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Friday, May 18th, 2012

'That Was the Week That Was' Brings Political Satire to America

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.)

Here’s the thing about topical humor: it’s very topical. Today I’m going to attempt a difficult thing by talking about the American version of That Was the Week That Was, a political satire program that aired on NBC almost fifty years ago, and at the same time I’m going to try and make sure this article doesn’t turn into a Wikipedia entry explaining references from 1964-65.

“The opinions expressed on this program are not those of the network, the advertisers, the performers, the directors, the producer, the musicians or the choreographer. In fact we deny everything. We're only here to help you keep your thumbs on the nose of the news.”

That Was the Week That Was, or TW3, began on the BBC in 1962 where it launched the star of David Frost, who would later go on to make Richard Nixon sad on TV. The show proved to be very popular over there and rode the British satire boom that was exploding alongside other productions, such as Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s Beyond the Fringe. In America, TW3 would become a full-fledged, half-hour series in 1964 and feature David Frost as host, but before it became a regular show, on Sunday, November 10th, 1963 NBC aired a one-hour special to serve as a pilot version of the show. Let’s take a look and see how political humor started on network TV.

If you, like myself, weren’t around during the sixties, the first thing you’re going to encounter while watching TW3 is a strange feeling of confusion as you hear names you might remember from high school or popular culture, but can’t quite place their significance. Names like Charles de Gaulle, Barry Goldwater, and Nelson Rockefeller ring bells, but don’t make for snappy punch lines when you’re almost fifty years in the future. But, after a little while, you start to realize that the names really aren’t that important. As it turns out, politics and international relations haven’t really changed all that much, so once you get past the specifics, a lot of the jokes still work as a general satire of how screwed up all of it is anyway.

Both the American and the British versions of That Was the Week That Was start exactly the same way: with a really catchy theme song. (I could only find an example of the BBC version online, which you can hear here.) In America it was sung by folk singer Nancy Ames who would sing new lyrics each week to summarize the week’s events in a flippant way, only to be interrupted by a quick sketch or joke on the topic she was just singing about. An example verse from the pilot about Nelson Rockefeller entering the race for the Republican Presidential nomination goes: “That was the week that was / Rocky is in the race. / Barry may be displaced / but if Nelson tries flaking / Nixon may play his ace!” Then, cut to two guitarists singing, “Oh, happy days are here again! / Let’s all begin to smear again.”

The show prided itself on being controversial for the time. For example, after a later verse in the theme song criticizing President Kennedy for constantly being away from the White House, we see a short sketch in which Khrushchev is testing out the hotline phone. “Where is Kennedy? Football game? Get me vice president. Johnson, you remember. Get me the other Kennedy then. Boob-ee. Hiking? Who is running the country then?” Cut to an African-American guy holding a phone: “We are!” You can probably see how that could ruffle some feathers back in 1963.

After the theme song, the basic format of the show goes like this: Henry Fonda serves as the anchor of the show, and talks about an item in the news or a particular social trend which then bridges into a sketch about that idea. For example, he talks about the general slide in morals in America, then throws it to a correspondent in Treeville, NY who interviews the reverend of that town, played by a young Gene Hackman (that’s right! Didn’t see that coming, didja?) who talks about how big sin in his town has fallen off, but they’re having a record year for little sin.

The strongest sketch of the night is one from special guest stars Elaine May and Mike Nichols. In it, May plays a funeral director and Nichols is a man that wants to set up a $65 funeral. As the sketch progresses we learn that the $65 simply covers overhead. She asks if he wants any extras, for instance a casket. Nichols replies that he thought that was included in the price of the funeral and says we have to have a casket, and May agrees: “Yes, it does look better.”

While one beat of the sketch is cut out from this performance, you can watch this sketch as it was performed on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show below:

The show was performed live, and as a result there are a lot of camera shakes, improperly timed camera switches, and the occasional background sounds during dialogue, but in my opinion, it all adds to the charm of the program, truly making it a product of its time. In that same vein, one of the show’s sponsors was L&M Cigarettes. Unless they’re delivered live in the program I generally don’t mention the commercials in these articles, but this one, in which two young couples smoke and watch home movies of themselves smoking on a raft in the middle of the ocean, is such a perfect time capsule for the 1960s that it felt like it was produced by the advertisers at Sterling-Cooper. Plus it’s just plain weird to see a TV commercial for cigarettes today.

Later in the show we see a fake interview between a newsman and the author of a new book. The interviewer begins by saying that the author’s newest was “truly one of the dirtiest books we’ve read in a long time. No, I really mean it. It’s truly indecent, and I don’t throw this word around.” The interview continues, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the author intended to write a smutty book, and is quite proud of it. One exchange: “Where do you get your inspiration?” “Well, they say write what you know. Then think about how much money you’ll make, and then you let your mind wander. I keep my characters undressed as much as possible, and oh… you find ways.” You could feel the writers starting to feel a bit bold, as they inched closer and closer to the line. And maybe it’s just me, but I kind of think the authors were trying to sneak one past the censors with the sketch ends with the author exclaiming, “Onward and upward!”

The final sketch of the night was about France’s Charles de Gaulle refusing to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the form of a big song and dance number. He sings, “You ban the bomb / I’ll bomb the test ban! / No one can tell me where I can or can not go boom. / I’m Charles de Gaulle / And France adores me! / And I say liberty, fraternity, and let’s test atmospherically / and let the fallout fall where it may.” The lyrics of the song has the feel of satirical musician Tom Lehrer, who was a songwriter at TW3, though in my research I wasn’t able to determine if he had worked on this pilot. After the show had ended, Lehrer would release an (amazing) album of songs that he had written for the show, entitled “That Was the Year That Was.”

Just twelve days after the special pilot of That Was the Week That Was aired President Kennedy was assassinated. For the four days that followed there was nothing on broadcast television except for news coverage and tributes to the late president. One such tribute was the 20-minute episode of TW3 that aired in England the previous night. It was completely free of satire, and was simply England’s loving tribute to JFK. Shortly thereafter, the soundtrack of this episode was released as a record and sold very well. Though largely forgotten today, in just two episodes on NBC, TW3 had suddenly become deeply engrained as a part of the American zeitgeist, going on to directly impact Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and the “Weekend Update” segment of another show that began with an announcer booming, “Live! From New York!” The 1960s would grow more and more turbulent for America, but for the world of satire, things were only looking up.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

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  • Mikezjim

    I love Mike Nichols and Elaine May. I wish their material was more readily available.

  • AndrewMilner

    IIRC, Lehrer only began writing for TW3 after the weekly series began in the States. He also recorded That Was the Year That Was himself because he didn't like what the TW3 performers (and NBC) did to his songs.

  • Harry Brown

    Ramsey,

    First, thanks for remembering TW3 and informing a new generation about its role as a foundation for Laugh-In and SNL. As a teenager, I audio recorded 20 or so episodes that I still retain today. After restoring an episode for a mass media course I was teaching, I sent Nancy Ames a clip to which she responded that she shared the clip with her family, one of the original producers of Jack Paar's Tonight Show and a producer / director of the 1960s Hollywood Palace.