Category Archives: TV

Context Gets Lost

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(Pictured: Robert Klein, in an acting role on Love American Style, 1973.)

It’s time again to plunder my drafts file for fragments that never added up to a full post.

If you read the history of modern stand-up comedy, you’ll notice how many major stars, up to Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld, mention Robert Klein as an influence. His most famous of several albums is Child of the 50s, which came out in 1973. Comedy does not always translate over time. Styles change, context gets lost, new comics shift the paradigm of what’s funny. But Child of the 50s is still consistently hilarious 45 years after its original release. Although Klein’s growing-up stories are set in a faraway time and for many of us, a faraway place—the Bronx—they’re still relatable, because we all dealt with school discipline, subtitute teachers, and lunch ladies. We all watched TV shows that annoyed us, listened to the radio, dealt with surly retail clerks, and tried to get a date. The reference points have changed, but the experiences remain universal.

You can hear all of Child of the 50s here. It’s observational like Seinfeld and absurdist like Martin, but at the same time firmly in the stand-up mainstream of the early 1970s. Klein’s act wasn’t so foreign that a network variety show couldn’t book him.

On the subjects of television and of lost context, there’s this:  

The CBS reboot of Murphy Brown was big news at our house because we loved the original series. But boy is the new Murphy not good. At its best, the original series delivered uprorariously funny takes ripped from the headlines; the reboot just can’t. The show’s attempts to mock and/or parody Trump, Republicans, and conservative media come off either too broad or just toothless. Yes, our current reality is hard to satirize. But the new Murphy Brown is positively wheezing; you can almost see the cast worrying that it just ain’t funny.

It seems obvious that Murphy Brown‘s audience will be people who watched the show 25 years ago, but the producers, and possibly CBS too, are reluctant to accept it. In fact, the single best joke in the entire reboot so far was ruined because of that reluctance. Tyne Daly, who plays the crusty owner of Phil’s, the bar where Murphy and her colleagues hang out, delivers a speech about her toughness that ends with “I spent 20 years in one of the toughest divisions of the NYPD.” The audience in the studio—and in the living room at our house—laughs uproariously at the cleverness of the callback to Daly’s role as a detective on Cagney and Lacey. Instead of leaving well-enough alone, however, the writers add the line, “Parking enforcement.” Which turns a funny bit of fan service into a lame joke that could have been on Sgt. Bilko 60 years ago.

And finally: last summer, somebody tweeted a record chart from 1974 and asked, “Worst year ever?” This bit was a response that never went anywhere.

When the list of #1 hits includes “The Streak,” “Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” “Annie’s Song,” “The Night Chicago Died,” and “You’re Having My Baby,” all of which topped the Hot 100 between Memorial Day and Labor Day 1974, it makes you wonder. American taste had gotten mushy during that Watergate year. It would take somebody smarter than me to explain what happened between the spring of 1973 and the summer of 1974 to make this happen to the Top 40. Soul music was turning to disco, novelty records and earworms with the artistic depth of commercial jingles were becoming massive hits, and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll was scarce. Maybe the news from Washington was so bad that we thought silly, non-threatening music could take our minds off of it.

I was about to say that if that last bit had been true in 1974, we’d be up to our ears in silly, non-threatening music in 2018. But a recent piece at Pitchfork argues that today’s hits actually reflect our morose times and our uncertain future pretty well. But those reflections are far more passive than those of two generations ago. In a world of streaming, shuffling, and skipping, music doesn’t get in our faces like it used to. Neither do the people who make it. Their main job, and the job of their music, is simply to be there when we turn it on.  

Please tune in again next time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, or whatever the hell this is. 

“I Didn’t Know You Were Gonna Kill It!”

In 2009, I wrote about It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and every year in October that post gets a little bump in traffic. So here’s a reboot of it, with some additional stuff added.

Every time I watch The Great Pumpkin, I wonder how much of it goes sailing over the heads not merely of today’s kids, but of their parents’, too. . . . “I don’t see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one. You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see.” Never mind the vocabulary itself; today, placing such high stakes on sincerity versus hypocrisy seems about as quaint as worrying about the commercialization of Christmas, which is the point around which A Charlie Brown Christmas revolves.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the third animated Peanuts special, following A Charlie Brown Christmas and the little-seen Charlie Brown’s All Stars, and like its two predecessors, it was among the highest-rated programs on television the week it aired—nearly 50 percent of the viewing audience watched the premiere on October 27, 1966. It won’t draw that kind of numbers when it’s rebroadcast on ABC this year, although it does well enough. If you plan to watch the network broadcast, keep in mind that when the show was originally produced, it ran 25 minutes. The standard for commercial TV today is 21 or 22, and sometimes less in “children’s” programming, so you may not be seeing the whole thing. According to Wikipedia, ABC once cut out the scene in which Lucy tries to get Charlie Brown to kick the football, one of the classic bits in the history of the Peanuts strip. That’s like trying to shorten “Stairway to Heaven” by taking out the guitar solo.

There’s a lot to love about The Great Pumpkin—the early scenes featuring golden fall leaves are gorgeous, and all throughout the show the backgrounds are rich with shades of gray and purple. And of course, there’s the music. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soundtrack features of Vince Guaraldi’s cool, contemporary jazz. The choice to score the Christmas special with jazz hadn’t pleased CBS when that special was first delivered, but its success ensured that all future specials would feature the same sort of thing.

The soundtrack from A Charlie Brown Christmas is an album that sounds good even in July. It has always been a mystery to me why there has never been a Great Pumpkin soundtrack album. The full-band version of “Linus and Lucy” that backs the kids’ search for a Halloween pumpkin has been on my most-wanted list for years; the atmospheric music that underscores Snoopy’s World War I adventure behind enemy lines (a piece called “Breathless”) is much-sought-after by fans of the specials and of Guaraldi. Although Guaraldi recorded a version of “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” for the 1968 album Oh Good Grief!, nothing else from the special ever saw official release.

Here in 2018, however, The Great Pumpkin soundtrack is finally out—but buyer beware. According to the Peanuts-centric website FiveCentsPlease, the soundtrack is just that: the music and effects track from the special, and not original master tapes from the soundtrack sessions like A Charlie Brown Christmas. That means you’ll hear Linus rolling the giant pumpkin and Lucy stabbing it; when the kids are getting their candy, you’ll hear it dropping into the bags; Snoopy’s trek across the French countryside will have all the accompanying sound effects with it as well. Tapes of the original soundtrack sessions from 1966 are apparently lost, so the soundtrack release has been sourced from the TV audio. That means it’s in mono, and although it’s been cleaned up as much as possible by Craft Recordings, the quality is still not great. The CD is being sold at Amazon for $11.98, but it runs only about 20 minutes. So there are lots of reasons not to buy it, and you don’t need to. It’s on various streaming sites and at YouTube in its entirety.

But the disappointment of its official soundtrack doesn’t detract from the greatness of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. While it lacks the philosophical heft of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it has a level of sophistication and subtlety that’s missing from broadcast TV today. When it’s rebroadcast this coming Friday night, it’ll be the smartest thing on any of the broadcast networks—by a mile.

The Blue Years

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(Pictured: NYPD Blue‘s David Caruso looks askance.)

(Note to patrons: we have a TV category at this blog and we’re not afraid to use it. As the old network disclaimers used to say, this program contains strong language. Reader discretion advised.)

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Special Midnights

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(Pictured: Aerosmith on The Midnight Special.)

If you read this blog regularly, you are probably old enough to remember when TV stations signed off the air at night, although you don’t have to be all that old. It was the early 90s before 24/7 operation became the norm in most places across the country. Before that, it didn’t make economic sense to stay on all night, given the difficulty of selling advertising in that time slot and the perception that the audiences would be tiny.

But how tiny were they, really? In 1972, producer Burt Sugarman realized that half of the people watching TV late at night watched Johnny Carson on NBC, and surely not all of them wanted to turn off their TVs when the show was over. Sugarman pitched NBC on a late-night music show featuring the best acts he could get, but NBC turned it down. So Sugarman taped a pilot, sold the show to Chevrolet, and bought the airtime himself. The August 19, 1972, broadcast of what Sugarman christened The Midnight Special was a hit and caused NBC to take a second look. In February 1973, the show began its regular run, Friday nights at 1AM Eastern.

Over the next eight years, nearly everybody who was anybody appeared on the show. None of the solo Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who ever appeared, but the show welcomed a wide variety of acts nonetheless, including some who were not your typical TV fodder, from Black Oak Arkansas to King Crimson to Aerosmith (in 1974, two years before they became major stars) to AC/DC (in 1978). Country, R&B, and disco acts also appeared, as did standup comics including Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, and Freddie Prinze. Most performances were recorded live at NBC in Burbank, although some were taped elsewhere, most famously David Bowie’s 1980 Floor Show, his last performance as Ziggy Stardust, recorded in London and aired in November 1973. Most acts performed live, although sometimes they sang live to recorded backing tracks, and every now and then somebody would lip-sync. Acts were not discouraged from changing things up or stretching them out, as the Edgar Winter Group did on “Frankenstein,” which runs nine mind-blowing minutes. Fleetwood Mac’s extended “Rhiannon,” in which Stevie Nicks transforms into a rock goddess, is also an all-timer.

It wasn’t just the artists who were encouraged to experiment: if you watch the “Frankenstein” video, you’ll see that the director got into the act, too. Some of the directors’ choices don’t look so great now. They frequently filled the screen with head shots of performers, and if a band had multiple members, they often called for a split-screen head shot, as when Orleans did “Dance With Me” in 1975. The close head shots were often unflattering. Many performers wore no TV makeup, and many of the top bands of the 70s had members who were dumpy-looking and/or poorly groomed. The close head shots could be frustrating. In the case of Orleans, the three singers are shown close up, but the poor drummer bangs away anonymously in a wide shot. (I keep thinking of his mom, staying up late, excited to see him on TV, and then seeing that.) In this performance by Heart, the camera focuses on Ann Wilson and ignores Nancy Wilson completely.

Any TV show from the 70s is going to feature fashions that are hilarious now, and The Midnight Special is no exception. Aretha Franklin performed “Respect” in a dress that made her look like a half-plucked Big Bird. Todd Rundgren opted for a rather unfortunate butterfly costume to perform “Hello It’s Me.” (In their defense, of course, we all wore stuff back then that seemed like a good idea at the time.)

It wasn’t MTV that killed The Midnight Special; it was the changing landscapes of popular music and television, and the fragmenting of the audience. Beginning in the fall of 1980, the show featured many more country and light pop acts than rock stars, along with movie clips and celebrity profiles, as producers flailed around trying to find a formula that would stay relevant. In the end, going for mass appeal was no longer the way to score big ratings, even after midnight. On March 27, 1981, the final original episode of The Midnight Special aired on NBC. It was replaced in May by another underrated television classic, SCTV Network 90.

Clips from The Midnight Special are valuable not just to fans but to students of history. The show preserves a lot of the most popular and influential music ever made (and some of its most ephemeral, too) in its natural habitat. Historians don’t often have the luxury of seeing the past exactly as it was.

(Rebooted from a post originally appearing in 2008.)

The Midnight Four

There is nothing on television more reliably entertaining than the 70s incarnation of Match Game. Find it on cable (or put in a DVD—a set exists, and I own it) and you’re guaranteed a good time for however long you watch. Watch it for the hilarious interactions among the panelists (there was an open bar backstage to keep everybody loose), the smutty questions and smuttier answers, the eye-burning orange set, the average people dropped into this goofy maelstrom as contestants, or the quick wit of host Gene Rayburn, who knew that no matter what happened, the producers intended to keep the cameras rolling, and it would be up to him to make something out of it.

Rayburn’s ability to make entertainment out of Match Game‘s chaos was no accident. He is considered a pioneer of the modern morning radio show format, having dominated the ratings in New York City during the late 1940s with two different partners, Jack Lescoulie and Dee Finch. He was appearing on TV by the early 50s, and hosted the original Match Game beginning in 1962, along with other game shows. In addition to his TV work, he remained on radio throughout the 60s and 70s, hosting segments on NBC’s weekend Monitor service.

But my intended focus in this post is not on the show or on Rayburn. It’s on what might be the single best part of Match Game: its theme music. The Match Game theme was developed by Score Productions, a company whose contributions to television history should be much more celebrated than they are. Score has been providing theme music since 1963, for soap operas, news and sports shows, and especially for game shows.

The best-known composer who worked for Score is probably Charles Fox, who wrote or co-wrote themes for Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Love Boat, Love American Style, and other shows, as well as Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” Before I started researching this post, I guessed that the Match Game theme was by synthesizer wizard Edd Kalehoff, who famously wrote and performed a number of TV themes that are still making him big money today, including The Price Is Right. But the Match Game theme is actually the creation of Score Productions founder Robert Israel. The theme even has a name—“The Midnight Four.”

(Edd Kalehoff is best seen in this fabulous 1970s commercial for Schaefer Beer. Until 2011, he was married to Andrea McArdle, the onetime child actress who became famous playing Little Orphan Annie on Broadway in the late 70s. You cannot imagine how thrilled I was, in the course of researching this post, to find a connection to someone as far removed from its original premise as Andrea McArdle. Welcome to my thought process, everybody.)

When ABC revived Match Game a couple of years ago with Alec Baldwin as host, its decision to keep “The Midnight Four” was a smart one. It’s one of the most recognizable and evocative themes in any program genre. The rest of the modern Match Game revival fails to live up to its 70s predecessor, but the music remains undeniably great.

Something Unpredictable

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(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 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.

To wit:

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