Saturday, February 22, 2020

A Brief History of the Fantastic Comedies of the Sixties Part Two

While very little in the way of fantastic comedy aired on American television in the Fifties, the Sixties would see a boom in fantastic sitcoms that has not been matched to this day. These television shows blended situation comedy with fantasy or even science fiction, marking a sharp break from the situation comedies of the Fifties. Many of these shows are still seen in reruns to this day.

The first fantastic sitcom of the Sixties is not one that comes to many people's minds when they think of fantastic comedies, but its premise clearly places it in the genre. Mister Ed was based on short stories about a talking horse named Ed by writer Walter R. Brooks that were published in in Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post in the Thirties and Forties. Mister Ed centred on the horse of the title (played by Bamboo Harvester and voiced by Rocky Lane), who could talk, but would only do so to his owner Wilbur Post (played by Alan Young). This caused numerous problems, particularly as Ed was a bit of a spoiled brat with a mischievous streak. It was Mister Ed's misbehaviour, often due to his ability to talk (Ed had a phone in his stable, which caused several problems), that was the impetus behind many episodes.

Mister Ed debuted in syndication on January 5 1961, where it proved very successful, In nearly every market in which it aired, the show won its time slot. This drew the attention of CBS President James Aubrey, so that it was on June 22 1961 that CBS announced that Mister Ed was moving to the network effective in the fall of 1961. While Mister Ed never ranked in the top thirty, it did get respectable ratings and in the end the show ran six seasons in all. Afterwards it would go onto success as a syndicated rerun and can still be seen on local stations, cable channels, and streaming services to this day.

On the surface Mister Ed might seem to have very little in common with such fantastic sitcoms as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. That having been said, it can be argued that it was the first sitcom of the Sixties to use the premise of an ordinary person living with an individual with extraordinary abilities. In this case, the extraordinary abilities were simply Ed's intelligence and his ability to talk, which served much the same purpose on the show as Uncle Martin's abilities on My Favourite Martian, Samantha's witchcraft on Bewitched, and Jeannie's magic on I Dream of Jeannie. Alongside Topper, then, Mister Ed can be considered the forerunner of every other fantastic sitcom of the Sixties, from My Favourite Martian to Nanny and the Professor.

Mister Ed would not remain the only fantastic sitcom on American television for long. It was on September 29 1963 that another fantastic comedy joined it on CBS. My Favourite Martian centred on a 450-year-old anthropologist from Mars (played by Ray Walston) who finds himself stranded on Earth. While repairing his spaceship, the Martian stays with young Los Angeles Sun reporter Tim O'Hara (played by Bill Bixby). Passed of as Tim's "Uncle Martin," the Martian has technology far more advanced that 1960s Earth and possessed such abilities as telekinesis, telepathy, and the ability to make himself invisible, among yet others. Martin's advanced technology and superhuman abilities would cause quite a bit of trouble for Tim.

My Favourite Martian was created by John L. Greene, who had earlier written for such radio shows as Texaco Star Theatre and such TV shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Real McCoys. The show was produced by Jack Chertok, who was looking for ideas for a new TV series when he found John L. Greene's script at the bottom of a stack at the William Morris agency. When someone at the agency informed Mr. Chertok that it was the worst idea around the agency, he simply replied, "That's why I want it." That My Favourite Martian owed a bit to Gore Vidal's teleplay "Visit to a Small Planet" was recognised by The New York Times at the time and later by Gore Vidal in his memoir Palimpsest.

While the William Morris Agency thought little of John L. Greene's pilot script and at the time its debt to "Visit to a Small Planet" was recognised, My Favourite Martian turned out to be a hit. The show ranked no. 10 for the ratings for the year in its first season. For its second season the ratings for My Favourite Martian dropped, but it still did fairly well, ranking no. 24 for the year. Sadly, the third season of My Favourite Martian dropped to the point that it was cancelled at the end of the season. It would go onto a healthy run as a syndicated rerun and is still seen in reruns to this day. It also sparked the biggest cycle in fantastic sitcoms ever seen in the history of American television

In fact, starting with the 1964-1965 television season, more fantastic sitcoms would debut than at any other time in the history of American broadcasting. What makes the 1964-1965 and 1965-1966 television seasons all the more remarkable with regards to fantastic sitcoms is that many of the shows that debuted during the period would become hits and persist as reruns to this day. At no other period in American television history has as many hit fantastic sitcoms debuted in so short a time.

What is more, the first fantastic sitcom to debut in the 1964-1965 season is arguably the most influential fantastic sitcom of all time, Bewitched. The origins of Bewitched can be traced back to Screen Gems executives: William Dozier and Harry Ackerman, who came up with the idea of young, beautiful witch who is married to an ordinary man while at lunch one day. After approaching George Axelrod and Charles Lederer, who were both assigned to other projects, Messrs. Dozier and Ackerman hired Sol Saks to write the pilot In writing the pilot Mr. Saks was inspired by both the 1942 film I Married a Witch and the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle. Bewitched would further be shaped by its star, Elizabeth Montgomery, and her husband, director William Asher, as well as the show's initial producer, Danny Arnold.

Bewitched centred on a young witch named Samantha (played by Elizabeth Montgomery) who marries mortal, McMann & Tate ad executive Darrin Stephens (played by Dick York and later Dick Sargent). Complicating the marriage is Samantha's mother Endora (played by Agnes Moorehead), who is none too happy about her daughter marrying a mortal. The impetus for many of the episodes was then not only Samantha's witchcraft, but the witchcraft of Endora and Samantha's extended family as well.

Bewitched debuted on ABC on September 17 1964. It not only received good reviews from critics, but it proved to be an immediate hit. For its first season Bewitched ranked no. 2 for the year, a remarkable feat for a show on ABC, which was generally the lowest rated network during any given season at the time. Bewitched would never again do as well in the ratings as it did in its first season, but it ranked in the top ten for its first three seasons and remained in the top thirty for its first six seasons. It wasn't until its next-to-the-last season that Bewitched dropped out of the top thirty. Bewitched was cancelled with its eighth season, but went onto become a highly rated syndicated rerun. In fact, it is still in reruns to this day on various local stations, cable channels, and streaming services.

Bewitched was not only a hit, but it proved to be very influential. While My Favourite Martian may have led to several fantastic sitcoms in the 1964-1965 season, it was arguably because of Bewitched that the cycle lasted several more years. What is more, the influence of Bewitched went beyond American television. Bewitched inspired other shows in places from the United Kingdom to India to Argentina. Bewitched would have a lasting impact on Japanese anime and manga that is still being felt to this day. A good argument can be made that Bewitched is responsible for the entire "Magical Girl" genre of anime.

Another influential fantastic sitcom debuted the following day, also on ABC. The Addams Family was based on Charles Addams's cartoons, centred on an aristocratic, but macabre family, that had been appearing in The New Yorker since 1938. It was in 1963 that television producer David Levy walked past a display of Charles Addams' books in a store window, including Homebodies, which featured a portrait of the entire Addams Family. It then occurred to Mr. Levy that the "Addams family" cartoons might provide the good basis for a TV show. He approached Charles Addams with the idea and the cartoonist approved. To the project Charles made two small, but significant contributions. The first was that he finally gave the characters names (they had been unnamed in the cartoons). The second were brief descriptions of each character. It was David Levy and line producer Nat Perrin who further fleshed out the show.

The Addams Family debuted on ABC on September 18 1964. Unlike many shows, which featured nuclear families, like The Beverly Hillbillies before it, The Addams Family centred on an extended family all living under the same roof. The matriarch of the family was the elegant Morticia (played by Carolyn Jones). Her husband Gomez (played by John Astin) was passionately in love with her and engaged in such hobbies as blowing up model trains. Uncle Fester (played by Jackie Coogan) was Morticia's uncle, who loved explosives and could power light bulbs by sticking them in his mouth. Lurch (played by Ted Cassidy) was the family's huge butler, who generally spoke in monosyllables and could play the harpsichord. Wednesday (played by Lisa Loring) was the youngest in the family, who loved such pets as black widow spiders and lizards. Pugsley (played by Ken Weatherwax) was Morticia and Gomez Addams's son, who was good-natured and conformed a bit more to societal standards than the rest of the family. Grandmama (played by Blossom Rock) was Gomez's mother, who excelled in making strange brews. Thing was a disembodied hand who had been Gomez's companion since childhood. Episodes centred on the Addams family's macabre tendencies and the ordinary person's reactions to them.

The Addams Family would prove to be a success in its first season, ranking no. 23 in the ratings for the year. Unfortunately, its ratings would falter in its second season, when it was trounced in the ratings by a new comedy on CBS titled Hogan's Heroes. Cancelled at the end of its second season, The Addams Family would not disappear. Instead it went onto a highly successful run in syndication. The show has also seen revivals and reboots, and was the basis for three feature films.

The Addams Family would not be the only unusual family to appear in a show that debuted in the 1965-1966 season. The Munsters centred on a family who resembled the monsters of old Universal horror movies. The head of the family was Lily Munster (played by Yvonne De Carlo), who was a vampire. Her husband, Herman (played by Fred Gwynne), resembled Frankenstein's Monster. Their son, Eddie (played by Butch Patrick), was a werewolf. Grandpa Munster (played by Al Lewis) was a vampire. The only normal person in the family was Herman's niece Marilyn (initially played by Beverly Owen and later by Pat Priest), who was a lovely blonde. Unlike the Addams family, who revelled in the fact that they did not conform to society's expectations, The Munsters not only wanted to conform to the rest of society, but thought they did. Regardless, people who encountered the Munsters would react as anyone would when encountering monsters from a Universal horror movie.

The Munsters was not the first time that a work featuring a family of monsters had been proposed. From 1943 to 1945 legendary animator and puppeteer Bob Clampett developed a potential series of animated cartoons that was similar to The Munsters. Called "The Monster Family," it would have centred on a Frankenstein's Monster-like creature named Frankie Monster, his vampire wife, and their son. Reportedly the idea was taken to Universal Pictures and Bob Clampett never heard back from them. As to The Munsters, the initial idea for the series came from Allan Burns (a writer on Rocky and Bullwinkle who later for co-created The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Chris Hayward (another writer on Rocky and Bullwinkle who co-created Dudley Do-Right). Allan Burns and Chris Hayward would later create the notorious fantastic sitcom My Mother the Car. The two submitted the idea to Universal, and writers Norm Liebmann and Ed Haas wrote the script for the show's presentation film (sort of a short pilot film). The Munsters would be produced by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, best known for their work on the radio show Amos & Andy and later the TV show Leave It to Beaver.

The Munsters debuted on CBS on September 24 1964. The TV show did very well in the ratings in its first season, tying for no. 18 for the year with another new comedy, Gilligan's Island. Unfortunately its ratings would falter in its second season, perhaps because in the second half of the season The Munsters found itself in competition with television's latest sensation, Batman. The Munsters was cancelled at the end of the season, although a theatrical motion picture featuring the original cast except for the actress playing Marilyn (played by Debbie Watson) was released in 1966. Munster, Go Home! failed at the box office. Regardless, The Munsters went onto success as a syndicated rerun that is still sent today. It would also see several revivals and reboots through the years.

While Bewitched, The Addams Family, and The Munsters proved successful, the fourth fantastic comedy to debut in the 1964/1965 season did not. My Living Doll s created by Bill Kelsay and Al Martin (who had both worked on My Favourite Martian), based on an idea suggested by Leo Guild. It was produced by Jack Cherok, who had earlier had success with My Favourite Martian. Like My Favourite Martian, My Living Doll was also a fantastic comedy in which an ordinary person finds himself living with someone with extraordinary abilities. In the case of My Living Doll, it centred on a prototype robot designated AF 709 and created for the United States Air Force in the shape of a beautiful woman (played by Julie Newmar). When the robot's inventor, Dr. Carl Miller (played by Henry Beckman) is transferred to Pakistan, he hands over care of the AF 709 to his friend, Air Force psychiatrist Dr. Bob McDonald (played by Bob Cummings). Dr. McDonald passed the AF 709 off as Dr. Miller's niece Rhoda and put her to work as his secretary (a job for which she was perfectly suited--she could type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks held thousands of bits of information). To allay any thoughts of anything improper going on between him and Rhoda, Dr. McDonald moved his sister Irene Adams (played by Doris Dowling) into his apartment. Dr. McDonald had to keep the fact that Rhoda was a robot secret, something that was complicated by his friend and neighbour, physicist Dr. Peter Robinson (played by Jack Mullaney), who unfortunately had a crush on Rhoda.

My Living Doll debuted on CBS on September 27 1964. Despite mostly positive reviews, its ratings were low, perhaps because it was scheduled opposite the juggernaut that was NBC's Western Bonanza. In December 1964 CBS then decided to move My Living Doll to Wednesday night where it would serve as the lead in for the hit sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. It was in January 1965 that Bob Cummings asked to leave the show. His character, Dr. McDonald, was written out of the show as having been transferred to Pakistan.  Dr. Peter Robinson, then, learned Rhoda was a robot and became her new guardian.The new time slot and the changes to the show certainly did not help in the ratings (on Wednesday night it was opposite The Virginian on NBC and The Patty Duke Show on ABC). In the end, then, My Living Doll was cancelled after a single season.

Having lasted only one season, My Living Doll would not enter syndication as a rerun. Despite this it remained well remembered by many, and it is proof that it had some success in that it did have a small impact on the English language. According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase "does not compute" (which was a bit of a catchphrase for Rhoda) originated on My Living Doll. After various episodes had popped up on bootleg VHS tapes and DVDs over the years, on March 20 2012 twelve episodes were released on DVD as My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1. A second volume has yet to be released.

The 1965-1966 season would see the cycle towards fantastic sitcoms at its height. In fact, more fantastic comedies debuted that season than any other season in the history of American television. Five different fantastic comedies debuted in the 1965-1966 season, some of which would have lasting success.

That having been said, the first fantastic sitcom to debut in the 1965-1966 season would not be one of them. My Mother the Car was created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, who had earlier developed The Munsters. My Mother the Car centred on lawyer Dave Crabtree (played by Jerry Van Dyke), who purchased a 1928 Porter automobile that just happened to be the reincarnation of his dead mother. Mother would talked to him through the car's radio, its dial light flashing in sequence to her words (the car was voiced by Ann Southern). Ruthless car collector Captain Manzini (played by Avery Schreiber) was always trying to get his hands on the car, and he served as a recurring villain on the show.

My Mother the Car debuted on NBC on September 14 1965 to nearly catastrophic reviews. While the series would prove popular with younger viewers, its overall ratings were not particularly good. It was then cancelled at the end of the season. While other shows that have received bad reviews upon their debut (The Beverly Hillbillies being a prime example) have seen their reputations improve through the years, this would not be the case with My Mother the Car. It would become a punchline for Johnny Carson for years to come. Ever since My Mother the Car has topped lists of "the worst shows of all time." In my own opinion, while the quality of the show's episodes can vary greatly, there have been far worse shows that aired both before My Mother the Car and since. It hardly deserves its reputation, as bizarre as its premise may have been.

The second fantasy sitcom to debut in the 1965/1966 season would also prove to be a failure. In the early Sixties Tom and Dick Smothers had proven to be a popular nightclub act. The Smothers Brothers soon found themselves appearing on such television shows as The New Steve Allen Show, Tonight Starring Jack Paar, Make Room for Daddy, and Burke's Law. It was then natural that the Smothers Brothers would receive their own network television show. While they would later become known for their variety show (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), the Smothers Brothers' first television show was a fantastic sitcom titled The Smothers Brothers Show.

The Smothers Brothers Show centred on young publishing executive Dick Smothers, whose brother Tom had been lost at sea. Two years later Tom shows back up as an apprentice angel who must do various good deeds in order to earn his wings. Unfortunately, Tom is rather inept and Dick often has to straighten out any problems caused by Tom's good intentions. The show was created by Aaron Spelling and Richard Newton.

The Smothers Brothers Show debuted on CBS on September 17 1965. The show received good ratings upon its debut, but ratings quickly began to drop as the season progressed. The Smothers Brothers Show was then cancelled at the end of the season. It would be during the 1966-1967 season that their famous variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, debuted as a mid-season replacement. It proved much more successful than The Smothers Brothers Show had.

While neither My Mother the Car nor The Smothers Brothers Show proved successful, the next two fantastic sitcoms to debut in the 1965-1966 season would have lasting success. What is more, they debuted on the same night, one after the other, on the same network. I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart debuted on NBC on September 18 1965.

I Dream of Jeannie was created by screenwriter Sidney Sheldon, who had also created The Patty Duke Show, a hit during the 1963/1964 season. Screen Gems approached Mr. Sheldon about creating a show for them. He came up with the idea of a show centred on a genie. What would separate his new show from previous treatments of genies is that his genie would be a beautiful young woman. Just as Bewitched took inspiration from movies (I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle), there is the strong possibility that I Dream of Jeannie drew some of its inspiration from the 1964 feature film adaptation of F. Antsey's novel The Brass Bottle.

I Dream of Jeannie centred on astronaut Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman), who discovers a bottle containing a 2000 year old genie while stranded on an island. While Jeannie (played by Barbara Eden) was 2000 years old, she behaved much more like a woman in her early twenties. Only Tony's best friend Roger Healy, knew that Jeannie was a genie, and the two of them constantly had to keep her a secret, particularly from nosey NASA psychiatrist Alfred Bellows (played by Hayden Rorke). The impetus of most episodes was Jeannie's magic, which often had unexpected results.

I Dream of Jeannie was not a huge hit in the ratings, but it did respectably enough to run for five seasons. While the show only received moderate ratings during its network run, however, it proved to be a phenomenal success as a syndicated rerun. In fact, it would be the first syndicated rerun to ever beat network shows in the ratings in various markets. I Dream of Jeannie is still seen to this day on local stations, cable channels, and streaming services.

Immediately following I Dream of Jeannie on NBC on September 18 1965 was Get Smart. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart was a parody of the then popular James Bond movies and various spy TV shows that dominated American television in the mid-Sixties. The show centred on the bumbling Maxwell Smart (played by Don Adams), Agent 86 for the intelligence agency CONTROL. His partner was Agent 99 (played by Barbara Feldon), who was everything Max was not--intelligent, competent, and beautiful. For whatever reason she was in love with Max. The two reported to the head of CONTROL, simply known as "the Chief (played by Edward Platt)". Opposing CONTROL was the evil organization known as KAOS. While Max and 99 faced various KAOS agents throughout the run of the show, their most persistent enemies were Conrad Siegfried (played by Bernie Kopell) and his assistant Starker (played by King Moody).

Get Smart not only received positive reviews from critics, it also proved to be a hit. In its first season it ranked no. 12 in the ratings for the year. It also did respectably well in its second season, when it ranked no. 22 for the year. Get Smart also received several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Comedy for Don Adams, Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy, Outstanding Comedy Series, and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy. The ratings for Get Smart dropped in its fourth season so that NBC cancelled the show. It was picked up by CBS for a fifth and final season. Afterwards it would go onto a successful run as a syndicated rerun. It would also be revived several times and receive a 2008 feature film reboot.

What would be the biggest hit among the fantastic comedies to debut during the 1965/1966 season would emerge from an unexpected source, a comic book character who had first appeared in 1939. Batman had already appeared in a 1943 movie serial (The Batman) and a 1949 movie serial (Batman and Robin), as well as the radio show The Adventures of Superman. In the mid-Sixties ABC executives Harve Bennett and Edgar J. Scherick were considering a show based around a comic strip character. It was fellow ABC executive Yale Udof who suggested that they adapt Batman for the small screen. ABC got the television rights to the character from DC Comics and then turned to 20th Century Fox to produce the series. 20th Century Fox then turned to producer William Dozier.

ABC had wanted a serious, but tongue-in-cheek show based on Batman (something like The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), but when William Dozier read various Batman comic books for research, he concluded the only way the show would work was as a comedy. He hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to develop Batman. Mr. Semple developed Batman as a spoof that worked on two levels. For adults it would be high comedy. For kids it would be high adventure.

Despite the fact that it was a comedy, Batman was largely loyal to the comic books. It centred on millionaire Bruce Wayne (played by Adam West), who fought crime as Batman. He was assisted by his ward Dick Grayson (played by Burt Ward), who fought crime as Robin. They were assisted in their fight against evil by Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (played by Alan Napier). The Dynamic Duo faced several of the villains from the comic books, including The Joker (played by Caesar Romero), The Penguin (played by Burgess Meredith), The Catwoman (played by Julie Newmar and later Eartha Kitt), and yet others.  Batman aired twice a week in two part episodes, the first part on Wednesday ending in a cliffhanger that would be resolved at the start of the second part on Thursday.

Batman debuted as a mid-season replacement on ABC on January 12 1966. It not only proved to be a hit, it proved to be an outright sensation. It not only received phenomenal ratings, but Batman became an outright fad. There may well have been more merchandise devoted to Batman on store shelves than there ever had been for any television show before. For the 1965/1966 season the Wednesday edition of Batman came in 10th in the ratings for the year, while the Thursday edition came in at 5th. Unfortunately, Batman could not maintain the momentum it had in its first seasons. By the autumn of 1966 Batman was still doing well, but its adult audience was now half of what it was. As the 1966/1967 season progressed, ratings for Batman dropped gradually, to the point that ABC seriously considered cancelling the show. Fortunately, Batman  was renewed for the 1967/1968 season, but it was cut back to one half-hour a week on Thursday. Ratings did not improve and ABC cancelled Batman. Its last original episode aired on March 14 1968. While Batman may have been yesterday's fad by 1968, it went onto a highly successful rerun in syndication and is still seen to this day on local stations, cable channels, and streaming services.

The 1965/1966 season would mark the height of the cycle towards fantastic comedies in the Sixties. The 1966/1967 season would see fewer fantastic comedies debut. That having been said, the decade had not seen the last of fantastic comedies yet.

Friday, February 21, 2020

A Brief History of the Fantastic Comedies of the Sixties Part One

When people think of the American situation comedies on television in the Sixties, the many fantastic comedies are apt to come to mind. These were television shows, such as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie, that blended elements of fantasy with situation comedy. While there would be fantastic sitcoms before and afterwards, the period of 1963 to 1967 may well have been the Golden Age of the genre on American television, with 15 different fantasy comedies debuting in those years. Some of those comedies, such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, would prove to be among the most successful of the decade. Some of them are still airing in syndication and are widely available on streaming platforms to this day.

Of course, fantasy was blended with comedy well before television was even invented. Fantastic comedies may well have existed even before the invention of writing, with storytellers weaving tales filled with both humour and fantasy around campfires.  Elements of fantastic comedy may be found in the plays of Aristophanes, Pseudo-Lucian's The Ass, and even various plays of William Shakespeare. François Rabelais combined fantasy and comedy with Gargantua and Pantagruel. Jonathan Swift blended fantasy with satire in Gulliver's Travels. Voltaire combined comedy with what would later be called science fiction in Micromégas and with fantasy in "Plato's Dream."

It was in the 19th Century that fantastic comedy really began to coalesce as a subgenre. The pioneer in the subgenre was Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who wrote under the pen name "F. Anstey." F. Anstey wrote what Farah Mendlesohn classified in her book Rhetoric of Fantasy as "intrusive fantasy," in which fantastic elements intrude upon an otherwise realistic milieu. His very first book, Vice Versa, in which a father is substituted for his son, pioneered the body switch comedy. F. Anstey also pioneered the trope of an individual's life being turned upside down by a supernatural other. Over sixty years before Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, his novel The Brass Bottle centred upon a man whose life is turned upside down after he releases a djinn from a bottle. F. Anstey's novels always had a Victorian setting into which fantastic elements would be introduced, much as the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties introduced Martians, witches, and genies into modern day America. F. Anstey's works would prove to be very popular, with his novels Vice Versa, The Tinted Venus, and The Brass Bottle being adapted as films multiple times.

Other authors, some of them quite noted, would follow F. Anstey into the field of fantastic comedy. Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost subverted the typical ghost story by treating it with humour. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court blended time travel with Arthurian legend. Both would be adapted as motion pictures multiple times.

Aside from F. Anstey, perhaps no other author would have as much impact on the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties as Thorne Smith. Thorne Smith often combined fantasy with comedy in his novels, the best known of which is Topper. In Topper a staid banker, Cosmo Topper, finds himself haunted by a couple of fun-loving ghosts, Marion and George Kerby, who take it upon themselves to make Cosmo less of a stick in the mud. Thorne Smith would follow Topper up with a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip. Among his other works were The Night Life of the Gods, in which statues of the Roman gods in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are brought to life, Turnabout, in which a husband and wife switch bodies, and the unfinished novel The Passionate Witch, in which a man finds himself married to a witch. Like F. Anstey's novels, Thorne Smith's novels would also be made into movies, including Night Life of the Gods (1935), Topper (1937) and Topper Takes a Trip (1939), Turnabout (1940), and I Married a Witch (1942--based on The Passionate Witch).

Given the rise of the subgenre of fantastic comedy in literature, it would come as no surprise that fantastic comedy would be a cinematic subgenre was well. F. Anstey's The Brass Bottle would be adapted to film twice in the Silent Era, once in 1914 and again in 1923. René Clair's 1924 movie Paris Qui Dort centred on a scientist who develops a ray that freezes people into place.  With the advent of talkies, fantastic comedy movies became much more common. The Thirties saw the release of such fantastic comedy movies as Turn Back the Clock (1933), The Ghost Goes West (1935), Topper (1937), and The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937).

It would be the release of Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941 that would launch an entire cycle of fantastic comedy films that would last throughout the decade. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan a mistake occurs whereby a pilot dies too soon, after which the angel Mr. Jordan must correct the mistake. The success of Here Comes Mr. Jordan would lead to other  films featuring guardian angels in the Forties, including Heaven Can Wait (1943), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and For Heaven's Sake (1950). Here Comes Mr .Jordan would also lead to other fantastic comedy movies in the Forties. The title of I Married a Witch (1942) pretty much explains the film. Angel on My Shoulder (1946) centred not on angels, but on the forces of Hell instead. The Abbot and Costello movie The Time of Their Lives (1946) dealt with ghosts. Down to Earth (1947), which was a bit of a sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, centred on the muse Terpsichore (played by Rita Hayworth).  The Luck of the Irish (1948) featured a leprechaun. Both Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and Miranda (1948) centred on mermaids. Most of the fantastic comedy movies of the Forties were intrusive fantasies in which an ordinary person's life is turned upside down by some supernatural other (an angel, a witch, a Muse, and so on). This would also be the format that the majority of fantastic comedy sitcoms that aired on American television in the Sixties.

Fantastic comedy movies would continue to be made into the Fifties, although in fewer numbers than they had been in the Forties. Among the classic fantastic comedy films of the Fifties were Angels in the Outfield (1951), Kismet (1955), Damn Yankees (1958), and Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Despite how common fantastic comedy movies were in both the Forties and Fifties, on television there would be few antecedents on television to the Sixties' fantastic sitcoms in the Fifties. The very first was Topper, based on Thorne Smith's novels Topper and Topper Takes a Trip, and heavily influenced by the movies also based on the novels.

Topper starred Leo G. Carroll as Cosmo Topper, who finds his life turned upside down after he buys the estate of the late George and Marion Kerby (played by real life married couple Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys). Unfortunately for Topper, the house is still haunted by the Kerbys, as well as their St. Bernard Neil. Worse yet for Topper, while he is a somewhat stodgy bank president, the Kerbys are a fun loving couple who enjoy drinking. As in the books and the movies, the Kerbys took it upon themselves to loosen Topper up. Topper debuted on CBS on October 9 1953 and ran for two seasons. When it ended its run it was not due to low ratings, but because the sponsor, Camel cigarettes, would not pay for a third season. It proved to be very popular rerun in syndication, running well into the Sixties. It was Topper that would set the pace for all sitcoms in which a mere mortal finds his or her life turned upside down by a supernatural other. The plots of most Topper episodes involved the Kerbys creating some sort of problem for Topper, not unlike Uncle Martin would later do for Tim O'Hara on My Favourite Martian or Samantha's relatives would later do for Darrin on Bewitched.

Following Topper there would be very little in the way of fantastic comedy on television for the remainder of the Fifties. That is not to say that fantastic comedy would be entirely absent from the small screen during the decade. A significant teleplay in the history of fantasy comedies aired on May 8 1955 on Goodyear Television Playhouse. "Visit to a Small Planet" was written by Gore Vidal and starred Cyril Ritchard as an alien named Kreton from an unnamed planet. "Visit to a Small Planet" proved popular enough to be later adapted as a Broadway play and then as a 1960 movie starring Jerry Lewis. It was also a possible inspiration for the Sixties fantastic sitcom My Favourite Martian. By coincidence, among the cast of the original Goodyear Television Playhouse episode was Dick York, who would later make an impact in the Sixties fantastic sitcom Bewitched.

It was the following autumn, on October 5 1955, that a sitcom debuted that bordered on being a fantastic comedy. The People's Choice starred Jackie Cooper as ornithologist, city councilman, and later attorney Socrates "Sock" Miller. What made The People's Choice very nearly a fantastic sitcom was his basset hound Cleo, whose thoughts on what was going around her were conveyed by the voice of actress Mary Jane Croft (not unlike the baby in the movie Look Who's Talking). The People's Choice proved moderately successful, running three seasons.

Following The People's Choice most of the fantastic comedy on American television in the Fifties would be on two anthology shows, the first of which was Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the second of which would be The Twilight Zone (more on it later). During the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents there aired an episode that resembled the fantastic sitcoms of the Sixties a good deal. "Whodunit" starred John Williams as mystery writer Alexander Penn Arlington, who finds himself in Heaven without knowing who had murdered him. Arlington is then sent back to Earth to solve his own murder. "Whodunit" would not be the only fantastic comedy episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as it would be followed by others, such as "Design for Loving" in the fourth season and  "The Doubtful Doctor" in the sixth season.

While fantastic comedies were rare on the more mainstream anthologies, there were a few. Among them was "The Star Wagon," which aired on Playhouse 90 on January 24 1957. "The Star Wagon" centred on an inventor who develops a time machine.

It was on May 10 1957 that a show debuted that started out as a borderline fantastic comedy and in the end became a more mainstream sitcom. Date with the Angels was conceived by Betty White and producer Don Fedderson (later known for My Three Sons) as a vehicle for Miss White. The two bought the television rights to the 1945 Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, which was later adapted as the 1948 film starring Betty Hutton and still later as a 1955 episode of Hallmark Hall of Fame. The play centred on a young woman and bookstore manager who regularly has Walter Mitty-style fantasies. Date with the Angels centred on newlywed Vicki Angel (played by Betty White) and her husband Gus Angel (played by Bill Williams), who was an insurance salesman. As originally conceived, Vicki would regularly launch into daydreams, which would occupy the better part of episodes. This gave it more in common with the fantastic comedies of the Sixties than its fellow sitcoms of the Fifties.

Unfortunately, the premise of Date with the Angels would be changed due to pressure from the show's sponsor, Plymouth. According to Miss White, Plymouth maintained that "fantasy never works with an audience." The fantasy sequences were then phased out and Date with the Angels became a more mainstream sitcom, albeit one with a particularly strong cast. Besides Betty White, the cast included Richard Deacon, Burt Mustin, and Nancy Culp. Sadly, without the fantasy sequences, Date with the Angels would only last a season and a half.

As the Fifties were becoming the Sixties, a show would debut that would prove Plymouth's assertion that "fantasy never works with an audience" wrong. The Twilight Zone was created by acclaimed writer Rod Serling and was a fantasy anthology show that also occasionally delved into science fiction, horror, and even comedy. In the course of its five year run, The Twilight Zone would air several comedic episodes. Among the most significant was "Mr. Bevis," which aired during the first season. "Mr. Bevis" had originated as a pilot script for a TV series meant to star Burgess Meredith. When Mr. Meredith turned the role down, Rod Serling simply turned the pilot into a Twilight Zone episode. The episode centred on James B. W. Bevis (played by Orson Bean), a kind hearted but bumbling fellow. Mr. Bevis's life is turned upside down by his guardian angel named J. Hardy Hempstead (played by Henry Jones). "Mr. Bevis" is generally considered one of the poorer episodes of The Twilight Zone, which may be why Burgess Meredith turned the pilot down. Regardless of its quality, the premise of the pilot shows that Rod Serling was a little bit ahead of his time. In only a few years there would be numerous comedies in which an ordinary mortal's life is complicated by a supernatural being.

Rod Serling did not give up on the concept of angels and so he created another pilot involving one that would also become a Twilight Zone episode. "Cavender is Coming" centred on the guardian angel of the title (played by Jesse White), who is assigned to help Agnes Grep (played by Carol Burnett). "Cavender is Coming" was the pilot for a series to be called The Side of the Angels. Unlike "Mr. Bevis," The Side of the Angels would have seen Cavender helping a different mortal each week. Despite this, the episode is virtually a remake of "Mr. Bevis." Like "Mr. Bevis," "Cavender is Coming" is considered one of the poorer episodes of The Twilight Zone. "Cavender is Coming" aired during the third season of The Twilight Zone on May 25 1962, only shortly before American television would be overtake by fantasy comedies. The Twilight Zone also aired several fantastic comedy episodes, including "Penny for Your Thoughts", "A World of His Own", "Once Upon a Time","Mr. Dingle, The Strong."

At the end of the Fifties and the start of the Sixties Thriller would follow Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone in featuring a few fantastic comedy episodes. Thriller began as a straightforward suspense anthology and over time evolved into a horror anthology. "Masquerade" was a comedic take on the "dark, scary house" subgenre, with Tom Poston and Elizabeth Montgomery playing a young couple. "The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk" features Jo Van Fleet as the title character, who seems to be at the centre of several disappearances of drifters passing throughout the county. "Cousin Tundifer" involved a house belonging to a killer that featured, among other things, a room that bridges both space and time. As might be expected, the comedic episodes of Thriller tended to be horror comedies.

The same season that Thriller debuted, a borderline fantasy comedy debuted that summer. The premise of Happy resembled that of The People's Choice, only instead of a talking basset hound it featured a talking baby. Happy was Christopher Hapgood Day, who would comment on the various proceedings around him. Like Cleo on The People's Choice, the other characters could not hear Happy's thoughts, only the audience.  Happy did not prove to be particularly successful. Debuting on June 8 1960, it ended its run on April 7 1961.

It was on the eve of the explosion of fantastic comedies in the Sixties that a fantastic comedy aired as an episode of Alcoa Premiere on November 1 1962. "Mr. Lucifer" starred Fred Astaire as the Devil himself, Mr. Lucifer, who is working as a Madison Avenue executive. In the episode Mr. Lucifer sets out to corrupt a well-adjusted, happily married architect named Tom Logan (played by Frank Aletter). Mr. Lucifer utilised the sort of special effects that would later become common on such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. It also featured two actors who would later star in fantastic comedies of the Sixties. Elizabeth Montgomery played Mr. Lucifer's servant Iris Hecate. Of course, she would become famous as Samantha on Bewitched. Frank Aletter would later star on the fantasy sitcom It's About Time.

While the Fifties would see very little in the way of fantastic comedy, the Sixties would see a boom in fantastic sitcoms that remains unmatched to this day. And many of those fantastic sitcoms, such as Bewitched, The Addams Family, and I Dream of Jeannie that are still aired in reruns to this day.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Ja'Net Dubois Passes On

Ja'Net Dubois, who played Willona Woods on the Seventies sitcom Good Times and was the voice of Mrs. Avery on the animated series The PJs, died on February 17 2020. She also co-wrote and sang the theme song of The Jeffersons, "Movin' On Up."

Ja'Net Dubois was born on August 5 in Philadelphia, but her age is a bit of a mystery. While her family reported her age to be 74, public records show that she may have been older. She later moved to Brooklyn to pursue an acting career in New York City. In 1960 she was an understudy for the Broadway production The Long Dream. In 1964 she appeared on Broadway in Golden Boy. In the Sixties Miss Dubois also spent some time running youth acting workshops in Amityville, New York. Afterwards she moved to Los Angeles. She made her feature film debut in A Man Called Adam in 1966 and appeared in the movie Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970).  She made her television debut in 1969 in the TV movie J.T. In 1970 Ja'Net Dubois joined the cast of the soap opera Love of Life. She was the first African American actress to be a regular on a daytime soap opera. She remained with the show until 1972.

In the Seventies Miss Dubois guest starred on Sanford & Son, Shaft, and  Kojak. In 1974 she began playing the role of Willona Woods, the gossipy neighbour of the Evans family. She also co-wrote the theme song of The Jeffersonsm "Movin' On Up," with Jeff Barry, and performed the song. The Jeffersons debuted in 1975. In the Seventies she also guest starred on the TV shows Caribe and Love Boat. She appeared in the mini-series Roots: The Next Generation. She appeared in the films Five on the Black Hand Side (1973) and A Piece of the Action (1975).

In the Eighties Ja'Net Dubois appeared in the mini-series The Sophisticated Gents. She guest starred on the shows The Facts of Life, Spencer, Crazy Like a Fox, Houston Knights, Nearly Departed, New Attitude, Laugh!s, and Doctor Doctor. She appeared in such TV movies as Hellinger's Law, The Big Easy, and Kids Like These. She appeared in the movies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Heart Condition (1990), and Penny Ante: The Motion Picture (1990).

In the Nineties Miss Dubois was a regular on the sitcom The Wayan Bros. and the voice of Mrs. Avery on the animated series The PJs and the voice of Mrs. Patterson on As Told by Ginger. She guest starred on A Different World, True Colors, Dream On, Beverly Hills 90120, The Golden Palace, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper, Sister Sister, ER, Moesha, Touched by an Angel, Clueless, and Everybody Loves Raymond. She also appeared in several TV movies. She appeared in the movie Waterproof (2000).

In the Naughts she continued as a voice on As Told by Ginger. She guest starred on Crossing Jordan and Cold Case. She was a guest voice on Random! Cartoons. She appeared in the movies Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (2003). In the Teens she was a guest voice on the animated TV series G.I. Joe: Renegades and appeared in the movie She's Got a Plan (2016).

Of course, Ja'Net Dubois was also a singer and songwriter. Her album Queen of the Highway was released in 1980. In 1983 she released a self-titled album. She wrote songs for such artists as The Controllers.

Ja'Net Dubois will always be remembered as Willona Dubois on Good Times. That having been said, she played a variety of other roles. Mrs. Avery on The PJs was about as far from Willona as one can get, an outspoken and somewhat curmudgeonly senior citizen. In Gonna Git You Sucka she played Ma Bell, the mother of the protagonist Jack Spade (played by Kennan Ivory Wayans) who was every bit as tough as he was (if not tougher). In her guest appearance on Sanford and Son she played one of Fred's old girlfriends who has a rather shocking revelation for him. As a songwriter she co-wrote what is considered by many to be one of the greatest television theme songs of all time, "Movin' On Up." Ja'Net Dubois was an immensely talented woman who left her mark on both television and film history.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Kellye Nakahara Passes On

Kellye Nakahara, best known for playing Nurse Kellye on the classic TV series M*A*S*H as well as such movies roles as the Cook in Clue (1985), died on February 16 2020 at the age of 72. The cause was cancer.

Kellye Nakahara was born on January 16 1948 in Oahu, Hawaii. As a young woman she moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in art. There she met her husband, David Wallet, who survives her. The two of them moved to Los Angeles.

Kellye Nakahara made her television debut on the show for which she is best known, M*A*S*H. She was hired midway through the first season and initially played a non-speaking role. Her name would vary in the early days of the show. Initially billed as Nurse (followed by a number which would vary by episode), then Nurse Able and later Nurse Charlie, eventually she became Nurse Kellye. In the end she appeared in more episodes than some of actors in leading roles on the show and became one of the most beloved characters on the show. In the role of Nurse Kellye, Miss Nakahara was also a pioneer. She was one of the first East Asian characters with a regular role on television. In the Seventies Kellye Nakahara also guest starred on an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

In the Eighties Kellye Nakahara guest starred on the television shows Little House on the Prairie, At Ease, Matt Houston, Lottery!, Otherworld, and Hunter. She made her film debut as the cook in Clue in 1985. She also appeared in the movies Amazon Women in the Moon (1987) and She's Having a Baby (1988). In the Nineties she guest starred on the TV show Growing Pains, Dream On, Crisis Center, NYPD Blue, and Sabriana the Teen Age Witch. She was a guest voice on the animated series The Wild Thornberrys. She appeared in the movies Shattered (1991), 3 Ninjas Kick Back (1994), Black Day Blue Night (1995), and Doctor Dolittle (1998).

In recent years she resumed her career as an artist, working in watercolours and oil. She was active in the local art community and took part in art shows.

Kellye Nakahara was extremely talented. On M*A*S*H she created one of the most beloved of the show's secondary characters. In fact, it is quite possible that Nurse Kellye was the most popular of the nurses on the show. She was also memorable as the cigarette smoking cook in the cult movie Clue. She made numerous guest appearances on TV shows, playing everything from a desk sergeant on Otherworld to the Hawaiian goddess Pele on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. As if being a talented actress was not enough, Kellye Nakahara was also an accomplished artist.  In a statement fellow M*A*S*H co-star Alan Alda said, "She began as a background performer and worked her way up to playing the lead in an episode I wrote for her. She was adorable and brilliant in the part, but, you couldn’t beat what she was as a person, funnier and warmer and kinder than most people I've known. We all loved her on M*A*S*H, and we’re all heartbroken to know she's gone. Kelley was a treasure."

Monday, February 17, 2020

TCM Spotlight in March: Life at Sea

In March, the TCM Spotlight is on Life at Sea. Except for March 2, every Monday night during the month Turner Classic Movies is showing movies set on the ocean, from disaster movies to swashbucklers to World War II epics.

TCM Spotlight: Life at Sea begins March 9 with The Poseidon Adventure (1972) at 7:00 PM. It is followed by The Sea Wolf (1941), The Last Voyage (1960), A Night to Remember (1958), and The Wreck of the Mary Dreare (1959). On March 16 TCM is showing Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Wolf (1941), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Crimson Pirate (1952), and The Boy and the Pirates (1960). Destination Tokyo (1943), Torpedo Run (1953), Ice Station Zebra (1968), and Operation Pacific (1951) are airing on March 23. Turner Classic Movies ends TCM Spotlight: Life at Sea on March 30 with Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1960), The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1960), and Underwater! (1955).

Turner Classic Movies is showing some truly great films for TCM Spotlight: Life at Sea, including The Poseidon Adventure, A Night to Remember, Captain Blood, and The Crimson Pirate. That having been said, I do wish that TCM was airing A Night to Remember (the best movie about the Titanic ever made) and The Crimson Pirate (an early example of steampunk) in prime time. They are two of my favourites and both are airing rather late at night (A Night to Remember at 1:00 AM Central and The Crimson Pirate at 2:15 AM Central). I also noticed one glaring omission: The Black Swan (1942). Quite simply, I consider The Black Swan to be the greatest pirate movie ever made. If one is going to show movies about life at sea, I would think it would absolutely have to be included.

Regardless, if one loves the ocean or adventures at sea, I am sure he or she will want to tune into TCM on Monday nights in March.