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TV

Go Read It!

Here's a list of 11Ill-Conceived TV Spinoffs That Almost Happened. Believe it or not, I was offered but turned down a non-speaking on-camera role in one of these.

The Return of Truthiness

Stephen Colbert's supposed to resume his show tomorrow and the story is that they shut down this week because his mother was ill.

One interesting (to me) thing about the entertainment industry is that enterprises so often hinge on one person. I'm sure there must be other fields where this is the case to some extent but it occurs often in show business. 200 people might work on her show but if Ellen DeGeneres gets the flu, Ellen doesn't tape. I've heard stars speak of feeling a certain tension or pressure because of this.

Back in the days of live TV, there were a lot of fill-ins and emergency replacements…and there are still some shows that think they're better off bringing in a guest host or someone. Even after tape came in, that was the thinking but it's changed. Johnny Carson occasionally couldn't do his show because of some last minute problem. In the sixties and seventies, they'd scurry about and bring in a replacement.

One time, it was Ed McMahon and you'd think he could have handled it but no. I remember watching that night. He came out, acknowledged the applause of a clearly-disappointed studio audience, then turned and went right to the desk and sat down. No monologue of any sort. It was awkward and so was the show that followed. They'd scrambled to get him some good guests — and more than usual since there was no monologue or comedy spot. Still, every third sentence seemed to include the phrase, "If Johnny was here…"

Oddly enough — or maybe not so odd — Ed often said in his books and later interviews that he wished he'd had a chance to host The Tonight Show just for one night. He did and it was terrible. I guess he'd blanked it out.

Anyway, in the eighties when Johnny had that kind of unscheduled problem, they didn't drag in a guest host or annoint Ed. They ran a rerun. I think that's what any non-news show would do today.

Lily of the Valley

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The Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters is an organization of folks who have years of experience in the broadcasting profession — TV or radio. I'm a member and three times a year, I get invited to a luncheon in honor of someone who's distinguished themselves in those industries. Yesterday, it was Lily Tomlin so I had to go. As usual, it was held at the Sportsmen's Lodge out in Studio City.

There was a good dais, including her Laugh-In compatriots, Gary Owens, Joanne Worley and George Schlatter. Also up there were Sally Kellerman, Bruce Vilanch, Kat Kramer and many other folks. Ms. Kramer wowed the room with a song about Lily with special (and very funny) lyrics by Shelly Goldstein, who hasn't been mentioned on this blog for a day or so. All spoke or sang glowingly of their friend Lily, which was not surprising. I don't think I've ever heard anyone not like Lily Tomlin at least within the entertainment business. She has this amazing capacity to find compelling characters…to create them, crawl inside them and be very amusing. And for someone so talented, she has a stunning amount of modesty. I've liked her from the first time I saw her on Laugh-In. Just about everybody did.

As usual for these luncheons, half the fun was running into friends in the audience. At the next table, I spotted the lady who was our Production Assistant on a show I did for Sid and Marty Krofft in 1978 and we had a nice reunion. On the way out, I ran into the gent who directed some of the shows I wrote in the early eighties. The place was also full of cartoon voice actors — Neil Ross, Bill Farmer, Jim MacGeorge and even June Foray. I had a very good time.

Today's Mystery of Life

Okay, so The Colbert Report was supposed to air new shows all this week but has suspended taping and gone into reruns "for unforeseen reasons." What could that be about?

Low-Cost Lucy

Today only, Amazon is selling the complete I Love Lucy on DVD — 194 episodes on 34 discs — for $70.49. This is a set that retails for $240 and which Amazon usually sells for $128. $70.49 is about as good a price as you're ever going to see. I think it works out to around two bucks per Babalu.

My pal Vince Waldron tipped me off about this so I could share it with you. So instead of putting up an Amazon link that will get me the commission if you click and buy it, I'll put up one that will give the commission to Vince. Here it is. While you're at it, you might want to purchase his fine book about The Dick Van Dyke Show. It's easily the best book anyone will ever write about what may be the best situation comedy anyone will ever produce.

From the E-Mailbag…

Daniel Van Orden writes to ask…

I've seen the Henry Morgan hosting show before, but the fact that you posted this and are an expert in the field has me asking a question that has bugged me since the show was new.

Did the big time celebrities really just take $20/$40/$60 and cigarettes for appearing? They were frequently plugging their own shows or movies, but it seems cheap and awkward.

Celebrities who appear on game shows are and always have been paid a minimum of union scale, whether it be AFTRA scale or SAG scale, for appearing. They do it for the exposure and to plug what they have coming up…but there's also a little money in it. I suspect that on something like I've Got A Secret, they didn't take the $20 and may not have even taken the cigarettes. But for most, the money was probably secondary to the exposure.

On a lot of those low-money game shows, the prize money was really just a prop. On some, if the top prize was $100, they paid every contestant $100 regardless of what they actually "won" on the show. The money was trivial and it made contestants more cooperative and forestalled any complaints that the game wasn't fair. Of course, contestants on a show like I've Got A Secret usually got more than what they won. A lot of them got paid trips to New York and generous per diem cash.

Often, so did the celebs. One of the few times I got to talk to Buddy Hackett at any length was the day after Game Show Network had run an old What's My Line? on which he appeared. I asked him about it and while he had no memory of the specific appearance, he did tell me the following. He said he had a policy of never, ever paying for travel out of his own pocket. When he went anywhere to perform, the folks hiring him would pay for his airfare and hotel. If by some chance, he had a reason to go to New York and didn't have someone else to pay, he'd find someone to pay. He'd have his agents call up and book him on What's My Line? or some other game show or talk show in New York. Then that show would pay. He said, "I did a lot of shows just because I was too cheap to buy a ticket."

That Kid…Live!

Last evening, I attended a memorable event at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. As mentioned here, there's a new DVD coming out of a TV version of The Jazz Singer starring Jerry Lewis. (And before I forget: If you're in L.A., you might want to know that Jerry will be signing them tonight at 6 PM at the Barnes & Noble in The Grove.)

To kick things off, there was a private invitational event at the Paley. Mr. Lewis was interviewed by Leonard Maltin before an audience that included Martin Short, Jeff Garlin, Marty Ingels and Shirley Jones, Kevin Pollak, Judy Tenuta, Richard Lewis, Richard Kind, Ruta Lee, Kat Kramer, Ken Davitian and many others. Adam Sandler also put in a brief appearance but didn't stay for the show at which Leonard asked questions as did half the folks I just named. To those questions, Jerry gave answers…which is not to suggest that his answers had much to do with their questions. He had amazing energy for a man who's 85 and he did these long philosophical discourses in seeming response to what he was asked. But if I showed you the questions and then I showed you the answers and offered you a hundred bucks for every A you could match with a Q, you'd barely make a nickel.

Nevertheless, the audience found it fascinating. What he did say, rambling though it was, was not without interest…and what the hell? He's Jerry Lewis. If we wanted answers, we'd watch Jeopardy! Last night, we were all Jerry's Kids.

One thing he did answer: Leonard asked him about the status of the musical based on The Nutty Professor. Jerry said he was working on a movie now but in two months, he's going to New York and the show is on and he expects it to open on Broadway on (I wrote this down when he said it) November 20, 2012. I don't know why that date but that's what the man said. That's what he said, all right. That's what the man said.

Other than that, he talked a lot about "my partner" or "Paul" which is how he said he always addressed Dean. He talked a lot about his love for working. He said some very nice things about Leonard, describing him as one of the few members of "the press" who knows what he's talking about. He spoke very seriously about working with Robert DeNiro in King of Comedy and saying essentially that if his [Jerry's] performance was any good, it was because he fed off DeNiro's skill and some of it must have rubbed off. He also said a lot of stuff that I can't summarize because even though I was sitting about ten feet from Jerry and heard every word he said, I had no idea what he was talking about half the time. I think Martin Short got a lot of material for a new impression of the guy.

Friends ask me what it is that I like about Jerry Lewis. I dunno. That he's Jerry Lewis, I guess. He is in a way the last of a breed. Name me one other human being who starred in hit motion pictures in the fifties and sixties and is still standing…and who also was a genuine star on TV, in night clubs, on radio, even in comic books. There may be one but Leonard and I put our heads to the question at the after-party and we couldn't come up with a name. Jerry has these periodic moments of volatility, lashing out at critics and female comedians and imagined foes but against that, he has this massive body of important work and some genuine generosity…and it all seems to come from passion, not selfishness.

For some odd reason, the event last night was subtitled "60 Years of Comedy." None of us could figure out where they got sixty years because Jerry started performing on stage in 1931 and was billed as a solo act by around 1940. Martin and Lewis were hot enough to appear on the first Ed Sullivan TV show (then called The Toast of the Town) in 1948 and that's sixty-four years ago. I haven't been wild about a lot of the films and other appearances but I can sure respect the history.

The new DVD of his Jazz Singer is another piece of that history. If you'd like to get a copy of it, here's an Amazon link. The clips they showed last night made it look well worth viewing.

Treva

Ken Levine says nice, true things about a nice, true person, Treva Silverman — or as we call her, The Lovely Treva. A few years ago when I was teaching comedy writing down at U.S.C., I prevailed on Treva to come down and speak to my class. They learned a lot more from her in that one session than they did from me in all the others. Above all, she impressed on them the need to take one's writing seriously…but not so seriously that one lost touch with reality and one's own humanity. And one female student in particular remarked that after listening to Treva, she was no longer afraid of being the "female writer" in a roomful of males.

Recommended Reading

Dahlia Lithwick covers the battle between Stephen Colbert and the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In terms of constructing a logical opinion, those folks in the black robes who gave us Super-PACs never had a chance.

Dave at 30

Here's a collection of YouTube clips that span David Letterman's 30 years in late night television. They're in roughly chronological order and as you move through them, you may notice a trend. As the years go by, the memorable segments are less and less things that Dave and his writers decided to do for laughs…and more and more, moments that were significant because of things happening in Mr. Letterman's life.

Colbert Financial Report

Stephen Colbert is crowing that his Super-PAC, recently reclaimed from the custody of Jon Stewart, has raised more than a million dollars…and apparently without one cent of donations from corporations or unions. That can buy an awful lot of very silly ads and make a pretty big point about unregulated political action funds.

Today's Video Link

This is the big "group" number from ABC's 25th Anniversary Special back in 1978. It's great if you want to see a big mob of ABC stars who didn't particularly want to participate in this…or if you want to see John Wayne trying to sing. (Why is John Wayne there? Because some of his movies ran on ABC at some point, I suppose. Ed McMahon also participated, I guess because he was the announcer on Johnny Carson's ABC series eighteen years earlier.)

Nice to see folks I worked with on Krofft shows…like Debby Clinger, Louise DuArt and Billie Hayes. For some reason, Billie seems to be working a double act with Chuck Connors.

Anyway, give it a look. Few of the stars look like they're happy to be there…though I suspect they'd have been less happy not to be invited…

Holllywood Labor News

Ballots are going out to members of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) about a proposed merger of the two unions. Nearly everyone seems to think this is a good idea if not a necessity. Not everyone is convinced that the terms of the merger are good ones. You have two groups here with very different health plans and pension funds and dues structures and if you merge those, health insurance and pension plans change…and not everyone's will change for the better. Entrance requirements and dues will also change, going up for some and down for others.

There are solid reasons for the merger. Both unions used to negotiate in tandem but in the last strike, that pact crumbled and they separated. The result has been that AFTRA now undercuts SAG in almost every way, which displeases members of both unions. Something has to be done. I have no opinion on the terms of the merger; just that something of the sort needs to happen. My friends in SAG are grumbling a lot about what will happen to their health and pension plans as well as a few other things…but I think they're going to go along with it. To hang separately in the next contract negotiation would be worse.

Live! From Slate

Slate collects some great anecdotes and comments about Saturday Night Live over the years…and one or two are sad. Just about everything I read about Victoria Jackson is sad to me because I was friends with her once, back when she didn't think folks with my political views were the Tools of Satan or whatever we are to her now. She was a lovely, sweet talented lady back then.

The Real Divine Ms. M

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Here's an article about Mary Tyler Moore, who's about to receive the big award from the Screen Actors Guild. As I've mentioned here before, I had one of my first crushes as a lad on Ms. Moore. I still recall and tremble a bit at that first moment I saw her in person when I went to see The Dick Van Dyke Show being filmed. It wasn't just that she was there, right in front of me less than six feet away. It was the first time I saw her in color.

I've only met her once and in the grand tradition of Rob Petrie, I managed to be quite awkward and to actually step on her foot. I actually did that. Remember how in the flashback to how Rob and Laura first met and Rob stepped on her foot and broke it? Well, I stepped on Mary Tyler Moore's foot — though thankfully not enough to do any harm. It was at an in-house screening of a project I worked on for her company, MTM — an attempt to turn the character from Rhoda, Carlton the Doorman, into an animated superstar. When I tried to get a seat in the screening room, I had to squeeze past her to get to an empty one and — whoops! — right on her foot. I apologized for about the next ninety minutes, then I felt the need to apologize for apologizing so much.

Her body of work speaks for itself, of course, as does her wisdom in making (for the most part) pretty sound career choices. The Mary Tyler Moore Show worked in large part because Mary was willing to play straight for others on the show. She let Ted Knight be the funny one. She let Ed Asner be the funny one. She let Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman be the funny ones and so on. I would guess that of shows that fail which have the star's name or character name in the title, a good 75% have crashed and burned because the star wanted to be the whole show. Some of them do this even when they know in their heads that it's wrong. You point out to them that Jack Benny let his supporting players shine, as did Andy Griffith and Mary Tyler Moore. No one was ever more successful than Jack Benny, Andy Griffith and Mary Tyler Moore. They acknowledge the truth of that, then they point to the script and ask, "How come this guy has more funny lines than me?" The few times Mary's ever failed — her variety show, for instance — I think the problem was that she or her managers forgot that.

I'm long over my crush on her. I think it ended around half past Julie Newmar. But I still have great admiration for Mary Tyler Moore. I would have told her that that day at the screening room if I hadn't stepped on her foot. (Thanks to Anand Kandaswamy for telling me about the article.)