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In 1971, a most unusual TV show was produced. Thirteen episodes were shot of The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine starring Mr. Feldman and many of the top comic actors in England. Several folks involved in Monty Python's Flying Circus were involved in this one, including Terry Gilliam, who contributed animated titles and bits of business. The show was produced in England for American television and one of its producers was Larry Gelbart, who was then living in the U.K. The writing staff included American Sheldon Keller (one of Gelbart's friends from his Sid Caesar days) and the also-American team of Barry Levinson and Rudy DeLuca, plus some British writers plus Feldman.
I was very intrigued by this show and over the years, I discussed it with Larry, Sheldon, Rudy and even briefly with Mr. Feldman. I never quite got the whole story and I'm not sure any of them knew it. Here's about as much as I know…
The show was produced in America by Greg Garrison, who was best known for The Dean Martin Show and its genesis had something to do with the fact that Garrison had produced a summer replacement series for Dean the previous year called Dean Martin Presents the Golddiggers in London. Done over there because it was cheaper, it featured Feldman more or less equally billed with Charles Nelson Reilly. At some point, Garrison got the idea that he could tap into the talent (and existing footage) over there and import it to American TV.
This was years before the Monty Python shows had made any dent over here. By way of reference: The first season of Python was produced for British television commencing in October of '69. They weren't really seen in America until the release of the motion picture And Now for Something Completely Different in August of '72.
I seem to be the only human being alive who remembers this but The Dean Martin Show used some footage from Python before that. There was one episode where they showed the "How Not to Be Seen" sketch but with Dean introducing it, then narrating the footage. I think Python's "Funniest Joke Ever" routine was also used and one or two others, redubbed and severely edited and laugh-tracked. I've always assumed that was part of a deal Garrison made that was connected in some way with the Feldman show he did.
ABC was promised that stars familiar to American audiences would appear on it. To start flying such folks over was not in the budget so initially, Feldman came to Los Angeles to tape a few spots with, for example, Orson Welles who was a frequent and always-available guest on Garrison productions. The sample below has Marty appearing for a moment or two with Welles, who narrated a segment that was shot in England. Relations between Feldman and Garrison ruptured and Marty stopped coming over…or speaking to Garrison when the producer-director went to England to supervise the show he was allegedly in charge of.
The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine was delivered to ABC in this country around July of 1971, the idea being that it would go in as a replacement for some show that started in September and was quickly axed. ABC hated the show and at one point was not going to run it at all. They finally found a spot for it and it debuted with almost no promotion on April 12, 1972. By this stage, the shows had been furiously recut by Garrison, trimming it from an hour to a half-hour and inserting comedy spots that had nothing to do with the series Feldman believed he'd made.
During the run of The Dean Martin Show, there were several comedians who taped monologues for it — a process which almost never involved meeting Dean or even facing a live audience. Then, as was Garrison's style, their eight minute spot would be cut down to four when aired on the Martin show. In order to get more American content into Mr. Feldman's abbreviated Comedy Machine, Garrison went to his vault, pulled out some leftovers and inserted them into the Feldman show, introduced by an off-camera announcer. One of the things Marty Feldman told me the one time I met him around 1976 was, "I keep meeting people who were on my show who I never heard of."
He was absolutely livid talking about that series…so much so that I somewhat regretted asking him about it. From his viewpoint, top comedy writers and performers, including people like Spike Milligan, had produced a superior one-hour program…and Garrison had chopped it into incoherent half-hours, ruining most of the sketches with clumsy truncations so he could insert bad stand-up acts.
Gelbart and the other writers shared his view that a good program had been butchered…though unlike Feldman, they were not still fantasizing about acts of violence on the personage of Greg Garrison. Sheldon Keller thought Garrison wasn't a bad guy; that the problem was they'd delivered a show that ABC didn't understand and which the ABC audience probably wouldn't understand. Sheldon's view was that while Garrison ruined it, he only did what he did to try and salvage a show that ABC wasn't going to air. I would imagine that if I'd ever gotten to ask Garrison about it, that's roughly what he would have told me.
And that is really all I know about it except that Gelbart thought the full hours, which aired intact on the BBC, competed favorably with the Best of Python. British comedy authorities I've asked about it have said it was a good show but not quite that good. I do not know if those hours exist anywhere and would be thrilled if someone reading this would write, tell me that they do and tell me how to get copies of them.
The clip below is all I've seen of the show since it originally aired. This is about eleven minutes and I think it's from the United Kingdom telecast and the only Garrison involvement was to direct what Orson Welles did…