Almost two decades in, television was starting to get stale. It would milk a premise or already successful situation (countries rubes vs. city slickers, the golden oldie oater) until audiences grew tired and testy. Even more unsettling, an aesthetic malaise was settling in, a combination of the rowdy counterculture on the outside, and the changing needs of the medium within. Leave to elements outside the American business model to shed some necessary novelty. Via PBS, and the developing concept of syndications (selling network reruns to independent UHF channels), a whole new kind of cathode ray communication was unleashed. From unusual UK comedies to insightful British dramas, the invasion was just what the viewer wanted.
David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork
(NBC; US: 12 Sep 1966)
With three simple words, Here we come…, the faux-Beatles’ marketing juggernaut was launched into unsuspecting teeny-boppers’ homes each week. Sure, the Monkees were four regular guys masquerading as actors masquerading as legitimate musicians masquerading as cartoonish television characters, but the Fab Four More were huge business in the latter ‘60s. Their somewhat short-lived program exploited the “group” for all its photogenic allure, in addition to introducing a trove of catchy songs to the record buying public. Each episode was harmless and contrived, focusing on the Monkees’ zany antics, and lip-synced performances, but every 30-minute segment solidified the mod quad’s divergent personas into the public’s (and consumer base’s) collective consciousness. There was the lead vocalist heartthrob (Davy), the wacky drummer (Micky), the standoffish guitarist (Mike), and the lovably dopey hippie (Peter), all coexisting in a world of make-believe, both musically and visually.
As a lighthearted weekly romp, the show was perfect for its pre-teen demographic, with its cornball comedy, and thinly veiled Marx Brothers inspiration. But as a vehicle for creating brand familiarity, The Monkees was a stroke of genius. Eventually however, the oh-so-Beatlish well-scrubbed innocence of the first season began to wane, and by the time the series was pulled from the airwaves, the Monkees’ massive appeal was quickly dwindling. As the years passed, The Monkees enjoyed degrees of resuscitative success via reruns, and gained new generations of fans, spurring reunion tours with various incarnations of the original foursome. Today, the show is viewed more as kitsch than legitimate comedy, but it was no worse than the majority of its peers from the same television era. And let’s be honest, Gilligan, Jeanie and Samantha Stevens never created a nation-wide frenzy as phenomenal as The Monkees did.
Rhino is currently the only source for DVD versions of this classic comic cavalcade. The discs are presented in faux record players, with slipcase sleeves containing artwork from the band’s albums and singles. While sparse in the way of bonus features, it’s significant in its sense of nostalgia.
John Cleese, Prunella Scales, Andrew Sachs, Connie Booth
(BBC; US: 19 Sep 1975)
The funniest show on television, ever.
Concise, mean-spirited, ribald and unswervingly British, John Clease and Connie Booth’s über-farce set an impossibly high standard for repartee and comedic plotting over two brief seasons in the mid-‘70s. The premise (Basil Fawlty and his battleaxe wife Sybil run a mediocre provincial hotel filled with mediocre staff in the mediocre provincial town of Torquay) is simple. The character development is minimal. The sets are shaky and often clearly fake. The show’s politics are plainly conservative, and episodes often rely on racism, sexism and slapstick for laughs. But, the writing is sublime, the performances inspired, and the awkward, what-have-I-done situations so brilliantly devised as to have you watching, hands over nervous eyes, as you laugh hysterically.
You want comedic racism and xenophobia done right? Consider the scene when Basil, after being knocked on the head during a riotous fire drill, checks a group of Germans in to the hotel. After trying in vain to figure out what they are saying, he suddenly realizes that their language is not his and cries: “German! I’m sorry, I thought there was something wrong with you.” Or, how about the way Basil covers up for Manuel, his Spanish bellboy: “You’ll have to forgive him. He’s from Barcelona.” Or, in perhaps the most wonderful example, when Basil realizes that his new chef is gay and has been hitting on Manuel: “I knew it. I knew this would happen if we hired a Frenchman.” “He’s Greek, Mr. Fawlty.” “Well that’s worse, I mean they invented it.”
Or, perhaps we love Fawlty Towers so much because Basil tends to say just exactly the kind of brilliantly vicious thing when annoyed that we wish we were able to. There are immortal examples, such as when his wife alerts him to something in plain view (“Next contestant: Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject: the bleeding obvious”); when a prissy child complains that his French fries are the wrong shape (“Oh, my… What shape do you prefer? Mickey Mouse shape? Smarties shape? Amphibious landing-craft shape? Poke-in-the-eye shape?”); or when he’s asked for special ingredients by a pushy guest (“Walnuts? That’s a laugh! Easier to find a packet of sliced hippopotamus in suitcase sauce than a walnut in this bloody kitchen!”).
I mean, how many of us have wished that we could dispatch an irritating person with a line like this: Guest: “When I pay for a view, I expect to see something more interesting than that.” Basil: “That is Torquay, madam.” Guest: “Well, that’s not good enough.” Basil: “Well, might I ask what you expected to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The hanging gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically…”
But wait a minute? Is Fawlty Towers perhaps the ultimate rumination on the existential crisis of life in a meaningless universe? Is it really about the ways the average man is beaten down, repressed, scandalized and alienated by the structures surrounding him? Let’s let Basil explain his philosophy to us, his guests. “Look what I have to put up with from you people. You ponce in here expecting to be waited on hand and foot, while I’m trying to run a hotel here. Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not, you’re all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren’t you? Well let me tell you something—this is exactly how Nazi Germany started. A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble. Well I’ve had 15 years of pandering to the likes of you, and I’ve had enough. I’ve had it. Come on, pack your bags and get out.” Essential.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
(BBC; US: 5 Oct 1969)
In the heavenly hierarchy of humor, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is God. Its four-year run on the BBC resulted in 45 stellar examples of superior sketch comedy. Others have challenged Python’s mantle, and a few have lapped at their beatified boots, but when it comes to wit omnipotence, they’re Valhalla’s vaunted rulers.
Some may think the show a work of genius sprung forth unsullied, but a lot of hard work and many tough roads were hoed to get the state of Python perfection. The six core members—John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Terry Gilliam—all had histories in broadcasting (several started as writers for David Frost). Encouraged by British Broadcasting’s head of comedy, Michael Mills (along with a script editor friend, Barry Took), the boys came together to emulate their favorite performers (including the laughter Lord they dethroned, Spike Milligan) and conjure a new form of sketch comedy. Cambridge-based Cleese and Chapman had been experimenting with “formless” bits on At Last, The 1948 Show, while Jones, Palin, and Idle (the Oxford gang) had worked out a kind of stream-of-consciousness conceit for Do Not Adjust Your Set. Along with Gilliam’s absurd animation, the troupe prepared their unpredictable foray into funny.
Their joint effort is the very definition of comedy. And A&E’s epic 16-disc set (a reissue of the entire series, with two new bonus DVDs) provides insight into Python’s approach. For the group, no form of humor was off limits. You could use silent film slapstick (“Fish Slapping Dance”) to highly specialized verbal humor (“Whizzo Chocolate Factory”). Puns lay next to pantomime (either horse, or Queen Victoria), satire sat side by side with the sophomoric (“Dung of the Month Club”). And, of course, there is Gilliam’s dada-esque animation. The only yank of the bunch, Gilliam was, and remains, a true visionary, able to make rip-roaring hilarity out of an old cheesecake photo and a couple of animated eyes. His Victorian vice on crack cartoon capers (who else would turn Rodin’s statue The Kiss into a musical instrument?) are uncompromised and challenging, as well as the glue that holds the rest together. And what an amazing amalgamation it was.
All in the Family
(Columbia TriStar; US DVD: 4 Feb 2003)
Initially, it seemed like the same old sitcom fodder: disgruntled, hard working dad; slightly ditzy yet supportive wife; defiant daughter who still needs her parents; slacking son-in-law tied to the culture of the day. All the cogs were in place for a typical romp through the nuclear family landscape. And then Archie Bunker opened his mouth and spoke. For Norman Lear, former filmmaker turned TV producer, the British series Til Death Us Do Part seemed perfect for America’s post-‘60s hangover. By contrasting the bigoted, inflammatory Archie with the equally extreme (though couched in social consciousness) views of his daughter’s hippy husband, Mike “Meathead” Stivic, a balance of viewpoints could be given a weekly workout.
More importantly, the writers surrounded the family with supporting players who effortlessly reflected the changing times, from the affluent African Americans next door (The Jeffersons), to a far out liberal feminist cousin (Maude Findlay). In between, politics, religion, war, peace, job security, and sex all became part of the humor’s framework. Yet what audiences responded to—at least at first—was Archie’s epithet-laced putdowns of everything and everyone. Such crude, culturally insensitive words would never pass today’s standards and practices, but at the time, they stood as a cutting edge reflection of the way most of society really spoke—and felt.
Sadly, such anti-PC pronouncements have probably marginalized the series’ enduring legacy. Even worse, the DVD packages that have been produced equally undermine the show’s importance. These bare bones, technically shoddy showcases offer absolutely no context—no participation from the cast, no interviews or observations from Lear, not even a discussion about the series’ stunning success (it was the number one rated show from 1971 to 1976). Something this important to the growth and development of TV as a medium should not be devalued so. Yet considering its content, we can thank our lucky stars that it made it to the digital domain intact. All in the Family was always a lightning rod of controversy, subversion, and cultural commentary. And it still is today.