpose so that he could pursue other projects. Other series were tried, and failed. He was in a lot of memorable tv movies, though. He’s in the notorious anti-drug film Go Ask Alice (1973). He played a cop who actually solves crimes in Winter Kill (1974). When he was cast in movies for cinematic release, they tended to cast him as parodies of himself, as in Hearts of the West (1975) and Rustlers Rhapsody (1985). And of course, he became the highly visible pitchman for Ritz Crackers, inspiring the title for this post. We thought that campaign was hilarious when it came out, both for how it played on Griffith’s persona, but also became of the lameness of the slogan. But ya know what? We did imitations of it incessantly — and that is what advertising is all about.

Then, amazingly, his career got another burst of wind when he played a small town southern lawyer in Matlock (1986-1995). This show aired precisely when I was watching very little tv. To this date I don’t know if I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Although, my former brother-in-law, who was a musician in the L.A. area, was hired to play guitar in the background on one episode, and got to chat with the gracious Griffith, who played guitar himself — as if you didn’t know.

Griffith passed away in 2012. His last screen credit was in 2009.

Keeping Up Appearances: The Comic Genius of Patricia Routledge

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , on February 17, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the brilliant British comic actress Dame Patricia Routledge (b. 1929). What a testament to the importance of luck in the creation of performance magic is Routledge’s career. Her resume is stuffed with substantial credits: a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, winner of an Olivier Award and a Tony. I’d previously seen her in films many a time without particularly noting her.  She’s in To Sir With Love (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). Her list of credits is much much longer than this, and she is much better known to British audiences to American ones, through tv, film and theatre.

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But talent and experience are only part of what makes for greatness. Sometimes the right actor gets the right part at the right time and alchemy occurs. Such is the case with Routledge’s role as the ever-striving (upward) housewife Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced “Bouquet’!”) on Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995). I was instantly smitten with this comic creation the first time I saw it. Hyacinth is a middle class provincial woman  who makes life hell for everyone around her with her insufferable pretensions.

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Meanwhile, reality is always giving the lie to her schemes. Her origins are in the lower classes. Her crass relatives are always showing up to her embarrass her. She’s always being appalled, chagrined, exasperated.  And she herself is never quite up to what she attempts. She mispronounces words. Her attempts at a posh accent and manners are transparently silly. Her efforts to claim her modest home and surroundings are somehow grand are at once heroic, sad, and obvious. In her denial of the world around her, she is definitely a spiritual heiress to Don Quixote. And Routledge has the prodigious talent, skill and intelligence to play it that way. She has the range to give us the pretentious elocution and rolled “R”s, but at the same time she’ll go for broke and rob the character of ALL dignity, and just go into utter slapstick in her desperate attempts to keep her subterfuges going. She pulls funny faces, and falls into the mud. She’s constantly peeking from behind things to see how her plans are playing out — and not liking what she sees.

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Along for the ride is her long suffering husband Richard (Clive Swift), a minor local official whom she is forever trying to turn into a big shot. If Hyacinth is Quixote, Richard is less like her Sancho than her Rocinante, the pathetic, elderly horse who passively accepts his miserable lot in life. He grumbles but he doesn’t fight Hyacinth’s plots and schemes. He just does what she tells him, always with full knowledge of impending disaster. Her constant cycle of failure gives the show a poignancy, and elevates Hyacinth to one of the great modern comic creations.

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Credit must be given to the show’s writer/creator Roy Clarke (obviously not the country singer) who conceived and built this perfect comic engine. Not only does it contain everything Routledge needed to give full-on broadly comical performances, but there’s something inherently, timeless, eloquently English about the theme of class-jumping and the clash between reality and fantasy in Hyacinth’s head. She wants to be “somebody”. She is not to content to be herself. The theme is also modern and universal, which is why Keeping Up Appearances has proven to be the BBC’s biggest export. It certainly resonates here in America. It struck an enormous chord with this correspondent.

A few months ago, the BBC launched a prequel series called Young Hyacinth, without Routledge’s participation. She’s 87 today; she’s earned a rest. Happy birthday Dame Patricia. How glad Hyacinth would be to know that she’s being portrayed by one of the nobility!

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 For more on  slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd

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We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:

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The New Odd Couple

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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I’ve touched on this subject once before, and had originally intended to do more two weeks ago (November 13) for all sorts of reasons. In fact, I probably would have hit it in two posts. November 13 is “Odd Couple Day” (the date was mentioned in the opening narration for the original television program as the date Felix Ungar’s wife throws him out). The original Odd Couple tv show was hugely influential on me, so please know that a post on that show is forthcoming! Also (not coincidentally, I’m sure) November 13th was the late Garry Marshall’s birthday. He passed away a few months ago, and it occurred to me at the time that, love him or hate him, Marshall was a comic auteur, and deserving of a blogpost about his legacy, which I had also intended for November 13.

Unfortunately, this year that date fell five days after Black Tuesday. I was still in a serious funk and in no mood to write about frivolous things like situation comedies and the pop geniuses who write them. So look for those planned posts about Marshall and the original Odd Couple series next November 13.

My spirits have now revived somewhat, and I find that I have space in my brain BOTH for helping save the country, and my usual pursuits. And we write about The New Odd Couple today because we learned that Ron Glass passed away a couple of days ago.

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So! This potentially promising, but ultimately ill-conceived and indifferently executed experiment aired during my senior year in high school. As I’ve already more than hinted, I was an enormous fan of the original series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, which ran from 1970 to 1975. The original series closed out just in time to focus on Marshall’s new project, the smash hit Happy Days, which then spawned Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy.  So Marshall seemed like a veritable television Midas long about 1982. And you know what happened to Midas — he got too greedy.

Wearing a producer hat, you can identify all sorts of reasons why The New Odd Couple (1982-1983) ought be successful in theory.  1) It was already a proven property with Garry Marshall’s now gold-minting name attached to it. 2) African American sit-coms (mostly from the Norman Lear factory) were very popular at the time (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, What’s Happenin’ et al). and 3) It showcased two popular black sit com stars, Demond Wilson from Sanford and Son as Oscar; and Ron Glass of Barney Miller as Felix. And those two gents seemed pretty well cast. After all, Wilson’s previous character Lamont Sanford worked in a junkyard, a fitting association for Oscar. And Glass’s Barney Miller character Harris was kind of dapper and prissy, which would make him natural to step into Felix. And they were both funny guys.

This is totally the same kitchen

This is totally the same kitchen

Hence I tuned into this show with high hopes. But….the resulting product was too lazy. Even as a teenager, I could easily identify why I was dissatisfied with the show. The whole enterprise was transparently cynical. Yes, they cast black actors, but they didn’t rethink them as black characters. They just took old Odd Couple scripts, tweaked some of the lines, and filmed them with a new cast. They even used the same theme song, with a funkier arrangement. They hadn’t even bothered to give the show its own name. The irony is, the thing they were attempting was not unprecedented and it had been done with great success. It wasn’t even far away. Sanford and Son had been based on a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son. But, other than the basic situation, the entire set-up had been completely reimagined as a vehicle for Redd Foxx from the ground up. The writers weren’t black but Foxx had enough juice to inject his show with authentic touches. In The New Odd Couple the actors even seem to be wearing leftover costumes. And are asked to give the same line readings. On the same set. With the same inserts of an exterior of their apartment building. Check it out for yourself. There are some episodes on Youtube. (16 episodes were filmed; it ran for only one season),

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Sorry this is not the best way to remember Ron Glass! He was excellent on Barney Miller! And also on the cult sci-fi western mash-up Firefly! And for the record, I am not a fan of the current Odd Couple reboot either, though it also stars two top notch comic actors. The best Marshall-produced Odd Couple reboot is of course Laverne and Shirley. The best overall? Perhaps, Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Who cares about sloppy vs. neat? Why is that a necessary component? The true essential element is two mismatched friends with terrific chemistry.

The Munsters vs. The Addams Family

Posted in Comedy, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on October 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Jackie Coogan ( see my full biographical blogpost here). As they often do, TCM is celebrating his birthday today by showing some of his earlier triumphs such as The Kid and Oliver Twist. As well they should, for they are classics. But in the end, as we all know, it all comes down to Uncle Fester. For all of us. We may all start out as adorable, irresistible babies…but we end up as bald, pop-eyed denizens of dusty old houses full of antiques.

Like many, I am a huge fan of the ABC sit-com The Addams Family (1964-1966). But I am also equally a fan of the CBS sit-com The Munsters which ran at the exact same time (1964-1966). “What’s the difference?!,” my best friend in high school used to rant, “They’re both shows about a family of monsters!” He used to take the position that the latter was just a rip-off of the former. As it happens, that wasn’t the case.

Both shows were developed independently, less a factor of coincidence, I think than zeitgeist. Charles Addams had been drawing his dark cartoons for The New Yorker since the late 1930s. Vampira began hosting old horror movies on television in 1954, and many similar corny comical horror hosts followed in her wake at local tv stations across the country. E.C. Comics published a long line of horror titles and, perhaps more significantly Mad Magazine. And American International Pictures, long known for low-budget horror, was beginning to camp it up with surf musicals and a new cycle of films starring Vincent Price, including horror-humor hybrids such as The Comedy of Terrors (1964). There is no doubt that Addams came first at his drawing board in the chronology I just laid out. BUT, as I shall demonstrate, The Munsters is very different.

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The Addams Family universe evolved organically out of 25 years of Addams’ cartoons. Inspired by Addams’ sensibility and guided by producer Nat Perrin (who’d written for the Marx Brothers), the show is elusive, sophisticated and very much a sui generis. It gives us a world not really too distant from this one. What on earth can I possibly mean, you wonder? Two words — they’ll mean something to you or they won’t: Grey Gardens. We are talking about a family of old money, so old that no one seems to know or care where it came from. In the case of The Addams Family the origins seem vaguely European, although it shares much in common with Southern Gothic. The family has clearly occupied its decaying mansion for generations, living in unwholesome isolation, and clearly inbreeding. The show isn’t even subtle about this ambiguity. Who is related to whom and how? It seems clear to me that Gomez (John Astin) and Morticia (Carolyn Jones) are related in ways other than, and previous to, husband and wife — cousins at the very least. No one works, their lives are spent entirely on time-killing hobbies and projects, often of a subversive (or perversive) nature. They are cheerfully eccentric and anti-social, preoccupied with thoughts of murder, destruction and doing the opposite of what’s expected. There is a Beatnik energy to the proceedings. They are cultured in a way that is most “un-American”. They recite poetry, do Yoga, and are gourmets and wine aficionados in a way that recalls Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. They are in a literary tradition. And while they surround themselves with monsters (Lurch, Thing, Cousin Itt, and the children’s various toys and pets), for the most part the Addams Family are just morbid people, with Uncle Fester and Grandmama (a witch) at the outer fringes.

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Conversely, true to their name The Munsters are monsters. In fact, literally so — all of the characters are based around, modeled upon, the Universal Studios horror franchises with patriach Herman (Fred Gwynne) clearly modeled on Frankenstein, and Grandpa (Al Lewis), Lily (Yvonne De Carlo) and Eddie (Butch Patrick) modeled on Dracula. Grandpa’s basement workshop (the “dungeon”) is a mad scientist lab. And the family periodically receives visits from other Universal monsters like The Invisible Man, the Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

While The Addams Family couldn’t possibly be more East Coast Establishment, The Munsters is totally West Coast, with its surfer theme music, its parody of Hollywood movies AND its satire of the American family as filtered through other sit-coms (My Three Sons springs immediately to mind, although probably more of the moment is the fact that the show’s producers were Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, whose previous tv hit was Leave it to Beaver.) Unlike the Addams Family, the Munsters strive to be a “normal” American family, or at least their version of it. Herman (much like another star of a similar parody of the time, Fred Flintstone) goes to work every day with his lunch box and punches in with his time card. Yes, he works at a funeral parlor, but he works. Unlike the Addams Family, the Munsters aren’t disengaged from the world around them, they aspire to be involved. They’re always answering and placing ads for things, joining clubs and so forth. People wind up at the home of the Addams Family by accident; the Munsters bring home new friends. They fail at fitting in for the most part, but unlike the Addams family they at least aspire to Keep Up with the Joneses. They are even automobile lovers with the “Munster-mobile” paving the way for other campy sit-com roadsters such as the Batmobile and Monkee-Mobile. Just a bunch of regular old American consumers.  One of the most eloquent aspects of this set-up is the character of Grandpa, the immigrant from “the Old Country”, an ingenious device, I think. For what were second and third generation hyphenated Americans doing in the mid twentieth century but trying to FIT IN?

And further, I would contend that The Munsters is satire as much as simple parody. For example, I consider Fred Gwynn’s work on this show a masterpiece of comic acting. “The big strong American male” is constantly revealed to be this simpering softy, hen-pecked (borderline Oedipal), and infantile in the extreme, literally jumping up and down and stamping his feet when he doesn’t get the toy that he wants (“I want it, I want it, I want it!”). Here’s a study in contrasts: whenever Morticia Addams speaks French, Gomez doesn’t even bother to conceal his frank, leering lust – – he attacks her on the spot, and she likes it. Herman Munster’s style is to give Lily a bashful peck on the cheek (as he does in the show’s credit sequence) and then rapidly change the subject. He’s not a man; he’s an overgrown boy and his wife is an uncomfortable authority figure. The character (and the situation) is definitely heir to stuff found in Laurel and Hardy comedies and The Honeymooners….and an ancestor, for sure, of Homer Simpson.

Which of the two shows is my favorite? Unless it isn’t already plain, I could never ever choose. Let us agree to divide the universe: we’ll watch The Munsters by day….and The Addams Family by night.

In Which We Wax Rhapsodic About “The Beverly Hillbillies”

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2015 by travsd
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The credit sequence, lifted whole cloth from “The Grapes of Wrath”

Today is the birthday of the great Irene Ryan. Today she is best remembered for playing Granny on the hit CBS sit com The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), although she had long career in vaudeville, radio and films prior to that (go here for my full biographical post about her).

But the time is well past for me to sing the praises of this highly influential tv show, which I grew up watching almost daily in reruns. It was cancelled from prime-time when I was six years old but its presence (at least in our home) only increased in syndication. The show’s country humor was greatly appreciated by my father. Though he was from the Smokey Mountain region and the fictional Clampetts were from the Ozarks, a hillbilly is a hillbilly, and anyway many of our extended family had moved west to Arkansas (where the Clampetts were supposed to be from) and Missouri (where the show’s creator Paul Henning was from).

Prior to creating The Beverly Hillbillies, Henning had written for Fibber McGee and Molly and Burns and Allen on radio, as well as the tv shows The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show and (his own creation) The Bob Cummings Show. There was much precedent in American pop culture for Henning’s kind of humor, from vaudeville and radio’s “Arkansas Traveler” to rural “Toby Shows” to the Ma and Pa Kettle film series to the comic strip Li’l Abner. Henning’s genius was to mash the rural folk humor up with contemporary movie star culture. The culture clash generated comedy; the comedy appealed to both rural and urban audiences, traditional and modern alike. Some found it “corny”; I’ve always found it witty. It’s vaudeville comedy through and through. Henning also composed the irresistible theme song.

Irene Ryan of The Beverly Hillbillies 3/5/1963

We often related our own southern grandmother to Granny though she was nothing like that character. Ryan’s portrayal was her finest screen work. I often think of her characterization as being very similar to Donald Duck. Very quick to anger and easy to agitate, always hopping up and down, and swatting people with brooms and pointing shotguns at them. She won well deserved Emmys for this work.

“Eee, doggy!”

As family patriarch Jed Clampett, show biz veteran Buddy Ebsen seemed to mine his entire past as a performer. Among countless rural characters he was perhaps best known at the time for having played Davy Crockett’s frontier sidekick. Easygoing, cheerful, unflappable, he usually got to deliver the best verbal jokes on the show, constructed out of his misunderstanding of the sophisticated characters he encountered as a nouveau riche oil millionaire. There’s one that has always stood out in my mind for some reason:

OTHER CHARACTER: Jethro went to Eton?!

JED: Sure! Why, I reckon Jethro went to eatin’ purty soon after he was born, I reckon!

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Beefcake nephew Jethro Bodine was played by Max Baer, Jr. son and nephew of two of the country’s best known heavyweight boxers. Over-exuberant, naive and possessed of superhuman strength, he was always getting into the same kind of trouble as Baby Huey and Herman Munster: always breaking things, running and tripping, and picking up pretty girls (literally, as though they were puppies or bags full of Halloween candy). On occasion, in the early seasons when they wanted to go truly lowbrow (which was often) Baer would also play his twin sister, Jethrine. The less said about that, the better.

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On the other hand, genuine eye candy was provided by Jed’s daughter Ellie May (Donna Douglas, who sadly passed away just this year). The comic idea behind Ellie May was almost identical to Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae, with the sexuality toned down a good deal for tv watching families. Rather than cut-offs, she wore full length blue jeans with a rope for a belt like Jethro. The joke was that here was this gorgeous girl but only outsiders (and the folks watching at home) would ever notice.

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In the early seasons, Bea Benadaret, formerly of The Burns and Allen Show, and also the voice of The Flinstones’ Betty Rubble would visit from time to time as Jethro’s trouble-making mother Pearl.

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Other memorable recurring guests included the bluegrass duo  of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs who would play themselves on the show, and also played on the theme song. This meant something in our house; we have every one of Flatt and Scrugg’s records.

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Then there was the family’s excitable, nervous, sycophantic banker Milburn Drysdale (Raymound Bailey), and his bird-watching, vanilla, sex-starved assistant Miss Hathaway (Nancy Kulp). These were the ones who always had to get the Clampetts out of whatever trouble they were in. (Half the time the Clampetts never realized they were in any trouble).

The Beverly Hillbillies was one of the most popular shows on the airwaves during its original nine year run. In the wake of its success, Henning also created the popular (and similar) shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. None was to last past the early 70s when the new fashion in television was set by the edgy, topical All in the Family. Since that show was just as influential on me (in other ways) I can hardly complain. Besides, there are always re-runs.

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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