Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Signs of a Misspent Youth

I was watching Ms. Annabelle Gurwitch's documentary Fired! which features many talented people confessing about how at one time they were fired from jobs they were eminently qualified for. One of the featured speakers is Mr. Andy Borowitz, who explains how he was fired as a writer for the television show "The Facts of Life." With understandable bitterness, Mr. Borowitz declares that "The Facts of Life" was "the worst television show ever produced."
Mr. Muntadar al-Zaidi, expressing his contempt for American policy towards Iraq--and American television.

Now, I have read some of Mr. Borowitz's writings, and have heard several of his commentaries on National Public Radio. Mr. Bororwitz is clearly a clever person, and does have a better than average knowledge of the scope and dreck of American popular culture. But "The Facts of Life" the worst television show ever? No Mr. Borowitz, I'm sorry; it's not even close. But am I saying that "The Facts of Life" was a "good" show? Not even vaguely. In fact, a newcomer to American television could certainly believe that no program could *possibly* be more miserable to sit through than "The Facts of Life"--but that person lacks the imagination that is the bane of bad American television.

Not Jay North.
So, how DO you decide what is the "worst program ever" on American television? As a long time TV watcher, I offer the following criteria. First, you need a starting line to separate the wheat from the chaff: pick a really crappy program as your baseline, and then ask yourself "Would I rather watch this program, or the baseline program?" All shows better (no matter how crappy) are out of contention. As a base, I like the old "Dennis the Menace" program, which starred Jay North. Why? Because as a program about a small boy who was supposedly a "menace," that show was so inoffensive and bland, just watching it your could feel the wrinkles in your brain starting to smooth out and your IQ drop. Would I rather watch "The Facts of Life" than "Dennis the Menace"? Yes, I would. In fact, I would get up from a comfortable chair, walk across the room, and change the channel from "Dennis the Menace" to "The Facts of Life" (the fact I would be reading even a bad book before watching either program is of no moment). Back in the bone pile for "Facts of Life."

No, piecing together truly terrible television is not something to be taken lightly. That's why I offer a second criteria to ease the struggle: look to categories or types of shows. Why bother deciding between "The Gong Show" or "Hee Haw," when you haven't even decided which is the worst game show, or which is the worst whatever the heck kind of a show "Hee Haw" is. For those of us who lived through the 1970s, the genre of "musical variety" programs leaps to the forefront of any consideration of "bad television." For you Gen Xers and beyond, you might be familiar with "The Carol Burnet Show," "The Sonny and Cher Show," or even "The Flip Wilson Show." On occasion, those programs were good. Quite good, in fact. But what about such notables as "The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Comedy Hour" (don't ask), "The Mandrell Sisters' Show," or "The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show"? I would argue that all three of those shows were WORSE than "The Dennis the Menace Show"--nevermind "The Facts of Life." But dive even deeper into this inferno, and you'll find abominations like "The Donny and Marie Show" and "The Mac Davis Show." Why were all these shows an hour long? I would have to guess they were the "reality tv" of the 1970s: barely popular enough to pay for themselves, and cheap to produce. But for the worst of the worst, you have to be a true afficionado. I'm talking about "The Brady Bunch Hour" and the now legendary "Pink Lady."

Many theologians consider the fact this
program was scheduled for a full hour
to be proof Jesus died in vain.
The Brady Bunch Hour ran for nine episodes in 1976 to 1977, and involved a plot explanation of how an extended family of step-siblings became stars of a musical variety show that is best left unsaid. Various clips of the show are on YouTube, and show that whatever talents Robert Reed (Pop Brady) and Ann B. Davis ("Alice" the maid) have, they don't include singing and dancing. Not even vaguely. Most notable, however, is the fact that one of the Brady kids turned out to be quite a talented singer and dancer. Unfortunately, that child was Geri Reischl who became "Jan" when Eve Plumb (the original "Jan") declined to participate. How did the show explain Jan's transformation? They didn't, I guess hoping the original show's core fan base just wouldn't notice. Well, **I** noticed, being a long time fan of both Eve Plumb and the REAL Jan (You shut up. Jan understands). Nevertheless, Ms. Reischl has achieved considerable internet acclaim (well deserved) as "Fake Jan," and I'm guessing it's because her talents so outshine the original actors, that one couldn't help but wish replacements were cast for the other eight parts (that's what I remember thinking at the time).

But "Pink Lady"--now there's a program that cut new ground. Brought by those two great misanthropes Sid and Marty Kroft, Pink Lady featured two attractive Japanese women who were a sensation in their native Japan. Mitsuyo Nemoto and Keiko Masuda, the singing duo who made up "Pink Lady," were certainly young and attractive. I guess they were also talented singers--but it was hard for American audiences to tell, because what they did not do was speak English. While they learned their songs and few English speaking lines phonetically, it was still difficult to understand what they said through their heavy Japanese accents. I remember some shows just gave up, and had the singers speak Japanese with English subtitles. Cast as the straight man to Pink Lady was the immortal Jeff Altman, ostensively a "comedian" whose resume included a small reoccurring role on "The Dukes of Hazzard."

For everyone who thought I was just
making this up.......
Pink Lady ran for four immortal episodes in 1980. Recently, I was stunned to find at my local "weirdo" video rental store VHS copies of all four shows. Watching them again, I was not surprised to find that the show was as bad as I remembered, and a little surprised at how dated the material was. Of the two women, "Mei" (Mitsuyo Nemoto) was the "smart one," who tried to move the show along and introduced the upcoming songs and skits. "Kei" (Keiko Masuda) was the "sassy one," who following the Sonny and Cher format, frequently insulted Jeff Altman. Mr. Altman's then responded to these "insults" with a Jackie Gleason "Honeymooners"-style pulling back of his fist, threatening to punch Kei in the face. The threatened beatings made Kei visibly uncomfortable--which probably was not supposed to be part of the gag.

But all in all, the high point of all four shows was when Keiko Masuda had to introduce (and then thank at the end of the show) Teddy Pendergrass. If you haven't seen a Japanese person try and say "Teddy Pendergrass," you haven't lived.

Also worse than "The Facts of Life" were the flurry of "talk shows" in the 80s, the godfather of the genre being the now immortal "The Morton Downey Jr. Show." Who was Morton Downey Jr.? You don't know, and trust me on this: you shouldn't care. Mr. Downey Jr. was an angry, surly, mean-spirited conservative whose mission in life had to have been booking the dumbest people in creation as "guests," so they could all yell at each other. This show ran for two years in the 80s, but where it really broke ground was with its studio "audience." As mean, rude and crude as Mr. Downey's show persona was, his audience consisted primarily of thirty-something men who were not only even ruder and meaner than Mr. Downey, they were much louder and had to have been screened to eliminate anyone with an IQ in the upper two digits. Those flocks of morons make Jerry Springer's studio audiences look like Dale Carnegie Honours Graduates.

Morton Downey Jr. Accept no substitutes.
Also in Talk Show Hall of Infamy are the shows that tried to be Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show. Those shows weren't aggressively offensive (as was Morton Downey), but they were so completely mind numbingly boring, you'd find yourself changing the channel BACK to Morton Downey. I'll highlight two such programs in particular: "The Chevy Chase Show" and "Thicke of the Night," hosted by Alan Thicke. Now both Mr. Chase and Mr. Thicke are bright and talented entertainers--but in comparison, Public Broadcasting's Charlie Rose comes across like Wrestlemania. Sadly, I fear those shows will be lost to history, because they are just too dull to revive--even in a society that sees fit to offer "Pink Lady" on VHS. Well, maybe it's not so sad.

Moving directly to the format that American television is best known for, the immortal "situation comedy" or "sit-com" to the cognoscenti, there is truly an embarrassment of riches when it comes to bad television. For example, in naming the worst show ever, do the temporary summer time "replacement" shows that consist of failed pilots and cancelled series count? There's a reason those programs are unofficially known as "Garbage Time Theatre." I am going to argue no, they don't count. For sit-coms, just getting on television is not enough. To be in contention, the show must not only be crappy, it must have legs. In other words, some sizable group of idiots at some time must have followed the program.

Eva Gabor--I guess this is how she
dressed in New York, because I don't
remember seeing her wear this outfit
in Hooterville (a name that sounds
dirty, but isn't really).
No doubt everyone will have their sentimental favorites. There are the shows that are not only stupid, but broadly offensive, like "Hogan's Heroes" and "The Flying Nun." Then there are the shows that star stupid people doing stupid things, usually with a rural format: "Green Acres," "Petticoat Junction," and the early "Beverly Hillbillies," for example. Why do I have such a low opinion of people from the "red" states? I watched a lot of "Green Acres" as a kid.

But my pick for worst sitcom ever (far worse than Facts of Life) is "Full House." For me, Full House is a pantheon to the America of Ronald Reagan: an America that never existed, but like Voltaire's god, for some reason had to be invented. Three guys (Bob Saget, John Stamos, and Dave Coulier) raising three little girls (one of whom were Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen), using "plots" that had to have been discarded by the writing staff of "Family Affair" as too pointless and schmaltzy. In the interest of full disclosure, while Full House SOMEHOW managed to run from 1987 to 1995, I never saw an entire episode--mainly because I could never watch more than about seven minutes before wanting to tear my own ear off.
Full House. Not quite gay porn, not quite pedophilia--but somehow worse than both combined.

There are other formats I have not discussed, namely game shows, the "reality" show craze, and dramas. But I'm feeling nauseous right now, and I'll have to write about them at another time. Sorry.

But in conclusion (for those of you not paying attention, or the great majority of you who got bored and skipped to the end), my pick for the three worst shows on television (each representing a particular type) are Pink Lady (musical variety), The Chevy Chase Show and Thicke of the Night (tie--talk show), and Full House (situation "comedy"). Of course, "Best in Show" has to go to Full House. Trust me on this one.

Note: According to the Wikipedia, on TV Guide's list of "The Worst Fifty Shows of All Time," Pink Lady is ONLY number 35. What on earth could be the 34 shows WORSE than Pink Lady?


Dermot said...

So it's too early for Sarah Palin's new show that's coming soon to Fox News?

"In addition, she will host periodic episodes of FNC's "Real American Stories," a series exploring inspirational real-life tales of overcoming adversity throughout the American landscape that will debut in 2010."

Of course, Paddy Power says it's 8-1 Sarah will quit Fox by Sept. 1.


Anonymous said...

Morton Downey, Jr -- didn't he beat himself up in the men's room and drew a swastika on his forehead and blame it on neo-nazis? Oh yeah, I remember him!