March 20, 2021

This week in TV Guide: March 23, 1968

It turns out that today's moviemakers didn't invent the superhero universe after all. Fifty years before 
Marvel and DC came to dominate the big screen (and increasingly the small one as well), their animated counterparts were involved in taking over Saturday morning kids' shows.  here’s something new in the world of Saturday morning kids’ shows. With the exception of a few standards, such as The Flintstones, we are left with, in the words of Robert Higgins, the "Weirdo Superheroes." As Higgins notes in one of this week's cover stories, "three-quarters of the cartoons being aired on all three networks fall into the Weirdo Superhero category." 

But where did the "Weirdo Superhero" come from? To a great extent, from where you’d expect it to come: comic books in general, and Marvel in particular. Says Stan Lee, who helped create (among others) Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Iron Man), "Superheroes had been around for a million years. We revitalized them." The "revitalized" superhero includes character traits that kids can identify with—"hang-ups," as Lee calls them, such as acne, sinus trouble, and dating girls, problems that even their superpowers couldn’t overcome. Within the superhero genre is a sub-category—the “ugly hero,” such as The Thing. "People can identify with someone who’s not beautiful," Lee says by way of explanation. "You say, 'That guy could be me.' But you still feel superior to him." I wonder of Christopher Nolan watched these before he made his Batman trilogy?

The angst-ridden superhero is designed to appeal to the growing awareness and sophistication of modern kids. "Children today are highly sophisticated," says Ed Vane, head of ABC’s daytime programming. "They don’t suspend that sophistication on Saturday morning." The superhero is then grafted onto a format that has been a staple of children’s programming since the days of the Saturday matinee serial: the action-adventure genre.

This doesn’t come without drawbacks, though. Dr. Fredric Wertham contends that "Television—and its display of violence—comes to the child with adult approval," and that it’s foolish to think this doesn’t have an impact on the child. This is television’s eternal conundrum, with what might be TV’s version of Schrödinger's Cat: is it plausible to posit that viewers can be influenced by commercial content and not by the content of the program itself?

I’d interject here that there’s violence, and there’s violence. Violence has always been relative – NBC’s Larry White points out that “when we were kids, our parents had no idea what we were seeing in the movies on Saturdays.” I would strongly resist the idea that watching Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner or Tom and Jerry makes children more violent. That is, literally, “cartoon” violence, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to agree with Dr. Schramm here that any child who’d look to drop an anvil on his playmate because he saw it happen to Wile E. Coyote probably has a screw loose somewhere anyway.

But if the “Weirdo Superhero” is supposed to relate to children in a different, more relevant, more realistic (or “sophisticated,” if you prefer) way, does it then stand to reason that the child sees this violence in a different, perhaps more malignant light? And isn’t it interesting to note how much this argument parallels the argument about video games? Does the violence in the stunning realism of today’s video games somehow influence the effect it has on children, inuring them to the impact of the violence?

For all this, there’s only a brief mention of what struck me from the very outset when I looked at that Saturday schedule. I call it "creative poverty," and Higgins gives a specific description of what’s lacking: comedy. There’s no comedy in these cartoons. The Flintstones, which continues to run on ABC, is of course based on a sitcom, and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward’s George of the Jungle (also on ABC) probably comes the closest to a new cartoon that’s simply funny. The Three Stooges, violent though it may be, is slapstick comedy. Take away the comedy, and you’re left with The Sopranos. Ward acknowledges the dearth of comical cartoons but acknowledges that "They’re [Weirdo Superheroes] getting the ratings and that’s all the networks care about."

Children's television could be so much better, you and I both know that. But if there's one virtue to be found in these shows, it's to remember the Golden Rule: whoever has the gold rules. These cartoons make money for the networks. and that's what counts. Still, ABC's Vane looks wistfully at what television's capable of: "We'd love to give the kids Reading Room or A Day at the Planetarium. We'd be applauded by many—and watched by absolutely no one." The pity is, he's probably right.
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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: Scheduled guests: singers Jimmy Dean, Nancy Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Spanky and Our Gang; comedians George Carlin, and Lewis and Christy; magician Dominique; and Charlie Cairoli, clown act.

Palace:  Host Phil Harris introduces Bill Dana as Olympic skier José Jiménez; England's Hendra and Ullett; Sid Miller and Rose Marie; comic magician Jacques Ary; singers Abby Lane, Philip Crosby, and the rocking Hollies.

This is from the short-lived, ill-advised period when ABC moved Hollywood Palace from Saturday to Thursday night. In the new timeslot, it found itself up against Dean Martin, which is probably why it didn't last there very long. As for the matchup, there's not a lot to differentiate this week's matchup. Ed offers Jimmy Dean, the Supremes, and George Carlin; meanwhile, the very funny Phil Harris hosts "Comedy at the Palace," and while it might not be politically correct today, I always liked Dana's José Jiménez character. Not the best week, not the worst. This week's verdict: Push.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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 shows of the era. 

Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, says Cleveland Amory, is everything that That Was the Week That Was wasn't. Whereas the former was "too cute and smug, and often too labored as well," Laugh-In is "a genuine, ingenuous breath of fresh fare." 

Laugh-In is one of the sensations of the season, and let Cleve count the ways. It is faced-paced, with fresh features as well as faces; the music is excellent; and the technical mix of the various segments is seamless. The cast—and if you need a reminder at this point, it includes Judy Carne, Eileen Brennan, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, Gary Owens, Jack Riley, Roddy Maude-Roxby and Jo Anne Worley—is uniformely good, with Worley outstanding among them. And their fresh approach has a way of making even old jokes funny.

This is not to say that Laugh-In is a perfect hour. For one thing, an hour is, Amory thinks, a half-hour too long; humor is a very difficult thing to sustain over 60 minutes. "[T]he same jokes which in the first half-hour might have turned us on, in the second all too often turn us, and the set, off." Thirty minutes seems to be about right. The second drawback, oddly enough, lay with the hosts themselves. Dan Rowan's put-downs wear well, but Dick Martin's put-ons "are, more often than not, a bit much with which to put up." I can understand that; Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine is one of the funniest comic bits of all time, but to hear a variant of it, week after week, could get, well, weak. Still, Cleve gives it a strong grade: "A for effort, B for performance and C for—see it."

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One of the great controversies of the 1950s involved Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth's sister, and her romance with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend. A marriage between the two was vetoed by the Church of England, which at the time forbade divorce and remarriage (head of the church: Queen Elizabeth), and in 1960 she married the photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, who upon marriage became the Earl of Snowdon. Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. CT, CBS Reports presents "Don't Count the Candles," a photographic essay by Lord Snowdon on aging. (It ought to be mentioned in fairness to all concerned that Lord Snowdon was an excellent and perceptive photographer, particularly with portraits.) In addition to pictures depicting ordinary people dealing with various aspects of getting older, there are interviews with people at both ends of the aging spectrum, from Twiggy to Noel Coward to Field Marshal Montgomery. BBC interviewer Derek Hart is the host; the show will go on to win two Emmys.

For her part, Margaret turned out to be the black sheep of the royal family—well, until Harry, that is— having scandalous love affairs, saying outrageous things, and in general embarrassing the rest of the family at every opportunity. My mother always thought Margaret did those things on purpose, and while I don't know whether or not there's any empirical data proving this, it doesn't require an advanced degree in psychology to suggest that Maggie was getting back at Liz for what happened with Townsend. The only thing that could have made this story better was if the stymied Group Captain went on to become a rebellious rock musician, but such was not the case.

Eventually, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon will divorce (a droll line from the always-reliable Wikipedia notes that their marriage was "accompanied by drugs, alcohol, and bizarre behaviour by both parties such as Snowdon's leaving lists between the pages of books the princess read for her to find, of 'things I hate about you'"); Snowden goes on to marry (and divorce) the former wife of film director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, while Margaret never remarries, but carries on, shall we say, a colorful life.

As was the case with the Ingrid Bergman story we looked at a couple of years ago, the saga of Princess Margaret illustrates once again of how perspectives on marriage have changed over the years.  It was one thing for Margaret, not even the heir to the throne, to scandalize Church and Country by marrying a divorced man; it is, apparently, something else that the current heir is, in fact, married to a divorced woman with whom he apparently conducted an affair while married to his former wife. Again, no judgement here, merely observation.

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Here's a look at the highlights of the week:

If you need further evidence as to how sports expands to fill the available space (even if it isn't really available), Saturday gives you additional proof. In 2021, this Saturday marks the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournament; this Saturday in 1968 marks the end, as Sports Network Incorporated presents the championship game between UCLA and North Carolina, telecast live from Los Angeles. (9:00 p.m.) Unlike the rival NIT tournament (aka the runner-up tournament), which airs Saturday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. on CBS (Dayton defeats Kansas 61-48), the NCAA tournament has yet to make it to network TV, and so a syndicated lineup of stations carries the UCLA-North Carolina final, which UCLA wins 78-55 for its second consecutive title and fourth in the last five years. Viewers around the country are impressed by the Lew Alcindor-led Bruins—unless you live in the Twin Cities, because the game isn't shown here. WTCN, the independent station in the Twin Cities, normally carries syndicated specials like this, but tonight Channel 11 has the final of the Minnesota State High School Basketball Tournament, one of the biggest sporting events in Minnesota; the third-place game begins at 7:00 p.m., and the championship game around 8:30 p.m.* 

*Edina High School wins its their third consecutive championship; they'd also won two consecutive hockey championships. I hated Edina; everyone hated Edina. It was an affluent suburb of Minneapolis; everyone called them cake-eaters.

Sunday: For many years NBC has featured a variety special built around one of the big touring ice shows, the Ice Follies. Not only does it give Shipstads & Johnson the opportunity to induce us to marvel at large spectaculars staged on ice*, it also gives the network a chance to show off some of its own talent in the role of host. Last year, for example, Ed Ames, costar of NBC's Daniel Boone, hosted and sang two of his hit songs, "My Cup Runneth Over" and "Try to Remember." This year (8:00 p.m.), it's the turn of the aforementioned Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, probably doing the shtick that Cleveland Amory finds so endearing.

Monday: Armstrong Circle Theatre was a staple of television history through the Golden Age and into the early 1960s. Alternating with the U.S. Steel Hour, Circle Theatre transitioned from a straight anthology to a series specializing in docudramas of historical events, many relevant to the time. When it was resurrected by ABC in the late 1960s, it was as a prestige vehicle for musical theater productions made for TV. Tonight (8:30 p.m.), it's Cole Porter's delightful Kiss Me, Kate, the musical version of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew," starring the then- real-life husband-and-wife team of Robert Goulet and Carol Lawrence as the battling lovers Fred and Lilli. Notwithstanding the live musicals that NBC and Fox have produced the last few holiday seasons, musical comedy is yet another genre all but gone from television.

If Lord Snowden's "Don't Count the Candles" is a meditation on the twilight of life, ABC's documentary "How Life Begins" (6:30 p.m.) takes viewers back to the very beginning. Executive Producer Jules Power predicts that his program will be controversial: "I expect some people to severely criticize this program." The show focuses on the science of human reproduction, from "the fertilization of the egg, cell division, embryonic development and the delivery of a child." I'd imagine there was some controversy about the show, complaints that television was dealing graphically with a subject matter best left to parents, and so on. I also suspect, as Power goes on to say, that there will be many "approving letters from parents, teachers and community leaders who will say it's about time TV dealt candidly with this subject."

Wednesday: The Avengers (6:30 p.m., ABC) presents the new companion to John Steed, Tara King, played by the shapely Linda Thorson. In tonight's story, Steed and King investigate the Alpha Academy, "where a fanatical headmaster is training youths for the domination of space." But to do so, they're going to have to deal with the hero of Friday night's WTCN movie—see more below.

Thursday: It's the premiere of the 1958 big-screen A Night to Remember, the definitive telling of the sinking of the Titanic, on the CBS Thursday Night Movie (8:00 p.m.). Based on the best-seller by Walter Lord, the movie stars Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller, one of the officers who performed nobly that night. Judith Crist called this a "not to miss" movie, a "thrilling document of the 1912 disaster at sea" with Kenneth More leading a supurb cast that "artfully permits the drama of life to supersede that of art." As any reader knows, I've been fascinated by the Titanic almost all of my life—I absolutely know that I watched this movie that night. It's one of the few times I can be that sure about something I watched that long ago.

Friday: At 6:30 p.m., WTCN leads things off with the sports documentary Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, Bud Greenspan's masterpiece about the American Olympian's return to the site of his greatest triumph: the four gold medals he won at the politically charged 1936 Berlin Olympics. As well as being educational, it's a stirring, even moving, portrait of the dignified Owens, and a reminder of when athletes let their accomplishments in the arena speak for themselves. You can see it at YouTube, of course. Easter is April 7, so it's no surprise that tonight's Hallmark Hall of Fame (8:30 p.m., NBC) has a Biblical theme. It's James Daly and Kim Hunter in a repeat showing of Henry Denker's acclaimed 1961 drama "Give Us Barabbas." (That's on YouTube as well.) And that Channel 11 movie I mentioned earlier? It's I Aim at the Stars (9:00 p.m.), the biography of German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (played by Curt Jurgens), mastermind of Germany's V-2 rocket who later became one of the brains behind the American space program. According to Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (and other sources as well), the bitter joke in England was that the movie should have been called, I Aim at the Stars but Sometimes Hit London. TV  


  1. Was the US premiere of "A Night To Remember" in March 1968? I remember watching it earlier in the 1960's. It may also have been a kinescope of a TV stage version done in the 50's, but I swear I watched the move somewhere around '62 or '63. It was very British.

  2. The "comedy cartoons" returned to Saturday mornings that coming fall after the assassinations of MLK and RFK caused a hue and cry over TV "violence" and the superhero/action-adventure animated series were put out to pasture as a result. Because you know Sirhan Sirhan was inspired by Birdman and the Galaxy Trio.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!