I am watching select episodes of beloved and/or significant shows from every era in an attempt to break my current mindset of needing to watch a TV program from beginning to end, and to learn about and appreciate some things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. You can read more about it here.
The medium of television is so young that it shouldn’t be surprising how readily accessible its early days are, but I’m still a little awestruck that a couple trips to YouTube and the Internet Archive can yield instant, uncut glimpses of the very earliest American broadcasts; for example, anyone who wanted to take a serious look at the evolution of TV comedy would have instant access to nearly everything they needed. I’m only doing a half-assed job of it myself, but this was a particularly enlightening stretch of this project, and with these shows in particular, a lot more rewarding than I think I expected. The first significant comedies (I’m not sure you could quite call these sitcoms yet, though that’s coming next) are of course cribbed from radio shows and radio stars. More specifically, the first transitions were with comedy teams, in this case mostly Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, and Amos ‘n’ Andy (though the latter doesn’t really fit with the others for reasons I’ll get into in a minute). Most of these had some success in films before the advent of television, so these shows don’t necessarily get the credit for giving faces to the voices as much as giving them an outlet better suited to their ongoing stage and radio routines.
The Colgate Comedy Hour was one of the very first programs to provide that outlet, and it’s the kind of program that hasn’t existed for decades. I imagine it’s an NBC exec’s wet dream to have a popular catch-all variety program into which they could shove anything they pleased. The show premiered on September 17, 1950 with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as its first hosts. They would go on to host many, many more episodes, alternating with Abbott and Costello or Eddie Cantor or whoever else NBC felt like putting on that week. Sometimes they used it to launch or advertise new shows in their lineup, sometimes they were mostly letting an A-list actor plug a new film, and at one point they even staged a live adaptation of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes with Ethel Merman and Frank Sinatra. Beyond furthering the household-name status of its primary hosts, it is probably best known for presenting the first NTSC color episode in broadcast history, and even that plays into its sort of convenient, homeroom ground-control status. By design, it’s a formless network void, so I was surprised to be able to find a certain tangible sensibility in place over the episodes I watched. There’s a wealth of up-and-coming talent thrown at it, for one; Norman Lear wrote on at least one episode, and Samuel Fuller serves as executive producer for most of its run, which is wildly intriguing but unfortunately doesn’t seem to be well-documented. Maybe it’s also the fact that the familiar beats of a standard variety show weren’t completely defined yet, but the show’s mixture of sketch, musical numbers, and audience interaction feels gloriously and intentionally anarchic at times. The show’s hosts are more than figureheads; they seem to be given full creative control of the hour, with plenty of leeway to try any bit they can think of or invite whoever they want to be involved, which sort of unites all the episodes with a feeling of loose, free energy. The best and strangest example, and also the first episode I watched, the second of a handful of “Spike Jones Shows,” which sees the bandleader and his cohorts essentially running rampant from top to bottom (minus a few in-house advertisements, of course). They obviously perform a few of his popular, sound-effect-laden pieces, but they also put on their own sketches, including an epic Foreign Legion farce. It’s a breezy, pleasantly deranged hour, occasionally as broad as a bandcamp talent show act, but committed to unpredictability (a Stalin impersonator crosses a musical act just for fun) and a visual flair lacking from from most of Jones’ TV contemporaries, no doubt because he had a successful over-the-top live act to pull costumes and choreographed gags from. I also watched one of each of the Abbott and Costello (from May 23, 1954) and Martin and Lewis (from April 29, 1951) episodes, which are slightly less unhinged but still looser and wilder than I expected. I’ve honestly never been a big fan of either of those teams. I find Bud Abbott to be the world’s most boring straight man, and most of their routines to be stilted and emotionless, particularly in comparison to Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis always played to me as sort of harmlessly entertaining to a fault — so dependent on their thin “he’s a psycho, he’s a smoothie” formula that there’s nothing else for them to switch to. But I found myself warming up to both acts here. A freewheeling variety show feels more like home for both duos than their tightly scripted film comedies, and I’m impressed at how much work they seem to have put into making the hour their own. Both episodes are heavy on comedy bits and even the “variety” portions seem to be hand-picked by the hosts to fit the vibe of the night; Bud and Lou bring in Hoagy Carmichael for some breezy, good-humored jazz and Dean and Jerry invite Bob Fosse to choreograph and perform in an appropriately swanky dance routine. The sketches themselves aren’t necessarily brilliant but they’re quick and fun and well-designed. Martin and Lewis do gag-heavy, largely successful extended riffs on first a golf course set and then a library, and Abbott and Costello get a lot of mileage out of a running joke involving Abbott’s schemes to steal Costello’s money before doing an enjoyably silly, high-energy piece utilizing an apartment set loaded with special-effect booby traps. Both teams excel in the live format — Martin and Lewis use breaking the scene as a crutch a little too often, but it’s mostly charmingly chaotic, as when Lewis opens the show by willfully losing the camera (eventually a favorite trick of Conan O’Brien, of course). Lou Costello cracking in a conversation with child actor Ricky Vera (who?) feels less manipulative but the audience is all over it. These guys own the crowd like nobody’s business, and it’s a pleasure to watch. My favorite moment, however, comes near the end, when dry, camera-shy, Anthony Perkins-esque house bandleader Bill Finegan introduces a pretty delightful performance of “Midnight Sleigh Ride” with a bizarre, rambling explanation of his role in the piece. “I play the role of a horse… I make horse-like noises… It sounds exactly like a horse.” That intro and the following tune sort of sum up The Colgate Comedy Hour nicely: strange, appealing, funny, semi-improvisational, eclectic, and very specifically live.
Burns and Allen, who I don’t believe ever hosted for Colgate, were a duo I knew mostly by reputation alone. I’d been interested to see more of them since I’ve become more of a George Burns enthusiast after seeing the film Going in Style recently, and because I was curious as to how a couple who now function as sort of a Hollywood shorthand for true love could be funny and not precious. Anyway, I was glad to have an excuse to watch The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, arguably the apex of their 20+ year vaudeville and radio act. Even moreso than the Colgate shows, Burns and Allen served to quickly dash a lot of conceptions I had of the evolution of comedy. At the top of the very first episode, George speaks directly to the audience and essentially spells out the inner workings of their formula, talking through the details of playing a straight man to Gracie’s crowd-pleasing one-liners. This turns out to be a regular part of the design of the show, which has Burns stepping in and out of the action to make sly asides to the viewer and comment on what Gracie, still in character, is doing in the scene. These fourth wall breaking moments are considered the first on television, though Burns himself was modest about that particular accomplishment, saying that at that point in television’s infancy, everything you did was considered innovative. It was still jarring to see in an early proto-sitcom, but maybe not as much as seeing him pick apart the machinations of comedy, something I think of being more from Johnny Carson’s time and forward. The inner show/outer show format is strange and probably only there because there were hardly any traditional narrative formats on TV yet to follow, and it allows them to keep variety-show fixtures like musical guests and announcers (it’s also where the stars do their famous “Say goodnight, Gracie” sign-off at the end of every episode), but it works well with Burns’ sensibility. The asides are also my favorite part of the program. The actual narrative is crucial to the development of the domestic sitcom, as it mostly follows Gracie making dumb mistakes and misunderstandings that baffle George, their patient neighbors the Mortons, and whatever famous friends are stopping by that week. They are affable, gently funny stories but their legacy is a lot of bland, jokebook-style imitators. The progressiveness at the time of having the woman in a husband-and-wife comedy team be “the funny one” is slightly diluted by the fact that she’s playing a brain-damaged housewife in the vein of Jessica Simpson, though she certainly has a masterful control of her timing and delivery. The first episode has a classic bit where Burns makes up a convoluted fake card game called Kleebob as part of a plan he and Harry Morton cooked up to ditch their wives for a fight (sitcoms, right?) only to find that Gracie already knows the rules because it’s just like Mogul. “What is Mogul?” “Remember last week when you wanted to go to a ball game? You taught me how to play Mogul. Where do you want to go tonight, dear?” Another episode I watched features Gracie convinced that her marriage isn’t legal, despite the objections of witness Jack Benny and any other reasonable person she meets. There are several solid laughs, but it’s difficult to hang them on such an asinine delusion, which I guess would become a running theme for domestic fallacies in TV comedy forever. Still, it’s an amusing, important show all around, and it was popular enough to run for eight seasons, ending only due to Gracie’s voluntary retirement from show business. It doesn’t seem to take advantage of the visual medium quite as well as Abbott and Costello or some of their other radio brethren, but I’m not sure that visual gags would have fit well even with Burns and Allen’s vaudeville stage show; their humor is broad, but it’s well-dressed and well-mannered as well. Almost exactly a year later, I Love Lucy struck a deeper chord with audiences by expanding the showbiz-family format to make room for bits and setpieces specifically designed for the small screen, but the true origin of the classic setup of a Hollywood husband and his wacky wife lies here, as far as I can tell.
Speaking of visual gags, we’re coming to my first hearty laugh of this batch of early sitcoms, coming to my surprise from The Amos ‘n’ Andy Show. Amos ‘n’ Andy are another long-term comedy act and classic radio staple I knew by reputation alone, and what a complex, loaded reputation it is — a household-name minstrel act that’s possibly most controversial for how little controversy it ever seemed to cause. The story behind the radio serial and its evolution to television is bizarre and fascinating. North Carolina’s Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll created the characters, originally called Sam ‘n’ Jeff, specifically for radio in 1926. There’s the first detail that likely kept, or at least postponed, the very white Gosden and Correll from landing permanent seats in the Racist Douchebag Hall of Shame. The pair voiced the titular characters in addition to an ever-expanding fictionalized Chicago, meaning they were voicing men of all races (all the men on the whole program, in fact), but more importantly, not live in front of people. They rarely performed in blackface beyond a few promotional appearances and one ill-advised feature. Although “rarely performed in blackface” must be the thinnest defense against charges of racism in history, the fact the most popular iteration of the characters was heard and not seen seems massively important to their success, especially since many listeners assumed they were hearing black actors. The other saving grace is that people just really liked it. As one of the first serialized radio dramas, it was wildly innovative in the way it structured its cliffhanger-heavy stories to capture the full attention of its rapt audience, underlining its humor with emotional depth and long-running threads that rewarded avid fans. Even those who were aware and who cared that an inherently offensive minstrel show was the biggest thing on the airwaves largely gave it a pass, since the scripts tended to actively avoid stereotype-based humor and that fans were emotionally invested in the characters instead of laughing at them. The NAACP initially refused to protest the show, seemingly for reasons adding up to mostly, “Hey, it’s a pretty good listen.” Ironically, when they did finally mount their own protest, it was for the television version, which learned its lesson from the feature film and recast all the roles with African-Americans. Arguably, it was that protest and general mounting discomfort with the franchise as a whole that led to CBS pulling the show after a couple of seasons. Such is the confounding duality of Amos ‘n’ Andy: A show that lined the pockets of a couple guys who at one point thought blackface was an acceptable way to forge their success is also a funny, well-made sitcom that boasts one of the first predominantly black casts in TV history. And it is funny. I watched 1952’s “Kingfish Sells a Lot,” which, like most of the TV version, is a lot more about Andy and his local lodge leader and frequent swindler Kingfish than it is about Andy and Amos, who doesn’t even appear in this or many other episodes. Kingfish is possibly my favorite type of character, like Thimble Theater‘s Castor Oyl or Aqua Teen Hunger Force‘s Master Shake — a career con artist who is somehow deeply likeable despite his worst intentions, likely because his schemes tend to backfire. The setup for this particular scheme is like a textbook in how to write good, rich comedy for the half-hour format. Kingfish wants to get rid of a land lot he bought after miscalculating its worth based on a Hollywood production choosing to shoot there. The only thing on it is a picture house that the studio put there, just the front of the house with no interior. Kingfish suckers Andy into buying the lot at a marked-up price based on the assumption that there’s a beautiful multi-walled house on the property, and a battle of wits involving planted oil and other trickery ensues, with Andy eventually getting his revenge. Andy first visiting his new one-dimensional home and wading through several layers of denial as he explores it looking for the inside made me laugh like an idiot, like a classic Barney Fife moment with extra kickers. That’s the highlight, but the episode is consistently funny and just generally a pleasure to watch, with great performances from Spencer Williams, Tim Moore, and the supporting cast. It’s an attractively designed show as well, with contrast-heavy cinematography and a mood-setting cityscape credit roll that team up to give it the visual edge of something Jules Dassin might have directed. I expected to watch this one through spread fingers like a car crash, but honestly the off-screen complications of its existence are hard to keep in mind with such a confident presentation. It’s difficult to chart how influential the TV-specific leg of Amos ‘n’ Andy is as opposed to the better-known, longer-running radio drama, but it’s the earliest thing I’ve watched that really feels like a fully-formed sitcom.
Moving on to 1952 and coming full circle on this loosely connected batch of radio- and vaudeville-born early TV classics, Abbott and Costello finally got their very own series with the appropriately named The Abbott and Costello Show. Like their hosting gigs on Colgate, their own show did a lot to heal the relatively ambivalent opinion I’ve always held of their act, and again it’s mostly due to the work that seems to be put into each episode. They pack in as many jokes as they can and deliver them with the same or higher commitment that they would have in their movies. The show has become notable over time, in fact, for its all-out emphasis on bits and routines, with the “plot” often falling by the wayside. That’s great news for me, as someone who felt like the plot points and romantic beats of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein felt like they took a hundred years to complete. “The Haunted Castle,” one of three well-regarded episodes I watched, is an obvious precursor to that ever-popular film but it plays like a funnier, faster version without all the chaff. The game is to get Abbott and Costello in a haunted castle as quickly as possible, let Costello be freaked out by whatever weirdness is inside, and get them out. And as pleasantly simple as that is, it’s ten times the plotwork as “The Dentist’s Office,” which uses Costello’s toothache as a springboard for a lot of big, silly, random slapstick, or “The Actors’ Home,” which starts with a clear story about Abbott’s out-of-control greed landing him in a facility for retired or insane actors, but quickly gives up and has them do an eight-minute version of “Who’s On First?” Many of the show’s bits were holdovers from their long history of bit-building, but this particular rendition of their most famous routine is fresh and funny and is frequently considered the ultimate version. The show’s willingness to derail anything and everything to keep the funny coming is its most enduring aspect, and while the sense of humor can still be as broad as a planet — there is a recurring man-baby character called Hercules who is as dumb as anything you hate on modern network programming — I found all three episodes generally enjoyable if not outright funny, and I was again struck with how well that particular team’s style just seems to fit well with TV.
To be honest, I was expecting when taking on these shows to find more of a lag between radio and television styles. The only evidence that these were ported over from a non-visual medium is the pull-back-the-curtain style framing device present in all of them except Amos ‘n’ Andy. They weren’t quite just letting shows be shows yet, used to the necessary setup and presentation of a blind broadcast. These are partially practical moments, as standalone commercials were seemingly still rare, and the actors needed some time to pimp their sponsors without breaking a scene. You will hear so much about Carnation milk while watching Burns and Allen that you will want to die. For the most part, though, the writers and actors quickly caught on to ways to utilize the camera, even if much of it was just calling back on their original stage routines. So many familiar elements of TV comedy are here that I’d hesitate to even call these formative or transitional shows. Still, it’s hard not to think of them as precursors to the likes of I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, shows that were only sorta-kinda based on radio shows but that are more commonly associated with television, and that are still generally considered two of the biggest things in the medium despite arriving only a couple years later. Those are coming up soon, along with some of the earliest westerns.
Would I watch more?: I held back a couple of these for an all-Christmas round at the end of the year, and I already watched a bunch of Amos ‘n’ Andy clips on YouTube, first looking for an appearance by the elusive Amos, but then just enjoying weird Kingfish schemes. Beyond that, I think I’ve mostly gotten enough out of these early shows, though I wouldn’t turn any of them off if they popped up in front of me in the middle of the night. I’m a little tempted to check out some of the more unusual hosts on Colgate, but not any time soon.