On January 2, 2008 a four-part documentary titled “Pioneers of Television” premiered on PBS that is now available on DVD. I happened to come across a re-broadcast of it on my local PBS station one night. Unfortunately I only caught a little bit of the series, but it was enough to pique my interest since I write a lot about television. Some may assume a couple of these TV genres that is featured may be a recent phenomenon, but that is not the case. Only one genre that’s showcased is obsolete by today’s standards, but not entirely gone.
The genres you will learn about that had their beginnings since the early days of television are late night talk shows, sitcoms, variety shows and game shows. There are over a 100 television stars giving their recollections on starring in one of these shows or as a guest star. One of these stars is none other than Betty White. You’ll also be privy to never-before-seen clips of rare archival footage. Here is a fascinating look at TV from a historical point of view that’s actually fascinating.
Pat Weaver, whose daughter is the actress Sigourney Weaver, was president of NBC television. He is considered the creator of “The Tonight Show” in the early 1950s. It was based on a late night show called “Broadway Open House.” “Tonight Show’s” first host was Steve Allen, a radio personality known for his comedy as well as his music skills and interviews on radio.
He brought a lot of comedy to “The Tonight Show” as well as many African American performers when other shows were not booking them. Allen was very astute with world affairs and conducted interviews from time to time. In the latter part of the ’50s Ed Sullivan was the only one with a prime time variety show. Steve Allen then had his own prime time variety show on NBC.
Jack Paar took Allen’s place on the show as host. He wasn’t known for comedy and music like with Allen, but Paar was an excellent interviewer. One of his stable guests he’d have on from time to time was Betty White and Florence Henderson. Paar did interviews with John and Robert Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Richard Nixon. Eventually the straight interviewing style on late night was getting old. Johnny Carson took over Jack Paar’s hosting duties. Carson incorporated Steve Allen’s comedy sketches and Paar’s opening monologue while making the show his very own.
From 1962 to 1992 Johnny Carson was the host to the highest rated late night talk show in history. Other talk shows came and went during Carson’s reign. In the early ’90s things changed for late night when Arsenio Hall devised his own talk show to capture an urban audience who were too young for Carson.
For only one season in the fall of 1955 Jackie Gleason created a show based on one of his comedy sketches called “The Honeymooners.” In that one season there were only 39 episodes, but due to its popularity over the decades many assume it was one for many years. The show was filmed “live” in front of a studio audience.
Over on the west coast Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz created their sitcom, the iconic “I Love Lucy.” Their home was in Los Angeles and filming before a live studio audience was never done before. Their set was elaborate and the audience sat around the set in stadium type seating, much like it’s done today with filming sitcoms.
Other pioneering sitcoms for its time were Danny Thomas’ “Make Room for Daddy”. This was the start of the family sitcoms. “Dick Van Dyke Show” featured a married couple with a son. The husband is a comedy writer. It was considered the first urban sitcom. “The Andy Griffith Show” is the only sitcom without a live studio audience, only the canned laugh track. This was the first rural sitcom with others following in its success such as “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres.”
This genre may be obsolete, but it does live on rather slightly in the results shows for reality TV competition shows such as “American Idol”, “Dancing with the Stars” and others. The king of variety shows was none other than Ed Sullivan. He was the only host who did not act, sing or tell jokes, yet he had an uncanny ability to know what the audience wanted for his show and gave it to them. Sullivan reigned supreme for almost 25 years with one of the longest running variety shows on television.
Before Ed Sullivan there was Milton Berle who invented the television variety show format. He had an unheard of 95% share in the ratings, which is why he was called “Mr. Television”. As fast as his fame rose it also came to a halt. Sullivan and Berle was not the only host of variety shows that were pioneering. Many singers hosted their own variety shows, especially in the early ’70s such as Perry Como, Dean Martin and Andy Williams. Even Nat King Cole had a variety show, but no sponsors would back him due to the times.
Carol Burnett was the only female to have her own variety show. When she taped her shows they were non-stop, “live” to give it spontaneity and continuity. The Smothers Brothers were hip, modern and controversial when they spoke out on their political views. Steve Martin was one of their comedy writers. Another variety show to jump on the political bandwagon was “Laugh-In”. It featured very quick edits much like what is seen on MTV and other shows today.
Flip Wilson, an African American, had his own variety show in the early to mid ’70s. His signature sketch was Wilson’s alter-ego, Geraldine. Tony Orlando and Dawn featured the first Hispanic male to host a prime time variety show with two African American women. After the mid 1970s variety shows were all but forgotten. It has stayed that way.
Now we come to the most beloved television genre, even to this day. “Everyone loves to play games” a quote Bob Barker says on the documentary. That is certainly true, especially my father. He was fanatical over game shows. In this segment we learn a lot about its early days of television. Prior to that, game shows were very popular on radio. It was only natural they transfer on to the television medium. A lot of the earlier game shows featured a panel with celebrities of the day trying to guess the occupation or something else about the mystery guest.
Bob Barker hosted “Truth or Consequences” where contestants found themselves in crazy situations. Groucho Marx hosted “You Bet Your Life” with some very interesting clips from the show. Merv Griffin fondly tells how he came up with the game shows “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” making him one of the richest game show creators in history. The scandal of the game show “Twenty-One” featured fascinating clips from the primary contestants involved, Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel. This was later made into a film titled “Quiz Show.”
With this scandal, game shows were off the air for a while but not for long. There is some interesting behind-the-scenes filming of “The Price is Right” then hosted by Bob Barker. The unique set of “Hollywood Squares” and its celebrities were discussed. Chuck Barris, a game show producer and host of “The Gong Show” showcased his popular games such as “The Newlywed Game” and “The Dating Game.” Betty White is considered the first female emcee of a game show in a field that is still doesn’t have many female game show hosts.
If you love television and want to learn more about its history this is a great DVD to purchase or borrow from your library or rent from a video outlet. Just because something is popular today on TV does not mean it was recently created. It had to come from one of these “Pioneers of Television.”
Pioneers of Television, PBS
Pioneers of Television: Movies & TV, Amazon.com