I had originally intended for this post to be the last in 2007, but I became a little preoccupied with watching the ‘rents during last night’s big New Year’s Eve bash. (I’ve never witnessed two people get positively giddy with excitement as they do over a Law & Order marathon…particularly when the damn show is on about six times a day.) So I guess this makes the first post of a brand new year.
The game plan was, of course, to be ready to be out of Rancho Yesteryear by the end of December, but to use the wise words of frequent TDOY commenter Pam: “I just knew that wasn’t going to happen.” As of this writing, we’re still valiantly trying to escape from the clutter currently holding us hostage here. It would appear that I severely misunderestimated the amount of crap I’ve managed to accumulate over the past two decades, but in my defense—I’ve made a fairly serious dent in selling off a good piece of it on eBay (click on the button to your right for current offerings, if you’re curious). I just wanna tell ya, I need to thank several individuals for doing their part in finding a new home for my junk, particularly “The B-Man” at the In the Balcony message boards, Stacia from She Blogged by Night, and Harlan Zinck, major domo at the First Generation Radio Archives (who has since informed me that his middle name is NOT “Bonus,” as I previously thought, but “Low Overhead”).
Speaking of the esteemed Mr. Zinck and FGRA, the Archives have rolled out another one of their can’t-be-beat Premier Collections for the month of January, a second volume of Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcasts from the first and second seasons of their half-hour sitcom version (which began in the fall of 1943). I’ve found myself tremendously enjoying the early sitcom years; many of the episodes blend comedy and pathos in a truly entertaining fashion. The standout shows in this set include “Get Acquainted,” in which Andy’s attempts to join a Harlem singles’ club inadvertently create problems for the Kingfish and Sapphire’s already rocky marriage (the wrap-up on this one is so well-written it’ll sort of disillusion you that the series became a formulaic parody in later seasons) and “Chauffeur,” an uproarious outing that finds Andy accused of the theft of $2,000—with his pal Kingfish hilariously trying to defend his friend’s character during the trial. Again, the argument has been made that with the change in format (the half-hour sitcom), a character like Amos became rather superfluous but these early shows demonstrate that he could still be used effectively (particularly in “Get Acquainted”) before the writers got lazy and reverted to the “Con of the Week” formula concentrating solely on Andy and the Kingfish. FGRA also has a pair of Radio Masters collections available this month: The Adventures of the Falcon (which I discussed previously during TDOY’s halcyon Salon days) and a second volume of Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch—which are priced a little lower than the Premier Collections…only because the Premiers come directly from the original discs.
Though Christmas was a little lean this year, I didn’t mind so much (simply because I really couldn’t think of anything I absotively, posilutely wanted…other than the Ford at Fox collection, and I can certainly wait for that); I did manage to get a few goodies like a new mouse (which I most assuredly needed) and a new keyboard (the family was complaining that most of the letters were missing on the old one due to overuse). I was the recipient of a few gift cards, two of which I’ve already put to use procuring the Gunsmoke: Season 2, Volume 1 and Make Room for Daddy: The Complete Sixth Season sets due out in a few weeks. I’ve picked up a few “rootpeg” DVD sets of some older and neglected TV shows that I hope to write about in upcoming posts; one of them which I will mention today is a hilarious 60s sitcom created and produced by Leonard (Get Smart) Stern entitled I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster, starring John Astin (as Harry Dickens) and Marty Ingels (Arch Fenster) as a team of inept carpenters.
Dickens/Fenster isn’t really all that obscure; despite its one season-run it was offered up in syndication for many years (there were thirty-two episodes telecast). I bring it up primarily for two reasons: one, the late great Mel Tolkin (who passed away in November) was the show’s story editor and wrote many of the scripts; and two, in “Googling” the series, I came across this assessment of the show, courtesy of my fellow pop culture Kliph Nesteroff at Classic Television Showbiz:
Unfortunately, the show is crap. It didn't last long and it is obvious why, but it at the very least, managed to spawn a pair of Dell Comics adaptations. This may be one of the rare instances in which a cheap sitcom's cheap comic book knock-off was actually better than the show.
Now, I’m a huge admirer of Kliph’s essays—particularly the content he’s contributed to WFMU’s Beware of the Blog—and I certainly know that comedy is subjective…but if he based this opinion on the one episode he posted to the CTS blog (a very funny outing entitled “Harry the Father Image”) he really should tuck a few more episodes under his belt because I couldn’t stop laughing during "Image", particularly in the second half when Astin’s Harry is having to juggle the logistics involving Arch’s fiancée, former girlfriends and co-workers—all who have descended en masse at the House of Dickens. Story editor Tolkin and Don Hinkley brought a real Sid Caesar-ish Your Show of Shows quality to many of the scripts, blending some riotous physical comedy with first-rate one liners. (Injured when something has fallen on his foot in one episode, Dickens is hopping up and down until Fenster asks him: “Are you hurt, Harry?” “No!” is Dickens’ steamed reply—“I’m doin’ an Apache war dance!”)
Robert Leszczak at The Classic TV Archive calls the show’s pilot “a very funny episode of a show which should've been around for a few seasons”—something with which I wholeheartedly agree. Some of the hysterical episodes I purchased (from the dark corners of the Internets, where you don’t even use the restrooms if you can avoid it) include “Here’s to the Three of Us,” an outing where Harry and wife Kate (Emmaline Henry, a.k.a. Amanda Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie) decide to throw a dinner party for their married friends…and Arch isn’t invited, and “Hotel Fenster,” the final show of the series that features Arch playing host to co-workers Harry, Mel Warshaw (Dave Ketchum, a.k.a. Agent 13 on Get Smart) and Bob Mulligan (Henry Beckman, a.k.a. Capt. Clancey on Here Come the Brides), whose wives have kicked them out of the house and are forced to sleep over at their friend’s apartment. “Carpenters Four” is also pretty hilarious, spotlighting a talent show put on by the construction company and featuring the quartet of Astin, Ingels, Beckman and a young man billed as James Nabors—who later went to work for some guy named Wally and his service station just outside of Mayberry. There are a number of future familiar faces popping up in many Dickens/Fenster episodes: the aforementioned “Image” features Ellen Burstyn (billed as McRae) as Arch’s fiancée, future Batgirl Yvonne Craig has a bit in the show’s pilot episode (“A Small Matter of Being Fired”) and Sally Kellerman plays a high-toned museum director whom Fenster is determined to romantically woo in “The Bet.” (Moundsville, West Virginia’s own Frank DeVol also had a recurring role on the show as Harry and Arch’s boss, the wonderfully deadpan Myron Bannister; DeVol provided the theme music for many TV shows [notably My Three Sons] and also appeared alongside Martin Mull and Fred Willard on Fernwood-2-Night.)
But the real gem among the episodes I purchased is “The Joke,” described by author Arthur Salm in a May 27, 2007 San Diego Union-Tribune article as “the quintessential statement on humor”:
One of the principals...hears a joke and tells it to the other. One of them thinks the joke is funny and the other doesn't. They decide to settle the matter by telling the joke to a group of friends, but they divide 50/50. Soon, the whole town has split into roving bands of baseball-bat and chain-wielding “It's a funny joke!”/“It's not a funny joke!” zealots.
I can attest to Mr. Salm’s on-the-money assessment because I told “the joke” to my mother, who thought it was hysterical. Telling it to my sister Kat produced a completely opposite reaction. (I’d tell the joke here but there’s a visual element that necessitates I tell it in person.)
Despite the fact that I’m Dickens…He’s Fenster followed ABC’s popular The Flintstones (still a top thirty show in its third season) on Friday nights, it also faced fierce competition from CBS’s Route 66 and NBC’s Sing Along with Mitch…so the sitcom was cancelled after one season. It would be television’s loss; though I was never a big fan of Ingels (I always remember him as the voice of Hanna-Barbera’s Auto Cat and because he married Shirley Jones and later went on a crusade against television) I have to admit he’s very effective as the carefree bachelor Fenster, and Astin’s always been aces with me—he later, of course, achieved television immortality with The Addams Family but he’s funnier on Dickens/Fenster…and his physical comedy antics are an absolute scream. Don’t take my word for it—judge for yourself (and thanks to Kliph for finding this on the Internets, by the way).