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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

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'South Central': A Sitcom 20 Years Before Its Time

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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.)

This summer, with the events of Ferguson, Missouri making headlines around the world, a lot of people were talking about California in the early 1990s. There were the famous 1992 riots, frequent clashes with the LAPD, and just, in general, a really bad time for racial politics in America. And what was happening this summer didn’t make us feel like we had progressed all that far in the twenty years in between. Emerging from this landscape, in 1994 Fox began airing a sitcom called South Central, named for the neighborhood in Los Angeles where the aforementioned riots began, and one with incredibly high rates of gang violence, crime, and poverty.

South Central is a comedy. It’s a comedy with a lot of drama, but it was indeed a 1990s comedy, which generally meant there would be a living room set, three cameras to shoot it, and a live studio audience to watch it being shot. However, what was happening on this living room set, and the issues that were being addressed, made it incredibly different from any other show on TV. South Central follows the Lifford family, which is comprised of Tina, the mother, and single parent of Andre, her teenage son, Tasha, her middle school-aged daughter, and Deion, her toddler foster child. The Cosby Show, which at this point was the last major sitcom with a predominantly African-American cast had ended its run two years earlier and painted a much different picture with two parents, a doctor and a lawyer, raising their family comfortably in a massive brownstone. The opening shot of the pilot episode of South Central lets you know that you’re in for a much different experience. READ MORE

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Watching Roseanne's Early Standup and Secret Sitcom Pilot

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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.)

Before we begin, I must first make a confession. My knowledge of Roseanne Barr's comedy is based solely on my memories of watching her sitcom as a kid in the 90s, and that time she screamed the national anthem. But in a way, my lack of knowledge has perfectly primed me for the subject of today's article. Today we're going back to 1987 to watch a proto-version of Roseanne, which was, for many, our introduction to this singular comedic voice.

What's most interesting about The Roseanne Barr Show is that it is a standup set within a show, within a show. Let me explain. Layer number one is the standup itself. Roseanne performs her standup live on stage in Los Angeles. To reflect her "brassy mom with an attitude" persona, the stage is designed to look like a regular, middle-class living room, complete with ugly throw pillows, an easy chair, and coffee table. This show, the announcer tells us at the beginning, is brought to us by FemRage, which we'll hear more about later in the program.

Occasionally, Roseanne's act is interrupted by a couple of actors playing her children. They'll run on stage to have their mom settle an argument, or to inform her that they had to get out of the room, and run on stage, because their dad farted. These interactions require Roseanne to be a mom, and smooth over whatever's going on, so she'll walk backstage, out the door to the street, and step inside her family's trailer home, parked outside. Here, in the second layer, we have another household set, this time resembling the trailer that she and her family lived in before she broke in to comedy. In this world we have the same child actors but in a weird twist, her then real-life husband Bill Pentland is portrayed by her then friend and future-ex-husband Tom Arnold.

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In a Rare Early Performance, Richard Pryor Sings and George Carlin Gets in Character

125 - pryorcarlinThe 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 I write an article that reaches pretty deep into the archives, I might spend a lot of time giving some context: talking about how different tastes were, or what you were or were not allowed to do on television. Well, the subject of today's piece is an incredibly strange one. A TV show so odd, that I can't accurately tell you who this was made for. It's an episode of Kraft Summer Music Hall, which ran on television for 13 years (38 if you count the radio version), from 1958 to 1971. The show was a blend of up-tempo musical performances, short comedy interstitials, and commercials for Kraft products. Based on the mostly bland choices in music, this seems geared more to adults than say, American Bandstand, but who cares. But there is a reason that we’re talking about it today. On the August 8, 1966 installment of the program, in between ads for Miracle Whip and Cracker Barrel cheese spread came two of the most unexpected comedy guest stars: George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

Now if you were a regular viewer of Kraft Summer Music Hall, Carlin’s appearance wouldn’t have been that surprising actually. It turns out that Carlin was the show’s only writer (but before you feel too bad for him having to ride solo, don’t worry. As you’ll see, for a 60 minute show there wasn’t that much writing to do) and made regular appearances on the show. Now, it’s important to remember that 1960s George Carlin is much different from 1970s-2000s Carlin. While he’s most well known for his honest, social commentary pieces, such as his “seven dirty words” bit, he had a much more clean-cut, personality in the beginning stages of his career, and that’s the Carlin that came to the Kraft Summer Music Hall. READ MORE