TV Guide “Covers” Our Viewing History

I love September. The beginning of fall conjures images of fall leaves, trips to the apple orchard, the sound of football games, and returning to a welcomed routine. One of my favorite autumn memories as a child and teenager was studying the Fall Preview of the TV Guide, so I could decide which shows were “do-not-miss” series.

TV Guide is still available, but there was something special in being able to peruse the upcoming episodes, read the articles, and do the crossword puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating going back to only three channels plus Public TV, but there was something comforting in knowing what would be on every day on every channel and knowing that all your friends were watching the same thing, and you could discuss it at school. That nostalgic feeling disappears when you are trying to look at 200 channels, not to mention Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon, and the many other options out there.

As much as I enjoyed TV Guide, I knew little about it, so I thought it would be fun to learn some of the history behind this almost-seventy-year-old publication.

In 1948, Lee Wagner printed the New York City area television listings in The TeleVision Guide which was sold on newsstands. Gloria Swanson who starred in The Gloria Swanson Hour appeared on the first cover. With the success of that magazine, Wagner went on to publish issues for both the New England and Baltimore-Washington, DC areas. In 1953, Walter Annenberg bought the series of publications and incorporated them into his Triangle Publications. Wagner would remain a consultant for that business until 1963.

The first magazine titled TV Guide was issued April 3, 1953. It was sold in ten cities and boasted a circulation of 1,560,000. The cover featured a photo of Lucille Ball’s newborn son Desi Arnaz Jr. with the headline, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.” It cost 15 cents. For the first 52 years of its existence, it was digest size. Triangle Publications, headquartered in Radnor, PA, continued to buy local magazine listings, creating a national publication. Their contemporary building featured a large logo at the entrance, a vast computer system to save data on every television show and movie, and housed editors, production personnel and subscription processors.

In September of 1953, the magazine released its first Fall Preview edition and circulation increased steadily from then on. The guide was available by subscription or at grocery stores. Eventually a color section was added featuring television-related stories, articles about stars, and weekly columns. One of the columns was “Close-Up” which looked at different types of programs. “Cheers and Jeers” was a critique page for specific programs, “Hits and Misses” rated shows from 0 to 10. In addition, certain years included horoscopes, recaps of soap operas, lists of sporting events and crossword puzzles. Next to each television show was a number corresponding to the local channel. A brief description of the program was given. Networks often ran ads for various shows.

Beginning in the late fifties, “color” was set in a rectangular box for those shows that were broadcast in color. By 1972, the majority of programs were full-color, so the abbreviation “BW” was used for shows not in color. Until cable television entered the entertainment business, listings began about 5 am and went until midnight. By August of 1982, the magazine began expanding its coverage of cable programming with “CablePay Section” and “Cable and Pay-TV Movie Guide.”

In August of 1988, Triangle Publications was sold to the News American Corporation for $3 billion. It was one of the largest and the most expensive acquisitions at the time.

In March of 1996, TV Guide launched iGuide, a web portal. In June of 1998, News Corporation sold TV Guide to United Video Satellite Group for $800 million and 60 million shares of stock worth $1.2 billion. “The Robins Report” a review column was added, “Family Page” showcased family-oriented programs, and “Don’t Miss” which was select programs to watch during the week.

In 1999, TV Guide hosted a new award show, TV Guide Awards, telecast on Fox. Winners were chosen by TV Guide subscribers.

In 2002, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the magazine, six special issues were created: “TV We’ll Always Remember: Our Favorite Stars Share Fifty Years of Memories, Moments, and Magic”; “50 Greatest Shows of All Time”; “Our 50 Greatest Covers of All Time”; “50 Worst Shows of All Time”; “50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time”; and “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.”

As more cable channels were added, space became a premium and the magazine had to decide which ones to include. In September of 2006, TV Guide launched an updated website with expanded editorial and user-generated content not included in the print edition.

With more channels, less detail was available about shows, and by 2007, circulation had decreased from its peak of twenty million in 1970 to less than three million. The weekly publication went through several other sales. In 2014, it underwent a major redesign. Fourteen pages of listings were eliminated, and programming information was only provided for top-rated broadcast and cable networks and included several new sections including the “Roush Review” where Matt Roush selected the top ten picks from the upcoming week. The size was then reduced to 7” x 10”.

In 2015, it was sold once again to NTVB Media.

Two spinoff magazines were produced by TV Guide: TV Guide Crosswords and TV Guide’s Parents’ Guide to Children’s Entertainment.

With over 3000 covers, almost every star and television show you can think of has been featured on the publication. The original 1953 cover of Desi remains the most expensive, valued at $3000. Another early cover of George Reeves as Superman runs a close second.

Lucille Ball has appeared on the most covers, with 39 total. Johnny Carson comes in second with 28 covers and Mary Tyler Moore and Michael Landon are tied for third place with 27 each.

In addition to photographers’ covers, TV Guide has featured a variety of artists over the years including 37 Al Hirschfield pieces, two Charles Addams, one each by Norman Rockwell, Peter Max, Andy Warhol, and Dali.

I guess I’ll have to pick up a TV Guide next time I’m at the grocery store just to see how it compares to my fond memories. I’m guessing I will have to shell out more than $.15. Considering all the changes that have taken place in the television industry since the late 1940s, the magazine has been impressive keeping up with all the transformations and still providing a guide for our viewing.

Good Luck with Your MOUTH: Remembering Kaye Ballard

As we take time to remember some of our favorite television stars who passed away this year, Kaye Ballard definitely comes to mind.

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Apparently, no one was surprised to learn that Catherine Gloria Ballota planned on a career in entertainment. Born in Cleveland in 1925, she was performing by age 5 and was known as the class clown. At age 16 she performed in a Cleveland USO stage production of Stage Door Canteen and began perfecting impressions of stars for her comedy act.

At the young age of 18, she received a job touring with Spike Jones and His Orchestra as the featured vocalist and flute/tuba player. When that gig ended in 1945, she made her way to New York and appeared on Broadway in Three to Make Ready in 1946. While appearing in other musicals, she earned a reputation in the nightclub circuit as a comedian/singer. She traveled around the country with her act, popping up in clubs such as The Bon Soir in New York, The Hungry i in San Francisco, and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. One of her catch phrases was something her mother often said to her, “Good luck with your MOUTH.”

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During the 1950s and 1960s, she began appearing on variety and talk shows. You would tune in and find her with Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, she appeared on The Tonight Show 150 times. She continued her Broadway career during these two decades as well. She made a name for herself playing Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple in 1954. This same year she recorded “Fly Me to the Moon,” a song Frank Sinatra would make famous. She also was part of the casts of Wonderful Town (1958), Carnival (1961), and Cole Porter Revisited (1965).

In 1957 Julie Andrews starred in a live telecast of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of the fairy tale. Ballard, along with Alice Ghostley, played the wicked stepsisters. It was at this time that Hollywood brought Ballard to Los Angeles. She was one of the comic foils, playing the friend of Jane Powell’s character in The Girl Most Likely. Although she would appear in several movies during her career, television is where she was best known.

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The Girl Most Likely with Jane Powell

In 1964 she played a teacher for models on The Patty Duke Show. In 1967 she was offered one of the leads, Kaye Buell, in The Mothers-in-Law. The other lead was played by Eve Arden as Eve Hubbard. When Kaye’s son married Eve’s daughter, it caused conflict between the neighboring families, especially with their kids living in the garage. The two families had very different lifestyles. Herb Hubbard was a wealthy attorney and his wife was a champion athlete and very organized. Roger Buell was a television writer and Kaye a stay-at-home mom who is a lazy housekeeper and very unorganized. Desi Arnaz produced the show which lasted two seasons.

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With Eve Arden

The show followed The Wonderful World of Disney and preceded Bonanza but never received the ratings the network hoped for. Desi agreed to pay most of the stars $2000 per week with the intent of giving them a $250 raise the second year. Because the show was not as successful as everyone thought it would be, the network agreed to renew it on the condition that all expenses, including salaries, were frozen. With the exception of Roger Carmel, all the cast members agreed to freeze their salaries. He refused, so he was replaced with Richard Deacon. With the change in the cast, the ratings went down even further, and the show was not renewed for a third year.

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Kaye was asked if she thought the $250 raise was a joke, and Kaye said she and Eve didn’t care about the money. They wanted to keep doing the show. At the time, Arden was making $5000 a week. The show was originally written for Arden and Ann Southern but the networks felt they were too much alike, so Ballard was brought in. Kaye couldn’t get over actors receiving one or two million dollars an episode a couple decades later.

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A long-time friendship developed between Ballard and Arden during the filming of the show. Ballard fondly remembered her co-star, “Eve was a joy to work with, and we never had an unpleasant moment. . . She could read a script once and know it almost completely.”

Another long friendship was made when Kaye worked with Shelley Winters on a film in 1964. Kaye relayed that when Shelley was cast in The Poseidon Adventure, she “used my (Kaye’s) pool to practice swimming underwater because the studio wouldn’t let her rehearse until they started shooting. She was a great swimmer but ruined all my flashlights by swimming with them.”

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The 1970s found Kaye very busy. From 1970-1972 she was a regular on The Doris Day Show, playing restaurant owner Angie Pallucci. The series took some liberties with format. The first two years had Doris moving back to her dad’s ranch to raise her kids after the death of her husband. The third season found Doris and her dad and kids living in an apartment above the Pallucci’s restaurant. In the fifth and final season, the kids, dad, and the Palluccis all disappeared and were never mentioned!

In 1971 she guest starred on her friend’s show, Here’s Lucy. In 1970 Ballard purchased Ball and Arnaz’s home after their divorce. She would live there the rest of her life. Her friend Lucy would often stop by and talked about Desi whom she never quite got over.

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Ballard won the trifecta in the seventies, appearing on Love American Style, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. She accepted a handful of random roles on television shows after The Doris Day Show ended. You might have seen her on Police Story or Trapper John MD.

The 1990-1991 season found Kaye trying her hand at a situation comedy one more time. The show was called What a Dummy. This show did stretch reality a bit. Ed and Polly Branningan inherit his uncle’s trunk of props which includes his dummy Buzz who has been in the trunk for 50 years. Buzz can think and talk and likes to give the family his unsolicited advice. Ballard was Mrs. Tavalony, their next-door neighbor. No surprise that it was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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In 1995, Ballard was rewarded with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Kaye continued to take a few movies now and then, but most of her time was spent on the stage. In 2005, she went on the road in Nunsense. She also accepted roles in The Pirates of Penzance, High Spirits, Funny Girl, The Full Monty, and The Odd Couple.

In 2006, Kaye added author to her resume, publishing an autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

In 2015, Kaye announced her official retirement. She was interviewed by Nick Thomas that same year and talked about writing a second book. She explained to Thomas that she never married but did not have any regrets. “I was engaged four times, but couldn’t give my all to a marriage or wanted children unless I could give them my complete attention. But I’ve got to meet so many great people because of my career. Who could regret that?”

One of those great people was Mother Teresa whom she met in 1992. Kaye discussed that meeting: “I’m an Irish Catholic girl, so it was a thrill. I went to her private quarters where she was having breakfast –a piece of cheese, half an apple and some toast—and we drank Sanka together. She spoke in English, simply and quietly, and was just so modest and humble.”

Although she survived breast cancer, Kaye passed away at age 93 at her home from kidney cancer in January.

Kaye Ballard, ca. 1958
Photo: thehollywoodreporter.com

The girl from Cleveland with the MOUTH had a long, successful, and interesting career. In her own words, “I’m one of the lucky ones. People get Master’s Degrees and they say, ‘I don’t know what I wanted to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do. Isn’t that nice?”

I have to agree; it was nice for her and even nicer for those of us she entertained.

Do You Hear What I See?

As viewers transitioned from radio to television, there was a lot of conflict as advertisers volleyed between the two mediums. Many critics predicted an early death for radio which never came about.  Radio found its new niche, relying more on news and music. Now, you can actually watch radio on television shows like Mike & Mike on ESPN.

Television has also featured several shows about radio stations over the years.  Today we tune in to five of those.

Good Morning World (1967)

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David Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Ronnie Schell) are early morning DJs in LA with the Lewis and Clarke Show. Dave is happily married, while Larry considers himself a ladies’ man. Billy De Wolfe garnered a lot of attention as the best part of the show  portraying station manager Roland Hutton, a stuffy and humorless boss. Rounding out the cast are Dave’s wife Linda played by Julie Parrish and the debut of Goldie Hawn as their next-door-neighbor.

American actors Goldie Hawn (as Sandy Kramer) and Charlie Brill (as Milton Pervis) appear in an episode of the television show 'Good Morning Wold' called 'Knits To You, Sir,' June 20, 1967.

The show was created by an unbelievable group: Carl Reiner, Sheldon Leonard, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff. They all were part of the creative force of the Dick Van Dyke Show.  Persky and Denoff were also the producers for That Girl. They based this show on their work as writers at WNEW-New York in the 1950s.

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This photo made me laugh.  They could actually be stand-ins for Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. It might even be the same kitchen!

Filmed before a live audience at Desilu, the show was created to showcase Schell.  Ronnie had been a private on Gomer Pyle and this was to be his break-out show. Procter and Gamble sponsored the series which aired Tuesday nights. It should have done well during its slot, being up against NYPD and the Tuesday Night at the Movies.

The ratings were not great, and the network debated whether to cancel the show or bring it back for a second season.  The two deciding factors might have been that Baker had a lot of trouble memorizing his lines and Parrish was dealing with some health issues.  The network considered recasting both roles but ended up cancelling the series after 26 episodes.  Surprisingly, it was released on DVD.

Schell went back to Gomer Pyle, USMC where he was promoted to corporal.

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The best episode is “No News Like Nude News.” The stars are invited to a Nude Ranch and go thinking they are on their way to a dude ranch.

 

WKRP in Cincinnati (1978)

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I consider WKRP the second-best radio sitcom. The premise for the show was that a new producer is brought in to help a struggling radio station in Cincinnati.  Changing the format from easy listening to rock brings new life to the station and a lot of chaos to the staff. Hugh Wilson created the format.  He can be seen as a police officer in the episode “Hold Up.”

Along with The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Barney Miller, and The Office, this was one of the best ensemble casts in television. The characters included:

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Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) is the producer who has a successful history of turning stations around.

Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) is the station manager whose mother owns the station. The Big Guy’s management style is a big part of why the station is not doing well.  Art is more interested in fishing than radio. Jump was a DJ in Dalton in his former life.

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Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson) is the smart receptionist who is the highest-paid staff member. Anderson refused to be cast as a dumb blonde.  Jennifer has a journalism degree and although she is only receptionist, she has the skills that keep Art Carlson out of the loop and everything running smoothly at the station. She is gorgeous and kind-hearted, but she refuses to type letters or make coffee.

Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) is the incompetent news reporter. He always wears bow ties and is best friends with Herb. Richard has a bandage on his head from a real-life injury in the pilot and he made that one of his trademarks.  He often shows up with bandages on various parts of his body and we later learn that he has a large dog.

Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) is a tasteless boor. He is married but is always coming on to Jennifer. Herb’s suits are even louder than he is.  In one episode, Venus says “Somewhere out there there’s a VW with no seats.” One of his suits actually was made from VW covers. Bonner grew up in Arkansas, and Herb always has a Razorback mug on his desk.

Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) originally took care of billing but is also a journalism major and shows she is a more competent on-air reporter than Les. She and Fever date off and on.

Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) is the soulful, smooth-talking DJ.  Although he is on the air at night and Fever has the morning shift, they become best friends. His real name was Gordon Sims and he was a school teacher before his DJ career took off.

Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is the burned-out DJ from LA.  He was fired for saying “booger” on the air at his last job.  He’s an insomniac and addicted to coffee.  His hippie lifestyle and cynicism do not mesh with Herb and Les. Originally Hesseman was asked to read for the part of Les Nessman but would only audition for Fever. David Cassidy turned down the role of Johnny Fever. The character of Fever was based on Atlanta’s Bobby Harper who was on the morning show on WQXL 790 AM.  The creator of the show, Hugh Wilson, had previously worked there.

In many of the scenes there were bulletin boards with bumper stickers plastered all over that had been sent in from radio DJs all over the country. As a tribute to John Lennon, his photo was displayed in the background after his assassination.

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The show was videotaped because rock song rights were cheaper for taped shows than filmed shows. When the show went into syndication, almost all of the music had to be replaced.  When the DVD set was being created, the original music was put back in.  An agreement could not be reached until 2014.

Although it’s hard to believe, in 1980 Hugh Wilson collaborated with Hanna-Barbera to create an animated version of WKRP where all the characters are played by dogs.  The show never actually happened.

WKRP was on Monday nights against Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie. After the first season, it was moved repeatedly. The show was cancelled after four seasons. It accumulated ten Emmy nominations including three for outstanding series. The show was much more successful in syndication.

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The show was filmed in Los Angeles, but the opening and closing scenes as well as several episode scenes were filmed at the Enquirer Building in Cincinnati.  That building is currently a Hampton Inn/Homewood Suites at 615 Vine St. near Fountain Square.  The radio station said they were housed in the Osgood R. Flimm Building.

One of the most memorable parts of the show was the theme song:

“Baby, if you’ve ever wondered, wondered whatever became of me.  I’m living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP. Got kind of tired of packin’ and unpackin’, town to town, up and down the dial. Maybe you and me were never meant to be, just maybe think of me once in a while. I’m at WKRP in Cincinnati.”

WKRP in Cincinnati

In 2015, a non-profit radio station in Raleigh, 101.9 was given the WKRP call letters. An independent television station, channel 25, in Cincinnati also received the WKRP designation in 1990.

The clever writing and memorable characters have gained this sitcom a great reputation in television history.

Hello Larry (1979)

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McLean Stevenson was hoping to be the star of M*A*S*H.  Once he realized Alan Alda was firmly entrenched in that position, he opted out of his contract to star in his own show.

The result was Hello Larry about a man, Larry Alder, who is divorced and moves with his two teenage daughters to Portland to star in a call-in psychiatric radio show. Kim Richards played his daughter Ruthie and Krista Erickson played Diane. Lisa Whelchel auditioned for the role of Ruthie but lost out to Richards and ended up on Facts of Life which she was grateful for.

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The other cast members included Joanna Gleason (Monty Hall’s daughter) as the radio producer, George Memmoli as Earl the engineer, and John Femia as Tommy Roscini. Larry also hung out with a familiar face – -Meadowlark Lemon, former Globetrotter, who owned a Portland sporting goods store.

The show was owned by the same company who created One Day at A Time and this was a mirror image of that show focusing on a single mom with two daughters.

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The ratings were not good. The show was up against Charlie’s Angels and the Wednesday Night Movie. Several months into the season, to bolster ratings, the writers brought in the cast of Diff’rent Strokes which was a popular show that aired right before Hello Larry.  It was scripted that Larry and Phil Drummond had served together in Korea.  It did not help the ratings. The show went through a variety of scheduling changes all with the same result.  An issue that certainly didn’t help the show was the Iranian hostage crisis.  The show was often interrupted with special news breaks.

After 38 episodes, the show died a quiet death.  A TV Guide poll in 2002 listed Hello Larry as the 12th worse show of all time.  It was probably best remembered as the show that continually got made fun of by Johnny Carson for being so bad.

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It’s hard to believe an actor would leave one of the most creative and popular shows of all time to move to one of the worst shows of all time.

Frasier (1993)

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I think that Fraisier was the best radio show on television.  Frasier was on the air 12 years resulting in 263 episodes. The show averaged only 24 episodes a year. The hundredth episode was entirely filmed on the streets of Seattle. Leaving the cast of Cheers, Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) moves back to Seattle to host a show as a radio psychiatrist.

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After an injury, his father, a former policeman, moves in with Frasier. Fraiser provides advice on the airwaves while struggling in his personal relationships, especially with his cranky father and his pretentious brother. The producers did not want the show to resemble WKRP too much, so they came up with the concept of having Frasier live with his father, so family relationships became important.

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John Mahoney plays Martin Crane, a grumpy, uncultured man who cannot understand his sons. Although Martin did not care about high-brow topics, John Mahoney taught Pierce a lot about wine and opera during the Frasier years.

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David Hyde Pierce was Frasier’s brother Niles.  The role of Niles was written just for Pierce.  The brothers were extremely competitive, although they could count on each other when it mattered. Frasier went to Harvard and Oxford while Niles went to Yale and Cambridge. Their mom was a scientist and the boys were named after lab rats she worked with. Both brothers had expensive tastes, intellectual interests, and high opinions of themselves. Niles was married to Maris, but we never see her. In later seasons, after getting a divorce, Niles marries Daphne. The brothers often meet at Café Nervosa.

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On an episode of Cheers, Frasier explained that his father had died in an accident and he had no siblings.  When Sam (Ten Danson) comes to visit on Frasier, the error is explained by having Frasier tell Sam that he made the story up because he was mad at his family. All but two characters from Cheers starred on Frasier.  Coach had passed away and  Kirstie Alley (Rebecca) was a scientologist who did not accept psychology.

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Jane Leeves plays Daphne Moon, who was hired to be Martin’s therapist and caretaker.

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Peri Gilpin (Roz Doyle) is Frasier’s radio producer and becomes one of his best friends. The role of Roz had been narrowed down to Gilpin or Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow was funnier but lacked the forcefulness she needed in the workplace, so Gilpin got the job.

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Another important character was Martin’s dog Eddie.  John Mahoney said Eddie got more fan mail than anyone else on the show. To get Eddie to lick Mahoney’s face, liver pate was placed strategically on his face.

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Bebe Neuwirth was offered a regular role on the show as Frasier’s ex-wife, but she wanted to return to Broadway, so she guest-starred from time to time. She appeared in 12 shows.

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Frasier’s apartment was almost another character on the show.  He lived in an ultra-modern apartment. A Dale Chihuly sculpture is seen near the fireplace. Above the fireplace is another artwork by Laddie John Dill, an LA sculptor.  A Coco Chanel sofa was recovered at a cost of $15,000 to add realism. In contrast, Martin brings his old, tattered recliner which clashes with the rest of the apartment – a symbol of the way he and Frasier clash. On the first episode, a deliveryman played by Cleto Augusto brings the chair in. On the final episode, the same actor came and took the chair away.  Martin explains to Frasier that he spent many important life moments in the chair such as watching the moon landing and specific sports events.  When he came home from work, he often fell asleep in the chair, and his wife would kiss him and send him to bed.  Frasier’s mother had passed away a few years earlier. Frasier finally understands the significance of the chair. On the last episode, Martin is marrying again, and he moves out. Wendie Malick plays his second wife.

Guest stars played callers on the radio show.  Often, they phoned in their lines. Callers included David Duchovny, Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Linda Hamilton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Chris Reeve, and Estelle Parsons.

Grammer made life a bit anxious for his guest stars. He used an acting method called requisite disrespect where he did not rehearse and learned his lines right before each scene.

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The theme song was “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs” by Darryl Phinnessee and Bruce Miller. Miller wanted Mel Torme to sing the theme for the show, but the producers wanted Kelsey Grammer who ended up recording it.

Critics had great respect for the show. The series holds the record for most sitcom Emmys – 37.  It had the record for most Emmys of any genre till Game of Thrones won its 38th recently. The five best episodes include “The Ski Lodge,” “The Doctor is Out,” “Wheels of Fortune,” and “Ham Radio.”

Grammer and James Arness are currently tied for the character who was on television the longest – 20 years.  Arness played Marshall Dillon on Gunsmoke for 20 years while Grammer played Frasier on Cheers and Frasier for a total of 20 years. The Simpsons have actually passed both of them if animated characters count.

Not only was Fraiser a great radio sitcom, but it is one of the best sitcoms on my top 15 list.

News Radio (1995)

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News Radio explores the office politics and interpersonal relationships among the staff of WNYX, New York’s #2 news radio station.

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Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) is the boss who tries his best to manage a quirky staff. He was raised in Wisconsin and some of his interests include tap dancing, a cappella singing, knife-throwing, and ventriloquism. He is polite and always in control.  He talks to his mother frequently and keeps a photo of her on his desk. He loves coffee and classic sitcoms, especially Mr. Ed and Green Acres.

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Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) is an egotistical co-anchor. He is arrogant and insubordinate.  There are many gaps in his knowledge, but he does show flashes of concern for others. Near the end of the show’s run, Hartman was killed; tragitically, Hartman was shot by his wife.

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Catherine Duke (Khandi Alexander) is the other co-anchor. She and McNeal previously had an affair and they are rivals. In the fourth season, she takes a job in London.

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Jimmy James (Stephen Root) is an eccentric owner. He is a billionaire and feels the need to micromanage the station. He is always searching for a wife and loves to air his rivalries with other entrepreneurs such as Ted Turner and Bill Gates. In the finale, he buys a radio station and newspaper in New Hampshire and takes most of the staff with him.

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Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney) is an ambitious producer who is Nelson’s on-and-off-again girlfriend. She’s an overachiever who can do complex math problems and has a detailed life plan. In season five, she marries Jimmy’s archenemy Johnny Johnson (Patrick Warburton).

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Matthew Brock (Andy Dick) is a hapless reporter who is clumsy and always tripping or falling down. He idolizes McNeal.  He has a dental degree, loves sci fi, and has a crush on Lisa.

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Joe Garrelli (Joe Rogan) is a handyman and electrician.  He is infatuated with Catherine and believes conspiracy theories, especially about extraterrestrials. Ray Romano was originally hired for this job, but his verbal comedy did not mesh well with the rest of the cast.

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Beth (Vicki Lewis) is the quirky secretary.  She typically wears inappropriate clothing, chews gum all the time, and likes to complain about her low salary. She was named Beth based on the Kiss song.

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Max Lewis (Jon Lovitz) was McNeal’s replacement after Hartman’s death. He was inept, eccentric, insecure, unprofessional and a former colleague of Bill’s.

The show was on the brink of cancellation every season. It never placed higher than 26th and changed time slots 11 times. It was briefly cancelled in 1998, but the network reversed its decision and ordered 22 more episodes and then it was cancelled for good.

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The show was fast paced and witty.  Sarcasm ruled the dialogue. Physical humor and sight gags also had a place in the humor. The show differed from the casts in The Office or the Mary Tyler Moore Show because they were a dysfunctional family without the affection and empathy of those characters. The cast was banned from SAG awards for bad behavior at the first ceremony.

Shows featuring radio stations seem to be hit or miss.  Good Morning World and Hello Larry did not do well.  I think everyone can agree on WKRP in Cincinnati and Fraiser are well-written shows.  News Radio seems to fall somewhere in the middle.  Some people seem to love it while others thought it missed the mark.  I think the show is well written, but the characters are not endearing.  They don’t grow or change for the better.  We can grow to love a Herb Tarlek and a Ted Baxter, but there is nothing redeeming about the crew here.  I guess I would tune out.  There are too many good shows out there to watch a “maybe, maybe not” show.

It Only Takes One Episode to Get Smart

In the mid-1960s, spy shows were all the rage.  James Bond drew large audiences to theaters:  Dr. No in 1962, From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964, and Thunderball in 1965. Inspector Clouseau was big at the box office too appearing in The Pink Panther in 1963 and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. If you were checking out books at the library, you probably would have read Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), or Harriet the Spy (1964). On the small screen, The Avengers was ahead of the curve, premiering in 1961, but in the mid-1960s, we would see some of the classic television shows debut: Mission Impossible began in 1966, The Man from UNCLE showed up in 1964 and in 1965, The Wild, Wild West and I Spy got network approval.

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Another show came on the air in 1965 as well – on September 18, 1965, Get Smart was seen for the first time. Dan Melnick, a partner in Talent Associates thought a spy satire might be a good fit for their upcoming schedule. He recruited Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to write the show. The team took the show to ABC. ABC bought it but they wanted a few changes.  They wanted Tom Poston to take the role of Maxwell Smart. They wanted a dog on the show to add “heart.” Finally, they wanted Smart’s mother to be a major role and envisioned Smart coming home at the end of the episode to explain the case to his mother. Henry and Brooks said no to the mother, so ABC rejected the show and sold it back to Talent Associates.

Grant Tinker from NBC agreed to buy the show with the caveat that Don Adams star in place of Tom Poston.  And so, the creative talent of Brooks and Henry brought Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), and the Chief (Edward Platt) to life. The show would stay on the air for five seasons, producing 138 episodes.

The first four seasons were filmed at Sunset Bronson Studios.  In 1970, the show moved to CBS and the last season was filmed at CBS Studio Center.

Mel Brooks left the show after the first year, but Buck Henry stayed through 1967 as the story editor.

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Most of the administrative cast stayed with the show for its run. Leonard B. Stern was the executive producer for all the shows. Irving Szathmary was the music and theme composer, as well as conductor, for all five seasons. Gerald C. Gardner and Dee Caruso were the head writers for the series. Don Adams would get to direct 13 episodes and write 2 of them.

The show centered around the three main characters. Maxwell Smart is Agent 86.  He works for CONTROL, a US government counter-intelligence agency in Washington DC. Max is resourceful.  He is a adept marksman, has hand-to-hand combat skills and is extremely lucky. He uses several cover identities, but the one he uses most often is greeting card salesman. He insists in going by the book and this, along with his clumsy nature, cause problems for him.

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He and his partner Agent 99 take on world threats. We never learn Agent 99’s real name, although we think we have in one episode.  In “99 Loses CONTROL”, she says her name is Susan Hilton but at the end of the episode, we learn she was lying. Agent 99 is smart and competent.  Her father was apparently a spy as well.  (In real life, Barbara Feldon was also smart; she won on The $64,000 Question with the category of Shakespeare.) If you look closely, you will often see Agent 99 slouching, sitting, or leaning on something to conceal the fact that she was a bit taller than Adams.

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Their boss, Chief, whose real name is Thaddeus, is sarcastic and grouchy but also serious, sensible, and smart. He began his career as Agent Q and his cover name is often Harold Clark. Other CONTROL agents we meet during the series are Agents 8, 13, and 14, as well as Larrabee, the Chief’s highly inefficient and bumbling assistant.

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Their primary enemy is KAOS, an international organization of evil founded in Romania in 1904 (a Delaware corporation for tax purposes!). The two KAOS employees we see most often are Conrad Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), the VP for Public Relations and Terror and his assistant Shtarker (King Moody), whose personality can change from sadistic to childlike. While Siegfried and Smart are mortal enemies, they respect each other.  Sometimes they begin talking like old friends.  In one episode, they are discussing the flavor of cyanide pills each side has that month.  CONTROL is giving out raspberry, and Smart tries to give one to Siegfried.  Like CONTROL, KAOS has a bowling team to build rapport and fellowship among their employees.

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Another KAOS agent is Hymie the Robot played by Dick Gautier. Dr. Ratton of KAOS built Hymie for evil, but Smart manages to turn the robot into a CONTROL agent. Hymie is faster and stronger than any human.  He also has the ability to swallow any poison and then identify it. He has emotions and a need to maintain neatness.  Unfortunately, he takes commands literally; if Smart says “Get ahold of yourself,” he literally wraps his arms around himself.

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The opening sequence of the show is one of the most spoofed openings in television.  Smart walks through doors that continue to other doors. It was ranked as the number 2 opening out of the top ten by TV Guide viewers in 2010.

The show is still known for its catch phrases that became part of the American vocabulary including “Would you believe?”, “Sorry about that Chief,” “And loving it,” and “I asked you not to tell me that.”

The series is identified with its James Bond-like gadgets.  Telephones could be concealed in neckties, combs, and watches, but most often it is in Smart’s shoe which he had to take off to answer. Agent 99 has a compact phone and a fingernail phone which forces her to look like she is nervously biting her nails to talk on it.

The show features a bullet-proof invisible wall in Smart’s apartment which lowers from the ceiling; he often forgets to put it back up and runs into it. Cameras can be in a bowl of soup.  A laser weapon was concealed in a suit jacket button, the blazer laser. The Cone of Silence are two glass domes that cover Smart and the Chief when they talk about a case.  Smart insists on using it because it’s  regulation; however, they can hardly hear each other, but anyone on the outside can hear their conversation clearly and often reports what the other person said.

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Other weapons and aids for the spies included a parking meter telegraph, a perfume bottle radio transmitter, invisible icing, and a pencil listening device. Guns were hidden in a charm on a charm bracelet, in a pool cue, as a hairbrush, as a flashlight, and in a crutch. CONTROL even had gloves with fingerprints already on them – the fingerprints were KAOS agents so they would get the blame for a break-in.

Blowing up stuff is always good on a spy show and Get Smart had explosive rice; toothpaste that is really a fuse; an exploding wallet, ping pong ball and golf ball; and a horoscope book or lipstick case that contained knock-out gas.

Smart had several cars but his most famous was a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger.  The two-seat roadster had a machine gun built in, a smoke screen, a radar tracker, and an ejection seat.  When the series went off the air, Don Adams received the car and continued to drive it for ten years.

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Get Smart probably had some of the most famous guest stars of any show.  Just a few of these celebrities include Steve Allen, Barbara Bain, Milton Berle, Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, James Caan, Johnny Carson, Wally Cox, Robert Culp, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, Jack Guilford, Bob Hope, Martin Landau, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulson, Tom Poston, Leonard Nimoy, Vincent Price, Don Rickles, and Fred Willard.

The show stayed true to its character through its entire run.  In Season 1, Hymie is introduced and the dog, Fang, disappears. In Season 2, we meet Siegfried. Smart and Agent 99 get engaged and marry in Season 4.  NBC demanded the change to boost ratings. In Season 5, they have twins.  Agent 99 continues working and is one of the first, if not the first, mother to be viewed as a working woman.  When the ratings did not increase, the show was cancelled. It went into syndication where it was very successful. Unfortunately, the DVD set was held up in legal battles and only came out weeks before Adams died.

Get Smart was one of the most clever and creative sitcoms ever airing on television.  It had `21 Emmy nominations including two for Feldon and won 7 of those awards.  Don Adams won best actor on a comedy three times and the show won best comedy twice.

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William Johnston came out with 9 paperbacks based on the series in the late 1960s and Dell Comics issued 8 comic books in 1966 and 1967. For the March 5-11, 1966 TV Guide, Andy Warhol designed a pop art piece using Barbara Feldon. Numerous collectibles were created:  board games, lunch boxes, dolls, and model cars.

The show produced many spin-off projects. The Nude Bomb was a theatre release in 1980 with Feldon and Smart reprising their roles. Get Smart Again debuted in 1989 as an ABC TV movie.  After its release, a show appeared on FOX starring Feldon and Smart again called Get Smart in 1995.  In 2008 a movie was made starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. Don Adams was known to later generations as the voice of Inspector Gadget.

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Of course, everyone has their favorite episodes, but after reviewing several polls and interviews with Nick at Nite and other 50th anniversary celebrations, I have come up with these top five.  Take a rainy fall day and give them a peek. However, if we are looking just at titles, I have to give a shout out to “Spy, Spy Birdie”, “Bronzefinger”, “Impossible Mission”, and “Tequila Mockingbird”.

  1. A Spy for a Spy
  2. The Not-So-Great Escape
  3. Ship of Spies
  4. The Amazing Harry Hoo
  5. The Little Black Book

 

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Unfortunately, this is one of those shows that doesn’t get as much recognition and respect as it deserves.  Considering how much technology has developed in the last 50 years, the show is still up to date. The dialogue is witty; the characters are likable, even when they’re mortal enemies; and the show is just plain fun.