Love That Bob

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 ShowThe 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.

Blue Planet 2, episode two

Blue Planet 2. Problem solving and coordinated group action by clownfish. Who knew? Besides other clownfish, I mean. And what’s with the meter long carnivorous worm? Teeth sharp as pinking shears, hence the name: Bobbitt. As in Lorena. David Attenborough left that part out (no pun intended).The damn things can get up to ten feet, I read, like sandworms in Dune. They can lop a foot long fish clean in half. A Devonian Era nightmare, giant meat eating invertebrates. Acid visions of carnivorous trilobites. Thankfully they went instinct first.

Then the scene with hundreds of reef sharks swimming menacingly above thousands of groupers. Suddenly l’amour drives the groupers mad and they rush upward into the sharks, shedding eggs and milt to the seven seas. The sharks go into a feeding frenzy and the surging waters are all blood and roe and sperm, a veritable fish fuck massacre. Stella!

The clownfish were so neat and orderly and mannered in comparison. They’ll go far. Check back in a hundred million years.

A lotta freaks

Watched an old Dick Cavett show from August 1969 and the Jefferson Airplane, fresh from Woodstock, were fierce. The discombobulation of going from a festival bigger than Buffalo and back to Manhattan by helicopter as they came off the acid was noticeable only for a few minutes and by the time Grace sang motherfucker on national television all was well again. David Crosby and Stephen Stills showed up mudspattered and David talked and talked (coming up on the crowd by helicopter, he said, was like viewing the Macedonian army, the acid in his brain turning the vast throng of hippies into invincible hoplites and horsemen of Alexander the Great….) Stills was mostly mute, as if still overwhelmed but when handed a guitar played brilliantly and I remembered it was he and not Mike Bloomfield on Super Session’s Season of The Witch (another of those free form FM standard long since purged from Classic Rock radio). Joni Mitchell, clean and windblown from the canyon and kicking herself for not going (her manager said go on Cavett instead….amazing how many idiot managers kept their bands off the bill, booking them elsewhere) sounded great but sang too many songs, but then I’ve never been a fan. (It’s a minority opinion, I know….) The Airplane hit the studio stage again with a very tough Somebody To Love, Jorma’s lead stinging and psychedelically hostile, followed by a hard jamming Other Side Of This Life, and as the studio audience began breaking out in frantically groovy dancing Cavett waved the camera off and the credits rolled and the Airplane just got fiercer and fiercer and who knows how long they played past the commercials.

Edie Adams

Man, Edie Adam’s did a devastating Marilyn Monroe parody. If Marilyn hadn’t been so fucked up she might have sued. It surpassed even SCTV’s Catherine O’Hara and Andrea Martin at their cruelest. I saw it on the Edie Adam’s box set, I imagine some one has put it on YouTube as well. Also, among the many long buried treasures revealed in this collection is a solid dozen minutes of the Woody Herman Big Band c.1963, and what a blazing aggregation that was. You could hear that music in a club now and it would still sound state of the art. Were I Scott Yanow I could rattle off the soloists, but alas I ain’t. A smoking young bunch they were however. And in that very same program the daring Edie gave Jack Sheldon six or seven minutes to go a surreal monologue about falconry that was as hysterical as it was weird. Clean, though. She must have warned him.

I met Edie Adam’s several times. Had a few extended conversations. Wonderful stories, wonderful lady. 

The single dullest paragraph ever written about Matt Groening

Odd the way Matt’s surname looks and is pronounced. It LOOKS like “Groaning” but is pronounced “Gaining” (from Facebook)

The oe was actually ö, so Groening was Gröning. Which in standard German should be pronounced more like Grerning, but in some German dialects, such as Swabian (Schwäbisch) an ö is pronounced more like an English short e or (depending on the consonants around it) a long a. I think this happens because in Standard High German the ö is a diphthong, but if you take the diph out of the thong (or the thong off the dip) that ö would be pronounced like the double e in the German “Schnee” (meaning snow) or the English “say” (meaning say). So apparently there were a lot of Swabian emigrants in the stretch of Canada where Matt Groening’s German father’s family had settled. I know there were lots of Swabians in Ontario, and I’d explain how it is I know that, but this is already the single dullest paragraph ever written about Matt Groening, so why ruin it.

Joan Marshall

(New Year’s Eve, 2016)

Fyl decided her husband is still too sick to be life of the party on a wet, cold night and so we’re sitting home on New Year’s Eve. I didn’t argue. Besides, there’s a Jack Benny marathon on Antenna TV. When the pizza came It was guest star Frankie Avalon singing, so I joined Fyl in front of her TV watching old Sid Caesar shows and munching on a Palermo’s special, thin crust, crispy, anchovies on half. Taking my empty plate into the kitchen later the Benny marathon was still on in the living room and I could hear Robert Goulet. Even an hour apart the difference in timbre, phrasing, range–hell, in sheer quality of everything–with Frankie Avalon was beyond glaring. Plus Goulet was much, much funnier in the follow up bit, a natural. Funniest of all, though, was Joan Marshall, the woman in the sketch and one of the great undiscovered comic talents of the sixties. Alas, she was gorgeous, and in that decade gorgeous and funny were not allowed to mix. In the thirties she might have been a screwball superstar, another Carole Lombard; in the fifties she could have been the female lead in a sophisticated comedy. But in the sixties only Jack Benny recognized how funny she was and let her run riot in a couple sketches. They said it really bothered Joan that she never got choice comedy roles, and she never seemed happy in her career being beautiful. Hollywood is full of beautiful women. It’s not full of naturally funny people. But sometimes what you are really good at and the times you live in don’t coincide. If only you’d been born twenty years earlier.

The seventies

Saw a Tonight Show late last night from the late seventies. My god look at those ties my wife said. Johnny Carson was uptight, mildly paranoid, his timing off, the monologue died in a series of unfunny Jimmy Carter jokes. It was hot today he said. How hot was it shouted an audience member. Shut up! Johnny yelled back. Ed was laughing hysterically as each flop followed the other. Carnac the Magnificent began with Johnny fluffing the trip schtick so he nearly fell and then blowing the delivery of the lines. Again, Ed laughed all the harder. Out came the first guest, Tony Curtis, is a flaming white disco outfit and so buzzed he radiated paranoia. He stood, frozen, as the audience applauded and unable to think of what to do he nearly saluted. He walked over stiffly, introduced himself to Johnny with a formal handshake, then to Ed, and sat down and gave an interview so coke freaked it was uncomfortable to watch. Johnny wasn’t much better. Tony was not exactly at the peak of his career in 1978 and was promoting The Bad News Bears Go To Japan. One got the impression he did not like children. The clip shown was Tony explaining to a five year old why people get naked when having sex. These were obviously the pre-McMartin preschool days.

Next guest was Steve Landesberg. He comes out supercharged, rubbing his nose, and delivers a rapid fire series of jokes and random ethnic accents at an adenoidal high volume shout, and looking coke dazed each time the audience laughed. Then he strutted over to his chair where he and a slightly more relaxed Johnny and Tony began a strange conversation that veered back and forth, everyone stepping on each others lines, Landesberg doing assorted foreign accents way too loud, and all having a very excited good time. Next up was Bess Armstrong, very cute and a little too chemically edgy and funny but not quite as high strung as Tony or Steve. She said she was from Baltimore. BALLIMER!!! shouts Steve. Tony makes an unannounced trip backstage. Returned very excited. All four were having a grand old time talking and joking and laughing way too loud at the wrong time. Oddly, though, even with the combination of coked out Tony Curtis and Steve Landesberg and a pretty young single actress it never got dirty. Not even a little bit. Not even after that Bad News Bear clip. Then came the very charming and witty eighty-nine year old Merie Earle. No wonder it never got dirty. Grandma was in the house. Tony, Steve and Bess froze, completely silent. Not a peep till Johnny winds up her interview (which was the only coherent part of the night) and Steve shouts out something random in a loud Puerto Rican accent. As the credits rolled, Pete Christlieb (probably, from the tone anyway) took off on a gorgeous saxophone solo.

Ya gotta love the seventies.