Like Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, George Gobel’s story can be told in different ways. The one we usually hear is that he was a flash in the pan, inexplicably popular and then— suddenly and forever washed up. (In that version, Gobel rhymes with Berle.) That’s the popular telling of the tale. Let’s face it, we love a good riches-to-rags story.
But I think it’s more accurate to say that Gobel shot to stardom thanks to a happy combination of his own talent and a solid writing staff. His success didn’t last forever, no, but The George Gobel Show did last from 1954/56 to 1959/60, not a bad run. And he gets bonus points for being the most arrestingly original comedian on the air at that time.
Up ’til then, television comedy had been dominated by loud comedians, zany antics and lots of yelling and arm-waving. But after a great many hours in the company of Berle, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello and other full-volume comedians, America was ready for something milder. Something different. Something suburban, wearing a crew cut and a grey flannel suit. Enter Mr. Gobel, a somewhat nervous, somewhat hesitant comedian whose most frequent facial expression was one of concern bordering on worry, but who nevertheless really knew what he was doing.
His show was a little of this, a little of that: the format was part monologue, part sketch comedy, part situation comedy. Really, anything could happen. He might tell a story, or sing a song. He could ad-lib very well when something went wrong. He could do wry, sophisticated material, or something approaching slapstick. Watching the few pirated episodes now in circulation, you never know what’s going to happen next. It won’t be anything very explosive, but it will be something no one else in television was doing.
The George Gobel Show hit the air in September 1954 as part of NBC’s Saturday night schedule. Successful almost immediately, it was the eighth-highest rated show that season. It stayed hot the next year too, as the fifteenth-highest rated show of 1955/56.
But the rumble of creative destruction was already making itself heard. His only real cast member, the charming singer Peggy King, left the show after that season. Worse, his direct competition on CBS was its freshman hit Gunsmoke. Worse yet, his creative staff was shaken up and some excellent comedy writers walked (or were thrown) out the door. The real point of no return was probably the loss of writer-producer Hal Kanter.
Gobel was chased out of the Saturday night line-up by Marshal Dillon after the 1956/57 season, and his show was re-invented as a Tuesday night variety hour thereafter. That lasted for a couple of years, but the momentum was gone; it returned as a half-hour Sunday night comedy in the fall of 1959, this time on CBS. That was the end of the line, and the final episode aired on June 5, 1960.
During his prime, Gobel had been eagerly signed by Paramount to shoot a couple of movies between seasons. But audiences can always sense when a movie isn’t going to work, and without the input of the creative staff that had made The George Gobel Show so great, the films were dead on arrival.
I keep thinking of Harry Langdon, another unique comedian whose success was undeniable, but all too brief. Like Langdon, George Gobel carried on and did some fine work in his later years, albeit in a steadily dimming spotlight. Viewers of my generation remember him as a fixture on The Hollywood Squares throughout the 1970s, where he was still funny, still a quirky original, and still quietly rocking that crew cut. But times had definitely changed in the years since Eisenhower. The stars of comedy now were young, hip, dynamic and frequently raw… the opposite of George Gobel.
Still and all, he had the perfect exit line, not only for himself but for a lot of us. It was on a 1969 Tonight Show appearance: “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”