By Anthony Strand
Right On Schedule is a series looking at a network’s primetime schedule for one night during one TV season. It aims to examine the shows in relation to one another, TV as a whole, and sometimes even the culture as a whole.
CBS Sundays (1960-1961)
7:30 Dennis the Menace
8:30 The Ed Sullivan Show
9:00 General Electric Theater
9:30 The Jack Benny Program
10:00 Candid Camera
10: 30 What’s My Line?
I mentioned last time that the ABC Sunday shows of 1960-1961 were mostly about celebrating the past or far-off cultures. CBS took the opposite approach, presenting an entire night of shows rooted in the culture of the time. In fact, many of them helped define pop culture for decades. By “pop culture,” I mean a very specific strain – mainstream, middle-of-the-road family viewing. It’s not the hippest strategy, but with these shows, it worked incredibly well. Five of these seven programs ran for 19 years or more (!), and the other two also had lasting impacts.
The shortest-lived entry is Dennis the Menace, a sitcom based on the comic panel that’s been plugging along for 62 years. The TV version aired for four seasons, which is about the longest run it could have had. For one thing, the series lost its Mr. Wilson when actor Joseph Kearns died in the middle of the third season. Also, Star Jay North was twelve by the time it ended, and a teenage Dennis would fundamentally change the dynamic between him and Mr. Wilson (now Gale Gordon as the brother of Kearns’s character.)
But here in season two, that was all in the future. The focus was still squarely on Dennis trying his best to help Mr. Wilson, and then causing hilarious messes instead. This is the version that stuck in the public consciousness. The show was a staple in syndication for years, and Matt Groening has cited Dennis’s lack of real menace as an inspiration for the genuinely-mischievous Bart Simpson. Jay North even guest-starred as himself on an episode of The Simpsons, where he lampooned TV Dennis’s nice-guy image.
General Electric Theater, one of the many classy anthology dramas of the 1950s, ran for ten seasons. This year – the ninth – featured performances by Edward G. Robinson, Jeanne Crain, Mickey Rooney, Ida Lupino (who also directed for the show), Ryan O’Neal, Gene Tierney, and other actors whose names classic movie fans will recognize. Most interestingly, it presented Budd Schulberg’s “Memory in White” with the remarkable cast of Charles Bronson, Joe Besser, and Sammy Davis Jr. I can hardly imagine those three sharing the same universe, let alone the stage.
But GE Theater‘s biggest cultural impact in the long run came about through its host, faded B-movie actor Ronald Reagan. He owned a stake in the show, and the profits made him enough money to fund any extracurricular activities he engaged in after its conclusion. In part, at least, the direction of those activities was influenced by GE’s reaction to some comments he made. In 1962, Reagan railed against the Tennesseee Valley Authority, criticizing it as excessive big business. The big business that sponsored his show had him fired, and he officially entered politics a few years later.
Of the shows that did run for decades, Lassie is something of an outlier. It’s the only one to offer a real narrative with continuing characters, although it went through several iterations in its nineteen seasons. For the first three seasons, the titular collie lived with a boy named Jeff and his parents. Then she spent seven years with her most famous owner, Timmy (Jon Provost). This season – the show’s 7th – was smack in the middle of the Timmy era. After Provost left the show, it ran for nine more years. Lassie spent time with a couple of different forest rangers, then she wandered around alone for a year before finally settling down on a ranch conveniently close to a young deaf girl (Pamelyn Ferdin) who could be Lassie’s pal. Through it all, however, the formula was mostly the same. The humans got into a sticky situation of some sort, and their faithful dog helped them solve it. The soothing predictability was a huge part of the appeal.
The Ed Sullivan Show, TV’s preeminent variety show, took the opposite approach. It drew viewers by promising to offer something new and exciting every few minutes. Sullivan was an awkward host, with a stiff manner and a knack for mispronouncing names, but he had a wonderful eye for talent. All kinds of acts appeared on the show – singers, bands, comedians, sketch performers, puppeteers, plate spinners, athletes. One randomly chosen episode from this season featured songs from both Carol Channing and Count Basie, comedy from the likes of Shelley Berman and Wayne & Shuster, and an aerialist act called Larible and Company, among others. That’s just one episode. Audiences could count on that level of variety every week for twenty-three years.
The Jack Benny Program was also a variety show, except when it wasn’t. By 1960, Benny had been headlining a series for 28 years (on radio from 1932-1955, and on TV starting in 1950), and it had never been tied to a single format. Benny played “himself” – an egotistical, tight-fisted, violin-playing comedian – as the host of a TV variety show. Sometimes the audience watched that show, but other times they saw a sitcom-style episode from Jack’s off-stage life. Many members of the regular cast – Jack’s wife Mary Livingstone, announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day – also played themselves, appearing in both formats. (Other cast members, including Eddie Anderson as Benny’s valet Rochester and Frank Nelson as the delightfully-named “Yeeesssssss? Man”, didn’t play themselves at all.)
Although 1960-1961 was Benny’s eleventh year on TV, it was the first time that the show aired weekly. The show had started out as a series of special during the 1950-1951 season, airing with increasing frequency until it became a biweekly series for the last few years of the decade. When it finally went weekly, it was a big deal. It was #10 in the Nielsen ratings for the year, the highest out of this entire lineup. Benny’s star has (understandably) faded in the years since his death in 1974, but in 1960, after decades in the public eye, he was as popular as he ever had been.
The final two shows of the night – Candid Camera and What’s My Line? – ran for decades because they have appealing, sustainable premises. On Candid Camera, creator/host Allen Funt pointed a hidden camera at regular citizens and captured their reactions to various bizarre setups. The show had an unbroken run (on all three networks, plus a period in syndication) from 1948-1967, and returned for sixteen additional seasons between 1974 and 2004. All of those editions stuck closely to the original premise, and they were all hosted by Funt and/or his son Peter.
On What’s My Line?, a celebrity panel tried to guess the occupation of a commoner (or, in the “mystery guest” rounds the identity of a fellow celebrity). The fun of the show came in the questions asked by the panel, which often grew increasingly ridiculous as the round wore on. The show did seventeen seasons on CBS from 1950-1967. When it was cancelled, it immediately ran for another eight in syndication. Like Candid Camera, it was a fun format that never wore itself out.
So if CBS’s lineup was full of pop culture landmarks, and ABC’s focused on the legends of the past, how could NBC possibly compete? Come back next month to find out.
Next: Our three-part look at Sundays during 1960-1961 concludes with NBC.
Previously on Right On Schedule: ABC Sundays (1960-1961)