News from the Archive

The Irony, Influence, and Impact of David Letterman

June 1st, 2017
David Letterman

For long-time David Letterman fans, Jason Zinoman’s new book “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” is both a revelation and the book we’d been waiting many years to see. People are finally getting their due for having helped create Late Night with David Letterman, the most important and influential talk show of the last 35 years, in my opinion. Among them director Hal Gurnee, who’d worked with Jack Paar and was able to seamlessly blend the traditional talk show setting with Letterman’s irony and deconstructionism. And head writer Merrill Markoe, whose comedic sensibilities shaped the early years of Late Night, and who was at least 50% responsible for what the show was, and, I would argue, for the state of modern comedy. Fred Silverman talked to us about bringing David Letterman to NBC. Second time was the charm.

Those who first tuned in to Late Night on February 1, 1982 expecting to see yet another talk show in the mold of The Tonight Show must have been confused at best to see a strange man (we didn’t know Larry “Bud” Melman yet) introduce the show with a speech that combined Alfred Hitchcock’s television introductions with something Dr. Frankenstein might say. This strange display was followed by showgirls strutting around the studio with NBC peacock headdresses. Watching it today, it’s obviously a parody of late ‘70s variety show excess, but in 1982 I’m not at all sure how much of the audience was in on the joke. Another big departure was the band. Instead of a Doc Severinsen big band, there was SNL’s Paul Shaffer heading up a traditional 4-piece rock and roll band. 

Late Night with David Letterman was the anti-talk show. Letterman and Merrill Markoe had no interest in doing it the traditional way, so a clash with the mainstream seemed inevitable. This came to pass in 1986, when David Letterman agreed to host the 38th Annual Emmy Awards

In the weeks leading up to that Emmy broadcast, Dave seemed to regret agreeing to host. There were stories in the paper of his being uncooperative when asked to do a big production number with Emmys co-host Shelley Long. He addressed these stories on air by simply stating, “I don’t sing. I don’t dance. I don’t like to be near anybody who does.” Leading up to the broadcast, Letterman’s on-air grousing reached a fever pitch with him mock-rehearsing one of his intros: “Ladies and Gentleman, the first lady of television, Miss Lucille Ball” to which Paul Shaffer replied, putting on Lucy’s gruff voice, “Thank you, David! You know Desi and I did so many shows together, and I love the work you kids are doing…” Every other talk show had always shown reverence to Lucille Ball and other television living legends, while Dave could be downright hostile to them. And now he was about to host an event that relied on his being reverential and respectful.

The evening of the Emmys, David Letterman could not have looked less comfortable on stage next to Shelley Long. Dave proceeded to deconstruct the awards show just as he’d done on his talk show for the past four years. “Children’s television programming: Where would our young people be without it? Perhaps out in the fresh air, getting some exercise.” 

In those years, all Awards shows did huge production numbers, and during Shelley’s, it became apparent why Dave declined to partake – it was a medley of love songs, which included “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” from the musical "Carnival," and Ashford and Simpson’s “Solid as a Rock.” Sandra Bernhard would later do a brief but memorable parody on Late Night. I've been fulsome in my praise of Shelley Long on Cheers in this very space, she's an absolutely brilliant actress, but this was not her venue.

Letterman sparred with Milton Berle, whom he introduced as, “Milton ‘I’ve got ties older than you, Berle.” Berle responded in kind, “You were never funnier… and it’s a SHAME, too, I’ll tell ya THAT!” The contrast in comedic styles couldn’t have been more stark. Later, Jack Paar appeared to present a writing award, and as Johnny Carson had a few nights prior when Dave guested on The Tonight Show, gave his stamp of approval to his, “good friend and neighbor David Letterman.” Letterman and his staff won that award, and while accepting, Dave addressed Brandon Tartikoff, “Don’t worry, by God, we’re not going to be in third place for much longer.”

The evening closed that year with a big production number led by The Golden Girls singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friend,” and followed several “old friends,” including Sammy Davis, Jr., Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Dick Van Dyke, Eve Arden, Dick Clark, Raymond Burr, Bert Parks, Jackie Cooper, and in the very last seconds, George Burns. Absolutely thrilling for me to watch even today, and one of the great moments in Emmy history. Letterman’s comment on the whole affair? “Our long national nightmare is finally over.”

In last year's 68th Primetime Emmy Awards there were no big production numbers, and no musical numbers at all. Host Jimmy Kimmel’s ironic, detached style of humor is a direct descendant of what David Letterman was doing in the ‘80s. All Awards shows now incorporate at least some of the style and attitude of Late Night with David Letterman. And in the years following his hosting stint, Letterman became more mainstream, and more willing to play nice with others. It worked out nicely for all involved. 

Once again, I recommend Jason Zinoman’s “Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night” highly. It’s like “Hamlet” meets “Citizen Kane” meets Larry Sanders. Also, if you’re a Letterman fan, take a look at Don Giller’s YouTube channel. It is a vault of great Letterman bits both from NBC and CBS.

And for more great awards show and talk show stories and analysis, check out our talk show page!

- John Dalton

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Life Before Mrs. Garrett

May 31st, 2017
Charlotte Rae

Charlotte Rae became a household name playing Mrs. Garrett, first on Diff’rent Strokes and then for seven years on The Facts of Life. But long before that she was a well-respected character actress on some of TVs most memorable shows. It was our pleasure to sit with Charlotte for a few hours one day last Fall and hear the stories of her long and illustrious career.

The Early Years 

Charlotte got an early start in acting, joining the North Shore Children’s Theater as a teenager. She then went to college at Northwestern University to study drama. Her classmates included Cloris Leachman, Paul Lynde, Agnes Nixon, Charlton Heston and songwriter Sheldon Harnick, who went on to write music and lyrics for Fiddler on the Roof. She honed her craft doing comedy sketches with Paul Lynde in the Waa-Mu show, a Chicago precursor to Second City.

After college she moved to New York City where she got an agent and began doing off-Broadway (Three Penny Opera), Broadway (Li’l Abner) and live TV. In this clip below she talks about a mishap during a live broadcast while filming an episode of Appointment with Adventure.

The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54

In no time at all Charlotte was a regular on TV with appearances on Armstrong Circle Theatre, Ponds Theater, NBC Television Opera Theatre, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The Ed Sullivan Show, and more.

She was cast on two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show where she met Nat Hiken who would give the actress her big TV break as a recurring role in the hit series Car 54, Where Are You?. She credits Hiken’s genius with making the show a success and for matching her up with her on-camera husband Al Lewis, who played Leo Schnauser to her Sylvia. 

Commercial Work

While these early works were popular at the time and certainly garnered Charlotte a lot of attention, it was perhaps her ‘70s commercials that made her recognizable to average Americans. There was the commercial for Oil Heat where Charlotte was showering while proclaiming her love for the dependable, hot water. In another she had her head in the oven and stated, “Mr. Muscle, you’re a good man to wake up to.” But maybe the most memorable was her stint as the grocery shopper buying toilet paper who couldn’t help but squeeze the Charmin. In this clip from our interview, she recalls that campaign.

The Mid-‘70s

In the mid-‘70s Charlotte had two of our favorite TV roles of her career. In 1975, she played Mrs. Bellotti on the short-lived and incredibly under-rated Hot L Baltimore — a Norman Lear classic way ahead of its time with a cast including a gay couple, two prostitutes and a black revolutionary. She was the mother of an off-beat son, who was never seen, yet her vivid descriptions of his antics brought his off-screen shenanigans to life — from buttering the walls of the hotel hallway to training circus fleas in his room (demonstrated by a gesture of a little teeny, tiny whip).

One year earlier she appeared on All in the Family, in an episode that focused on Edith. While Archie was away, Edith threw a Tupperware party. Charlotte played Lilian Henderson, the Tupperware lady. Edith was so anxious about her speech, nervously practicing her opening remarks, “We welcome you with open arms!” But when Lilian was there in front of her, the words didn’t come out quite right. Hear Charlotte tell the story in this clip.

Mrs. Garrett 

Just a few years later Charlotte got another call from Norman Lear, this time to play a housekeeper on a new show about a rich Manhattan businessman who adopted three black children. By the end of the first season of Diff'rent Strokes, Mrs. Garrett was such a hit, that the network spun her off onto her own show featuring a few young actresses who would stay with her for the next seven years on The Facts of Life. While she has continued to act since the show went off the air, it is Mrs. Garrett that is etched in the memories of America’s TV viewers.

Watch Charlotte Rae's full Archive interview.

- Pop Culture Passionistas

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Ellen Comes out: "The Puppy Episode" Turns 20!

April 30th, 2017
Ellen

TV Land ranked it as the only television episode to garner a 10/10 in historical significance, and it came in at #21 on their list of Top 100 Sitcom Episodes of All Time. TV Guide listed it at #35 of The 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time. "The Puppy Episode" of Ellen, in which lead character Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen DeGeneres, comes out as a lesbian, first aired on April 30, 1997 on ABC. It was the first network TV sitcom to have an openly gay lead character.

Prior to Ellen, broadcast television had dabbled in storylines about homosexuality. The 1972 ABC Movie of the Week That Certain Summer focused on the relationship between partners Doug Salter (Hal Holbrook) and Gary McClain (Martin Sheen) and was the first television movie to bring a homosexual relationship to the forefront. Billy Crystal's Jodie Dallas on the 1977 series Soap was openly gay, yet a supporting character. 1981's Love, Sidney featured Tony Randall playing Sidney Shorr, a gay man living with friend Laurie and her daughter, but the series avoided mention of Sidney's personal life and largely only hinted at his sexual orientation. With "The Puppy Episode," Ellen Morgan became the first broadcast, prime-time, sitcom character to openly discuss her homosexuality, and also have it woven into subsequent storylines in the show.

There was quite a build-up in the weeks leading up to the hour-long episode, which coincided with DeGeneres' real-life revelation about her own sexuality. Oprah Winfrey guest-starred on the show as Ellen's therapist, Laura Dern as Ellen's crush Susan, and Steven Eckholdt as Ellen's college buddy, Richard.

"The Puppy Episode" aired in Season 4 and took some effort to get on the air. In the summer of 1996, DeGeneres told Disney Executive Dean Valentine that she wanted her character to come out:

According to Disney Exec Michael Eisner, he, too had a conversation with DeGeneres, and shares his take on the episode and remainder of the series:

Valentine explains the production process on "The Puppy Episode" once the decision was made to have Ellen Morgan come out:

Ellen lasted for one more season after "The Puppy Episode" aired, ending in 1998. DeGeneres began hosting talk-show Ellen: The Ellen Degeneres Show in 2003, which is syndicated nationally and still going strong. Sometimes Oprah appears as a guest on that show, too.

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Soap Opera Stars and Creators

April 28th, 2017

In honor of the 44th Daytime Emmy Awards, the Archive salutes the stars and creators of some of the most popular and enduring soap operas of all time with our latest Google Cultural Institute exhibit. Hear stories from Susan Lucci, Anthony Geary, Genie Francis, Agnes Nixon, and more!

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Television Academy Foundation & Emerson College Announce New Partnership

April 27th, 2017
Emerson LogoTVAFoundationLogo

Emerson College and the Television Academy Foundation Partner to Bring Emerson’s American Comedy Archives Online with the Foundation’s Comprehensive Interview Collection

—Interviews with Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls) and Kevin Bright (Friends, In Living Color) help kick off this initiative to digitize interviews with comedy greats—

BOSTON, MA (April 27, 2017)—Emerson College and the Television Academy Foundation today announced a partnership that will make Emerson’s American Comedy Archives available to audiences worldwide through the Foundation’s renowned online oral history archive, “The Interviews: An Oral History Project of the Television Academy Foundation,” a collection of more than 850 comprehensive conversations with television innovators and legends. The Television Academy Foundation and Emerson’s Center for Comedic Arts will also produce new interviews, which will provide unique content and enhance existing conversations.  

Emerson’s interviews with Emmy®   Award winner Betty White (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Golden Girls), late actor Pat Harrington, Jr. (One Day at a Time, The Steve Allen Show), and programming executive and Emerson alumnus and Trustee Doug Herzog (MTV, Comedy Central, Viacom) have been digitized by the Foundation and are available now at http://emmytvlegends.org/AmericanComedyArchivesatEmersonCollege. Additionally, the first of the newly co-produced interview collection features Emmy Award-winning producer Kevin Bright (Friends, In Living Color), an Emerson alumnus, Trustee, and the founding director of Emerson’s Los Angeles campus.

The American Comedy Archives was established at Emerson College in 2005, with support from the late Emerson Trustee Emeritus, alumnus, and arts philanthropist Ted Cutler. The project was spearheaded by Emerson alumnus and comedian Bill Dana, who conducted many of the interviews for the collection. According to Dana, head writer for The Steve Allen Show and several other comedy classics, the creation of the American Comedy Archives was a labor of love.

“When we sat down to conduct interviews for the archives, people were incredibly generous with their time. They weren't there to promote a particular project; they were there to share more about themselves, what drew them to comedy, and their path to working in the industry," said Dana. “We achieved what we had hoped for and more in creating the comedy archives at Emerson and that is providing rich, in-depth interviews with comedy legends from the stage and screen who all had something important to say about their craft.” 

 “We are thrilled to partner with Emerson on expanding our world-renowned, award-winning collection of ‘The Interviews’ for students, researchers, journalists and television fans to enjoy and share,” said Madeline Di Nonno, chair of the Television Academy Foundation. “The stories shared in these fascinating conversations add tremendous insights and candor, spotlighting our rich and vast television history.”

 “Emerson has a long and celebrated history in comedic arts, including many alumni who have contributed to all aspects of the genre. We are delighted to partner with the Television Academy Foundation to create an online platform that honors comedic arts and a multitude of talented comedy performers, writers, producers, and directors,” said Emerson College President Lee Pelton. “Comedy holds up a mirror on society and in today’s digital media landscape, it is more prevalent than ever in our daily lives. These newly digitized interviews will benefit our students, particularly those who are pursuing careers in comedy, and will serve as a vital resource beyond our campus community.”

Other compelling interviews in the American Comedy Archives collection to be digitized as part of the new partnership between Emerson and the Television Academy Foundation include Bob Newhart (The Bob Newhart Show); Dick Gregory (comedian), Emerson alumnus Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude); and Barbara Feldon (Get Smart). A complete list of interviewees and transcripts are online.

About Emerson College

Based in Boston, Massachusetts, opposite the historic Boston Common and in the heart of the city’s Theatre District, Emerson College educates individuals who will solve problems and change the world through engaged leadership in the liberal arts, communication, and the arts. The College has approximately 3,500 undergraduates and 670 graduate students from across the United States and 50 countries. Supported by state-of-the-art facilities and a renowned faculty, students participate in more than 90 student organizations and performance groups. Emerson is known for its experiential learning programs at Emerson Los Angeles, located in Hollywood, and at its beautifully restored 14th-century castle in the Netherlands. Additionally, there are opportunities to study in Washington, DC, London, China, the Czech Republic, Spain, Austria, Greece, France, Ireland, Mexico, Cuba, England, and South Africa. The College has an active network of 37,000 alumni. For more information, visit emerson.edu.

About the Television Academy Foundation

Established in 1959 as the charitable arm of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy of television while educating and inspiring those who will shape its future. Through renowned educational outreach programs such as the College Television Awards, Student Internship Program, and Faculty Seminar, the Foundation seeks to widen the circle of voices our industry represents and to create more opportunity for television to reflect all of society. Founded in 1997, the Foundation’s Archive of American Television has grown into The Interviews: An Oral History of Television. Comprised of more than 850 oral history interviews (over 4000 hours) with the legends of television, the collection chronicles the birth and growth of American TV History as it evolves. New interviews are produced every year, covering a variety of professions, genres, and topics in electronic media history. For more information on the foundation, please visit TelevisionAcademy.com/Foundation. 

# # #

Media Contacts:

Carole McFall, carole_mcfall@emerson.edu, 617-824-8415

Michelle Gaseau, michelle_gaseau@emerson.edu, 617-824-3547

Stephanie Goodell (breakwhitelight for the Television Academy), stephanie@breakwhitelight.com, 818-462-1150

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