Sunday, February 7, 2016

Comfort TV Contemplates Chinese New Year

Today begins the celebration of Chinese New Year. As we welcome the Year of the Monkey I’d like to share some thoughts about Chinese contributions to the classic TV era.

One of the accusations often lodged against television from the 1950s-1970s is its lack of diversity. And this grievance is not without merit. However, it’s a condemnation that can also be taken too far, when it is exaggerated into accusations of racial stereotyping where they do not exist – or at the very least, were not intended.

There is no escaping the reality that back then many prominent Chinese TV characters were domestics: Hop Sing, the family cook on Bonanza; Hey Boy, the hotel porter that brings Paladin his messages on Have Gun Will Travel; Peter Tong, Bentley Gregg’s houseboy on Bachelor Father; Kato, the Green Hornet’s chauffeur. 

Fair enough. But Peter Tong was in many ways the more responsible parental figure to Bentley’s daughter, and Kato (played by Bruce Lee) was a more charismatic character than his employer. When kids reenacted the previous night’s episode of The Green Hornet in the school playground, everybody wanted to be Kato.

Bonanza and Have Gun Will Travel were set in the American west in the 1800s, so the portrayals were historically accurate. The Bonanza episode “The Lonely Man” acknowledged the legal biases against Asians that existed at the time. And “Hey Boy’s Revenge,” from season 1 of Have Gun Will Travel, condemned the exploitation of the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads. Its message was so eloquently delivered that the show made TV Guide’s 1997 list of the 100 Greatest TV Episodes.

I probably should not admit this, as it may result in being sentenced to a week of cultural sensitivity training, but when I began ruminating on the topic of Chinese people in classic TV the first thing that came to my mind was this:

No company would dare run that commercial in our more “enlightened” era because the Chinese couple own a laundry, which some would classify as a stereotype.

But whether it’s my own naiveté or just the way I was raised, where others look at this commercial and see racism, I see an appealing young couple that owns their own business. And the “ancient Chinese secret” line is clearly tongue-in-cheek, its cultural grandiosity irreparably punctured by the Calgon revelation at the end. It’s a cute and clever spot, which is why it’s still so fondly recalled decades later.

Yes, laundries were traditionally associated with the Chinese in America, as discrimination forced them to turn to self-employment because other jobs were not available. This is what immigrants used to do in this country – in the face of unfair treatment and prejudice they found a niche and made it work until other opportunities presented themselves. How is that anything but admirable?

By the 1970s, when the Calgon ad debuted, Chinese-Americans could be found in all walks of life – yes, including the laundry business. I guess to some arbiters of inclusion this was like sending African-Americans back to the plantation. I don’t believe that is a fair comparison.

Now, I will concede that this was a time when there were not as many opportunities for Asian actors, even in roles that should have been a no-brainer. Why was David Carradine playing a Chinese monk in Kung Fu

The series was a success and he imbued the character of Caine with dignity, but this type of bigoted casting was an unfortunate holdover from the era when John Wayne played Gengis Khan.

When Hanna-Barbera created The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Asian actors were hired to voice the famed detective’s ten children; but some were recast after their accents were deemed too difficult to understand. Thus, the role of Anne Chan originally played by Leslie Kumamota was ultimately performed by that lovely lotus blossom Jodie Foster.

A few actors overcame the barriers, and once they did they were rarely out of work. When a sitcom required a Chinese character, or an urban detective series set a story in Chinatown, astute TV fans figured this was probably a job for James Hong.

Even a cursory overview of Hong’s 400+ credits would require a separate blog entry; he was everywhere in the Comfort TV era: Dragnet, Peter Gunn, Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, The Man From UNCLE, Gomer Pyle, Family Affair, Mission: Impossible, The Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family, Charlie’s Angels, Taxi…it’s an extraordinary list. But you may recall him most readily as the maitre’d in the classic Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant” (“Cartwright!”).

The roles were not always varied – or distinguished – but Hong was a true pro, whether playing a fortune teller on I Spy or Billy Joe Fong on The Dukes of Hazzard. At age 86 he’s not only still with us but still acting.

When Hong was booked a few other actors also managed to find work: Keye Luke voiced Detective Chan in the Chan Clan series, and may be best known to TV fans as Master Po on Kung Fu. Robert Ito played Sam Fujiyama opposite Jack Klugman on Quincy from 1976-1983. 

It is better now, though perhaps not as much as it should be. Today you have Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken; Lucy Liu on Elementary, B.D. Wong on Law and Order: SVU and Ming-Na Wen on Agents of Shield. And television is enriched by their talent.

But on this Chinese New Year let’s also celebrate the television contributions of those that did the best they could with the opportunities available. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Do Not Leave This World Without Tracking Down The Fugitive

Taking my TV viewing preferences as a whole, there didn’t seem much hope that I would enjoy The Fugitive.

It’s a somber show that is not fast-paced or action-packed, there is almost no humor, and the protagonist, Dr. Richard Kimble, suffers through the most tortured existence of any character created for television (though Oliver Queen on Arrow is catching up).

For someone who values classic TV as a means to escape the harsher realities of life, a show this relentlessly downbeat is an unlikely destination.

And yet…I would cite it as one of television’s ten best shows, and I am entranced by it every time.

The series is justly revered among classic TV fans, but it’s still not as celebrated as it should be, because it was not syndicated as often as the sitcoms and lighter dramatic fare of the 1960s.

Several episodes were released on videocassette in the mid-1980s, and this was when I saw it for the first time. The series aired on A&E in the ‘90s but I didn’t have cable then, so I didn’t revisit the show until the year 2000, when TV Land aired a 24-hour Fugitive marathon to promote a deservedly short-lived remake starring Tim Daly. My VCR was running round the clock to capture them all.

The Fugitive finally hit DVD in 2007. Hardcore fans (and make no mistake, there are Fugitive fans as ardent as those for Star Trek and Game of Thrones) were outraged about music substitutions. While the purist in me was on that barricade with them, at the time I was just too happy to finally have access to every episode to really care. 

Even if you have enough interest in classic television to visit this blog, it’s possible you haven’t had a chance to get to know this series. The purpose for this entry is to let you know that this must stop. Find it, watch it, and thank me later.

The premise is covered in an opening credits sequence narrated by William Conrad: Indiana doctor Richard Kimble is convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to death. He claims he saw a one-armed man flee the scene. No one believes him. He escapes when the train taking him to prison derails. The police lieutenant escorting him to the death house, Philip Gerard, becomes obsessed with his recapture. 

From such broad stroke set-ups TV shows both great and terrible have been made. But The Fugitive was Les Misérables for television, as compelling in its medium as Victor Hugo’s literary masterwork.  

The pilot, “Fear in a Desert City,” provides a perfect illustration of the series’ strengths. Kimble is working as a bartender in Tucson, just one more in a litany of menial jobs. He meets a sympathetic woman, he runs afoul of local law enforcement, and flees before he can be captured. 

But it's not just what happens but how it happens, and how David Janssen, who never won the Emmy for his portrayal of Kimble, inhabits this role on a cellular level. You believe his every skittish reaction to a squad car parked across a street; the lonely desperation of a man trying to prove his innocence by tracking down his wife's killer in a world that predates Google by 30 years; a “victim of blind justice” cast adrift in a relentlessly dark and hostile existence bereft of any permanent home, prospects or friends.

Throughout the show’s four seasons he is most often found in rural areas, a skilled physician taking day labor work and trying to blend in among poorly educated people. Though he keeps his head down and doesn’t talk much they sense he’s not like the rest of them. Some react with kindness, some with curiosity, some with hostility. 

But he’s still a doctor, which was a brilliant decision on the part of series creator Roy Huggins. As much as Kimble needs to distance himself from his former life to stay alive, he is also compelled by his vocation and his conscience to help if someone needs medical attention. As soon as he does, he knows people will wonder how a migrant worker picking strawberries in Salinas knows how to perform a tracheotomy, and his days there will be numbered. Yet Kimble repeatedly compromises his own safety to help the kind of person that society ignores.

Lt. Philip Gerard, played by Barry Morse, was Javert to Kimble’s Valjean, and a formidable adversary throughout the run. Gerard only appears in about one-third of the episodes in every season – another wise and all-too-rare example of restraint in service of the drama. If Kimble kept narrowly escaping Gerard 25 times a season, the series becomes a Road Runner cartoon. This way, when Gerard does get close, it ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels.  

Once you grasp the premise, you know that in a typical episode Dr. Kimble is not going to be captured, or killed, or exonerated, because that would be the end of the show. Yet the series teases each of those outcomes repeatedly, and does it so well you can’t help but wonder how Kimble is going to get out of another no-win situation, or how the end of his nightmare will elude him once more.

To illustrate, I present “The Iron Maiden,” a typically solid season two episode. Kimble is working construction on a missile silo in the Nevada desert. The site is visited by a U.S. Congresswoman, who is injured at the bottom of the shaft. While Kimble tries to help her, a press photographer snaps a photo that makes the national news. Gerard sees it and immediately heads for the site. Before he arrives an accident strands several workers, including Kimble, 200 feet below the surface. By the time the equipment is fixed, his identity has been exposed. There’s only one way out of the shaft, and when he surfaces Gerard is there waiting for him. How will he escape this time?    

For a series so groundbreaking in its format, its lack of a permanent setting or supporting cast, and its inversion of traditional hero and villain roles, there was one cliché to which The Fugitive was not immune. That would be Kimble’s capability to make every woman he approaches fall in love with him. Certainly the show had to be aware of how this trope became abused. But perhaps, given the tribulations he endures for four seasons, it seemed only fair to allow him a few hours of pleasure with guest stars like Lois Nettleton, Suzanne Pleshette, Hope Lange and Susan Oliver.   

The Fugitive finale was famous as the most-watched episode of network television up to that point, garnering an astonishing 73 share. It’s satisfying but not perfect. I always thought the final moment between Kimble and Gerard should have been more substantive. And it would have been wonderful to insert brief clips of previous characters Kimble met in his travels, smiling as they read a newspaper account of his exoneration.

Still, since most shows did not receive the luxury of a definitive final installment, we are fortunate that Kimble’s saga ended at all. There was concern over how it would impact the series’ syndication appeal, and perhaps that proved to be valid. But viewers were so invested in the series that they deserved closure.

So here is my final appeal to those who missed The Fugitive, and already have too many other things to do to worry about tracking down episodes of a 50 year-old series. If you care about great art, and you think a life well lived requires taking time to experience some Shakespeare and Mozart, some Donatello and Picasso, some Keats and Shelley, some Beatles and Stones, and in television some Lucy and Twilight Zone, make sure The Fugitive is added to that list. It really is that good. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Comfort TV Tribute: Gary Owens

From 1997 through about 2001, if you called my home and I wasn’t in, you would have heard the following answering machine message:

Hello, this is Gary Owens, reminding you that David Hofstede is not in right now. But if you leave your name and phone number, your height, weight, religion, and of course, your favorite color, then he will return your call.”


It generated a lot of laughs, occasional bewildered frustration, and pleas from friends who had heard it a hundred times to take it down. But the message only came off my machine after I reluctantly landed a real job in the corporate world that necessitated a more professional greeting.

Gary Owens recorded the message for me after an interview I did with him in 1996, that was published in a magazine called Baby Boomer Collectibles. We stayed in touch for a while after that but I had not spoken to him in years prior to his passing in 2015. 

My thoughts returned to him the other day when I mentioned to someone that I was driving to California for the weekend, and would be staying in “Beautiful Downtown Burbank.” His recognition of that phrase, once familiar to just about everyone, marked him as a fellow classic TV fan.

It’s an expression some associate with the monologues of Johnny Carson, whose Tonight Show originated from NBC’s Burbank headquarters. But it was first coined by Gary Owens in the unique weather reports he delivered on his Los Angeles radio show (“It’s 80 degrees in romantic Reseda, 75 degrees in lascivious Laguna, and in beautiful downtown Burbank, it’s 500 degrees”).

But Burbank’s infamy did not enter the national lexicon until Gary Owens revived the phrase during his six-season run on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In

There are some perhaps that only remember him from that landmark series, with his striped suit and horn rimmed glasses, standing at an old-fashioned microphone, hand cupped to his ear, saying the silliest things in a mock serious tone.

“This just in – the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France is not made of Eiffel at all!”

“On this date in history, Snow White said to a well-known charming prince, “Dear, there are seven reasons I can’t marry you.”

John Chancellor is back in our NBC newsroom practicing a speech that is worthy of Cicero – or any other small town in Illinois.”

But Laugh-In was just one part of his entertainment legacy, and a small part at that, as well as one of the easiest jobs he ever accepted. As he revealed during our interview, they typically finished each episode in just two days – three, if the writers decided to play with Goldie Hawn by writing dirty words on her cue cards so she would giggle through 17 takes.

Owens, one of four cast members to appear in every episode (along with Dan Rowan, Dick Martin and Ruth Buzzi) taped his segments in the morning, then returned the following day for the weekly cocktail party sketch. At the same time, he was lending his voice to several cartoons and hosting a daily local radio show. 

One of his more famous promotions on KMPC Los Angeles was offering an autographed photo of the Harbor Freeway. “Fifty thousand people wrote in,” he recalled, “and we sent them a picture of the freeway signed at the bottom, ‘Yours truly, Harbor Freeway.’”

There isn’t a lot of Laugh-In available on DVD yet, but there are plenty of other ways to celebrate Mr. Owens’ remarkable career, starting with Roger Ramjet, one of the funniest cartoons ever created. Every episode of this 1965 lampooning of the military-industrial complex appeared as if it was made for about three dollars – the animation was so limited it made Clutch Cargo look like a Pixar film. But the writing was genius, and Owens’ portrayal of Roger was note-perfect. 

Got six minutes? Get ready to laugh.

Owens also lent his dulcet tones to characters like Space Ghost, Blue Falcon, and Powdered Toast Man on The Ren & Stimpy Show, and served as the narrator on The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. He also appeared in such Comfort TV series as McHale’s Navy, The Munsters, Batman and I Dream of Jeannie (when he was joined by Laugh-In alums Judy Carne and Arte Johnson in one of that show’s more memorable episodes). 

And if you still need one more reason to think fondly of this wonderful, whimsical talent, he also spearheaded a crusade to convince the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce that The Three Stooges deserved a star on the Walk of Fame. His efforts paid off in 1983. Owens has his own star on that famous sidewalk, located next to another man who gave us a few great cartoons, Walt Disney. 

I think I'll put that answering machine message back up – at least for a little while. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Book From Batman’s Butler

For Comfort TV fans, the casts of favorite shows are as familiar as close friends. But in so many instances, particularly among the supporting players, we know actors almost exclusively from a single role. They are the television equivalent of one-hit wonders.

You may already be thinking of some that qualify – Marion Lorne, so wonderful as Aunt Clara on Bewitched; David Schramm as the blustery Roy Biggins on Wings; Francis Bavier on The Andy Griffith Show; Milburn Stone on Gunsmoke; Gordon Thomson on Dynasty.

Many of these actors have a number of other significant credits, from stage to feature film – but a successful television series, particularly back in the Comfort TV era when such shows were viewed by tens of millions of people every week – almost always becomes their primary claim to fame, whether they like it or not.

I pondered this topic as I read Alan Napier’s autobiography, Not Just Batman’s Butler. His most famous role was Alfred, faithful servant to millionaire Bruce Wayne (and his youthful ward, Dick Grayson) on Batman (1966-1968). Napier seemed ideally cast as the ever-proper British gentleman’s gentleman, whose duties occasionally required him to take on special assignments that Sebastian Cabot never had to worry about on Family Affair

With his snow white hair, gaunt physique and thick, oversized spectacles, Napier looked about 90 when he appeared on Batman (he was actually 63) so I always figured he had other jobs before this, and I probably saw a few of them even if I never made the connection. In the days before IMDB such information was more difficult to come by.

As it turns out, he had appeared in nearly 100 films before arriving at stately Wayne Manor, and was a fixture on the London stage for decades. His remarkably prolific career includes such eminent credits as a production of Heartbreak House supervised by the play’s author, George Bernard Shaw, alongside equally lowbrow projects, such as his portrayal of a mad scientist in a Bowery Boys movie.

These tales and many more can be found in his new book. Which technically isn’t really new. McFarland published it last year but most of the text was completed in the early 1970s, not long after Napier finished his “It’s the Bat Phone, Sir” days. 

In 1975 he shared the manuscript with writer James Bigwood, who was then researching the actor’s career for a magazine article. After reconnecting with the Napier family, Bigwood was allowed to update and edit the manuscript, inserting additional information where needed. Now, 41 years after the book was started, you can finally read the results.

And I thought I waited a long time to get some of my books out.

Why wasn’t it published earlier? Napier once quipped it was because “I’ve never committed a major crime and I’m not known to have slept with any famous actresses.”

I’m not sure if that’s the case, but the delay certainly had nothing to do with quality. Napier is a remarkably engaging writer – clever, candid, self-effacing – and his memoirs are not merely another show business biography, but a window inside English aristocracy in the early 20th century (one of his cousins was Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain). How ironic that a man who achieved fame playing a butler has a blue-blood ancestry dating back to Shakespeare’s time.

Napier enjoyed a wonderfully prolific career and traveled in some fascinating company, from Charles Laughton and Laurence Olivier to Noel Coward and Alfred Hitchcock. But for those of my generation, he’s the guy at the beginning of every Batman episode who opens up the cake platter cover, picks up the beeping red phone and says, “I’ll summon him, sir.” 

Did that bother him? Not really – he loved the fame the show brought and all of the young fans that recognized Alfred wherever he went. Unfortunately we don’t get as many Batman memories as some readers might wish, though Bigwood does his best to fill in some of these gaps.

The surprising thing is, as much as you might want some inside scoop on Napier’s favorite Catwoman, or working with the likes of Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero, or how many women Burt Ward smuggled into his trailer in an average week, you won’t really miss it. Or you can just read Burt Ward’s book.

I’m glad I read Not Just Batman’s Butlerit’s available here if you want to check it out.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Five Things TV Used to Do That it Doesn’t Do Anymore

We’ve arrived at the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. If you’re a kid you’re off from school and if you’re a lucky adult like me you are enjoying a few days off from work. It’s a chance to rest up and celebrate surviving one more turn of the calendar, before diving back into your normal routine.

For many of us television is a treasured part of that routine, albeit one that has changed dramatically since we were still in the school vacation phase of our lives. There once were moments, now long gone, that we relied on and awaited with anticipation, and other elements of the programming day that, while not exciting in themselves, were reminders of the medium’s familiarity and constancy.

Here are some that I miss the most.

1. New Soaps on Holidays
For decades, while other programs were pre-empted on holidays, you could still see a new episode of your favorite daytime drama. Given the close relationships viewers developed with the characters on these stalwart series, watching their holiday traditions became part of many annual celebrations.

For General Hospital fans like me, that meant wondering what disaster would befall Thanksgiving dinner at the Quartermaine residence, prompting the family to call for pizza delivery. And on Christmas Day, Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino) would read the story of the first Christmas to young patients in the children’s ward. 

After Beradino’s passing, the task was bestowed on other members of the senior hospital staff, and you could see in both the character and the actor how they recognized the privilege of carrying on this revered tradition.

Now, the few soaps that remain air reruns on holidays. Just what we need – another hour when we have to talk to our relatives.

2. Network Sign-ons/Sign-offs
There was a time when television networks ended their broadcast days at 1 or 2 a.m., returning the next morning around sunrise. Local affiliates would sometimes get the ball rolling with a sermonette, or by playing the National Anthem before the first network morning show. Night owls like me can still recall the various sign-offs, followed by a test pattern.

Changing viewing habits, cable TV and the infomercial all played a role in prompting stations to broadcast 24/7. But I remember being in London in the late 1980s, a time when these quaint customs were already disappearing in the U.S., and being unexpectedly delighted to find the sign-off still in use at the BBC, executed with typical British aplomb. 

3. No Winter Breaks
If there is one phrase that rankles the veteran Comfort TV fan it is “winter finale.”

What constitutes a “season” for a show today? For some cable series it’s 8 or 12 episodes. Most network series manage to reach 22 shows, necessitating a holiday season hiatus that may last a month or more. Contrast that with some typical first seasons from the classic TV era:

Leave it to Beaver:                  39 episodes
The Donna Reed Show:          37 episodes
Gunsmoke:                             39 episodes
Naked City:                            39 episodes
Bewitched:                             36 episodes
The Twilight Zone:                  36 episodes
Ozzie & Harriet:                     39 episodes

Today’s television actors, writers, directors and creative teams earn many times what their classic TV counterparts did, for doing a lot less work. 

4. A Sense of Propriety in Commercials
Commercial interruptions are never not annoying, but they don’t have to make you queasy or generate uncomfortable questions from kids about what the man in the bathtub means by erectile dysfunction. I know that just by using the word ‘propriety’ I risk derisive comparison to the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey. But I don’t care if I am the last person in America who thinks that some topics are best left between one’s self and one’s doctor. I just want to watch Gilligan try to get off the island – I don’t want to hear about your vaginal yeast infection. 

5. Fall Season Musical Promos
Excitement still accompanies the arrival of fresh network TV episodes every September, though these days summer offers a supplemental season of new alternative programming that makes the wait easier.

But in the Comfort TV era the new fall season was a much bigger event, heralded by the networks with extravagant promotions featuring all of their top stars. The setup often consisted of actors from established shows welcoming newcomers to the team. There was a sense of company pride in these spots, that also promoted a familial relationship between network and viewer. Look, we thought, at all these rich and famous people, taking time out of their busy schedule to invite us to watch their shows.

If you’re old enough you may still remember some of these musical campaigns: “You and Me and ABC,” “NBC Just Watch Us Now” and CBS’s “Looking Good.” I always enjoyed the ABC promos the most, from “Still the One” to “Come on Along with ABC.” They were the top dog network at the time these promos were in vogue, and were happy to invest the time and money to keep it that way. The days of presentations like this are certainly gone forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Classic TV Christmas Songs: My 10 Favorites

Music is an integral part of Christmas. And for many of us the classic TV specials from an earlier era are part of that celebration as well. The best of them introduced even more wonderful music to enrich the season.

These are my ten favorite songs from these shows. I would love to hear more about yours.

“The Most Wonderful Day of the Year”
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
Every song in this landmark Christmas special is wonderful, but it’s “The Most Wonderful Day of the Year,” performed by the misfit toys, that best conveys the hope and joy of the season. Because the lyrics are so specific to the TV special it hasn’t remained as prominent as “Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Silver and Gold,” but that didn’t stop Glee (a show about another group of misfits) from covering it in their first Christmas show. 

“Keep Christmas With You”
Merry Christmas From Sesame Street
Anyone who watches Sesame Street into adulthood would not be surprised that it would introduce a memorable Christmas song. “Keep Christmas With You (All Through the Year)” was featured on several of the series’ holiday shows, beginning in 1975 and continuing (sadly) through 2006’s “Elmo Saves Christmas.” Stick with the early versions. 

“Snow Miser/Heat Miser”
The Year Without a Santa Claus
Ba Dump-Bump-Bump….Baaaaaaaaa-Dump… this may be the most powerful earworm unleashed by any Christmas show ever. I’m slightly partial to the slower tempo of Heat Miser’s version, but whether you prefer it hot or cold, it’s...too much. 

“Linus and Lucy”
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Next to Linus’s recitation of Luke 2: 8-14, this now iconic jazzy instrumental by the Vince Guaraldi Trio was the highlight of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s more associated now with Peanuts than Christmas, but you can’t help but smile when you hear it. 

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
It’s not exactly hummable, but the wordplay of Dr. Seuss and the deep-toned vocals of Thurl Ravenscroft came together to create something that is certainly unique among holiday tunes. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” also has a second classic TV connection as the music was composed by Albert Hague, Mr. Shorofsky on Fame

“Put One Foot in Front of the Other”
Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Is this a Christmas song? The lyrics make no reference to Christmas, Santa, snow, the Nativity or anything related to the holiday. But as it’s performed by Kris Kringle and the Winter Warlock in Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the connotation endures. I know a couple of people who felt inspired by the song’s message to make a positive change in their life, and any song that does that should be celebrated. 

“A Baby Just Like You”
John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together
John Denver hosted five Christmas specials in the 1970s and ‘80s. Perhaps not in the same longevity class with Perry Como or Bing Crosby, but fans have fond memories of these shows, particularly the two featuring The Muppets. Denver debuted several original Christmas songs in these shows, all of which are worth hearing. He wrote “A Baby Just Like You,” with frequent collaborator Joe Henry.

“Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus”
Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus
This buoyant song played over the closing credits of the 1974 animated special of the same name, and is performed by Jimmy Osmond in a sprightly English dance hall style. It’s a bit on the cheesy side but the enthusiasm is infectious. 

“Even a Miracle Needs a Hand”
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
It’s possible that more people now know this song, introduced by Joel Grey in a 1974 animated special, from an unlikely homage on South Park.  I’ll take the original. 

“I Believe in Santa Claus”
The Year Without a Santa Claus
I couldn’t decide between this one and the Heat Miser/Snow Miser songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, and then I remembered it’s my blog and I can include them both. If you’re not careful, this tender ballad will bring on a tear or two. Maybe even one of those big water drop tears that you see on the Rankin-Bass stop-motion classics. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Christmas With the Hartleys: Celebrating the Season on The Bob Newhart Show

NOTE: This post is part of  A Very Merry MeTV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to view the entire blogathon schedule.

The Bob Newhart Show is one of the few television series to feature a Christmas episode in every season.

I wish more shows had embraced the holidays that way, because for me Christmas shows were always special moments. Every year I looked forward to seeing familiar sets decked out in holiday finery, listening to the characters sing Christmas carols, and waiting for those little extras that you wouldn’t see in any other episode – like the Christmas wreath that appeared around the MTM Enterprises kitty logo. These are happy memories inextricably linked to my Christmases past.

So it’s wonderful to have not one but six Bob Newhart Christmas shows, which I have listed in countdown format based on personal preference, overall quality, holiday humor and Christmas-y feeling.  Don’t call it a worst-to-best list, as even the #6 episode has its moments and is better than much of today’s prime time fare.

#6:  “Making Up is the Thing to Do” (Season 5)
The holidays play a part in wrapping up this two-part story about an estrangement between Bob’s parents. 

Christmas-y Feeling: Marginal
This is the show’s only holiday episode in which Christmas seems like an afterthought, which is particularly regrettable because it originally aired on Christmas Day in 1976. However, do take a moment to appreciate the exceptional tinsel application technique on the Hartley tree.

Holiday Humor:
Bob: (on his plan to reunite his bickering parents on Christmas Eve) “The holidays have a way of bringing people closer together…they remind you of the ties that bind.”

Larry Bondurant: “Yeah. When did they separate?”

Bob: “Thanksgiving.”

Why it’s Worth Watching:
This is the best of Barnard Hughes’ three series appearances as Bob’s father.

#5: “Home is Where the Hurt Is” (Season 3)
Carol can’t face going home for the holidays, so she spends Christmas Eve relating her sad life story to Bob and Emily, just as they are getting ready to go to the symphony.

Christmas-y Feeling: Transformational
Early scenes show undecorated trees at the office and at Bob and Emily’s apartment. Later scenes show both trees covered in lights and ornaments, making for a memorable before-and-after effect.

Holiday Humor:
Bob: (explaining to Jerry why the office party was canceled) “It would just be you, me and Mr. Carlin.”

Jerry: “That’s not a party, that’s a wake.”

Why it’s Worth Watching
The Mr. Carlin scenes are the highlights, particularly the moment when he tells Bob how he always feels like everyone is laughing at him, setting up one of the show’s trademark elevator gags.

#4: His Busiest Season (Season 1)
Bob invites his group therapy participants to a holiday party. 

Christmas-y Feeling: Prominent
The Hartley residence looks especially festive this year, with a double-string of Christmas cards across the bookcases, a great tree and presents piled everywhere. The scene where Bob and Emily exchange gifts is heightened by a picturesque snowfall in the window behind them. All this, plus group sing-alongs of two Christmas carols, “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Deck the Halls.”

Holiday Humor:
Emily: “What do you think I should buy your Uncle Harry and your Aunt May?”

Bob: “What did we send them last year?”

Emily: “A basket of fruit.”

Bob: “They should have eaten it by now.”

Why it’s Worth Watching
This is a quieter and subtler episode, as was typical of the show’s first season. At this point Howard Borden is merely eccentric, and not the absurd man-child he would become. I also liked the appearance of King Moody, who at the time was playing Ronald McDonald in some of my favorite Christmas commercials of that era. Does McDonald’s still have gift certificates? If they do, they’re probably not 50 cents each anymore.

#3: I’m Dreaming of a Slight Christmas (Season 2)
Bob is called back to the office on Christmas Eve by a panic-attacked  Mr. Peterson, then gets stranded when a blizzard strikes.

Christmas-y Feeling: Satisfactory
The episode opens with some brief glimpses of Chicago at Christmas, and I liked the Santa figure on the Hartley bookshelves. The office lobby went with a white tree this year, and I’ve never been a fan of those. 

Holiday Humor:

Bob: “Carol, what kind of coffee is that?”

Carol: “Irish.”

Bob: “Is it ok to drink from the water cooler?”

Carol: “Sure – if you like martinis.”

Why it’s Worth Watching
Having spent many Christmases in Chicago, I enjoyed the acknowledgement of how cold it gets, and how the weather can scuttle the best of holiday plans. This is the perfect wintery episode to watch with a cup of hot chocolate (marshmallows optional).

#2: ‘Twas the Pie Before Christmas (Season 6)
In retaliation for Bob raising his group therapy rates, Mr. Carlin hires an organization called Pie Incorporated, which specializes in hitting victims with a pie.

Christmas-y Feeling: Abundant
Christmas permeates almost every scene in this episode, with wonderful decorations and carols and many other sights and sounds of the occasion. Bob coming home with a lousy Christmas tree is a repeat gag from year two, but in the spirit of the season we’ll let that pass.

Holiday Humor:
Bob: (on his Charlie Brown-like tree) “I know it’s not as pretty as last year’s tree.”  

Emily: “I think it is last year’s tree.”

Why it’s Worth Watching
While the series’ last season is its most hit-and-miss, they pulled off a merry and mirthful final holiday episode. The running pie-in-the-face gag delivers not one but several payoffs, and the group therapy scenes are hilarious.

# 1: Bob Has to Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve in the Hospital (Season 4)
The title says it all: Bob is subjected to the indignities of peekaboo hospital gowns, Howard’s hospital horror stories, and an ancient nurse.

Christmas-y Feeling: Muted
This is the only Yuletide episode where we don’t see a tree in the Hartley apartment. But since Bob isn’t home for Christmas, that sense of missing out on the holidays is thematically appropriate.

Holiday Humor:

Howard: “I was just decorating my Christmas tree and I was wondering, is there a trick to stringing cranberry sauce?”

Why it’s Worth Watching:
This is one of the best episodes of the entire series, right up there with the classic Thanksgiving show (“More goo to go!”). There are laugh out loud moments in every scene, from the doctor’s diagnosis to a tree-trimming scene in Howard’s apartment. The dotty nurse who takes care of Bob (veteran character actress Merie Earle) gets a laugh with every line she utters, and sometimes when she’s just standing there.

To all of you who, like me, will be spending some of your holiday season with the classic Christmas shows airing on MeTV, Comfort TV wishes you a very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.