‘Car 54, Where Are You?’ and the Birth of the Post Modern Sitcom

It was already in the pipeline. It was on its way and there was little the fledgling broadcast medium could do about it. After harvesting vaudeville for all the talent and weekly variety entertainment it could and milking standard radio soaps and serials for hour to half hour material, a new breed was taking television to places it never dared dream. Ernie Kovacs, one the great boob tube pioneers, gave viewers a chance to see what would happen when the medium became the comedy modus, and visa versa. I Love Lucy took the single camera format and tripled it, turning the iconic laughfest into the “before a live audience” experience today. Carl Reiner went meta with his vehicle for Broadway star Dick Van Dyke, offering the first real commentary on the craft that made the original stars of the glass teat so legendary.

And then there was Nat Hiken. A scriptwriter for Warner Brothers, he got his first big break on wireless, giving the likes of Fred Allen and Milton Berle their on air aura. When Uncle Miltie went to TV, Hiken tagged along. Executives soon discovered his eye for talent and his skill with specialized subject matter. Before long, Hiken was working with the legendary Phil Silvers for his seminal sitcom Sgt. Bilko. It was there where he first introduced audiences to future familiar faces such as Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, and the aforementioned Mr. Van Dyke. When CBS unceremoniously cancelled the series after four seasons, Hiken was given carte blanche for a follow-up. Staying within his beloved New York locale, he came up with the cop spoof Car 54, Where Are You? , and the rest is humor pre-history.

Car 54 (all 30 installments of the first season are now available on DVD from Shanachie Entertainment) was unlike any sitcom shown at that time. Hiken had originally filmed his shows in front of a live audience, offering up the actors in a more theatrical manner and setting. But when famed film producer Mike Todd made a guest appearance on Bilko, he refused to follow the format. Hiken then learned about single camera production, creating the show out of a series of out of sequence set-ups. Since it was faster and cheaper, he decided to use a similar style with Car 54. This allowed holdovers from the Silvers’ show, Gwynne and comedian Joe E. Ross, to play off each other without having to worry about complex blocking…or more importantly, memorizing their lines.

With the cast fleshed out with other Bilko buddies, including Al Lewis, Beatrice Pons, Charlotte Rae, and newcomers like Nipsie Russell, Hiken established the 53rd Precinct, a harried police station run by stressed out Captain Block (Paul Reed, a refugee from Sid Caesar’s shows) and featuring a bunch of bumbling patrolmen – most incompetently, Sgts. Francis Muldoon (Gwynne) and Gunther Toody (Ross). The star duo were too nice to be effective law enforcement officers, too scattered to take their official position that seriously. They were like two parts of the same simpleton – round and fat and tall and thin. Muldoon was a confirm bachelor (and many of the episodes revolved around his unmarried status). Toody was the prototypical henpecked husband, his nagging wife Lucille (Pons) a constant source of sour defeat.

Into this mix there were surprising supporting turns, including Lewis and Rae as Leo and Sylvia Schnauser, a battling pair of peculiar love birds, firm family man Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett), and jokey dispatcher Anderson (Russell). One of the most surprising – and therefore, important – aspects of Car 54 was the fact that Hiken didn’t pander to early ’60s prejudice. His police station was of mixed ethnicity (as was any borough of NYC at the time) and his casting reflected same. Similarly, there was always moments of direct interracial mixing on the show, albeit never as a main theme to an episode. Today, it might not seem revolutionary, but when Russell’s Anderson and his wife show up at a society wedding for one of the patrolmen, and no one bats an eye. Such social import cannot be understated.

Indeed, the cultural make-up of the show was not the only novelty. Car 54 was one of the first series to use a more cartoon character approach to the people while placing them directly within the confines of a real world setting. Similar to Sgt. Bilko, which used the Army as a comic backdrop (and poverty/The Honeymooners before), Hiken drew on his knowledge of outer Manhattan NYC to bring his scenarios to life. He then populated his purview with all manner of madcap elements. Yet he never forgot the core aspect of the show – personality. It’s why Ross is so perfect as the permanently perplexed Toody, or why Gwynne shines as the single man every married woman wants to play matchmaker to. It’s this combination of the ridiculous and the realistic that would mark many a sitcom to come.

There’s also a lot of invention here, stuff you wouldn’t normally see in a TV comedy. During Season One, Toody and Muldoon pull duty for a performance of Taming of the Shrew in Central Park. Not only do we see bits of Shakespeare’s famous play, but we also see our rotund hero try to emulate Petruchio, fly swatter in hand, when dealing with his own oversized nag. Little does he know that Lucille has just wanted a syrupy TV melodrama about a woman losing her beloved husband thanks to incessant complaining. The couple eventually learns that, in moderation, their particular peeves are more than agreeable. This happens a lot throughout Car 54, Where Are You? The Jack Parr Show is referenced (with the host’s noted absences and guest replacement Hugh Downes as part of the episode), as is the Yankees’ 1961 World Series appearance (complete with Wally Cox as a predatory pickpocket).

In many way, Car 54 set the stage for TV circa the 1960s. It gave the medium two of its most familiar faces (Gwynne and co-star Lewis would go on to be part of the famed horror spoof The Munsters) while illustrating how the comedy could be carried beyond the basic one studio set. It was a high brow approach used to fashioned some often rather low brow cracks. The 30 episodes contain many classic moments, including the stock market mayhem when Police Brotherhood Treasurer-elect Toody refuses to take the group’s $800 and “Put It in the Bank.” Similarly, our chubby chump can’t stop bugging a buddy over a possible trip for some deep sea angling (“Who’s For Swordfish?”). Another great installment finds Toody’s nephew Marvin ‘accidentally’ cracking many of the 53rd Precinct’s most complex cases (“Quiet, We’re Thinking!”) while a mix-up has the precinct’s Patrolmen believing that a horrible, dictatorial Captain will be replacing Block while he’s on forced vacation (“The Beast Who Walked the Bronx”).

All the while, Hiken never forgets to keep his crazed cast from and center, letting them mug shamelessly and chew up portions of the simple scenery. There is a theatricality to Car 54, something later sitcoms would exploit and experiment with. Similarly, the scripts would often contain stories within stories, mimicking the way modern TV comedies do business. Shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons owe a debt of gratitude to Hiken and his approach. You can see more of Car 54 in these often heralded classics than you can Lucy or The Danny Thomas Show. After the series ended, Hiken went on to work with another multiple Emmy winner, Don Knotts, as writer/director on the underrated The Love God. Sadly, it would be his last project. He died of a heart attack at age 54 in 1968, leaving behind a legacy that is unquestioned in both its entertainment value and historical significance. Perhaps you can’t see the impact a show like Car 54, Where Are You? made on the current state of the sitcom. A look over this must-own DVD set should settle the argument once and for all.

RATING 7 / 10