Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Terrible Shows I Like: The Rich Little Show


I have always been fascinated by impressionists (and by that I mean entertainers that can mimic voices, not Renoir and Monet – though I like them too). It’s one thing to be able to change one’s voice into a near exact copy of someone else’s, but to replicate that talent on dozens of other people? It’s a remarkable thing.

The best TV show to feature impressionists was The Kopykats (1972), filmed in England and aired in the U.S. on The ABC Comedy Hour. Only seven episodes were made, but they brought together an all-star lineup led by Rich Little, George Kirby, Frank Gorshin, Fred Travalena and Marilyn Michaels. The skits were hit and miss, but the mimicry was jaw-dropping.



The Kopykats is not on DVD, and likely never will be due to music rights (though it can be found through ‘unofficial’ channels). But in 1975 NBC took a chance on a Rich Little variety series. It was gone after just 13 episodes, and didn’t last for the same reason The Kopykats fizzled out – there’s only so much one can do with a premise based on imitating other celebrities.

That’s one of the problems with turning this particular talent into a TV show – after you master another person’s voice you still have to do something with it. Working up five killer minutes for a Dean Martin Roast? Easy, for someone with Rich Little’s gift. But a weekly 60-minute show would prove a much loftier challenge.  



Despite its brevity and near forgotten status 40 years later, The Rich Little Show has been released on DVD. My aforementioned affection for impressionists made it a must-buy.




Aside from its headliner’s particular set of skills, the series has much in common with many short-lived variety series from the 1970s. Among its virtues – a wholesome good-natured eagerness to please and an eclectic array of guest stars. Among its faults – frequent strained comedy bits and sketches that don’t know when to wrap up.

How did Little turn his stable of impressions into a series? Sometimes by just not doing them. Several episodes feature sketches in which he plays a salesman or a traveler at an airport, who is accosted by series regular Charlotte Rae as a wild-eyed lunatic who winds up clinging to his ankles as he drags her across the floor, trying to escape. It’s as bad as it sounds.

Fortunately, most of the segments are built around impressions, either in stand-up routines similar to those in Little’s nightclub act, or in sketches in which he portrays characters such as Inspector Clouseau or Columbo. These have not aged well as the concept wears thin after a few minutes, and these were not among Little’s better voices.

That was always an issue with Rich  – he couldn’t always tell his good ones from his bad ones. I’ve seen his Vegas show a dozen times, in which barely recognizable covers of Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond stayed in his act for years to barely polite applause.

But when he was in his wheelhouse, particularly on the icons of Hollywood’s golden age, he was amazing: James Stewart, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau…he had dozens of familiar voices in his arsenal, but he could also take on the expressions and mannerisms of each person. You knew who he was doing before he said a word.



On the show he incorporated these impressions into his opening monologues, and in features where he took (obviously pre-arranged) audience suggestions of matching stars with different jobs – Kirk Douglas as a door-to-door salesman, Edith Bunker as a football player, Johnny Carson as a weatherman. And every so often Little would recreate a scene from a classic film such as Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and the effect was entrancing.

Politicians were also a big part of his repertoire, and as The Rich Little Show aired in the presidential campaign year of 1976 there is a healthy dose of current event humor in every episode. Richard Nixon was among his most popular impressions, because the president was such a rich target for ridicule, and because Little’s impression struck the perfect balance between accuracy and exaggeration. It’s still hilarious, but the jokes told in the voices of Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace will probably be lost on anyone under 40 (50?) now. 

 

The guest star lineup for these 13 shows is truly stellar: Bob Hope, Andy Griffith, Michael Landon, Bernadette Peters, Bing Crosby, Bill Bixby, Freddie Prinze, and a plethora of ‘70s TV stars, from David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser to Kevin Tighe and Randolph Mantooth.

The musical guests also help push this set into the win column for me – there are performances from Glen Campbell (“Rhinestone Cowboy”), Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds (“Winners and Losers”), and two irresistible slices of ‘70s cheese – C.W. McCall doing “Convoy” and Larry Groce performing “Junk Food Junkie.”



Also appearing – The Jackson 5, who perform “Forever Came Today” and play the Sweathogs in a Welcome Back, Kotter sketch. It is both dreadful and fascinating to see Michael Jackson here before “Off the Wall” and Motown 25 – so much genius ahead, and so much crazy. 



Taken as a whole the series indeed leans toward the terrible, yet I am content to fast-forward through the lame sketches that take up half of each episode for the moments of magic in between, such as when Rich greets guest stars like Glenn Ford and Raymond Burr in their own voices. Or a salute to radio shows in which Little and Julie McWhirter recreate a classic comedy routine from George Burns and Gracie Allen. Since I’ve watched that segment more than a dozen times already, I have gotten my money’s worth from this modest investment. Your entertainment mileage may vary. 



5 comments:

  1. I vaguely remember Rich's show and enjoyed reading it about all these years. I know some critics thought other impressionists were better. I didn't. For a good decade, Rich was the premiere copycat and he did it very well.

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  2. I don't remember this show, though I remember Rich appearing on lots of 70s variety shows, including the last "Captain & Tennille Show", which I have on DVD now. One thing I've never seen on any other variety show is how he put his guest stars out in the audience and introduced them from there. I wonder if the regular audience members sitting around them were special VIP guests or just lucky.

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  3. Rich Little once said that he did his best Nixon impression when he had a cold, which is why, whenever he played Vegas, Little would try to catch one.

    I remember thinking it was a little weird to see Little in drag impersonating Carol Channing.

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  4. Me and my sister at the first taping in july 1975 aired september 3 1975 w Glenn Campbell and Sandy Duncan....can see us in very front center

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    1. How cool! I'm going to pull out the DVD tonight and see if I can spot you -

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