The beginning of a new decade was a watershed moment for TV comedy
|Sunday nights were getting more lively. It started early in the evening on CBS with “The Gene Autry Show,” featuring a Western film star making the transition to television. Though not a dashing hero like the Lone Ranger, Autry nevertheless helped catch bad guys every week, the show so popular it lasted until mid-1956.|
At 8 pm EST, Ed Sullivan was doing his mellow best to introduce plate spinners, impressionists and opera singers to the viewing public- but on NBC, something much different was taking place. The Colgate Comedy Hour booked stars like Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, and Donald O’Connor- but there was only one duo guaranteed to bring the house down every time they appeared: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Though still early in their careers as movie stars, Martin and Lewis had perfected a routine that was equal parts chaos and musical performance. They’d begin a skit about cooking or some other domestic situation, but before it was over, the slapstick they engaged in shocked and delight ted audiences, some of the stunts downright dangerous. Abd audiences loved them for risking it all.
Then came the musical numbers. Dean, dressed in a tux, would start singing some well-known ballad, Jerry nowhere in view. But then the latter would appear in the background, teasing the band members, interrupting Dean, and just generally being a pain in the backside to all concerned. By the time the number finally ended, clothes had been ripped or torn off, sets broken, and the audience in a shambles. To this day, the footage from some of those numbers amazes in its audacity. Live television was really something to experience, back then- an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to be in the audience.
Sunday evenings also saw the introduction of The Jack Benny Program. Already well-known to millions via his radio show, Benny successfully made the transition to TV with a series of half-hour programs on both CBS and NBC. Carrying that trademark violin- which he rarely played, and then badly- Jack was the master of the silent moment. If a joke bombed, or he was trying to get the best of someone else, he'd stop and stare off into space, a look of consternation on his face; and the longer he held the pose, the funnier the bit became.
Benny's character never changed. From the start, he played a cheapskate- the kind where moths could be seen flying out of his billfold. And that fact that he drove from place to another in a dilapidated 1916 Maxwell- thirty to forty years after it should have been relegated to the scrap heap- only reinforced his tightwad persona. The penny-pincher outlook made for a lot of funny situations that gave Benny's supporting cast plenty to play off of. There was Jack's real life wife Mary Livingston, along with Rochester (his gravelly-voiced butler), violin teacher Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny and scores of other cartoon characters), Don Wilson (the polite but long-suffering announcer), and several others. For the next fifteen years, Jack Benny's show was a hit.
And then, at 10:30 pm came “What’s My Line.” The format was simple: a guest was introduced to a panel of four, viewers at home (and moderator John Daly) the only people aware of the guest’s occupation. The panelists consisted of celebrities from all parts of the entertainment industry, their interactions with each other and their mild interrogations of mystery guests making the show an addiction that viewers stayed with through 1967 and beyond.
Like the most popular TV series, this game show was a win-win for all involved. The audience got to watch celebrities out of their element, having to use their wits to guess a person’s occupation, when they weren’t in a battle of wits with each other. The contestants usually walked away with a nice chunk of cash. And the sponsors cleaned up. What a great way to pass the time.
Monday night viewers tuned in to the unlikely sight of Chico Marx hosting The College Bowl, a variety show that didn’t last the season. Milton Berle continued his reign as comedy king, while other variety shows, dramatic anthologies and Roller Derby trudged on.
But then came Thursday night. After an early evening ride with the Lone Ranger, a famous husband and wife team appeared, courtesy of CBS. George Burns and Gracie Allen would delight audiences with a sit-com like no other, where Gracie proved again and again that she was the most scatterbrained woman on the face of the earth. Her gift for comic timing was a joy to watch, many of her reactions and points of view so skewed and unexpected that there was always something new to learn about her and that brilliant mind of hers.
But it was George who brought something revolutionary to the show. After a scene played out, Mr. Burns would step in front of the camera, his ever-present cigar at the ready, as he spoke directly to the audience. It was the first time that a sit-com character had “broken the fourth wall,” and it brought an intimacy to the proceedings that made the audience part of the joke. George would comment on Gracie, past events, or anything else he thought of sharing. Then he‘d step back and the story would continue. Audiences liked the show and its vaudeville vibe enough that it remained on the air until 1958.
Meanwhile, over on NBC, another incredible comic event was taking place. In search of a game show with something different to offer, NBC hired none other than Groucho Marx to host “You Bet Your Life.” Groucho was already recognized as the consummate comedian, and at sixty, could have easily retired. Instead, he chose to host a game show like no other.
Sporting his trademark cigar, Mr. Marx would sit at a desk and test contestants knowledge of trivia and current events- at least that was the premise. What usually happened was that somewhere along the line- either during the getting-to-know-you questions- or during the course of the game, Groucho would start goofing around with the contestant. If it was a pretty woman, Groucho would ask embarrassing questions. If the contestant was strange-looking or acting, Groucho would start acting looking that them askance, then making asides to the audience as if the contestant wasn’t present. And given that Groucho was the master of comic timing, few if any guests ever got the best of him. The spontaneous nature of it all made for great entertainment, for you never knew what Groucho or his guests were going to say next.
Then there was the gimmick. Groucho would announce a “secret word,” and if the contestant said it, he or she would win extra money. That, along with the wide variety of guests, made for compelling television.
Rounding out the evening was another game show, “Truth or Consequences,” on CBS. Like George’s fourth wall, this show put a twist on things. A contestant was asked a question, but seconds after it was asked, the buzzer went off, allowing no time for a correct response. As a result, there was a consequence to be paid- some sort of outrageous obstacle the failed contestant had to endure or overcome. Audiences went wild over the predicaments the poor contestants found themselves in, though in the end, the folks playing the game went home with some sort of prize. The show lasted twenty-seven years.
While Friday night was a wash, studios believing that most potential viewers would be out on dates or bowling or at parties. Instead, the networks held their fire until Saturday night, when musical variety shows (including The Frank Sinatra Show) abounded. It is fitting then, that NBC helped folks end the week in style with “Your Show of Shows.”
“Your Show of Shows” was the gold standard. More a ninety-minute collection of comic skits than anything else, it showcased the prodigious talents of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner. For four years- and 160 live shows- the quartet of comedians pulled off some of the funniest skits ever seen on TV, their sendup of “This is Your Life” still one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on broadcast television. To a lesser degree, their lampooning of scores of famous movies made for great comedy every time.