Saturday, July 12, 2014

Pioneers of Television: Standup to Sitcom (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

It was rather ironic that after watching Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen in The Big Broadcast of 1937, the next program I had on was a PBS Pioneers of Television episode called Standup to Sitcom, which attempted to trace the career path quite a few stand-up comedians took to TV stardom in the 1980’s and 1990’s, ranging from Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart to Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld. It was nice that midway through this program they showed a few clips of the Benny and Burns and Allen TV show, even though it was jarring that they claimed Benny, Burns and Allen had all started in standup — standup comedy as we think of it today didn’t exist when they were coming up. Benny, Burns and Allen all started in vaudeville, and like a lot of other vaudevillians (including the Marx Brothers) they started doing other things (in Benny’s case, violin playing; in Burns’ and Allen’s, tap dancing) and graduated to comedy because the comedians were always the best-paid vaudeville artists. The show was interesting even though it had the usual biographical tendency towards what I call “first-itis” — which means to attribute to your subject being the first one to do something important when in fact other people had done it well before you. When Jerry Seinfeld said that a large part of the appeal of his show was two stupid people bouncing off each other, all I could think was, “Yeah, like Laurel and Hardy” — and when Seinfeld followed up by saying he cast himself as a stand-up comedian on his show but made his character far less successful than Seinfeld himself, I couldn’t help but recall how Desi Arnaz had likewise made Ricky Ricardo a far less successful bandleader than Arnaz was himself, and for the same reason Seinfeld did: because audiences would relate better to him if he were playing someone struggling on his way up (or to nowhere) than if he’d played an established star. Though these were mostly shows I didn’t watch, it was nice to hear Roseanne Barr’s real voice, which is considerably less grating than the one she adopted for the character she played on her sitcom (and the narrators of this show discreetly left unmentioned that Roseanne was basically The Honeymooners with the genders of the lead couple reversed — in many of the sequences they showed, Barr even looked like Jackie Gleason in drag), and while I didn’t follow Tim Allen’s show Home Improvement, I did see his film The Santa Clause when it was relatively new — and I loved it; it was a delightful comic concept, brilliantly executed, even though at the time I thought Robin Williams (another guy who made the transition from standup — or, in Williams’ case, live improv — to TV sitcom stardom to a film career) would have been better casting for the lead.