Sunday, March 14, 2010

My Mother the Car

Even nearly forty five years after it debuted, My Mother the Car still tops lists of the "Worst Shows of All Time." In many reviews from when it debuted in 1965, it was even referred to as "the worst show of all time." So atrocious was My Mother the Car considered that it even provided Johnny Carson with jokes for over a decade. To this day, when individuals look for examples of atrocious television shows, My Mother the Car is often cited. Perhaps no other show has such a poor reputation.

To be honest, the show did have one of the strangest premises of all time in television. The show centred on lawyer Dave Crabtree (Jerry Van Dyke) who was shopping for a station wagon in a used car lot when he discovered his mother had been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter automobile. Dave's mother talked to him through car's radio, its dial light flashing in sequence to her words (the car was voiced by Ann Southern). Dave took the Porter to a restoration shop (the car had become dilapidated over the years), where it came to the attention of ruthless car collector Captain Manzini (Avery Schreiber). Manzini became a recurring villain on the show, developing various schemes to get his hands on the car.

Surprisingly enough for a show considered by many to be the worst show of all time, My Mother the Car was created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward. The two had previous worked on the classics Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. They would go onto work as story editors on the critically acclaimed He & She and write for Get Smart. Allan Burns would eventually create The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant, both with James L. Brooks. Chris Hayward would write for Barney Miller and created the series A.E.S. Hudson Street. Among the writers on the show was none other than James L. Brooks, who would create Room 222, co-create The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant with Allan Burns, and was one of the creators of Taxi. He has also worked in feature films (Starting Over, Terms of Endearment, and so on).

At the time the premise of My Mother the Car was thought preposterous by many, but given the television milieu of the Sixties it was not that unusual in some ways. After all, the Sixties had begun with a sitcom about a talking horse, Mister Ed. By 1964 there would be shows about a Martian (My Favourite Martian), a witch (Bewitched), a family of monsters (The Munsters), and a family that was just plain macabre (The Addams Family). That Allan Burns and Chris Hayward would think of a show in which one's mother was reincarnated as a car is not that strange given the scheme of things in the Sixties. And the show could have been even stranger. Originally it was to have been Crabtree's dead wife that had been reincarnated as the car, but it was decided that smacked too much of necrophilia.

The lead on the show, Jerry Van Dyke had guest starred on his brother's series, The Dick Van Dyke Show. He had also appeared in the films The Courtship of Eddie's Father, McLintock, and Palm Springs Weekend. He had been offered the role of Gilligan in Gilligan's Island, but turned it down because he thought the pilot script was bad. The fact that Gilligan's Island became a hit may or may not have influenced his decision to do My Mother the Car. Reportedly Jean Arthur and Eve Arden had been auditioned as the voice of Mother, but the role eventually went to Ann Southern. Southern was a veteran actress of Hollywood, having appeared in several feature films and starred in the "Maisie" series. She was also a veteran of television who had already starred in two series of her own: Private Secretary and The Ann Southern Show. As to why Southern took the role, it was the simple case of an easy pay cheque. She could simply record her lines and did not have to worry about makeup, wardrobe, or anything else.

As to the car itself, according to producer Rod Amateau it was named for Ann Southern's co-star from Private Secretary, Don Porter. Here I must point out, that in reality at least two different companies had manufactured cars under the Porter marque. A short lived steam powered automobile was manufactured under the Porter marque by the Porter Automobile Co. from 1900 to 1901. More conventional, gasoline powered cars were made under the Porter marque by American and British Manufacturing Corporation from 1919 to 1922. Regardless, the car in the show was not an actual 1928 Porter, but the creation of car customiser George Barris (who also designed The Munster's coach and later the Batmobile). The car was built using parts from various vintage cars including a Model T, a Maxwell, a Hudson, and a Chevrolet. Another car was also built, with removable floorboard and equipment so that someone could drive the car without being seen, for those scenes in which Mother drove herself.

Regardless of the talent involved in the show, My Mother the Car debuted to disastrous reviews. Its ratings were not much better, although it did prove popular with young viewers. In the end, My Mother the Car lasted only one season and thirty episodes. It went off the air in September, 1966. Having run only one season, it did not have enough episodes for a healthy syndication run. Since then it has rarely been seen.

It was several years ago that I had the opportunity to see a few episodes of the show when Joel Stein was a guest programmer for Trio. Since then I have watched a few episodes online (it is available at both Hulu and TV.Com). I must say that I was surprised when I first saw it. The show does not live up to its bad reputation. The quality of the episodes are sometimes hit and miss, but it is hardly the worst show of all time. Indeed, I can think of many of shows that are much, much worse (The Facts of Life and the recent CBS sitcom Yes, Dear being two of them). For me the question then becomes why critics in 1965 attacked My Mother the Car so and why has it maintained its reputation as one of the worst shows of all time.

I think the answer is that critics were simply reacting to the show's premise rather than the quality of the show itself. Let's face it, even by the standards of Sixties television, the idea of someone's mother returning from the grave as a car was very, very strange. This was complicated by the fact that critics in the Sixties could be extremely hypercritical of any show whose premise they disliked. Indeed, it must be considered that both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island, now considered classics by some, received some of the worst reviews of all time. What separates those two shows from My Mother the Car is that they became hits and have been rerun ever since. With a bizarre premise, receiving some of the worst reviews any show ever has, lasting only a single season, and having been rarely seen since, My Mother the Car never had the chance for reappraisal.

Of course, now My Mother the Car can be watched, in its entirety, online. It will be interesting to see if over the next several years its reputation will change. With over forty years of bad press, I am not sure it will. Regardless, while I would not consider My Mother the Car a classic, it is not the worst show of all time by any stretch of the imagination.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Interesting premise for a television show...I might have to check it out later! :)