“Fernwood Tonight” [sic], the summer replacement for “Mary Hartman,” is designed to find out…
How offensive can TV get?
Guest Bobbi Tremain with host Martin Mull (center) and co-host Fred Willard.
A sweetly pious Roman Catholic priest stands on one side of talk-show host Barth Gimble. The priest’s parents stand on the other side. They want him deprogrammed, they say. “I want to rid him of this mumbo jumbo,” the priest’s sobbing mother tells Gimble. “He’s always kneeling all the time and mumbling. He’s 35 and never been married. He doesn’t even have a job. And he’s always leading cockamamie parades down the church aisle. We certainly didn’t raise him for this.” What’s more, she points out, she’s sick and tired of seeing him in black all the time.
Sacrilegious? Tasteless? Outrageous? You bet. The satirical, deliberately weirdo “talk show,” “Fernwood Tonight,” is the summer replacement for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” The series, Norman Lear’s version of every dippy talk show ever broadcast, is running in the usual “MH2" time slot this summer. If everybody loves it, the program may return in January. (“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” itself has been translated into “Fernwood USA,” which begins in September. Thus, the original series has metastasized into two – both without Louise Lasser, who has other floors to wax.)
“Fernwood Tonight” has been cheerfully designed to infuriate practically anyone who can turn on a TV. Its full-blooded premise is bad taste, sick humor, and All Those Things You Don’t Do On Television. Or didn’t used to do. “We will offend the sensitivities of a number of Americans, for which we apologize out front,” says Alan Thicke, a jolly Canadian, comedy-writer sort, acting as chief scripter and producer. “But we’re not being discriminating in our satire. We’re offending everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or income level.
Host Barth Gimble (really actor Martin Mull) introduces a piano-playing gentlemen in an iron lung. “He was so wonderful last night,” Gimble gushed, “we asked him back for tonight.” The iron lung man plays a Mozart sonata while a 5-year-old Shirley Temple look-alike tap dances alongside.
What about the consumer advocate who says things like: “See this egg-shell? Bet you thought it was just for painting with fag colors at Easter time. Well, you’re wrong…”
The Vietnamese author who comes on to tout his new book, Yankee Doodle Gook. (“That one did annoy one of our executives who was in Vietnam,” says the show’s creative supervisor, Al Burton, rather gleefully.)
Burton hopes to have enough of this material eventually to fill 65 half-hour shows; “Fernwood Tonight,” like it predecessor, will be broadcast five nights a week. The “Fernwood Tonight” gang is already thinking of introducing power tennis for the blind, hearing-ear dogs for the deaf, and a bury-your-beloved-at-home kit for those who can’t afford cemetery plots (“Save money and have your loved ones close to you. Get the kids together on Saturday afternoon to dig”).
Could there be any ideas that might not make this show? Very few. The “Fernwood Tonight” funnybone humorists feel that there’s no subject under the sun that can’t be ridiculed, whether it’s a killer disease, a handicap, or a hijacking. All human beings should be able to laugh at themselves even in the midst of agony. That’s the basic feeling in th producers’/writers’ hutch.
“We are going to the files all comedy writers have labeled ‘not for TV,’ ‘bad taste,’ ‘TV not ready for it,’ ‘too bizarre,’ ‘too satirical,’” Thicke admits. But he amicably agrees there is, indeed, a line between good and bad taste. He took out a reference to Freddie Prinze in one monologue, for example. “I don’t find anything having to do with his death funny,” Thicke says. Another excised skit involved two brothers having an argument about whether to pull the plug on their expiring mother – whose encephalogram resembles that of an eggplant. One brother opts for “keeping alive our vibrant mom who washed and ironed so well.” The other says nope, he doesn’t like vegetables. Gimble steps between them: “Now is it mom or the money you want?” he inquires. That, Thicke says, was just too strong.
Creative supervisor Burton, a “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” veteran, says he and Lear had the idea for a talk-show featuring Fernwood citizens about a year after the parent show came on. “Mary Hartman” – or, he implies, Louise Lasser – just couldn’t continue at the hectic pace they’d set. “Louise is obsessive, dedicated, compulsive, and a wonderful actress,” he said, “and this does lead to tensions and stresses when taping a series. Every quality that made the show sensational made it difficult, too. Sometimes it was just a case of everybody not being on the same wave length at the same time.” So before “Mary Hartman” was cancelled, work had begun on the talk-show series for a summer replacement.
Both Burton and Lear knew they wanted Mull to play “Fernwood Tonight’s” host. He had appeared in “Mary Hartman” as Garth Gimble, wife beater, who finally impaled himself on an aluminum Christmas tree in a closet. Fred Willard was chosen as the co-host, Jerry; Frank DeVol became Happy Kyne, the bandleader, and Bob Williams has the part of Garth Gimble Sr., Barth’s dad.
Burton seized on Thicke, who’d recently done the Richard Pryor special, the Barry Manilow and other specials, and slapped together the rest of the talent that goes into the hurry-up production of a new television series. Production, as a matter of fact, is so brisk that the writers (four, plus Thicke) don’t write the show, they talk it into cassettes during round-the-clock bull sessions; they don’t see the script again until it’s flung to hungry actors around 11 A.M. on the day of the taping. Rewrites continue up to and past the on-camera countdown – lending the show an improvisational quality its participants hope will endure. “The only thing bad for us,” says one, “would be if we became predictable.”
The often frenetic scrabbling to doctor scripts was obvious enough recently at one of the twice-daily tapings. A mixed-bag audience composed of elderly ladies sporting gentian-violet hair, braless teenagers, older gentlemen in golfing sweaters, laughed and applauded when asked to do so by Thicke, in the role of warmer-upper, but lapsed into lethargy when left to their own devices. For many, boredom swelled as they sat through take after take. Others loved every bit, giggling each time at the same line, no matter how many repetitions were required.
Mull, though without an acting lesson to his name, didn’t blow his lines. He started out as an artist (he has a master’s degree in painting), but when his paintings didn’t sell, he became a guitarist smooth enough to perform in clubs, big-city and little. “I wrote my own music,” he says, “songs about things I was interested in – midgets, people with missing fingers, families who live over their own gas stations. But when I’d sing these songs, the audience would look at me like porchlights were dim.” So he started talking to them instead.
Mull was performing at the Roxy Night Club in Los Angeles – one of the Nation’s major pop-rock showcases – when Burton saw him and invited him to audition for “Mary Hartman.” “I’ve loved that series ever since I saw Grandpa Larkin looking for his peanut butter in the dryer,” Mull says. But when he got the part of Garth, “the terror started. I knew I was in over my head. The first day on that air-conditioned set, I sweated right through a three-piece wool suit. They had to prop my hair with hair spray; it kept falling down.”
An intelligent chap in private, Mull has nicely captured, for the camera, the glittering-eyed fatuity of the average talk-show host. “I base it on a composite of a lot of people,” he says. “Gimble is a guy with a lot of gaping holes in his knowledge. But he doesn’t want people to know that, so he glosses them over – like an amateur carpenter using plastic wood.”
Actually, what does it matter what holes you might have in your education – or in your head – with guests like the ones who appear on “Fernwood Tonight,” such as the doctor who’s discovered that laboratory rats wearing leisure suits get cancer? “The control group,” said the doctor, “wore sports jackets. We find that rats in sports jackets relate better to their peers and have more successful sex lives.”
At last, the mouse that scored.