News from the Archive

Remembering Joseph A. Wapner

February 27th, 2017
Joseph A. Wapner

We’re sad to learn that Judge Joseph A. Wapner passed away on Sunday, February 26, 2017 at the age of 97. Wapner attended USC Law School and is best known as the presiding judge on the landmark syndicated series The People's Court, a post he held for twelve years. He also served as a lawyer and a judge for the Los Angeles Municipal and Superior Court. After The People’s Court ended, Wapner also presided over another courtroom series, Animal Court, (for the Animal Planet cable network), and made other television appearances,(including a memorable case he judged between David Letterman and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson). 

Below are some excerpts from his 2005 Archive interview: 

On the origins of The People's Court:

On his proudest achievement:

On how he'd like to be remembered:

Watch Joseph A. Wapner's full Archive interview and read his obituary in The New York Times.

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Sammy Smooches Archie: All in the Family's "Sammy's Visit" Turns 45

February 19th, 2017
Sammy's Visit

It's been called "the kiss of infamy." Sure, there have been many great on-screen kisses over the years -- Scarlett and Rhett in Gone with the Wind, Milton and Karen in From Here to Eternity, Winnie and Kevin on The Wonder Years ... but the most unexpected and down-right hilarious kiss of all time, at least on the small-screen, has to be that between Sammy Davis Jr. and Archie Bunker on the "Sammy's Visit" episode of All in the Family.

The February 19, 1972 show featured Archie Bunker moonlighting as a cab driver who had Sammy Davis Jr. as a passenger in his cab one night. Davis left his briefcase in the car and Archie arranges for Davis to come to the Hauser Street house to retrieve the case. The two discuss how Archie's daughter and son-in-law think he's prejudiced, and the exchange ends with Davis wanting a picture with Archie. On the count of three, Davis kisses Archie on the cheek, garnering one of the biggest laughs and most memorable moments in TV history:

According to director John Rich, Davis' appearance on the show stems from Davis' guest spot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson - where Davis expressed an interest in coming on All in the Family. Writer Bill Dana pitched to All in the Family co-creator Norman Lear a plausible way for Davis to end up in Archie Bunker's house, but Lear was originally wary, not wanting a big-name entertainer to shift the emphasis of the show. Dana's premise was believable, though, and his script ultimately highlighted both Archie's bigotry and the show's clever sense of sarcasm:

Davis was worried about having to memorize the dialogue for his part and wanted to use cue cards, but Rich wanted Davis to act under the same conditions as the other cast members:

Thanks to all involved with the episode for bringing Sammy and Archie together for a truly genius Kodak moment. 

Read more about the famous episode, which placed 13th on TV Guide’s list of "The 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time," at our "Sammy's Visit" show page.

- by Adrienne Faillace

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Yeardley Smith: in her own voice

February 12th, 2017
Yeardley Smith

Born in Paris to a Harvard-educated ex-Marine who worked for the UPI and a Radcliffe grad who worked for the Smithsonian, Yeardley Smith’s background was a far cry from the family she would become an indelible part of, in The Simpsons. But there may be more similarities than differences between the young actress and the little girl who sets the moral compass for Springfield.

Her name was an early subject of schoolyard teasing: Yardvark, Yardweed, Yarddog, Yardstick (and her personal favorite- Barnyard). And like Lisa, she had those childhood social anxieties, but was still able to find her distinct voice. For Yeardley she honed that voice onstage, in the theater.

She explains finding this source of courage in her first play at age 12 (in a school production of “I Remember Mama”):“I remember being so nervous .. as soon as the curtain parted and the light hit me, I was completely calm and I thought, oh! This is good. This is a place where I think I can exist.”

She would later perform on Broadway to rave reviews in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”, directed by Mike Nichols, co-starring with Jeremy Irons, Glenn Close, and Christine Baranski. The role became hers when Cynthia Nixon had to abruptly leave the show, and Yeardley, then just a 20-year old understudy, got the part. Talk about timing. “It sort of comes down to survival of the fittest. And you don’t even necessarily have to be the most talented. You just have to be the one who didn’t die.”

On "The Real Thing" on Broadway:

Her acting career really took off after that in the mid-80s, appearing in the cult film The Legend of Billie Jean, followed by a plethroa of TV series-- Brothers, Mama’s Family, and many more theater roles. It was onstage in Los Angeles, in the play "Living on Salvation Street", that casting director Bonnie Pietila took notice, and brought her in to read for a series of animated shorts created by Matt Groening to appear as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. But lending her talents to a perpetually-8-year-old animated character was never something she had considered, even with that distinctive voice: “I wasn’t interested in voiceover. It was nowhere on the radar for my plan for world domination.” But she would wind up falling in love with her character, Lisa Simpson:

On playing "Lisa Simpson"

Yeardley has fiercley protected the character, even fighting for things Lisa would/wouldn't say. It was evident in the few hours we spent talking, that she truly loves this little girl: “You know, when “The Simpsons” is over and I don’t get to play Lisa Simpson 22 episodes a year anymore, that it will be like one of my very best friends in the world has moved away and she’s never coming back.”

On the legacy of The Simpsons, she says-- it’s simple: “Don’t let anybody tell you ‘no’. Because- from day one when everybody said- this is the stupidest idea the network has ever had - putting a cartoon on in primetime.. point to us doing what we do best, instead of trying to please everyone.”

On The Simpsons impact and cultural legacy:

See the full interview with Yeardley Smith here.

- by Jenni Matz


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Johnny vs. Joanie: A Tale of Two Talk Show Hosts

February 8th, 2017
Joan Rivers

The Invasion of Grenada, the Falklands War, the Soviet-Afghan conflict. These are some of the events that come to mind when one considers the wars of the ‘80s. You may also remember the hard fought cola wars, which pitted America’s favorite TV dad against its biggest pop superstar. That one ended ugly. But I will forever remember what had been the opening salvo and precursor to what would eventually become known as “The Late Night Wars”- fired across the bow of none other than Johnny Carson. The ultimate goal was to do something that no one had been able to do in the 24 years leading up to it, or, it can be argued, has been able to do in the 31 years since: dethrone Carson as the King of Late Night. It was also the story that sparked my interest in eventually wanting to know as much as I could about broadcasting history and the personalities who made it all happen.

I could not believe when I got home from school and heard the news that day. On Tuesday, May 6, 1986, Joan Rivers, who’d been Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host on The Tonight Show for several years running, and whom Carson had discovered in 1965, had announced she was starting her own late night talk show on the then-fledgling Fox Broadcasting Company. There was a problem. A very big problem for Joan, as it turned out. The news had leaked to Johnny Carson before Joan Rivers could speak to him about it. And when Joan Rivers attempted to call him, he hung up on her!

Hung up on her? How was this possible? People in show business didn’t fight. They were all one big happy family. Ask Sammy Davis, Jr.! Also, Joan had just appeared with Johnny a week earlier to promote her autobiography, “Enter Talking.” She wore the very same dress and hairstyle she’d donned in 1965, and they were great together. You could see the affection. You could always sense that Carson found Rivers hysterical, and was proud of his role in her career. She’d just been guest hosting for him four days before. And, after all, I didn’t remember Carson being upset with David Brenner, or any number of others, when they struck out on their own. Why was this one different? I never really bought the “lack of courtesy call” explanation.

I didn’t know who Joan Rivers was until I saw her host Saturday Night Live in 1983. I was a little kid at the time, but I was precocious when it came to television. There was something about her personality that completely captivated me. From then on, every time she guest-hosted The Tonight Show, I made to sure set my top loading VCR to start taping an hour early (I taped David Letterman nightly) to catch Joan Rivers. In those years, she was one of the great talk show hosts of all time. Her monologues were hysterical, and her interviews with celebrities like Boy George were often headline-making and usually memorable. Johnny still may have been the gold standard, but Joan Rivers actually was “Must See TV” ten years before it became NBC’s slogan.

The evening of Johnny-hanging-up-gate, Joan Rivers was scheduled to be a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. I’d been looking forward to it because I’d never seen her with Dave before. I tuned in to see Dave complaining that Joan had cancelled on them, which he did not understand because she was across the hall from studio 6A at 30 Rock doing NBC’s local newscast Live at Five. Late in the show, Joan Rivers did a quick walk-on, hugged Letterman, and exited. It would be 16 years before she appeared on David Letterman’s stage again. 28 before she would again appear on The Tonight Show.

The next day in school, it was all I could talk about. “Why would anyone want to discuss anything else?” I wondered. Eventually, my English teacher Mrs. Jailer disabused me of this notion. “John, I really just don’t care about any of this.” Well. Ok. BUT HOW COULD YOU NOT? In the months leading up to Rivers’ debut on FOX’s The Late Show, Johnny Carson never mentioned her name in public. Not once. But it seemed like the only thing Joan Rivers wanted to talk about, which I’m sure irritated Carson to no end. She would claim to have seen a “secret list” of possible Carson replacements in the event of his retirement, and her name was nowhere to be found. She would also point out at every opportunity that her ratings when she guest hosted were higher than Carson’s (actually only true if you averaged in Carson’s Monday night repeat.) Joan, it seemed, was completely devastated by his reaction. Johnny, given his lack of public comment, appeared to care less about the matter than even Mrs. Jailer.  

This was the first time I’d ever been interested in the goings on behind the scenes in television. It piqued my interest in the history of television and radio, and prompted me to devour books about Carson’s hero Jack Benny, and his Tonight Show predecessors Jack Paar and Steve Allen. I wound up minoring in broadcasting history at Emerson College, and still have somewhat more than a passing interest in the subject. I studied Bill Carter’s two books on late night television like The Torah. Though, I think he’d do well to write a prequel to cover the Rivers/Carson matter. It would be sort of like “The Hobbit” to “The Late Shift’s” “Lord of the Rings.”

That October, I watched the long anticipated Late Show with Joan Rivers debut, and… well opening night jitters. Give her another night. Ok, a week for things to settle in. But, alas, something happened. It just wasn’t the same. Joan wasn’t the same. Maybe she worked better in smaller doses. More likely, it seemed to me, was that she needed a Fred de Cordova. She was lacking a seasoned executive producer to guide her, and make the show flow better, and tell her when to tone it down. It’s no secret that Joan’s husband Edgar Rosenberg was not quite up to the task of producing a nightly talk show. He’d been a fine manager for Joan, but he was doing her no favors at Fox. Sagging ratings and ugly battles with Fox Chairman Barry Diller led to the show ending on May 15, 1987, a year and a week after the news of the show first broke.

To me, Joan Rivers was never again as great as she was as guest-host of The Tonight Show. I think she realized it on some level, as she never stopped talking about how Johnny Carson broke her heart. Late in her life, she taped herself talking to Johnny,” and just months before her death got to make a cameo on Jimmy Fallon’s first Tonight Show. She stuck around just long enough to see herself become a full-fledged legend.

In that 1986 season, Carson was victorious once again, and would remain so until he stepped down, and all hell broke loose. Once again I found myself enthralled by the drama - this time of David Letterman demanding to be let out of his NBC contract when The Tonight Show was given to Jay Leno in June of 1991. The Leno vs. Letterman drama played out for two years before it was announced that Dave was going to CBS and Jay was staying at NBC. And, of course, there was the Conan/Jay battle of 2010. Will Stephen Colbert switch time slots with James Corden over at CBS? Stay tuned. But I don’t think any of it matched the shock, the drama, or the pathos of Johnny v Joanie. There was a death (Edgar Rosenberg) and a reconciliation (Rivers and Barry Diller eventually made buckets of money for each other on QVC). It was all positively Shakespearean, and I remain hooked.

For more juicy stories of television’s greatest feuds, search our collection.

- by John Dalton

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Mom Always Liked You Best: "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" Turns 50!

February 5th, 2017
Dick and Tom Smothers

Tom and Dick. Tea with Goldie. Pete Seeger. These are just a few associations one makes at the mention of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some others: controversy, cancellation, law suit.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first premiered on CBS on February 5, 1967 with brothers Tom and Dick Smothers as hosts. The variety show lasted three seasons and seventy-two episodes and attracted a young, anti-establishment audience. The program featured hip, up and coming musicians like Seeger, who in 1967 famously performed "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"on the show. The song told the story of a Louisiana platoon on a practice patrol in 1942 and was a not-so-subtle satire of President Johnson's views on the Vietnam War. CBS executives found the song to be too political and Standards and Practices censored the performance from the broadcast. The Who, known for destroying their instruments at the end of a set, had a particularly explosive finish to their performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour - pyrotechnics overloaded by the band resulted in drummer Keith Moon getting hit by cymbal shrapnel and guitarist Pete Townshend's hair getting singed. The music on the program was not exactly standard Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk fare.

In addition to lively musical acts, the program consisted of a stand-up routine with the brothers (during which goofy Tommy would often utter his signature line, "Mom liked you best" to straight man Dick), and sketches that regularly tested the censors' boundaries. Leigh French played the recurring character "Goldie O'Keefe" whose "Share a Little Tea with Goldie" parodied a typical advice show for ladies. Standards and Practices was unaware that tea was slang for marijuana, so Goldie often got away with dialogue like "Hi(gh)--and glad of it!"

The young brothers' frequent anti-war and pro-Civil Rights guests, along with their overall counter-culture sensibilities, conflicted with those of CBS and the program was abruptly cancelled on April 4, 1969, after CBS President Bob Wood stated the Smothers Brothers had failed to submit the upcoming episode for review at the scheduled time. The brothers were fired and in turn, sued CBS.

We sat down with Tom and Dick Smothers in 2000 and they discussed the cancellation of the show:

CBS Executive Mike Dann brought The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to CBS, and believes the show's cancellation was a travesty:

Despite the cancellation, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour won the 1969 Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, thanks to staff writers like Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave"), and Pat Paulsen. Reiner recalled his time on the program fondly, stating that he learned much about the art of comedy from the brothers:

Though the program aired for only three seasons, it garnered a loyal following and many see it as the forerunner of current programs like The Daily Show and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The brothers entered the headlines again in 2011 when George Clooney's production company, Smokehouse Pictures, announced it will develop a movie about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in an adaptation of David Bianculli’s book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (Can't wait to see that!) A dedicated fan base, clear convictions to which they remain true, and a movie based on their TV show? Mom's got lots of reasons to be plenty proud of both her sons.

Visit our Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour show page for more about the program.

- by Adrienne Faillace

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