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Watching Rare Early Comedy from Jay Leno and Freddie Prinze

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.)

When one thinks about the standup comedy boom of the 1980s you probably think about comedians with household names like Seinfeld, Ellen, and Ray Romano. You probably remember shows like Live at the Apollo, and An Evening at the Improv. And you probably think of hacky premises like airline food, the DMV, and observations about the differences between black people versus white people. Well all of those things have a connection back to Budd Friedman's Improv theaters in New York and LA. Today we look back at one of if not the first specials recorded inside this storied theater, and HBO's first ever comedy special: On Location: Freddie Prinze and Friends.

Now if you're a child of the nineties, you might think that I stopped typing Freddie Prinze Jr.'s name too soon, but today we're going back to 1976 when troubled comedian Freddie Prinze recorded the only footage of himself performing in front of a nightclub audience, creating a unique snapshot of the world of standup comedy in LA during this time. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Prinze's work, he started in New York after dropping out of high school during his senior year to pursue standup. In 1973, at the age of 19, he performed a star making set on Carson's Tonight Show and became the first guest to be called over to the couch during their first appearance. The following year he was cast in the title role of the NBC sitcom Chico and the Man. Unfortunately by January of 1977 he had fallen deeply into drugs, and committed suicide at the age of 22, ending an all-too-short career. READ MORE

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The Episode Where David Letterman Rotated the Screen 360°

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.)

Yesterday it was announced that very soon we would be coming to the end of an era. Next year, David Letterman will retire from late night television after what will end up being 33 years. With him stepping down, so too ends a long, sustained period of creativity, innovation, and weirdness that television had not seen since the days of TV's first innovator, Ernie Kovacs. Over the last few years of this column, we've examined some of Dave's more experimental shows throughout his long career, including the night he was too tired to do a show, and the time when he did the show with 13 cameras. Today we're going to take a look at one of his strangest concept shows: The 360° Rotation Episode.

At the beginning of the show on December 9, 1986 there was something a little off about Late Night. The image seemed to be slightly askew, and there was a little bit of black in the corner. No doubt, viewers were checking the knobs of their televisions to make sure there wasn't something wrong with the picture, but before long, Dave put his audience at ease and let them know there there was no need to adjust their sets, with a long, bombastic introduction. "On August 15, 1932," Dave begins, "CBS experimented with a television transmission called Worldwide Review. We've had network, cable, color, stereo and tonight: another experiment. Thanks to the technological geniuses at RCA, we bring you the 360° image rotation television program. During our program, the picture will rotate once entirely, as I imagine most of you do at home. You think it's annoying now, just wait about 10 minutes. I'll tell you more about this noble, bold experiment, but first George Miller is with us tonight, Peter Ustinov, and… this is actually giving me vertigo." READ MORE

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David Brenner Tells His Life Story

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.)

Earlier this month we lost legendary stand-up comic David Brenner. Since that time, much has been written about the man, favorite jokes have been quoted, and tributes from his peers have been penned. With this in mind, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back at what was no doubt one of the most extensive interviews he had done and watch his appearance on Alan King's 1992 Comedy Central show, Inside the Comic Mind, and let Brenner tell his life story. READ MORE

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Back to Nebraska with Johnny Carson

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.)

I've no doubt discussed in more than one of these articles how big a star Johnny Carson was. Back in the days of three major networks, the guy who came on every single night to make you laugh before you went to sleep — and did it well — was king. And while Johnny had some problems with NBC over the years, they pretty much gave him what he wanted, rather than risk having him jump ship to another network that would be all too eager to have him. This is the only reason that I can think of for the 1982 special Johnny Comes Home to exist.

The premise of the special is really straight-forward. A camera crew follows Johnny Carson as he visits his hometown of Norfolk, Nebraska. He drives around, takes a look at how the neighborhood has changed. We see the house where he grew up as well as some home videos from his childhood. Eventually he orchestrates a reunion of a group of students from his senior class, where they catch up and talk about the good ol' days. We make a number of stops on the nostalgia tour with Carson, but as I watched, the question I kept coming back to again and again was "Who is this for?"

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Your New 'Tonight Show' Host: Jack Paar!

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.)

Last week Jimmy Fallon assumed the throne of the Tonight Show, making him the sixth host of the show in its sixty-year history. The program is a storied institution that has been a part of the culture for as long as most people can remember. It has been rocked by scandals; it has made careers, and launched a million stars. Today we're zooming in on a piece of Tonight Show history in the form of another host's first time. We've previously looked at the first episode of the series, hosted by Steve Allen, and sadly Johnny Carson's first only exists in audio form, so we move our gaze to the oft forgotten host of Tonight: Jack Paar, host from 1957 to 1962.

Before the Tonight Show, Paar was mostly a journeyman television/radio host. He was the host of several game shows, appeared on Ed Sullivan as a comic, and hosted a version of CBS' The Early Show, which was less like the show it is today, and more like a late night show. Meanwhile, on NBC, Steve Allen had left The Tonight Show for prime time, and the network introduced a few different shows including Tonight! America After Dark, a news program. It failed terribly, and many stations across the country dropped it. As a result, the decision was made to return back to the Tonight Show that Allen had created with a new host in the form of Jack Paar. We'll look specifically at his first night behind the desk in a moment, but first, let's talk about his tenure at 11:30. READ MORE

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Harold Ramis's 'SCTV' Legacy

In his obituary, published yesterday by his hometown paper The Chicago Tribune, Harold Ramis was described as leaving behind "a reputation as a mensch and all-around good guy." There's really not much more one could ask for when your life is being summed up. But as it turns out, Ramis was a lot more than that. He was a comedy pioneer, a trailblazer, and a visionary. Without Ramis, Ghostbusters would have been about "ghost smashers" that travel through time with magic wands. Without Ramis, we might not have the "serious" phase of Bill Murray's career that we're all enjoying now. The man co-wrote Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Groundhog Day, for goodness' sake. I'm probably understating it when I say we lost a legend.

We could spend time looking at any one of those movies in depth and analyzing what made it so special, but you could get that anywhere. Today we're going back to his roots. After performing at the Second City in Chicago, after working on the National Lampoon radio show, but before he conquered Hollywood. Today we're looking at SCTV.

Unless you're in Canada, SCTV has basically disappeared from the airwaves, but it marks the start of many big names in the world of comedy like John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, and Eugene Levy to name just a small sampling. Often dismissed as a Saturday Night Live rip-off, that couldn't be further from the truth. Whereas SNL in the early days was a variety show comprised of cast members and writers thrust together, SCTV was made of people who had worked together for years trying to entertain each other first and foremost, as they created an entire universe for their sketches to live in. Without the inspiration of this show, Conan O'Brien, Matt Groening, the brains behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the Kids and the Hall, all self-avowed fans, might have all been a little less inspired by the world of comedy. Beginning in 1976, the show was made in Canada for very little money, and featured many of the actors and actresses who were starring on the stages of the Second City Toronto. The only one to come from performing in America was also their head writer, Chicago's Harold Ramis.

The premise of the show was simple: for half an hour, the small television channel SCTV, broadcasting out of the fictional town of Melonville, would take over with their own programming. This would vary from traditional interview shows, morning programs, parodies of popular movies or TV shows, and announcements from the seemingly insane people who were running the network. In just the three short years Ramis was on the program he not only managed to steer the show towards it's strange, specific sense of humor, he also managed to carve out some classic characters of his own. READ MORE

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When Edward R. Murrow Visited Sid Caesar's Place

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.)

Last week, as I'm sure you're already well aware, we lost one of the greats. Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91. This week Mel Brooks went on Conan to pay tribute to his old boss and friend, and much has been written about Caesar's illustrious career within the confines of this column alone (here and here). Today we look once again at the legend, but not as a superstar of the world of comedy. Instead, we attempt to see him as just a man.

But let's jump away from Sid for just one second. In the 1950s, there was no television journalist more respected than Edward R. Murrow, and if you've seen Good Night and Good Luck, you know why. Murrow had a reputation for being forthright and honest in his delivery of the news, and was not afraid to rattle cages to do so. The aforementioned film focuses on his takedown of Senator McCarthy on Murrow's hard-hitting news program, See it Now. In addition to that program, Murrow also hosted a show devoted just to live celebrity interviews, conducted remotely, with Murrow in studio and the celebrity in their house. It was sort of a 1950s combination of Cribs and Ellen. Hosted by a chain smoking newsman. On Friday, October 1, 1954 at 10:30, Murrow's camera crew crammed themselves into the Park Avenue apartment of Sid and Florence Caesar. READ MORE

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Stan Freberg's Long Career, in Short

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.)

You may not know the name Stan Freberg, but you've definitely felt his influence. His career has lasted decades, first breaking into show business as a voice actor in 1944 before marching to the beat of his own snare drum. Let's first introduce the milestones in his career that you may already be familiar with: in the classic Looney Tunes cartoons he voiced many characters including Pete Puma, Chester the Terrier, and took over the rules of Junyer Bear and Beaky Buzzard. His first record released under his own name, a parody of soap operas which is comprised solely of the couple saying "John" and "Marsha" with different intonations, sold a quarter million copies and reached #21 on the Billboard charts. You may know it from the premiere episode of Mad Men's fourth season when Peggy and Joey act it out to one another in the break room. In addition to that, Freburg managed to make his mark on records, radio, and eventually the entire world of advertising. You may not know it, but that modern biting, satirical comedy you enjoy may not be so modern as you thought. READ MORE

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Watching as The Muppets Go Hollywood For the First Time

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.)

At the beginning of 2014, I reflected on the past year of this column and cited a compilation of Jim Henson’s early work as being particularly inspiring. I found it so inspiring, in fact, that I’ve been reading/devouring the new Jim Henson biography written by Brian Jay Jones, a remarkably detailed look at pretty much every facet of the man’s life. As one reads about his career, you come away with two important facts: he never stopped creating new things to work on and he was always ready to move on to the next big thing. It took him some time, but in 1976 he successfully managed to get enough interest in his very own Muppet Show. The show was almost instantly an enormous hit and a mere three years later, Henson and the rest of his crew were able to create The Muppet Movie. It too was a success and the Muppet train kept on rolling.

Today we look at an artifact of the promotion for the movie: an hour long special entitled The Muppets Go Hollywood. It’s not quite the movie and it’s not quite The Muppet Show, though it shares elements of both. Airing on May 16th, 1979, a month before the movie was released in the United States, the special is quite a lavish affair, featuring many celebrity cameos from the time period as the Muppets take over the Coconut Grove for the night. READ MORE

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Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant's Five Tips on How to Write Movies in Hollywood

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.)

Tom Lennon and Ben Garant are experts on how to make it in Hollywood. Their book, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, was an attempt to convey that knowledge to a hungry audience wanting to hear the ins and outs of the studio system as explained by two men who have actually been successful navigating it. On July 13, 2011, to promote their book, the pair sat down for a Q and A at the Paley Center to candidly share some advice, wrapped inside some entertaining stories from their behind-the-scenes careers.

The night began with a pair of videos they had produced for Funny or Die before Lennon and Garant took the stage. There was a brief conversation about their show Reno 911! but beyond those few moments, the conversation was kept strictly to their writing careers. Throughout the night they gave young writers innumerable tips to make it in the system, which I have, for your convenience, put into boldface and isolated for your edification: READ MORE

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Long Before Jeff Garlin, A Different Set of Goldbergs

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.)

There are many who say that entertainment works in cycles: things become popular, they go out of fashion, they come back again in an updated, but similar form. If you go along with that model, it should come as no surprise that one of the most popular, new television programs is ABC’s The Goldbergs. That's because one of the first TV sitcoms to rise to popularity aired for ten years, from 1949 to 1956, and was called The Goldbergs.

There are several noteworthy things to be said about The Goldbergs. In its origins, the program dealt with the struggles surrounding tenement life in the Bronx for Jewish families before eventually transitioning to the suburbs and showing the issues of assimilation into a new society. The family and characters in the show are Jewish, almost stereotypically so, during a time in which ethnicity and Otherness was whitewashed on television. They represented a lone minority voice that appealed to the majority.

It’s also important to note that the show’s star, Gertrude Berg, also wrote and directed each episode of the radio show, and continued to write every episode of the almost decade-long-run of the television iteration. Despite what you might have seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show, women did not make up one-third of television’s writing staffs. They were few and far between, but here we had a head writer, showrunner, star, all rolled up into one 1940s version of Tina Fey. She was also a woman with a very clear vision of what her show should be. She insisted that her show would not have a studio audience. She made sure that every plotline on her show had a basis in everyday events, which no doubt contributed to the program’s popularity. She also remained as loyal to her actors as she could. When her co-star Phillip Loeb was blacklisted she was pressured to remove him from the show. She refused, and as a result, her show lost their sponsor forcing CBS’s hand to cancel The Goldbergs. READ MORE

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What I've Learned About Comedy From Two Years of Hanging in the Archives

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.)

When I started writing this column a little over two years ago, my intentions were pretty straight-forward: turn the time I was spending at the Paley Center into something productive. I started going to further my own comedy writing, to learn from the past and see what secrets I could glean from the material that came before, but why not try to spread that knowledge to the rest of the world. This is my 100th article for Splitsider and since we are now looking at the beginning of a new year, this seems like as good a time as any to reflect on what I've learned throughout these many articles.

Do the Work

This is the biggest lesson I've learned through this series. I've seen legends make some strange missteps in their careers, such as Don Rickles’ first attempt at a solo TV show called The Don Rickles Show, Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett's short lived, live sitcom Stanley, David Lynch's insane sit-com On the Air, and Steve Allen's attempt at revitalizing his legendary career through The Steve Allen Comedy Hour. Each of these stars stumbled a bit, but found their way. Maybe not with those shows, but with the next ones, or the ones after that. Giving up, though, was not an option. Maybe they had some luck, or someone who believed in them, but more than that, they had talent. They kept working and honing their craft, and eventually it paid off. READ MORE

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Looking Back on Christmas Past with Norm MacDonald

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 case you haven't already figured it out, the holidays are fast approaching (Writing Tip: Notice I'm not saying which ones so that this article can be read any time of year) and the television is warming our hearts with commercials about family members coming home, wishes of Happy Honda-Days, and sitcom plots that reheat the plot of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. Here at From the Archives, we're going to add to the holiday cheer and highlight a forgotten holiday special from 1999, in which Norm MacDonald and Artie Lange try to save Christmas, but end up in a hospital.

ABC's The Norm Show aired for three years, from 1999-2001, and was created by Bruce Helford, who also co-created The Drew Carey Show, which shares a similar sensibility. Primarily an office comedy, Norm's program has a similarly dark-yet-silly tone, featuring a main character that is forced to live an adult life despite being a child at heart. The Norm Show was MacDonald's return to television after being removed from his Weekend Update post at Saturday Night Live after being deemed "not funny" by NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer. After writing and staring in the hilarious, but financial failure, Dirty Work, The Norm Show's first season was one of the top rated sitcoms on ABC. However, frequent schedule changes as the show moved from Wednesday to what is commonly known as "the Friday night death slot" lost this audience and after three seasons, the show was canceled. READ MORE

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America Meets Buddy Hackett, Carol Burnett, and Woody Allen with 'Stanley'

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.)

Remember a few years a back when 30 Rock was still on and they would do the occasional live episode? Remember the excitement you'd feel watching it? The joy you'd get as Fred Armisen made Jimmy Fallon crack up? That little extra kick the jokes would get from having that live studio audience there to laugh? What if every sitcom on TV was done like that? Wouldn't that be neat? Except the novelty would probably wear off because you wouldn't know any other form of sitcom? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of television in 1956.

Stanley is a sitcom that you've probably never heard of, but it is an example of one of these live sitcoms that aired for 19 weeks on NBC and features a host of talent. The titular role was performed by comedian Buddy Hackett, in his first leading role. A 23-year-old Carol Burnett, in her third appearance on television and her first regular role, played his girlfriend Celia on the show. Among the show's tiny writing staff was comedy legend Woody Allen, who was no doubt brought on by the show's producer, Max Liebman, who was at that time one of the bigger names in television, having previously produced Sid Caesar's various programs. While we're at it, the show was introduced by none other than Don Pardo who lets us know that Stanley is sponsored by Bobbi brand hairpins. READ MORE