Wednesday, May 22, 2019

You Didn’t Have to Be There – But I’m Glad I Was

While Comfort TV was wrapping up the top 100 TV-inspired songs ranking (just keep scrolling down if you missed it), three of the medium’s most beloved stars took their final bows: Tim Conway, Doris Day and Peggy Lipton. 

For those of us who remember watching their shows in their original runs, the sadness of their passing was followed by a realization that we too are starting to get up there a bit.

Another reason to be sad? I don’t think so. We all get a certain span of years to exist on this planet, and I feel not only content but also fortunate that part of my time was shared with them. 

I started Comfort TV to celebrate the classic television of the 1950s-1970s (and to some extent the ‘80s, but that’s going to be a topic for a future blog). When I look back at that era and how the medium has changed since...I can’t say it’s “better” or "worse," as that is too subjective; but I can say I still prefer it to what’s on TV now. It depicts a world I recognize and understand better than the one I’m presently living in. Its stories and characters, for the most part, respect the things that I respect, and don’t shy away from the kind of absolutes that have vanished in this era of persistent relevancy.

They were just nicer shows, with nicer people.

Doris Day had forged a bond with millions of loving fans long before The Doris Day Show debuted in 1968. It was a series she didn’t even want to do (read her autobiography for the details), but the stars of that era held themselves to higher standards of professionalism and honoring contracts. So she not only did the work, she never let anyone know that she’d rather be spending time with her animals in Carmel. 

The series struggled to find itself over five seasons. Doris first played a widow who lived on a ranch with her father and two sons. Then she took a job in San Francisco and the rural series became more city-based. By season four, the father and her two sons were gone (not dead, just written out and never acknowledged again).

Through it all, the flair for light comedy that seemed so natural in Doris Day kept viewers coming back. As did a troupe of supporting players led by Rose Marie, McLean Stevenson, Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell (are there any shows he wasn’t in?). 

I wish she sang more often on the show beyond the familiar theme, which can lift your mood faster than unexpected money in the mail. And I wish they’d have gone without a laugh track, which seems especially intrusive on this series. But even here, with a show that should have been better than it was, I can recall Monday evenings in my family’s living room, and the happy memories of enjoying a pleasant and comfortable show together.

The Mod Squad debuted the same year as The Doris Day Show. Unlike Doris, Peggy Lipton was an unknown actress when she was cast as Julie Barnes, but quickly became an icon of counterculture chic. 

My first memory of the series was wondering what the heck they were running away from in the opening credits.

I don’t own the series, but I bought the first two seasons twice; this is the only show where the DVD disc quality has been consistently dreadful. There’s a box set of all five seasons available now for just 32 bucks. Maybe it’s worth one more try.

I was surprised that most of the articles about her passing mentioned Twin Peaks more prominently, though I was glad to see her among that quirky cast as well, still looking radiant. One of my favorites of her TV performances was in the Wings episode “Miss Jenkins,” where she played the high school English teacher every boy had a crush on. It’s a shame she didn’t play more comedic roles. 

While Tim Conway was also a regular in more than one series, it’s his genius on The Carol Burnett Show that became a landmark in sketch comedy. The relentlessness of his improvisational attacks inspired some of the funniest moments I’ve ever watched on television.

I’ve shared the elephant story clip in this blog before, and you’re certainly familiar with the dentist sketch, and Mr. Tudball and his shuffling old man character. And who could forget the sketch where he plays a Nazi interrogating captured G.I. Lyle Waggoner with a Hitler hand puppet? It’s a moment that rivals Monty Python in sheer absurdity, and Waggoner, usually pretty unflappable, dissolves as quickly as Harvey Korman ever did.

I honestly don’t know if people in their 20s and 30s would find any of these shows and any of these performers as engaging as I did. If not, then we’ve lost something. There’s an appreciation for the past that seems lacking now, that wasn’t there with previous generations. I wasn’t around for the heydays of Sinatra or Elvis, but I still enjoy their music and understand what made them special. Does that same perception exist now for Johnny Carson or Rod Serling or Mary Tyler Moore?

That said, I acknowledge that I will never feel the same connection to Elvis as teenagers did in the 1950s. Some of this is indeed generational and there’s no way to embrace a moment from the past with the same appreciation from 20 years after it happened.

But that’s the connection I have with the classic TV era. I can remember watching the shows featuring Doris Day, Peggy Lipton and Tim Conway when they were brand new. We had no way to save them at the time, so for years they existed only in our memories. Now we can watch them any time we wish on DVD or YouTube, and that’s great. But it’s not the same as taking life's journey alongside them. I’m glad I was around to do that. 


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  2. Mr. Hofstede, how has the DVD disc quality for "The Mod Squad" home video releases been consistently dreadful? In any case, may Peggy Lipton, Tim Conway, and Doris Day all rest in peace.

    1. The discs don't play - image either skips or freezes. Happened twice with two sets I purchased.

  3. Great post and I am also glad to have experienced television in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, there is still great TV today, but the overall quality has declined. There were so many good actors doing TV back then: those who moved on to movie stardom (e.g., McQueen, Garner), movie stars who moved to TV (Doris, Rock, Raymond Burr), and first-rate supporting players (Jacqueline Scott, Bernie Kopell).