When Things Were Rotten: No “Happily Ever After” for this Tale

This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.

Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.

Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”

Photo: imdb.com

Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.

Photo: imdb.com

The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:

“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)

“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!

“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!

“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”

When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.

Photo: imdb.com

The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”

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The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.

Photo: imdb.com

Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.

Photo: nytimes.com
Comedy legend Mel Brooks

The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.

Photo: imdb.com

One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.

Webster: A Forgotten Sitcom

During my research for one of my blogs, I encountered a reference about Webster. I was surprised to learn that Webster was on the air for six years. It was a show I had watched a bit in the 1980s but have rarely seen since then.

Webster chronicles how life changes for three people when a young boy is adopted by his godfather, a former NFL player, and his new wife. Webster has lost his parents, and George was his father’s best friend. The show ran for 6 seasons, resulting in 150 episodes.

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Set in Chicago, Webster’s (Emmanuel Lewis) parents are killed in a car accident. George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) is retired and recently married to Katherine (Susan Clark), who comes from a wealthy family and has few domestic skills. Katherine is a consumer advocate in the first season but later works as a family psychologist. George is now a sportscaster at a local television station. Karras and Clark were married in real life also. Both of them had acting roles in movie and television series before they starred in Webster. Karras was also a favorite Tonight Show guest. Everyone seemed to like him. Former teammate Greg Barton described his humor: “He is one of the funniest men I have ever been around.”

After living in a high-rise apartment that was burned down during one of Webster’s science experiments, the family moved to a large Victorian house which is on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In 2016 the Chicago home was for sale for 9.5 million dollars.

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Webster called his “dad” George and his “mom” Ma’am. When she asked Webster why he was so formal with her, he explained that the name was as close as he could get to Mom without replacing his birth mother.

In addition to these three characters, the show featured Katherine’s secretary and confidante Jerry (Henry Polic II) and Webster’s uncle Phillip (Ben Vereen), who doesn’t approve of Webster’s adoption by a white couple.

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We also got to know many of Webster’s classmates. During the second season, George’s father, George Sr. (Jack Kruschn) appears. He would make more regular appearances in 1985.

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After Karras and Clark married, they started a production company called Georgian Bay Ltd. ABC wanted to create a romantic comedy series for them. After signing the couple, ABC’s programming chief Lew Erlicht saw a Burger King commercial featuring Emmanuel Lewis and wanted to develop a show for him as well.

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With the fall schedule quickly filling up, it was decided to combine the two shows into a new one, Then Came You. In September 1983 when the show premiered, the title had become Webster. After much infighting among the creators, the show focused both on the romantic angle of George and Katherine as well as Webster’s plots.

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The show was often compared to Diff’rent Strokes, where a white family adopted two black brothers. Personally, I found Diff’rent Strokes grating and predictable. I did not enjoy many of the shows or the spinoffs developed during this time, including All in The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and Facts of Life. I think Webster was well written and the dialogue was more sophisticated. Webster was a little boy, but he was very intelligent, and the writers gave him credit for that.

 

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Karras became a surrogate father to Lewis. The relationships between the major cast members were very close. When Karras passed away, Lewis said “He was a giant of a man with a big heart, a great sense of humor, and very grounded outlook on life. He might have towered over you . . . but he had a knack of being able to get down to your level without being small about it.”

 

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The show sustained high ratings the first three years, but in season four, they dropped significantly. After landing in the top 30, it plummeted to 46. ABC made the decision to drop the show. Webster would continue two more years in syndication but never achieved the ratings of those first three years. In 1989, Emmanuel was outgrowing the show and he was beginning to get bored playing a younger child while in real life he had already graduated from high school.

One fun fact about Webster is that Jerry Seinfeld was employed as a writer for exactly one week. None of his material made it to the air.

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Webster seems to be one of those forgotten shows from the 1980s. While it appeared in reruns for a short time, I don’t hear much about the show anymore. It was heart-warming and tackled both social issues occurring at the time and private family issues that adoptive parents would face. George and Katherine had a great relationship, but it was different from most parents on television. They were equals in every way. Webster assumed an equal footing with them, even though he was their child. George was a nurturing and caring father, while Katherine often provided the practicality that Webster needed to learn life lessons. You can currently watch Webster Sunday mornings on Antenna TV.