A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.