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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

127 - South Central
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

126 - roseanne
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

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Let's Do Something Different with Comedy Crowdfunding

nophoneBy this point you’ve read a billion think-pieces on crowdfunding. Is it saving art? Is it the worst thing to happen to art? You’ve seen Veronica Mars and Reading Rainbow come back through it. And whether you like it or hate it, there’s no denying that crowdfunding is a major force in the creative world today and it’s going to be a tool that artists of all mediums utilize for the foreseeable future. Here’s the thing: there are so many weird and cool and thought-provoking ideas out there, but somehow the vast majority of the comedy projects out there have been the variations on the same theme: “Help me make my webseries.” “Help me make a short film.”

Hold up. I’m not saying webseries are bad. (Hey! Check out my author blurb at the end of this article to go watch mine!) They’re not. But they’re just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what can be done with crowdfunding. So, to highlight some of the amazing stuff that can be done in this medium I’ve selected some really creative projects to inspire you. And, great news! They’re all still active so if you like it, put a ring on it! READ MORE

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Revisiting the Surreal World of 'Viva Variety'

124 - Viva Variety
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.)

The members of the popular MTV sketch group The State have successfully infiltrated all of popular culture at this point. They’re in TV shows big and small, they’re writing and directing small indie movies and the biggest four-quadrant movies out there. They’ve broken off from each other, reuniting only occasionally, no longer the 11-headed comedy monster they once were. Today we look back at the first show to leap out of The State and become its own thing. Its own… strange thing. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Viva Variety.

Though there are occasional attempts to bring it back, for the most part the variety show format died in the 1980s. Of course, I’m talking about in America. (Sabado Gigantes is still going strong.) The premise behind Viva Variety is that the show has been very successful overseas in some undisclosed European country and is now making its way to American shores, complete with all of its delightful Euro-weirdness. Each episode featured an American oddball celebrity such as Robin Leach, Eartha Kitt or Rip Taylor, original sketches, bands like They Might Be Giants, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and some sort of weird variety act, like a professional regurgitator. While strangely familiar, it was also unlike anything that had ever been on TV before. READ MORE

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Lorne Michaels Asks 'What's It All About, World?'

123 - What's it All About WorldThe 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.)

If you were a young person and you were into anti-establishment humor, then the late 1960s were a great time for you. You had Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In socking it to Nixon every week on NBC. Flip the dial over to CBS and you had The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It was a great time to be young, alive, and vaguely angry with the government. But what about the other side? Shouldn’t the right wing have their own lighthearted entertainment/variety show? Enter ABC with What’s It All About, World?

I don’t know what to make of What’s It All About, World? It aired for thirteen weeks, beginning in February 6, 1969 under two different names. Halfway through it’s run it decided to drop the whole satire thing and just turned into a regular variety show. Famed writer Harlan Ellison, who was at the time working for The Los Angeles Free Press as a television critic referred to the show as “a right-wing attempt to prove how good things are these days. It might more appropriately be titled The Establishment Strikes Back.” However, hidden among the writing staff are a handful of folks who would go on to create some very different comedy. We have Avery Schreiber, one half of Burns and Schreiber and longtime improviser with The Second City, and then another duo consisting of two fellows by the name of Hart Pomerantz and Lorne Michaels. Yes, that Lorne Michaels. READ MORE

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Joan Rivers Reflects on Legacies, Death, and Bathing in a Sink

joan_rivers_roastThe 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 you know, last week we lost legend Joan Rivers. One of the hardest working people in the business, her absence is felt very strongly in the comedy community. In 1991 she sat down with fellow comedian Alan King on his show Inside the Comedy Mind for an interview that is equal parts funny, illuminating and candid. In it she reflected on her career to that point, her struggles and how she got there.

At this point in her career, Joan was entering uncharted tragedy. Three years ago she had faced one of the most tragic and turbulent moments of her life. The late night show that she had hosted, which inadvertently severed her relationship with long-time mentor and friend Johnny Carson, was canceled after six months on the air, which led to the suicide of her husband Edgar. Slowly she reentered the comedy world as a standup and went on to host a daytime talk show that would run for five years and win a Daytime Emmy award. It was in the midst of the resurgence that Joan was interviewed on Alan King's show. READ MORE

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Conan O'Brien (and Andy Kindler) Wrap Up 1994

122 - Conan 1994The 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 been almost two years since we've had an installment of From the Archives' unofficial recurring segment: Looking Back at Conan's Early Years. Let's fix that. The previous episodes (1, 2, 3) we've looked at have all taken place during O'Brien's first year as a talk show host, which most, including the man himself, would tell you were rocky. He was trying to find his footing as an interviewer, become comfortable in front of the camera, all while trying to deliver his vision of a talk show that is something he would find funny and will also (hopefully) live up to the lofty legacy that his predecessor David Letterman left behind. Today we jump ahead to an episode from December 30, 1994, just a few months after his first year ended.

By this point, things seem to be going a lot smoother for Conan. No doubt, making that year notch in his belt has bolstered his confidence somewhat, but he's also making strides. His monologues are much more comfortable. He's still not the string-dancing, jumping at the camera host we know today, but that evolution is still several years away. His rapport with Andy is easier, and their banter much more natural. And while it's not 100% comfortable, he does seem better with the guests and segues more nimbly from blue card question to question.

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Dissecting Young Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane's Awful, Awful Sitcom

121 - One of the BoysThe 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.)

Take a seat and I'm going to tell you about a sitcom that aired in 1982 that came and went. In the lead, we have the late Mickey Rooney, once the number one movie star in the world, then 62, mustached, and while he was still much older than you're average sitcom anchor, still a very capable performer. As his grandson we have Dana Carvey, still a few years away from his big break on Saturday Night Live, with a weird, blonde bowl cut, but still ready to break out into a Mr. Rogers impression for a quick laugh. And as Dana's roommate we have a young Nathan Lane, in his TV series debut. Why didn't this series run for years and years with talent like that?

Because it was horrible. READ MORE

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Examining the Marx Brothers' Television Appearances

120 - Marx BrothersWhen people describe the Marx Brothers as they walked, honked, quipped, and played on the silver screen, one word seems to come up over and over again: anarchic. Well, after a while, the Marx Brothers disappeared from the silver screen, but before long a new medium showed up for Groucho, Chico, and Harpo to jump on, and as you might imagine, they brought that same sense of anarchy to television. Today we look at a wide selection of the Marx Brothers appearances on television, sometimes in pairs, but usually solo, as seen in the new DVD set The Marx Brothers TV Collection.

Here's the thing about early television of the 50s and 60s: it's all over the place. There were sports shows, panel talk shows, sitcoms, hundreds of variety shows, and the Marx Brothers appeared on whatever they would throw at them. I don't know the best way to do dive into this because there's a lot of stuff in this set, and I have to imagine the majority of it has never been released, unless there's a box set of the TV show Championship Bridge with Charles Goren that I don't know about. (In 1960 there was an actual TV show that was just watching people play the card game bridge and Chico Marx lost badly on it. Now that I've typed that sentence, I realize that this show isn't all that different from the billion poker shows that were on TV a few years back.) Let's go brother by brother through the set and pick out the highlights, starting with the one, the only Groucho Marx. READ MORE

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Looking Back at Dennis Miller's First Solo Show

119 - DennisMillerThe 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.)

Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, but Dennis Miller is a guy who’s gone through a lot of different personas throughout his storied career. He's been the smarmy "Weekend Update" anchor, smarmy late-night talk show host, and most recently a smarmy conservative political commentator. During this run he's had more shows with his name in the title than Tyler Perry that have been attached to more networks than Paddy Chayefsky. His reference-heavy, laid-back demeanor has made him the kind of guy you either love or hate. Well, today we look back at his first solo venture; hot off the heels of his six-year Saturday Night Live run where he hosted his first late-night talk show entitled The Dennis Miller Show.

Premiering on January 20, 1992, The Dennis Miller Show was syndicated, which meant he was a world away from the freedom he would later be given on HBO with his much more long-running Dennis Miller Live. What's interesting about that date, however, is that it meant that Miller was starting out in a much different late night landscape than the one that exists today. At this point, Letterman was still on NBC at 12:35, Carson was just finishing up his run on The Tonight Show, and apart from Nightline the only other competition was from The Arsenio Hall Show. Dennis Miller was there to speak to a younger audience that wasn't being served by Carson's show, but maybe wasn't into Arsenio. However, this was a narrow audience that was probably already being served by Late Night with David Letterman, which might explain why Miller's show lasted only seven months. READ MORE

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When Jon Lovitz Performed an Original Play on Live TV

jonlovitzThe 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 introducing Jon Lovitz for one of his many appearances on Late Night, Conan O'Brien summed the man up perfectly when he described him as a "living cartoon character." He has his catchphrases ("I was ACTing!," "Yeah, THAT's the ticket…," "ACKhem!," and the list could go on and on…), he has a signature cadence — there's no better way to say it other than this: he's just so Lovitzy.

He got a chance to shine on Saturday Night Live, obviously, and his roles on The Critic and Newsradio were great, but when I discovered a special for Fox that he had co-written and starred in on live TV, I was excited to see his pure, unadulterated vision for what a Jon Lovitz television event should be. Airing on May 20, 1992, the fantastically named The Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special was performed for America, and served as a nice little throwback to the olden days of television as Jon and his cast perform an original play for the assembled audience (all in their formal clothing). READ MORE

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Seinfeld Roasts Tommy Chong, and Other Weird Things That Happened on the Playboy Channel

chong-1The 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 warning before we get into this: this installment is going to feel a little bit like a trip to an alternate dimension. A dimension in which the Playboy Channel aired things without boobs. Where Tommy Chong is a name big enough to be on a televised roast. Where Richard Belzer isn't a network TV detective. Where Jerry Seinfeld is big, but not Seinfeld big, and yes, he has to stand at the dais and say mean things about a fellow comedian. Welcome to the world of 1986's Playboy Comedy Roast of Tommy Chong, which aired exclusively on the Playboy Channel, and was a really weird time for everybody, including the audience.

To begin, let's run through the lineup. First and foremost, there's Tommy Chong, the guest of honor, best known as half of the original stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong. Our MC for the evening is David Steinberg, currently the host of Inside Comedy on Showtime, and frequent guest of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. In addition to Seinfeld and The Belz, our roasters include Slappy White, a comedian of the old school, who came up on the so called Chitlin' circuit of standup in the 50s and 60s, working with Redd Foxx before becoming a Friar's Club roast superstar. Also at the head table are Mack and Jamie, a comedy team who at the time were the stars of their own syndicated comedy show Comedy Break with Mack & Jamie. Dick Shawn, who played the actor who played Hitler in the original film version of The Producers is there, breaking out of his traditional stuffy demeanor. And finally there's Marsha Warfield, who is probably best known as the bailiff from Night Court, who David Steinberg touts as the very first woman on the dais of a roast. "Because of the presence of a woman, we'll be a little more contained than usual tonight," he says, beginning his joke. "Fuckin' well better be," she interrupts, ending it for him. READ MORE