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A Guide to the Hard-to-Find Comedy Albums of Albert Brooks

140 -brooksalbumsA few years ago in From the Archives, we did a deep dive and examined Albert Brooks’s early short films, and reminded ourselves at how creative and unique a talent the man is. Throughout these shorts we were shown a laundry list of creative ideas, jokes that still hold up today, and satire that is just as sharp now as it was in the seventies. Today we’re going to examine Albert’s two incredibly innovative albums and we'll find that even with the video component removed, these qualities still apply. Each album features a uniquely audio premise, and one was nominated for a Grammy and hasn’t been reissued since it’s initial vinyl release. Buckle up and prepare yourselves for 1973’s Comedy Minus One, and 1975’s A Star is Bought. READ MORE

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The Johnny Carson Comeback Special That Never Was

johnny-carsonOn Mark Malkoff’s wonderful Carson Podcast, several guests have been asked about why they believe that when Johnny said goodbye on May 22, 1992 he never returned to television in any substantial form. Several of them say that Johnny cited Bob Hope as the inspiration behind his desire to remain off the air. Hope was being wheeled out on stage until the very end as a comedy icon that performed less and less comedy as the years went on. Carson, on the other hand, wanted to get off the stage before that could happen to him, ensuring that his audience would forever remember him as a master of late night.

But what if Johnny had changed his mind and made his triumphant return? What if there was a television spectacular that would air exactly two years after Johnny said goodbye in May of 1992? What if it perfectly married the voice and sensibility of Carson’s Tonight Show with the “behind-the-scenes” format frequently utilized by of one of his greatest comedy idols, Jack Benny? Wouldn’t that have been something?

Well, it almost was.

The Johnny Carson (I’m Not Even Sure I Want To) Return to TV Special exists only in the form of a first draft script and is a collection of sketches, starring Johnny, in which he satirizes the '90s television landscape while presenting the audience with a look at what it could look like if he were to accept the many ridiculous offers he was being pitched. In these scenes we see Johnny as the lead character on sitcoms, as a shill on the Home Shopping Network, and the host of a game show, simultaneously allowing Carson to give viewers a taste of what his return might look like while showing them why they need to be careful what they wish for. I’ll speak in more detail about the special that never was in a moment, but first: a little backstory. READ MORE

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Watching Mel Brooks' Short-Lived Robin Hood Sitcom

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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 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.)

It’s practically a function of autocorrect at this point: you type “Mel Brooks,” the word “legend” pops up automatically. You don’t need me to tell you about his storied career spanning decades and covering such diverse media as the most successful live television show of its day, Your Show of Shows, successful film after film, records with partner Carl Reiner, the single-camera sitcom, the smash Broadway hit The Producers, and on and on. So, I’m not going to. He’s funny. You already know him. We’re done with that part. Let’s get to the fun part.

Today we’re looking at Mel’s second attempt at a sitcom. His first was Get Smart, which he co-created with the similarly legendary Buck Henry, and, true to form, was wildly successful. It went on for 138 episodes over 5 seasons, launched a number of catchphrases, and expertly satirized sixties spy culture. Mel, however, didn’t have an awful lot to do with the show after its formation. He launched the boat, and then happily waved from shore. He then went on to a streak of hits, directing and either writing or co-writing The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, before deciding to dip his toe back into television where he got his start.

The show was called When Things Were Rotten, and was Brooks’ first journey to a well that he would travel to again a few decades later. Running for only 13 episodes in 1975, the show was a parody of the legend of Robin Hood, and is simply dripping with Mel Brooks’s flair. Sight gags, one-liners, and jokes playing on anachronisms are constantly flying at the audience at a breakneck pace unlike anything else on TV at the time. The show launches into a very Brooksian theme song which exclaims, “"They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank / They jumped a lot of fences / They robbed the rich, gave to the poor / Except what they kept for expenses!” READ MORE

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David Letterman Says Goodbye to Mornings

137 - MorningLettermanThe 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 we move closer to the end of the long Letterman era of television, It’s interesting to remember that this will actually be the third time Dave has closed down a TV show. The second was in 1993 when Letterman said goodbye to NBC and relaunched his show an hour earlier on CBS (we covered that farewell over here). Today we look back at Dave’s first televised goodbye on October 24, 1980, when the experiment that was The David Letterman Show signed off one last time.

There are a few things that made The David Letterman Show different from Dave’s later shows. First, there’s the fact that it was 90 minutes. Eventually that was cut down to an hour, but that’s an extra two and a half hours of content they had to create every week. Second, there’s the fact that it was broadcast live. This leads to a much more vocal studio audience (apparently, knowing that their friends could be seeing it right then led to people wanting to make a lot more noise), and a few more flubs, though this could be due to the fact that Dave was so new to hosting. And finally there was the fact that it was on at 10am.

Despite all this, the tone of The David Letterman Show was much closer to his current show than it was to Ellen and the other daytime fare. The “Viewer Mail,” “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Small Town News” segments began there, and continued across each of Dave’s shows, (he performed the latter earlier this week), Dave had an obnoxious buzzer installed by his desk that he would hit intermittently, and his dry and irreverent sense of humor was deeply ingrained into the program, no matter what time it was on. READ MORE

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'The Stan Freberg Show': Radio's Last Comedy Series

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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 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.)

We live in a time of transition when it comes to the comedy we watch. TV and movies are finding that they now have a new medium to compete with and are slowly adapting to find their footing in this digital world. Ultimately, long-standing broadcast empires will change shape, merge, and find new forms as they transition from one medium to the next.

But this is not the first time this has happened. In Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch, he details the transition from radio to television as one that happens relatively quickly, but with it came many changes to the industry that had to happen very quickly. Just as with any other transition, as television surpassed radio in popularity, there were a few personalities that would be left behind. Today we examine the very last original comedy program produced for radio: 1957’s The Stan Freberg Show. READ MORE

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Michael Keaton Reunites Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke

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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 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.)

A few years ago, who would have expected that Michael Keaton would be a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee? After a few years of dormancy, Keaton has emerged from the ashes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy Birdman, surprising many with his nuanced, emotionally charged, and funny performance. Best known as both Batman and Beetlejuice, Keaton has always been able to play dramatic characters that have that comedic energy bubbling just beneath the surface, and the reason he’s able to do that so effortlessly is because he started out as a stand-up. Longtime readers of From the Archives (they refer to themselves with the unwieldy moniker “From the Archivists”) remember that we previously saw Keaton on Mary Tyler Moore’s follow-up to her famous sitcom, Mary, along with fellow cast member and then-standup, David Letterman. That particular show was cancelled after three episodes. So, then came the follow-up, The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, which blended Mary with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Letterman was gone, doing his tour of game shows and talk shows that would lead to his own morning show on NBC, but his co-worker Michael Keaton, stuck around. READ MORE

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David Steinberg Introduces the World to the Cast of 'SCTV'

134 - SteinbergThe 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.)

Canada’s David Steinberg is probably best known today as the host of Showtime’s Inside Comedy. As you no doubt gathered from the title, in it Steinberg sits down with a number of popular comedians and speaks to them about their craft. However, if that’s the only place you know Steinberg from, you may not realize that he was once one of those popular comedians. Over the years, David has been the host of two comedy shows bearing the name The David Steinberg Show, released a number of comedy albums, and his satirical sermons that he delivered on The Smothers Brothers Show has been cited as one of the contributing controversial elements that led to CBS’ eventual cancellation of the program (Steinberg’s father was a rabbi, so religion was never too far away). Today we examine the second show called The David Steinberg Show, which aired on CTV in 1976 and gave birth to a number of comedy’s brightest stars.

The first David Steinberg Show was an hour-long sketch show that aired on CBS for five weeks in 1972. Steinberg himself was the only constant, and featured guest actors who would jump into the fray. But let’s jump forward four years, and across the America/Canada border to examine the second David Steinberg Show. This iteration followed the model of The Jack Benny Program or The Muppet Show, in which the show mostly followed the behind-the-scenes adventures of David as he prepared to make “The David Steinberg Show.” For example, in the episode I viewed, the majority of the program, David is attempting to woo Robert Vaughn (he played one of The Magnificent Seven) to be on his show but makes some promises that he’s unable to keep. While we do see some of the show-within-the-show, the majority of the episode is focused on the backstage shenanigans that occur while trying to keep his guest happy. READ MORE

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The Many Beginnings of 'All in the Family'

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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 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.)

In the late 1960s Norman Lear was making a comfortable living as a director of reasonably successful films. By the end of that decade, Lear had become driven with a singular goal: he had a vision of a television show, inspired by a British show Till Death Do Us Part that he read an article about in Variety, about a bigoted, curmudgeonly father and his relationship with his more liberal son-in-law. It took three tries shooting the same script, each time with cast changes, title changes, and piles of network notes until it stuck, but when it did, it became a phenomenon. Today we look back at the three pilot episodes of All in the Family and the launching of a television empire.

The first version of Lear’s script, entitled And Justice For All, was shot in New York on September 3rd, 1968 and much of what would appear in the final version of the series is present here. Most importantly, at it’s center, Carrol O’Connor was there as Archie Bunker from the very beginning. Well, basically. In this incarnation he plays Archie Justice, hence the title. According to Lear’s recently released memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, Carrol’s casting almost didn’t happen, as impossible as it is to imagine someone else in the role. Lear briefly flirted with putting Mickey Rooney in the role. However, the pitch didn’t get much further than “You play a bigot-” before Rooney cut him off with a fantastic Old Hollywood response: “Norm, they’re going to kill you, shoot you dead in the streets. You want to do a TV show with the Mick, listen to tis: Vietnam vet. Private eye. Short Blind. Large dog.” READ MORE

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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. READ MORE

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'The Honeymooners' Return for Christmas

131 - Honeymooners ChristmasThe 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.)

When people talk about The Honeymooners TV show, generally they’re referring to “The Classic 39,” which were the full half-hour shows in which Ralph and Norton dress as robots, buy TV sets, and find new ways to get rich quick. Prior to the stand-alone show, the characters appeared in short sketches on The Cavalcade of Stars program (I examined the very first of these sketches as one of the first articles on From the Archives.) Then after the last of those original 39 episodes aired in 1956, the cast would reunite (with occasional replacements for Ralph and Norton’s wives, depending on availability) on Jackie Gleason’s various programs and specials, until 1978. Today we look back at the third to last appearance of The Honeymooners, in the form of a 1977 Christmas special. READ MORE

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Watching the Unaired Sgt. Bilko Pilot

Today, Phil Silvers’ legacy might be that his voice and TV persona were ripped off by Hanna-Barbera for the character of Top Cat. As a result, today’s generation is missing out on watching a truly unique performer with the ability to play a perfect fast-talking heel, who truly lived up to his nickname as “The King of Chutzpah.” Today we look in on the first time Silvers performed his most famous character Sergeant Bilko on film in the very rare, unaired audition show for what would become the classic Phil Silvers Show.

Originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show (sometimes also referred to simply as Sgt. Bilko) featured a very straightforward premise. Bilko is stationed at a quiet Army base in the middle of Kansas, in charge of a rag-tag group of men who spend very little time actually doing their duty. Bilko is constantly trying to get rich quick whether it be with the help of his men, or through their wallets. The show was created by Nat Hiken, who was one of television’s first writer/producers. When the show started, Silvers’ career in film was just beginning to flourish, but his stage resume was long. Starting with vaudeville, and then working his way up to a Tony award winning Broadway actor, Silvers quickly made a name for himself as a very funny actor. He didn’t do standup, and according to a featurette on the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World DVD, he wasn’t particularly funny in real life, but when in character the man knew how to milk every laugh out of an audience with a slow burn or a quick emotional turn to anger. READ MORE

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Remembering Mike Nichols the Performer

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As you no doubt already heard, yesterday marked the passing of a man the media has aptly named an “entertainment icon” by the name of Mike Nichols. Mike earned his icon status by performing just about every major task one can perform in the modern creative arts, working as a comedian, a director, a producer, and a writer. He will be best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, for which he won an Oscar, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, Angels in America, Working Girl, and many others. But today, we dip into the archives and take a look at the first job Nichols performed that brought him to national attention: that of one half of the comedy duo Nichols & May. READ MORE

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Weird Al's Early Work Finally Emerges from the Archives

thecompleatalAs Weird Al’s career approaches its fourth decade, his audience continues to regenerate itself and amass new generations of fans, like a snowball rolling down a hill. This is probably great for album sales as the younger set digs into the past and scoops up as much of Al history as possible, but no doubt, for many of these fans, it can also be frustrating. You see, when you have a career as long as Al’s, certain projects are going to fade away and become unavailable. Well, newer fans who have been feeling as though their collection has been incomplete can rejoice as next week sees the release of two Weird Al upgrades. UHF, Weird Al’s feature film makes it’s debut on Blu-Ray, and The Compleat Al sees its first release on DVD, making it the first time it’s been available since it came out on VHS in 1985. Let’s jump in and see how this work from more than 25 years ago holds up.

The rarer of the two, The Compleat Al is a piece of work that’s a little hard to pin down. The first thing you need to know about is the title. No, that’s not a “wacky” deliberate spelling error; it’s actually a spoof of the title of the then-recent Beatles documentary (the “Compleat” is a play on the misspelling of “The Beatles.”) Al’s “documentary” is a bit of a Frankenstein of a variety of sources. The framing device is that you’re watching a heightened version of Al’s life story. There are definitely a number of facts about Al’s life to be gleaned, such as the fact that Al studied architecture in college, or that he was launched into stardom from Doctor Demento’s radio show, however these true facts are often obscured and hidden beneath a layer of invented ideas and bogus reenactments of events that never occurred. Examples include the auditions for Al’s backing band, Al on stage, lighting an accordion on fire in the style of Hendrix, and an ominous trip to Neverland as Al asks permission from Michael Jackson (dressed in his outfit from the “Bad” music video, but sitting in the shadows) for permission to parody his music. READ MORE

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Looking Back at 'The Building,' Bonnie Hunt's First TV Creation

128 - HuntThe 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.)

The very funny Bonnie Hunt has had a lot of TV shows. Her first starring role came in 1990 in the soap opera satire Grand. From there she starred in five more, including three with some variation of the name Bonnie in the title. Today we’re going back to the third one she starred in, but the first that she wrote and produced. The result is a sitcom with a cast of strong comedic performers, and a breezy, improvisational tone that, like many of the shows we see in From the Archives, was gone too soon. 1993’s The Building was Bonnie Hunt in its purest form.

Bonnie Hunt was born in Chicago and went on to perform for years at her hometown’s famous Second City. Chicago is a big part of The Building. The main set on the show, Bonnie’s apartment, is right outside Wrigley Field, the friendly confines of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, the first thing we see in The Building is the theme song (Remember, it’s 1993 so there’s actually time to show a theme song) which serves as a lovely tour of the town as we see the cast out and about, on location in Illinois. In addition to serving as a love letter to the midwest, it also sets the tone perfectly for the show we’re about to see. The theme song itself is sung by a chorus who sing enthusiastically, and with pep, “In this windy city, / Toddlin’ town, / I looked all over, / Finally found, / A kindly place, / A comfy space, / In… the building.” My favorite part of this is that once the cast introductions start, Bonnie Hunt’s name appears on screen, but we only see a blonde woman stumbling through the wind, her face completely covered by her wind-swept hair. Immediately we are introduced to the star of a sitcom who is far more focused on making us laugh than worrying about seeming glamorous in her own show. READ MORE