February 25, 2017

This week in TV Guide: February 24, 1968

When last we looked at this issue, back in 2012, the focus of attention was Joey Bishop's ABC talk show. It was a good article; Bishop's show was far from the laughing stock that many today may think of it (if, that is, they think of it at all), and for awhile it appeared that Bishop might actually challenge the king of late night, Johnny Carson. We all know how that turned out though, don't we?

The good news is that the focus on Bishop leaves just about everything else in the issue untouched. Until now. As is the case* when we revisit these issues, all the material you read here is new.

*Except when it isn't.

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It would be hard to find a moment on television more typical of the cultural milieu of 1968 than Sunday night's episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, with guest Pete Seeger. It's Seeger's first appearance on the show since September, and therein lies the tale. During that appearance, Seeger sang an anti-war song called "Waste Deep in the Big Muddy." The network was concerned about the content of the song, which in the context of the show was clearly aimed at President Johnson and his Vietnam policy*, and cut the song from the finished product.

*"Anti-Vietnam and bitterly anti-Administration" was the precise description.

Well, you would have thought the network had been guilty of drowning cats, or some such atrocity. The uproar, one of the more famous in the history of television censorship, was the stuff of political legend; on the one hand, regardless of what one might think of Seeger and the song, it's a challenge to defend the network's actions in snipping the song (and badly, at that) from the program. On the other hand, the network does have the right to control the programs appearing on their airwaves, and considering how notorious Tom Smothers was when it came to providing the network with advance looks at the show, it's hard to blame CBS for clamping down on the brothers. If the network's purpose was to protect Johnson from the criticism implicit in Seeger's song, it backfired spectacularly (as is usually the case), creating more publicity for Seeger and the antiwar movement than had the segment aired uncut.

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
And so on February 25, at 8:00 p.m. CT, Pete Seeger returns to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, where he's allowed to "get the history out," as he puts it, with "Waste Deep in the Big Muddy" and other songs. And as this recap of the whole affair points out, it's just the start of a bad week for Lyndon Johnson; three days after the broadcast, Walter Cronkite delivers his famous commentary in which he comes out against the War, at least the way the United States is conducting it.

In a minor way, it's an extraordinary moment in television, and in the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. It may have been a victory for the Smothers Brothers in the short-term, but in fact it's probably one more nail in the coffin as far as CBS is concerned.

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To show you how controversial the show has become, one only has to read these two missives from this week's Letters to the Editor section. Mrs. R.A. Holloway of Harrington, Delaware, asks "Why are the Smothers Brothers turning their program into a political show? We shouldn't have to listen to their views." The opposing viewpoint is held by Richard Buttrick of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, who compares the brothers to Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry and concludes that "If their fight against public apathy ends in the cancellation of this great show because of political controversy, then we as Americans will know that there is no longer any such thing as freedom of speech in this country."

It's a free country, but television is also a commercial medium, dependent on sponsors' dollars and viewers' ratings. Nobody is denying the rights of either Smothers brother or Pete Seeger or anyone else to say whatever they want about whatever they want. Enough people thought they were funny to get them their own show in the first place. But if you make that choice, and viewers tune out because they don't want to hear what you have to say, don't complain about how the rules are written.

On a lighter note, the Editor's responses to some of this week's letters are wonderfully snarky. In response to a writer lamenting how viewers are subjected to the "sheer boredom and cheap slapstick of Carol Burnett," Merrill Panitt's response: "Fascinating! Please send us more information about your amazing one-channel set with no Off button." Another letter writer begs to differ with the assessment that Laugh-In is in poor taste; in his opinion, the show is "hilarious." Replies Panitt, "But couldn't it be both?" And when someone asks why Raymond Burr lately seems to be sitting down in every television program in which he appears, even besides Ironside, Panitt assures the writer that "We are informed that Mr. Burr can stand up if he wants to." That humor is much-needed.

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests are Dinah Shore, singer Ed Ames, comic Jackie Mason, Gladys Knight and the Pips, singer-comic Andy Stewart, magician Dominique and Bruski, unicycle act.

Palace: Host Milton Berle welcomes Louis Armstrong, Phyllis Diller, operatic tenor Enzo Stuarti, singer-dancer Elaine Dunn, the singing Lettermen, Irving Benson (as Berle's long-time heckler Sidney Shpritzer) and the "Bottoms Up Revue."

Berle's less than two years removed from his failed comeback on ABC, and while the show tries to turn back the clock (right down to Irving Benson), you have to wonder if the same old shtick is going to work. You know how painful it can be when someone tries a little too hard to be relevant. Skits include lampoons of commercials and hippies, and there's a musical revue called "And a Messenger Was Sent", "hailing and bewailing LBJ - and other Birds of the Johnson feather." I'd expect this from the Smothers Brothers - but The Hollywood Palace? It just doesn't fit. Louis Armstrong sings "Wilkommen" from Cabaret, and that seems more like it. Ed had his share of "fish out of water" moments himself, but this week's show seems pretty safe - and so, just barely, I'm giving Sullivan the nod.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

It takes a special kind of series to succeed in the secret agent genre. It takes a special kind of actor to make it work, and it takes a special kind of storyline to keep viewers tuning in week after week. In short, It Takes a Thief. The question is, does It Takes a Thief have what it takes to be that series?

Well, Robert Wagner is just fine in the lead as Alexander Mundy, a Saint-wannabee forced to work for the government in order to stay out of jail. But, as Cleveland Amory points out, it takes more than a light-fingered hero to make the whole thing work. It also takes a certain amount of believably, enough for the viewer to suspend disbelief for an hour, and it is in this area that Thief fails to take home the prize. Referring to the series' promos, in which Mundy is portrayed as a man who "answers danger with a quip rather than a quiver" and "doesn't want to spoil the line of a $300 suit with a $30 gun," Amory warns that the series treads on thin ice, for "when the same kinds of lines get into the scripts, they get in the way of the believability something awful." Combine this with the sometimes preposterous storylines, and, says Amory, "You may laugh, but you are lost and so is the show."

It's too bad, he says, because there really are some fine elements to the series, and some plots that are quite clever if they don't go too far. One of his favorites, a story that involved Mundy breaking into a foreign embassy under surveillance by security cameras. It was terrific, except for one thing. "Mundy came to the embassy disguised as the most completely irritating socialite writer we've ever seen portrayed on any screen. And what do you think his assumed name was? Brooks Amory. Amory. Imagine! And just when we were going to say it was the first episode we liked." Ah, Amory gives, and he takes away.

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What else is on this week? On Saturday, The Jackie Gleason Show (6:30 p.m. CT, CBS) presents another of the musical-comedy Honeymooners stories. In this one, the Kramdens and the Nortons go on a free around-the-world trip. Kind of a far cry from the grittiness of the New York tenement the original Honeymooners lived in, isn't it? Speaking of The Saint, as we were above, Simon Templar is NBC's answer to Gleason, and this week he investigates the mysterious death (is there any other kind?) of a jeweler making a copy of a fabulous necklace. ABC rounds out the hour with a concert by the Vienna Choir Boys.

The Sunday news shows further demonstrate the pervasiveness of Vietnam; CBS's Face the Nation (11:00 a.m.) interviews the President of South Vietnam, Nguyen Van Thieu, with Walter Cronkite and Martin Agronsky among the questioners. On ABC's Issues and Answers (12:30 p.m.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, discusses his criticism of the Johnson Administration's Vietnam policy. And on The Frank McGee Report (4:30 p.m., NBC), newsman Frank Bourgholtzer looks at U.S. Army deserters who've found shelter in Sweden.

Joan Crawford has it made - or is that maid?
Monday starts out pleasantly, with John Daly, formerly the moderator of What's My Line? and currently director of the Voice of America, as a guest on NBC's Today. That night, the special guest star on The Lucy Show (7:30 p.m., CBS) is none other than Joan Crawford in her television comedy debut, playing herself (left)  - and Lucy thinks she's down and out in her luck. Danny Thomas returns with a variety special at 8:00 p.m. on NBC, and at 9:00 p.m. on CBS, Carol Burnett welcomes her old colleagues Gary Moore and Durward Kirby, along with singer John Gary.

Red Skelton presents a special concert before delegates of the United nations on his Tuesday show (7:30 p.m., CBS), with an introduction by Vice President Humphrey. On ABC at the same time, It Takes a Thief presents one of those storylines that drives Cleveland Amory crazy: "In the Balkans, a kooky lady thief is conned into helping Mundy steal a sable coat. The lining holds top-secret charts planted by a scheming official to wreck an Anglo-Balkan trade agreement." Susan Saint James plays the kooky lady thief.

Steve Allen hosts Wednesday's Kraft Music Hall at 8:00 a.m. on NBC, with one of his trademark comedy bits, reading the great poetry of the day: the lyrics to rock songs. Opposite that, ABC presents Noel Coward's comedy Present Laughter, with Peter O'Toole and Honor Blackman. And at 9:00 p.m., Jonathan Winters (the subject of Amory's review last week) plays host to Art Carney, Connie Francis, and Peter, Paul and Mary. Can't get enough of that counter-cultural folk music!

I can't remember off-hand if we've looked at the November 1967 issue in which Carol Channing was scheduled to appear in her comedy-variety special "Carol Channing and 101 Men," three of which were Walter Matthau, George Burns, and Eddy Arnold. It was supposed to be broadcast, that is, but it was scuttled by, as I recall, a technician's strike. It finally makes it to the airwaves this Thursday at 8:00 p.m. on ABC. I wonder if it was worth the wait? Following Carol, it's The Hollywood Palace, about which we've already talked; better that you should watch Dean Martin's show on NBC, with Jonathan Winters (again!), Arthur Godfrey, Sandler and Young, and comics Grecco and Willard. Thankfully, there doesn't seem to be any discussion of the war.

Finally, the week wraps up with Friday's movie "This Happy Feeling" on Channel 11, starring Debbie Reynolds, Curt Jurgens, and John Saxon. I can't think of a better sentiment to describe Fridays, can you?

3 comments:

  1. i knew that IT TAKES A THIEF was a mid-year entry, like LAUGH-IN...but not until recently did I realize THIEF finished in the Top 30 for the half-season, not far behind Rowan & Martin. Apparently ABC had found good counter-programming to Red Skelton, and attracting those who didn't like Jerry Lewis. However, come the fall JULIA was the surprise sensation on NBC, running neck and neck with Red.

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  2. Interesting, Paul.
    Mitchell, I'll e-mail you a tidbit that may be helpful for September.
    A song omission of a Smothers Brother's guest by affiliates, not CBS.

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  3. I'll always remember Malachi Throne's line during the opening theme: "I'm not asking you to spy...I'm asking you to STEAL!!!!"

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