Avoiding Trump, I was going through one of those vast Mill Creek box sets–this one has every old tv show on it ever–seeking out things I’m missed. Not deliberately missed–I wouldn’t watch Petticoat Junction even if Trump were elected–but things I had skipped somehow. Like Love That Bob, aka The Bob Cummings Show. It’s from the late 50’s. There are only five episodes in the set (as opposed to nineteen thousand various Lucille Ball things) and all are really funny and at least two of them flat out hysterical. I’d always thought the funniest fifties sitcoms I knew of were The Jack Benny Program, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Phil Silvers Show (aka You’ll Never Get Rich) and The Honeymooners.(which at the time was not its own show but a segment of the hour long Jackie Gleason Show.) There are other situation comedies of te era that are very funny and well written but longer on story development and less on a plot devised merely to hold jokes together–e.g. The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy, even Bachelor Father, but for pure yucks the big four I’ve found were Jack Benny (the fifties shows, which were much like the radio show; it got weaker as television grew stupider in the early 60’s), George and Gracie (the most surreal of the bunch), the Honeymooners (sort of a TV version of the Duffy’s Tavern radio show, actually) and The Phil Silvers Show, which was written at a vaudeville comic’s tempo only Phil Silvers could deliver. Those were my big four. I loved them all, can recite entire bits, and study the writing well beyond the point of fandom, since I think that great comedy writing is as perfect as the use of the English language can get. It has to be perfect to work. For me, the few brilliant sitcoms that have ever been are Shakespeare. I could probably rattle them off and still have a finger or two left for another. And the fifties sitcoms, the Ur-shows, those are the rarest. I’d found only four.
Then I saw The Bob Cummings Show and it is as funny as those four. Jokes flying like Sonny Liston punches. The pacing was so fast that Don Knotts’ speed freak schtick dragged in the dust in the episode he guested on (he was funny anyway but I never realized how leisurely a pace you had to set his nervous man routine in, too fast a pace and it didn’t really work). The jokes on the Bob Cummings Show could also get really weird. Like way weird. “I want to pour molasses in your hair and photograph you with a halo of flies!”, for instance. His timing and delivery are brilliant (he also directed a lot of the shows), the dialog crisp and not a word wasted. His Bob Collins, a professional photographer, is also an incredible horndog, horny beyond the bounds of Leave It to Beaver decency. We forget that side of the 1950’s, that it was not all Ike and Mamie and Ozzie and Harriet. True, John Forsythe’s Bentley Gregg in Bachelor Father was also a horndog, but then he never wanted to pour molasses on their hair and photograph them with a halo of flies. It’s a subtle difference.
Alas, there were but five episodes of the Bob Cummings Show on this Mill Creek twenty three disc box set. But there were nearly 200 episodes, I know. Perhaps Mill Creek has a mess of them on another of these box sets. Perhaps scattered across several box sets. And perhaps there are old geezers cramming episodes of The Bob Cummings Show onto homemade DVDs the way the last of the old time radio fans put zillions of their favorite radio shows on a single disc and sell them for a couple bucks on Ebay (I once got 800 Jack Benny Radio shows for $3.) They feel the cold wind of oblivion at their backs, knowing that when they die their whole universe dies, all those shows, their favorite entertainment idiom, forgotten. They know now how their vaudeville loving dads and uncles felt as the theaters closed down one by one. Of course, digital cable with its constant need for serial content–keep the people watching, but don’t spend any money doing it–keeps the memory of these shows alive. That never happened with vaudeville or Old Time Radio. And sixty years after it was on TV, when every single cast member is long dead, we can watch these shows on television and yuck it up like it was 1956 all over again and I was not even born yet.
They certainly do show a lot of old situation comedies on cable. At any one time I can find half a dozen shows running, all of them at least forty years old, and many of them going back almost to the Ur days of television sitcoms, the fifties. Television comedy goes back to the 1940’s, of course, but those were sketch comedies, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and like that, often as extraordinary as comedy has ever been, but that’s another essay. The first US sitcom, May Kay and Johnny, ran from 1947-1950, of which all but a single episode was lost for all time when the entire Dumont Network library was dumped in the East River. The first ever sitcom was on BBC, Pinwright’s Progress, beginning in 1946. It was broadcast live, unrecorded, and only photographs remain. So our history of situation comedies begins in 1950 when Jack Benny adopted his radio show (and that show’s writers) for television in 1950. (I believe the second show was Amos and Andy, which no one talks about anymore. I Love Lucy began in 1951.)
Amid the fluff and unfunniness and sometimes flat out stupidity of so much of the syndicated sitcoms shown over and over on cable, the Gilligans Islands and F-Troops and Brady Bunches and Leave it to Beavers, are some brilliant funny series, when you can find them, though at inane hours (invariably well past midnight, or even well nigh dawn). Hopefully someone at Cozy or Antenna or ME-TV or whatever, in their eternal quest for public domain entertainment, will start running the Bob Cummings shows. I’ve seen all the Jack Bennys and Honeymooners so many times I catch myself reciting the lines ahead of the beat, and I’m getting there with George and Gracie and Phil Silvers. I need something I’ve never seen before. I need that first time rush of seeing incredibly funny comedy for the first time ever, jokes I don’t know the punchline of, sketches I can watch just like they were watched first run, and not like a writer seeing them for the umpteenth time and stealing the bits uncredited for his own essays. I need some new old comedy in my life, something brilliant, something on every day. Something that makes me laugh outloud at 4 am and wake the cat, if we had a cat. Anything to keep me from having to watch the news.