(Pictured: Ellie Kemper, Marisa Tomei, Woody Harrelson, and Ike Barinholtz as the Stivics and the Bunkers.)
This website has a TV category and we use it to deviate from the normal run of stuff around here. This post started as a Twitter thread, but I’ve turned it into a full post, since not everybody who visits here uses Twitter or follows me. (If you use Twitter and don’t follow me, what’s up with that?)
As a child of the 70s who grew up with the original shows, I found ABC’s live, one-night-only reboot of All in the Family and The Jeffersons earlier this week to be a worthwhile 90 minutes, if not a flawless one. Here’s what I think I think:
The cast was studded with stars: Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei played Archie and Edith, with Ellie Kemper and Ike Barinholtz as Gloria and Mike; Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes were George and Louise Jefferson, with Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell playing next-door neighbors the Willises. But Harrelson, Tomei, and Foxx made the creative decision to play the characters the way Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton, and Sherman Hemsley played them in the 70s, instead of finding their own interpretation. Tomei couldn’t help but be charming as Edith, but Harrelson’s attempt to capture O’Connor’s body language as Archie made him look like he had some sort of spasmodic condition. While Foxx’s Hemsley was uncannily accurate, it got in the way of the storytelling. Sykes, Kemper, Barinholtz, Washington, Ferrell, and other members of the supporting cast were better. (Honesty compels me to report, however, that I’m predisposed to like whatever Ellie Kemper does. I’d watch her sit in a chair and read a book for two hours if somebody would put it on TV. And Wanda Sykes is usually the best part of whatever she’s in.)
One of the things inexperienced radio jocks do is to correct every mistake they make—if they flub a word, they repeat it, and often explicitly call attention to what they’ve done. But you learn with experience that unless your mother is listening, nobody is paying attention as closely as you are, and you eventually let the small flubs go by. Foxx fluffed a line about 15 minutes into the show and stopped to say, “It’s live. Everyone sittin’ at home just thinks their TV messed up.” He said it while staying in character, which caused the whole cast to break up. But the original fluff was so small that The Mrs. and I didn’t catch it at first, and when we backed up the DVR, we could still barely detect it.
I am just cynical enough to wonder if the producers didn’t ask him to intentionally blow a line just to remind people the show was live. When Sykes fluffed another line later in the show, she just kept going.
The Jeffersons episode contained two instances of the word “nigger,” which were awkwardly bleeped. In a brief documentary that followed the live show, Kerry Washington said she was “proud” of the way the cast and producers had decided to bleep the word instead of altering the original 1973 script. But bleeping the words was a cop-out. One of the stated goals of presenting these programs in 2019 was to show how their subject matter still resonates. The intrusion of modern political correctness made that resonance less pointed than it might otherwise have been.
The best part of the whole thing might have been Jennifer Hudson’s show-stopping performance of the Jeffersons theme. Either that or the surprise appearance of 87-year-old Marla Gibbs, who returned to her 70s role as Florence the maid, and who got the single funniest line of the night, when she notes George and Weezy’s deluxe apartment in the sky and the Willises’ maid and says, “How come we overcame and nobody told me?”
The sharp, topical writing of these shows was a powerful reminder of how network TV could reflect the cultural and political realities of the 1970s without being preachy—and a reminder also that shows like these simply couldn’t be made today. The live 90-minute special was a huge hit (by standards of 2019, if not 1973—10.4 million viewers), and that likely means that we’ll see more live, one-time-only reboots of classic sitcoms. But there are precious few shows that would repeat as well as All in the Family and The Jeffersons did.
If you watched the live show, please weigh in with your opinions of it below.
(The first part of this post has been sitting in my drafts file since at least 2015. I used part of it for a post at my radio station’s blog, back when I used to contribute to that, but this is its first time here. I have added some relevant links that have appeared since I first wrote this.)
I am a big fan of Mitchell Hadley’s It’s About TV, especially his posts digging into old editions of TV Guide. They’re the spiritual cousin of my One Day in Your Life posts. The big events get attention in history class, but perhaps we can better understand how it really felt to live while those big events were unfolding if we imagine them projected against the backdrop of life’s daily details. After all, that’s how we actually experienced them.
There are two kinds of TV Guide posts at It’s About TV—discussions of a particular week’s issue and day-by-day summaries of the listings themselves. Educational programs and news early in the morning, soap operas and game shows all day (with a break for local news at noontime), cartoons and off-network repeats for kids in the late afternoon (and a surprising number of movies—it was once common practice for stations to air a movie from, say, 3:30 to 5:00), network primetime, and a couple of shows or a movie after the late local news before sign-off.
The rhythm of our days is defined more by television than we realize, I think. For many Midwesterners, the 10:00 local news marks the end of the evening and time to go to bed, so you get in your eight hours before rising at 6 for another day. When I travel in the Eastern time zone, I never get used to the idea that primetime is an hour later out there.
Television used to define the rhythm of our days in other ways. During the week, the TV stations marched in step, with a different program every 30 or 60 minutes. Saturdays were not entirely like that. Game of the Week started at 1:00 and got over sometime between 3 and 4, and it would be left to the local affiliates to pick up afterward. Ours would frequently start an episode of Star Trek right after the game and show it without commercials so it would end at 4:00. One of our local stations would occasionally bust out an episode of Twilight Zone as a time-filler, and it was always a treat to stumble upon it, unlisted in TV Guide.
Late at night, TV stations stopped bowing to the tyranny of the half-hour. They’d start a movie at 11:40 or 12:20, as if to say, “It’s late, we’re off the clock, who cares.” Late-night TV looked different, too. There were not nearly as many regional and national commercials as there are now. Most of the ads you saw late at night were for local businesses, produced by local stations. It was common for a single business, often a car dealer, to sponsor the late movie, and get a spot—often repetitive, silly, or annoying—in every break. You’d see a lot of public service announcements, too, often on grainy film scratched from repeated use, or slightly out of focus.
I liked to watch the TV stations sign off, play the National Anthem, maybe put up color bars, or just go to static. At that point, there was nothing left to watch, and you might as well go to bed. Or fall asleep with the light of the unblinking screen until the early news, Sunrise Semester, or some noisy cartoon restarts the rhythm for yet another day.
One More Different Thing: I was sorry to learn of the passing this week of Earl Thomas Conley. During the 1980s, only Alabama and Ronnie Milsap recorded more #1 country hits than Conley. His 1981 #1 hit “Fire and Smoke” is an all-time fave of mine, as is the insanely great “Your Love’s on the Line” from 1983. As a country-radio jock during the first half of the 80s, I knew that whenever a new Conley record showed up in the studio, it was going to be good. While I didn’t love every one of them, few stars of the time had a higher batting average with me.
When a new generation hit at the end of the 80s—the Class of ’89, which included Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson—Conley’s star dimmed, but he stayed on the road for years thereafter. He’d suffered from dementia in recent years and died at 77.
(Pictured: Charley Pride on The Johnny Cash Show, circa 1969.)
The PBS series American Masters, which has been profiling prominent American artists (along with the occasional athlete and journalist) since 1986, is generally awesome, and not enough people talk about how awesome it is. Last month, the show spotlighted Sammy Davis Jr., and Charley Pride during the same week. Davis, whose array of talents is matched by very few in the history of American showbiz, came off as a man always desperate for approval, not just of the audience but of his peers, and willing to make questionable choices in hopes of receiving it. That he stoically endured countless hours of racist abuse onstage from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin indicates to me that he felt it was part of the price he had to pay for their friendship, and by extension, for his popularity with white America. His literal embrace of Richard Nixon feels as if it came from the same needy place.
As for Pride, somebody said on Twitter the other day that the only person who doesn’t think Charley Pride is one of the coolest cats on Earth appears to be Charley Pride himself. His music is the essence of country, and his journey—from Mississippi sharecropper to Montana-based professional baseball player to stardom in a genre where he literally stood alone—is the kind of biography nobody will ever have again. His American Masters profile was one of the best hours of television I’ve watched in ages, and you can watch it right here.
Back in 2011, I wrote about one of Pride’s iconic hit records, and how it told a truth that a lot of today’s country-music fans don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. What follows is a piece of that post.
There’s a whole subgenre of country music devoted to songs about the simple pleasures of small town or rural life, songs that idealize the places where the high-school team nickname is painted on the water tower, where everybody believes in Jesus, etc. It’s easy to view the popularity of this sort of thing as a reaction to the world we live in. Compared to our harried urban existence, with its tenuous prosperity and impermanent personal relationships, and the way it randomly deals out fortune and tragedy, a world bounded by solid, simple, unchanging values is extremely attractive. It’s no wonder people caught in the former might want to gravitate to the latter. Because music has such power in our lives, songs about those values grab hard and hold on tight.
But, if given the chance, would people really give up modern urbanized life for a country idyll? Would they give up satellite TV and the Internet for sitting on the front porch at sunset? Would they give up the multiplex for the fishing hole, the megamart for the small-town general store, the sports bar with HD flat-screens for the Dew Drop Inn? Some might, but others may find that in their souls, they’re not so down-home after all.
There’s a song about this. Charley Pride, who’s as down-home as they come, recorded “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” which sounds like a nostalgic encomium to a simple life on the farm—beautiful rural vistas, Uncle Ben milking the cows, Mama in the kitchen. But it’s revealed that Uncle Ben is working the farm because Daddy is working a second job in town “to pay our bill at the grocery store.” And in the final verse, Pride says that when he thinks about his childhood and his old hometown, he doesn’t miss them like before. “It’s nice to think about it,” goes the refrain, “Maybe even visit, but I wonder could I live there anymore?”
“Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” isn’t a postmodern song recorded recently—it was a #1 country single for Pride in the summer of 1970. And it’s a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves tempted by what looks like the simple life.
The days we romanticize as simpler and easier were neither. A lot of the trouble we get into, both in our personal lives and as a nation trying to govern itself, comes from our failure to remember.
(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.
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.