McHale’s Navy: Set Adrift in a Sea of Comedy

Ahoy matey. We are currently in the middle of the “We Salute You!” blog series. Today we go behind the scenes of one of the most popular military sitcoms: McHale’s Navy.

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The series is centered around the adventures of a US Navy crew aboard the PT boat PT-73 during WWII. One of the best crews in the Navy, they often try to outwit Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn) and his aide Lt. Carpenter (Bob Hastings). Stationed in the South Pacific, the crew often is involved in antics to make life more enjoyable during wartime. Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine) is fun-loving but sometimes has to reign his crew in when they go too far.

Debuting on ABC in 1962, the show sailed on for four seasons, producing 138 episodes. In April of 1962, a drama on Alcoa Premiere a/k/a Fred Astaire’s Premier Theatre aired that was titled Seven Against the Sea with Borgnine as the lead. It became the pilot for what would become McHale’s Navy.

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Edward Montagne who was the producer of the new show had worked on The Phil Silvers Show. Montagne decided to turn the dramatic Seven Against the Sea into a “Bilko in the Navy” type of show. He recruited some of the actors and writers who had appeared on the prior series.

The basic plot of the show is that while these are respected, hard-working men when necessary, they have a lot of wacky schemes involving women, making money, and having fun. Captain Binghamton’s goal is to get rid of the entire bunch. The crew is said to live on an island across the bay from Taratupa, the fictional base. The geographic distance gives them extra time and more freedom to get into and out of their complicated situations.

Similar to The Phil Silvers Show, this sitcom also had a very large cast compared to most other shows.

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McHale is a strong, competent leader and goes to great pains to protect his crew. He likes to wear Hawaiian type clothing when off duty. Sometimes the crew uses the PT boat to go deep-sea fishing or water skiing. When the crew has laundry, they put the clothes into a barrel with holes, add soap and drag it behind the boat. McHale speaks Japanese, Italian, and some of the local island dialects.

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Ensign Charles Parker (Tim Conway) is McHale’s goofy second-in command. McHale calls him “Chuck.” Conway captured the lovable, naïve, bungler perfectly. He often refers to his home town Chagrin Falls, Ohio which was Conway’s hometown. Parker says he worked for the Chagrin Falls Gazette. Parker is too dizzy to get much respect, and his resume is full of errors and ineptitude. For example, it’s mentioned that he crashed a destroyer escort into a dock, and he called a naval airstrike on a gasoline dump. He has all the naval regulations memorized but can’t remember his serial number. From time to time, Parker is asked by the crew to impersonate President Roosevelt when calling Binghamton.

In the first episode, Parker is assigned to the crew. We learn that they have gone through several men already who could not put up with their insubordinate behavior and one of them even had a nervous breakdown. The men like Parker and treat him better than their previous ensigns.

Conway later stated that he and Ernest Borgnine had a wonderful working relationship both on and off the set. In the late 1990s, they would voice Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy on  SpongeBob SquarePants.

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Captain Wallace Binghamton, who the crew calls “Old Leadbottom” because he once took a bullet in the butt, previously managed a yacht club, although at times it’s mentioned he was the editor of a yachting magazine. He is gruff and grumpy and dreams about being promoted. He spends much of his time trying to catch McHale and the boys in one of their schemes. He is blind without his glasses, so sometimes the crew knocks them off to prevent him from seeing something incriminating. One of his most-uttered lines is “Why me? Why is it always me?”

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A typical interaction between Binghamton and McHale follows:

Binghamton: Commander, how would you and your men like two weeks with nothing to do but play gin rummy, go surfing, have luaus with steel drum bands, dancing girls, hmm?

McHale: Two whole weeks? Woo hoo, oh that’d be a wonderful change sir. Yes sir.

Binghamton: Knock it off McHale. That’s what you do every week.

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Binghamton’s aide is Lt. Elroy Carpenter who is also inept. He talks too much and is clumsy. He often gets the brunt of Binghamton’s tirades.

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McHale’s crew is composed of Quartermaster George Christopher (Gary Vinson), Radioman Willy Moss (John Wright), Torpedoman’s Mate Lester Gruber (Carl Ballantine), Motor Machinist Mate Harrison Bell (Billy Sands), Gunner’s Mate Virgil Edwards (Edson Stroll), and Seaman Joseph Haines (Gavin MacLeod). Houseboy Fuji (Yoshido Yoda) was often found cavorting with the crew. He is boyish, fun loving, and loyal to McHale. Fuji was a deserter from the Japanese Navy, but the captain knows nothing about his existence. In exchange for not living in a POW section, he acts as houseboy for the crew.

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Although the crew is always chasing women and trying to throw parties that they can invite them to, McHale has several romantic relationships during the show. Nurse Molly Turner (Jane Dulo) from New Jersey is always trying to trap him in a serious relationship. Two other love interests are Kate O’Hara (Joyce Jameson) and Maggie Monohan (Jean Willes).

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The great Don Knotts

A lot of guest stars dropped anchor on the show including Jerry Colonna, Bernard Fox, Pat Harrington Jr., Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, George Kennedy, Don Knotts, Bernie Kopell, Sue Ane Langdon, Marlo Thomas, and Raquel Welch.

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The PT-73 is almost like a character on the show. It was a 72-foot type II Vosper motor torpedo boat. The war ended before the boat (PT-694) could be sent to Russia, and it was then purchased by Howard Hughes. He loaned or sold it to Universal Pictures.

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The set of the Pacific Ocean naval base was built on the back lot of Universal Studios.  After the show went off the air, it became an attraction on the studio tour.

In one episode, McHale replaces Binghamton temporarily during an inspection and learns what a hard job he actually has. While that gives him some respect for the captain, they still don’t see eye to eye. Sometimes Binghamton tries to get them legitimately transferred for a scheme and other times he is not above inventing a story such as the time he tried to get them sent away by telling a psychiatrist that they are suffering from combat fatigue.

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For the final season, the crew, including Fuji, is transferred to Italy to the coastal town of Voltafiore. Many plot twists come about from the crooked Mayor Lugatto and the quirky residents. The move probably came about to be able to add some additional plot lines but it was perhaps too far-fetched for viewers, and the show was cancelled.

The show had a consistent schedule for most of its run. The first season it was on Thursday night up against The Twilight Zone and Hazel. The second and remaining seasons it was on Tuesday nights against Red Skelton on CBS and a variety of shows on NBC, including the forgettable Redigo and You Don’t Say, as well as The Man from UNCLE, Hullabaloo, and Dr. Kildare.

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During the run of the show, two big-screen movies were made based on the series: McHale’s Navy in 1964 and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force in 1965. Borgnine was unavailable for the second film due to a schedule conflict. The first film brought in a respectable $2,250,000 and the second netted $1,500,000.

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McHale’s Navy was a popular show both in the 1960s and in syndication. It may have been one of the first shows to produce related merchandise. Trading cards, comic books, a board game, 3-ring binders, and a model of the PT-73 were some of the items available to its fans. The show was well-written and the characters were fun and quirky. Unfortunately, a show like this can only sustain so many similar plots before it begins to feel like you’re watching repeats.

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Revell :: McHale’s Navy :: PT 73 Boat

The show is currently on Antenna TV Saturdays from 7-8 pm eastern time. It is also available on DVD. Take some time and enjoy getting to know McHale and his PT-73 crew.

Life Coach: Hayden Fox

Many of us enjoyed the Super Bowl yesterday. Maybe you are a football fanatic, maybe you just wanted to catch the commercials, or perhaps, like many of us, you just wanted someone, anyone, besides the Patriots to win this year. For many Americans, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial holiday.  We prepare certain foods, we throw parties, and decorate the house.

Many movies have been written about football; my favorite is still Remember the Titans, although Brian’s Song (appropriately with Shelly Fabares as Joy Piccolo) still makes me cry. On television we had Friday Night Lights, but when I think back to the classic sitcoms, the only show that came to mind was Coach.

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I remember watching Coach when it was originally on the air from 1989-1997, but my viewing was hit and miss. In my defense, I had two young children then, and they kept my evenings busy. This past year, I caught part of the Coach marathon on Decades. I’ve also been watching it on Antenna TV, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The characters still ring true for me. Hayden, Christine, Luther, Dauber, and Judy are just exaggerated enough to be fun and quirky. My youngest son attends Minnesota State Mankato, and I knew there were some connections with the show, but I was unsure what they were. I decided this was the perfect time to learn some of the behind-the-scene details of the show and celebrate our national pastimes of football and television watching.

COACH – “Did Someone Call Me Snorer?” – Airdate: January 9, 1995. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) L-R: BILL FAGERBAKKE;JERRY VAN DYKE;CRAIG T. NELSON

Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson) is the head coach of a NCAA Division I college football team. His staff, primarily Michael “Dauber” Dybinski (Bill Fagerbakke, later the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob Square Pants) and Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), help him coach the Screaming Eagles. His girlfriend is Christine Armstrong (Shelly Fabares), a local newscaster. Christine doesn’t especially love sports, but she loves Hayden even though his narrow mindedness can make her crazy. Their relationship is a give and take that gradually entwines them and allows them to grow together, understanding more about each other, but still retaining very different personalities and points of view. Hayden truly cares about his friends, he just has a gruff manner when showing it. Feelings make him uncomfortable.

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In addition to Christine, Hayden has to learn to be a father again. His ex-wife raised their daughter, and now Kelly (Clare Carey) has enrolled at Minnesota State. Kelly has much more in common with Christine than with Hayden. Eventually she dates and marries Stu, a guy Hayden cannot relate to at all. In 1991, the marriage ends in divorce when Stu falls in love with someone else, and Hayden is relieved to have him out of their lives. Kelly graduates in 1993 and is offered a job at an ad agency in New York and only guest stars after that time. Oddly enough, Carey was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in California but got the part because she was a believable Midwesterner.

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In addition to trying to influence the players on his team to become good men and citizens, Hayden “parents” Dauber who is much younger and Luther who is much older. Luther is a bachelor and has a lack of self-confidence, but he’s a great coordinator and Hayden appreciates him. Dauber has a heart of gold but is not the most intelligent though he can be wise at times. He continues to work with the team, eventually gathering three degrees and dating the women’s basketball coach, Judy (Pam Grier).

Judy and Hayden do not see eye to eye, and she does not have the patience or motivation to be nice to Hayden. Hayden often has harsh words for his athletic director Howard Burleigh, (Kenneth Kimmins) who always has his finger on the bottom line, but Hayden and Christine are friends with Howard and his wife Shirley (Georgia Engels) and, despite their working relationship, we see their underlying friendship developing.

At the end of season seven, Hayden is offered an NFL dream job with the Orlando Breakers. He accepts and takes his staff with him. By this time, he and Christine are married, so she also moves with the coaching staff. The owner of the team, Doris Sherman (Katherine Helmond), is more interested in the perks she gets being an owner than the success of the team. However, Fox gets the Breakers to a wild spot playoff game in the last season, although they lose to Buffalo. Also in the final season, Christine and Hayden adopt a baby boy. The Breakers were a parody of the Jacksonville Jaguars who, like the Breakers, entered the NFL in 1995 and made the playoffs against Buffalo in their second year as a team. The view Hayden sees when he looks out his office window at the stadium is actually the Milwaukee County Stadium, another tie to my Midwest.

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In the season finale, the cast thanks the audience for nine years of support. Van Dyke refuses to believe the series is really over, despite all his co-stars trying to convince him. The fans also are treated to an summary of what the characters did after Coach. Hayden and Christine return to Minnesota to raise their son, even though other NFL teams are interested in Fox as a coach. Luther and Doris are in a relationship, and they build a house similar to Graceland as a tribute to Elvis. Howard and Shirley sell their rare collection of Barbie dolls and use the proceeds to buy a dinner theater in Florida. Dauber takes over the Breakers team as head coach. He wins back-to-back Super Bowls, and when he retires, he joins the Monday Night Football crew as an announcer.

COACH – “Inconceivable” – Airdate: October 17, 1994. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JERRY VAN DYKE

Barry Kemp originally created the role of Hayden Fox for Dabney Coleman, but when ABC was ready to air the show, Coleman was unavailable. Kemp was also the creator of Newhart, and he gives a nod to his previous hit from time to time. In one episode, Christine is reading a book, How To Fly Fish by Dick Louden. In the finale, when Christine and Hayden return to his cabin, there just happen to be several people living there: Larry, Darryl and his “other brother Darryl,” whom all Newhart fans recognize immediately.

Another interesting twist on Coach was the appearance of stars who had personal relationships with the cast. Nanette Fabray, Shelly’s aunt, shows up as Mildred Armstrong, Christine’s mother. Mike Farrell, from M*A*S*H, Shelly’s husband, also appears on an episode. Nelson’s son, Noah, guest stars as a football player in one show, a delivery boy in one show, and the biological father of Fox’s adopted son in two later episodes. Perhaps the most unusual appearance was related to Luther. When Luther learns he was adopted and attends his birth family’s reunion, he tells Hayden that there was no way he could be related to any of these people. At that moment, a guy walks by them. He doesn’t have any lines, but it is Dick Van Dyke, Jerry’s brother.

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Other guest stars included Tim Conway, Elinor Donahue, Lisa Kudrow, Dick Martin, Lucy Liu, Tom Poston, Rob Schneider, and Alan Young.

This show might have more stars appearing as themselves as any sitcom ever. Just a few of these sports heroes include Troy Aikman, George Allen, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Eddie George, Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Bob Griese, Lou Holtz, Keith Jackson, Jimmy Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Jerry Jones, Al Michaels, Hank Stram, Joe Theismann, and Johnny Unitas.

Kemp was an alumnus of The University of Iowa. He chose the name Hayden Fox as a tribute to Iowa coach Hayden Fry. Even though the show is supposed to be set in Minnesota, much of it is filmed in Iowa. Many of the exterior shots on the show were taped at the Memorial Union. A couple of residence halls and the Field House also end up on the show.

The theme song was performed by the Iowa State University marching band. They won a national contest, earning the right to record the song.

The footage of football games is actually film from The University of Minnesota football seasons.

The Screaming Eagles was a nod to the line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles which Nelson collected.

Photo: A real photo from Mankato. I could not find a history of the names but how appropriate to have “Armstrong” for Christine and “Nelson” for Hayden’s real name.

In 1989 when the show first aired, there was no Minnesota State University. However, in 1998 Mankato State University became Minnesota State University Mankato ( and Moorhead became Minnesota State University Moorhead). However, there are some similarities between Mankato and the fictional college. Both have purple and gold as their school colors. The campus is about an hour from St. Paul-Minneapolis as is Mankato. (Christine lives in the Twin Cities when they first begin dating.) Hayden lives on a lake and in Mankato, faculty members do live on Lake Washington. The television university was founded in 1867, and Mankato was also created at that time.

Although the finale summed up the lives of the characters, that was not the end of the story. In 2015, NBC ordered 13 episodes of a Coach sequel. Nelson and Kemp came up with a concept where Hayden’s son takes a coaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania. The plan was to retain the original viewers while attracting a new, younger audience. Hayden, now a widower, comes out of retirement to be his son’s assistant coach. Dauber, now married to Judy, also signs on to help with the team. The pilot was filmed, but then NBC changed its mind. There are rumors that the revival may still happen, and other networks might be considering it. We’ll have to stay tuned.

Although the reboot has not come to fruition yet, Nelson, Van Dyke, and Fagerbakke did star again in an episode of The District. Nelson starred in the show from 2000-2004. In “The Black Widow Maker,” Jerry is a grumpy small-town judge and Bill is a police officer.

It’s too bad that the revival has not been fully developed. Considering the shows that were resurrected, often badly, this one sounds like it might have been a hit. Nelson won an Emmy during his time on Coach, but the network moved the show constantly, making it hard for fans to become loyal viewers. It was on every night except Thursday and Sunday. It survived because it worked. The writing was solid, and the characters were realistic. Hayden always had good intentions, and Christine was aware of that. Also, the show was able to survive the changes with Kelly graduating and moving, with the NFL team move; the crew stayed together while circumstances kept the show fresh.

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The show went on the Antenna TV schedule last January. Do yourself a favor and get to know the Minnesota State crew.

Let’s end with some dialogue that captures the relationship between Hayden and Christine’s real marriage and Hayden and Luther’s work marriage:

Assistant Coach Luther Van Dam: I’ve made out my will, and I’d like you to be my executioner.

Coach Hayden Fox: I think you mean “executor.”

************************************************************************

Coach Hayden Fox to his wife: You think I didn’t respect you Christine, but the truth is, I didn’t even think of you.

Poor Hayden, even when he takes two steps forward, he fumbles and loses yardage.

When She Tugged on Her Ear, She Tugged At Our Hearts

Today’s topic had me thinking about how much better things are in a group.  Roses are beautiful on their own but pair them with some complementary-colored blooms and everything comes alive.  Juicy watermelon is perfect on a hot, summer day, but combine it with berries, kiwi, and peaches, and all the tastes meld together. One book is a treasure on its own, but put ten together, and you have a library. There’s never a bad choice when deciding between vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream, but someone invented Neapolitan so you could get all three.

This works for our show this week as well.  Look at the work of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner and you will find gems, but put them together and you have a sparkling jewelry box full of wonderful things.

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These performers came together between 1967 and 1978 working on The Carol Burnett Show. Let’s see how that came to be.

Carol Burnett – Carol is a truly versatile performer; she acts, sings, does comedy, dances, has been on the stage, and has appeared on the big screen as well as the small screen. America has always had a love affair with her.

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She was born in Texas and moved to Hollywood with her grandmother. One of her first jobs was working as an usherette.  She received an anonymous gift of money that covered a year at UCLA where she majored in journalism. At one point she decided to switch her major to theater arts and English and planned to be a playwright. She gained some experience performing in several college productions. Her good luck continued when she received another gift – a $100 interest-free loan to move to New York City to try her hand at musical comedy.  She worked as a hat girl and began her acting career.  She married Don Saroyan in 1955. In 1959 she got her first big break, appearing in the Broadway show, Once Upon a Mattress for which she received a Tony nomination. Around this time, she became friends with Jim Nabors; he would be a life-long friend and her daughter’s godfather. When the Carol Burnett Show started, he became the first guest every season and was her good luck charm.

Soon after she began appearing on television and won her first Emmy in 1962 for her work on The Paul Winchell Show. This was also the year she and Don divorced. In 1963, she married Joe Hamilton, and they had three children. Lucille Ball had become a mentor to her, and they also remained friends for life.  Lucy sent her flowers every birthday.  On her birthday in 1989, Carol awoke to the news that Lucy had died.  She received her flowers later that day.

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She did several specials with Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, and Beverly Sills. Carol had a clause that she could decide to do a permanent variety show which would expire in 1967. Carol decided to take advantage of the clause and do the variety show.  The network tried to talk her out of it because they said variety shows tended to be men’s territory.  They offered her a sitcom of her own, but luckily for us, she stuck to her guns.

In 1974, she went back to the stage to star with Rock Hudson in I Do I Do. In 1984 she and Joe divorced.  She would win her second Emmy for her work on Mad About You.

In 1995, she returned to Broadway to appear in Moon Over Buffalo which gained her a second Tony nomination.

Carol was the Grand Marshal for the 109th Rose Bowl Parade. She has written five books. She has remained close friends with many of her costars including her show cast, Jim Nabors, Betty White, Beverly Sills, Julie Andrews.

Not only did she help a young Vicki Lawrence, but other stars looked to her for help as well. Jim Carrey sent her his resume at age 10.

In 2001, Carol married again. Her current husband Brian Miller is a drummer for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Most recently she guest starred on several episodes of Hawaii Five-0.

Harvey Korman – Born in Chicago, Korman served in the US Navy during World War II. After the war, he studied at the Goodman School of Drama.  He attended classes at DePaul University and the Chicago Art Institute. During 1950, 1957, and 1958 he was part of the Peninsula Players in Fish Creek, Door County, Wisconsin.

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His first television role was on the Donna Reed Show in 1960. He also married that year and they had two children. He continued to act on television on such shows as Dr. Kildare, Perry Mason, Route 66, Jack Benny, Hazel, Here’s Lucy, and Gidget – 30 shows in all; he also appeared in many movies. You might recognize his voice if you watch The Flintstones; he played the role of the Great Gazoo. His first big break was on The Danny Kaye Show in 1963. With his expressive voice, he played a wide assortment of characters. In was due to his work on Danny Kaye, that Carol recruited him for her show in 1967.

In 1977, he made the tough decision to leave The Carol Burnett Show and star in his own vehicle, The Harvey Korman Show.  The show was about an out-of-work actor Harvey Kavanaugh who lived with his daughter. The critics thought Korman was wonderful in the show, but the show got very low ratings and was cancelled after six episodes. Then he was an out-of-work actor in real life. Dick Van Dyke had taken his place on the Carol Burnett Show so he could not return.

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After his show fizzled out, he went back to movies. In 1977 he divorced his first wife. In 1982 he remarried and had two more children.  Korman continued to make tv appearances on a variety of shows such as the Love Boat, Ellen, and ER. He also made movies. He is probably best known for two of his movies: Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety.  In 1983-84, he appeared in Mama’s Family with Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence. In 2008, he passed away from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that was diagnosed four months prior.

Tim Conway – Conway was born in Ohio and joined the Army, serving at a radio station. After the war, he studied at Bowling Green State University, majoring in tv and radio. He married in 1961 and they had 6 children.

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He was discovered by Rose Marie and became a regular on The Steve Allen Show. He earned even more fame when he joined the cast of McHale’s Navy in 1962. McHale’s Navy had two different formats.  I was surprised to learn that Joseph Heller (author of Catch-22) wrote one episode but removed himself from the credits when he had an argument with the producer. Conway became very close to Ernest Borgnine and considered him his mentor. Later the two of them would work together in SpongeBob Square Pants as old superheroes.

After McHale’s Navy, he was cast in Rango. A comedy/western, Conway played Rango. He was an inept Ranger, but his father was the head of the Texas Rangers, so he was moved to a very quiet post.  Unfortunately, a crime wave broke out after his arrival. The show lasted for 17 episodes.

Conway got his own show in 1970, but it never really worked and was cancelled after 12 episodes. He played an airline pilot who was not very good at flying. He and his partner owned a decrepit airplane and they were always fighting creditors, barely making a living.

He was on Carol Burnett throughout the years of her show, and in 1975 he became a regular. When the show ended, he kept busy with television shows, appearing in more than 50 shows including Newhart, Larry Sanders, Drew Carey, Ellen, Yes Dear, Hot in Cleveland, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Roseanne, and Ally McBeal. He also performed around the country with Harvey Korman and began making his Dorf videos. In 1984 he married his current wife.

 

Vicki Lawrence –  Vicki grew up in California. When Vicki Lawrence was 17, she wrote Carol a fan letter.  She was entered in a Miss Fireball contest, and someone told her she resembled Carol. She asked for some advice about her performance. Carol not only gave her advice – she drove all the way to watch the contest.  She told her they would talk about her career. A short time later, while Vicki was singing with the Young Americans, Carol offered the inexperienced girl a regular role on her show.

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Vicki was mentored by both Harvey Korman and Carol Burnett, and her talent blossomed during her years on the variety show. In 1974, she recorded the hit song “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

In 1983, she was offered her own show based on one of the Carol Burnett skits, Mama’s Family.

She hosted Win, Lose, or Draw and has appeared in stage performances. She spends most of her time now giving speeches for women’s groups and charities.

Lyle Waggoner – Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Waggoner was the heart throb of the show. He sold encyclopedias door to door. To jump start his career, he appeared in summer stock. He received roles in a lot of bad sci fi and beach party films. His career might have been different because he was in consideration for Batman, but the part went to Adam West. He was hired as the emcee of Carol’s show but progressed to being a part of the ensemble playing in a variety of skits. He left The Carol Burnett Show in 1973. He was offered a role in Wonder Woman in 1975. His career never picked up after that. He now runs a rental trailer company which is the largest one in Hollywood. He has been married more than fifty years, and he and his wife have two sons.

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The Carol Burnett Show

The show was the best and the last variety show to be on television. Carol wanted to develop her own cast. She handpicked her costars. She hired The Ernie Flatt Dancers to do all the choreography. The head male dancer for the run was Don Crichton.

Artie Malvin was the musical writer. Carol used a live 28-piece orchestra conducted by Harry Zimmerman for the first three years and Peter Matz for the final eight years. She had a guest star on every week, often a singer.  Some of the performers included Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Lena Horne, The Carpenters, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ray Charles.  Steve Lawrence was on 25 times and Eydie Gorme performed 13. Unfortunately, when the show went into syndication, it became a half-hour show, and the musical numbers were cut.

Sonny and Cher taped next door and Carol often popped in on their taping and Sonny and Cher visited her show.

Some of Carol’s favorite guests included Bernadette Peters, Alan Alda, Roddy McDowell, Paul Lynde, Bob Newhart, Rita Hayworth, James Stewart, Gloria Swanson, Vincent Price, the Smothers Brothers, Donald O’Connor, Lucille Ball, Rock Hudson, Mickey Rooney, Betty White, and Nanette Fabray. The only guest star Carol was not able to book was Bette Davis.  She demanded too much money.

The Carol Burnett Show received 22 Emmy Awards during the 11 seasons it was on the air. Harvey Korman was nominated for six of those and won four. Lawrence also received five Emmy nominations and one win.

Bob Mackie was her favorite designer, and he designed all the costumes for The Carol Burnett Show. Typically, he had to design 60-70 outfits per week, adding up to 18,000 over the course of the show.

For the first 3-4 minutes of each show, Carol appeared in a Bob Mackie creation and took questions from the audience. Some of these are the funniest parts of the show.

The cast would rehearse every day, and they did two tapings on Friday.  If the first taping went fine and they got what they needed, they would let Tim Conway improvise on the second taping and many of his unrehearsed moments made it into the show.

The show aired on Monday nights up against Big Valley and I Spy. In Season 5, they were moved to Wednesday nights up against Adam-12 on one network and Bewitched and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father on the other. In 1972, they made their final move to Saturday nights. The final year they faced some stiff competition against The Love Boat.

Some of her favorite regular skits were Stella Toddler where Burnett played an older character who always seemed to get tripped, whacked by something, or knocked down; Mrs. Wiggins who was an inappropriately dressed and incompetent secretary to Mr. Tudball; a woman who watched commercials on tv —  a cast member showed an item each week that drove the woman crazy; Marion from Canoga Falls in “As the Stomach Turns”; Chiquita, Burnett’s imitation of Charo; Nora Desmond, a has-been silent film star and her butler Max; The Old Folks where Burnett and Korman talked on the porch reminiscing; and Shirley Dimple, based on Shirley Temple.

Carol loved the parodies they did of old movies.  Some of the original stars loved them, and some were quite unhappy with the comedies. Her favorite was “Went with the Wind” with Starlett O’Hara, Rat Butler, and Mr. Brashley. The curtain rod in the dress was conceived by Bob Mackie. Coming down the stairs, Starlett replies to Rat’s compliment on the dress, “Thank you.  I saw it in the window and couldn’t resist.” The dress is now at the Smithsonian Museum. She also liked “Pillow Squawk”, a Doris Day parody.

She was always complimentary about her entire cast. One of her quotes was “When you play tennis, it’s important to play with a better player because it makes your game better.  Well, Harvey made my game better. I miss him dreadfully. And Tim Conway, God bless him, is just genius when it comes to improvising, coming up with stuff that we never rehearsed.”

These compliments were returned by her costars. Harvey Korman was quoted as saying, “We were an ensemble, and Carol had the most incredible attitude. I’ve never worked with a star of that magnitude who was willing to give so much away.”

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Of course, everyone watches to see how Tim Conway makes Harvey Korman laugh during their skits.  Apparently, Tim had a knack for improving the scripts and throwing in lines and action that Korman didn’t anticipate. Here’s Tim Conway on Harvey Korman: “He was one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, but the man could not tie his own shoes . . .  I would put him on constantly . . . We were on an airplane and we refueled in Arizona. Taxing on the next runway, I said, ‘Harvey, I don’t know if the guy put the gas cap back on. It was on the wing and now it’s not.’ Harvey got worried. So, he got up and went to the pilot and said, ‘Your gas cap’s not on.’ The pilot just looked at him.  There is no gas cap.”

One of the memorable parts of the show is the opening and closing theme song.  She always ended the show with “I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started, and before you know it, comes the time we have to say so long.” Then she tugged her ear. She would tug on her left ear which was a message to her grandmother that things were going well, and she missed her.

No matter how many years go by, the show remains a timeless comedy.  It has a balance of silliness and savvy. It’s hard to believe that the generations growing up in the 1980s and 1990s have never seen a variety show.  I love to catch reruns of this show.  I laugh out loud through the show.  Thank you, Carol for spending time with us. The show currently can be shown on Me TV at 10:00 pm with Mama’s Family airing at 8:00 pm.

Verrry Interrresting!

Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967.  The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s.  The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults.  Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.

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Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.

Numerous celebrities flocked to the show.  Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth.  Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell.  Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.

The format rarely changed from week to week.  Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”

Some of the regular features were:

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The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.

Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.

ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN,  Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, 1969-1970.

It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.

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The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.

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The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.

Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.

New Talent Time showing various weird skills.

Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:

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Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.

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Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.

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Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.

Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note:  When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show.  Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments.  And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)

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Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.

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Flip Wilson was Geraldine.

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Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.

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Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.

The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”

The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.

The show had its own magazine for a year.  Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time.  There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.

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Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it.  The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live.  This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.

The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show.  Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.

I Don’t Have a Free Toothbrush For You, But . . .

Are you feeling comfortable?  You might want to lean back, put on a pair of plastic glasses, and say Ahhh.  Sorry, I guess I’m getting carried away by our topic today.  March 6 is National Dentists Day.  I thought it might be fun to delve into some shows that featured dentists.  Apparently, the average viewer finds nothing funny about dentists.  They are hard to spot on the small screen.  Perhaps it brings back too many pain-filled memories of the sound of drills and mouths so numb you bite your lip without realizing it. Finding dentists on television was like pulling teeth – sorry I’m getting carried away again. Let’s look at a few of them.

When we think of television dentists, most of us probably conjure up pictures of Jerry Helper (played by Jerry Paris) on The Dick Van Dyke Show or Jerry Robinson (played by Peter Bonerz) on The Bob Newhart Show. These two shows can make anything funny, even dentists.

Jerry and Millie Helper are the Petries’ next-door neighbors and best friends on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  Jerry is a dentist, and Millie is a stay-at-home mom with a son the same age as Richie, Rob and Laura’s son.  Jerry is a kidder and his comments often get him in trouble.

One episode, “Punch Thy Neighbor” from the first season, shows Jerry taking his teasing too far.  Jerry and Millie are watching the Alan Brady Show with Rob and Laura, and Jerry makes comments about how bad it is. Rob isn’t happy, but the next day he gets mad when several people, including the Helpers’ son Freddie and the milkman, tell Rob Jerry mentioned how bad the show was. Rob goes to talk to Jerry and ends up punching him accidentally. When he attempts to show Laura how it happened, he hit her as well. Richie tells Millie his dad hit his mom, and she sends Jerry over to get Rob under control.  Jerry walks in seeing Rob yelling, not knowing it’s because he tripped over a toy.  Trying to calm him down, Jerry wrestles him to the floor. Jerry realizes he was out of line with his joking.  You would think he learned his lesson, but at the end of the episode, Jerry starts again, and Rob hits him in the face with a pie. Like all the Dick Van Dyke episodes, this one is true to life, well written, and funny.

I’m sure it was also well directed, although not by Jerry Paris.  However, Paris kept nagging Reiner to let him direct.  Once he did a couple of shows, Reiner realized that “he understood our show more than any of the other directors.” In 1963-64, Paris won an Emmy for directing the show.  He directed 84 of the 158 episodes. After The Dick Van Dyke Show ended, he went on to direct many shows including 2 episodes of The Partridge Family, 3 episodes of Love American Style, 3 episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 7 episodes of The New Dick Van Dyke Show, 18 episodes of The Odd Couple, and 237 of the 255 episodes of Happy Days.

From 1972-1978, Jerry Robinson was Bob Hartley’s best friend on The Bob Newhart Show.  Bob realizes his friends and family are not any more emotionally stable than his patients; they just get his advice for free. Jerry is an orthodontist, and he shares a receptionist with Bob. When interviewed about his character, Bonerz said “Jerry Robinson was written by 25 guys. It was my job to make those 25 different versions of Jerry the dentist credible.” Robinson was a swinging single, slow to trust others, and easily angered. Yet, his character was likeable, and he credited that to a well-balanced cast who all made each other better.  They were like a close family; you don’t always approve of your family members, but you love them.  Bonerz’s theory was that Bob Newhart was the psychologist/listener of the family, and that role made everything else fall into place. If you needed a root canal, Dr. Helper might be more proficient, but you would enjoy the conversation during the procedure more with Dr. Robinson.

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One dentist who was a critical component of a show, although most people don’t remember him, was Dr. Barry Farber.  Dr. Farber is the man Rachel Green was supposed to marry on Friends, but she left him at the altar, ending up living with Monica and meeting a new group of friends.

Several other shows, not as well-known as these three, also featured a dentist in their cast.

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Doc Corkle was on the air in 1952.  Doc, played by Eddie Mayehoff, was a neighborhood dentist.  He lived with his father (Chester Conklin) and his daughter (Connie Marshall). Poor Doc has some money problems.  The biggest financial setback was the fact that the network cancelled the show after only three episodes.

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I’m a Big Girl Now featured Diana Canova who played a divorced woman, Diana Cassidy, who goes home to live with her father Benjamin Douglass, a dentist (Danny Thomas).  His partner and his wife have run off to Spain.  Diana also has a daughter Rebecca and a neurotic brother named Walter. The show was cancelled mid-season.

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Charley Shanowski, played by Ted McGinley, is a dentist on Hope & Faith.  His wife Hope (Faith Ford) is a stay-at-home mom with three children.  Her sister Faith (Kelly Ripa) was a soap opera star whose character was killed off on the show.  She moves in with her sister but expects to be treated like the star she used to be.  Charlie does not like Faith and spends a lot of his time trying to get her to leave.  We can understand why.  It seems like every time a dentist has a show where a family member moves in, the network cancels the show.  At least this show made it three seasons instead of three episodes before it got pulled.

Probably my favorite show with a dentist was an episode of The Carol Burnett Show. Like so many of the funniest episodes, this one featured Tim Conway (the dentist) and Harvey Korman (the patient). When interviewed about the skit, Conway said that memorable sketches often create themselves.  “The novocaine portion of the dentist sketch wasn’t planned—it just happened. That’s the magic of comedy; you never know when it is going to sneak up on you and make you laugh.” The dentist skit was based on Conway’s real-life dentist who stuck the needle of novocaine into his own thumb while working on a patient. Korman didn’t know Conway was going to put that in the sketch.

Last, but not least, I wanted to mention Edgar Buchanan, Uncle Joe in Petticoat Junction.  Buchanan earned a DDS degree from North Pacific College of Dentistry in Oregon. His father was also a dentist. During the time he was a pre-med student, Edgar took acting classes at the University of Oregon and eventually left dental school to take a position in their drama department. His father convinced him to finish his dental degree first.  When he returned to North Pacific he met Mildred Spence, another dental student.  They graduated in 1928. After marrying, the couple moved back to Eugene, Oregon where they opened a private practice. From 1930-1937, Edgar was chief of oral surgery at the Eugene Hospital Clinic but also worked as an assistant director in the University of Oregon drama department. In 1939, the couple moved to Pasadena. When Edgar appeared in a production at the Pasadena Playhouse, he received his first film offer.  So, at the age of 36, he turned over the practice to his wife and became an actor.  He appeared in more than 100 films between 1941 and 1974. He was the only cast member of Petticoat Junction to appear in all 222 episodes.

Apparently dentists are not too popular.  There are a handful of shows about them while there are tons of shows about attorneys.  But dentists are our friends, so to celebrate their day today, take a moment and watch the following:

www.liftable.com/edwardtofil/tim-conway-made-harvey-korman-wet.

Tim Conway talks about The Dentist episode to Conan O’Brien and they play a clip from it. If you watch it enough times, you might not actually look forward to going to the dentist, but you might not dread it as much. And if you’re a hopeful television creator, write a show about dentists.  They’re due for a big hit.

Gee, Mom There’s Nothin’ To Watch on TV

After complaining about the number of lack-luster shows on the 2016-17 schedule, I decided to look back 50 years to see how the line-up looked in 1966.  I was surprised to learn that things haven’t really changed too much.

One of my all-time favorite shows aired in the fall of 1966–That Girl.  I’ll write about the show next week.  Two other shows that debuted in 1966 were Family Affair and The Monkees, shows I would not consider classic comedies but shows we remember nonetheless.

Let’s take a look at the other shows from fall of 1966.  Let me know how many of these, if any, you remember.

The Hero – Richard Mulligan (later to star in Soap and Empty Nest) plays Sam Garret, a TV actor on a western who was scared of horses, allergic to sagebrush, and extremely clumsy.  If you don’t’ remember this show, don’t feel bad; it only lasted four months.

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Hey Landlord – A writer (Will Hutchins) and a comedian (Sandy Baron) become landlords for a Manhattan brownstone.  Apparently they only had a one-year lease, because they were gone by 1967.  Cast members included Ann Morgan Guilbert (Milly from the Dick Van Dyke Show) and Sally Field (Gidget, the Flying Nun, and Nora on Brothers and Sisters).

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It’s About Time – Two astronauts break the time barrier and end up in the Prehistoric Era. After saving a boy, they get to know his family.  When they return home in 1966, they realize the family hid themselves aboard the rocket.  The astronauts have to keep them secret from NASA officials, and the family has to learn to live in a modern society.  Someone might have dreamed about Jeannie, but no one dreamed about this show.

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The Jean Arthur Show – Movie star Jean Arthur is part of a mother-son law firm, Marshall & Marshall.  Arthur gets involved in their clients’ wacky situations.  After three months, they were legally cancelled.

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Love On a Rooftop – Judy Carne and Peter Duel are a young couple living in San Francisco.  He’s an apprentice architect and she’s an art student who gave up her rich father’s money for marrying him.  Rich Little played their neighbor Stan who composed menus for a living.  The network said “Sock it to Them” by cancelling the show.

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Mr. Terrific – Two friends Stanley and Hal are roommates.  Stan works for the government. When they give him a pill, he becomes Mr. Terrific, crime solver.  They send him on missions, but the pill only lasts an hour so it wears off at the worst of times.  I don’t think the network thought it too terrific, because it was gone in seven months.

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My Name’s McGooley, What’s Yours? – The show centered around a scheming father, his daughter and her husband, a beer-guzzling loser.  I think it took longer to read the title than to watch the episodes because it was not renewed for the next year.

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Occasional Wife – A baby food company only hires married men as executives, so Peter convinces his friend Greta to pose as his wife when necessary.  They live on different floors of the same apartment building and get into a lot of complicated situations.  Apparently viewers only watched occasionally because it was cut from the schedule.

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Pistols ‘n Petticoats – Ann Sheridan came to the TV screen to play Hank, short for Henrietta, a member of a family in Wretched, Colorado in 1871.  The family has to keep law and order in the town because the local sheriff is incompetent.  People did believe they were wretched, and it was gone before 1967.

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The Pruitts of Southhampton – The premise of this show was that a formerly wealthy family realizes they owe $10,000,000 in taxes and has to downsize their lifestyle while keeping it from all their friends.  The network agreed they were poor and cut it for 1967.  What was amazing about this show not being a hit was the cast:  John Astin, Richard Deacon, Billy De Wolfe, Phyllis Diller, Reginald Gardiner, Marty Ingels, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul Lynde, John McGiver, and Louis Nye.  Talk about a dream cast.

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Rango – Tim Conway starred in this western sitcom.  His Rango character was totally inept and was assigned to a town with a 20-year peaceful record where he couldn’t get into trouble.  Of course, after he arrives, a crime spree begins.  ABC decided the show inept as well, and it was cancelled after a few months.

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The Rounders – Westerns were definitely a theme in 1966.  In this version, two not-very-bright cowboys are hired as hands at a ranch.  After four months, the network rounded up the cast and ran them out of Dodge.

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Run Buddy Run – Buddy Overstreet, a shy accountant, is in a steam room when he overhears gangsters plotting a murder.  When they realize Buddy knows their plan, they try to capture him.  After only four months, the network cancelled Buddy before the gangsters could.

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The Tammy Grimes Show – Tammy Grimes, a Broadway star, plays a young heiress who’s on a small allowance until she turns 30.  She tries to fulfill her elaborate lifestyle with wacky schemes.  Dick Sargent (Darrin on Bewitched) plays her boring twin brother.  Perhaps the show had a small allowance too because it only lasted three weeks!

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Whoo!  This line-up of shows makes Family Affair, which lasted five years, and The Monkees, which lasted two years, look like successful, classic shows.  It doesn’t make this fall’s shows any better, but at least we’re in good company.  We’ll talk about That Girl next week.