Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fred Silverman, Nancy Walker, and Scooby Doo

I was just reading about Fred Silverman. He was an influential programmer and innovator for network tv in the 60's and 70's. His career highlights seem to greatly influence the elements of programming that meant the most to me.

Silverman started programming for CBS in the mid-60's. He brought all of the superhero shows to Saturday Morning. All the cartoon product tie-ins which have been so prevalent in childrens programming really started with this guy. Yes, there were sponsorships by toy companies and cereals in the early 60's but Silverman really got the whole programming block concept going on Saturday mornings. So, not only did he greenlight Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr., Herculoids, and the Wacky Races but he was responsible for bringing one of the most popular characters in the history of animation to audiences: Scooby Doo. Scooby started a whole decade of meddling, crime-fighting teenagers with goofy animal buddies. He also brought back the Flintstones in new episodes with a teenage Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm.

When he began programming prime time, he was responsible for the "rural purge". He cancelled every show with a tree in it, regardless of the ratings. So "Beverly Hillbillies", "Mayberry RFD", "Green Acres" and "Hee Haw" were axed. Silverman decided to cater to the new baby boomers with a much more sophisticated brand of sitcom. Thus was born "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family".
Basically, he was responsible for making CBS the Tiffany Network. At this time, the quality of programming was unmatched (to this day, in my opinion). The Lear and MTM labels flourished in the early 70's. Also, "Sonny and Cher", "Good Times", "Bob Newhart Show" and "The Waltons" became sensations.

Then ABC grabbed him in '75. Now Silverman became responsible for what became, for me as a young male, paradise. He made ABC a powerhouse with the "jiggle TV" concept. He put "Happy Days" in front of a howling studio audience. Now, he did for Garry Marshall and his stable of comedies what he did for Lear and MTM on CBS. The Fonzie phenomenon started a trend of shows devoted to sex symbols and wet t-shirts. Along for the ride, some stars were made: Farrah ("Charlie's Angels), Travolta ("Welcome Back, Kotter"), Suzanne Somers ("Three's Company"), Robert Blake ("Baretta"), Donny and Marie, "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island". He brought "Roots" to TV, starting the trend of miniseries. Oh, and "Battle of the Network Stars". Well, the latter seems more like an entry in his next chapter. He also brought Scooby Doo to ABC with all these huge Saturday morning blocks with Laff-a-Lympics, Scrappy Doo, Dynomutt, and Scooby Dum. Velma even looked a little hotter.

Prime Time sex stars olympics:

Scooby's olympics:

Quicky, it is interesting to point out that Silverman also really capitalized on the spin-off phenomenon. On CBS there were the All in the Family offspring: "Maude", "The Jeffersons", "Good Times". And the MTM children: "Rhoda", "Phyllis". On ABC, "Happy Days" bred "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy".

He also must have really liked Nancy Walker. She played Rosie in the paper towel commercials, remember? Well, she rose to fame and won Emmy nods for playing Rhoda's mother on MTM and "Rhoda". When Silverman moved to ABC, Lear created a show for her on that network aptly titled, "The Nancy Walker Show" (she played a Hollywood talent agent). That was cancelled very quickly in the fall of '76 and she starred in "Blansky's Beauties", a very strained spinoff of "Happy Days". She ran a showgirl chorus line in a Vegas casino in the fifties...I think Chachi worked with her. She ended up back with Rhoda on CBS. Funny, she worked with all the big sitcom producers in the 70's at one time or another.

Back to Silverman. After his phenomenal success at ABC, NBC made him president and CEO. Can he pull off a hat trick? Well, while ABC continued to titillate and CBS went back to huge audiences by going back to the country ("Dukes of Hazzard" "Flo", "Dallas"), NBC refused to escape from its seventies doldrums. So Silverman tried a Love Boat type show called "Supertrain". Flop. A quality Larry Gelbart-scripted dramedy called "United States". Flop. HIs own cornpone country show spinoff, "Sheriff Lobo". Sort of flopped. He brought back his favorite family, The Flintstones, in prime time. Flop. He brought back friendly animals, "Here's Boomer". Flop.
He brought back the only hit character NBC had in his own show, Fred Sanford himself. Flop. He created a weekly "Big Event" which could be anything. Flop. His main success at this time was a new family of sitcoms derived from "Diff'rent Strokes" ("Facts of Life" and, oooof, "Hello Larry"). But he woudn't let us down. Before he left NBC, he brought us "Hill Street Blues". When David Letterman failed in his morning show, Silverman kept him at the network until he launched the now legendary late late night show after Carson. Whereas launching the eighties with Bochco inspired dramedies and Letterman lunacy leaves a wonderful legacy, he also left us with "The Smurfs" and started reality tv with "Real People". Ouch.

Well, my fondest memories of TV in my favorite TV years were thanks to this guy. Tiffany TV, T and A TV, and NBCTNT TV. Yes, I have fond memories of the bad NBC years. That's just me. The Flintstones, Scooby Doo, McLean Stevenson, and Nancy Walker all thank you.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Plop Comics

My favorite comic book, my guilty pleasure was DC's Plop comics. I was trying to figure out how to create an entry on this and I came across this incredible youtube video which tells the whole story. Thanks to RevSpike:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Videotaped vs filmed sitcoms

As a kid, I always realized when a sitcom was "taped before a live studio audience" or "filmed before a live studio audience". And it's funny that the fact that one of the cast members told me at the end had nothing to do with it. Funny, I've never been a technical person, but I always bugged my family and friends with this fascinating observation. The reply was usually, "I don't really know but the show is funny (or lousy)."

In the fifties, Desi Arnaz created the three camera studio audience setup with "I Love Lucy". Most comedies were broadcast live across the nation (kinescope), and were never saved in any way for posterity. In the mid-fifties, sitcoms started using the recorded laughtrack in lieu of a live audience. This allowed for more intimate closeups and outdoor shooting (you know, for when the Beav confronts the bully). In the sixties, most sitcoms used laughtracks due to the special effects (Bewitched, Jeannie, Beverly Hillbillies....well actually the special effect on the Beverly Hillbillies was that it was a top-rated series for eight or so years). Dick Van Dyke and Lucy were the few exceptions during this time.

Mary Tyler Moore's sitcom premiered in fall of 1970 with the three camera audience setup. Then four months later, Norman Lear brought All in the Family to the forefront of the American scene. Lear based many of his landmark sitcoms on British series and like those series he realized the cost savings in shooting on videotape. Videotape is cheaper than film. He even eliminated establishment setting tags (like the musical cue with the apartment/office building zooming in). So his made the shows pretty cheap to film.
To complete the history, M*A*S*H was one of the few seventies sitcoms to use a laughtrack (and that was controversial). In the 80's most sitcoms decided to go cheap and they looked cheap on video. Newhart's second series started on video and for reasons I will explain later, switched to film for the next seven years. In nineties, almost all sitcoms (ala Friends and Seinfeld) had that filmed studio audience. This became the standard "look". Otherwise there was no audience at all (The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development). I believe a lot of the "filmed before a live audience" sitcoms these days are actually done on video that mimics film. If you close one eye and stand on your head you can see it during any unfunny scene.

For some reason (or many obvious reasons), filmed sitcoms seem so much more realistic. With taped sitcoms, it was like being in the audience, a stage play almost. You could hear the audience coughing sometimes. This worked with the Norman Lear comedies because they were a form unto themselves. The acting and writing were superb at first. Then as the seventies moved into the eighties, poorly written sitcoms with stagey acting were taped. This just made filmed shows look so much better.
Videotape hell:

At first, it was shocking. Soap operas and variety shows were taped. Not sitcoms. They were bright, heavily lit. The sets looked like sets. When four people sat around the dinner table hey left a gap for the audience to look in (like a play). I have no idea why this "table" thing was different for film--the medium shouldn't have anything to do with staging. There were more up close close-ups. The audience had to applaud when the actors entered. Actually, Garry Marshall did this on his filmed sitcoms...enter Fonzie or Laverne.

Speaking of Happy Days, remember the first episode filmed in front of an audience? Fonzie dated the stripper? Still the funniest episode.
Did you know the first season of The Odd Couple was filmed with a laughtrack and no audience. It moved to a soundstage in 1971 during the second season. That set would end up as Laverne and Shirley's apartment. It is now the condo from Two and a Half Men. (It's a good thing Laverne and Shirley moved to Hollywood in 1980).
Did you remember that the first season of "Newhart" (the innkeeper in Vermont version) was videotaped? The remaining seven seasons were filmed. Bob just had to be filmed. It seemed that the original Bob Newhart Show always hued brown earth tone colors amidst a sea of checkered polyester. Here is rare videotaped Bob:

And did you know that even though Barney Miller was taped during its entire run only the first two seasons had an audience. After that, the producers would screen the finished episode to a live audience and capture the reactions. All in the Family did this as well during the Stephanie year and all the Archie Bunker Place episodes. This allowed more improvisation on the set I suppose.

Speaking of Barney Miller, that was was the best looked videotaped sitcom. The producers used a filter to give it a grimy, New York feel. Very effective.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Scott's reviews Ghostbusters television series

My young celebrity encounters

Meeting HR Pufnstuf at San Antonio's North Star Mall circa 1970.

Annissa Lewis (Buffy from Family Affair) made a rare appearance that year as well at this mall. There was such a throng of people, someone had to carry her on his shoulders.

I was a guest in 1970 on San Antonio's Captain Gus show. It was on the CBS affiliate. They showed Popeye and Little Rascals. "Ahoy, maties"

Facebook import: Bad Sitcom theme songs - two late seventies styles

Well, not bad really, just really cheesy.Here are some good examples of late seventies-early eighties openings. :Here is the filmed Garry Marshall-esque comedy opening for "Angie". Note the "entering the circle" cast motif. I had a huge crush on Donna Pescow. See Doris Roberts in an early role....still playing the mother, whats up with that.

This one is considered one of the worst sitcoms in tv history. A good example of the Norman Lear-esque videotaped sitcom opening. Say what you will, but McLean Stevenson was the best thing about MASH. Also note Joanna Gleason, Dirk Diggler's mom in Boogie Nights...and MEADOWLARK LEMON!!!!