Vaudeo to Sitcom
From the outset television was dominated by humor. From lavish comedy-variety revues to predictable situation comedies, Americans laughed with TV. By April 1952 one ratings service calculated that 42.7 percent of all network offerings (24.8 percent comedy-variety, 17.9 percent situation comedy) was comedy-based. Interestingly, this dichotomy between comedic types reflected the programming philosophies of the major networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC.
At NBC, comedy-variety shows were emphasized. Here the marriage of the old vaudeville format and new video requirements produced the first great form of TV comedy, the vaudeo style, which dominated the Golden Age of TV. Vaudeo resurrected the essentials of stage variety entertainment. Here were singers, dancers, animal acts, acrobats, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Here, too, were live music, glamorous studio audiences, and the perception at home that this was authentic theatrical performance. But above all, the effect of vaudeo was to surrender to the comedians—historically, the most popular performers of vaudeville—the fate of television.
NBC offered, and Americans embraced, vaudeo comics such as Milton Berle on
The Texaco Star Theater, Jimmy Durante on All-Star Revue, and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on
The Admiral Broadway Revue and later Your Show of Shows. The premier network employed the premier comedians of the age, among them Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Eddie Cantor, Ben Blue, Jerry Lester, Danny Thomas, Martha Raye, Bob Hope, and Fred Allen.
Vaudeo meant dancing, popular songs, dog acts, pony acts, circus-style stunts, and big-name guest stars and/or series regulars, all sandwiched between generous portions of funny skits and monologues. Fred Allen in 1950, for example, welcomed to
The Colgate Comedy Hour talents as diverse as opera star Rise Stevens and actor Monty Woolley; Eddie Cantor made his TV debut on another installment of
The Colgate Comedy Hour in September 1950, complemented by guests who included the Peruvian coloratura soprano Yma Sumac; and that spring Bob Hope headed a special
Star-Spangled Revue that included Dinah Shore, Beatrice Lillie, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and the Mexico City Boys' Choir. During its five seasons
Your Show of Shows presented not only the sketches of Caesar and Coca but also a variety of weekly performers such as soprano Marguerite Piazza and baritone Robert Merrill of the New York Metropolitan Opera; popular vocalists Bill Hayes and the Billy Williams Quartet; and such dance teams as Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander, and Nellie Fisher and Jerry Ross.
Permeating such diversion were the fundamentals of vaudeville comedy; opening monologues filled with puns, topical references, and farcical jokes; plus pratfalls, pies in the face, and spirited interchanges between comedians and their studio audiences, all delivered at frantic pace with occasional muffed lines and slips of the tongue. As Milton Berle suggested, vaudeo was nothing less than a revival of the past. "Despite the really arduous task of putting on a full hour video show each week," he wrote in 1949, "it has really been a pleasure to have had a part in bringing back to the people of the United States what I consider one of the greatest forms of entertainment we've ever seen. What I'm referring to is vaudeville—the old 'two-a-day.' " Berle continued,
I think America has been a lot poorer since old vaudeville passed away, and it makes a lot of us troupers who made our start and were weaned in the wings on the stage of the old Palace and other theaters, feel darn good to have television—the newest of all media—be the means of bringing back one of the happiest phases of American life.'
Some hosts relied on sketches with comedic figures they had developed over the years; others created new characterizations for TV. For example, Eddie Cantor brought his likable Maxie the taxicab driver to TV. And Frances Langford teamed with Lew Parker to bring the classic antiheroic comedy of married life,
The Bickersons, to the DuMont comedy-variety showcase, Star Time.
For television Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, alone and together, developed memorable new characters, including Caesar's German-accented professor who was a self-proclaimed expert on almost everything, Coca's Chaplinesque tramp who communicated pathos through comedic song and dance, and the quarrelsome married couple Charlie and Doris Hickenlooper, a duo inspired by
The Bickersons. Jackie Gleason introduced many comedy types on his TV show, among them the working class hero Ralph Kramden; the hedonistic playboy Reginald Van Gleason III; Loudmouth Charlie Bratton; and a touching "loser," The Timid Soul, who appeared only in pantomime skits.
Vaudeo funnymen exploited outlandish costumes, contorted facial expressions, and other visual exaggerations. There were those, too, who employed verbal running gags—from George Gobel's new phrase "So there you are" to Jimmy Durante's classic references to his neighborhood acquaintance Umbriago (a pun on the Italian word ubriaco, which means drunk), as well as renditions of novelty songs such as "Inka Dinka Doo" and "I'm the Guy Who Found the Lost Chord."
Of all its humorous attractions, however, NBC—and early television, for that matter—relied on the enormous drawing power of Milton Berle. Trained in vaudeville but well experienced in feature films and radio, Berle came to The Texaco Star Theater on June 8, 1948. At the time the show was aired on NBC's flagship station, WNBT (New York City), and its seven-station East Coast network. It was produced by the influential William Morris talent agency and was conceived as a televised vaudeville show in seven acts—"the Palace Theater of television." Berle was to be one of several hosts who would rotate weekly until a permanent headliner was selected.
But Berle overwhelmed TV audiences. By September he was the sole host of the show, and via kinescopes of
The Texaco Star Theater distributed throughout the United States, he was soon a national phenomenon. In November the Berle show recorded the highest rating ever recorded by the prestigious C. E. Hooper company, a rating equal to 86.7 percent of all TV households, and a share equivalent to 97.4 percent of all sets actually in use. Granted, live network TV reached only a handful of cities and there was not much on television in 1948 to rival the glamour offered by Berle and his gang. But these were impressive numbers in any context. And a year later he was still attracting formidable audiences: for example, in Washington, D.C., he commanded a 64.5 rating with a 98 share.
From the sponsor’s opening song performed by “the men of Texaco” to the final good-byes, the Berle show offered a loud, aggressive, physical comedic style with plenty of laughs and action. Uncle Miltie, as he was popularly called, wore elaborate evening gowns, had pies and powdered pillows thrown in his face, dropped his trousers, made pratfalls, and mugged excessively before his audience. His jokes were riddled with puns and comic jabs at the audience. "I have on a marriage girdle—I'm just itching to get out of it," declared Berle, wearing a blond wig and dressed in a satin wedding gown on the program of May 29, 1951. And he continued with marriage jokes, among them: "I wanna tell you, marriage helps the sale of Texaco. It really does, 'cause when you're married you wind up taking gas;" plus, "Here's a guy that got married in a garage and he couldn't back out."
Berle did for TV what Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll as Amos 'n' Andy had done twenty years earlier for commercial network radio: the popularity of his program took a fledgling entertainment medium and made it a national necessity. As well as the automotive products peddled by his sponsor, the success of Milton Berle sold TV sets, comedy, stage entertainment, and the very notion that television should be an integral part of civilization in the United States.
To counter the popularity of NBC and its vaudeo comics, CBS and to a lesser degree ABC staked their futures on situation comedy. TV sitcoms differed from comedy-variety shows in two major ways: sitcoms were conceptually different, and they were usually produced on film instead of performed live. Situation comedies focused primarily on the levity inherent in the family or quasi-family unit. Each week brought a return to a recurring situation (a home, restaurant, office, and the like) filled with regular characters. Predicaments were recognizable ones, inevitably resolved after a half hour of funny misunderstandings, misadventures, and conflicts between personality types.
The humor here was more slowly paced than in comedy-variety, and viewers approached such programs as a weekly visit with likable people who confronted not-too-serious problems with lightheartedness and interpersonal trust. Jackie Gleason—whose credits included both vaudeo (Cavalcade of Stars and
The Jackie Gleason Show) and sitcom (The Life of Riley and
The Honeymooners)—compared aspects of the two forms. "Situation comedy is based on honesty," he observed. "On the other hand, the monologue is predicated chiefly on a succession of lies. You can bet that the 'honesty' factor will win out with the audience in the long run."
Unlike the exaggerated nonsense of the slapstick and clownish vaudeo, the sitcom offered the commonplace as the context for leisurely levity. Affability counted more than gags in this comedy form. There may have been fewer laughs per minute with the sitcom, but domesticity was its strength, since it related directly to most Americans sitting at home with the family watching television.
In terms of network business, situation comedy was a more profitable investment. Unlike one-shot live productions, most sitcoms were filmed and packaged as a weekly series totaling thirty-nine episodes per season. The networks immediately realized the benefits of filmed programs; they could fill the thirteen weeks of summer hiatus with reruns of selected episodes. Moreover, once a series appeared for several seasons, it was possible to repackage it for sale to individual stations in each of more than two hundred TV market areas. At every step in the equation, there was money to be made.
Certainly, NBC did not reject the attractiveness of situation comedies. Among the early offerings of NBC television were
The Aldrich Family, The Life of Riley with Jackie Gleason and then William Bendix,
I Married Joan featuring Joan Davis and Jim Backus, The Dennis Day Show, and Wally Cox's low-keyed
Mr. Peepers. But NBC had been the home of the most popular comedy-variety shows on radio, and it was a tradition maintained by the network in early television.
Conversely, CBS did not totally avoid comedy-variety. Among the few exceptions to its sitcom orientation were programs featuring Ed Wynn, Ken Murray, Red Buttons, and Jack Benny. However, Benny's vaudeo program increasingly took on the situation comedy style favored by the network, and only Jackie Gleason, beginning in 1952, and Red Skelton, beginning in 1953, enjoyed prolonged success in the comedy-variety format. Ironically, the most successful vaudeville-inspired program at CBS was hosted by a non-comedic personality, Ed Sullivan, whose Sunday evening variety showcase lasted twenty-three years.
The development of sitcoms by CBS was methodical. The network moved quickly to bring idealized families to TV comedy in programs such as
The Goldbergs (1949) and Mama (1949). Other shows, such as
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950) and Amos 'n' Andy (1951), tied the network's efforts to some of the most popular comedians in the nation. By the mid-1950s, moreover, new comedies nurtured on CBS radio now moved to television, among them
I Love Lucy (1951), My Friend Irma (1952), Our Miss Brooks (1952),
Life with Luigi (1952), and Meet Millie (1952). The effectiveness of long-range CBS planning appeared inevitably in the ratings: in the four seasons 1950-1954, NBC had a total of thirteen comedy programs in the top ten, while CBS had only five; during the next four seasons, 1954-1958, only four NBC comedies reached the top ten, while CBS placed fifteen.
At ABC the commitment to situation comedy was driven primarily by economics. Elaborate comedy-variety programs were expensive undertakings. For this junior network with few hit programs and a financially uncertain future, sitcoms seemed more appropriate. Such shows were produced by independent companies, thus demanding little capital outlay by the network. The network was not unfamiliar with sitcoms. Although not committed as much as CBS to their development, the most popular comedy on ABC radio,
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, eventually became the longest-running situation comedy in television history.
While ABC had limited success with domestic comedies such as The Ruggles (1949-1952) and
A Date with Judy (1952-1953)—and even less impact with The Jerry Colonna Show, one of its few comedy-variety showcases—with series such as
Beulah for three years, Danny Thomas's Make Room for Daddy for four seasons, The Stu Erwin Show for five years,
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for fourteen seasons, and beginning in 1958,
The Donna Reed Show for eight years, ABC proved more successful than wealthy NBC in scheduling sitcoms during the first decade of the medium. As Table 3.1 reveals, during the 1950s lowly ABC televised several of the longest-running comedy series.
|Table 3.1: Longest-Running Situation Comedies from the 1950s|
|Ozzie and Harriet||1952-1966||435||ABC|
|Jack Benny Program||1950-1965||343||CBS|
|Make Room for Daddy||1953-1964||336||ABC|
|Donna Reed Show||1958-1966||274||ABC|
|Burns and Allen Show||1950-1958||239||CBS|
|The Life of Riley||1949-1950|
|Leave It to Beaver||1957-1963||234||CBS|
|The Real McCoys||1957-1963||224||ABC|
|Father Knows Best||1954-1962||191||CBS|
|I Love Lucy||1951-1957||179||CBS|
It was not a foregone conclusion that television would be accepted. It had failed once before when Americans rejected the sales efforts of NBC in the years preceding World War II. A decade later, nothing less than the commercial and cultural viability of TV was at stake. However, if the CBS comedy series
I Love Lucy was an indication of the attitude of most Americans toward television, the medium was clearly a winner.
This show made an indelible mark on TV programming as well as on U.S. popular culture. In terms of impact and popularity, I Love Lucy surpassed the achievements of Milton Berle. It was the top-rated show in the nation for four of its six full seasons (1952-1953, 1953-1954, 1954-1955, and 1956-1957). In its initial season (1951-1952) it was ranked third behind the programs of Berle and Arthur Godfrey. And in 1955-1956 it was second only to the faddish quiz program
The $64,000 Question. As testimony to the appeal of the series, when CBS in December 1955 reran vintage
I Love Lucy programs on Saturday nights while airing new episodes on Mondays, the first-run shows were rated number two in the nation while the reruns were ranked tenth.
Although Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were inspired by the techniques of physical stage comedy so prevalent on early video, in many ways
I Love Lucy was the opposite of the vaudeville tradition. Its half-hour, filmed format contrasted with the generally hour-long live or kinescoped productions on NBC. Ball used the clownish costumes and mugging techniques of the vaudeo funnymen, but I Love Lucy offered recurring characters and a consistent image of family interaction and human vulnerability that was alien to the vaudeo showcases. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo—plus their well-meaning neighbors Fred and Ethel Mertz—confused, complicated, and contorted most everyday situations. With them a vacation trip, lunch at a restaurant, watching television, the purchase of a new dress, or an approaching birthday led inexorably to mayhem and hilarity, ultimately resolved through the understanding and love basic to the Ricardos' relationship.
Family-oriented situation comedy drew viewers into the homes and problems of average-looking Americans. Vaudeo was live performance that placed viewers in a theater seat to watch people performing onstage. Sitcom depended on affable characters contending with everyday matters. In comedy-variety shows the hosts were impresarios, each week introducing series regulars and greeting new guest performers. These productions succeeded because they were lavish and compelling; situation comedies were cozy and familiar—as sparse as Ralph and Alice Kramden's kitchen on
The Honeymooners, as middle-class as the living room of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, or as modest as the apartment of the Ricardos.
Ironically, for all their popularity neither situation comedies nor vaudeo innovatively exploited the capabilities of television. Only Ernie Kovacs consistently demonstrated that the visual alone could produce laughter. Certainly he used spoken words with such characters as his fey astigmatic poet Percy Dovetonsils and his German disc jockey Wolfgang Sauerbraten. But Kovacs was at his most inventive when he operated without spoken words. In his short blackouts Kovacs relied on visual absurdity: a
bodiless arm rising from a sudsy bathtub to scrub the back of a bathing woman; a workman apparently sitting at a level desk eating his lunch, only to have his food roll rapidly to the left and onto the floor; three marching men, one of whom falls into a hole so quickly the others march on without noticing his disappearance. As George Schlatter, later the producer of
Rowan's & Martin's Laugh-In and Real People, described his good friend, "Ernie was just weird. He did some great things, but you never really knew when they were over. He had a certain disdain for his audience. It gave him individuality, it gave him charm, and it gave him a unique appeal."
But invention in commercial TV does not guarantee large audiences, and Kovacs was not popular with the average viewer. A close associate described him and his humor as "like olives and martinis—people either hated him or loved him or couldn't care less. His comedy was way over their heads, so that they [NBC] really didn't know what the hell to do with him." But fifteen years after Kovacs died in an automobile accident, a comedian of the new generation understood the significance. "Ernie Kovacs was a video innovator," wrote Chevy Chase in 1977. "He knew that there was an intrinsic magic about television itself that should be explored." Chase continued, "What is memorable about Ernie was his inclination to stay away from the familiar. He chose to break precedents whenever possible."
Already by the mid-1950s there were indications that TV comedy was losing its mass appeal. Among the vaudeo shows, the reason was twofold. First, the long-term profitability of filmed series rendered live programs expensive and inefficient. There were more revenues for everyone—networks, distributors, production personnel, performers—in rerunning filmed series than in a live show that would never be repeated. Eventually, too, audiences tired of vaudeo. Berle's jokes and physical antics lost their freshness, and even someone as inventive as Sid Caesar seemed to have exhausted his talent. Writing about Sid Caesar in late 1950, a Chicago TV critic predicted the demise of this form of humor. "He is a great comedian," suggested Jack Mabley, "but how long before the now regular viewers of the ninety-minute Saturday night shindig will reach the saturation point of Caesar comedy? Caesar is building greatness doing once a week what Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Weber and Fields, and Harold Lloyd used to do once a year."
Viewer rejection of the genre became apparent in the cancellation of the comedy-variety format.
Your Show of Shows was dropped in June 1954, and its less spectacular successor,
Caesar's Hour, survived until 1957. Milton Berle left television for a while in 1956. After one successful season, 1952-1953, Red Buttons rapidly faded, even adopting a sitcom format before departing from TV in 1955.
The George Gobel Show was rated eighth for the 1954-1955 season and fifteenth the following year; but during its remaining four years on TV the program was never again listed among the top twenty-five. And beginning in early 1953 the seminal showcase
The Colgate Comedy Hour began to dilute its comedic offerings with musicals, special events, holiday salutes, and scenes from upcoming Paramount feature films; now renamed
The Colgate Variety Hour, it was canceled in December 1955.
By mid-decade, moreover, comedians such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Jimmy Durance had cut back considerably on their video performances, some appearing only five times a season. Interestingly, Martha Raye tried to buck the trend. After several years of guest appearances and comedy specials, she hosted her own comedy-variety hour in 1955-1956.
The Martha Raye Show did not survive its initial season.
In 1956 Edgar Bergen touched on the plight of many fading comedy stars when he complained that "TV is not the nicest thing that ever happened to a performer" and that many comedians who had been headliners for a quarter-century had been "washed up in six months. Where are you going to get comics to replace them?" Bergen knew that his answer—that "No comedian should be on TV once a week; he shouldn't be on more than once a month"—was commercially unrealistic. With his dummies Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Effie Klinker, ventriloquist Bergen that year hosted a weekly comedy-quiz program,
Do You Trust Your Wife? He argued, however, that a weekly comedy show may be "good for the sponsor but not for the comedian" and added that advertising agencies and the networks "owe it to the performers who have sacrificed their careers by serving as guinea pigs to TV" to provide them with employment in radio. He added, however, that "the sponsors just aren't buying radio today."
Comedy writer Budd Grossman faulted his fellow writers for the collapse of TV humor. According to the man who composed for
December Bride and other programs, "Most comedy writers today are just trying to write as many scripts as they can and get residuals for their old age." He suggested in 1957, "The days of the top comedy writers are no more. The field is easier to break into—for newcomers—than it ever has been before. That's because the average producer is not interested in top writing. He is satisfied to get a happy medium and get the film in the can in time."
Grossman blamed the decline of good writing on the nature of TV scripting. "There are many rewrites involved, and then the director often demands a rewrite," he explained. "Many scripts are changed in rehearsals by stars, bit players, and script girls, although a competent writer did the original script. And after all these changes, if it comes out bad, they blame the writer; if it somehow is good, they take the credit."
A few stage comedians managed to maintain a weekly TV presence, among them Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, and Red Skelton. Of these, only Skelton enjoyed consistently high ratings. Skelton endured because he and his writers understood well the
limitations of TV exposure. Unlike many gag comedy shows at the time, his program lasted only a half hour. Further, Skelton portrayed a variety of humorous characters—among them the corrupt politician San Fernando Red; the punch-drunken boxer Cauliflower McPugg; a stupid country boy, Clem Kadiddlehopper; Willie Lump Lump, a drunk; a henpecked husband in George Appleby; a loudmouthed Western lawman named Sheriff Deadeye; plus J. Newton Numbskull; Bolivar Shagnasty; and Junior, "the mean widdle kid." Although these characters emerged from Skelton's highly rated radio program of the 1940s, his hobo character Freddy the Freeloader was a pantomime character, a visual clown produced for television.
Skelton built diversity into his show. Variety described him as "eight TV comics rolled into one" and suggested that since each telecast was given over almost entirely to one skit,
The Red Skelton Show was essentially a situation comedy augmented by an opening monologue, a dance corps, and guest stars. And he needed that adaptability. Skelton once admitted that during his first year on TV "I used up a hundred and sixty-five routines. Some of it was stuff I'd spent years putting together."
As the popularity of other great stage comedians withered, Red Skelton survived in grand style. He lasted two decades on TV—including his first two seasons and his last season at NBC, and the remainder at CBS. He flourished particularly at Columbia. In the period 1955-1970 his programs were always among the top twenty shows on television. Withstanding all new programming trends and social fads, Skelton actually peaked in the latter half of the 1960s, when in an hour format he ranked second only to
Bonanza during the 1966-1967 season.
Except for The Red Skelton Show, by the late 1950s audiences looked to other TV formats for entertainment. And given the copycat methodology of network programmers, the medium soon was filled with replicas of successful non-comedy series. There was a sudden surge to live quiz shows precipitated by the amazing popularity in 1955-1956 of
The $64,000 Question. New business arrangements with Hollywood film studios such as Warner Bros., Disney, and 20th Century-Fox increased the supply of action-adventure, detective, and dramatic anthology series. The most successful challenge to comedy came from the Western.
A Golden Age marked by live and lavish video spectacle ended as, increasingly, Americans embraced episodic series and newer formats. Nothing better epitomized the demise of this era of the great TV clowns than Milton Berle's inglorious mixing of worn-out jokes and gutter balls when he hosted the half-hour bowling series,
Jackpot Bowling, on NBC in 1960-1961.
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