Sunday, April 30, 2017

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster (TV)

Created by
Leonard Stern
Starring John Astin, Marty Ingels, Emmaline Henry, Dave Ketchum, Frank De Vol, Noam Pitlik
IMDB Entry

One of the joys of watching old sitcoms is seeing familiar people early in their career.  I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is a prime example, a short-lived series that was a stepping stone for several actors who had long careers – though often not as actors.

The show is about two friends who worked as carpenters. Harry Dickens (John Astin) is married to Kate (Emmaline Henry), while Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels) is single and who isn’t interested in settling down.

This was basically a workplace comedy. Most of the scenes happened when they were on the job as builders, which gave ample opportunity for slapstick comedy, which was the strength of the show.  The plots were the usual melange of 60s humor and plot contrivances, but managed to be funnier than the usual run of the mill.

John Astin is fine at Harry, the straight(er) man of the two, though it’s usually Ingels who gets the best lines. Of course, the show didn’t give Astin the type of off-beat strangeness that he used as Gomez Addams.

The show was created by Leonard Stern.  Stern had written for some of the classic shows of the 50s – The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show.  This was his first chances as a producer, and the start of a long career that included He & She, Get Smart, The Good Guys, The Governor and J.J. and McMillan & Wife. He also was a publisher of Price Stern Sloan books – best known for Mad Libs.

No one has to be told how John Astin’s career went after that,* but other regulars continued in show business.  Emmaline Henry had a recurring role in I Dream of Jeannie as Dr. Bellows wife.

Others in the cast made their marks on TV, though not as actors.  Frank de Vol was a composer for TV shows; his best known work was the theme song for The Brady Bunch. Noam Pitlik moved to the director’s chair, most notably for Barney Miller, Taxi, and Wings.

Marty Ingles ended up doing a lot of voice work and leaving acting to be a Hollywood agent, primarily finding ad gigs for his clients.  He married Shirley Jones.

*I was lucky enough to see him onstage at Ford’s Theater (yes, that Ford’s Theater) in a production of Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies. It was the final performance of the run, and Astin was wonderful.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Chicken Fat (song)

Written by
Meredith Willson
Performed by Robert Preston
Wikipedia Entry

In the late 50s and early 60s, the US was in the middle of the Cold War panic, afraid that the Soviets would bury us. And when JFK became president, one of the big concerns was that American youth were not getting enough exercise.  To combat this, “Chicken Fat” was created.

The song was written by Meredith Willson, then riding high with the success of The Music Man.  It seems to be his idea to write a song that could be used in gym classes to promote exercising. He wrote the song, and, in the same sessions where they recorded the soundtrack for the movie of The Music Man, they took time to get Robert Preston, star of the show, to record the song.

The result was a catchy tune that was fun to exercise to and included exercises to be done while the music played.*

I remember our gym teacher playing it, and it was a lot of fun to have a song to do our exercises to. Part of the appeal was that the concept was so unusual:  you didn’t do exercises in school to music.

The song was released as a public service.  No one took any money or royalties, and the record company paid for the session and recording and distributed million of copies to gym classes around the country.

It’s a most a forgotten novelty these days, but there are many people my age who can remember doing sit-ups at Professor Harold Hill cheered you on.

*The exercises were devised by Bud Wilkerson, who, at the time, was arguable the best regarded college football coach in the US.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Comedy Tonight (TV)

Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, MacIntrye Dixon, Judy Graubart, Marty Barris. Robert Merrill, Jerry Lacy
IMDB Entry

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In changed TV comedy, creating a frenetic style filled with oddball (and frankly dumb) jokes.  In a year, this was the way to go.* And, at the time, instead of reruns for variety shows, the networks ran summer replacement series.  Comedy Tonight was one of the best.

The show was hosted by Robert Klein and was a series of skits** using a cast of very talented comic actors.  The show’s theme, of course, was Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same name and the show would start with the case singing it, then breaking off in the middle for short skits or blackout gags before returning to it.

The show attempted to be topical.  Not in politics, but in various things in society that were open to satire:  soap operas, commercials,  talk shows, and the like. A subject was chosen, and there would be a series of gags – some quick, some a little more developed – on the theme. 

Not much is available about the show, but a couple of things remain vivid to me, even now.

  • For a segment on advertising:  This was the time when cigarette commercials were going off the air, and Winston was going out with a campaign “What do you want?  Good grammar or good taste?”***  Klein replied, “With Madison Avenue, you’re lucky to get either.”
  • For a segment on talk shows:  Big star (obviously modeled on Judy Garland) is on a talk show.  The host asks her to sing “The Trolley Song.”  She declines, saying she’s not ready, she hasn’t rehearsed it, she hadn’t expected it, etc. The host finally gets her to give in so she goes to the stage, puts on a tailcoat and hat, and the band starts playing the music, which she sings while doing an elaborate dance routine.

Not much of the show remains; as you can see the IMDB entry is sparse.  There were only about a half dozen shows, all in the summer when the audience is low.  But Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle became major names in movies and TV, and Robert Klein is considered one of the deans of standup comedy.  Several of the lesser-known names still had long careers, both on stage and in TV.

Still, it was a fine show that seems to have been completely lost.  Too bad.

*Even when it was a mistake. Dean Martin’s Comedy World, a summer replacement series of 1974, had the wonderful idea of showing comedians around the world.  They tried to ape Laugh-In with short bits of a joke or two.  The problem is that a comedian on stage had a routine that built up in the telling and taking two or three jokes out of context didn’t work at all. The show was the US debut of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a couple of very short bits. Oddly, one of the sketches shown used the phrase “naughty bits.” The censors bleeped out the words (maybe the first example of what Jimmy Fallon uses as his “Unnecesary Censorship” videos).  Why the show just didn’t pick another Monty Python sketch is inexplicable.

**Similar in some ways to Monty Python, though shorter and less silly.

***For the younger folk, Winston’s slogan for  years was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” When it was first used “like” was considered grammatically incorrect (it was supposed to be “as”), but the usage is now unobjectionable.  However, that didn’t keep people from the time from kvetching about how bad the error was.