TV Books A-Go-Go

Sometimes I think Richard Irvin is writing books just for me. It’s almost like I’m holding him prisoner in my basement, feeding him Cheetos and forcing him to write TV reference books on delightfully obscure subjects for my personal amusement. His credits so far include such gems as Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw, George Burns’ Television Productions: The Series and Pilots, Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels That Never Became Series.  Now he’s back with two more winners…

The Early Shows: A Reference Guide to Network and Syndicated Primetime Television Series from 1944-1949 (Bear Manor Media) This is an amazing work of television search and scholarship, tracking shows from the dark ages of television that few people have seen or ever heard of. Irvin is the consumate researcher and goes into astonishing detail on each show. But this is far from a dry, boring reference book…it’s hours of fascinating reading, it’s also a time capsule offering a glimpse into the cultural, historical, technological issues of the day…and an intriguing foreshadow of what was to come in television’s future. It’s full of cool trivia — for example, in the sitcom Mama (1949-1956), Dick Van Patten played the eldest son, but when he had to miss a few episodes James Dean stepped in to play the character in his place. And guest stars in the sitcom included Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon. One of my favorite discoveries in the book is a series called Off The Record, which ran for two episodes in September 1948. It starred Zero Mostel as a millionaire DJ broadcasting a radio show from his lavish Manhattan penthouse apartment. Mostel walked off the show when the producer failed to deliver a promised live audience to fill the theater where the sitcom was filmed.  Another intriguing show is the dark drama anthology Mr. Black, which aired for a just few weeks in the fall of 1949, and was written entirely by novelist and prolific television writer Bill Ballinger. Mr. Black was the Devil’s emissary on earth and he took particular delight in  pitting people against one another and seeing just how much death and misery he could cause. So little is known about the show that there’s some dispute over who actually starred in it.  I know I say this a lot, especially about Irvin’s books, but this is a must-have for any television reference collection. But wait, there’s more…

Film Stars’ Television Projects: Pilots and Series of 50+ Movie Greats 1948-1985 by Richard Irvin (McFarland & Co). I went into this thinking there wasn’t going to be anything here of interest to me…after all, I wrote Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989. What could he tell me about the pilots by film stars that I don’t already know? Quite a bit!  I loved this book. He gives deep background and detailed synopses of the TV series (and would-be series) projects of some big screen stars who hoped to revive their careers on the small screen with, in most cases, little success. The stars include Claudette Colbert, George Sanders, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, Orson Welles and Bette Davis. One of Davis’  failed TV projects in the 1950s was a proposed series entitled Morgan & McBride, written by Fay Kanin and produced by Jack Webb, that would have cast Davis as a lawyer with a younger partner played by William Shatner. It’s a tragedy that it was never shot for the camp value alone. The concept was tried again with Greer Garson & Peter Falk as the leads, and was ultimately shot in 1972 with Susan Hayward (also profiled in the book) and James Stacy. This is a marvelous little book (only 223 pages but it feels like its packed with 500 pages of information) that I strongly recommend. I can’t say the same for the next book…

Mad About Mysteries: 100 Wonderful Television Mysteries from the Seventies by Donna Marie Nowak (Bear Manor Media)  “Mad about Mystery” is an appropriate title for this very strange book… the random musings of a mystery fan about mystery television in the seventies mixed in with a few interviews and drawings (yes, drawings). There is no real organizing principle beyond her love of 70s mystery television (though she stretches “mystery” pretty broadly to include a lot of other stuff, like Scooby Doo, Salem’s Lot, and Satan’s School for Girls). The introduction by Stefanie Powers isn’t an introduction at all, but rather a rambling, informative Q&A about the actress and her involvement in Hart to Hart, among other shows. As for the rest of the book, the author has selected some “mystery” TV movies and series that I suppose she feels represented the genre in the decade, then offers her personal review and synopsis of each one, along with some bits of information that are well-known (and, in some cases, inaccurate. For example, she mentions that the TV movie Dear Detective starring Brenda Vaccaro was an unsold pilot for a series that never happened…but she’s wrong, there was a series, something a simple Google search would have revealed in a less than 2 seconds). Her list of mystery movies & TV series includes horror, animation and Wonder Woman, so her criteria for inclusion is a real head-scratcher. But she knows the programs well and her reviews are knowledgeable, though they don’t offer any fresh insights, information or trivia. By far the best part of the book, and the only real reason to read it, is her section of informative Q&A interviews with actors, writers, and stunt men of the era (from which the Powers interview was presumably pulled and moved to the front of the book for the “introduction”). The interviews with Sharon Farrell, Diana Muldaur, Tom Sawyer and Peter S. Fischer are especially interesting (though the Q&A’s with Sawyer and Fischer rely too much on excerpts from *their* books…especially for me, since I read both of their books). The author would have been better served scrapping her “reviews” of 70s TV movies and series and focusing instead on more interviews.

 

Remembering the Forgotten Laughs

forgotten laughs-500x500I really enjoyed Richard Irvin’s book Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw and, as any regular reader of this blog knows, I am a sucker for TV reference books. This one hit particularly close to home, since Irvin picked a subject almost as narrow and obscure as my own book Television Fast Forward: Sequels and Remakes of Cancelled  TV Shows. So I had to know more about his book, why he wrote it, and how he did the research.
LEE : What is that’s so fascinating about short-lived, forgotten sitcoms that made you want to write a book about them?
RICHARD: I’ve been a lifelong TV fan and have always been interested in how series get on television.  While there has been a lot published about popular shows like Mary Tyler-MooreAll in the Family, and Seinfeld, not that much information exists about series that quickly disappeared from the air.  Even websites like IMDb.com and TV.com do not contain much information about such series.
How hard was it to research and write? How long did it take?
It took about two years to research the book.  The  biggest difficulty in doing research, particularly for the older series, was that many people contacted did not remember a lot about the series and videos for many series appear to no longer exist.  The best TV archive collection is held by the Library of Congress.  While they do not have videos of every series ever made, they do have many shows that are not available through other sources.
Did you have a hard time tracking down the writer/producers of the shows? And how did they react once you contacted them?
About half of the writers and producers I contacted did reply to my inquiries.  Using “people search” websites was very helpful in locating writers and producers.  For better or worse, the internet has made it fairly easy to find people’s addresses.
Most of the writers and producers who responded appreciated the fact that someone wanted to document their efforts with respect to these short-lived projects.  Only a handful said they were willing to talk about any other series they had worked on except the one I was profiling.  One writer/producer even said that working on the series was so frustrating that he no longer wanted credit for producing the series and that if I wanted the credit, I could take it (although I think the Producer’s Guild might object to that).
Did you also reach out to network executives to find out what they were thinking when the bought, shelved and canceled these series?
I didn’t attempt to contact network executives about these series.  Instead I relied on newspaper accounts at the time for the reasons they quickly axed a show.  Some of the writers and producers I contacted also didn’t want to be quoted directly about their experiences with the networks on a particular project saying words to the affect that “they still have to work with these guys.” File0917
How did your family and friends feel about you writing this book? It was obviously a passion project. A book like this is not something destined to be a bestseller…or particularly profitable (believe me, I know! I wrote the books UNSOLD TV PILOTS 1955-1989 ). What reaction did you get from publishers?
My best friend accompanied me on my many trips to Washington DC to view videotapes at the LOC.  While not every series profiled in the book is a lost gem, both he and I were happily surprised about how funny many of them were. I must confess that one of the funniest series I found was the never-aired sitcom The Grubbs starring Michael Cera and Randy Quaid. At the time, many critics who say the Fox preview of the series, called it the worst sitcom ever.  But I found that Randy Quaid’s performance was particularly hilarious.  In one episode, he was trying to get in the Guinness Book of World Records by holding his breath under water in a bucket.  The director filmed his efforts from the bottom of the bucket and Quaid’s reactions were priceless.
The book was one of my passion projects.  I don’t think anyone gets rich writing books anymore unless you write about vampires or wizards.  I know that many people think that Forgotten Laughs contains episode information about shows that you can get for free from the Internet not realizing that the Internet has little data about such short-lived series.
However, getting the book published was almost too easy.  The first publisher I contacted was BearManor Media, and they quickly agreed to publish it.
$T2eC16NHJHQE9nzE)jdZBQEV+1pFlQ~~60_35What is your background? Is this your first book? Do you have other books on the way?
As for myself, I have a Master’s degree from The Ohio State University in sociology with a focus in mass communications.  I worked for a state agency dealing with higher education for the past twenty-five years publishing newsletters and study guides, but now that I am retired, I am focusing on my avocation as a documentarian of TV history.  Currently, I’m working on a book about the various series and pilots the late actor-comedian George Burns produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I’ll definitely be the first in line to buy that. You’ll be able to find lots of details on the George Burns stuff in my book, Unsold Television PilotsAny chance you might tackle Forgotten Dramas next?
That is a definite possibility.  I guess there must be at least 100 TV dramas that had very short runs on the different networks. Few probably remember George Clooney in Sunset Beat or Hugh Jackman’s attempt to produce a musical drama titled Viva Laughlin.