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Examining Johnny Carson's Humble Beginnings in the Cellar

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 his new biography called simply Johnny Carson, the titular talk show hosts' long-time lawyer, Henry Bushkin, describes the ins and outs of Johnny's life: from the sordid personal stuff to the show business drama. You'll read about Johnny packing heat while looking for evidence of his wife's infidelities with Frank Gifford and you'll read about Frank Sinatra strong-arming Carson into performing at the Reagan Inauguration. Unfortunately, what you won't read about is anything that took place outside of 1970-1988, the years in which Bushkin was brought in to work from Carson to the time at which he was abruptly dismissed. For those of us looking for information about Carson's rise to The Tonight Show, we'll have to look elsewhere. So, I went to the Paley Center.

The earliest Carson-related program I could find in the archives was a show called Carson's Cellar, the first show he hosted after moving to Los Angeles. The program aired on the LA CBS affiliate KNXT. The sole episode found in the Paley library aired in 1953, and while there is no exact date given, based on the mentions of football and turkey, it's a safe bet to assume it aired some time in November. The show was performed live in front of a studio audience, and while it is pretty slick looking for a local show, Carson's Cellar is still very clearly not a high-budget, nationally syndicated program. READ MORE

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Nick Kroll Talks 'Kroll Show' Season 2 with Seth Meyers

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.)

If you two characters named Liz, and one of them goes by the nickname "Pretty Liz," does that necessarily make the other one "Ugly Liz?" Last weekend at the Paley Center, as part of the New York Comedy Festival, Nick Kroll informed the audience that no, it does not. That character is just named "Liz." This was just one of the many illuminating behind-the-scenes pieces of info learned at "The Kroll Show" panel held on Saturday, November 9th, 2013, featuring star Nick Kroll, director Jonathan Krisel (Portlandia, Tim and Eric), producer John Levinstein (Arrested Development, The John Larroquette Show), and moderated by Seth Meyers.

First the audience was shown the premiere episode of season 2 of Kroll Show, and without spoiling anything (I'll save that for later, but I'll warn you properly first), I can say that if you enjoyed the first season, you won't be disappointed with the next. The discussion began with a conversation about how the show started in the first place. Director Jonathan Krisel and Nick Kroll were set up on a meeting and despite the fact that Krisel was bleary-eyed from editing a segment for HBO's Funny or Die for the past 48 hours, he and Kroll still managed to click right away. Nick pitched the sketch that would become "Rich Dicks," and after hearing the title, Krisel cut him off: "Oh, I get it." "Well, it's-" "No, I get it." Along with Jon Daly, the short was made for the Internet, which turned into a Rich Dicks pilot for Comedy Central, which turned into Nick Kroll's comedy special "Thank You Very Cool," which finally became Kroll Show. READ MORE

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Looking Back at the 'John Larroquette Show'

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 note: The original version of this article inaccurately and unintentionally inflated Mitch Hurwtiz's role in the creation The John Larroquette Show. Hurwitz took over the show after the second season. The pilot examined below was written and created by Don Reo and the article has been updated to reflect as much.

In the modern television landscape, shows like Louie, HBO's various comedies, and Adult Swim's often strange programming offer audiences windows into all sorts of strange worlds. Not all that long ago however, viewers didn't have quite so many choices in programming, and so there were much fewer opportunities for subversion to make its way through the cracks. Today, we examine the pilot of The John Larroquette Show, one such show that snuck through and, for a few seasons, made television a little darker.

The show, which was initially named Crossroads after the bus depot that the main character John Hemmingway has become the manager, was John Larroquette's chance to breakout after his role on the long-running Night Court. Behind the scenes, the show featured a very talented crew of writers, headed by television veteran Don Reo, creator of Blossom and My Wife and Kids. The writers' room featured Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, Jim Valleley, Golden Girls alum and future Arrested Development writer, and John Levinstein, future AD producer. The first thing that strikes you about the first episode of this show is how dark it is. This is a prime-time sitcom in 1993. This is the era of Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Cheers, and on the darker side, maybe Rosanne. This show opens with a grizzled looking Larroquette standing at the podium at an AA meeting, admitting that he's only been sober for 36 hours and that he really needs this new job to work this time. And this is just one of the many heavy topics discussed in this episode. READ MORE

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The Original Writers of Conan's 'Late Night' on Writing

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 week on Conan, O'Brien has been celebrating his 20th year on the air. Previously on From the Archives we've looked at his very first episode, and a selection of other early examples of what Late Night looked like in 1993. Today we take a trip through the Paley Center articles for a rare opportunity to hear from several of the original writers of Late Night, who are now among comedy's heaviest of hitters, to hear what it was like to write for the show, and just what it was they were trying to do to set it apart from other programs, back when they were actually doing it. On January 13, 1994, not even a year into the program's life, the Paley Center invited then-head writer Robert Smigel, Andy Richter, Louis CK, and Dino Stamatopoulos to come and talk about what it's like writing for what could only be described in 1994 as the newest late night program of them all. READ MORE

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Bob and Ray Team Up with Jane, Laraine, and Gilda

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.)

Long ago in From the Archives we took a look at the long career of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding by starting towards the beginning and looking at their first show with Audrey Meadows in the early days of television. Today we look at the other end of their careers, jumping from 1951 to 1979, with a special that aired on March 31st of that year as a replacement for Saturday Night Live when that show was in its white-hot 4th season. In addition to its stage, and its time slot, this special borrowed a few familiar names from SNL. Today we look at a special presentation from Bob and Ray entitled: Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda.

This special (I don't want to have to write Bob and Ray, Jane, Laraine, and Gilda every single time) is a weird hybrid of the classic Bob and Ray shtick that the pair had been practicing for the previous 33 years and the new, counter-culture attitude of Saturday Night Live. The program operates under the same framing device as SCTV: tonight NBC is broadcasting a program from a different television network, in this case the Finley Quality Network. Throughout the evening we are shown commercials for strange items and services from the good people at Finley, short snippets of shows also on the Finley Network, as well as musical performances from a young, beardless Willie Nelson (the last one isn't related to the fake network thing but it seemed like as good a place as any to toss that in). READ MORE

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Celebrating the Honeymooners with Audrey Meadows

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 Paley Center, unfortunately, doesn't have rafters from which to hang the jerseys of television's most important stars and shows. But if they did, there's no question that very prominently displayed, right in the middle, would be a number 39 with "The Honeymooners" printed in all caps above it. The "classic 39" episodes of that show are untouchable, and will probably always be revered as one of the prime achievements in television comedy. Over the years there have been tributes and retrospectives, with DVD release after DVD release. However, one special, aired in November of 1990 to mark the 35th anniversary of the show, was significantly different in that it was hosted by Alice Kramden herself, Audrey Meadows. Additionally, this special also featured two sketches from Jackie Gleason's Cavalcade of Stars that had gone unaired since their original broadcast in the 1950s.

As we've seen previously in From the Archives, the first Honeymooners sketch had the same one-room apartment seen in every other incarnation of the show, and shared the same DNA, but featured a different actress as Alice Kramden, Pert Kelton, and a much more combative Ralph and Alice. The two Honeymooners sketches that appear in this special mark only the third and fourth times that Audrey Meadows appeared on stage with Jackie Gleason. While the characterizations of the couple do seem to more closely match their prototypes seen earlier, both Ralph and Alice do appear to soften a bit as they start to transform into the characters we know and love. READ MORE

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Martin Short's First Starring Role: 'The Associates'

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.)

As you may have read, recently the Writers' Guild of America recently announced their list of the 100 Best Written TV Series of All Time. The standards that you'd expect all made it with few surprises to be found. Along with the reveal of the list, panel discussions were held throughout the evening, moderated by Merrill Markoe, with TV writing legends of every era and genre. There were many very prolific figures who stayed on the stage for multiple panels, just as their careers spanned many decades, such as Carl Reiner and Norman Lear. And then there was James L. Brooks who was recognized for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, and The Simpsons. As he walked the red carpet earlier in the evening, Mr. Brooks was asked by Jeff Goldsmith for his podcast The Q+A if there were any projects that was a little ahead of it's time and didn't take off. He was very quick with his answer, "I have a real soft spot a show that did make it to air called The Associates and ran for half a season. It was about a group of associate lawyers, and we were doing a comedy about kids who were making $70,000…a year which I thought was maybe just a little bit early with that. Making that pilot was one of the great experiences of my life." When asked to expand on why he said, "It happens a few times where everything's in trouble and then it just clicks at the end and you just watch that happen." READ MORE

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Dick Cavett's Semi-Serious Talk with Graham Chapman

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 dark world of the comedian is an angle that gets played up a lot. Sometimes it's incredibly valid. Abuse, poverty, and isolation are familiar veins of experience that are mined by comedians for humor later in life. Other times the "pain" is slight and exaggerated. "I wasn't very popular in school," or "my parents got divorced." I'm in no way belittling the tumult these moments can cause in a person's life, but such experiences do not by necessity a comedian make. The late Graham Chapman, one of the members of Monty Python, would probably tell you that he's had his troubles like anyone else but probably would be very British and not make all that big a deal out of it. However, on Mach 18, 1981, he visited the Dick Cavett Show, then airing on PBS, and what starts as a light and humorous interview, soon turns into a fascinating conversation on dealing with alcoholism, death, and what it was like to tell your parents you were gay in 1980s England. READ MORE

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Looking Back at Chris Elliott's Family Sitcom/Gritty Crime Drama 'Action Family'

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.)

What happens when you take a 1970s cop drama and combine it with the Brady Bunch? First you probably get a bunch of people telling you that it's a stupid idea. Then you do it and then somebody tells you that Chris Elliott already did this in 1986. Today we continue our 1st Annual Chris Elliott Two Week Streak by taking a look at Action Family, one of the strangest TV specials to ever make it to the air.

Predating Get a Life by several years, Action Family is a perfect distillation of Chris Elliott's very unique sense of humor, and serves as a proto-Eagleheart a mere 24 years before the series premiered. The premise is simple, but remarkably jarring: Chris Elliott plays Chris, a private investigator who works the streets, trying his best to root out the bitter weed of crime. It's shot on film, it's gritty, it's action packed, and Chris wears a ridiculous wig. However, that all changes when Chris comes home to his loving family. Suddenly the program is being shot on video, there's a laugh track to go with hackneyed jokes, and Chris wears a ridiculous sweater. Rather than just loosely piece these two incredibly disparate ideas together, Action Family instead weaves them together, transitioning as well as one can from these tonal shifts. Chris' jazz musician friend warns him that his fellow jazz friends are being murdered just before he himself is murdered outside Chris' office. On top of his body, which now lies inside his smashed upright bass, he finds a clue: a feathered earring. Chris goes home to his family and is greeted by his youngest daughter and his son, played by Baby Seth Green. While at the dinner table, his wife warns him that their oldest, Melissa is turning into a young woman and has a date that evening before Melissa walks downstairs completely nude. She tells her father about her new boyfriend, Zack, whom she met at a prison dance. Chris plays the classic sitcom father and exclaims "On parole?! Excited?! Prison dance?! What in the heck tarnation is going on here?! Have we all gone bonkers?" READ MORE

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The Writers and Cast Take Us Behind the Scenes of 'Get a Life'

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 1990s there were only a handful of weirder, non-mainstream shows. Nickelodeon had Ren and Stimpy, Comedy Central had Mystery Science Theater 3000, MTV had shows like Liquid Television and Aeon Flux, but it was nothing like the "cult" programming we have today. In 1999, Sifl and Olly was cancelled without it's third season airing. If it had been on Adult Swim ten years later, maybe they would've gotten a movie deal, like the Aqua Teens. But in 1992, Fox aired one of the weirdest, cultiest shows to ever be broadcast on the Big Four Networks. I'm talking, of course, about Chris Elliott's Get a Life.

If you're unfamiliar with Get a Life, correct that mistake. It finally came out on DVD last year after a really long wait. The basic premise is simple: Chris Elliott, famous at that time for his appearances on David Letterman's Late Night as a wide variety of wacky characters, plays an adult man working as a paperboy who never moved out of his parent's house. The show is silly, dark, and often ends with its main character dying. Co-created by David Mirkin, who was the showrunner of the classic Newhart, and would later go on to run The Simpsons during the classic seasons 5 and 6, it somehow managed to last two seasons but lived on in the hearts of comedy fans with crappy VHS recordings to cherish. in 2000, at the Paley Center's annual Paleyfest, many of the minds behind Get a Life reunited to reminisce and listen to David Mirkin talk. (I kid, I kid.) READ MORE

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A Look Back at the Filmmakers and Short Films of 'Saturday Night Live'

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 looks at Saturday Night Live as one giant TV show that has aired for more than three decades, it's interesting to see how much things have changed and how much things have stayed the same. After the explosion of the Digital Shorts, the pre-taped, short film aspect of the show is just as integral to the show's success as the traditional live sketch portion referenced in the show's title. There have been pre-taped sketches from the very beginning, from Albert Brooks in the first season, which I extensively profiled earlier in this column, to The Lonely Island guys of the recent past. In October of 2001, the Paley Center brought together four of Saturday Night Live's short filmmakers to talk about this very exclusive club and the pitfalls and unique issues that come along with making shows for the seminal late night show. READ MORE

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Finding Long Lost Jack Benny Episodes

The last time on From the Archives that we checked in on Jack Benny, it was towards the end of his career, in 1973. While he was getting on in years, his oft-complimented timing was still just as sharp as it always was, and he still put on a good show. However, judging any comedian's performance at the age of 79 seems a little unfair, unless they're George Burns, so today we're going to examine Jack Benny at his peak, with the help of the new Shout Factory DVD The Jack Benny Show: The Lost Episodes.

I've spoken many times in this column about the various studios in the early days of TV not seeing the long term prospects of the their shows and either not preserving them, or wiping the tapes to make space to record new ones. The main way that these shows were recorded was through the kinescope process, which was the highly technical method of pointing a camera at a TV monitor and pressing record. This was seen as a short-term thing, used to show sponsors how their live commercials went, or in some cases, to broadcast a show later if an affiliate wanted to shuffle time slots. The episodes of The Jack Benny Show presented on these discs are restored from original kinescopes that have never been aired since they were originally broadcast more than sixty years ago. So how do they hold up? How does Jack Benny, the biggest radio star of the thirties and forties make the transition to television? Let's take a closer look at a few of these episodes. READ MORE

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America Meets David Letterman and Michael Keaton on a Failed Mary Tyler Moore Variety Show

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 Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's new book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, she accurately describes The Mary Tyler Moore Show as "a classic" that "helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry, [and] elevated the sitcom to an art form." So if you are the titular star of said sitcom, what do you do after your long-running show ends? Mary Tyler Moore took a year off from television. Then she did what most celebrities did in the 1970s: she starred in a variety show.

In 1978, Mary was an hour-long variety program featuring comedy sketches, musical guests, and dance. More importantly, it was among the world's earliest introductions to Swoosie Kurtz, Michael Keaton, and David Letterman, who were all regulars on the program for the three episodes it lasted. Today we put what I believe to be the third and final episode of Mary under the microscope as we try to figure out just what the hell happened here. READ MORE

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How to Make a Sketch Comedy Show with Bob and David and the 'Mr. Show' Writers

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.)

Recently, the Internet exploded with big news that Bob Odenkirk and David Cross would be going on a reunion tour and publishing a book celebrating their collaboration on Mr. Show. Their seminal HBO program ended almost 15 years ago but it still impacts the comedy scene today as it is continually rediscovered and built upon by new generations of comedic minds. Today, we travel back in time to February 1999, just a few months after the last episode of Mr. Show aired on HBO as Bob, David, director Troy Miller, and writers/cast members Brian Posehn, Jay Johnston, and Bill Odenkirk sat down to discuss how they made Mr. Show and the comedic philosophies that drove it forward.

1999 is an interesting time in Mr. Show history. The show had just wrapped up and Bob, David, and Troy are preparing to make what would ultimately become Run Ronnie, Run which resulted in the pair being kicked out of the editing room and Bob disowning the final cut of the film. The show had just ended, and while it had some success it was hardly as well known as it is today (the fourth and final season was given the timeslot of Mondays at midnight on HBO). And just hearing the credits of the writers and performers as the moderator brings them onstage gives an indication that these folks have a ways to go before the get the respect in the industry that they'll later enjoy (Cross's credit is "you may remember him from Men in Black, where he played the memorable coroner's clerk"). But with memories of the TV show being fresh in everyone's head and the obvious friendship between the panelists, the panel becomes an insightful and entertaining glimpse into the process of making a quality sketch comedy TV show. READ MORE