This single DVD contains the premiere episodes of 7 of CBS’s most endearing comedies. All were influential to those that came after. These weekly shows offered that much needed relief from the pressures of whatever decade they appeared in. The stars are names that everybody knows, even those that appeared 50 years or more ago. If you ever wondered how some of these shows began their historic runs, here’s your opportunity to go back in time with Forever Funny.
I Love Lucy:
I Love Lucy changed the fledgling television industry in the 1950’s. This was a time when network television was less than a decade old. Most folks had never heard of television just 15 years earlier. I Love Lucy defined the concept of a sitcom. The show was driven by the very strong personalities of the cast. Desi Arnaz was considered a charismatic Latin lover by American women. Lucy played the perfect foil and found a mountain of gold to mine in strong physical comedy. So many modern shows owe their roots to this classic that it would be impossible to mention them all here.
The Odd Couple:
What started as a Neil Simon play and eventual film became one of ABC’s most endearing comedies of the 1970’s. One could credit the clever premise of putting a neat freak and a slob under the same roof. One might look to the fact that both the film and play were considerable hits to explain the success of the series. The truth is, it was none of these things. Plenty of hit films have spawned crappy shows. Remember That Big Fat Greek Wedding? Even Neil Simon plays have been the starting point for bad television. Remember Barefoot In The Park? My point exactly. Even The Odd Couple was attempted again in the 1980’s with Ron Glass and Demond Wilson. If you remember that one, you should get some help for those bad dreams you’re having. The simple truth is that it was Tony Randall and Jack Klugman that made this series fire on all cylinders. Before watching this set, I tried to think back on my favorite episodes, and I made a rather interesting discovery. I couldn’t remember even one plot. What I could recall were many moments between these two gifted comedic actors. Long after the stories themselves had been forgotten, it was Felix and Oscar, Tony and Jack that remained. It’s almost too horrific a thought that these were not the actors the show was created for. It was Art Carney and Martin Balsam that were expected to fill these parts when Gary Marshall began to construct The Odd Couple for television. Whatever happened, I don’t know the story; what I do know is that the television gods intervened and what was likely going to be a one season and out comedy ended up lasting 5 seasons.
The premise was simple and outlined in the show’s opening monologue. Felix and Oscar are recently divorced and share an apartment out of sheer convenience that doesn’t really end up being convenient to either. Felix is a clean freak who makes Adrian Monk look messy by comparison. He works as a photographer. His friends are high class opera lovers and art museum patrons. Oscar is a world class slob. His floor and even his bed are merely depositories for whatever needs throwing out at the time, including dirty clothes and leftover food. He works as a sports writer for a local paper. His friends are poker buddies and fellow sports enthusiasts. Most of the best moments occur when these two worlds collide. Other regulars included Murray the cop, played by Al Molinaro. With Murray on duty, it was an easy night for the crooks. Oscar’s poker buddy Speed was played by Gary Walberg, who would rejoin Klugman as cop friend Monahan. Oscar’s secretary was played by Gary Marshall’s sister Penny, who would later become Laverne in the hit Laverne and Shirley. Oscar’s ex-wife was played by his real wife at the time, Brett Somers.
Jackie Gleason might well have been television’s first breakout superstar. He was certainly the first scripted television actor to become a household name. The Honeymooners was actually a skit, part of the variety show, The Jackie Gleason Show. That’s where the characters first evolved. Ralph (Gleason) worked for the bus company. He was a proud man who was always looking for a way to get the good life. He had a raging temper and an ideal that the man was king of his castle. Alice (Meadows) was his suffering wife. In the end she always got the better of Ralph for all of his posturing. After she’d bail him out of a jam or forgive another one of his blunders, he often ended the show telling her, “Baby, you’re the greatest”. Ed Norton (Carney) was Ralph’s best buddy and lived in the apartment above the Kramdens. Norton worked for the sewer company where “Time and tide wait for no man”. He was somewhat slow witted and allowed Ralph to lead him into one scheme or another. Norton was married to Trixie (Randolph), a mild mannered woman who was more likely to suffer in silence.
Louie DePalma (DeVito) is a short but sadistic dispatcher for the Sunshine Cab Company. Each week the show explored the follies of Reverend Jim (Lloyd), Tony (Danza) the underdog boxer, Bobby (Conaway) the wannabe actor, Elaine (Henner) the art critic, and Alex (Hirsch) the ace cabbie. Taxi was one of the funniest shows in television history. There simply hasn’t been a sitcom to feature so many cast members who would go on to bigger but perhaps not better things.
The Brady Bunch:
“Here’s the story of a lovely lady, Who was bringing up three very lovely girls. All of them had hair of gold, like their mother, The youngest one in curls.
Here’s the story, of a man named Brady, Who was busy with three boys of his own.
They were four men, living all together, Yet they were all alone.
Till the one day when the lady met this fellow, And they knew that it was much more than a hunch. That this group would somehow form a family. That’s the way we all became the Brady Bunch.”
Another theme song that tells you the whole story. The series starred Robert Reed and Florence Henderson as the wedded couple. The show also featured Alice (Ann B. Davis). The show ran from 1969 to 1974 with a few reunion shows to follow. It was almost a satire on the Father Knows Best type of shows in the 1950’s. Learning the lesson was the important rule for the Brady family.
Frasier was another one of those unlikely hits. Frasier started as an intended one-off character on the hugely popular Cheers. Kelsey Grammer made the most out of it, and before long he was one of the regular barflies inhabiting a stool at Sam’s. In Cheers the wit worked because Frasier was so unlike his fellow characters. He was a sophisticated, almost snobbish psychiatrist with a taste for fine art and high class entertainment. Instead of a ballgame, Frasier was more at home at the opera or an art opening. The humor was to be found in his attempts to blend in with his crass companions or even make a run at enriching their lives with his cultured tastes. My favorite Frasier moment will always be his plan to expose the bar patrons to Charles Dickens, but instead of his changing them they eventually had him reinventing the brilliant author in his reading of David And The Coppers In The Field. Soon Cheers had run its course, and everyone was expecting a spin-off. There was too much rich material to be found here to let it just die with the closing of Sam’s bar. While Norm or Cliff were the natural choices, it was Frasier who would move on. While most fans were a little confused by the move, the show would go on for 11 seasons that were arguably far funnier than Cheers ever was.
Frasier is finally divorced from equally snobbish Lilith and moves back to his home town of Seattle. There he moves in with his father, who is more like his buddies at Cheers than anything else. What made Frasier work was that the show was brilliantly cast. Every character fit his role to perfection. John Mahoney was a wonderful choice as Frasier’s everyman father. David Hyde Pierce was also so believable as Frasier’s equally highbrow brother Niles. It seems the boys got their tastes from their dearly departed mother. Jane Leeves played Daphne, Dad’s live-in physical therapist. While the actress and character were both a great fit, the show’s weakest link was the romantic interludes between Niles and Daphne. Frasier took on the role of a radio psychiatrist at a local talk station where yet another collection of characters added balance to the show. Peri Gilpin was Frasier’s faithful assistant, Roz. While her love life also tended to bog down the laughs a little, she was an energetic counter to the sometimes dry wit of the brothers. Dan Butler was the sports talk member of the staff who went by the on air name of The Bulldog. Finally there was Eddie, the dog who took endless delight in sitting and staring at Frasier, much to his annoyance. The plots were the expected thin situations, always there merely to serve as a framework for the comedy. When the show got too serious it just wasn’t that interesting. There are comedies that have been able to pull off the serious subjects, but Frasier was never one of them.
Cheers was that kind of place that songs have been written about. Billy Joel’s Piano Man describes such a place where the patrons are, for the most part, regulars and pretty much family. In the days before huge screen televisions and satellite networks, Cheers would likely have been considered a sports bar. In those days the sports was more the talk of the place and not merely gathering to watch 127 games at a time. The bar’s owner was Sam Malone (Danson). Sam was a washed up baseball player for the local Boston Red Sox. He was a pitcher who liked to drink a bit too much. So, what does he do? He buys a bar. Actually the character has kicked the drinking and is always seen sporting a bottle of water. At first his bartender was his old baseball coach, until Nicholas Colasanto passed away after three years. Coach was replaced by Woody, played by Woody Harrelson. Woody was a farm boy with naiveté and small town charm reminiscent of Radar from MASH. His innocence was often the butt of the jokes. In a strange coincidence, the show’s popular theme song, performed by Gary Portnoy, sounded a lot like Harrelson’s voice, and for years it was believed by anyone too lazy to read the credits that Harrelson sang the tune. The barmaid was Carla, played by Danny DiVito’s wife Rhea Perlman. She reminded us a lot of her husband’s Louie character from Taxi. She was abrasive, sarcastic, and more than willing to kick a guy when he was down. She had a soft spot for Sam, however, and was often protective of him. Kirstie Alley played Rebecca Howe, an on again off again romantic interest for Sam and also on again off again owner of Cheers in later years. She replaced Shelley Long who played Sam’s romantic interest and barmaid Diane for the first half of the show’s run. The steady customers offered most of the stories for Cheers. Cliff, played by John Ratzenberger, was a postman who spent more time nursing a beer than actually delivering the mail. He often joked about how hard it was to fire a civil service employee. He was a knowitall and too often bored his comrades with longwinded explanations for even the simplest concepts. His best friend was Norm (George Wendt). Norm was one of the more popular patrons, greeted with shouts of “NORM” whenever he entered the bar. He sat in the same stool, usually griping about his life but unwilling to move off his seat and actually do anything about it. He was married to an unseen wife who worked while he loafed at Cheers. Finally, Kelsey Grammer played psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane. You might recognize that character the most because he got his own show after 9 years on Cheers which lasted another decade. Frasier was the elitist who acted superior to the others but deep down just wanted to be one of the guys.
Cheers was a simple show with very little fluff. The location almost never left the confines of the bar. The elegance of the series can be found in just how much could be mined in such a limited location. These characters had tremendous chemistry, and it was so easy to believe these relationships had existed forever. Part of the charm was our desire as an audience to hang out with these characters. Each week the series invited us to pull up a stool and be a part of the family. When Cheers went terribly astray it was the romantic entanglements, first with Diane and finally with Rebecca. We like Sam more when he’s his womanizing self playing the field. Cheers never needed complicated relationships. We all reveled in the absolute simplicity of this Americana snapshot.
Each episode is presented in its original full frame broadcast format. There’s a lot of grain in these episodes. The colors are pretty muted, and some of it is in black & white. The shows are from the 1950’s all the way to the 1990’s, so you know to expect a ton of variation. After all, it’s hard to really judge video quality when you’re laughing so hard your eyes are watering.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono tracks are pretty bland. The dialog is usually clear, and really, does anything else matter? Some of the themes clip a bit in the intro and even sometimes throughout the show. I might have been able to detect other nuances in the sound if I weren’t laughing so hard that I missed them.
I have mixed feelings about these best-of compilations. Here I think it might be a good idea. You may not wish to own a full collection of a series to be interested enough to wonder how they began. The price is minimal enough that it’s a harmless edition to any collection. That’s the target audience here, the generic sit-com fan. The serious collector of any of these shows already has the complete series on various season releases. Of course, I’m holding out. “I’m waiting for 3-D television.”