Wednesday, August 25, 2021

‘Obsolete’? Not at all. Necessary TV rarities, now on a great YouTube channel

The "Husbands" host a 
telethon: Gazzara and 
Cassavetes standing,
Falk in wheelchair (left).
At this point it is truly impossible to keep up with what is posted on the various streaming video sites. Fans, historians, obsessives, collectors, and tech-experts are flooding the Net with terrific posts of obscure movies and old TV series and specials, to the extent that one can’t possibly watch it all, nor would one want to. (’Cause most of it ain’t all that great… shhhh…)

In the case of YouTube, there are thousands and thousands of channels devoted to “TV nostalgia.” Some of them are very hard to sift through — in many cases, because the poster isn’t making use of the Playlist function on YT, in which you can separate your postings by title, theme, or topic.

One of the most intense collections of rare TV is the “Obsolete Video” channel on YT, which goes beyond the mere posting of vintage commercials – which I do like, but c’mon, how many hours of that can really be watched? – with a series of episodes and specials that haven’t been seen since they first aired. The Obsolete channel doesn’t have Playlists of its material, but it's definitely worth hitting the “Page Down” several dozen times to move through its offerings.

The gent who runs it, Rick Thomas, has an introductory video for the channel, in which he explains that his main business is the conversion (and digitization) of video footage from any format, past or present; he also repairs old video machines of any type and is looking for additional rare programming. He notes that the Obsolete channel has thus far been made up of tapes recorded for private use off TV in the Chicago and Los Angeles areas – Rick himself lives and works in Arizona.

Rick’s postings have been gobbling up my time in the last few weeks, and I wanted to present a “Ten Best” list for this post, but as I started putting the list together I realized I was going to go beyond 10 (but hopefully not to 20). Thus, let’s review some highlights of the Obsolete Video channel on YT.

Since it’s nearly Labor Day, it’s fitting to start off with segments from the first and last hours of the 1974 MDA Telethon. A lot of the hour-long talk show and variety special vids that Rick has put up are actually two half-hour recordings, so around the :30 mark we often move from one episode of a given show to another. Here we move from beginning to end; click here to watch.

Since this clip can’t be embedded, it should be noted that it includes the “solo Jer” aspect of the Telethon — Jerry being sincere about the cause, introducing that year’s poster child, fawning over his guests, and accepting a big check by a corporate sponsor.

As for what can be embedded with Jerry at the helm, here is an off-kilter episode of The Tonight Show with him guest-hosting when Carson was on vacation. Many people guest-hosted Tonight, but the episodes that exist of Jerry hosting are unusual — he seemed calm in the early to mid-Sixties episodes, but was the living embodiment of flop sweat by the late Sixties.

Here is an example of that. And yes, the tape that is posted is “hot” and a mess to look at – but when this stuff initially aired, it was seen through the miasma of rabbit-eared antenna “ghosts” and other imperfections. In the part of Queens, N.Y., that I grew up in, cable TV didn’t exist until 1990, so I spent years of my life watching shows that looked like this (or worse!)

Jer’s opening song is a poor one — a standard that few folks revive — his opening joke falls flat, and the little we see of an interview with a psychiatrist-turned-politician is desperate. It is, therefore, absolutely fascinating to watch.


Another flop sweat host, but playing it that way for laughs, was Don Rickles. This video, which starts with Flip Wilson guest-hosting and Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows guesting, has segments from two Rickles-hosted shows. The first has Lee Marvin joining a panel of Don Adams and Muhammad Ali (!); Marvin did give good interviews, but here Rickles pounces on him, to the extent that you have Don doing humor about Lee not talking — until Lee finally talks and what he says is quite considered and intelligent.

The next Rickles-hosted segment comes as James Caan joins a panel with Bob Newhart and Karen Black (who is seen seducing Rickles on another Obsolete posting!). Black proceeds to kiss on the mouth both Caan and then Rickles, and Caan ends up telling Rickles “atrocity” stories, since he apparently used to regularly hang out with the two Dons (Adams and Rickles) before he was a star.

An even worse-looking but riveting-to-watch sample of a guest-hosted Tonight Show can be found in the middle of this video, which begins with segments from two other shows. The first has Carson hosting Tiny Tim (in his Vegas lounge-lizard phase) and Burt Reynolds hosting, with guests Kaye Ballard (who does her Vegas act) and redneck emeritus character actor Dub Taylor – who plays the xylophone!

At 20:15, a terrific example of a guest-hosted episode appears, this one a killer hosted by Sammy Davis Jr in August of 1974. Even though whoever recorded this left out Sammy’s two songs, we see: His opening banter with Ed; him interviewing the aforementioned Burt Reynolds (fresh from the set of At Long Last Love); him talking to Helen Reddy (whose first song is cut but her second song is included); him interviewing Richard Pryor at full steam (truly amazing); and then a final chat with Evel Knievel, who was at that time about to jump the Snake River Canyon.

Firstly of fascination, the network edits: While Reddy singing the word “screw” and Pryor saying the word “faggot” are both bleeped, Pryor’s album title That Nigger’s Crazy could indeed be said on the air on late-night NBC, circa ’74. Even in its edited-down version (with visuals so hazy they’re b&w), this is a great example of The Tonight Show at its best, but with a guest who was actually part of the superstar culture of the time. Johnny was the master of the laid-back chat with these people, but he was not a master performer in any format other than Tonight. (And the episodes with guest hosts have all been buried for the syndication package of the Carson Tonight — perhaps because one can see that other hosts were equally adept at running the show!) 

Yes indeed, Sammy does over-laugh at everything his guests say — but when Pryor is on fire, clearly trying to make Sammy laugh, it is sheer bliss. Richard is so busy ad-libbing he changes the end of his old routine about a preacher talking about eating a tuna-fish sandwich when God spoke to him, saying, “Hey... can I have a bite of that sandwich?” Changed here on what seems like a whim, since Richard is just gauging how much he can make Sammy lose it.


Still in a Tonight Show groove, here is the sketch comedy group The Ace Trucking Company doing a Halloween skit in costume. (Obsolete has a very good collection of horror-host material as well, by the way.) It’s not all that funny, but it’s a good set-piece that shows a younger group of comic actors taking over Tonight for a while. The ATC line-up included Fred Willard, George Memmoli, and Billy Saluga (of “Ooooh, you doesn’t has ta call me Johnson!” fame).

Like a bunch of posts on the Obsolete channel, this sketch has been posted more than once. Rick is so painstaking in his work that he has often posted “upgrades” of better transfers of the original tapes he’s restored. This is the best-looking version. (Still, for those of a certain age, remember what rabbit-ears TV used to look like!)


Before the Dean Martin Roasts took off (more on Dino below), there were several attempts to present roasts on network TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The Obsolete channel has two of these entries (which, of course, could pretend to be “racy” but were just super-clean in verbal content), which both seem to have aired on the ABC Wide World of Entertainment — the concept that ABC used to replace Dick Cavett. Cavett remained on board, but he switched off with Jack Paar (returning for his last shot at late night), various documentaries, comedy specials, and a concert slot for Friday nights (to compete with “The Midnight Special” on NBC).

The first roast of note here is “A Salute to Humble Howard” (1973) — Cosell, that is. The best presenters in this roast are Redd Foxx, Don Rickles (of course), and none other than Cosell’s “nemesis” Muhammad Ali. Slappy White comes off better than usual because he was put toward the end (after Rickles and Ali), so he gives up on the jokes written for him and starts throwing in ad-libs. Watch it here.

As a massive fan of Steve Allen, I was interested to see “A Comedy Salute to Steve Allen.” Here, all the jokes are indeed scripted, and it’s rather odd to see Steve on ABC (when all his successes were on NBC and CBS). Still, though, there are bits by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (singing Steve’s “theme song”) and the great Louis Nye (as Gordon Hathaway and himself). Steve himself has particularly brutal jokes at the end (a bit more brutal than he was in earlier eras and later on, when he became prudish). His mention of the stars of Fifties TVs having “survived” is fascinating.


Two of the rarest, most surprising videos on the Obsolete channel show are uncut tapings of The Dean Martin Show. Dean Martin fans, at least some of us, have a love-hate relationship with the show’s producer, Greg Garrison. On the one hand, Garrison made the show possible by striking a deal with Dean where he had to do as little preparation as possible and would only have to be in-studio one day a week.

On the other hand, Garrison was a notoriously schlocky producer who made extensive use of terrible laugh tracks and godawful editing, including many, many freeze frames. The Dean Martin Show had some of the slickness of other variety shows, but it also had a really tacky “packaging” that made its comedy sketches really sink (even as they began). The tacky editing was one of the central features of the later DM roasts, where guests who weren’t present were edited in, laughs were “sweetened” with exceptionally phony tracks, and reaction shots of celebs laughing were used repeatedly, even in the same segment.

Dino and Greg Garrison.
The two examples of the uncut record of the Dino show explains why this was — in essence, Garrison wanted to honor the commitment to Dean to get him quickly on and off the set on his one day in the studio, and thus was constantly directing sketches “in frame.” Meaning he would constantly be stepping into the frame to restart or clumsily finish off sketches by appearing in front of the performers right after the final line was spoken. (I mean, RIGHT after — Garrison nearly jumped into frame as the sketches ended.)

And while some of the show was done with a live studio audience, a good amount of it was done without, including standup monologues. In the first video below you’ll see Steve Landesberg doing his standup to an empty studio, where only the crew are laughing. (Thus, it’s even more remarkable that some of the standup worked on the show — the comics were so good they could deal with Garrison’s moronic cost-cutting measures.)

What comes through as one watches these weird little shards of entertainment into which Garrison bounds, looking like a stevedore rather than a producer, is that he did NOT intrude when Dean was singing solo. Those moments truly were the best moments in the show (and the reason Dino fans do have to be grateful to Garrison, for at least keeping the DM show on the air for so long), and were clearly the moments that Dean rehearsed — Garrison’s mythology was that Dean “listened to tapes in his car” of the material, but it’s been made clear (even from other interviews with Garrison himself) that Dean did rehearse and block the musical numbers. Thus, seeing Garrison keeping a respectful distance as the solo songs fade out is very welcome.

The best part about seeing Dean’s blasĂ© response to the show being built around him is hearing him refer to himself in the third person as “the Italian.” As in, “Where does the Italian go now?”


A second “raw” tape of the Dino show being assembled. Notable here? Frank Sinatra Jr. doing a cover of America’s “Horse with No Name” and one of those full-ensemble musical medleys of songs from old musicals, this time based around Pal Joey with Sinatra.


Another wild artifact of the Sixties-into-Seventies: the pilot for The Kopykats, a variety show featuring a group of impressionists, on The Kraft Music Hall in Nov. 1970. This show varies from the later Kopykats series, in that it features Edie Adams as the one female impressionist (Marilyn Michaels played that role in the later series) and one of the first standup impressionists (Will Jordan) and a then-very successful nightclub act (David Frye) are in the ensemble. (They were replaced in the series by Joe Baker and Fred Travalena; Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, and George Kirby were in both pilot and series.) 

The comedy (supervised by Danny Simon) is quite lame, but the fascination here are the impressions themselves, ranging from the perfected ones done by their innovators to ones that seem quite labored. The wonderful Edie gets her own solo spot, and Frye seems to get the most to do in the special — most likely because he was doing very topical political comedy at the time the special aired.


The joy of watching old talk show segments on YouTube comes mostly from realizing that, while late-night talk shows are absolute garbage these days, there were indeed some genuinely smart, fascinating, adult talk programs on the air besides the obvious ones (Cavett, Allen and Paar on Tonight, David Susskind). Tom Snyder may have often seemed like a rambling, discursive interviewer (best parodied by Dan Aykroyd on SNL), but when he was in peak form (as with Sterling Hayden), the Tomorrow show hosted some terrific talk.

The Obsolete channel has a number of Tomorrow segments, but the hour that immediately grabs attention is a two-parter (not sure if it’s even the same program): one half with Marlon Brando and Russell Means of the American Indian Movement; one half with Arthur Marx to discuss his dual biography of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime (Especially Himself)

The Brando/Means segment is a very serious discussion of Native American rights, with Snyder asking a great question of Marlon – if the Indian movement asked him to “go away” since they didn’t want him distracting from their cause anymore, would he do it? (Snyder also gets to hear what Brando has actually donated to the Indians in the way of land – 40 acres in Azusa, Calif., and an apartment building in another California town he can’t remember!)

The Marx segment is fascinating because it takes place at the time that Jerry Lewis was thought to be entirely washed up, purely a presence on the show biz scene because of the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. Marx was a truly unreliable narrator (he doesn’t get key dates right — like when the duo broke up!), but his book does have some wonderfully gossipy stories in it, and it is amazing to hear he and Snyder discussing “what happened” to Jerry. (Without mentioning the personality issues that killed off his career in the late Sixties.)


Obsolete has put up segments from a certain New Year's show that Snyder did (on Jan. 1, 1974), but one segment (from a 1973 show) is best seen on its own. A Louisville, Kentucky Satanist conducts a “hexing” ritual with a silent lady lying on an altar (her presence is mentioned but never explained). Might’ve been the only time “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law!” was uttered on late-night TV in, well… at least that part of the Seventies.


For comedy LP fans, one of the great treats unearthed by Obsolete is Murray Roman’s TV Show, a pilot hosted by Murray Roman, a comedian who is best known for having written for, and been an ensemble cast member on, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Roman was actually a very special figure in comedy history – clearly “converted” by Lenny Bruce, he spoke like Lenny when doing standup but also pioneered on his albums the kind of headphone comedy that was done to a fine turn by the Firesign Theater.

Roman let his eclectic and turned-on taste rule his TV pilot. The comedy is oddball and more off-kilter than Laugh-In or the Smothers show (it has the off-beat tone of Kovacs, but without his visual innovation); the music is supplied by Donovan, folkie/actor Hamilton Camp, and Linda Ronstadt. Nancy Sinatra does a poetry reading of the lyrics to the Beatles' "Revolution" (!), Frank Zappa sits for an interview by Murray, and the show closes out with Donovan’s recording of “Atlantis” being played, with Donovan, Roman, and a group of hippie-ish young people singing along (although you can only really hear the recording). Tommy Smothers also makes a brief appearance.

This program has no IMDB listing, but according to Obsolete’s notes, it was broadcast on KTTV in Feb. 1970. An educational documentary appears after the Roman show on the tape that Rick and his crew transferred. 


Still in the realm of comedy, and another jam-packed show with great names from that Sixties/Seventies era, is “Comedy News,” another pilot that aired during the ABC Wide World of Entertainment late-night slot in Sept. 1973.

The cast is pretty damned impressive: as fake “anchors,” Kenny Mars, Andrew Duncan, Fannie Flagg, Anthony Holland, and Marian Mercer; as “correspondents” doing their own material, there are Bob and Ray, Mort Sahl, Dick Gregory, and Peter Schickele. Appearing in a final “women’s panel show” sketch (which would seem to have begun as a bit done at an improv club) are comedy writer emeritus Gail Parent and Joan Rivers.

Some of the material is dated; some is timeless. The best stuff comes from the correspondents and on the women’s panel, but Kenny Mars deserves special mention for incarnating a pompous, self-satisfied and conservative anchorman, decades before Will Ferrell.


There are many mind-blowers in the coffers of Obsolete. Two major ones come from a non-Jerry Lewis program, the Easter Seals Telethon. The first one is from 1975, cohosted in early scenes by Peter Falk, Wayne Rogers, Billy Davis (of Marilyn McCoo and…), and actor James Cromwell. Tony Bennett (in excellent voice, with one of his wackier wigs on) performs several numbers in-studio as the clip begins.

Diana Trask does a song and then the show kicks into higher gear for cinephiles: John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara, Falk’s Husbands pals, appear as cohosts. Falk then participates as the referee of a rather bizarre wheelchair basketball game (!). It’s a mind-boggler to hear Cassavetes’ cigarette-smokey laugh and Gazzara’s DEEP tones while they serve as spontaneous sportscasters. (With Micky Dolenz and Donny Most on the phone bank.)

The oldies group the Penguins then perform “Saturday Night at the Movies” (after an intro by new hosts Lucie Arnaz and Desi Jr; Lucie does a slow dance to the song with Henry Winkler). A call-in of $20.00 from Garry Marshall — wow, Garry, couldja spare it? — closes out the segment, which then goes to many ads.


Perhaps the most mind-roasting segment yet unleashed by Obsolete (and this is a hard call) is another one from the same ’75 Easter Seals Telethon. It begins in media res, with Adrianne Barbeau dancing wildly (yes, the teen boys who loved her at the time were no doubt thrilled) with Marty Allen, who was quite the crazy dancer himself. Ben Gazzara’s dance partner at this point? Well, Charo, of course.

Falk is still the serious host, doing a pitch to call in with a pledge as the music plays. Adrianne continues to feverishly dance, as Marty Allen breaks off and cuts a rug with a person in a giant Easter Bunny suit. The bunny person grabs Barbeau and cops a feel, but she is nonplussed, as she goes from dancing into a pitch for Easter Seals. Cassavetes gives the pledge-tally for the hour.



As I wrote this piece, there was a basic problem: Rick kept uploading things to the Obsolete channel that I really had to include. The first of these was a full special by Bobbie Gentry, shot in Canada and recorded off an L.A. airing.

The show is terrific, as Bobbie (like Johnny Cash) wisely avoids the standard terrible variety-show sketches that blighted shows hosted by singers. Her guests are all musicians, and so we get songs from them alone and with Bobbie.

They are: John Hartford, Richie Havens, Ian and Sylvia, Biff Rose, and the Staples Singers. Hard to pick a favorite performance but Bobbie, Hartford, and Richie, singing Bobbie’s own “Morning Glory” has to qualify. She also does a spirited and well-acted version of her latest story-song, the iconic “a girl has to do what she has to do” song, “Fancy.” The end, what we have of it, is amazing – Bobbie leads a little dance party onstage while singing “The Rainmaker” as all her guests dance around as well, as they are “rained on.”


And you’d think that an important TV special like Free to Be… You and Me from March 1974 would’ve made it to YouTube intact, but Obsolete has posted a nearly full broadcast of it with commercials intact. Marlo Thomas and her producers assembled a great collection of talent for the 1972 LP and the ‘74 TV special, which focused on letting children know that gender differences (and those of race) don’t matter — yes, it’s corny as hell at points but charming throughout and quite important in its time.

The most enjoyable scenes include: Marlo and Mel Brooks providing the voices of boy and girl babies in a hospital discovering their genders (sketches cowritten by Carl Reiner; the puppets of the babies were made and operated by Wayland Flowers, of “Madame” fame!); a cartoon about a girl who uses her being a “lady” to get everything she wants, until she receives her comeuppance (written by the great Shel Silverstein); and a number of very touching songs, most prominently “When We Grow Up” sung by Roberta Flack and teenage Michael Jackson — the last line, convincing children that you “don’t have to change at all” is indeed quite poignant given that it is sung by MJ (who changed everything about his physical appearance systematically through the last decades of his life).

I note at least one thing missing: Rosey Grier singing “It’s All Right to Cry” (and the beginning of the “William’s Doll” song sung by Alan Alda). However, this initially aired version of the show includes a segment with Dustin Hoffman that was cut from the special when it was first released on home-entertainment formats. (It has since reappeared as a DVD supplement.) Hoffman, at the height of his powers (in the year of Lenny), reads a Brooklyn Jewish boy’s story about wanting to stop crying so much. It would seem that this is the great Herb Gardner’s contribution to the program, as Gardner’s name appears among the writers — he and Marlo were a couple at the time — and this piece has the “sound” of Gardner’s NYC realist-poetry dialogue.


Note: Rick has posted info on how to reach him on the videos he hosts on the Obsolete Video channel. He is looking for donations and sponsoring orgs to help him acquire more collections and restore those videos. He's doing invaluable work and we are very lucky that he's making this stuff available for free on YT.

Thanks to Jon Whitehead and Rich Brown for referring me to Rick’s YT channel.