More TV Notes

Some really old TV.

Me-TV gets more of the attention around these here parts, mostly because it's on Channel 20 (and, frankly, has the better shows), but the other player in the "classic TV" syndication format is "R-TV" (KCNS locally, check your listings). Mostly, until just this month (that conclusion based on my just noticing this weekend), they did hour dramas like I-Spy and The Saint (including the earlier B&W episodes), with forgotten sitcoms like The Bill Cosby Show (not to be confused with The Cosby Show), and some half-hour '50s stuff like Real McCoys, Cisco Kid and the Richard Greene Robin Hood; interestingly, they carry Zorro, but not the '50s Disney/Guy Williams version, rather the '80s version with Duncan Regehr — which, sadly, is as stiff as the Guy Williams version without having the charm of actually being the Guy Williams version (and isn't that the case with so many remakes?).

This weekend I noticed some very bizarre additions. They picked up the late-'70s nationally-syndicated version of Soupy Sales. Being from New York, I was there for the original, local, B&W version; he did a good job of recreating the approach, but of course the jokes and his style (and characters like White Fang) weren't as fresh by then — and certainly aren't now — although I did catch a Billy Carter joke. I think his appeal came from his ability to appear like he genuinely didn't know what was coming next, who was at the door or on the radio, even though the bits were clearly well-rehearsed — if not overly so.

A show I'd completely forgotten about (and justifiably) was The Joey Bishop Show. This isn't the ABC late-night talk show that gave the world Regis Philbin, but the sitcom from 1961. The story of the home-and-professional life of comedian Joey Barnes, my first impression was that they were trying to emulate the contemporaneous Dick Van Dyke, but really, the "home-and-professional life of famous performer" format goes way back, past Danny Thomas, to Burns & Allen on the radio. Indeed, the format was arguably burned out by then, which may contribute to why this show seems so lame. Or maybe it just sucks.

I took note of Guy Marks and Joe Besser as his assistants; Guy Marks may be what reminded me of Dick Van Dyke, as he was in one episode. Joe Besser was one of the last of the baggy-pants comics, having done a stint as the third Stooge as well as a semi-regular spot on Abbott and Costello. Marks did an amazingly offensive Indian bit that is only excusable by thinking of it as an artifact. Abby Dalton played Joey's wife; it took a bit before I recalled where I'd recognized her from, namely the late-'50s series Hennesy with Jackie Cooper (one of those wonderfully naive pre-Vietnam peacetime-military sitcoms, like Bilko and Ensign O'Toole, that, much as British movies from WW II, are a subgenre in themselves). Something about the show made me think Sinatra was involved somehow, but I didn't catch anything I could hang my hat on…

Speaking of The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of its more popular episodes is the one where Bob tells the story (in flashback) of a hotel stay where Laura, bathing, gets her big toe stuck playing with a drip in the bathtub faucet, requiring an embarrassing visit from a plumber. Well, Turner Classic on Saturday did a Marilyn Monroe day (do I really need to link Marilyn Monroe?) and showed Seven Year Itch. In one early scene, The Girl (MM's character has no name) tells of trying to stop a bathtub faucet drip with her big toe, getting it stuck and requiring an embarrassing visit from a plumber. I've never heard anyone connected with Dick Van Dyke cop to that connection.

But the mind-blower was the showing of a 1951 (!) episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour, with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. If nothing else, it was fascinating — and glorious — to see them together in something longer than a clip on some PBS documentary. This was the peak of their career as a team, and it's easy to see why the combination is considered legendary (as well as why some opined that Lewis needed a straight man).

This is sometimes called the "Golden Age of Television," not because everything was so much "better" in any sense, a lot of it was terrible. But there were few performing restraints, the "rules" hadn't been established, you could get away with a fair amount. When one sketch apparently caught a snag, Lewis started improvising, even commenting directly to the camera about the confusion. Hard to imagine something that spontaneous happening today, at least not without lots of rehearsal and several retakes.

One of my earliest "show-business"-related memories is hearing that Martin & Lewis had broken up. Let me tell you youngsters, as far as Cultural Significance and Newsworthiness went, this made Brad & Jen look like a two-line Herb Caen item.

And this was 1951, a show that was live; this was before video tape, hell, it was almost before audio tape. What R-TV showed was a kinescope, which made this painful to watch, in more ways than one. (Although, to be fair, the image quality was actually pretty good, considering.) One sketch had Jerry as a hospital orderly; I was reminded that one of Jerry's movies (albeit much later) was The Disorderly Orderly. Plugging next week's show was a quick cameo by Eddie Cantor.

Now that's old.

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