Hi Bob

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(Pictured: Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart banter at the Emmys in 2002. She died in 2008; he celebrated his 93rd birthday earlier this month.) 

Fifty years ago tonight, on Saturday, September 16, 1972, The Bob Newhart Show premiered on CBS. It was in a comfortable slot, following The Mary Tyler Moore Show and preceding Mission: Impossible. (The Carol Burnett Show would not move to the 9PM Central timeslot until December of ’72.) I have been rewatching it lately, and it’s better than I remember. The show changed a lot between the pilot and the debut. The pilot aired as the ninth episode in November 1972 and it’s vastly different: Bob and Emily are trying to have a baby (something Newhart himself would veto later in the series’ run) and Emily is a ditzy sitcom wife, and not Bob’s intellectual equal, as she would become. The show that emerged afterward is a much better one. The first episode that aired is one of the series’ best-remembered: Emily joins Bob’s fear-of-flying group.

(Premiering on the same night as The Bob Newhart Show was Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about newlyweds played by Meredith Baxter and David Birney, who later married in real life. She’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, and comedy flows from the clash of cultures. Slotted between All in the Family, the #1 show on television, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it became a smash hit. But Bridget Loves Bernie faced criticism from Jewish groups almost immediately, and one of them organized an advertiser boycott. Although it ended up #5 in the ratings for the entire 1972-1973 TV season, CBS canceled it. I have seen a couple of episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie in recent years but have not deliberately sought them out. My suspicion is that after all this time, what offended religious leaders in 1972 would look pretty tame now.)

The next night, on Sunday, September 17, 1972, another new show premiered on CBS: M*A*S*H. It aired at 7PM Central, between Anna and the King, with Yul Brynner in a sitcom adaptation of The King and I, and The Sandy Duncan Show, a retooled version of Duncan’s 1971 series Funny Face. I wonder if the CBS scheduling people understood what the network had bought. The first episode, in which the surgeons raffle off a trip to Tokyo with a nurse, is remarkably raunchy for its time; it would have presented a jarring contrast with Anna and the King‘s comedy of manners and Sandy Duncan’s wacky cuteness. The first three seasons of M*A*S*H are filled with the same dark, cutting comedy. Certain episodes from those seasons do a better job of conveying the meaning and meaninglessness of war than later, more acclaimed episodes that more consciously strove to do that. I have seen some of the earliest episodes 20 or 30 times, and the best of them still hold up.

(Earlier in the same week, CBS also premiered Maude and The Waltons. The network’s development department had a very good year in 1972.)

M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and The Carol Burnett Show are still running, on broadcast TV outlets, cable channels, and streamers, 40 years and more after leaving the air. (Maude and The Waltons too, although they’re a bit harder to find.) They are not merely old, but “classic.” Fans of each were part of a mass audience sharing a communal viewing experience that lasted several years, even after the shows left network air, and the shows and their characters still resonate today.

That doesn’t really happen anymore, and to the extent it does, it’s on a much smaller scale. There’s just too much TV now, and audiences are splintered. Nothing can achieve the mass audience that old-fashioned “classic” status requires. In the 70s, hit shows routinely attracted 20 million viewers or more. Last month, Better Call Saul had the most talked-about series finale of the last several years, but the talk translated to 2.7 million viewers. (Ask a random person at your office if they saw it. Odds are they didn’t.)

In the future, there will still be “old” shows, and they are likely to find a home on some streaming service years after they go out of production. But they will not be classic in the sense that we apply to many beloved shows of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

One Night at the Firehouse

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(Pictured: L to R, Richard Pryor, Lou Gossett, David Cassidy, Shirley Jones, and Susan Dey in a still from “Soul Club.”)

I found this post in the archives the other day. 

January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.

On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole. The actor on that pole had been knocking around big-time showbiz since his first network TV appearance in 1964. He appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show doing Cosby-style standup, nothing like the revolutionary character-based material that would make him a household name beginning in 1974.

In the Partridge episode “Soul Club,” Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett play brothers who have opened the Firehouse as a neighborhood social club where “our people” can meet and hang out. They were expecting the Temptations to perform, but a booking agent screwup sent the Temps to Tucson and the Partridges to Detroit. Neighborhood boss Heavy, from whom Pryor and Gossett have borrowed the money to start up, is the one who orchestrated said screwup, and he threatens to call their note.

While hanging out in the club office (decorated with a Jimi Hendrix poster and one for famed California underground radio station KPPC), the Partridges get an idea: a block party, at which they’ll play, in hopes of making enough money to keep the club afloat. Keith says, “I’ve got an idea for a new song! It’s an Afro thing.” Pryor arranges it for a string section, which Danny recruits from the local Afro-American Cultural Society, and which is intended to stand for the local chapter of the Black Panthers. The block party is a hit (even if Keith’s song, “Bandala,” is about as African as Keith himself), the note is paid, the club is saved, and the Partridges promise to play there again someday. Palms are slapped and awkward soul shakes are exchanged, Danny is made an honorary member of the Afro-American Cultural Society complete with revolutionary black beret, there are laughs all around, and we fade to black.

According to David and Joe Henry, authors of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, “Soul Club” was a backdoor pilot for a future series starring Pryor and Gossett. It’s hard to know how serious the backdoor pilot talk really was. By 1971, the time was surely right for a TV series focused on African-American characters, but a series set in a club that supposedly attracted national acts would be tough to sustain without actually getting some of those acts to appear. (In addition to the Temptations, the name of James Brown is also dropped in “Soul Club.”) At that point, Gossett had more acting experience than Pryor, having previously co-starred in the Revolutionary War series The Young Rebels. Pryor was already earning a certain reputation for trouble. In her autobiography, Shirley Jones remarked that Pryor was “drugged up” during filming. He would return to small TV and movie roles for another three or four years.

TV historian Tom Hill ranks “Soul Club” at #81 on his list of the 100 best TV sitcom episodes of all time. In an era when popular entertainment prized “relevance,” it certainly had that, even while swaddled in a blanket of Hollywood cheese. And it’s one of those grand collisions between pop-culture icons you’d never expect to mention in the same breath.

If you watch, be sure to notice to the way the Black neighborhood is portrayed at first as an alien world, in which the Partridges are meant to stand for the viewer, who is presumed to be a fellow white suburbanite. (The idea of whiteness as the default condition of humanity is textbook white privilege.) “Soul Club”‘s attempt to bridge the gap between the white folks watching and “our people” is the kind of “relevance” that helped move network TV toward more inclusiveness, but it also reveals just how far was left to go in 1971.

Uncle Sam Wants You

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(Pictured: silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin appear at a Liberty Loan drive during World War I.)

If you are of a certain age, you remember savings bonds. You may have owned one, or been given one as a gift. A savings bond was essentially a loan of money from a purchasing citizen (your grandmother, for example) to the federal government. Upon maturity, the bond could be cashed in for the amount of the principal plus interest. This kind of citizen funding had a long history in America, going back to the Revolution and the Civil War.

Sales of bonds during the world wars were frequently promoted by celebrities, especially movie stars. In the postwar era, without the urgency of a war to spark sales, the government continued to rely on celebrities to create interest, although these latter-day endorsements were of a somewhat different sort. Mr. Ed, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best produced special episodes designed to promote bond sales. They were not intended for broadcast; they were more likely to be shown at school assemblies and other civic presentations. They were usually short, although Father Knows Best did a full-length episode in which the Andersons subject their kids to 24 hours under totalitarian rule designed to show them the importance of investing in freedom, or something like that.

As the 1980s began, the American economy, struggling with the oil shocks and the end of the post-World War II economic boom, was in turmoil amid inflation and budget deficits. And so the U.S. government started promoting savings bond sales again. As in the 1950s and early 60s, several popular sitcoms produced special short episodes encouraging people to buy bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, in which a portion of your paycheck was deducted to buy bonds. Cheers, Taxi, Benson, and WKRP in Cincinnati all made such episodes.

The WKRP episode, titled “A Sure Thing,” is dated 1980; “Uncle Sam Malone” is dated 1983. Where the bond drives during the World Wars stressed the patriotic aspects of buying them, the focus was now entirely on what buying bonds could do for you. The basic premise of each episode is largely the same: one or more characters is skeptical about buying bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, but the rest of the cast persuades them of its awesomeness. (In the Cheers episode, Diane and Carla are skeptics; at WKRP, it’s Herb and Johnny.) The Cheers episode is actually funny, or at least it benefits from the presence of a live audience (or a laugh track). In the WKRP episode, the jokes, such as they are, fall flat, especially without the benefit of audience laughter. Both episodes require a lot of exposition; the Cheers episode leavens it with jokes, but the WKRP episode drones on and on. The WKRP episode ends with Johnny Fever in the studio playing “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. One online writer speculates that permission for the song must have cost a bundle; I wonder if it was maybe a public-service freebie, just like the rest of the production.

My usual half-assed research process has not uncovered the Taxi or Benson episodes online. This kind of long-form public service announcement soon fell out of fashion, although the casts of television programs would continue to make shorter PSAs for various causes now and then, and still do, occasionally.

You can still buy savings bonds today, although you can’t tuck them into a grandchild’s birthday card. Paper bonds were discontinued in 2012; they’re entirely digital now. When the government can run on deficit spending forever, borrowing money directly from citizens who give money explicitly for that purpose is superfluous. The Payroll Savings Plan still exists too, but if you have a 401K, you’re probably not interested. Diane Chambers was excited about a seven-percent rate of return; series EE bonds issued between now and April 2022 are guaranteed to double in value after 30 years, but the annual interest rate is one-tenth of one percent, so if you cash out before then, you’ll get practically nothing.

The Internet may have poisoned discourse and made many of our fellow citizens functionally insane, but it has also helped preserve this sort of ephemera to remember. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.

The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV

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(Pictured: an elephant watching TV. Mouse over or click the image to read the original Getty Images caption, which is a journey.)

I wrote a few weeks ago how back in the day, before cable and streamers and YouTube, we watched whatever was on broadcast TV. I thought of it again the other morning after going down a rabbit hole involving The Prize Movie With Ione, which ran on WLS-TV in Chicago on weekday mornings from 1967 til 1975. A 1993 Chicago magazine article described it as “a live, low-budget comedy/variety/game show and fitness program with a call-in talk feature” that also featured heavily edited old movies. Its host, Ione Citrin, was up for anything—wearing odd costumes, ad-libbing with phone callers participating in contests, and/or doing calisthenics. In Chicago at that time, you had maybe six channels to choose from, and if you weren’t interested in watching Concentration on one of them or a sitcom rerun on another, Ione was a pleasant companion while you did chores, wrangled your pre-school kids, or sat on your couch smoking cigarettes.

The Prize Movie With Ione throws back to a bygone era in television: when local stations employed personalities who were not necessarily associated with the news department. They frequently hosted a movie in the morning or afternoon, and clowned around during breaks, as Ione did. Actor Tim Conway and future voice-over titan Ernie Anderson gained fame in the same role on a local station in Cleveland. (The Whose Line Is It Anyway pitchman routine, so hilariously done by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, is a direct parody.)

Many stations aired local afternoon shows for kids. On WISC-TV here in Madison, ventriloquist Howie Olson hosted Circus 3 with sidekick Cowboy Eddie. At WKOW, Marsh Shapiro was Marshall the Marshal. (Shapiro was a sort of Renaissance man; in addition to the TV kids’ show, his main job was news director at WKOW Radio. He also anchored sports on TV and founded the Nitty Gritty, a popular local restaurant, besides.)

WKOW employed two other personalities who are remembered by a few elderly viewers today. Big John Schermerhorn (always “Big John,” never just “John”) started as a sports anchor, but was better known as the host of a locally produced polka show called Dairyland Jubilee that aired statewide, and for hosting the station’s annual March of Dimes telethon, before his death in 1974. Luella Mortenson went back even further, hosting local homemaker shows practically from the station’s first days on the air in 1953.

Local personalities would often be tasked with hosting Dialing for Dollars. Dialing for Dollars was actually a franchised feature licensed to local TV markets, although I suspect that many stations ran similar features without coughing up a franchise fee. A name and number would be drawn from submitted entries, and sometimes directly from the local phone book. The host would place a call to the number, and the person answering had to come up with a secret word announced at the beginning of the show, or the amount in a cash jackpot. If they got it right, they won. If not, the jackpot increased and rolled over to the next day. It made for compelling TV in an era when we could be compelled for less than it takes today. At my house, during summer noontimes, we would wait for the phone to ring, even though we didn’t expect it to.

Dialing for Dollars and programs like it began disappearing in the 1970s, a victim of changing times. (The Prize Movie With Ione went off the air in 1975 partly because WLS-TV needed to air a new ABC network show called Good Morning America.) Locally produced programming cost money where taking a network feed did not; it became more important to spend personnel budget on newscasts, which were flagship programs and frequently made money in crates. After that, if a station needed a “personality” for something, the job often fell to the weatherman (who was not necessarily a trained meteorologist, as most TV weather people are today). Frequently, he (and occcasionally, she) became the one who hosted the telethons, made public appearances, and participated in station stunts.

Every TV market in the country had its local personalities in the era when such a thing was popular. Let’s hear about the ones you remember.

A Summer With the Big Three

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(Pictured: Gina Lollobrigida in 1968. Va va va voom, as they said back then.)

There’s a list at Wikipedia that shows weekly TV ratings from 1948 through 2014. The page shows the top-rated show of most weeks and links to a source with a more detailed list. Alas, a lot of the links go to paywalled sites (which renders the page less than completely useful as a research tool), but as a high-level look at what we were watching over time, it’s pretty interesting.

In 1977, the TV season ended in April. (The May ratings sweeps that extended the season did not exist yet.) In any summer, until the new season began in September, the vast majority of primetime network programming would be reruns. Sometimes, popular episodes of the top shows would be similarly popular in reruns—with no home video or streaming, reruns were the only place to catch episodes you missed—but oddballs would often break through, too. The 1977 summer ratings winners were quite the smorgasbord. Some observations follow:

—Before the wide availability of premium cable and the advent of home video, network television was the only place to see Hollywood movies once they left theaters. (Few were important enough to get theatrical re-releases.) The network TV debuts of Gone With the Wind in 1976 and The Godfather in 1977 were enormous cultural events, but lesser theatrical films regularly drew big numbers, sometimes big enough to win the week. In the summer of 1977, the weekly ratings were topped at various times by High Plains Drifter, The Cheyenne Social Club, The Scalphunters, Breakout, and Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell—three westerns, an adventure set in Mexico, and, oddly, a 1968 Italian comedy starring Gina Lollobrigida. (The latter looks to have won almost by default during one of the lowest-rated weeks of the entire summer.) Theatrical movies would never again win as many summer weeks as they did in 1977.

—Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his boxing fame in 1977 and was a big-enough TV star to win the ratings. In May, he won a unanimous decision over Alfredo Evangelista, a fight so dreadful—Ali out of shape and barely trying, Evangelista basically a tomato can—that Howard Cosell apologized to the ABC audience during the broadcast for having shown it. Nevertheless, it drew 17.7 million viewers to rate #1. In September, Ali would have the #1 show on TV again, winning his last successful title defense against Earnie Shavers, a fight Shavers very nearly won.

—Although a lot is made every year about the terrible ratings for the baseball All-Star Game, NBA Finals, and World Series when compared to past years, such games still tend to rate well compared to the other stuff on network TV in any given week. (This year, the All Star Game ranked third for the week, behind two NBA Finals games.) So it was in the 70s, when the All-Star Game was routinely the #1 show of the week, as it was in 1977.

Charlie’s Angels had premiered in the fall of 1976, but it didn’t reach #1 in the weekly ratings until the summer of 1977, when it was the most-watched show of the week seven times. Its 1977 season premiere in September also won the ratings race, but it would hit #1 only one more time, with its 1979 season premiere.

—The oddest show to top the ratings in the summer of 1977 was Man From Atlantis starring Patrick Duffy. The show had premiered in the spring as a series of TV movies. The fourth movie was #1 for the week of June 20, 1977—a first-run program bobbing to the top in a sea of reruns. The movies were successful enough that Man From Atlantis was permitted to dock on NBC’s regular fall schedule, but it soon sank without a trace.

Somebody else will have to do a scholarly examination of ratings and trends—I’m just poking through the wreckage of the 1970s looking for shiny stuff. So there are completely different posts I could write. For example, in 1975, reruns of All in the Family were #1 in most weeks, just as the first-run episodes had been during the regular season. Stuff that barely registers today was must-see TV: in 1975, 1976, and 1978, the Miss Universe pageant was the #1 show the week it was broadcast, beating even the All-Star Game in 1975.

In a gazillion-channel universe, with cable and streamers and YouTube, you go looking for something to watch and you generally find it. In the three-channel universe, we watched whatever was on, and if that turned out to be two hours of Gina Lollobrigida, then hell yeah.

Watch this space for more summer-of-1977 content later this week. Also: a new Sidepiece went out this morning. Check your spam filter. 

What I Learned From 70s TV

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(Pictured: Buddy Ebsen, star of Barnaby Jones, 1976.)

We learn a lot about life based on the media we consume, and it’s been true for almost 100 years. When Paul Henried put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, and handed one to Bette Davis in the 1942 movie Now Voyager, a whole generation of men took notice. Television brought role models into every home: teenagers learned how to dress and talk and move from other teens on TV; millions of aspiring rock musicians were born the night the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. Suburban kids who have never met a Black person adopt the look and speech patterns of rappers. Young athletes spike the ball and flip the bat like the pros do. Grown-ass adults internalize what they see on TV as the “right” way to behave, until they’re acting like reality show divas, or electing one president.

I am a child of the 1970s, and like everyone else, I was shaped by what I saw on TV growing up. I was less overt about it than many; apart from briefly wishing I could be cool like Keith Partridge, I didn’t set out to imitate anyone specifically. But I did learn some life lessons, especially from watching cop shows. The trouble is that now, decades later, when I rewatch those same shows, like Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and Barnaby Jones, I find that many of the lessons I learned from them are untrue.

For example, there’s a lot less diabolical laughter than I was taught to expect. Real-life villains don’t waste time laughing about their plans; they just go off and be bad. Related: in real life, people tend to laugh at jokes, or things that are clearly funny. On 70s TV, it was common for people to react to disappointment or surprise by laughing uncontrollably, which you just don’t see on your average day.

There is also a lot less slow-acting poison being administered on the average day. Your boss never comes to you at 10AM (laughing diabolically) and says he poisoned your coffee, and that if you want the antidote, you’ll have to finish your project by the end of the day. Related: 70s TV cop shows taught us that it is very easy to put poison in somebody’s beverage, and that they will drink it without noticing anything and fall over stone dead within a couple of minutes. Sadly, this is not true in real life, however convenient it might be.

There is also a lot less truth serum and hypnosis being used in real life than I expected. Practically nobody is faking his or her own death, and real-life plastic surgeons aren’t nearly as skillful as the ones on TV.

I expected a lot more people to have hidden caches of diamonds, and/or to be sucked into quicksand.

In my adult life I have learned, contrary to what I saw on cop shows, that if you punch a guy in the face once, you probably won’t kill him. Also, a person who is knocked out cold or diagnosed with a concussion will not be able to return to normal activities within minutes or hours. Joe Mannix could do it—repeatedly—but not you or me.

In the real world, as opposed to the world of 70s TV cop shows, a car that goes off the road and down into a ditch or ravine will not automatically explode like Hiroshima.

One other thing I have learned from watching 70s TV cop shows in the new millennium that I didn’t know back then: apparently, none of these shows had anybody on staff whose job it was to say, “this script sucks and we shouldn’t do it.”

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