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The Fake Talk Show is Born with 'Fernwood 2 Night'

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.)

Fake talk shows: today the TV is lousy with them. In fact, the form has been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed so many times that there are some real talk shows, such as Craig Ferguson's, that have adopted fake talk show components. It makes sense that the genre would be so ripe for parody as it provides a perfect template for comedy. At its center you have a strong figure to lead and guide the show, often to serve as the audience's point of view. Through the guests you have a steady stream of characters to shuffle through, or big-name celebrity guests, depending on the goal of your fake talk show. Plus, the format of the show doesn't require a narrative through line, which can make the writing process more like a sketch than a sitcom, but if you want to have one, it's not difficult to throw one into the mix as well. With so many talk shows on the air these days, both real and fake, let's take a look back at one of the first fake talk shows to play with the form, create some very real characters, and just generally mess with its audience. I'm talking, of course, about Fernwood 2 Night. READ MORE

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A Reunion and a New Sketch from 'Late Night with Conan's Writers

Well, the Paley Center has been temporarily closed due to repairs (it's reopened now) so instead of dipping into the archives, today we head over to the gross Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn to Littlefield, home of Scott Rogowsky's weekly live talk show "Running Late." On April 30th, 2014, his show hosted three former writers from Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Andy Blitz, Jon Glaser, and Brian McCann, to reminisce, watch some clips, and perform a new, original sketch for the audience gathered there that evening. Luckily, the cameras were rolling and these videos can be enjoyed by everyone, including the people who didn't walk past the world's most disgusting canal (Guys, seriously. It tested positive for gonorrhea.)

In this first clip, Scott's monologue is interrupted by a series of more and more ridiculous gunmen. This insane moment is a new original sketch from the trio, and serves as a nice little reminder of why we love their comedy: weird premises, strange logical arguments, and sandwiches. READ MORE

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Looking Back at Ellen and Mitch Hurwitz's Sitcom 'The Ellen 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.)

Before Mitch Hurwitz created Arrested Development, he cut his teeth writing on The Golden Girls, but you already knew that. Between the latter and the former, there were a few projects that he worked on that helped him to transition from the classic three-camera sitcom to the rule breaking single-cam that is Arrested. One was The John Larroquette Show, which he ran after the departure of creator Don Reo. Another was Everything's Relative, a CBS sitcom starring Jeffery Tambor. And then there's The Ellen Show.

The Ellen Show is also a transitional show for Ellen DeGeneres, the titular star of the show. It comes a few years after her successful and controversial ABC sitcom, Ellen, and before her mega-hit daily talk show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ellen's second sitcom, co-created by Hurwitz and Carol Leifer, shows an Ellen who has learned from her previous sitcom, but isn't apologizing. Her new character is still a lesbian, despite the controversy that announcement caused last time, but this is less of a focus in the new show. Ellen's mom (played by Cloris Leachman) and sister are totally accepting of it and treat it as old news. It comes up again briefly when she's visiting her hometown to accept an award and stops by her old high school. Her high school prom date, played by Jim Gaffigan, tries to hit on her and she tells him that she's gay. Thrown for a loop, he gives a nervous chuckle, then, unsure what else to say, congratulates her. Ellen responds, "Thank you. You may actually be the first person to congratulate me for that." Without missing a beat, one of her old teachers (played by Martin Mull) joins in congratulating her, as do everyone else in the room. Ellen quiets them, saying, "That's enough! No need to harp on it!" making a tongue-in-cheek reference to what the rest of America told her in the final season of her previous sitcom. READ MORE

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A Chat with the Cast and Crew of 'The Simpsons'

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 Simpsons has been on TV forever. Over its long run, The Paley Center has done a number of Simpsons-centered events over the years (From the Archives looked back at one featuring Matt Groening and director David Silverman from 1992) and I attempted to pick one of the more recent ones, celebrating the show's 300th episode. It wasn't until I was about halfway through the seminar that I looked at the date and realized that this event was still 11 years ago, in 2003(!). Assembled here for the big panel are creator Matt Groening, past and present show runner Al Jean, and the voices of Homer, Lisa, and Mr. Burns, and thousands of others, respectively, Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, and Harry Shearer.

As I imagine is often the case, a number of questions are centered around the creation and process behind the show that seemed to be asked every time these figures are interviewed, whether together or separate. The Simpsons started out on The Tracey Ullman Show. Matt invented the characters outside of Jim Brooks' office so he didn't have to give up the rights to the characters in his "Life in Hell" comic strip. The family is named after the members of Matt's family. The process of creating an episode takes many months, many steps, and many, many rewrites at every stage. They are all surprised that the show has lasted this long. If you're a fan of the show, you already know all of this.

However, there was still a lot to be learned from this large pool of talent, once you get the basics out of the way. The casting for the show was mostly done during the Tracy Ullman Show era with the voice actors Dan Castelleneta and Julie Kavner being plucked out of the cast of the show. Nancy Cartwright, voice of Bart, and Yeardley Smith, Lisa, auditioned for the show separately, with Yeardley initially auditioning for Bart. When recording audio for the original shorts, often the cast would huddle under blankets behind the bleachers of the show and record the lines between the saw blades building the sets and Tracey rehearsing her music numbers. The early days of The Simpsons were rather ramshackle, but clearly they did something right. READ MORE

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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?"

READ MORE

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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