The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
From my perspective, if you could make it as a TV celebrity in the 1950s, you had a pretty sweet deal: since you got in towards the beginning of television, you would forever be fondly remembered as someone who belonged on it. From 1949 until his death in 1987, Jackie Gleason had some kind of television presence. In that time there were obviously classics such as his flawless 39 episodes of The Honeymooners as well as a number of variety shows with all kinds of classic sketches and characters. However, there is one show that also has an enduring legacy, not for being great, but for being the biggest bomb of his career.
Exactly 51 years ago today on January 20, 1961, on the night of JFK’s inauguration, a game show called You’re in the Picture premiered on CBS, hosted by Jackie Gleason. In it, a giant tableau was brought out, with holes cut out for the contestants to put their heads in. You know, like those truck stop things where you put your head in and you take your picture and now you’re a muscle man on the beach? Those things. The four contestants would then ask Gleason yes or no questions to try and get enough information to figure out what image they were a part of. As an example, here are Pat Carol, Jam Sterling, Arthur Treacher and Pat Harrington, Jr. as “The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Well, here’s where things get interesting. The next week, announcer Johnny Olson began the show by exclaiming: “Jackie Gleason! In… what will probably prove to be a very unusual program!” You see, as it turns out, people didn’t much like You’re in the Picture. The laughs were infrequent, the contestants seemed perpetually confused and the reviews were terrible. So, the next week, instead of retooling the show or trying a different format, we open on a giant soundstage, empty except for a chair and a side table. Gleason enters and then spends the next half hour apologizing to the audience for last week.
Let me be clear here. There is no exaggeration here; with the exception of two commercials for L&M Cigarettes done by Jackie and one for the new cereal Special K, Jackie does nothing but talk to the viewers at home, and the studio audience about last week’s show and what went wrong.
He begins by saying that the show has a creed tonight. “Honesty is the best policy.” Then, with just a touch of Ralph Kramden, he explains: “last week we did a show…that laid…without a doubt…the biggest bomb in history.” Throughout the episode Gleason sticks to his creed and is nothing if not honest. He begins by explaining why he did the show in the first place. Basically, the guy who was supposed to do it couldn’t, the guy who came up with the show did a version of it for Jackie and his agents and everybody loved it. They started bringing in the secretaries to play it. Everyone had a great time. Then they did the show, and when Jackie asked stagehands what they thought of it and the best they could offer was “the commercials were great,” he knew they were in trouble. The critics, apparently, were then very happy to help confirm this.
All of this makes this apology episode sound rather depressing, but it’s all handled with humor. For example, he has the stagehands bring out an example of one of the tableaus, and as they do, they both have their heads turned away from the camera. Jackie explains that this is because they have wives and children, and are members of their communities and don’t want to be identified. Jackie also tries to figure out whom he can blame for the show’s failure. It’s not the guy who invented the show, because he went along with him. It’s not the producers, because Gleason is one, nor is it the writers since he helped out with that too. Finally, he tells us that just before the show starts, there’s a guy who says, “you’re on the air.” According to Jackie, that’s the dirty bum to blame.
But was all of this really necessary? Could it have been that bad? Well, in my opinion, no, not really. It’s certainly not great. After the third reveal of having one of the male panelists stick their head through a window above a lady’s body I got kind of bored, but I didn’t feel like I was owed an apology from the host. If anything offended me, it was Gleason’s constant smoking. (Seriously, there’s nothing worse than having the camera cut back to Jackie so he can answer a panelist’s question, only to have a cloud of smoke erupt out of his mouth as he replies. Super gross.)
Maybe it was because of who was at the helm. This was Jackie Gleason. Ralph Kramden. Variety show host extraordinaire. America trusted this man to bring us great TV, and when he presented the world with You’re in the Picture, no doubt they were let down.
Following his big apology episode, he forced CBS to let him host a talk show. This, apparently, didn’t make the network very happy, since they had at least one more episode of the game show recorded on videotape (which was a very costly procedure at the time) which they would now never be allowed to run, since their host had just completely ripped it to shreds. The show’s sponsor Kellogg’s, pulled out after the apology episode after Gleason kept making reference to the fact that the coffee he was drinking wasn’t exactly coffee (“I’m drinkin’ this new coffee called Chock Full O’Booze!”) The show lasted eight weeks after that.
A new version of The Jackie Gleason Show would premiere on CBS a year and a half later.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.