Saturday, September 17, 2011

“Do you mind? Do…you…MIND?”


Fifty years ago today on a Sunday evening—just as NBC was finishing up that week’s installment of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color—TV audiences saw the premiere of a new sitcom created by the same man who had made people double over with laughter at the antics of Army con man Ernest G. Bilko on The Phil Silvers Show.  The individuals on this series were also in uniform, only this time they were cops patrolling the Bronx, based out of a mythical precinct known as the 53rd.  The two main characters were a Mutt-and-Jeff pair of patrolmen: Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross), a heavy-set, likeably dumb slob prone to excitability and excessive chattering, and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne), his lanky and far more cerebral partner who tolerated his pal with a great deal of taciturn stoicism.  Aided and abetted by a collection of slightly off-kilter co-workers, wives and family members, Toody and Muldoon represented a new breed of policemen in a medium that most assuredly did not lack for crime dramas.  They were, however, cops of comedy…and for two seasons they made us laugh long and hard before getting their pensions and serving out their retirement in the Old Syndication Home.

I am unabashedly a fan of both Car 54, Where are You? and its creator, Nat Hiken…I revere Hiken because despite the fact that the word has become a cliché with its overuse he was a true comedy genius.  If the only thing Nat had ever done in his life was serve as the head writer on the radio show that starred my comedy idol, Fred Allen, he’d still be talked about here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear…but the fact of the matter is, he also wrote Milton Berle’s radio show and created The Magnificent Montague (a radio sitcom in desperate need of rediscovery), and then leapt into TV and wrote for the likes of Martha Raye, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Bette Davis.  Hiken had one of the most fertile comic minds in show business…but he was also both a perfectionist and a workaholic and he literally burnt himself out, succumbing to a massive heart attack in 1968.

I’ve written a tribute to Car 54’s fiftieth birthday that you can read over at Edward Copeland on Film…and More, and one of the things I do when I’m asked to put together these essays is re-familiarize myself with the material by taking out some of the shows on DVD and watching them to get a sort of feel for the show.  I remember seeing Car 54 when it was featured on Nick at Nite from 1987-90 but it had been so long since I’d watched an episode that the only thing that really stood out in my mind was the classic openings that alternated much in the same fashion as The Dick Van Dyke Show (one week he trips over the ottoman, the following week he sidesteps it): Toody and Muldoon mixing up each other’s hats, Toody saluting a superior officer while dropping the ice cream from the cone in his hand, etc.

So over the long (birthday) weekend, I watched every episode of Car 54, Where are You?...and was pleased to learn that not only is the show still uproariously funny, but it acts as an interesting historical document, educating those who seek out info on the social mores, fashions and customs of a diverse and ethnically-mixed group of people in New York during the 1960s.  What I always found fascinating about Car 54 was that Nat Hiken was broadminded enough to include black characters in his show without feeling the need to call attention to the fact (“Hey!  We have a black guy on our show!”) or writing them up as noble Sidney Poitier types.  Hiken started this on the Phil Silvers show—his attitude was “the U.S. Army is integrated, so my army is going to be integrated.”  Among the great actors and comics that turned up on Car 54 from time-to-time were “poet laureate” Nipsey Russell, future All in the Family “Henry Jefferson” Mel Stewart, Ossie Davis…and even Godfrey Cambridge.

Anyway, in watching these classic shows I began to compile a list of my favorites…and I did this for several reasons.  When Shanachie Entertainment released the first season of Car 54 to DVD in April, for some odd reason they didn’t include the episodes in broadcast order…but instead, presented them in order of “fan favorites.”  Now, the Car 54 DVD set looks so nice (I also have a “rootpeg” set of Season 1 and the shows don’t come anywhere near the quality of the Shanachie presentation) and is so integral to classic TV fans that this…well, sort of bone-headed decision isn’t really much of a big deal but I hope that when they get around to releasing Season 2 that they refrain from repeating this practice.  I say this because what I find funny or consider a great 54 episode may not jibe with your own opinion…and putting the shows in their original broadcast order will eliminate any Schnauser-like arguments that might result.

My other explanation for doing this is that…and I know this is going to come as a great shock to you, but...there are a large number of people out there in the blogosphere and beyond who never found Car 54 funny.  While I help the rest of you to the fainting couch, I should point out that thinking in this fashion does not make these individuals bad people…just horribly, horribly wrong.  Case in point: a frequent commenter and fervent supporter of TDOY who wrote an essay back in July at another blog that not only dissed the program (and scoffed that Car 54 was one of William Faulkner’s favorite shows, as if the author of The Sound and the Fury was forbidden to ever watch television) but had this to say: “The worst thing is that this show won an EMMY for best director of a comedy – was he the only nominee that year?!”  (I can attribute this extreme short-sightedness only to a tainted milk supply in this person’s neck of the woods…rumor has it she works at a dairy, in fact.)  Neither of my parents are 54 aficionados, either…but then our shameful family secret is that Mom never cared for The Dick Van Dyke Show, further evidence that I was probably adopted.

My good friend and Facebook compadre Andrew Leal, when he mentioned that he had planned to watch the DVD set to one of his friends, was rewarded with this response: “Why don’t you just watch The Munsters instead?”  (Let’s just hope these people haven’t had time to procreate.)  And another chum (an individual whose opinions I revere and respect) confessed to me that he bought the Car 54 set, watched the first episode and didn’t laugh once…and then put it away, never to look at it again.  Since the first episode on the DVD collection is “What Happened to Thursday?”—which is probably my favorite Car 54 outing of all time, I told him that any of my further recommendations for episodes would probably not do him any good.  (He’s also not fond of the Charlie Chan movies, something I believe might have something to do with an extra chromosome.)

But before we get to my favorites, let’s take a look at some of my “un-favorites”:

Toody & Muldoon Meet the Russians (01/27/63) – If you’re interested in learning what things were like culturally during the politically-charged atmosphere of the Cold War this installment will definitely be your meat…personally, I think this episode—in which our heroes play nursemaid to a pair of Russian officials (Toody takes the guy to a Yankees game, Muldoon gives the woman, a butch Russian general, a Pygmalion-like makeover)—is atrociously dated.  (The cast does however include Jules “On the Town” Munshin and sports commentator Heywood Hale Broun…son of the famed journalist Heywood Broun.)  Nat Hiken’s mother was a woman who had strong political opinions at a time when women were supposed to just be barefoot and pregnant…and because she dared demonstrate a streak of independence Hiken found himself written up in the notorious anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels.  It stalled his TV career momentarily until he released an ad in Variety denouncing any Communist beliefs, so maybe this episode was a belated mea culpa…I really can’t say.

Benny the Bookie’s Last Chance (01/13/63) – Legendary nightclub comedian Gene Baylos didn’t do a lot of TV but he made two appearances on Car 54…the first one being “Home Sweet Sing Sing,” in which he played “Backdoor” Benny Harper, an ex-con who’s just been sprung from the joint and has trouble readjusting to life outside, despite the best intentions of Toody and Muldoon to help him.  “Sing Sing” is very funny; there’s a great sight gag where the dinner guests that the Toodys have invited over (in order to help Benny adjust to the fact that he’ll now be eating amongst a smaller population) come marching in, prison-style, to dinner—“Last Chance” is essentially a rehash of this earlier episode, and it smacks of going to the well once too often…plus I don’t understand why in “Sing Sing” he’s a former second-story man and here he’s been demoted to a mere bookmaker.

Toody & Muldoon Sing Along With Mitch (10/14/62) – Another example of dry-well inspiration and falling back on an earlier and better episode.  The 53rd Precinct’s barbershop quartet, the Whippoorwills, are introduced in the first-season outing “Boom Boom Boom” (a fan favorite that also features comic Jan Murray playing himself, slowly being driven insane by the group’s rehearsals) and this second-season installment is pretty much just more of the same, with Toody oblivious to the fact that it’s his tone-deafness that cost them an appearance on the titular TV variety show (Mitch Miller even guest stars).  The funniest bit in this one is when Toody, imagining that he’ll become a great operatic tenor once he submits to a tonsillectomy, is made up as Pagliacci and opening a door, finds that a despondent Muldoon has hung himself over the prospect of losing his position in the quartet to his partner (well, I laughed at it).

The Sacrifice (01/07/62) – Just in case you thought this list would be overrun with second season episodes, this first season outing has Toody forced to read a book when his TV set goes out and in reading the titular novel is struck by the similarities in the relationship between the book’s characters (a pair of vaudevillians) and his and Muldoon’s friendship.  He convinces himself that he’s holding Francis back and believes that a rift in their relations will spur Muldoon on to greater things in the department.  Meh.

How Smart Can You Get? (02/25/62) – I know what you’re saying: how can an episode chosen by TV Guide and TV Land for their 1997 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time List (it was #61) be one of your un-favorites?  Again, it’s an example of re-plowing the same ground—I’m a much bigger fan of the earlier “Change Your Partner,” (discussed below) which speaks volumes about the offbeat relationship between Toody and Muldoon…“Smart” is just re-heated leftovers.

And with that out of the way, a list of my personal Car 54 favorites (and in some cases, I listed some alternate episodes that are similar to them but manage to put a fresh face on old material).  Again, I want to stress that these aren’t necessarily the best but just my personal preferences…the ones I’ll watch numerous times and that can usually make me teary-eyed with laughter.

10. Here Comes Charlie (02/24/63) – This episode is a tour de force for everybody’s favorite F Troop corporal, the incomparable Larry Storch—Larry made about four guest appearances on Car 54, the first as a gypsy but after that he played the neighborhood drunk, Charlie…whom the men of the 53rd precinct were always trying to sober up and transform into a productive member of society.

After Storch does his trademark schtick on the show (discussing the various bars in the neighborhood and the size of the shots they serve), Gunther and Francis get him a job in a bakery…but when the proprietor deviates from his usual routine of creating bread and rolls to make a rum cake, there’s a quick cut to Storch being hauled into the station house, roaring drunk.  It happens again when he gets a job in a garage (he’s asked to go fetch some anti-freeze) and a third instance occurs when the men take the soused Charlie to a gym run by Officer Nicholson’s (Hank Garrett) brother to get him in shape…and the brother regretfully gives him an (what else) alcohol rubdown.  (The scenes of Storch being dragged into the lockup are falling-down funny because of the repetition and Paul Reed’s [as Captain Block] reactions are a joy to behold.)

Finally, after learning that the diamond cutting business requires a steady hand and a clear eye (and therefore booze is verboten), Toody and Muldoon get Charlie a job with a diamond cutting firm, and with the temptation to imbibe having been removed, Charlie proves to be an exemplary employee.  But because Toody, Muldoon and the rest of the guys insist on stopping by on a regular basis to check up on their “project,” the rest of the employees (including a motorcycle-riding Margaret Hamilton) become bite-your-nails nervous at the increased police presence…and start pulling out the hip flasks!

9. See You at the Bar Mitzvah (03/03/63) – Young Joel Pokrass (Claude Gersene), a member of the youth basketball team coached by Toody and Muldoon, will undergo the timeless Jewish transition into manhood soon…but it promises to be a sparsely attended affair, because Joel’s father is Samuel Pokrass (B.S. Pully), the most hated man in the Bronx (a landlord, as you’ve probably guessed).  Gunther and Francis have promised the kid that it’ll be SRO at his bar mitzvah…but this is easier said than done, because everyone in the neighborhood despises Pokrass and refuses to attend.

The two men hit upon a novel scheme to drum up attendance…which isn’t necessary, because all the people originally asked by our heroes show up anyway—realizing that it’s unfair to punish the son for the sins of the father.  This episode is a nice example of how Car 54 could temper its admittedly broad burlesque with a little warmth, and Pully (who appeared in two other episodes, though as different characters) has a nice final scene that will melt your heart.  (Seinfeld fans will also get a giggle out of seeing Barney Martin in the small part of a priest.)

8. The Gypsy Curse (11/12/61) – Toody and Muldoon evict some Gypsies from an abandoned storefront and the clan’s matriarch (Maureen Stapleton) hexes Toody into thinking he’s going to develop hives on his back (which he does) and that Lucille will leave him (which she does).  Stunned that one of her curses has actually worked, the woman pledges to go straight but first agrees to repair the rift in Gunther and Lucille’s marriage.

Two things about this episode make it a real standout: first, Stapleton is an absolute riot as the gypsy, with some beautiful throwaway lines that are nevertheless delivered to perfection.  Second, a funny scene between Toody and Muldoon (that also has an amusing gay subtext) where Francis has become a Lucille surrogate, dressed in an apron and doing needlepoint while Gunther stares at the TV (after Muldoon has fetched his slippers and shawl, filled his pipe and chastised him for taking the gypsy’s threats so seriously).

If you like this one, you might also enjoy the series’ final outing, “The Curse of the Snitkins”—this is the one where Godfrey Cambridge is a member of the 53rd (what can I say—the guy was damn funny) but it focuses on the squad room’s newest member, Luther Snitkin (TDOY fave Jack Gilford)…who has a reputation as a “Jonah,” which explains how Block got him transferred to the precinct so easily.  (Look fast for Jack “Howard Sprague” Dodson as a laborer in "Snitkins," too.)

7. Change Your Partner (10/08/61) – A department researcher (Kojak’s Dan Frazer) is stunned to learn that Toody and Muldoon have been partners for nearly nine years because the actual life expectancy between patrol cops is sixteen months…so Captain Block, thinking that his ass is in the wringer, does what he can to split the team up.  But the researcher just wants to learn the secret of Gunther and Francis’ longevity as partners, and so experiments are conducted to pair the two men with other members of the 53rd to find another successful teaming.  Bad idea: no one can put up with either Toody’s non-stop gabbing or Muldoon’s morose silences…and so the two men are quickly reunited by the episode’s end.  (“Jumpin’ Jehosophat!”)

If you’ve read anything on Car 54’s production history (I’m going to assume that you all marched single-file over to Copeland’s and read the essay before continuing here) you’re probably aware that by the second season Nat Hiken was ready to jettison Joe E. Ross from 54’s cast; Ross became so enamored of his popularity from the show that he also became almost impossible to work with, and did not endear himself to either his fellow thespians or the crew.  The story goes that had Car 54 soldiered on for another season the show would concentrate on the new partnership between Fred Gwynne and supporting player Al Lewis (as the combustible Leo Schnauser)…and the episode “142 Tickets on the Aisle” kind of gives you a preview of a Gwynne-Lewis Car 54…several scenes are played with the two actors in the foreground with Ross’ Toody just occupying space behind them.  “Aisle”—whose plot has to do with the 53rd Precinct’s attempts to get tickets to a Broadway show despite all the box office hits being sold out—also offers a nice cultural time capsule for stage show aficionados, showing the various productions that were then popular in a montage of marquees and signs (my favorite is Nancy Dussault in “The Sound of Music”).

6. The Taming of Lucille (12/03/61) – When I put together my first list of Car 54 favorites I realized that I hadn’t included a Gunther-Lucille story (well, I suppose “The Gypsy Curse” might qualify) so I squeezed this one in: Toody is upset that he’s not the king of his castle and after seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (not willingly, of course, he’s there working security) he’s inspired to become Petruchio to Lucille’s Kate.  The explanation for Lucille’s new docility, however, is that she’s just finished watching a TV play (with her sister Rose, played by Martha Greenhouse) in which a wife destroys her husband’s spirit through her incessant nagging/henpecking so Lucille vows to reform her ways.  (Toody soon discovers that he likes the old Lucille better than the new one.)

What makes “Taming” such a hysterical outing is a falling-down funny guest appearance from character great Carl Ballantine—who, before landing his regular TV gig as Lester Gruber on McHale’s Navy, made appearances on 54 as Toody’s brother-in-law Al.  Al is treated like a rajah by both his wife and Lucille…and even Toody gets into the act at one point in the narrative; Rose is as garrulous as Gunther but Al is able to put an end to her babbling with a sharply delivered “That’s all, Rose…”  Again, it’s the time-honored principle of comedy repetition—the line itself isn’t side-splitting but because Ballantine uses it over and over again it just gets funnier with each recital.  While I’m glad Ballantine got the McHale’s job and was able to put groceries regularly on the table—McHale’s gain was 54’s loss (he did appear in two more episodes in the first season, “Christmas at the 53rd” [which allows him to do his comic magic act] and “Quiet! We’re Thinking”).

5. The Beast Who Walked the Bronx (03/18/62) – I haven’t done an official study on this, but I have casually noticed that those people who just don’t care for Car 54 are the same people who never found Seinfeld funny, either.  And that’s understandable, because many of the 54 outings adopt the same Chinese-puzzle plot device of the critically-acclaimed “show about nothing”…this one is a good example.  The powers that be, recognizing that Captain Block of the 53rd hasn’t taken a vacation in ages, order him to do so even though Block is concerned that his men will run roughshod over the replacement.  This fear is realized when the only person available to supervise during Block’s absence is Captain Burkholtz (Howard Freeman), a sweet, even-tempered man who has difficulty projecting the right amount of authority necessary for a commanding officer.  The last time he was placed in charge of a precinct, things went to pot in two days and every member of such had to be transferred to other precincts in order to undo Burkholtz’s appalling lack of discipline.

Burkholtz now works in the lost-and-found department (where he makes certain that even if an individual isn’t able to find what they’ve lost they leave with something) and since he’s the only man available to command the 53rd he gets the nod.  Meanwhile, Schnauser warns Toody and Muldoon that Block’s replacement can’t be a good thing (since he might be worse) so Gunther and Francis take a trip to the records department to get the skinny on Burkholtz.  Burkholtz has been inactive from command for so long that he’s no longer in the current files, and a search for his file leads to speculation that he may have been one of several captains fired in the late 1940s for extreme brutality to his men.  By the time the clerk gets back to Toody and Muldoon, the captain’s replacement has been transformed into “Beast” Burkholtz…a former Nazi officer whose reputation is such that several underlings were witnessed entering his office…and were never heard from again.  (Watching the men of the 53rd walk on eggshells trying not to enrage their new commander is side-splittingly funny.)

4. Today I Am a Man (03/04/62) – The confirmed bachelorhood of Francis Muldoon was prime fodder for many classic Car 54, Where are You? episodes—“Muldoon’s Star” finds our gentle giant enamored of a Marilyn Monroe-like starlet who just happens to be staying with the Muldoon family while she’s hiding out in New York (this episode has one of the funniest physical comedy moments of the series when Gwynne, realizing that he’s just made the acquaintance of the object of his desire, is paralyzed with fright and is unable to stop pouring milk into his glass, drenching himself in cow juice) and “Love Finds Muldoon” centers on Lucille’s attempt to fix Francis up with an old girlfriend from school…played by Alice “Esmeralda” Ghostley.  But this is my favorite of the Muldoon-in-love outings; everyone at the 53rd has come to depend on Francis to cover their shifts, reassure their wives about boys’ night outs, etc. because he’s not currently involved with anyone.  So Muldoon decides to pretend he’s got a hot date on the weekend, and just when he’s convinced all the precinct guys of his swinger status, Toody opens his big yap and offers to drop his pal off at the nightclub where Muldoon’s date supposedly awaits.

What follows is Gwynne’s hilarious efforts to keep up the masquerade by ingratiating himself at a table of strangers where the daughter (Sybil Lamb) is positively frozen with fright by Muldoon’s brazen intrusion (I took the liberty of working up a screen cap because I cannot do the look on her face justice):


The mother and father (who, interestingly enough, is played by the same actor who was “Beast” Burkholtz in the previously mentioned episode) are convinced that Muldoon is some sort of gangster (they’ve seen his holstered gun and are unaware that he’s a cop) wanted by the police…and when Schnauser and Nicholson trail Francis (Leo: “If my wife Sylvia finds out that Muldoon was out with a girl…and I can’t give her a detailed description right down to her fingernail polish, you are looking at a divorced man…”) coming out of the nightclub, Muldoon goes all the way home with the girl and her parents to continue the charade.  When the coast is finally clear, his “girl” frantically begs him to take her with him to liberate her from her parents’ stifling lifestyle (“I’ll be your woman now!  I’ll be your gun moll!”)…


…she even cleans up nice, too.  (Yowsah!)  A similar episode in this vein is the second-season “Je T’Adore Muldoon,” in which Gunther and the guys try to boost Francis’ confidence (he’s expected to ask Captain Block’s niece to the precinct’s Mardi Gras dance…said niece played by an amazingly young Katharine Helmond) around women by convincing him that he’s catnip to females…but the end result is that Muldoon is transformed into an arrogant, self-absorbed bore.  Two of my favorite lines from Car 54 are in this episode: Francis’ declaration that “I’m six-foot-six…and five-foot-six of me is face” and Sgt. McBride’s (Jimmy Little) observation that they’ve created a Frankenstein monster, which prompts Schnauser to crack “We had a Frankenstein…we created a Rock Hudson!”  (Little pre-Munsters joke for all you fans out there.)

3. A Star is Born in the Bronx (11/25/62) – Mention Charlotte Rae to a person who watched a lot of TV in the 1980s and the first thing to roll off their tongue will probably be “The Facts of Life.”  It’s her television legacy, but if you want to get an idea of just how pee-your-pants funny the actress could be, you need to order the first season of Car 54 ASAP.  Nat Hiken had used Rae on a couple of Bilko episodes (including the classic “The Twitch”) before giving her a one-shot on 54 as a shell-shocked bank teller in “Get Well, Officer Schnauser.”  She made such an indelible impression in that episode that Hiken decided to give her a permanent role on the show as Sylvia Schnauser, the high-strung spouse of the luckless Leo.  If you’ve ever watched her work on 54, you’ll know that this is the show for which Rae should be remembered…when I first started making this favorites list for the purpose of this post, I had to winnow out several “Sylvia” episodes because I want to spread out the Car 54 love a bit.

I picked this one because Rae has stated in interviews that it’s her favorite.  Sylvia is vying for the role of a tantalizing native girl in an amateur theatre production the 53rd is putting on (written by Francis)…but she’s been told that she won’t get the part unless she loses twenty pounds.  At the grocer’s to buy watercress and skim milk, she comes across a display for Dixie Dimple cookies, and the men manning the booth have been having women sample the product while recording them, Candid Camera-style, for a possible commercial appearance.

Sylvia is asked to try the cookies and she begins to devour them with a ferocity that would embarrass Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in the classic I Love Lucy episode “Job Switching.”  Honest to my grandma, I watched “A Star is Born in the Bronx” the other day and I was crying so hard from laughing my mother came back to my bedroom and wanted to know what was the matter.  Rae’s Sylvia stuffs cookies into her mouth like it’s the last meal she’s ever going to get, then opens up a box and dumps the contents into her maw…and begins to scoop up the crumbs on the table and eat them as well.  The owner of the cookie company (played by Kenny Delmar, who had worked with Hiken on The Fred Allen Show) tells the two ad men in charge of the campaign (David Doyle and OTR veteran John “Ethelbert” Gibson) that he wants Mrs. S to be his “Dixie Dimple gal” and so the hunt begins to locate Sylvia (she fainted when she found out about the commercial and Gibson neglected to get her name and address).

Sylvia gets a visit from Gibson, but tells him she won’t sign until he agrees to her outrageous demands ($1000 a week, her own dressing room, etc.) and Leo, flummoxed that his wife has refused a contract that will give her $90 a week to eat cookies asks Francis, Gunther and Lucille to talk some sense into his wife.  Just when you think Rae has been as funny as she can be in this outing, she ups the ante by emerging from her room in full star mode, with sunglasses and cigarette holder, ordering Lucille to be her maid (she’s going to call her “Babette”) and thanking “Grover” (Gunther) for always standing by her.  Her friends and family, certain that Sylvia will scotch the whole deal with her demands, are stunned when the two ad men come by with a contract acceding to what she wants.  In the blink of an eye, all of them are now sucked up into Sylvia’s insanity (with Lucille shouting “I have to do Madame’s hair!”) with hilarious results.

I chose this Car 54 episode because the sight of Charlotte Rae’s cookie binge makes my sides hurt every time I watch it…but two other Sylvia episodes, “The Courtship of Sylvia Schnauser” (Sylvia demands that Leo give her a proper wedding, complete with courtship) and “The Loves of Sylvia Schnauser” (everyone at the 53rd thinks the title of Sylvia’s unpublished work is a tell-all but it’s actually a cookbook) are every bit as uproarious.  Rae mentions in an interview on the DVD set that Hiken had given special consideration to doing a spin-off featuring her and Al Lewis’ characters but his passing in 1968 put the kibosh on that.

2. Put it in the Bank (12/10/61) – Once you set aside the unfathomable concept that Gunther Toody has been elected treasurer of the 53rd’s Brotherhood Club (despite the fact that he cannot count), this episode is larded with laughs.  The Brotherhood has collected over $800 for the purpose of building a summer camp for the poorer children in the neighborhood, and based on run-ins with a former felon and the schmoe who used to shine shoes at the precinct, Toody is all set to invest the money in the stock market.  Muldoon advises caution, suggesting they talk the matter over with his cousin (who works for a Wall Street firm), and when the felon and shoeshine guy are cleaned out Toody agrees to chat with Cousin Kevin.  The club ends up with two shares of safe stock in International Sulfur.

But Toody is a nervous wreck because he’s just not convinced the company is on the up-and-up…especially when he learns that Captain Block owns four shares (Block also voted for Nixon…and was the first person in his neighborhood to own an Edsel).  So Gunther and Francis take a trip to the offices of International Sulfur, unnerving a couple of investors riding in the same elevator because Toody peppers the elevator boy with questions about the company’s CEO, C.F. Cartwright (John Alexander).  Toody and Muldoon explain to Cartwright why they bought the stock, and he’s so choked up with emotion (he’s pledged to make the summer camp dream come true) that upon bidding them good day breaks out in tears as he ushers them out of the office and saying to them “Give me a little time.”  The investors, suspicious that something is up, start calling their brokers and ordering them to sell.

International Sulfur’s price takes a dip, and the other members on the Brotherhood Club’s finance committee (including Schnauser and Nicholson) insist on accompanying Gunther and Francis to Cartwright’s office.  Cartwright has no explanation for Sulfur’s odd activity but he equips the cops with ledgers, reading material and the like to assuage their fears about making a bad investment.  Investors in the outer office, seeing several cops leaving with “the company’s books” get on the phone again and…well, you can see where this is going.  Although this isn’t my very favorite episode of Car 54, it would probably be the one I’d show to a person who had never seen the series before so they could get a feel for the absurdity-around-every-corner in Car 54’s world.

1. What Happened to Thursday? (02/18/62) – Hands down, my all-time favorite Car 54.  Every Thursday night, Gunther and Francis wind up at the apartment of Leo and Sylvia Schnauser, whose furious verbal arguments keep every neighbor in their building awake and threaten to have the two of them arrested for disturbing the peace.  (Their latest brouhaha centers on who was the better dancer, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly—and when Sylvia yells “Fred Astaire couldn’t carry Gene Kelly’s tap shoes” I pictured Pam sitting around her country estate with a broad smile.)  The fights stem from the encounters that Sylvia has every week with the neighborhood butcher; he doesn’t like the fact that she "paws" the chicken before buying it and in her anger she takes it out on her “Daddy bear.”

Toody and Muldoon reason that if Leo were convinced Thursday had already come and gone it would put an end to their weekly disagreements…so armed with an early edition of Friday’s paper (thanks to a relative of Toody’s who works at the paper), our heroes try to persuade a bewildered Leo that it’s Friday and not Thursday.  Leo, who’s just trying to retain a sense of his sanity, even peppers his partner Nicholson with questions as to what the date is…and Ed becomes convinced that Leo is off his trolley.  The deception works too well; Captain Block bawls out Nicholson because Ed hasn’t turned in his Thursday reports and pretty soon the entire precinct has convinced themselves that it’s Friday as well.

Lucille, her sister Rose and Sylvia have just come back from the movies—where they caught a showing of Gaslight—and Sylvia begins to realize how lucky she is to have a husband like Leo instead of Charles Boyer.  So she decides she’s not going to fight with him that evening…but when Leo insists that it’s Friday and not Thursday—it’s Katie-bar-the-door.  As Toody and Muldoon are dispatched to break up the Schnausers’ latest donnybrook Gunther has started to buy into his own practical joke, insisting that it’s Friday…so when he asks a terror-stricken Nicholson what day it is the patrolman responds with a primal scream.

A great companion episode to this classic is “The Biggest Day of the Year”—Toody is upset that Muldoon never seems to forget a birthday, anniversary or any other kind of special event related to their co-workers so when he realizes that the next day is the tenth anniversary of their partnership he decides to keep Francis guessing as to the date’s significance.  The only trouble is, Gunther is off by one year…so Francis is being driven crazy trying to figure out what the day symbolizes…and this quickly spreads through the precinct—the catch is that no one wants to admit they don’t know what the special day means, either.  This snowballing Seinfeldian madness is neatly summed up by Lewis’ Schnauser, who finds himself renting a tuxedo and promising to drive several people to an event about which he has no clue: “I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know what I’m going to…but I’m going to be well-dressed when I get there!”  

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16 comments:

Yvette said...

Brilliant. Brilliant. BRILLIANT!! Thank you Ivan, for this amazing tribute to one of my all time favorite shows that I haven't seen in years and years.

I'm going to have to save my pennies so I can get my hands on the DVDs. Oh how I wish Netflix had this on instant play!

All they have is Season One available to 'Save.' Yeah, right.

I was laughing just reading your list of favorites. Charlotte Rae. LOVE HER TO BITS and haven't thought of her in ages. THANKS for the memory. She was one of the funniest women who ever walked the earth. Sometimes all she had to do was look at the camera and I would howl with laughter. She had all this loony stuff going on behind her eyes. :)

As for Toody and his wife, I used to fall off the sofa laughing when Lucille would throw open the window and shout her displeasure to the neighbors. Just thinking about it makes me grin from ear to ear.

And of course, I adored Fred Gwynne. "Did you say 'yoots'?" (Loved him as the judge in MY COUSIN VINNIE.)

What a wonderful talent.

Ivan, I'm going to link this post to my blog and celebrate the anniversary in my own small way.

THANKS AGAIN for brightening up my day.

ClassicBecky said...

It is a true testament of friendship that I read your whole article on Car 54. I have just read your post on the Edward Copeland site and left a thorough comment there - I wish I had copied it so I could just re-post it here. If anyone is interested, my thoughful response is over there.

I have to admit, and would not do so to anyone but a valued writing companion, but there ARE funny things in Car 54. Unlike your friend, I have seen parts that make me laugh. And as I've said before, the song is hilarious, and I wish I remembered algebra as well as I do that song.

That said, I just cannot share your adoration of Car 54. So stand me up in front of a firing squad...my taste runs to Phil Silvers, Fred Allen, total genius Ernie Kovaks, Dick Van Dyke, original Addams family...most of which we probably share admiration for. So, although today we have each written about something the other does not particularly care for, there is plenty of TV and movie crazy glue to keep the bond unbroken! LOL!

ClassicBecky said...

DUH! Although I said it elsewhere, I wanted to say it here too -- I thought your article was funnier than the show ever was! That's why I liked reading it so much!

basura said...

I love almost all of the episodes though my favorite one is"Quiet, we're thinking" if that's the one with the brother from The Patty Duke show.

Caftan Woman said...

My "Car 54, Where Are You?" Season 1 dvd arrived on Thursday. I had asked the hubby to get it for me for my birthday back in April, but he got me season 1 of Cheyenne instead. I don't know. They both start with C or something.

I have had knock-down, drag-outs with folks who fail to recognize Nat Hiken's genius (or sometimes his name!). It's a subject on which I will not keep the old mouth shut.

Here it is Saturday night and I haven't finished the season yet because I keep rewatching favourite bits. I must have watched good ol' "Beast Bukholz" at least three times already.

Such fun I know you can imagine I am having. You've added to it with your posts. There's nothing worse than really enjoying something and finding nowhere to share the enthusiasm, or enrich your knowledge. Thanks.

Andrew Leal said...

I just had one of the longest days at work, so this made me laugh audibly and just flooded me with relief and relaxation. I haven't seen "The Biggest Day of the Year" (*still* a little over four weeks before I can open my birthday bundle) but Schnauser's line is brilliant, and I can just hear Lewis' delivery. Many thanks, Ivan!

And the presence of so many New York personalities, especially OTR, but also Broadway folks or comics (Pully) or just personalities in general (like Heywood Hale Broun or the immortal Molly Picon) both lent authenticity to the show and a rare outlet for some very talented folks, some (Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Tom Bosley) going on to greater prominence, others not so much. And I was pleasantly surprised (perhaps not least in contrast to "lily white Mayberr except for Rockne Tarkington, some extras and Mayberry RFD folk") by the integrated cast and neighborhood (I especially liked Fred O'Neal's matter-of-fact Officer Wallace).

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

basura spoke:

my favorite one is"Quiet, we're thinking" if that's the one with the brother from The Patty Duke show.

It is! And Paul O'Keefe is also in the aforementioned "Bar Mitzvah" and "Toody's Paradise."

And Our Lady of Great Caftan observes:

I had asked the hubby to get it for me for my birthday back in April, but he got me season 1 of Cheyenne instead.

Well, I can certainly see where one might confuse...oh, who am I kidding? I'm just pleased the mistake was rectified in time.

ClassicBecky said...

Oh man, I do SO want to say something about the Cheyenne/Car 54 mixup, but then I thought to myself: Be afraid - be very afraid!

Stacia said...

Car 54 reruns were not allowed in the house when I was a kid because my parents hated the show with a genuine irritation that they reserved for very few things. Usually they would just kvetch or holler, but with Car 54, they would utter a simple "that show is terrible" and move on with their lives. (In contrast, the intensity with which dad would rail against the 1960s Batman made it difficult to keep a straight face when he was on a tear. If you chuckled at his rant, he would get angrier... well, you can see where this is going.) I do recall dad occasionally repeating the "Quiet, we're thinking" line, so he must have seen the show before deciding to hate it.

I know this is not an attitude most people in the classic TV and/or movie world share, but I'm not keen to watch a show where a female character is named after a dog. I'm aware that expressing this sentiment has caused me to bypass faux pas and zip right into heresy territory, but I'm 100% A-OK with that.

Stacia said...

Aw man, it had Godfrey Cambridge, Larry Storch, AND Charles Nelson Reilly? That's like the holy trinity of guest stars. Add some Severn Darden to the mix and I might just bliss out.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Add some Severn Darden to the mix and I might just bliss out.

Follow your bliss, kiddo. Darden plays an eccentric painter in "Toody and the Art World."

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Stacia said...

Darden plays an eccentric painter in "Toody and the Art World."

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Quick, tell me Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy were producers or something, give me a reason to hate this show again.

Hal said...

Great overview, Ivan.

I share your enthusiasm for CAR 54, and I have to say I'm glad we never saw any episodes without Ross. I know he's an acquired taste, but I just can't picture CAR 54 without him.

Matter of fact, and I stated this on Yvette's post, my favorite episode is "Toody Undercover". "Cops! He yelled, 'Cops!'"....Bruce Gordon was just fantastic spoofing himself.

Six of Seven said...

Hello, Ivan-- Love, love, LOVE what you wrote about Car 54 but ESPECIALLY your comments about the great and intrepid Charlotte Rae! Both you and Yvette made me smile to know that there are other fans out there who would watch ANYTHING this woman does. Besides her Sylvia role, I personally am enamored of her work in Rich Little's show from the mid 70's- hilarious! Also, if you haven't listened to her singing on her one and only solo album (she has sung to great acclaim on others), Songs I Taught My Mother, then you are sadly missing out. I look forward to more of your writing! http://www.youtube.com/user/ladyvestapattywhack?feature=mhee

Jeff Tarnow said...

I hate Captain Block is right up there with my favorites, it could have easily been titled Hello Mommy, Hello Daddy. My 5 yr old grandson loves this episode too.