The Genius Of Old School Comedy

Car 54

So what does Wagstaff do over Christmas vacation?

Well, along with going through dozens of old movies & television shows of the horror/scifi variety for an upcoming class (yeah, yeah… blog entries forthcoming), I also grabbed some other DVDs from the vaults and wound up taking breaks from the ’60s spy shows & Vincent Price movies to watch the entire first season of Car 54, Where Are You? which I just discovered is available on disc. Season 2 came out this past year, and while the packaging isn’t great and the episodes aren’t in order, the video/audio quality is pristine and the shows are complete.

Car 54, along with Sgt. Bilko, comprise Nat Hiken’s amazing two-fer as a pair of entries in the funniest TV series EVAH contest.

And, of course, both shows are nearly impossible to find on the air, despite hundreds of cable channels & several channels devoted entirely to running old library material. But unfortunately, Antenna TV and TV Land do not run either of these two.

What struck me this time through, rewatching stuff I hadn’t seen since the late ’80s when Nick At Nite ran them, is how overtly Jewish Car 54 is – the line delivery, cadences of nearly every character, the comic confusion set-ups and payoffs… are all straight from the Yiddish theater/Eddie Cantor/borscht belt traditions. It’s not only Officer Schnauzer and his wife (Al Lewis & Charlotte Rae) whose entire schtick comes from self-deprecating Jew whining – that schtick permeates the entire show, and not only because of its Bronx neighborhood setting.

Much like Homer Simpson, Gunther Toody’s stupidity never gets old comically. Joe E. Ross began on Bilko as Sgt. Ritzik, forever the stooge for Phil Silvers’ con jobs, so the transition into playing the dumb-as-a-bag-0f-hammers cop alongside the smarter and nebbishly shy Muldoon (Fred Gwynne) was easy. Best friends in the show, the two actors couldn’t have been different off-screen – Gwynne, the Harvard grad Broadway stage actor & talented illustrator, Ross the vulgar nightclub comic who married 8 strippers from the parade of them through his dressing room, at least according to this immensely entertaining article.

It’s nice to see a sitcom devoted only to comedy – no messages, no lessons learned, no 1980s era moment of shit…. just characters who play off each other well, who don’t know they’re funny, and who wind up in situations where their mistakes & confusion lead to entertaining chaos playing off human imperfection. And above all, none of my current pet peeve against present-day comedy – none of the “too cool for the room” snark annoyingly ubiquitous in the comedy world. This was a different generation, and while a lot of the material is dated, most of it still works beautifully. Funny is funny.

Highly recommended, and if you’ve never seen it, it’s a must. Each season had 30 episodes – and to quote Colonel Potter, “not a bum in the lot.”

Now I think I’ll go back and watch some Bilkos as well!

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