Ken Tucker's TV Prime-Time TV commentary

Tag: In Memorium (31-40 of 40)

'Monk' finale: Did it end the way you hoped it would?

Monk closed out its eight-season run last night, making the long-awaited solution to Adrian Monk’s greatest mystery — who killed his wife? — the centerpiece of the finale.

But you could have watched Monk for years without ever thinking much about poor dead Trudy (Melora Hardin). This was a series that put its OCD-eccentric detective first. If Tony Shalhoub’s Monk came out of a TV tradition of bumbling brilliant men such as Peter Falk’s Columbo, he started a trend for cable-TV “character” crime-solvers that continued into the present day on everything from The Closer to Psych. READ FULL STORY

Chuckles the Clown weeps: David Lloyd, the great TV comedy writer, has died

David Lloyd, the extraordinarily prolific, witty sitcom writer, died on Tuesday, Nov. 10. He was 75; the cause of death was prostate cancer.

A Yale graduate who started his career writing jokes for The Jack Paar Show, Lloyd went on to write for a number of exceptional sitcoms, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Cheers, Taxi, and Frasier.

Lloyd was perhaps best-known for writing what is probably the most famous episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” for which he won an Emmy in 1976. The episode captured Lloyd’s comic sensibility: a nuanced understanding of the complex emotions that go into provoking a laugh:

There is a remarkable tribute to Lloyd on comedy writer Ken Levine’s blog. Levine describes better than probably anyone else will the diverse gifts Lloyd possessed.

Lloyd’s son Christopher is the creator of ABC’s new hit sitcom Modern Family. His son Stephen is a producer for How I Met Your Mother.

In many ways, David Lloyd helped to create what we call the “workplace family” comedy, in which people who labor long hours together bond and quarrel and joke and cry, as a “real” family might. Lloyd knew how to join people together — as characters, and as a vast audience for those characters.

Carl Ballantine, an 'amazing' comedy magician and 'McHale's Navy' co-star, has died

Carl Ballantine, a wonderfully clever magician and comic actor, has died at age 92.

Ballantine was known to 1960s sitcom-watchers as Lester Gruber on McHale’s Navy, which starred Ernest Borgnine.

But well before that, Ballantine made his reputation as a unique magician in nightclubs and on TV talk shows. He was one of the first magicians to poke fun of the idea of magic, and jokingly give away some of the secrets of magic tricks as he performed them. He kept up a steady stream of funny, self-deprecating patter as he did so. Check out this clip (pardon the poor quality):

“Aw, this takes a lot out of an artist. Of course, it doesn’t bother me too much.” Great stuff.

Ballantine had a big influence on Steve Martin, who also began his career as a comic magician. Martin told The Los Angeles Times, “Carl Ballantine influenced not only myself but a generation of magicians and comedians. His was also the most copied act by a host of amateurs and professionals.”

Ballantine was an original — swift, smart-alecky, never giving exactly the same performance twice. He cultivated the public image of a hustler-trickster eager to please. In fact, he was an intelligent, thoughtful man. He’ll be missed.

'Jon & Kate Plus 8': 'Nana Janet' has died: Who she was, and why viewers and the kids loved her

Before the tabloids and the scandals, Jon & Kate Plus Eight was a terrific family show that frequently included glimpses of the Gosselins’ support system of friends. One of the key members of that group, Janet Weidenheimer, has been reported dead at age 72.

As Kate says in the clip below, “Nana Janet” was a friend of the family, what Kate called a “pseudo-grandparent.” She loved the Gosselin children and took part in lots of family activities, such as this birthday party from the show’s second season:

Described later in this episode as “crazy and loud and fun,” Weidenheimer took the time to get to know the Gosselin children individually and was a big help to Kate as a baby-sitter.

As the series progressed, one of its odd, unexplained elements was that friends such as Nana Janet disappeared from Jon & Kate Plus Eight. It was as though Jon and Kate were isolating themselves as their notoriety increased. For whatever reason, Nana Janet faded from the series. Her memory won’t fade for longtime fans of the show. She always seemed like the nicest woman.

Who was Soupy Sales, and why we'll miss him

Soupy Sales died at age 83 yesterday. He hosted an afternoon kiddie show that reached its height of popularity in the mid-1960s. He was totally unlike other kids-show hosts of that, or any other, era. He wasn’t soft-spoken, like Mr. Rogers; he wasn’t grandfatherly, like Captain Kangaroo; he didn’t want to teach you anything, like Mr. Wizard.

What Soupy was was a unique combination of silly and hip. He mixed slapstick with self-conscious irony. He was forever getting a pie thrown in his face. He talked to puppets, especially two — White Fang and Black Tooth — that were really little more than offstage voices, with arms that entered the camera frame. He played jazz on his show and snapped his fingers like a nightclub performer. Cool cats and kitties of the era, like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine, dropped by to visit and take a pie in the face, because Soupy was, for a little while, himself very cool.

He had a Top 10 hit at the height of Beatlemania with “Do The Mouse.” His musical sons, Hunt and Tony, played with David Bowie in the band Tin Machine, and backed Iggy Pop on Lust For Life, among much other excellent L.A. session-work.

The Soupy Sales Show’s set decor said “clubhouse,” but the off-camera guffaws — when Soupy made the crew laugh with constant his ad libs — introduced a generation to the idea that there were real people behind the TV cameras, that this was a show, not a fantasy-world. Well before The Larry Sanders Show, Soupy was busy breaking the fourth-wall surrounding the creation of TV.

To his eternal and ambivalent fame, he was once suspended from the show for a New Year’s Day 1965 joke: he asked kids to go into their parents’ bedrooms and take the “little green pieces of paper” they found — i.e., money — and send them in to him.

I interviewed him for EW years ago, by phone. As the conversatiomn began to fade, Sales thanked me for not asking him about the “little green pieces of paper” controversy. “Everybody thinks they have to bring that up — why?” he asked me, irritation in his voice.

“Because their editors tell them to, thinking they’ll get a bit more controversy out of it,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” he said, sighing. “Maybe. Or maybe some people just like to make happy people unhappy.”

I hope Soupy Sales has found some happiness now.

Larry Gelbart: Appreciating a great comic writer

Larry Gelbart, who died on Friday at age 81, was a master comedy writer whose career spanned generations of humor. Starting out as a joke writer for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas, he was also part of the golden age of television, writing for the great sketch comic Sid Caesar, and ushered in the modern era of the sitcom with his adaptation of M*A*S*H for television. His work in the theater (A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum) and in film (Tootsie) will be duly noted, but it was in television that he made his greatest impact.

Gelbart thought funny — his casual conversation emerged with wordplay and puns. This brief clip from an interview gives you some idea of his sharpness and bracing lack of sentimentality:

Gelbart was also a stubborn cuss who fought for his material. In the recent, first-rate book And Here’s The Kicker, Mike Sacks’ excellent collection of interviews with comedy greats, Gelbart talked about how he battled with CBS to excise the laugh-track from M*A*S*H because he felt it marred both the humor and the mood he was trying to create. “We did not mean for people to be cackling throughout the show,” he said. “It becomes so much more cynical and heartbreaking without all that cheap, mechanical laughter.”

He concluded: “Some people in Hollywood treat me like I’m a monument… But I’d much rather have less of that type of respect and more of the other kind: the kind where they leave your work alone.”

Gelbart’s work will stand alone, incomparable, for a very long time.

Farrah Fawcett: an angel in a red bathing-suit

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She had the nicest giggle and the most chaste jiggle of any of our modern sex symbols. Nowadays, in an era of enhanced body parts and minimized personalities, Farrah Fawcett, who has died at age 62, seems vivid all over again. We can always remember her as the Texas-born charmer she was when millions of people discovered her via Charlie’s Angels and her red-bathing-suit wall poster, the one with her tousled “Farrah cut” and the peek-a-boo nipple that inspired a nation.

Farrah rarely played the dumb-blonde cliche. Her Angel character, Jill, was naive, yes, and Farrah in her first blush of fame laughed a lot on talk shows, seeming perennially, happily suprised that people wanted to gawp at and get flustered over her. For a while, as Mrs. Farrah Fawcett-Majors, she was a pop-culture queen, wedded to the Six Million Dollar Man-king.

But she always had an independent streak, a willfulness — she was a colt who’d bolt: from her hit TV show after only one season; from her marriage after nine years. If she proved her acting chops in a TV-movie about an abused woman (1984’s The Burning Bed, for which she was nominated for an Emmy), she was just as effective as a luminous presence in the even-better TV-movie Murder In Texas (1981), playing Robert Duvall’s wife in the excellent The Apostle (1998) and in a small but vibrant role in the underrated Robert Altman film Dr. T & the Women (2000). She was also damn funny and beguiling in the short-lived 1991 CBS sitcom everyone seems to forget, Good Sports, co-starring her long-time love, Ryan O’Neal:

In later years, Farrah’s aging sex-symbol status hit a few rough patches. There was the I’m-an-artiste phase, during which she stripped nude for a 1997 Playboy, slathered herself in bright-colored hues, and made “erotic” body paintings. There was the weird, slurry, worrying David Letterman appearance the same year. In our current culture, she was thereafter pegged as a train-wreck, a has-been, a joke. She does not deserve any kneejerk derisiveness. Our hearts went out to her during her recent Farrah’s Story documentary about her own final days, told on her own terms.

But Farrah deserves to be remembered in her glowing prime, as the warm, smiling woman who combined girl-next-door sexiness with an implied can-do feminism, radiating positive energy and resourcefulness. Ultimately, Farrah Fawcett defied easy categorizing, which made her all the more interesting as a personality, and as a brave, vibrant person.

Ed McMahon has died: Sidekick, yes-man, his own man, and the best at what he did

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What does it mean to be most famous for being the sidekick, the helper, the yes-man, the TV version of an assistant, to a television legend? Ed McMahon, who has died at age 86, lived out that quandary for more than three decades starting in 1962 as the announcer for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He anchored down the guest-couch with his impressive bulk and even bulkier laugh. It was Ed’s job to make every off-the-cuff yuk Johnny uttered seem like a perfect joke (“Yes!”), and in so doing, get the audience — in the studio, at home — to laugh along, too. Ed McMahon, you might say, was the human equivalent of a laugh track.

If all of this sounds belittling to McMahon, it’s because it leaves out all the important qualities about him. McMahon was really good at his job. He had a great announcer’s voice, resonant and jolly simultaneously. He had a truly natural laugh, even when he must have been straining for the naturalness. And despite the fact that McMahon was frequently parodied as the ultimate suck-up — most artfully by Jeffrey Tambor as sidekick Hank Kingsley on Gary Shandling’s Larry Sanders Show — McMahon, if you watch any of those old Tonight Shows on DVD, rarely sucked up at all. He conversed with Johnny about the day’s events; he sometimes needled, even irritated, his boss. He had his dignity.

He also had Star Search on the side (1983-95), hosting a sort of cross between American Idol and The Gong Show. And some might say his post-Johnny jobs removed some of that dignity. He became a walking punchline, for example, as the spokesman for the big-check giveaways for American Family Publishing.

He shilled life insurance in numerous commercials. But he always did it with an irrepressible friendliness; there wasn’t anything phony or overlaid with guile in what Ed McMahon did.

He knew his place in the show-biz hierarchy and made it look like the best job in the world. And maybe, for him, it was.

More on Ed McMahon: Ed McMahon’s Wild Ride

Lee Solters, an extraordinary press agent for everyone from Sinatra to the Beatles, has died

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If the name Lee Solters doesn’t mean much to you, well, he was one of the behind-the-scenes guys who contributed to decades of your pleasure. The press agent, who it’s reported today died on Monday at age 89, was an articulate, elegantly-attired bulldog, a man who knew how to drum up publicity for his clients.

Solters represented Frank Sinatra for 26 years. His clients included everyone from Cary Grant to Michael Jackson to the Muppets. He repped the Beatles during their 1964 American tour. There’s a very good biography to be written about Lee Solters, as colorful a man as anyone he represented.

Finally, a personal anecdote about why Lee Solters was cool. When I worked for a newspaper in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, I was banned by a local theater because I’d written what they considered “too many negative reviews” of acts they booked. (Hey, occupational hazard.) When Frank Sinatra came to town one weekend for a series of shows, Solters remembered a piece I’d written a year before about how great Sinatra’s music is. He called and asked why I wasn’t on the press list to review the show. I explained. A day later, I got a messengered envelope from Solters. His note said, “Thought you’d appreciate this.” Also included was a letter sent to the theater that had banned me, signed by Sinatra that read, “Mr. Sinatra personally requests the presence of Mr. Tucker at his opening-night performance.”

Bingo: the ban was lifted. Thanks, Lee.

Dom DeLuise: Rest in peace, roly-poly bringer of joy

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Dom DeLuise was a roly-poly delivery-system for joy. Whether he was clowning with Dean Martin on TV or making his buddy Burt Reynolds crack up in films like Cannonball Run, DeLuise’s effusive happiness was infectious. He radiated funniness through his popping eyes and his rapid-fire way of talking.

DeLuise was an old-fashioned stand-up comic and actor who got his laughs from the way he delivered a line as much as from the joke itself. Sometimes he played up an Italian accent; sometimes he just jabbered with great artistry: his nonsense made great comic sense.

DeLuise appeared in Mel Brooks films such as Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, and The Twelve Chairs. He was in a bunch of Burt Reynolds movies. This is the work he’ll probably be remembered for, because it’s what is most accessible. But he first came to prominence in nightclubs and then TV, where he was throughout the 1960s and ’70s a superb talk-show and game-show guest, really quick with improvised lines. Just watch this clip of Dom with Johnny Carson:

DeLuise had a sweetness that was tinged with naughtiness. He was the very embodiment of loveable, which is something you can’t say about many comedians.

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