Cancelled Too Soon, a few sit-coms you might like

by Marc Bilgrey

The list that follows features some situation comedies from the 1960s that were only on the air briefly, yet left lasting impressions. These shows were well written and acted, but failed to find audiences during their original runs. Why were they cancelled? In the 1960s, there were only three TV networks, CBS, NBC and ABC. That may seem hard to believe in a world where there are now hundreds of channels and thousands of internet shows, but before cable, satellite, and the web, the entertainment choices on TV were very slim. If a program did not appeal to a wide segment of the population, as decided by a couple of rating services, it was cancelled.

What factors made a show “unpopular”? Being intelligent was one of them.  That’s not to say there were no smart shows on TV, they’ve always been a few. But not too many at any given time. TV, after all is a popular medium, and in the 60s, there were a limited number of channels and time slots.

My World and Welcome to It - William Windom

My World and Welcome to It – William Windom

My World and Welcome to It. This excellent show, which was based on the writings and cartoons of James Thurber, only lasted a brief time. Created by Mel Shavelson, (who wrote for Bob Hope and many feature films) with scripts by excellent writers including, Danny Arnold (who later went on to create the wonderful police sit-com, Barney Miller). William Windom starred as a Thurbereque writer and cartoonist, who worked for a New Yorker-like magazine. He often broke the fourth wall and talked directly to the viewer, a radical idea in 1960’s TV. His wife was played by Joan Hotchkiss, his daughter, by Lisa Gerritsen. Comedian Henry Morgan was in it too. There was even animation based on Thurber’s cartoons. Despite winning Emmys and critical acclaim, this great show was pulled.

He and She Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss

Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss

He and She, was another very sophisticated show. Oddly enough, this one was also about a cartoonist. Created by Leonard Stern, co-creator of Get Smart, the writers were (among others) Chris Hayward and Allan Burns, who created The Munsters. He and She starred Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, as a married couple, (who were also married in real life). In the supporting cast were Jack Cassidy and Kenneth Mars., both wonderful performers. Benjamin plays a cartoonist who draws a superhero comic strip called Jetman. This was a funny, witty, character-based show.

good morning world Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell

Joby Baker and Ronnie Schell

Good Morning, World. Created by Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, writers who contributed great scripts to The Dick Van Dyke Show, and created, That Girl. Good Morning, World, was about two morning disc jockeys, at work and on their off time. It starred Ronnie Schell, Jobie Baker and Julie Parrish. In the supporting cast, were the very funny Billy De Wolf and Goldie Hawn. Carl Reiner was the producer. This show had a gentle quality to it, especially the scenes with Baker and Parrish, dealing with the day to day problems of married life.

Captain Nice William Daniels

William Daniels

Captain Nice. Okay, this show was not intelligent, in fact, it was extremely silly. But it was also very funny. It was created by Buck Henry, who co-created Get Smart. Captain Nice is a superhero parody.  The premise is, a mild-mannered (is there any other secret identity personality?) police chemist who gets super powers, then bumbles his way into catching crooks. This may sound a bit tame now, when there are so many superhero TV shows and movies, but at the time, it was quite ground breaking. Captain Nice starred William Daniels (later the voice of the car on Knight Rider and Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere.) Other cast members included, the very funny Alice Ghostley (supposedly, Paul Lynde was very influenced by her style), and Ann Prentiss. The memorable theme song is written by Vic Mizzy, who also wrote The Addams Family music.

It's About Time Coca and Joe E. RossIt’s About Time. This show will never be mistaken for a Noel Coward play. To say it was broad would be an understatement. Created by Sherwood Schwartz, the man responsible for Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, It’s About Time starred the legendary Imogene Coca (Your Show of Shows) and the equally hysterical, Joe E. Ross, (Sergeant Bilko and Car 54) as primitive cave people. The premise: astronauts mistakenly go back in time and are stranded in the prehistoric era. Later in the series, the cave dwellers are brought to the modern world. This slapstick farce is not for every taste, but worth a look. It also has a great theme song.

All of these shows can be seen on YouTube, except for Good Morning, World, which is being run on Antenna TV, a cable station. Just because a show wasn’t successful commercially, doesn’t mean that it wasn’t successful creatively. Happy viewing and try not to spill food on the remote.

IMPROV PRINCIPLES THAT MIGHT HELP YOUR FICTION WRITING

Just about everyone has heard of or seen an improv show. But what does a performing style that’s known for comedy have to do with writing serious fiction? Especially, since the definition of the word improv is  making things up as you go along and not writing a script ahead of time. First of all, improv need not be about comedy. I’ve seen improv shows that were serious and meant to be.  (As opposed to certain comedy ones I’ve seen that just turned out that way). And second, there’s an expression among improvisers that improv is writing on your feet. Just because something is not written down, doesn’t mean it’s not a story. For thousands of years people told each other stories orally. Writing only came later.marc bilgrey cartoonist

People who aren’t familiar with improv think all it takes is going up on a stage and talking. Great improvisers make it look easy, however, it’s very much like playing a musical instrument. There’s a lot to know. Here are a few of the basic principles of improv and how they might help your fiction writing. These can be applied to both short stories and novels.

YES, AND – This is the one that even people who know nothing about improv have heard of. Yes, and, is all about agreement. Have your characters agree with each other and then add to what they’re saying or doing. For instance, let’s say your story starts with a man and a woman sitting on a couch in an apartment. The man says, “Let’s go out tonight.” The woman says, “That sounds good.” (That’s the yes part.) She then says, “And let’s go to a movie.” That’s a simple example of yes, and. Statement, agreement, addition. So what does this do? It moves a story along. If the woman said, “No, I don’t want to go anywhere,” everything is at a standstill. A skeptic might think, well, then the story is about the man and the woman in the apartment. Maybe. But unless they agree eventually, all you have is an argument. And not only that, the story would take a lot longer to get off the ground. Yes, and, makes it immediately move forward.

marc bilgrey cartoonistDON’T BLOCK – The example I gave of the woman saying she doesn’t want to go anywhere is a block. It stops the story. The natural human reaction to anything new is to block, to disagree, to tell the other party why it won’t work. Whether it’s new idea, another way of doing something, or an invention. In real life such a response is annoying, frustrating and can stand in the way of progress. In a story, blocking stops the action cold. If you agree, the story moves forward. If you don’t it stagnates.

DON’T PLAN – The essence of improv is spontaneity therefore planning is the antithesis of improv. In writing a story some people write outlines and others don’t. (The planners and the pantsters – named for seat of the pants writing.) I think not having a plan makes it more exciting both for the writer and the reader. How can the reader guess where you’re going if even you don’t know?

THE DAY EVERYTHING CHANGED – Your short story is about the most important day in your character’s life. (Your novel is about the most important time in your character’s life.) The day (or time) when things changed. A day like no other. Good fiction is about change. Whether it’s comedy or drama. Your character changes.

These are just a few improv principles that might help your writing.  More about improv in a future post!

STEPHEN WINER WRITER

David Letterman and Steve Winer May 2015

Stephen with his former boss, May 2015

You may not know Stephen Winer’s name but you definitely know some of the people (and shows) he’s written for. Winer was a writer for David Letterman, Dick Van Dyke, The New Mickey Mouse Club, and stand-up comedian, Robert Klein, among others.

Winer (along with Karl Tiedemann) co-wrote and directed the cult classic short film, King of The Zs, which is a hilarious look at a fictional movie studio of the 1930s and 1940s that made the worst B pictures in history. This film has been a favorite at film festivals for years (particularly the Telluride festival). If you haven’t seen this comedy gem I urge you to seek it out. It can be seen on YouTube. King of The Zs, is the film that led to Winer getting the job writing for Letterman.

charlie chaplinLately, Winer has been involved with a variety of projects, but the one that caught my attention was his serious writing for the Criterion Collection website. (Criterion releases classic films on DVD.) It turns out that Winer’s serious writing is as good as his comedy work. Not only does Winer have an encyclopedic (or Wikipedic) knowledge of film, but he also has plenty of behind the scenes stories and great insights. I was particularly taken with his article on Charlie Chaplin’s metamorphosis from a slapstick clown to a fully realized comedic and dramatic actor. In another piece, Winer makes some excellent observations on another silent comedian, the legendary Harold Lloyd. At one time Lloyd was as popular and successful as Chaplin, yet today is largely forgotten. Never the less, Lloyd’s great silent films, such as Speedy and The Freshman, still have the power to thrill, entertain and yes, make audiences laugh almost a hundred years after their completion. I’ve watched these wonderful films with contemporary audiences, many of whom had never seen any silent films, and heard the very real laughter that they engendered. Winer’s analysis of Llyod’s work is nothing short of scholarly, yet written in a very a breezy, accessible style. Also check out the article he wrote on the classic Frank Capra film that created and defined the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night; and his love letter to another comedy classic of a later era, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad World. (Did I leave out a “Mad?” Or put in one too many?)

If you go to the Criterion Collection website be sure to read the piece Winer wrote about his late father, playwright and television writer, Elihu Winer. This is a wonderful and touching essay about Elihu’s friendship, (mostly through letters) with fellow writer, John D.Voelker. Voelker was an author whose most well-known novel became the basis for the film, Anatomy of a Murder. Subsequent to the film, Elihu collaborated with Voekler to write the script for the play. Winer’s essay is about the friendship of these two excellent writers. In one of the letters, Elihu mentions a TV play he wrote that featured an amiable actor named Ronald Reagan. Elihu liked this actor and found him easy to work with, though Elihu had some difficulty adjusting, some years later, when the man got into a different line of work. A smart publisher ought to collect all these articles by Winer (and others he has no doubt yet to post) and publish them in a book. As the kids today put it, “I’m just saying.”

 TOM SOTER IMPROV MASTER

Tom Soter is one of the best improv teachers in the business. He’s been at it for over twenty-five years. Before he began teaching he was a street performer, then he studied with the legendary improv group, Chicago City Limits. After that he turned to teaching as well as founding the longest running improv jam in New York City history, The Sunday Night Improv Jam. The Jam brings together improvisers from different groups for a wonderful evening of comedy and music.

doctor plumber rowboat tom soterTom, (along with another excellent improviser and co-founder of the Chicago City Limits group, Carol Schindler), has written a new book on how to do improv, titled A Doctor and a Plumber In a Rowboat, a Book on Improvisation. If you have any interest in performing, whether it’s serious acting or comedy, this is an excellent place to start. Or, if you’re a seasoned performer and want to get some tips from a couple of pros, check this volume out. I actually think that knowing about improv can be very helpful for writers as well. As a writer you are creating stories, scenes and characters from nothing, which is exactly what improvising is all about.

Many people confuse improv with stand-up comedy. In fact, the two are nothing alike. Stand-up comedy is about telling jokes to an audience in a monologue and improv is about creating characters in a scene with another person. The humor, if there is any (some improv scenes can be very serious and dramatic) comes from the characters, the relationships and from the situation. If a funny improv were filmed, then transcribed on paper, it wouldn’t be funny. To an audience it looks deceptively simple but like any art form takes years to master.

tom sober four booksBy the way, A Doctor and a Plumber In a Rowboat, a Book on Improvisation is not Tom’s first book. He’s recently published two books of essays, Overheard on a Bus, and Disappearing Act. These are excellent collections of essays about a variety of subjects including his childhood, his eccentric but loving parents (he may be one of the few writers around who actually had a happy childhood) and his meetings with such well-known people as Patrick McGoohan, (Secret Agent, and The Prisoner), Charlie Chaplin and Fess Parker, who played Daniel Boone in the long running TV series. Tom’s essays are funny, poignant, honest and enjoyable. His previous books include one on James Bond, (Bond and Beyond) and one about film and TV couples that solve crimes called, Investigating Couples. In that one he looks at such duos as Nick and Nora Charles, The British Avengers, and The X-files. This is a fascinating study of the dynamics of these couples and at the same time, an examination of the mystery, suspense, and spy genres. Great stuff!