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'The Honeymooners' Return for Christmas

131 - Honeymooners ChristmasThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

When people talk about The Honeymooners TV show, generally they’re referring to “The Classic 39,” which were the full half-hour shows in which Ralph and Norton dress as robots, buy TV sets, and find new ways to get rich quick. Prior to the stand-alone show, the characters appeared in short sketches on The Cavalcade of Stars program (I examined the very first of these sketches as one of the first articles on From the Archives.) Then after the last of those original 39 episodes aired in 1956, the cast would reunite (with occasional replacements for Ralph and Norton’s wives, depending on availability) on Jackie Gleason’s various programs and specials, until 1978. Today we look back at the third to last appearance of The Honeymooners, in the form of a 1977 Christmas special. READ MORE

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Watching the Unaired Sgt. Bilko Pilot

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Today, Phil Silvers’ legacy might be that his voice and TV persona were ripped off by Hanna-Barbera for the character of Top Cat. As a result, today’s generation is missing out on watching a truly unique performer with the ability to play a perfect fast-talking heel, who truly lived up to his nickname as “The King of Chutzpah.” Today we look in on the first time Silvers performed his most famous character Sergeant Bilko on film in the very rare, unaired audition show for what would become the classic Phil Silvers Show.

Originally titled You’ll Never Get Rich, The Phil Silvers Show (sometimes also referred to simply as Sgt. Bilko) featured a very straightforward premise. Bilko is stationed at a quiet Army base in the middle of Kansas, in charge of a rag-tag group of men who spend very little time actually doing their duty. Bilko is constantly trying to get rich quick whether it be with the help of his men, or through their wallets. The show was created by Nat Hiken, who was one of television’s first writer/producers. When the show started, Silvers’ career in film was just beginning to flourish, but his stage resume was long. Starting with vaudeville, and then working his way up to a Tony award winning Broadway actor, Silvers quickly made a name for himself as a very funny actor. He didn’t do standup, and according to a featurette on the It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World DVD, he wasn’t particularly funny in real life, but when in character the man knew how to milk every laugh out of an audience with a slow burn or a quick emotional turn to anger. READ MORE

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Remembering Mike Nichols the Performer

129 - Nichols and May
As you no doubt already heard, yesterday marked the passing of a man the media has aptly named an “entertainment icon” by the name of Mike Nichols. Mike earned his icon status by performing just about every major task one can perform in the modern creative arts, working as a comedian, a director, a producer, and a writer. He will be best known as the director of such films as The Graduate, for which he won an Oscar, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Catch-22, Angels in America, Working Girl, and many others. But today, we dip into the archives and take a look at the first job Nichols performed that brought him to national attention: that of one half of the comedy duo Nichols & May. READ MORE

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Weird Al's Early Work Finally Emerges from the Archives

thecompleatalAs Weird Al’s career approaches its fourth decade, his audience continues to regenerate itself and amass new generations of fans, like a snowball rolling down a hill. This is probably great for album sales as the younger set digs into the past and scoops up as much of Al history as possible, but no doubt, for many of these fans, it can also be frustrating. You see, when you have a career as long as Al’s, certain projects are going to fade away and become unavailable. Well, newer fans who have been feeling as though their collection has been incomplete can rejoice as next week sees the release of two Weird Al upgrades. UHF, Weird Al’s feature film makes it’s debut on Blu-Ray, and The Compleat Al sees its first release on DVD, making it the first time it’s been available since it came out on VHS in 1985. Let’s jump in and see how this work from more than 25 years ago holds up.

The rarer of the two, The Compleat Al is a piece of work that’s a little hard to pin down. The first thing you need to know about is the title. No, that’s not a “wacky” deliberate spelling error; it’s actually a spoof of the title of the then-recent Beatles documentary (the “Compleat” is a play on the misspelling of “The Beatles.”) Al’s “documentary” is a bit of a Frankenstein of a variety of sources. The framing device is that you’re watching a heightened version of Al’s life story. There are definitely a number of facts about Al’s life to be gleaned, such as the fact that Al studied architecture in college, or that he was launched into stardom from Doctor Demento’s radio show, however these true facts are often obscured and hidden beneath a layer of invented ideas and bogus reenactments of events that never occurred. Examples include the auditions for Al’s backing band, Al on stage, lighting an accordion on fire in the style of Hendrix, and an ominous trip to Neverland as Al asks permission from Michael Jackson (dressed in his outfit from the “Bad” music video, but sitting in the shadows) for permission to parody his music. READ MORE

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Looking Back at 'The Building,' Bonnie Hunt's First TV Creation

128 - HuntThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

The very funny Bonnie Hunt has had a lot of TV shows. Her first starring role came in 1990 in the soap opera satire Grand. From there she starred in five more, including three with some variation of the name Bonnie in the title. Today we’re going back to the third one she starred in, but the first that she wrote and produced. The result is a sitcom with a cast of strong comedic performers, and a breezy, improvisational tone that, like many of the shows we see in From the Archives, was gone too soon. 1993’s The Building was Bonnie Hunt in its purest form.

Bonnie Hunt was born in Chicago and went on to perform for years at her hometown’s famous Second City. Chicago is a big part of The Building. The main set on the show, Bonnie’s apartment, is right outside Wrigley Field, the friendly confines of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, the first thing we see in The Building is the theme song (Remember, it’s 1993 so there’s actually time to show a theme song) which serves as a lovely tour of the town as we see the cast out and about, on location in Illinois. In addition to serving as a love letter to the midwest, it also sets the tone perfectly for the show we’re about to see. The theme song itself is sung by a chorus who sing enthusiastically, and with pep, “In this windy city, / Toddlin’ town, / I looked all over, / Finally found, / A kindly place, / A comfy space, / In… the building.” My favorite part of this is that once the cast introductions start, Bonnie Hunt’s name appears on screen, but we only see a blonde woman stumbling through the wind, her face completely covered by her wind-swept hair. Immediately we are introduced to the star of a sitcom who is far more focused on making us laugh than worrying about seeming glamorous in her own show. READ MORE

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

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

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The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

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

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

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

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

125 - pryorcarlinThe Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

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

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

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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'

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The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

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