Friday, January 6, 2017

Top TV Moments: Bernard Fox

The 2016 passing of Bernard Fox was not among the year’s high-profile casualties, but for classic TV fans it was another reminder of an era in television that will one day exist only in memory. 

Most of the characters Fox played fell into one of two categories: distinguished British gentlemen and parodies of distinguished British gentlemen. His aristocratic look, military posture and robust voice found its way into nearly every province of TV Land, from the remote western fort in F Troop to the mysterious tropical splendor of Fantasy Island.

Along the way he created two characters that remain beloved by those who treasure comfort TV, while also elevating guest spots that called for an accent more than an actor. Here are some of Mr. Fox’s most memorable TV moments. Please share any I’ve missed in the comments.

Make Room for Daddy
“Danny’s English Friend” (1962)
Bernard Fox played a seemingly never-ending series of butlers, waiters and valets – some more qualified than others, some more sarcastic. His first memorable role on American television is here as Alfie Wingate, a waiter in Danny’s nightclub. He made four appearances on Make Room for Daddy, including in one of the show’s most enjoyable Christmas episodes.

The Dick Van Dyke Show
“Never Bathe on Saturday” (1965)
Fox played three different characters in three different episodes of this series. He had a bigger part as Laura’s amorous writing teacher in “Teacher’s Petrie,” but “Never Bathe on Saturday” is one of the show’s classics. Fox plays the house detective at the hotel where Laura gets her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. 

The Andy Griffith Show
“Malcolm at the Crossroads” (1965)
Malcolm Merriweather, the innocent abroad from England who takes a liking to Mayberry, offered Fox a chance to play a less blustery role (and to shave off his mustache). There is a soft-spoken sweetness to the character that is worlds away from his more familiar screen personae. “Malcolm at the Crossroads” was the last of his three series appearances, one that builds to a fight between meek Malcolm and Ernest T. Bass. 

The Flintstones
“No Biz Like Show Biz” (1965)
Even the most casual Flintstones fans will recall this episode, in which Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm become overnight singing sensations with their hit single “Open Up Your Heart and Let the Sunshine In.” Fox voices their manager Eppy Brianstone, an awkward Bedrock variation of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. The song is still catchy.

Hogan’s Heroes
“The Crittendon Plan” (1967)
Next to Dr. Bombay, Fox’s most recognized recurring character was Col. Crittendon, the bumbling British officer that inadvertently upsets Hogan’s best-laid plans. This is my favorite of his eight Hogan’s Heroes appearances, because of the contrast between the challenge of Hogan’s mission and the cluelessness of Crittendon’s contributions. 

The Monkees
“Monkees Mind Their Manor” (1968)
Peter Tork directed this episode, which is typical of many second season shows in which The Monkees seem to be barely paying attention to the script. The plot is some nonsense about Davy inheriting a British manor, with Bernard Fox (as Sir Twiggly Toppin Middlebottom) standing in his way. The medieval fair scenes give Fox a chance to sing “Greensleeves” (badly) and engage in the silliest fencing duel in TV history. 

“Okay, Who’s the Wise Witch?” (1970)
If all the other shows on this list never happened, Bernard Fox would still own a place of distinction among classic TV fans for his creation of Dr. Bombay.

As a general rule with Bewitched, the earlier in the run, the better the episode. But after the series lost some of its magic when Dick York was replaced by Dick Sargent, there was more reliance on the show’s deep bench of recurring characters, which means frequent house calls from Bombay in the final three seasons. I’ve selected this episode because of its unique plot – Samantha’s non-use of her powers causes a vapor lock that traps everyone who enters the Stephens’ home inside.  

“Tabitha’s Weighty Problem” (1978)
This was the first series profiled in my “Terrible Shows I Like” series back in 2013. Four years later I still think the show is pretty bad and I still kind of like it anyway – and one of the reasons is Bernard Fox’s reprisal of his most famous role. The best scene in “Tabitha’s Weighty Problem” begins as soon as Dr. Bombay pops in for a house call.  

“Tea and Empathy” (1978)
We’ve seen Fox play clueless military men before; but the laughs aren’t as broad in “Tea and Empathy,” which seems at first to explore the real-world, life and death consequences of incompetent leadership. But all is not as it appears. 

The Dukes of Hazzard
“Southern Comfurts” (1980)
It’s not one of the better Dukes episodes, but Bernard Fox in the General Lee? Sold.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1980s

Whenever I do these decade-by-decade surveys (essential shows, best theme songs, etc.) I always stop at the 1980s, as that is when the Comfort TV era ends. The ascension of cable and VCRs changed both what we watched and how we watched it, while also shattering the limits on acceptable content.

Television would continue to create classic sitcoms in the 1990s, from Wings to Friends, but this will be the last stop on our tour. Fortunately, with these ten shows we’ll be able to exit laughing.

“April Fools” (1980)
Generating laughs wasn’t always a top priority at the 4077th, especially in the series’ later seasons. But when the show’s gifted ensemble was allowed to cut loose the results were as funny as anything on television. In “April Fools” the camp becomes obsessed with practical jokes prior to a visit from a no-nonsense colonel. 

Three’s Company
“Up in the Air” (1982)
Those who dismiss Three’s Company as a lowbrow sex comedy…are not altogether wrong. But John Ritter was a truly gifted comedic actor who elevated many of its best episodes. “Up in the Air” offers a splendid showcase for his talents. 

Police Squad!
“Revenge and Remorse” (1982)
I’ve argued before that the joke-a-minute formula of writer/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker was probably not built for the long haul in television. That’s why I’m not as disappointed as most that there were only six episodes of Police Squad – they came, they made us laugh, and they left before the format grew stale. “Revenge and Remorse” features hilarious courtroom gags, William Shatner and Dr. Joyce Brothers. 

“Elegant Iggy” (1982)
“Did I have a good time tonight?”
One of the series’ best-remembered shows has Elaine dreading the prospect of attending a society function with the ever-addled Reverend Jim. The party scene is by turns funny, surprising and heartwarming. 

The Cosby Show
“Happy Anniversary” (1985)
As with many of the episodes on these lists, “Happy Anniversary” provides many memorable moments that lead up to one perfect, classic scene (surely you recall the Huxtables lip-synching Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time”?). 

“Pick a Con…Any Con” (1983)
Nothing against Woody Harrelson, but for me Cheers was at its best in the first two seasons, with the original cast and the tempestuous romance between Sam and Diane. I selected this episode out of many early classics for its guest appearance from Harry Anderson, as a con man hired to take down a fellow grifter who swindled Coach. 

Designing Women
“Big Haas and Little Falsie” (1988)
Like MASH, Designing Women often had more on its mind than comedy. But we’re just looking for laughs now and this is one of the funniest shows from the show’s glory years. In “Big Haas and Little Falsie,” Mary Jo considers getting breast implants, and takes out a loaner pair before making a decision. 

Married…with Children
“976-SHOE” (1989)
This was one of the shows that led us out of the Comfort TV era of television, with its happy, well-adjusted families and admiration for kindness and civility. But funny is funny, and watching Al Bundy’s get-rich-quick schemes crash and burn was almost as amusing as it was with Ralph Kramden 40 years earlier. My favorite episode of the series will always be “Can’t Dance, Don’t Ask Me,” but “976-SHOE” may be the funniest show in the run. 

The Golden Girls
“A Little Romance” (1985)
I can’t help it – I love politically incorrect humor. This is supposedly Betty White’s favorite Golden Girls episode and its easy to see why – Rose is dating a short person that she hides from her friends, because she doesn’t know how they will react. When he meets the rest of the girls get ready to laugh. 

“Good News, Bad News” (1989)
“The only difference between a date and a job interview is that not many job interviews is there a chance you'll end up naked at the end of it.”
The pilot was the only Seinfeld episode to air in the 1980s. It’s not yet the series it would become – there’s no Elaine, Kramer is “Kessler,” and Jason Alexander’s George is more a riff on Woody Allen than the misanthrope he’d become. But in moments like the laundromat scene and the first conversation between Jerry and George, it’s clear there’s something inventive going on. “Good News, Bad News” is not here merely as a harbinger for “The Contest” and “The Marine Biologist” – it makes the list on its own merits. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1970s

The 1970s are still my favorite Comfort TV comfort zone, not because the shows were inherently better but because they were the ones that I watched through my formative years.

It was an era that introduced some of television’s best situation comedies, including several that pushed the envelope on what could be said, shown or implied in prime time. Here are my picks for the decade’s ten funniest episodes.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Chuckles Bites the Dust” (1975)
“A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”
I’ve never read the script David Lloyd wrote for this episode, but for the funeral scene I can’t imagine it gave Mary Tyler Moore any more to work with than “Mary tries to suppress her laughter.” And look at the magic she created from such a simple directive. That scene is justifiably famous but the whole episode is brilliant, from Lou and Murray swapping tasteless jokes about Chuckles’ demise to Ted’s on-air obituary: “I'd like to think that somewhere, up there tonight, in his honor, a choir of angels is sitting on whoopee cushions.”

All in the Family
“Sammy’s Visit” (1972)
When high profile stars visit a situation comedy, they tend to pull so much focus that the episode becomes more about them than the show’s regular characters. One of the great achievements of “Sammy’s Visit” is how it brings Sammy Davis. Jr. and the working class Bunkers together in a believable way, and then finds the right balance to distribute the content and the laughs equally. Kirk and Uhura may have shared TV’s first interracial kiss, but the one in this episode is much more memorable.  

The Bob Newhart Show
“Over the River and Through the Woods” (1975)
“More goo to go!”
It’s regrettable that drunk scenes have become yet another casualty of our enlightened age. Once they were to great comic actors what a hanging curve ball was to a .300 batter – a golden opportunity to hit one out of the park. That’s what happened when Bob Newhart, Bill Daily, Jack Riley and Peter Bonerz were handed a scene in which their characters get sloshed over Thanksgiving. They hit their rhythm early and for ten minutes set-ups and punch lines are served and volleyed with perfect timing and precision. When it all comes together like this, there’s nothing better. 

Fawlty Towers
“Gourmet Night” (1975)
I’m not sure if a British show should be eligible, but how can Fawlty Towers be left off any list of the funniest situation comedies? The question then becomes which of its 12 amazing episodes to select. “The Germans” might be the most obvious choice, with Basil’s constant references to the war he’s not supposed to mention, and that unforgettable long-limbed goosestep, but I’ve always been partial to “Gourmet Night.” It’s a classic farce that builds to a feverish climax in which Basil yells at and then beats up his car. The final line is perfect. 

The Odd Couple
“Password” (1972)
Oscar is invited to be a celebrity guest on Password, and self-proclaimed expert Felix, who owns two copies of the Password home game (one for his car) pleads to be picked as his partner. The results are predictably disastrous (and hilarious), and are made even more memorable by the range of reactions from guest stars Allen Ludden and Betty White. 

“Reverend Jim: A Space Odyssey” (1979)
When an episode is so funny that even the cast can’t contain their laughter, it deserves to be here. During the famous driving test scene, Christopher Lloyd and Jeff Conaway keep repeating the "What does a yellow light mean?" joke and it kills every time. By the third run-through, Marilu Henner and Tony Danza can clearly be seen laughing when their characters are supposed to be frustrated.

Laverne & Shirley
“Guinea Pigs” (1977)
The girls are invited to a fancy cocktail party but can’t afford the $20 admission. To earn the money they volunteer at the Institute for Behavioral Sciences – Shirley is only allowed to eat dirt as part of a nutrition study, while Laverne is deprived of sleep. They make it to the bash, and what follows is more than five minutes of non-stop laughs. Timeless episodes like this and “The Diner” are why, out of all the Garry Marshall ‘70s sitcoms, Laverne & Shirley has aged the most gracefully. 

“Rhoda’s Wedding” (1974)
This two-part episode would be memorable just for the milestone referenced in the title and the Mary Tyler Moore Show crossover cast appearances. But this is also the rare “event” show that is also among the best written of the entire series run. 

Green Acres
“The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” (1970)
Green Acres just kept getting nuttier with each passing season, and yes, that’s a compliment. I could try to summarize the plot of “The Case of the Hooterville Refund Fraud” but it won’t do the episode justice: the town folk receive an unexpected (and undeserved) windfall and Mr. Haney convinces them to invest in monkey racing, in which little monkeys race around a track chasing after a wooden banana. Some things are better experienced than described.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“Ted Baxter’s Famous Broadcasters School” (1975)
We started with this series so we’ll end here as well. The idea of Ted lending his name to a school of broadcasting is already funny; the fact it was a scheme floated by a con artist is even funnier, but the best part is when the WJM news team show up for the first class and find only one student in the room. On the short list of things that always make me laugh, there is Ted singing the school’s theme song, and Lou Grant’s Ralph Kramden-like reaction. 

Next: The 1980s

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: The 1960s

The 1960s was the last decade in which situation comedies favored idealized versions of American life. There would be send-ups of current events, from the British invasion to the spy craze, but the humor was always more sweet than cynical, mischievous instead of mean. That was probably a relief to many Americans as the turbulent decade progressed away from the staid status quo of the 1950s into an era of war, assassinations and political turmoil.  

These were the funniest sitcom episodes of the decade. As with the 1950s list, a two-show per series limit still applies – which sadly renders ineligible about 30 more episodes of Get Smart.

The Dick Van Dyke Show
“The Curious Thing About Women” (1962)
While this list is not a top-ten ranking, I wanted this episode to be first because for me it was not just another hilarious show in a brilliant series. Watching it first in syndication as a kid, and many times thereafter, my future career aspirations were inspired by the office scene where Rob, Sally and Buddy develop an unremarkable event (Laura opening Rob’s mail before he gets a chance to read it) into a classic comedy sketch. I can’t think of another scripted moment on TV where the abundant joy of creativity that writers occasionally experience was more perfectly expressed. The scenes with Mary Tyler Moore and the inflatable raft were pretty funny too. 

“The Joker is a Card” (1965)
“Yaga-Zoo-Zee, Yaga-Zoo-Zee, Yaga-Zoo-Zee-Zim!”
Paul Lynde makes his first appearance as Samantha’s practical joke-obsessed Uncle Arthur, and it’s one for the ages. Every moment he’s in this is perfect, especially when he offers to teach Darrin a spell to put Endora in her place. The payoff scene is as celebrated a moment as Bewitched ever produced. 

Get Smart
“Mr. Big” (1965)
Everything that made Get Smart one of the funniest series from any decade was already in place in its first episode, written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. You got your shoe phone, your Cone of Silence, and a villain sure to incite offense in humorless defenders of political correctness. 

The Lucy Show
“Lucy and Viv Build a Shower” (1963)
While Vivian Vance would remain with The Lucy Show for another two seasons, this episode features the final classic physical comedy sequence that she and Lucy would share. They worked so well together by this time that the shower scene was not even rehearsed before it was filmed. 

Green Acres
“Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” (1965)
The first season of Green Acres features one long story arc as Oliver and Lisa Douglas leave New York for Hooterville, so Oliver can pursue his farm livin’ dreams. Every episode brings more surreal frustration; here, having just mastered the generator in the previous episode (“You can’t have a 2 with a 6”), he now finally gets his phone installed – at the top of a telephone pole outside his bedroom window. 

The Andy Griffith Show
“The Big House” (1963)
“Here at the rock we have two basic rules…the first rule is…obey all rules.”
Whether it’s Andy or Opie and Aunt Bee or Floyd or even Otis, whomever you meet in Mayberry will make you feel welcome. But if you’re looking for laughs, the episodes featuring Don Knotts’ as Barney Fife cannot be topped. In “The Big House,” the state police temporarily lodge two hold-up men in Mayberry’s jail, allowing Barney to play hard-boiled lawman. They promptly escape – not once but three times. 

Get Smart
“A Man Called Smart, Part 1” (1967)
Of course you’ll want to watch all three parts of this story, which was originally intended for theatrical release. But it’s the first installment that features a masterpiece of slapstick comedy starring Don Adams, a stretcher and a revolving door. Adams, whose distinct voice and catchphrases were a big part of the show’s success, never utters a word throughout the sequence, and still earns huge laughs. There is also an innovative opening chase scene that portends Adams’ association with Inspector Gadget. 

The Dick Van Dyke Show
“Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth” (1965)
The first episode of the show’s fifth and final season contains the most memorable of Carl Reiner’s always-welcome appearances as Alan Brady. The story has Laura going on a game show and getting tricked into revealing that Brady is bald. Rob’s horrified reaction is hilarious, but the highlight finds Laura trying to save her husband’s job. Her confrontation with Alan, as he sits glowering at his desk behind a display of now-useless hairpieces, remains one of the series’ best moments. 

The Beverly Hillbillies
“The Giant Jackrabbit” (1963)
This is probably the most famous episode out of nine seasons, and while I could make a good argument for a few other classics this is one time where I’m content to follow the crowd. The ‘A’ plot has Granny in full Wile E. Coyote mode, trying to trap a kangaroo she mistakes for a jackrabbit. The ‘B’ plot has the Clampetts trying to order food from a caterer – in the annals of funny one-sided phone conversations, this one is up there with the best of the master, Bob Newhart. 

Hogan’s Heroes
“Will the Real Adolf Please Stand Up?” (1966)
Hogan’s Heroes took the evil sting out of the German army through the bumbling antics of Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz – but what would happen if the neutered Nazis ever met their fuhrer? Here, Sgt. Carter impersonates Hitler, to distract the commandant while Hogan smuggles secret plans to the underground. Larry Hovis creates the funniest take on one of history’s worst monsters since The Producers

Next: The 1970s

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Ten Funniest Situation Comedy Episodes By Decade: the 1950s

This may seem like a silly question but that’s never stopped me before: does a situation comedy have to be funny to be successful?

For me, the answer is no. There are many shows from the classic TV era that I own and enjoy in which laugh-out-loud moments are rare. I love them because of their familiar characters, their worldviews and their values, and because they have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Watching them is like visiting old friends.

But funny is good too, so I thought it might be fun to do a series of pieces on the ten funniest sitcom episodes from the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Obviously I have not watched every episode of every show from any of these decades, but I think I’ve seen enough to provide some informed recommendations.

Before getting started with the 1950s picks, a couple of ground rules: This is for sitcoms only, which eliminates some brilliant comic moments from variety shows like those hosted by Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs (and for later lists, Carol Burnett). And though I’m usually not a fan of quotas, I placed a two-episode limit on any one series – otherwise it would be too easy to pick ten Honeymooners classics and call it a day.

Ready? Here we go – though I reserve the right to amend this list with an entry from The Jack Benny Show as soon as I gain access to more episodes.

I Love Lucy
“Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952)
If there were a Louvre Museum for television comedy, the Vitameatavegamin bit would be its Mona Lisa. While the brilliance of Lucy’s performance in this one seminal scene deserves every accolade it has received, it also overshadows the fact that the rest of the episode is packed with laughs as well. 

The Honeymooners
“The $99,000 Answer” (1956)
Alice: For the last time, Ralph, I'll be very happy if you win the 600 bucks.
Ralph: $600? Peanuts! What am I gonna do with peanuts?
Alice: Eat 'em, like any other elephant.

Fans of “the classic 39” could probably make a case for almost every episode as deserving of this list. But “The $99,000 Answer” achieves classic status even among classics. It has everything Honeymooners fans treasure –Ralph launches another get-rich-quick scheme, assisted and aggravated by Ed Norton, and a deservedly famous final twist that brings Ralph’s dreams of wealth crashing down. 

The Phil Silvers Show
“Court Martial” (1956)
It’s not easy to upstage Silvers as Sgt. Bilko – unless you’re a chimpanzee. In this brilliantly chaotic episode, Fort Baxter tries to set a record by inducting more than 300 new recruits in less than two hours; at some point during the frenzied confusion they mistakenly induct a monkey. A court martial is hastily assembled with Bilko serving as defense counsel. It’s one of the funniest scenes ever broadcast, not just for what was scripted but for the chimp’s antics, which do not conform with how the scene was written. The show’s cast of vaudeville veterans, long accustomed to coping with the unexpected, just go with it, improvising around everything the monkey does. 

Leave it to Beaver
“The Haircut” (1957)
Yes, nearly all the laughs flow from one sight gag. But it’s a good one. After Beaver loses the money he was given to get a haircut (a whole $1.75!), he asks Wally to do the honors, with predictably disastrous results. The boys try to hide Beaver’s scalping by donning stocking caps that they can’t take off, as part of a secret club initiation. But Ward and June ain’t falling for that. Barbara Billingsley’s reaction when she first sees what Wally wrought is priceless. 

The Donna Reed Show
“Sleep No More My Lady” (1959)
The preternaturally beautiful Donna Reed could never be Lucille Ball, and her long-running series rarely put her in the type of bizarre situations that Lucy Ricardo caused every week. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t thrive in physical comedy or farce. In “Sleep No More My Lady” Donna inadvertently overdoses on tranquilizers before her husband is to deliver a speech at a medical convention. That scene, and the hotel room hijinks that follow, offered Reed a rare chance to be something other than the poised and perfect homemaker. 

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show
“Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party” (1955)
Given my limited exposure to this wonderful series, it’s possible that there may be 50 episodes funnier than “Harry Morton’s Cocktail Party.” But this one certainly deserves a place on this list. George provides the details: “Blanche just told me that she slugged a masher in a book shop. And Harry Morton is inviting this important executive to dinner tonight to make a good impression on him. Wouldn't it be funny if they turned out to be the same man? It better be funny or I'll certainly speak to my writers!” The episode ends with a Burns and Allen vaudeville bit, as funny now as it was 70 years ago:

Gracie, on her Uncle Harvey: You don't want to hear about the job he had helping that plumber? Well, the only reason he lost the job is because he did what the plumber told him to.
George: That's why he lost it?
Gracie: Well, yes. You see, what happened was they were trying to hammer some pipe through a hole in the wall, so the plumber held it and he said to Uncle Harvey, ‘Now, when I nod my head, you hit it with that big hammer…’

The Honeymooners
“The Golfer” (1955)
“Hellloooooo, ball!”
Ralph believes the key to career advancement at the bus company is getting to know the new manager over a round of golf. Now, he just needs to learn how to play the game in two days. From the moment Gleason appears in his golf outfit, this episode offers non-stop laughs. 

I Love Lucy
“Job Switching” (1952)
As with “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” Job Switching” is an episode famous for one unforgettable scene, that also delivers big laughs before and after its most memorable moment. Ricky and Fred’s attempts at ironing and cooking ‘pollo y arroz’ are nearly as entertaining as Lucy and Ethel frantically wrapping those accelerating assembly line chocolates. 

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
“Love is a Science” (1959)
The series’ third episode is propelled to greatness by Sheila James’s first appearance as Zelda Gilroy, Charles Lane at his grouchy best as Dobie’s science teacher, and money-mad Thalia Menninger, who insists that Dobie give up poetry (“Name me one rich poet”) and study to become a doctor: “Do you realize the money there is in hospitals? Do you know the markup in oxygen alone? And the poor customers, what can they do? You’ve got ‘em flat on their backs!” 

The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
“Tutti-Fruitti Ice Cream” (1957)
After reading a news story about a lost boy enjoying tutti-frutti ice cream at the police station, Ozzie gets a craving for the stuff. As with so many Ozzie & Harriet episodes, a simple slice of everyday life develops into a surreal adventure, as Ozzie (and eventually his wife and neighbor) set out on an all-night quest for tutti-frutti. The highlight is an out-of-nowhere 1920s-themed musical dream sequence. 

Next: The 1960s

Monday, November 14, 2016

The View-Master: Classic TV One Frame at a Time

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know – View-Master is still in business.

Today’s version is touted as a virtual reality device, for which you’ll have to download and launch an app, scan a QR code, and then attach the viewer to a smartphone. No, I haven’t tried it. Sounds like a lot of work.

Back in my day (I love saying that) a View-Master was ready to use right out of the box – no batteries required. But its appeal may be hard to explain to anyone under 30. “See, we had this little plastic hand-held viewer, and you would insert these cardboard reels inside, and look at still images from one episode of a TV show.”

Doesn’t sound exciting now, does it? But in the 1960s and ‘70s almost every kid had a View-Master, and we collected reel sets of not just TV shows but images from different cities and countries, national parks, destinations like Disneyland, movies and wonders of nature.

Obviously we’ll focus on the TV sets here, which is also appropriate since the heyday of the classic TV era coincided with that of the View-Master. The version we all remember was introduced in 1962, and the selection of content multiplied rapidly starting in 1966, when the company that manufactured the viewers was acquired by General Aniline & Film, better known as GAF.

If you’re interested in the complete history of the product, which dates back to 1939, check out the Wikipedia entry.

As I’ve often written in this blog, one of the joys of classic television is the shared memories it engenders – all of us watching the same programs at the same time, and sometimes talking about them the next day at school.

I’ll bet many of us have View-Master memories in common as well, starting with family outings to Sears because somebody needed a new pair of shoes, or a pair of Toughskin Jeans. At some point you’d pass the department with the cameras and the calculators, and there would be the View-Master display, with dozens of reel sets randomly arranged.

It was always worth a quick look to see if anything new was released. Either way there were so many choices, especially for TV fans: comedies (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Beverly Hillbillies, Welcome Back, Kotter), action shows (Emergency!, The Rookies) sci-fi (Dr. Who, Star Trek, Space: 1999) children’s shows (Captain Kangaroo, The New Zoo Revue, The Big Blue Marble); family dramas (Apple’s Way, The Waltons) even shows that are almost forgotten today, like Daktari and The Smith Family.  

If you owned any of these sets you probably still remember which episode was featured. I’ve always wondered if there were any criteria for dictating that selection.

Sometimes the answer is obvious – Family Affair was represented by “What’s Funny About a Broken Leg,” in which Buffy breaks her leg and can’t go to the circus, so Uncle Bill recreates the circus in the Davis apartment.

The colorful performer costumes and animal acts offered more visual appeal than a typical episode.

But the most memorable aspect of “The Male Chauvinist,” the episode selected for The Partridge Family, is the performance of the group’s biggest hit, “I Think I Love You.”

The set was released before the introduction of the Talking View-Master, and without that audio component it seems like a random choice. If they wanted a more appropriate first season show I’d have gone with “But the Memory Lingers On.” That’s the one where the family bus is polluted by a stowaway skunk, so the family has to borrow clothes before a benefit concert.

I still haven’t answered the central question – why were these sets once so appealing?

Keep in mind that View-Master predates VCRs, so this was a time when there was no way to capture episodes or moments from a TV series. In its earliest days View-Master provided a chance to revisit at least one episode anytime we wished.

Beyond that, the quality, brightness and clarity of each image were beyond anything we could see even on the best color TV sets at that time. A View-Master is essentially a stereoscope, which aligns two images of the same scene that are viewed simultaneously by the left eye and right eye, making the image appear three-dimensional. It was like seeing moments from these shows in high-definition before anyone knew what that was. 

If you were slightly TV-obsessed like me, you also enjoyed the opportunity to take a longer look inside these fictional worlds. What are all those tchotchkes in Julie’s house on The Mod Squad? What kind of gadget is Barney working on in Mission: Impossible? And there are some great views of the Batcave in the Batman set.

It’s nice to know they’re around, even if the company is no longer owned by GAF. If you’re a true-blue View-Master fan, you still say those initials like Henry Fonda did in commercials like this one. You'll probably recognize someone else in the ad as well. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Top TV Moments: Gordon Jump

November is the ideal time to celebrate the career of Gordon Jump. And if you don’t know why, you may have landed on the wrong blog by mistake. 

Before anyone knew him he spent more than a decade playing one-scene guest spots in great shows and forgotten ones. Jump was a staple near the bottom of the credits, often billed as characters not important enough to receive a name – “Bartender” (Bewitched), “Salesman” (Green Acres), “Bum” (McCloud), “Mechanic” (The Brady Bunch) and, in one of the more amusing IMDB credits, “Sailor making fun of Jeremy stuttering” (from an episode of Here Come the Brides). 

Gradually, he developed a niche – oblivious authority figures. That probably didn’t seem important at first, but then someone may have remembered how well this affable, round-faced actor fit those parts. That led to the Golden Ticket in television that remains so elusive to thousands of equally talented actors – the chance to play a role that fit in a show that clicked. 

Thanks to Arthur “Big Guy” Carlson and WKRP in Cincinnati, all those anonymous early parts are noticed by classic TV fans. Forty years later, we now smile when we spot him as a ticket agent on The Doris Day Show or an engineer on Love, American Style and say, “Cool, there’s Gordon Jump.” 

Here are a few other places you've probably spotted him. 

Get Smart (1966)
“The Only Way to Die” and “Casablanca” feature Jump as CONTROL Agent Hobson, the kind of button-down clueless bureaucrat the series enjoyed mocking, and a template for the type of role he’d inhabit again and again. 

The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1973)
In “Hi There, Sports Fans” Mary is given the job of hiring WJM’s new sportscaster – and firing the current one, after he seduces the station owner’s wife. In a funny moment from an otherwise average episode, Jump plays one of the applicants, who attributes his lack of employment to television’s preference for hiring “jocks” to do the sports. He’s not wrong. 

The Partridge Family (1973)
Jump appears in seven episodes, always as a different character. He was around so often you’d think someone would have given him a guitar and invited him to sit in with the band. He has more airtime in “The Partridge Papers,” but I liked him most in “The Strike Out King” as an over-zealous Little League baseball fan.

That’s My Mama (1974)
Jump’s first shot at a recurring role fizzled out after three appearances as the friendly but somewhat cowardly Officer O’Reilly. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to do with the character – as evidenced by the fact that O’Reilly suddenly acquires an Irish accent the second time we see him in “The Last Haircut.” His one scene in “Cousin Albert” gets the biggest laughs of anything in the show.

Harry O (1974)
At last, Gordon Jump gets his chance to play against type. In “Anatomy of a Frame” he radiates quiet menace as a heroin-dealing dentist.

Soap (1977)
In his most memorable cop role among many, Jump played Chief Tinkler (yes, they went there) in 12 episodes across the first two seasons of this once controversial sitcom. In his mannerisms and verbal tics, you’ll see clear signs of the character he would create just one year later that brought name recognition and series stardom.  

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)
Gordon Jump was one of eight actors, none of whom had then progressed any further than he in the business, who became one of the best situation comedy ensembles of the 1970s. WKRP lasted four seasons and produced one indisputably classic episode that will be part of Thanksgiving celebrations for as long as people still care about television. In his most famous TV moment Jump delivers the show’s perfect final line.

Diff’rent Strokes (1983)
I’m honestly not sure if the two-part episode “The Bicycle Man” is better remembered as a bold attempt at public service announcement, or more like Reefer Madness, in which a serious topic is so mishandled the result is unintentionally campy and hilarious. Gordon Jump plays bike shop owner Henry Morton, a child molester who targets Arnold and his friend Dudley. Obviously that’s a tough sitcom subject, even with the “very special episode” qualifier – but it cannot be left off any ranking of Jump’s memorable career moments. 

Who’s the Boss (1988)
“A Spirited Christmas” is a holiday episode so I’m predisposed to liking it, but it’s also a treat to see Jump reunited with Katherine Helmond, with whom he shared many fun scenes on Soap. The story focuses on Helmond’s character of Mona, who must reconcile with her estranged brother Archie (Jump) before his wife can ascend to heaven.

Maytag Commercials (1989)
In 1989, Jump inherited the role of the lonely Maytag repairman from comedian Jesse White. He would appear in commercials promoting the company’s appliances for more than ten years. They’re quiet, gentle spots, the antithesis of today’s screaming monstrosities. And because of that and Jump’s friendly, familiar presence, they are as pleasant a reminder of another TV era as any of the shows on this list.