What I Learned from Another Year in the Archives

124 - Viva VarietyThe 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 150,000 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.)

As I look back on the material I covered for this year’s run of From the Archives, I see a wide tapestry of comedy both fantastic and terrible. I see fallen comedic legends, moments of brilliance, and moments of complete failure. Here are some of the lessons I learned from another year in the archives.

This year’s series of articles, more than any stretch of these in the past, featured a number of looks inside the lifestyle of the comedian. Following the deaths of Joan Rivers and David Brenner, I looked at both of their interviews with Alan King, in which they talked about what drove them into comedy, and their methods to stay in the game when the going got rough. We saw Johnny Carson go back to his home town in Nebraska and give us a peek behind the curtain into his early life, while at the same time, not letting us too far in there. My favorite of this series of comedians breaking the fourth wall was when Edward R. Murrow interviewed Sid Caesar live from his New York apartment. In it, Sid shows off his kids, his art collection, his lovely wife, and his extensive gun collection. These examples of comedians talking about their craft and their lives off-stage were enlightening and showed how disparate backgrounds could lead to similar heights of comedy.

This year I took the opportunity to highlight two of my favorite comedic entities that, while prolific, didn’t necessarily have a single project that exemplified their work, and so they received full-career retrospectives. The first was Stan Freberg, whose radio shows and comedy records remain incredibly hilarious, yet mostly forgotten. The second was the Goons, who are best known in America for launching Peter Sellers, if at all, despite inspiring so much of the comedy that we love.

I’ve watched some terrible stuff in previous years, like Jackie Gleason’s failed game show and Don Rickles’ early attempt at a sitcom, but this year I watched two things in particular that I couldn’t defend with the usual lines of “it was a product of its time” or “their heart was in the right place.” Most recently I examined a Honeymooners reunion from the late seventies that was overwritten, over rehearsed, and overlong. They were a wonderful cast, but at a certain point, you have to leave well enough alone and let the classic episodes stay classic by not tarnishing their memory. The worst offender in my opinion was Dana Carvey, Mickey Rooney, and Nathan Lane’s early sitcom, One of the Boys. Watching a pair of actors who would later prove to be incredibly gifted handcuffed to this hacky, unbelievable premise was infuriating. If it directly led to their greater success, I’m glad, but otherwise this sitcom was a complete waste of resources.

Many of the subjects of this year’s articles were incredibly innovative, and unlike anything else I’d written about. The Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special (still my favorite name for anything I’ve written about) was a live, original play, performed on Fox, an idea that is only now coming back into vogue. This could have been something truly special, but unfortunately Jon special was a one-time deal. We looked at Viva Variety, a truly weird variety show that was sometimes parodying the form and sometimes writing it a love letter. South Central, a sitcom that despite talking about beepers and Cross Colours jackets, felt like it was ripped from today’s headlines, and Bonnie Hunt’s charming, and partially improvised sitcom, The Building. Of course, you might notice that while all of these shows were unique and unlike anything that had come before, you’ve also never heard of them because they were all quickly taken off the schedule. You can be innovative and do something truly daring, but unfortunately, that doesn’t mean people are going to watch.

Thank you very much for joining me this year as I wade through comedy’s rich past. Stick around, and we’ll see what we learn next year.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.

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