26 January 2017

The Bad, The Terrible and the Insulting: More Controversial TV Shows from the 60s and 70s that Didn't Make the Grade

In previous posts I’ve written about a couple of short lived sitcoms from days of yore. I was a cast member in one, Hey, it's Klaus! and I was on the periphery of the other, Jesus in High School. Both were far too controversial for network TV in the 60s and 70s and might not even cut muster today. But those are not the only TV shows that came in went in that era, rejected for being tasteless or tackling taboo subjects and sometimes committing the unpardonable sin of being just plain bad.

I actually watched a few of these shows during their abbreviated runs but barely remember them, as it was so long ago and I was likely stoned at the time. For purposes of this post I have culled information about the shows from contemporary sources such as newspapers and magazines, and also through interviews I conducted with some of the people associated with the production of the shows, all of whom requested anonymity.

Sadly, or thankfully, none of these shows are available on DVD or on streaming services and there are no clips of them on You Tube. I was able to use my contacts in the TV industry to watch entire episodes of each show in secret locations. There are no extant plans to release any of them. As you may infer after reading about them, this is likely for the better.

Howowitz’s Heroes. On the heels of the success of Hogan’s Heroes -- the CBS program about World War II Allied POWs running espionage operations under the noses of bumbling Nazis -- came this monumentally stupid idea. Horowitz's was similar to Hogan's Heroes, only in this case the saboteurs were working out of Auschwitz. Yes, a concentration camp. The premise was that Jewish prisoners from varying European countries were pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting guards by sneaking out from time to time and blowing up nearby bridges and railroad stations and passing on important messages to the allies. Their leader was Saul Horowitz, late of Prague. The "Heroes"  had to perform these feats while themselves avoiding the gas chambers and maintaining their cover by not gorging on food or bathing while away from camp. The sanitization of the death camp experience released a torrent of complaints from Jewish groups (especially survivors) and most anyone with any sensitivity. The Nazis were depicted as blithering idiots and the prisoners were shown to be lovable and intelligent wise guys, It is a miracle that an episode aired before ABC pulled the plug.

Hungry for More? This was another rip off of a successful franchise. As in Gilligan’s Island, a disparate group of cruisers ran into foul weather and make for a deserted tropical isle. The twist here was that the castaways neither brought nor were were able to find any food. Inevitably they resorted to cannibalism. Audiences were not ready for a comedy in which lovable characters feasted on human flesh, especially when it was one another’s. Of course there were practical problems with the show. There were seven featured characters and another seven co-stars. After just three episodes their total number was reduced by half. Unless another boat crashed onto the island’s shore the "food supply" was not going to last for a season’s worth of television. Hungry for More? was macabre while trying be funny. There were endless puns about food and human anatomy, such as "that remark was in pretty bad taste but I bet you don't taste bad" and "I have a bone to pick with you and it's Bob's." and "hey, Linda, what's eating at ya?"

Milltown Millionaires. As the title may suggest this show was an unabashed rip off of the popular Beverly Hillbillies. Producers wrongly believed that a program with the shoes on the other feet would have the same popularity as its inspiration. They were mistaken. While the premise of the Beverly Hillbillies (itself quite dubious) was that a backwoods family that struck it rich had been prodded into moving to Beverly Hills with other nouveau riche. The Milltown Millionaires were the opposite. Here we had an obscenely rich family in Malibu that was swindled out of their last dime. They were encouraged to take the Clampetts place in the Ozarks. What could be funnier, the shows’ creators asked, than former blue bloods used to lives of ease being forced to live hard scrabble existences among white trash? As it turns out, plenty. MM did get a few laughs but the overall tenor of the show was far too depressing. Here was a once happy family now living in virtual squalor and being ridiculed by their new neighbors. The millionaires were unlikable characters who'd had their comeuppance and they were living among people who cruelly and incessantly made fun of their plight. Milltown Millionaires somehow slogged through 13 full episodes before its inevitable death.

Veterans’ Hospital. This was an interesting marriage between the irreverent but highly popular CBS series M*A*S*H (set during and in the Korean War) and more traditional hospital dramas. VH was set during the Vietnam War (which in real life was just winding down) in an unnamed major city’s Veteran’s Hospital. The principal cast was comprised of a few anti-establishment, wise-cracking doctors, some stuffy, reactionary hospital administrators, one irascible by-the-book nurse and a two sexy fun loving nurses and an amalgamation of variously goofy, philosophical, or severely depressed patients. Ultimately the show was a confusing mess mixing the horrors of badly maimed soldiers trying to cope with their bleak futures with witty barbs and slapstick humor. The non stop squabbles between doctors and administrators and among nurses bogged down the plot. An early episode centered around two new arrivals at the hospital, one who had been blinded and the other was a paraplegic. There was no squeezing comedy out of such a situation, try as they might.  VH drew the ire of veterans, the military and the medical profession and was canceled after eight episodes.

Mount Pilot. Viewers of the Andy Griffith show may remember that Mayberry was the fictional town that served as the show's base. It was a bucolic setting where family values, church socials and fishing trips ruled the day. Most of the crime was the antics of the town drunk or occasional instances of moonshining. The neighboring community was Mount Pilot. Producer Normal Lear, known for bringing controversy, topical story lines and previously taboo subjects to network sitcoms, decided American was ready for a more realistic version of the American South. After all this was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, during which time much of the south was a roiling cauldron of violence and tension. Mount Pilot was his first foray into producing. Like Andy Griffith’s show, it featured a sheriff and his deputy. But unlike the wise and mild Andy and the bumbling, ineffectual yet lovable, Barney Fife, the two cops in Mount Pilot were more reminiscent of real life Southern lawmen ala Bull Connor and Jim Clark. Mount Pilot's police were forever meeting the challenges of sit-ins, freedom rides and marches. Mount Pilot failed miserably because of two huge flaws. One: the laughs were few and far between and weak at that. The other was that the show’s two protagonists were vicious racists. Three episodes aired, all greeted by howls of protests from both end of the Civil Rights debate, before the plug was mercifully pulled.

Oldsters Say the Darndest Things. "Kids Say the Darndest Things"was a TV segment hosted by Art Linkletter in which he interviewed schoolchildren between the ages of five and ten. Over a 27-year period, Linkletter interviewed an estimated 23,000 children. The success of the show stemmed partially from Linkletter's gentle touch and bemused looks and the fact that small children can in fact quite innocently and sometimes precociously say some pretty funny things. Well, reasoned some TV execs, if the young among us can unintentionally make us laugh then why not the old? The good news was that the elderly did indeed make Americans laugh. The bad news was that elderly did indeed make America laugh and it was wholly unintentional. The shows host was an acerbic comic named Buddy Rico whose act was more suited to sleazy lounges than network television. He was an odd, and is turned out, quite poor choice to interview senior citizens. All the guests were at least octogenarians and all were evidently selected for their senility. Rico smirked and made sarcastic jibes as the aging interviewees mumbled, fumbled and uttered non sequiturs often asking to be taken home. Oldsters managed to stay afloat for ten episodes before the axe fell. Rico's big break on network television was a flop and he was soon back in dimly lit night clubs opening for third rate crooners.

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