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.

First Responders

FirstResponders_cov-500x500I'm a big sucker for books about TV series, especially encyclopedic works on particular genres (like Wes Britton's The Encyclopedia of TV Spies, etc.) so I would have grabbed Richard Yokley's The First Responders of Television,  which covers series about firefighters, medics, and lifeguards, even if Bear Manor Media hadn't been sent me a review copy.  And before I tell you what I think of it, you should know that Yokley is a frequent commenter on this blog and that I played a small role in getting his book published.

First Responders is a massive and ambitious undertaking, covering every U.S. TV series, unsold pilot, reality show, dcumentary and TV movie about first responders (mostly firefighters, but also lifeguards, medics, forest rangers,highway patrolmen, etc), produced from the 1950s to early 2011. If that wasn't enough, the book also covers major and minor TV series about first responders produced all over the world and has appendices on such things as firehouses on television, rescue vehicles on TV, and on technical advisors.

Yokley is primarily interested in  how authentic the shows were, particularly the vehicles, equipment, and locations they used, and other details relating to how the rescues and fires were depicted. It's fascinating stuff, but for me, I would have appreciated knowing a lot more about the shows creatively,  how they were developed and written, and how they ultimately went right or wrong. So, for me, the book was a little unsatisfying…but even so, I loved it. It's truly a great TV book. The depth of Yokley's research, his personal knowledge of the rescue field, and his appreciation of first responders (fire fighters in particular) comes through on every page. This is a major work of television scholarship, something Bear Manor Media specializes in publishing, and is a must-have for any television reference library. 

A Book Made For Me

51lYvEwlv-L._SS500_ I'm a sucker for unusual reference works about the media, whether its books, movies or TV shows (and you gotta love McFarland for publishing so many of them). Bradley Mengel's "Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction" was a must-have for me, even before I read the rave reviews on Bookgasm and Bill Crider's blog.

I've always loved pulp novels like "The Executioner," "The Penetrator," "The Death Merchant," and "The Destroyer." In fact, I did a scholarly, unpublished examination of the vigilante genre myself many years ago for a UCLA class…and as research for writing my first novel, .357 Vigilante, under the pseudonym "Ian Ludlow" (yes, it's covered in this book, and accurately, too. And notice how similar the cover of his book is to mine).

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For me, the best part of Mengel's book is discovering who actually wrote the novels written under "house" names…and learning the inside story on the development of so many obscure pulp series. This book is clearly a labor of love, but it leans more towards scholarly analysis than fannish drool. It's a great book for fans of pulps, rich with details and background information, and offers a historical overview of a genre, and a class of mass market paperbacks, that are all but dead today (except for Gold Eagle's "Executioner" books). Many of these books, and their authors, would have been forgotten if not for this one-of-a-kind reference work, which also offers a glimpse at the influence and workings of book packagers/"creators" in the 60s,70s & 80s.

The only drawback of this book is the steep $45 cover price. To save a few bucks, I bought the Kindle edition, which was also inexcusably pricey at $16, especially since the book doesn't really lend itself to easy reading on an e-reader. Even so, I'm glad I bought it.

Pondering the Ponderosa and Steve Cannell

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I've been reading a bunch of TV and movie reference books lately, most of which have been a disappointment. 

There's a great book to be written about the writing and production of BONANZA, something akin to the brilliant and comprehensive GUNSMOKE: A COMPLETE HISTORY. Sadly, A REFERENCE GUIDE TO BONANZA by Bruce Leiby and Linda F. Lieby, now out in paperback, isn't it. A scant eight pages — eight pages!– are given to the creation, writing and production of the show. The bulk of the book is a workman-like episode guide to the 14 seasons and brief synopses of the TV movies, hardly worth the price of purchase. The only thing interesting and worthwhile about the book are the appendices listing various BONANZA merchandise, books, comics, and records. However, I wish the effort the authors put into gathering so much pointless information — like listing all the shows available on video featuring Tim Matheson — had been focused instead on giving us the definitive history of the show. Consider this a lost opportunity.

The same can be said of STEPHEN J. CANNELL TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS: A HISTORY OF ALL SERIES & PILOTS by Jon Abbott. While the book is far more substantive and detailed than the BONANZA book, it draws entirely on previously published articles and books. The author, based in the UK, doesn't appear to have actually interviewed anyone himself, either at Cannell or at studios or the networks that Cannell worked for. The one person he should have talked to, and didn't, was Steve Cannell, the subject of his book. That is a glaring and crippling fault, obvious in every chapter. The author tries to make-up for that major weakness by relying heavily on his own ponderous and uinformed commentary (often repetitive, obvious and pointless), his critical overview (often meaningless and ridiculously fannish) and his interpretation of events (often dead wrong). That was a big mistake. What is especially irritating is the author's tendancy to make an assumption, and then afterwards treat it as fact. For example, in the RICHIE BROCKLEMAN chapter, he writes:

"The intention may have originally been to introduce the aggravating Brockleman into THE ROCKFORD FILES as a semi-regular partner for Rockford (to take some of the pressure off Garner's aching back). Fortunately, reason prevailed, and the character was instead written into the 1976 pilot film before surfacing in a double-length 1978 episode of ROCKFORD."

Most of the Cannell series, even from his days at Universal, are given full chapters and sketchy (to the point of almost being useless) episode guides…but after UNSUB, for reasons not explained, only passing reference is given to TOP OF THE HILL, BOOKER, BROKEN BADGES, 100 LIVES OF BLACK JACK SAVAGE, PALACE GUARD, MISSING PERSONS, THE LAST PRECINCT, COBRA, STREET JUSTICE, HAWKEYE, MARKER and three of his all-time biggest hits, RENEGADE, THE COMMISH and SILK STALKINGS. Perhaps the author just wasn't able to get video tapes of those shows from his circle of collectors, who he thanks in his acknowledgments, which noticeably doesn't include the names of any people associated with Stephen J. Cannell Productions or his shows. It begs the question — why didn't he actually talk to anybody? I know many of these writers, producers and directors, and I can tell you, they aren't hard to find or unwilling to share their experiences. Maybe he couldn't afford the long-distance phone calls. 

All that said, there is a lot of useful information in the book and, since the definitive book on Cannell has yet to be written, this is not a bad place-holder until somebody writes it (hopefully, Cannell himself will do it some day!). 

The Show Must Go On

51tnYP0UMrL._SS500_Don’t be fooled by the title of Douglas Snauffer’s new book, The Show Must Go On: How The Deaths of Lead Actors Have Affected Television Series…this is not a lurid or gossipy book but rather a serious, well-researched, detailed reference work about the business of television.

On the surface, the book is about what happens to a TV show when one of its stars dies, covering the impact of the calamity from every angle. But that death is just one part of the story. Douglas Snauffer, author of the exceptional Crime Television, gives us the full picture of the show, before and after the tragedy that may (or may not) have ultimately defined that series in TV history. Each chapter offers an in-depth look at the creation, development, production, and history of an individual series. It’s that detailed examination of each series — backed by interviews with all the key players in front of, and behind — the camera that gives this book it’s real value.

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know how TV series are created, written and produced…and why some succeed while others fail.

I Spy a Great Book

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Open Channel D! Wesley Britton has accomplished a mission impossible — he's written the ultimate reference work on TV Spies on-the-air, in print, and even in music. Get Smart — the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TV SPIES is now available for pre-order from the publisher and you should grab it. 

Britton’s book is a long overdue and desperately needed reference work is not only a detailed and complete listing of every spy show on TV, it also includes appendices on TV spy soundtracks and novelizations that, on their own, are well worth the purchase price.  This richly detailed encyclopedia will satisfy both the curiosity of fans and the scholarly needs of researchers. But it's not fanboy drool nor is it dry and academic. Britton clearly loves his subject and approaches it with enthusiasm that comes through on every page. I strongly recommend it!

The Only Crime is the Cover Price

0275988074_01__ss500_sclzzzzzzz_ I stayed up almost all night reading Douglas Snauffer’s CRIME TELEVISION. This is the latest in Praeger’s excellent line of television books (which includes SPY TELEVISION and CHRISTMAS ON TELEVISION, two other books I loved). Snauffer’s fascinating overview of television crime shows is much, much more than a look at the histories of particular shows over the decades. He offers a unique and revealing perspective on the history of television as a medium, a story-telling form, and as a reflection of our society and culture. It’s also a step-by-step examination of the evolution (and, you might say, the maturing) of the crime show genre. It’s packed with interesting facts, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and interviews with some the top writer/producers of our time. There are some errors, and you could quibble with the shows he choses to focus on, but those are minor drawbacks. It’s a valuable book for cop show fans, tv scholars, film students, and even writer/producers working in “crime television” today. The only problem is that the book costs $50, which is way, way, WAY over-priced for what it is and that’s going to limit its potential audience.