October 7, 2015

Variety: the reason you should watch getTV's new Monday night lineup

Last week I mentioned getTV's new lineup of Monday night variety shows, starting October 12: The Judy Garland Show, The Merv Griffin Show and various variety specials.  The Garland shows have been out on DVD for some time, and last year a box set came out highlighting Merv's shows throughout the years.  Nonetheless, most of these episodes, along with the variety specials, have probably not been seen on television since their original airings, and you don't have to be a classic TV aficionado to appreciate the entertainment value of these shows, as well as their historical importance.  Let's take a quick look at the first evening's offerings, in reverse order.

The Merv Griffin Show (10:00pm ET)
Date: October 3, 1967
Guests: Robert F. Kennedy, Carl Reiner, Genevieve Page and Josephine Premice

Why You Should Watch: Not to put too fine a point on it, this is an extraordinary episode, unlike anything you'd see on today's late-night chucklefests.  Yes, Carl Reiner is funny, but it's because he's naturally a funny guy.  He volunteers that he's wearing his toupee for the show, sparking a discussion of when one wears their rug and when they don't.  And any anecdote about Reiner's buddy Mel Brooks - in this case, a story about Brooks' time as a writer for Jerry Lewis - is bound to be good for a laugh.

Merv has more in mind than setting up the next one-liner, though.  He asks Reiner about writing for television, and what makes a show funny.  Reiner's response: if his children can predict what happens next, he'd better do something different.  His kids know television, having grown up watching so much of it with him, and if they can see the next gag coming, then it's probably become a cliche. And while you can decide to use a cliche intentionally, under no circumstances should you use it just because it's the easy way out.  When asked about television's latest trends, Reiner notes adventure shows (Mission: Impossible, I Spy) and Westerns (although he didn't mention them, he was probably thinking of shows like The High Chaparral and The Guns of Will Sonnett); when Merv notes that some people have pronounced the half-hour sitcom dead, Reiner acknowledges it's lean right now, but reminds us that television is often cyclical, and that sitcoms would be back - as indeed they were.

SOURCE: ABC
It's the interview with RFK though, eight months before his death, that is most remarkable.  Merv often welcomed newsworthy guests, from Martin Luther King to Timothy Leary, and the junior Senator from New York was a natural.  Kennedy is clearly ill at ease with the talk show format, spending most of the time with his head down, his fingers nervously playing with the desktop and the microphone, looking at Merv sideways and at the audience rarely if at all.  The conversation is hard news all the way, with questions and answers that sound as if they could have come from Face the Nation or Meet the Press. Not for the first time, I was struck by how timely Kennedy's comments were - not just to 1967. but to today.  Talking about the source of rage in the inner cities, for example, Kennedy suggests that the Vietnam War has made violence and killing an acceptable method of settling things in the eyes of young people, that they are less inclined to value human life.  Hearing that, I wondered if violent movies and video games don't send much the same message.  He lamented the growing sense of isolation that people are feeling, and it made me think of how social media tends to cocoon people.  He acknowledges that with the government spending billions on the war, the money doesn't exist to address all of society's ills, and says that the private sector has to be encouraged to become involved, through incentives like tax credits and tax breaks.

The questions were serious, and Kennedy's answers were serious - except for when Merv broached the topic of the 1968 elections.  LBJ is the presumptive Democratic nominee - Kennedy says that he is not a candidate for president and does not encourage anyone to organize on his behalf - and when asked about the Republicans, RFK says he knows who they'll nominate, but won't say for fear of encouraging him.  Merv poses an interesting hypothesis, that if the GOP nominates a liberal many Democrats might vote for him, while conservative Republicans could vote for Johnson, and asks Kennedy if  he can see that happening.  RFK's response is a sly "yes," so reminiscent of when his brother was asked if he'd encourage young people to run for office, and JFK said no, at least not for a few years.

I know many would cite Stephen Colbert as the host bringing serious discourse back to late night, but I don't see it, at least not this way.  Yes, Merv could be goofy and silly and self-centered, as all good hosts must, but he wasn't interested in how Robert Kennedy felt, or in humanizing him.  He wanted to know Kennedy's plans for the nation, just as he wanted to know why Carl Reiner was successful. Throw in Genevieve, whose interview we don't see but who interacts with the other guests*, and Josephine Premice, who ends the show with a dramatic song, and you have a prime example of what I'd call television for grown-ups, when only adults stayed up late enough to watch talk shows, and were rewarded for their insomnia.

*Pointing out yet again the value of having guests stick around after their segment was done.  They're called talk shows for a reason, you know.

***

The Judy Garland Show
Date: December 8, 1963
Guest:  Mickey Rooney
Regular:  Jerry Van Dyke

Why You Should Watch:  If there's one episode of Judy Garland's single-season variety show that people are familiar with, it's probably the Christmas episode, which featured Jack Jones, Mel Torme, and Garland's children Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joey Luft.  Most people who see the episode probably think it was a special, but in fact it was merely a regular episode of her series, aired a mere two weeks after this particular episode.

SOURCE: YOUTUBE
Judy Garland has to be one of Hollywood's more tragic figures, and I couldn't help but think, as I always do when watching clips of her from this time period, how old she looks.  She's only 41 when this was made, yet I'd suspect her of being a decade older.  But she can still sing - boy, can she sing - and when she's reunited with her dear friend Mickey Rooney, she positively shines.  Knowing what we do about her unhappy life makes it all the more poignant; more than once she laments how it had been so many years since they'd worked together, and one gets the feeling that Mickey might well have been the only friend she could trust, the only person who might have been able to save her from herself.  When they react their shtick from the Andy Hardy days, or looking at pictures from the movies they did together when they were young, it's with equal parts nostalgia and sadness - but likely this is because we know how the story ends.  I wonder how the people watching it at the time saw it?

Anyway, we're reminded why Rooney was known as one of the greatest all-around entertainers, as we see him singing, dancing, joking around, while Garland's solo efforts demonstrate why her series had been so eagerly anticipated.  CBS didn't really know what to do with this show, and by the time they figured all the audience really needed was Judy singing with Mort Lindsey's* orchestra, it was too late to save the series.  Less than six years she would be dead, a flame that burned far too brightly for too short a time.  That's why this series, imperfect though it may be, is so important.

*Merv Griffin's orchestra leader, incidentally. 


***

Carol Channing & Pearl Bailey on Broadway
Date: March 16, 1969

Why You Should Watch:  'Cmon, it's Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey singing showtunes!  What more reason do you need?

SOURCE: YOUTUBE
Seriously - they were two of the biggest stars around at the time, and in an era when Broadway tunes were still pop standards, the opportunity to see these two singing and clowning is worth some of the painful jokes and corny dialogue.  Carol Channing is one of those about whom it's said that if she didn't exist, someone would have had to invent her; likewise, Pearly Mae is larger-than-life, fresh off her smash success in Hello Dolly, the role which Channing had made famous.  As a matter of fact, one of the best moments in the show comes when Channing makes a joke about having been passed over for the movie version of Dolly in favor of Barbra Streisand (an injustice if ever there was one). Make no mistake about it, there's a bite-and-a-half to this joke; behind the laughs, there has to be pain.

You might not think this show will appeal to you; it was the last of the three previews I watched, and while it might lack the historical significance of Merv's show or the backstory of Judy's, it's an hour of great fun, the kind of variety show that used to be rolled out as one of a network's big guns.

***

There's been a boom in television nostalgia over the last few years, with networks such as MeTV, Cozi, Antenna, and Decades leading the way; and there's a tendency to wonder how long it can last, given that vintage television shows are by definition a finite number, with the same shows tending to show up over and over.  Up to now getTV has concentrated on movies, but with the addition of vintage Westerns on Saturdays and this variety show lineup on Monday, the network has now joined the battle.  By addressing a programming niche - the variety show - that has mostly been ignored by the other networks, they have the potential to become a serious player indeed.  Let's hope they keep looking for opportunities to introduce different kinds of series to their lineup, ones that have played such a major role in the history of the medium and the hearts of its viewers.

4 comments:

  1. "There's been a boom in television nostalgia over the last few years, with networks such as MeTV, Cozi, Antenna, and Decades leading the way; and there's a tendency to wonder how long it can last"
    I think it will last as long as the studios keep churning out bleak, soul-crushing, colorless, nihilistic shows and the generations that tend to dislike that (ie, non-Millenials) are around to seek out other programming.

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  2. I find myself happily and readily watching Netflix, Antenna TV, MeTV, Decades and now BUZZR more often than I do network TV, with the exception of PBS which never fails to offer programs of great variety and quality. I've downsized to the lowest cable package offering from Comcast as the vast majority of cable channels I used to watch churn out so much 'reality programming' and repeat their lineups so damn often that it's simply not worth the money or time anymore.

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  3. I fear I have a guess what may happen to all the TV nostalgia networks. For the ones that survive, that won't just go off the air or get bought out by some larger cable network, they may (unfortunately) go the route of Nick At Nite and TV Land. They'll slowly begin airing shows no more than a decade old (and more color shows than B&W) and when they see a ratings spike by viewers who recall THOSE shows from their youth, they'll eliminate the shows from the 50's, 60's & 70's. I'm not saying I want to see that happen, far from it, but just staring what I have seen happen.

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  4. In addition to Netflix, I highly recommend Warner Archive Instant, which is currently streaming the following: Daktari, 77 Sunset Strip, Hondo (just added to getTV), Flo, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, Bronk, The Gallant Men, and has recently had Surfside Six too. Lots of obscurities and harder to find hits.

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