Monday, February 04, 2008
Pioneers Of Television
Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The latest PBS series, Pioneers Of Television, is a four-part love letter to the first and second generation of TV personalities. The series consists of four, 55-minute episodes built around a specific genre. There's a single episode for "Game Shows," "Sitcoms," "Variety," and "Late Night." At less than an hour apiece, this isn't exactly Ken Burns' level of historical storytelling. In fact, it ends up feeling like a mere table setter, a sampler platter that in each case could lead to much further exploration.
It's interesting to take a look back to these shows from 40-60 years ago and see how they reflect upon the shows of today. Are their influences still felt today? How do today's shows differ from their predecessors? One genre has been dead for twenty years already. The "Variety" episode focuses on the rise and fall of the sketch/music/dance genre. The variety-show story is one that branches in two different directions. There is the long survival of shows by Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton and Carol Burnett. There's also the meteoric rise and just as quick fall of hosts Milton Berle (the man reached a 95 share at one point in his career!), Perry Como (beat The Honeymooners in the ratings), and the controversial Smothers Brothers. Like most of the genres in this series, there isn't one blueprint for success. The common thread seems to be putting together a talented ensemble, like Sid Caesar's Your Show Of Shows, with a large stable of characters that can keep the audience interested week after week. Saturday Night Live is the last remaining vestige of this tradition, although that show doesn't have a singular personality upon which the show is built.
Game Shows are the polar opposite of the variety show. The game show and its close cousin, reality television, have been around since the beginning of TV. The variety show and the game show composed most of TV in the '40s and '50s because they were easy, cheap programming that filled all the open inventory on the networks. In fact, little has changed today; game shows and reality TV fill the airwaves mostly because of their bargain compared to scripted TV. The game show succeeded beyond the variety show because of the added excitement of instant riches, the fun of playing along at home, and the edgy, often risque, humor. This episode covers the rise and fall of a variety of game shows, including Truth Or Consequences, Password, What's My Line, and Let's Make A Deal.
Most Prime Time game shows today follow the blueprint of later successes like Jeopardy and The Newlywed Game. The humor comes from ordinary people playing a game hosted by charming, funny male emcee. Watching scenes from Hollywood Squares and Password remind me that my favorite games as a kid were ones that mixed celebrities and everyday people. Bringing celebrities down to "our level," showing their imperfections, was refreshing and made me love actors like Betty White, Florence Henderson, Jonathan Winters and Rose Marie. I'm surprised that this kind of game show hasn't made a comeback in recent years. The rebirth of this genre really started with Survivor and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and I expect the continued success of Deal Or No Deal and Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader to keep this genre alive for many more years.
The two best episodes of this series focused on "Late Night" and the "Sitcom." Each episode focuses on four of the important landmarks of each genre. Neither genre is doing as well in the ratings as they once did and certainly neither has a "pioneer" of its genre currently working.
The sitcom has been dying a slow, painful death since Seinfeld left the air. The only sitcom ranked in the Top Twenty over the past few seasons has been Two & A Half Men. The shows featured in the "Sitcom" episode are the giants upon whose shoulders all future sitcoms have stood. These shows define the genre upon which we are able to categorize all current programming. They are the shows that made Nick-At-Nite a must-see network in the early 1990s.
The Honeymooners was an offshoot of the variety show genre. Jackie Gleason wanted to concentrate on one character instead of the multiple characters he played in his variety show. There's a brilliance in the Ralph Cramden character that Archie Bunker and Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson could never completely capture. Jackie did not rehearse with the cast, and the performances are as fresh and raw as anything of TV today. Interestingly, Jackie ended his run on The Honeymooners after 39 episodes of the first season because he had "run out of ideas."
I Love Lucy would succeed during the same time period despite being almost a polar opposite. Lucy was the first sitcom to be filmed in front of a live audience. It relied often on physical comedy. And there was not a line or movement that wasn't rehearsed and over-rehearsed. Lucille Ball's approach would dominate the ratings, compared to The Honeymooners that never won its time slot, for over a decade.
The other two shows featured in this episode, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, would expand the possibilities of the genre. The former would not rely on its central character to carry the show. Mayberry was a town of "real people," a town that many viewers would want to live in. Andy was the "stable center" upon which the other characters interacted. The latter took this concept and mixed it with the slapstick parts of I Love Lucy. This urban comedy did not have to focus all of its energy on its lead character because of the strength of the supporting cast. This formula worked similarly for Seinfeld by letting the supporting cast shine as much as the title character.
The episode on "Late Night" was the most interesting to me. It's a deceptively hard genre. Steve Allen called it "the art of conversation." It's a rare personality that can make everyday conversation seem entertaining. The ratings for Jack Paar and Johnny Carson were routinely higher than those of Leno and Letterman combined today.
It's an interesting progression of Tonight Show hosts that are profiled. Steve Allen had perfected his show on radio but found when he moved to do two hours of television that he just couldn't write skits fast enough. So, he decided to just talk with the audience. This "off the cuff" style allowed him to do a whole two-hour show with just a single page outline. He was not a great interviewer and often supplemented his show with various acts including jazz performances. Jack Paar took over after Allen. Jack was very much the opposite. He perfected the art of the personal conversation. Jack did not do pre-interviews or prepare for his guests. This relaxed, often emotional style seems alien when I view clips today. It's just Jack and his guest; the interviews don't seem canned or as just promotional vehicles. Who else could have Castro on their show and talk about how they both have 9-year-old daughters?
Johnny Carson combined the talents of both Steve Allen and Jack Paar and then worked them to perfection. Johnny's early days as a magician gave him the monologue skills and his work on game shows perfected his interviewing technique. Watching Johnny's work now is refreshing. He took on Jack Paar's relaxed style, but never forgot that he was there to entertain. Like Andy Griffith, he could be the "stable center" of the show while crazy things happened around him, but he knew when to be Lucy or Milton Berle, taking over the show with his physical presence.
For those unfamiliar with the early days of television, I can't recommend this enough as a starter kit. This should direct you back to DVD sets of some of the great sitcoms, but so much of this era is lost or will never find a home on DVD. If you lived through these shows in their first or second runs, there's plenty of great interviews to entertain. I'd sit through a whole series of just stars like Dick Van Dyke (love his story about his reaction to trying out as host for The Price Is Right), Milton Berle, Tim Conway, Phyllis Diller, and more telling stories of these early days.
There's a good mixture of trivia and information in these episodes, although while the interviews are labeled, we do not get any identification of the shows or actors being shown on the screen. I'd love to have that info for future research. What sticks with me is the variety of styles that succeeded in each genre. It's not one style that always wins. Ultimately it's letting the performer's style speak for itself. Dick Van Dyke couldn't succeed by copying the style of The Honeymooners, but he could succeed by applying his strengths to a concept he believed in. I only wish these beliefs and faith were as widely held today. Maybe it'll take something like a Writer's Strike to reset the system.