December 6, 2023

When real life intrudes

This seems to be as good a time as any to remind you that, although the It's About TV channel on YouTube doesn't have a lot of content, it does have a playlist devoted to the Christmas programs that comprise such a part of the holiday memories you and I share. These shows, along with a healthy number of movies, animated specials, and variety shows, will make up the bulk of our television viewing for the next month. I first made this available last year, and since then I've been able to add several new programs, which I hope you'll enjoy as much as we do.

But let's take a time out from our Yuletide festivities to look back a couple of weeks at Thanksgiving. It does sometimes seem as if Thanksgiving gets short shrift, a metaphorical speed bump on the way to Christmas, although the recent trend away from having stores open on Thanksgiving seems to have scaled back. But back in the day, when variety shows were common, it was also common to have Thanksgiving-themed shows on or near the holiday, and today we'll take In a look at couple of these shows, ones that have a time capsule significance apart from their entertainment value. 

I've written about time capsule moments before, those moments that provide us a glimpse into what the world was like when these shows were aired. They're more subtle than surface appearances like hair and clothing styles, or the kinds of music being played; oftentimes they're left unsaid, requiring the viewer to read between the lines, and if you're not able to put the show into the context of when it was aired, it you might miss it altogether.

One such moment occurred on the Thanksgiving episode of The Jimmy Dean Show, which, appropriately enough, aired on Thanksgiving night, November 28, 1963. It's a fun episode, with the McGuire Sisters, the Jubliee Four, Don Adams, the Crum Brothers, and Rowlf, the Muppet dog who was a regular on the show. Adams contributes a very funny bit where he plays a defense attorney, and a charming scene in which Jimmy and Rowlf talk about what there is to be thankful for. 

The moment comes near the very end of the show, and you have to listen for it. The entire cast has just finished singing "Home for the Holidays," and the spotlight falls on Jimmy. Against a dark background, he sings the Gospel song "How Long Has It Been?" and then, after a breath and with some evident emotion, he says, "It's been a trying week, on the entire world. Sometimes, things look very black. But may we all remember that we still have a great deal to be thankful for." The cast then reunites to sing, "Bless This House."  

That could be taken as nothing more than a normal, if somewhat darker than usual, reflection on the state of the world, and the need to be thankful for what you have. But it has a much more significant meaning when you place it in historical context. It had indeed been a trying week; the last time the show had aired, on November 21, John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, and spending the weekend in Texas. Since then, Kennedy had been assassinated, his accused assassin had been murdered, and Kennedy had been laid to rest. The funeral and burial took place on Monday, November 25; the new president, Lyndon Johnson, delivered a speech to the nation two days later, on Wednesday, November 27. It's now Thanksgiving Day, but it was a somber one for most people, who very well might have wondered what there was to be thankful for. Yeah, that was a hell of a trying week.

I don't know when this show was taped, and I'd love to find that out. It could be that it had been taped days in advance, and Dean had returned to the studio to record his comments, after which the scene faded to merge with the ending as originally recorded. It's also possible that the show had been done that very week, a day or two before Thanksgiving. Either way, it seems obvious to me that Dean felt it imperative to address the situation, and that he did so in a heartfelt manner, with a couple of sentences that didn't require any other explanation—everyone back then would have known to what he was referring. Regardless, it's a very powerful moment, an intrusion of the real world into the world of entertainment.

The second example comes from an Alan King Thanksgiving special that aired on Tuesday, November 25, 1980, two days before Thanksgiving. Its subtitle is, "What Have We Got to be Thankful For?" and it plays into the acerbic, "kidding-but-not-really-kidding" humor that King was known for. Watching it this year, I have to admit I'd forgotten about some of the events King references, including the infamous Abscam investigation that caught several members of Congress trying to sell their influence in return for large amounts of cash. No wonder King suggests in his opening monologue that there has been "a breakdown of moral fiber."

King goes on to take shots at the economy (bad), the recent actors' strike and the fall TV schedule (bad), and a growing sense that Americans are becoming apathetic to it all. There are several references to the election of the new president, Ronald Reagan, which gets sustained applause from the studio audience. There's also an extended, and very funny, bit in which King attempts to explain the madness of the Middle East in 1980, including the war between Iran and Iraq, the growing involvement of the Soviet Union (including in Afghanistan!), and other complications that remind us how the Middle East has always been a tinderbox and a mess. And that leads to our second moment.

In a show filled with topical humor, it can be hard to identify a moment that can be said to travel under the radar, but it comes, again, at the end of the show, as King concludes with a prayer for the nation, for  both the incoming and outgoing presidents (itself something you probably wouldn't see nowadays), and for the viewers, he adds, "If I can ask for an old favor that you granted us once before, see if you can get the Ayatollah [Khomeini] to let our people go."

That's right—the hostage crisis! It's easy to forget that the hostages hadn't yet been freed; that wouldn't come until January 20 of the following year, after Reagan had been sworn in as president. And remember that, although we all know how things turned out, nobody knew that back in November, 1980. I don't recall whether or not King had explicitly mentioned the hostages prior to that moment; I kind of doubt it; it isn't the kind of thing you'd joke about. No, this is a subtle, but knowing, reference to an event that was, again, hanging over everything. It's also heartfelt, as opposed to a bid for cheap applause; bipartisan, rather than attempting to score points. I don't know if entertainers would handle it that way today.

Maybe I make too much of moments like these, but I think there's value to them. They remind us that television is a part of history—our shared history—and that, like anything else in history, it doesn't occur in a vacuum. Television, like other forms of entertainment, often seems to come from the world of make-believe (and there definitely isn't anything real about reality television), but every once in a while, the real world shows itself, and when that happens, it's worth remembering. 

These shows can be found on the Christmas playlist as well, and I'll be adding more as the opportunity arises. TV  


  1. "No more Elvis impersonators. I want to remember him like he was. And no more fights for Mohammad Ali; I want to remember him the way he was." Those words from Alan King stayed with me 40+ years later, especially when all we seem to do is try to relive the past.

    1. Always enjoyed Alan King's humor, especially when he was making serious points.


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