My Television Diary: 4/7/12

07 Apr

The Jerry Lewis Show (November 5, 1957)

Jerry Lewis has always been a love-him-or-hate-him comedian. He has fans who will explain at length why he ranks among the very greatest comedians of the 20th Century. Most of us would need a whole lot of persuasion to accept that idea. I’m not particularly a Lewis fan, but he does have his moments, so I watched this 1957 special with an open mind.

It’s a blend of the best and worst of Jerry Lewis. Right at the opening, we’re treated to Jerry’s familiar Al Jolson impression, which he always performed very straight and very sincerely. Personally, I think every Jolson impression is a bad Jolson impression, but at least this one doesn’t last long.

Next there’s a sketch in which Jerry’s a goony kid in the audience of a teenage dance show, hoping to win the new bicycle they’re giving away. It’s not a bad sketch, and there was one throwaway line I loved. Jerry gives his name to the show’s host (Jan Murray), a long silly name. “How do you spell that?” “My mother helps me.”

But the sketch runs on too long, and ends on a sad note— Jerry doesn’t win the bike. What should have been a bittersweet, wistful little finale instead becomes a protractedly mawkish one as Lewis lathers on the pathos. But that’s all right. The sketch is okay. There’s another lengthy one in the second half, in which Jerry’s a repairman atop a telephone pole, watching a theatrical producer plan a show with his staff. Jerry climbs in through the window to share some ideas with the producer (Paul Lynde, of all people!), and generally get in trouble. There are some very good moments, but once again the sketch is too long, and ends badly as Jerry turns a soprano’s solo rehearsal into an unwelcome duet. Lewis’ loveable little schnook character sometimes morphs into an overbearing jerk, and it happens here.

Throughout the show, the strategy of Jerry making silly faces into the camera is employed in place of actual material. To a point, that works. But only to a point. The scripted stuff isn’t bad at all, and Lewis performs it perfectly well, but he can’t stop with the monkey faces.

Unexpectedly, the show concludes with a fresh idea, in which Jerry’s studio orchestra gets into a musical duel with the Woody Herman Orchestra. This bit is very satisfying, but suddenly the hour is over. If this special had been trimmed to a half-hour by a wise but firm producer (one able to say no to Mr. Lewis), this would’ve been a solid show. Instead, it’s an interesting curio.

Who Do You Trust? (date unknown, circa 1960)

So far, the only thing I’ve gotten around to watching on Mill Creek’s four-disc set The Best of Johnny Carson and Friends was this one program, which I selected at random. It was a lucky choice.

In the late 1950s, Johnny Carson was more or less demoted to daytime television after an ABC variety show sputtered out. But his Midwestern charm and a genius for witty conversation rescued this You Bet Your Life knockoff, and resurrected his career in the process.

I’ll bet he remembered this particular episode for a good little while, because his first contestant becomes trapped in the show’s isolation booth when its door won’t open.

It’s a live broadcast. Unable to force the door open himself, Johnny is clearly flustered, but he soldiers on with the show, moving on to the next pair of contestants. A stagehand can be seen in the background setting up a giant ladder next to the isolation booth. The camera occasionally cuts away to the trapped contestant, who grins helplessly and eventually sits down cross-legged inside the booth to wait out his confinement.

Johnny does his best to engage his new contestants in snappy repartee, but his eyes constantly dart to an off-screen monitor to see how the stagehand is doing with that door.

Finally, the contestant is freed, and in the background he can be seen walking off-stage, waving affably to the studio audience. Johnny carries on with the show. All in a day’s work.



Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (3:2, “The Werewolf,” September 25, 1966)

When I realized I had an episode of this show with a werewolf in it, I watched it immediately.

As usual for an Irwin Allen series, the first season of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was quite good, with a lot of imagination and action (not to mention impressive stock footage, lifted from his adventure movies). But by the third season, the monster-of-the-week syndrome had set in. Plot complexity and character development went out the porthole, but at least there were spooks and weird-looking aliens to look at. Lost in Space fans know what I’m talking about

This episode is pretty much what you’d expect. After exploring a mysterious South Pacific island, where he’s attacked by a wolf (evidently a Polynesian wolf), a crew member returns to the Seaview, where he becomes a bloodthirsty werewolf and goes berserk. In the struggle to contain him, Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) is attacked. It isn’t long before the admiral is sprouting tufts of course hair, and the story kind of goes on from there.

Isn’t this pretty stupid? Well, sure, of course it is. And you have to feel sorry for Richard Basehart, who was really a very fine actor, inexplicably trapped in the silliest program on network television (yes, even sillier than Gilligan’s Island). But if you take it in the spirit in which it’s offered, it’s a fun show. My inner eight-year-old enjoyed this episode. The werewolf make-up was pretty good and there were a lot of things to chuckle at. In fact, if you’re ever looking for a show to watch while drunk, this is it.


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