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. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Halloween on the Ponderosa: Twilight Town

Note: This post was part of the Terror TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. You can click here to read the other fabulous entries."

Among all of the movie and TV genres, the two most disparate may be westerns and horror.

One is rural, outdoors, sunny skies and wide-open spaces; the other is urban, dark and claustrophobic.

Yet surprisingly, there have been several attempts to see if these two great tastes can taste great together.

At the shallow end of the pool are camp classics like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Monster (1966) and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966). 

For something (slightly) more sophisticated, check out Curse of the Undead (1959) starring Eric Fleming (from Rawhide) as a small-town preacher pitted against a gun-slinging vampire. The mixing of western and gothic horror clichés results in a strange but intriguing hybrid that makes its 79 minutes fly by.

But as this is a classic TV blog, let’s get back to our main topic. Westerns thrived on TV in the 1950s and ‘60s, and while quite a few featured Christmas episodes, not many built a story around Halloween. However, for those seeking a few spooky thrills this October 31, there’s a season 5 episode of Bonanza that would be perfect to watch with the lights down low. 

“Twilight Town” starts with Little Joe (Michael Landon) being knocked unconscious by a horse thief. 

Dazed and injured he wanders into what appears to be a ghost town. But after passing out again he wakes up and finds the town – Martinville – transformed into a busy settlement where all the locals seem unusually delighted to welcome a stranger.

After being nursed back to health, Joe is urged to become Martinville’s new sheriff. But the widow of the last sheriff implores him to leave town while he still can. “They’re going to kill you,” she warns, “just as surely as they killed my husband.”

I think that’s enough plot, for the benefit of those who have yet to enjoy this wonderful episode.

As the title suggests, “Twilight Town,” seems inspired by The Twilight Zone. The scares come not from quick cuts to frightening images, but from the slow realization of being trapped in a situation where everything seems normal on the surface but not quite right if you look a little closer.

There are moments here found in dozens of westerns and Bonanza episodes: Joe meets a pretty girl and falls in love; a gang of outlaws threaten a town that seeks a brave man to protect them; horses run and guns blaze; and yet all the while that wild card element is still present – what’s really going on in Martinville?

The climax seems to provide a logical explanation, but then there’s a little twist at the end that blurs the line between what’s real and imaginary. 

This ranks as a favorite episode among many Bonanza fans, and it’s easy to see why. “Twilight Town” can be found in the series’ Season 5 DVD box, and can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Foreign Relations in 1950s Television

During this contentious election year there is much being said about how people who are different are getting along. The short answer, it appears, is not that well.

This isn’t the forum to talk about the ebb and flow of tolerance, and how some situations were clearly worse 50 years ago, while many others seemed so much better than they are now.

Instead, let’s see what happens when vintage TV shows approached this topic.

I always like these episodes. They reveal how much bigger the world seemed in the pre-Internet era. For the heartland residents of golden-age sitcoms, the chance to meet someone born outside the U.S. didn’t come along every day. That perspective influenced how outsiders were portrayed, as well as how they were received by the characters viewers watched every week.

Often these shows fell back on cultural stereotypes that could be viewed as naïve now, or offensive if you’re the sort that likes to be offended about everything.

But that was not how they were intended. If anything, writers viewed these scripts as opportunities to educate viewers about the ways different populaces lived and dressed and spoke, while also offering an outsider’s perspective on American life and culture. That required an emphasis on divergence, though inevitably an underlying message would emerge on how people are people, no matter where they are from.

Here are three intriguing examples.

“Fair Exchange” (1958)
Father Knows Best
The Andersons play host to Chanthini, an Indian exchange student played by Puerto Rico’s own Rita Moreno. 

“Will she have a shawl on her head and a water bucket on her shoulder?” Kathy wonders, while Bud hopes she knows the Indian rope trick. Chanthini is also not immune to jumping to conclusions: when she sees an apron-clad Jim helping with the dishes she assumes he’s a servant. In her country, she says, the men don’t do kitchen work. “You people have the right idea,” Jim responds.

“Fair Exchange” offers a textbook example of how this story trope often plays out. “Did you know?” lessons are frequently inserted (not always gently) into the script: “What’s that little red dot on your forehead?” Kathy asks Chanthini; “We get most of our tea from India,” Margaret informs her family.  And as we’re still in the 1950s, everyone admirably tries not to offend each other. The final scene, where Bud tries to teach Chanthini about football, is one of those utterly charming moments that TV has long since forgotten how to create.

“The Duenna” (1957)
The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet
David meets Lucita, an attractive girl who speaks only Spanish. Somehow they manage to make a date, but he is confused when she calls later and he can’t understand her. 

A half-hearted attempt to translate reveals one word familiar to Ozzie – “duenna,” meaning chaperone. Apparently it’s Spanish tradition for girls on dates to be accompanied by a grandmother or maiden aunt. Ozzie tags along to accompany the chaperone, but is taken aback when the duenna turns out to be an attractive senorita with amorous intentions. 

The episode plays without subtitles, except for one brief scene needed to clarify the plot. Thus, viewers are as challenged by the language barrier as David, which heightens our awareness of how difficult these situations can be. What is engaging is the good faith effort made on both sides, without any expressions of impatience or frustration.  

“The Geisha Girl” (1961)
The Donna Reed Show
The wife of the new doctor in town gains a reputation as a snob because she never attends social events. Donna believes such pre-judgments are unfair and drops by for a visit. She discovers that the woman in question is not only Japanese, but also someone who prefers the traditional garb and subservient role of a wife common to her homeland. 

Later, at a small dinner party, the other doctors’ wives stare in disbelief as she serves her husband dinner and lights his pipe. The doctors find her deference admirable. “Don’t let it give you any ideas,” Donna cautions her husband.

Here we do see a suggestion of prejudice, though it is quickly proven false. But there is a discomfort among the ladies of Hilldale with someone who acts so submissive, and that in itself is interesting given how many women today might view the traditional homemaker roles that are esteemed in TV shows of this era. 

The final scene shows what happens when Donna takes it upon herself to Americanize the woman. One shopping trip later our visitor from Japan has joined the ranks of Hilldale’s stylish Midwestern homemakers.

But how will her husband react to his new wife? As it turns out, he’s delighted to see her making friends and embracing her new life in a new country. Assimilation is portrayed as a triumph for the immigrant and the community. If only that were still the case. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

'O' for Overlooked - Harry O

Charlie’s Angels was pitched to ABC as “Harry’s Angels.” The network requested a name change to avoid confusion with another ABC series, Harry O. Forty years later everyone still knows Charlie’s Angels, but Harry O has been largely forgotten outside of classic TV circles.

That’s unfortunate because the show holds up, even if it didn’t invest enough trust in its original premise. Given the series’ strengths, starting with David Janssen as the title character, that flaw is not fatal but it is disappointing.

After starring in one of television’s most iconic shows, Janssen seemed unfazed by the challenge of headlining another series. Four years after Dr. Richard Kimble was exonerated in The Fugitive, Janssen was back on TV in the Jack Webb-produced O’Hara, U.S. Treasury. There is an inherent stiffness to Webb shows that can be effective, but not with an expressive actor like Janssen. It was canceled after one season.

Harry O (1973-1976), launched the following year, was a better fit for its star and a better show all around, though it lasted just one more season than its predecessor. 

As originally conceived, it’s about Harry Orwell, a private investigator in San Diego formerly with the police department. He took a bullet in the line of duty that lodged in his spine, which forced his retirement and left him in constant pain.

As anyone who watched The Fugitive can attest, Janssen does “constant pain” really well.

Orwell lives on the beach, works on his dilapidated boat, and takes the bus to get around the city when he has a case. For help he turns to old friends on the force, especially Lt. Manny Quinlan (Henry Darrow). 

Perhaps the world-weariness of someone that beaten down by life was a little too close to Kimble, so in the latter half of its first season, the series switched things up. The setting changed from San Diego to Los Angeles. That meant goodbye to reliable TV character actor Henry Darrow, and hello to another reliable TV character actor in Anthony Zerbe, playing Lt. Trench. 

Harry's beater of a car also became (slightly) more reliable, so no more bus rides. And his nagging injury must have miraculously healed because it was never mentioned again.

All of these changes did not make the show better. The early episodes are more atmospheric, as Harry takes on cases that delve into the dark side of life in idyllic southern California. “The Admiral’s Daughter” has the always down-and-out looking detective sifting through suspects at an opulent yacht club. Guest-star Diana Ewing will break your heart in “Shadows at Noon” as a woman committed to a mental institution by the family that wants her inheritance.

The series’ tone and setting also helped to separate it from the glut of detective shows in the 1970s, especially as there are only so many plots to go around in the genre.

That said, Harry O survived the reboot better than most shows might have, and even gained one memorable asset in Harry’s L.A. neighbor, played by Farrah Fawcett. A lighter side of the character emerges, though Harry remains a cynic at heart. 

The scenes at the police station pick up as well, as Harry is much more of a smartass to Trench, whose exasperated exclamations of “Or-well!” are reminiscent of how Jerry Seinfeld addressed Newman. But the show never gets too quippy, and two episodes launched with startling murders of supporting characters are very serious business.

There’s an added appeal for Fugitive fans, of course, not just in seeing Janssen back on TV but also in watching for all of the guest stars from that classic series that appear on Harry O. Kurt Russell, who as a teenager had played Lt. Philip Gerard’s son, appears ten years later in “Double Jeopardy” as a witness to a murder who becomes a target of the same killer. Joanna Pettet, who had a doomed romance with Dr. Kimble in “Shadow of the Swan,” has an equally doomed romance with Harry in “40 Reasons to Kill.”

Harry O was not a hit in either incarnation, hence its cancellation after 44 episodes. But it’s also proof that yesterday’s also-rans are more appealing than many of today’s most successful shows. Both seasons are available on DVD and highly recommended. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Duke and The Clampetts: Politically Incorrect Moments in Classic TV History

“The Indians are Coming”
The Beverly Hillbillies

In the course of researching a magazine article I am writing on John Wayne, I was reminded of a 1967 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Mr. Wayne makes a cameo appearance.

As I watched, my internal commentary kept repeating the same sentence: you couldn’t get away with that anymore. This nearly 50 year-old episode of a network situation comedy would now be deemed terribly offensive. 

You know what apparently isn’t offensive? Game of Thrones, the series that just won the Emmy for Best Drama. That’s the show that has featured, among other things, multiple rapes and graphic beheadings, a woman paraded naked through the streets and pelted with garbage, a child strapped to a stake and set on fire, and a brother and sister spending a special kind of quality time with each other that siblings don’t usually share.

Isn’t it wonderful living in such enlightened times?

But I digress.

Co-written by series creator Paul Henning, “The Indians are Coming” opens with the Clampetts learning about a minor border issue between their oil land and the adjoining Crowfeet Indian reservation. To the Indians, it’s a simple matter easily settled, but to Granny this can only mean one thing – the Crowfeet are on the warpath: “Except for John Wayne, nobody knows injuns like me!”

Down at the bank, Mr. Drysdale is also roused by the news: 

“They hit a gusher there! Send a message to my red brothers – Milburn Drysdale speak with straight tongue…send all black wampum my bank, we put in solid steel teepee.”

Miss Jane: “No…there’s been a boundary dispute and the Indians are claiming part of the Clampett oil land.”

Drysdale: “Why those dirty, thieving savages!”

The tribal representatives, Chief Running Wolf and his son, are cultured 20th century men (Chief Running Wolf graduated from Oxford), who realize the minor boundary issue could have been handled by correspondence, but they wanted to see California.

When they arrive at the bank they find Drysdale in full buckskins and feathered headdress, spouting every Indian cliché from every western movie. The Chief and his son play along, letting him embarrass himself further.  

By now, Granny has heard that the Crowfeet are coming to Beverly Hills, and tries to alert the community: “The injuns are coming! Put your cars in a circle!”

While Jed has a cordial meeting with Chief Running Wolf, Mr. Drysdale finds Granny preparing for a full-scale attack, and ready to return home to fight there if she can’t fight the enemy in Beverly Hills. To avoid the Clampetts leaving and taking their deposits with them, he calls a movie studio and orders up a staged Indian attack (after removing all the real ammunition from Granny’s gun).

Once the mock siege is turned away Granny, none the wiser, sits quietly in her rocker, and that’s when John Wayne appears: "I understand you were looking for me." Granny slowly stands and asks, "Where was ya when I need ya, John?" 

Is “The Indians are Coming” offensive? To those with a Pavlovian response to racial slurs regardless of context, absolutely. Expressions like “red savages,” “redskins” and “red devils” are liberally sprinkled throughout the episode.

But here’s the thing: those expressions are used only by characters that are unsophisticated and self-serving. As a result, they do not degrade the Native-Americans, portrayed as sophisticated, kind and tolerant, but instead reveal the callowness of those who use them.

When Jethro enters a hotel room where the two Native-American representatives are dressed in business suits and says, “Wrong room, Uncle Jed, we’re lookin’ for a couple of ignorant Indians,” it’s funny because Jethro, as stupid a character as TV has every introduced, is calling someone else ignorant while personifying that description.

And when Mr. Drysdale, moved by consuming greed, tries to placate Chief Running Wolf with colorful beads and trinkets, the scene works because of the over-the-top silliness of his insensitivity, as well as the bemused response it receives from its recipients. 

Of course, none of this will matter to those hell-bent on eradicating any words, symbols or subjects perceived to be hostile to any sub-section of the human race. 

Will you laugh? I know I did. It’s one of the funniest sitcom episodes I’ve watched in recent months. Irene Ryan is a force of nature playing Granny’s gung ho fighting spirit. But humor is subjective, and I’m sure there are those who find this type of comedy a relic of a previous age that is best forgotten. 

The entire unedited episode is on YouTube - let me know what you think.