Friday, September 27, 2013

New Fall Shows -- From 50 Years Ago

Once again, we're in the midst of the annual hoopla over a new prime time television season. As a kid, I spent hours flipping through TV Guide's "Fall Preview" issue, drinking in (and practically memorizing) all the information on new shows, stars, and schedule changes. Today, I couldn't tell you for a $500 prize the names of more than two shows premiering on the networks' 2013 schedule. (Well, yeah, I could, if you give me a minute -- I'm a librarian, I know where to look).

The chart above shows what network TV viewers had to choose from 50 years ago. New shows for the 1963-64 season are displayed in white. Of the newbies, CBS' rural comedy Petticoat Junction would become the most enduring hit, running through 1970. Others that would catch on with TV fans included My Favorite Martian, The Patty Duke Show, and certainly The Fugitive. On the other hand, The New Phil Silvers Show, The Jerry Lewis Show, and Harry's Girls would never see a second season. If you're curious about two other short-lived shows from this season, The Bill Dana Show and Grindl, check out my book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television: Thirty Sitcoms That Faded Off Screen.

Do you have a favorite show from the chart above? Which ones do, or would, you still watch, given the chance?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Review: Sitcom Writers Speak

If you're a fan of the classic sitcom, these names are practically emblazoned on your memory banks, preceded by the words "written by." Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Davis. David Lloyd. Bill Persky and Sam Denoff. Saul Turteltaub and Bernie Orenstein. These are just some of the heavy hitters featured in Scott Lewellen's new book Funny You Should Ask: Oral Histories of Classic Sitcom Storytellers (McFarland, $35.00).

This long-overdue volume collects a lifetime of memories from scriptwriters who contributed some of TV comedy's most iconic moments -- Lucy Ricardo's losing battle with the assembly line at a candy factory, Mary Richards' hilariously inappropriate reaction at a clown's funeral, and Maude Findlay's response to an unexpected pregnancy, to name a few. Rather than devoting a chapter to each writer, or pair of writers, as in Jordan R. Young's excellent book on radio comedy, The Laugh Crafters, Lewellen organizes the book by themes. You'll read about battles with temperamental actors, aggravating rewrites, hit shows and crushing failures. In addition to the classic sitcoms already alluded to, coverage in the book includes Laverne & Shirley, Bewitched, 227, Cheers, Frasier, The Andy Griffith Show, Good Times, and too many others to list.

Whether you're a scholar of popular culture, or just a comedy fan who wants to know a little more about the shows that made you laugh, this compulsively readable book belongs on your shelf. It's available from the publisher's website at, as well as major online booksellers.

P.S. Full disclosure: McFarland is also my publisher. However, I wouldn't know Mr. Lewellen if I fell on him, and am sharing my honest opinion of his book. Didn't even get a free review copy -- I checked it out of the library. OK?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Memorable Meets: Sherwood Schwartz

In the course of researching and writing four books, I've had the chance to interview some people I never expected to meet. One memorable example was Sherwood Schwartz, the veteran comedy writer/producer most closely associated with his eternally popular shows Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. 

I wrote to Mr. Schwartz in 2006 asking for an interview because he was one of the few people still around who could tell me first-hand about Joan Davis (1912-1961), the radio and television comedienne who was the subject of a chapter in my first book, The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Mr. Schwartz spent three years as a staff writer on Davis' popular NBC sitcom, I Married Joan (which co-starred Jim Backus, later "Thurston Howell III.")

Thinking back more than fifty years from the day I interviewed him, Mr. Schwartz had admirable recall of what it was like to work with Ms. Davis. In his study at home, he kept copies of the many scripts he'd written over the years, and he retrieved a couple from Joan to refresh his memory. I was also impressed with the fact that he was honest about her without being unkind. He certainly could have slapped her around some had he chosen to do so; she'd been dead for a number of years, and wasn't around to defend herself. Instead, without whitewashing anything ("She was tough," he said frankly), he spoke with admiration for her talent, and gave me a good feel for what it was like to work with her. He told me an anecdote about the making of an I Married Joan episode called "Mountain Lodge" and her impromptu revamping of a scene he'd written. Later, I was able to see that episode, and was impressed that his memory of the scene -- and what she did to it! -- was accurate.

Mr. Schwartz died on July 12, 2011, at the age of 94, after a long and storied career. His passing, like that of a few other people I've interviewed in the past several years, reminded me there is a limited window of opportunity to preserve memories like his. I don't think the accomplishments of people like him -- and Joan Davis -- will be forgotten.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Blink Out Their Clothes," Jeannie!

Happy 48th birthday to that guilty pleasure of Baby Boomers everywhere, I Dream of Jeannie. Premiering September 18, 1965 on NBC, this timeless fantasy sitcom about a beautiful genie (Barbara Eden) disrupting the life of her astronaut master (the late Larry Hagman) enjoyed a five-year run in prime time, and countless reruns since.

Far it be from me to incite the 9,854th debate about the relative superiority of Jeannie and Samantha, or their respective shows. I love them both. I will say, though, that the setup of Jeannie has always made more sense to me. Unlike Darrin on Bewitched, Tony Nelson never much cared if his sparking clean house and fabulous dinners were conjured up with magic, and he didn't pitch a hissy every time Jeannie blinked. I'm pretty sure I'd feel the same way about it, just in case I should ever have the opportunity. Let's face it, whether your reasons are punitive, practical, or prurient, most of us would take advantage at least once in a lifetime of the chance to say to your personal genie, "Blink out their clothes!" (See season 5 episode "Jeannie, the Recording Secretary" for details).

When I was ten or eleven years old, reruns of both Bewitched and Jeannie played every weekday afternoon on Channel 5 in Atlanta, where we lived. Much to my frustration, however, either the syndication package at that time didn't include the black-and-white episodes, or the station chose to skip over them. It was probably an ominous foreboding of my future as a TV historian that I once begged to be allowed to stay home from the beach one afternoon on a family vacation, because the local station was going to show the Jeannie pilot episode, which I'd never seen. Belated thanks, many years later, to my parents, who (I think) sorta understood.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Outtakes: Eve Arden

Although it's the words that matter most in a book about a legendary performer like Eve Arden, I also love using photos to document the careers I write about -- and  you'll find 60 of them in "Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances."   Inevitably, though, there are pictures that, for one reason or another, don't make the cut in the finished book. I thought it would be fun to use this blog to share some of those that I've collected in the course of writing four books.

This one shows Eve in 1947, shopping for dresses with her daughter Liza. Onscreen, Eve's character in Our Miss Brooks faced an uphill battle in her quest to find love and domestic happiness. In real life, though, Eve adopted two daughters in the 1940s, and was subsequently married for many years to actor and artist Brooks West. Together they raised a family of four, and if you've ever read or heard an interview with Eve, you'll know how important that family was to her. I think this photo nicely illustrates that.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

If Lucy Ricardo had a blog...

Since the actors and shows I write about are mostly those that were meaningful to Baby Boomers like me, it seems a little incongruous to blog, text, or tweet about them. Yet I'm often struck by how fresh, funny, and pertinent these classic performances still are, 50 years or more after their heyday. I also appreciate how the Internet has made it possible not only to do more in-depth research for my books, but also connect with people all over the world who share my fondness for Eve Arden, Shirley Booth, I Love Lucy, and many more we'll hopefully get to as this blog progresses.

Have you ever wondered how life might be different for some of your favorite classic characters if they had access to all the technological bells and whistles of 2013? It might have been handy if Ethel Mertz could have sent her best pal the occasional frantic text, along the lines of:

OMG rr on way up! >:-@!

And wouldn't Lucy find Craigslist handy for those times you just need to hire a stranger to impersonate your imaginary boyfriend, or rent a circus elephant for a few hours? As for Our Miss Brooks, you just know her Facebook status would have been "It's Complicated."