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.)
Harry Shearer, who today is probably best known for being the voices of hundreds of characters on The Simpsons, quit Saturday Night Live in 1985 while dressed as Ronald Reagan. After three consecutive weeks of not appearing on the show, having multiple sketches cut, and experiencing clash after clash with producer Dick Ebersol, he felt that his voice was being stymied and it was time to move on. According to Tom Shales' and James Andrew Miller's Live From New York, when called for a quote on the press release that said he was leaving due to creative differences, Shearer responded, "Yeah, I was creative and they were different."
Later that year when Cinemax aired a special from Harry Shearer called It's Just TV he might have been making a larger statement.
It's Just TV aired as part of Cinemax's Comedy Experiment series, which featured a number of different specials such as one featuring Eugene Levy's Bobby Bitman character, and a variety show featuring Ron Reagan, the president's son. Harry Shearer's special opens with him sitting in front of a bank of TV screens, and immediately sets the tone when he greets the audience and then tells us: "My name? It's not important." as the words "Harry Shearer" blink on and off. Harry tells us that the focus of the evening's special will be on syndicated television and taking a look behind the scenes as we visit the National Association of Program Purchasers Convention, where syndicated TV shows are pitched and sold to buyers from TV stations around the country.
As you might be able to tell already, the premise for this sketch show for a viewer in 2013 is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's an easy way for a performer like Shearer to segue into dozens of TV parodies and impressions. On the other hand, while syndicated TV still exists, it's not really a thing that people talk or care about. The same goes for the (startlingly good) impression of Alan Thicke. It's not the fault of the special that it was made in the 1980s, but when compared to many of the other items written about in this series spanning some sixty years, this topical sketch show doesn't hold up as well as many others we've looked at.
The show itself can be divided up into two sections: half the show looks at what's going on at the convention, showing spoiled program buyers be sweet-talked by all types of sleazy Hollywood guys through all manner of incentives: hookers, drinks, cash incentives. If this were a larger industry, this section might actually feel more like an investigative documentary rather than a satire. What's interesting while watching these pieces, and I think the lesson to be taken away from them, is that despite the fact that these short segments from the convention floor are nothing more than framing devices for the sketches, they are loaded with jokes, whether it's the banner in the background at the American Oil Council's booth that reads "Oil and Television Do Mix!" or the various upcoming events we see listed on the computerized event board. Despite the fact that these moments are there just to move us along to the next thing, Shearer does a great job of giving the viewer bang for their buck by attempting to cram this thing to the brim with jokes.
Now on to the main event of It's Just TV: the sketches. As a modern viewer, I would say that these all fall into the following categories: "funny," "dated," and "I can tell this is a parody, but I will have to Google things later in order to figure out the joke." The first real sketch of the program falls into the latter category and in what little information I could find about this special, people seem to find this sketch the highlight. It features Shearer as Curt Gowdy, famed baseball sportscaster, hosting a program called "This Week in Rock and Roll" with music stories told in the style of a sports news show. The first item on the show is about Johnny Cougar changing his name to John Cougar Mellencamp and his future plans to change his name to John Camp Cougarmelon. It's dumb, but I laughed. The main thrust of this piece is the sketch within the sketch in which we learn about a DJ who found a way to bring radio into the music video boom when a blind listener requested that the DJ do audio play-by-plays of the music video. We see a few examples of the DJ talking over songs, describing what's going on in a few music videos.
Another sketch, which featured Shearer as former CBS news correspondent Charles Kuralt. Kuralt was most famous for his series of "On the Road" reports in which he sent dispatches from small American towns and reported on regular people and the various things normal people did. The syndicated version of this features Kuralt "In the Home" waxing poetic on the "smell of battle" in the working kitchen with "the unending war between grease and Ajax," and the sound of running bathwater. "You wouldn't even have to get in the tub. The sound itself could cleanse the soul."
Later in the show we see Paul Schaffer and comedy writer Tom Leopold sitting together at a bar, discussing the syndicated projects they'd signed on for the next season. Leopold is excited about his: Too Much for Your Money, in which he invites financial experts and celebrities to come on his show, talk about money, and how much they make. Schaffer is dreading his program about a man whose mother passes away and comes back to life as a synthesizer. He tells Leopold between sips of his drink that he's filming three episodes a day during his off weeks from Letterman and moans about having to "play straight to a keyboard."
While there are elements of It's Just TV that work well, such as Shearer's version of Dick Clark's nightly news segment in which he gives the latest news on the science behind TV Bloopers, ultimately the specific parodies of 1985 don't hold up as well after almost thirty years have passed. However, as a document for what a Saturday Night Live with more Harry Shearer could have been like, it is successful. While it could have been smart, and more sophisticated, ultimately it's all just TV.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster, and a guy on Twitter.