My Television Diary: 5/23/12

23 May

The Best of The Jimmy Dean Show (highlights, circa 1963), Time-Life Video

Apart from a handful of YouTube clips, and a pair of Best-Of DVDs, there’s very little in circulation from The Jimmy Dean Show. That’s a shame, because this humble little ABC variety series seems to have been pretty good.

It debuted in September 1963 and ran for three seasons. It might have lasted longer, had ABC’s programmers given it a fighting chance. It was moved from Thursdays at 9:00, to Thursdays at 10:00, to Fridays at 10:00, consigned to inevitable ratings defeat at the hands of Perry Mason, The Defenders and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. respectively.

Anyway, until Hee-Haw came along, The Jimmy Dean Show was the television home of mainstream country music in the 1960s. And unlike later variety shows like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show, it seems to have been perfectly willing to keep the music virtually all country, all the time. This DVD includes fine performances by Eddy Arnold and series regular Molly Bee, and a terrific set from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos— reminding us what a great singer/songwriter Buck was, until… well… Hee-Haw. There’s also a delightful interlude with Homer & Jethro, and if you’re guessing from their names that they were just a hayseed Dr. Demento act, you couldn’t be more wrong.

The show did break from country TV tradition in one way, by showcasing mainstream comedians like Don Adams and Jackie Mason— and thankfully so, because as much as I love vintage country music, I find the country comedians (Rod Brasfield, Minnie Pearl, the Duke of Paducah) uniformly excruciating.

Reputation informs us that the reliable comedy highlight of The Jimmy Dean Show was Jim Henson’s early Muppet “Rowlf,” and his scenes in this DVD really bear that out. Yeah, I know— it’s a puppet and you’re not six years old anymore— but Rowlf is funny as hell.

As for Jimmy Dean himself, he’s agreeable and friendly, always slightly nervous but charmingly so. He fidgets at his necktie, as if he’s really not used to wearing one, which I can well imagine. He looks like a cross between James Dean and a non-psychotic Richard Speck, and his singing is better than adequate. (There’s also a noticeable scar over his left eyebrow, and I kept wondering how it got there.) But he’s a very likeable guy, and he had a very likeable show. I wish I could see more of it.

The material on this DVD is all taken from outstanding kinescopes, evidently from Jimmy’s estate.

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The Rosemary Clooney Show: Girl Singer: Songs from the Classic Television Series (highlights, 1956-1957); Concord Records

More or less right at the peak of her career, Rosemary Clooney did a syndicated TV series. It was shot on 35mm in Hollywood, and while it had certain limitations (second-rank guest stars and a lot of dead-on-arrival comedy bits), it could hardly have been better from a musical standpoint. Not only do you get Rosemary at her vocal peak (and looking gorgeous), there’s also harmonizing by the Hi-Los and the music of Nelson Riddle’s orchestra. The arrangements are all Riddle’s too.

The show is a little obscure, but it could still be found in scattered syndication right into the 1980s. Most of its 39 episodes can be found on the collectors’ circuit, transferred from Nth-generation VHS dubs, but they’re for die-hard fans only, as the quality of these bootlegs is pretty rough. Happily, the original 35mm elements survive in beautiful condition, and this Best-Of disc is a worthy tribute. Sound and image are both top-notch.

Admittedly, it’s a bit too much of a video valentine, as each clip is book-ended by modern-day interview footage of Clooney descendants and admirers, gushing at length about her. And gushing. And gushing. Not that I disagree with them, but I’d have gladly traded the bulk of that for another two or three songs.

It would also have been nice to see her working with a few of her guest stars. As I mentioned, most of them were ho-hum, but there were exceptions, like Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff and Julie London.

Rosemary’s career in the 1950s was hectic and productive, but it had to be put on hold during her frequent pregnancies. She was carrying son Gabriel during part of this series’ run, and you can see the evidence in a couple of the clips selected here. Suddenly she no longer appears in glamorous slim-waisted gowns, but in ballooning blouses— and only from the chest up.

Once production on young Gabriel was completed, she returned to the small screen in September 1957, starring in The Lux Show, airing in color on Wednesdays on NBC. Unfortunately for Rosemary, the dial was suddenly crowded with pop singers that season. Perry Como, Gisele Mackenzie, Nat King Cole, Guy Mitchell, Pat Boone, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Dinah Shore all had shows of their own (not to mention the amateur hours, guest shots and Lawrence Welk’s orchestra), and The Lux Show faded away the following spring. Unfortunately for us, it was aired live and very little of it’s in circulation today— and then only in grungy black-and-white kinescopes.

Anyway, this Best-Of from the syndicated Rosemary Clooney Show is a real treat, presenting twenty songs— ballads, show tunes and lots of swinging 1950s pop.

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The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn (August 2004)

Craig Kilborn had been a rising star on ESPN and Comedy Central when he was tapped to replace Tom Snyder on CBS’s The Late Late Show in 1999.

Essentially, the man who hired Kilborn had been David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produced the show. While today Letterman may be only a grumpy shadow of his former self, thirty years ago he was a real maverick. As always, being a TV maverick means that some critics like you, others scorn you, and millions of viewers find something else to watch— except for a number of intrigued new fans who stick around, tell their friends, and make a cult favorite out of you.

I was part of that cult from the summer of ’82 onward. I loved the playful eccentricity of the show, the freshness of the humor and the sense that anything might happen. The guests were people you never saw on talk shows— Hal Roach, Viva, Henry Morgan, Tom Waits, Harvey Pekar— and while the show fell into a certain routine after a while, it was always worth watching. And then, Dave jumped to CBS, and suddenly his show went very mainstream. Goodbye, Ka-Mar the Discount Magician… Hello Tom Cruise. It wasn’t a bad show at all, but I lost interest and stopped watching.

Throwaway bit in three.. two…one…

Anyway, Letterman’s clout at CBS is such that the hour after his show more or less belongs to him, and when Tom Snyder left The Late Late Show, Letterman hired Kilborn. In many ways this was a reincarnation of the original Late Night with David Letterman, but Los Angelesized and shrunk down to one-eighth scale.

Once again we got a host that many (or most) of us had never heard of, one who rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Kilborn’s humor was sharp and spontaneous, but it could also be mean. Whereas the young Letterman had an appealingly Midwestern innocence about him, Kilborn always seemed fully confident in himself, sometimes a bit too much so. Personally, I’ve always liked him, but that opinion was not unanimous.

What really won me over was the style of the comedy. It was like the good old days again. Fresh, different, quirky, sometimes edgy, sometimes silly, and no other show was serving up that flavor of humor.

“I say, young lady— wiggle it. Shake it prop-pah”

The show was set up like a regular late night talk show, but in a tiny studio seating maybe (maybe) 150 people. No band. No announcer, either— the guy introducing the show over the opening credits was Kilborn himself. There were famous guests now and then, but the emphasis seems to have been on fresh faces and beautiful faces (no Larry “Bud” Melman ever emerged from this show).

Kilborn always opened with a short monologue, then repaired to his desk for idle chatter before rolling ahead with “In the News,” which was basically¬† Weekend Update with an extra layer of sarcasm. I loved all of this. Between or after these segments, there’d be some sort of offbeat comedy bit, which could be absolutely anything. (One night a Kirstie Alley fat joke was swiftly condemned by a midget referee appearing out of nowhere who threw a flag on the play and penalized the host for being out of bounds.) I especially loved the visits from “Sebastian, the Asexual Icon,” a Morrisseyesque character spouting fey pronouncements (Kilborn in librarian glasses and a scarf), but I can’t articulate for you why this was funny. It just was— and I usually found Kilborn as compelling when rambling spontaneously as he was when doing scripted material.

As much as I enjoyed Kilborn’s stuff, I tended to wander away from the show for long periods. A great many of the guests were aimed at a younger demographic than mine, and I usually never knew (or cared) who the hell Akon, Oleta Adams or Shannyn Sossamon were. Some of those unknowns became conventionally famous later on (Danica Patrick, Anna Kournikova), but unlike the unique guests on Letterman’s old show, these people seldom had anything interesting to say.

I was shocked in the late summer of 2004 when Kilborn announced he was leaving the show. It wasn’t a case of being gracefully fired. He was in negotiations to renew his contract when he unexpectedly announced he’d rather move on instead. I hastily recorded some scraps of his last couple weeks of new shows. I wish I’d saved a hundred times as much.

He came back in 2010 for six weeks of a more-or-less doomed early evening talk show on some (but not all) Fox stations, and he’s popped up in a couple of movies, but for the most part he’s kept a very low profile since the end of The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. He’d like to do a sitcom or something— if it can be done his way, producing or writing it himself— and every now and then something like this is tentatively announced, but somehow nothing comes of it.

Today a really fine talent is ensconced in a Hollywood Hills living room, watching a lot of basketball and waiting for the phone to ring with the right offer. I hope it does.

1 Comment

Posted by on May 23, 2012 in My Television Diary


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One response to “My Television Diary: 5/23/12

  1. James

    August 19, 2012 at 6:14 am

    I completely agree with your take on Craiggers. I’ve missed his late night presence for years. And that half-cocked Fox evening thing he did was such a tease. (And definitely doomed to fail, as you said.) My wish would be for him to get back in the hosting seat once Letterman steps aside, but that’s not too likely I guess.


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