Thursday, June 25, 2009

Charlie's Angels, the Unknown Comic, the Masquerade, and Nostalgia

Upon hearing the news about the death of Farrah Fawcett today, I thought I'd publish an essay I composed some years ago that concerned Charlie's Angels, the TV series which launched Fawcett to worldwide fame.

Nostalgia focuses on the period twenty years before, for two reasons: because it appeals to those entering middle age, who wish to be reminded of their ebbing youth; and, because it appeals to those in their late teen and early twenties, just entering adulthood, who wish to know about the years whence they began this world, but which they are too young to remember.

Nostalgia is, by definition, a remembrance of the past on exclusively pleasant terms. This is why some aspects of “twenty years ago” are revived, and others are left out. For example, in the ‘70s, nostalgia for the nineteen-fifties took the form of rock-n-roll “revival” shows, the staging of sock hops, the television series Happy Days (the title says it all), the stage-(and later film-)musical Grease, and a return by some youth to the greaser look. However, the youth-gangsterism, the fears of atomic war and racial violence of the 1950s were nearly forgotten.

Similarly with the nostalgia of the 1960s that took place in the ‘eighties, when “the sixties” came to be synonymous with psychedelia and protest (with the ugly edges of the counterculture mostly buffed away) while the Vietnam war, the Kennedy assassinations and the civil rights struggle were mostly overlooked (although the television series The Wonder Years, which was presented as a comedy-drama in the half-hour format usually reserved for sitcoms, did indeed tackle larger “issues” in its depiction of the family and school life of a twelve-year-old boy in suburban U.S.A., 1968). The nostalgia for the ‘seventies that occurred in the 1990s was even more frivolous, focussing on music and fashion and leaving almost everything else behind.

Indeed, even very famous entertainment personalities of that era, the same people who live in obscurity in the present day, did not achieve very much of a revival of their fortunes in the 1990s. For example, there was in the late ‘70s a performer known as the Unknown Comic — for that was precisely what he was: a stand-up comic wearing a brown paper bag over his head, with holes for his two eyes and mouth. Mr. Comic’s national fame (his real name was Murray Langston) didn’t last very long, perhaps a couple of years. During that time, however, he appeared on numerous TV variety and talk programmes in the U.S., and toured the country as a warm-up performer to several musical acts. Nevertheless, there has been little appreciable demand for a return of the Unknown Comic to stage or screen in recent years. Why? It’s not that the Unknown Comic was terrifically funny. But he wasn’t awful, either. It may be instead that laughing at someone with a paper bag over his head doesn’t seem very funny any more — a tad creepy even.

This figure, the Unknown Comic, was part of a subtle trend toward masquerade as a device in popular entertainment in the 1970s. Certainly, the masquerade has been used in Occidental drama from the beginning (the actors of the classical era wore grotesquely oversized masks to play their parts). It seems, however, that masquerade in fiction and drama has always been a corollary to ultimate exposure, as when the Great Wizard of Oz is revealed to be a trembling, shy little man. During the ‘70s, the masquerade was employed in certain products as an integral and inevitable part of character, theme and narrative. If the Unknown Comic had told jokes on television and stage without his banal paper bag, it is unlikely he would have achieved the level of fame that he did. It was the performer’s assumption of anonymity through the simple device of a paper bag over his head which seemed simple, yet absurd enough to inspire laughter at the “face” of it.

The series Charlie’s Angels began airing on American television in 1976. It portrayed three young women, former police recruits “who couldn’t quite make it on the force”, as private detectives in the employ of a never-seen “Charlie”, who gave instructions for each case (courtesy the voice of veteran actor John Forsyth) to his charges through a speaker telephone. I don’t believe the identity of “Charlie” was ever exposed throughout the run of the series. To have done so would have undermined the premise of the show — which incidentally, and unconsciously or not, is voyeuristic in conception.

Here is this mysterious “Charlie”, his voice suitably middle-aged and avuncular in tone, employing three beautiful young women (played originally by Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson), who are never allowed to see him but who, in turn, are seen by him (“Charlie” mentions in several episodes how he’s been “watching you Angels” or refers to an incident depicted previously, to which “Charlie” was obviously a witness outside the knowledge of the “Angels”; each time, they express shock and surprise at his unknown presence among them). It was never explained why “Charlie” never showed himself, nor what his motive was for employing only young women at his private-detective agency.

The obvious answer is that “Charlie” was, in conventional parlance, a “perv”, a voyeur who became stimulated at the sight of young women going about dangerous business wearing improbably skimpy and tight clothing. And, for all the “Angels” knew, “Charlie” could have been observing them when they were at home in skimpy night clothes or engaging in coitus with men-friends. Charlie’s Angels is remarkable because it employed the masquerade device in a way that incorporated the voyeuristic role of the show’s audience. The typical viewer of Charlie’s Angels was, like “Charlie”, a voyeur, tuning in not for anything related to drama or acting (for the show was indeed a drama), but for the attractions of tight, young, female, threatened, fighting, detained and otherwise kinetic bodies.

The rock band Kiss, in its heyday during the second half of the 1970s, never appeared on stage or on TV without full make-up, concealing their features. Band members in fact utilized their real names, but their masquerade was essential to the band’s early personae. Kiss did, after seemingly fading to obscurity, re-emerge without their makeup to further recording success (though not nearly the mass-popularity they enjoyed previously) in the early 1980s. It seems unlikely that Kiss would have originally won popularity only the strength of their material, presenting only their homely faces to the world.

The band, which at the height of its success toured North America featuring a highly pyrotechnic stage-show (which included also the lead singer and bassist, Gene Simmons, spitting “blood”) were the fag-end of the “glam rock” movement, which was essentially the application of burlesque and Broadway to rock-‘n’-roll. It was initiated by young gay or bisexual men such as David Bowie in Great Britain and the New York Dolls in the U.S. in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Bowie, the Dolls and many other like performers wore make-up and played roles (Bowie’s was named Ziggy Stardust), engaged in a subtler form of masquerade. In popular music in general there was a trend toward obscurantism. The major “non-glam” rock groups of the ‘70s, such as Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin released albums with sophisticated cover art and expensive jackets, often without including images of the band members themselves.

I can’t fathom at the moment the reason for this relatively short-lived masquerade trend. I don’t think it was recognized by anyone back then, or today, and I don’t think it has existed as a theatrical device very much in twenty years. The last show to employ it was Magnum, P.I., which ran from about 1980, on for most of the rest of the decade. The lead actor in that show, Tom Selleck, lived at the Hawaiian estate of the “billionaire Robin Masters”, who was not seen, and was featured only as a voice on a telephone (that of the great Orson Welles). Unlike “Charlie”, though, “Robin Masters” spoke to Magnum at best once in a season.

I read somewhere that the television series The West Wing, about the executive staff of the White House, was originally to have a complete on-screen absence of the President. It was later decided that the Commander-in-Chief should have a supporting role. Ultimatley, “President Bartlett” (played by Martin Sheen) is such the undisputed star of the show that the West Wing’s supposed “star”, faded cinema actor Rob Lowe, left part-way through its run. I doubt if the show would have been successful at all if the producers had chosen to show Bartlett only from the back of his head or via a muffled or disembodied voice. It would have seemed hokey, an outdated device, “something from twenty years ago.”

However, on television starting twenty and twenty-five years ago, there has been distinct counter-trend of the masquerade, toward exposure of the “behind-the-scenes”, as a deliberate part of the show, the flip-side to the indefinite use of masquerade. Variety programmes were popular on commercial television during the 1950s and ‘60s. The last variety show on American television (running from 1966 to ‘77) was that which starred Carol Burnett. What is remarkable is that the Carol Burnett show is remembered today not for its material, but for the fact that Burnett and her co-stars, including Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, would frequently crack-up or freeze-up while delivering their lines, providing more humour for the audience than would have been the case if the performers had not “accidentally” flubbed their lines. Some skits were even written with the premise of Burnett playing a woman in fits of hysterical laughter. Another popular feature of the Burnett show was her comedic bouncing of questions from the studio audience during the intro.

Also popular on late ‘70s TV were “blooper” shows, which featured discarded takes of major movies and series, when some particularly comic flubbing or mistake serves to expose, even if momentarily, the rouse of filmmaking itself. These blooper shows have disappeared from television mostly, if not entirely, but not because of a lack of popular demand. It seems more likely that actors and actresses have included in their contracts the proviso that their giggling and forgetfulness when making movies and television shows will not be subsequently seen in public.

A different form of exposure of behind-the-scenes occurs on television chat shows. On the programme Live, broadcast weekday mornings out of New York city and starring Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, the hosts frequently call on the show’s producer, a certain “Gellman” , to answer various questions about the guests, the new prop on the set, a current event, etc. The appearance each day of one of the show’s “behind-the-scenes” executives, Michael Gellman (no doubt, given the business he’s succeeded in, a shrew and wily man in his own right), as the doltish straight man “Gellman” to the hosts’ ribbing is not accidental or essential to the programme. When Philbin says, as he often does, that he “doesn’t understand” or “doesn’t get” something about a guest or the show’s new contest (and proceeds to quiz “Gellman” about it), he’s surely not being very candid. If Philbin were that absent intellectually, he wouldn’t be the star of the show. It is all to make the whole enterprise seem “natural” and “spontaneous”, as though the presence of broadcast technology in the studio were an incidental thing, with no regard given to the difference between on-stage/public and off-stage/private.

The Live show is a moderated, middle-of-the-road version of the deliberate violation of public/on-stage and private/off-stage on late-night talk TV, carried in the U.S. for more than twenty years by David Letterman. Letterman’s tenure on NBC, from 1982 to ‘93, saw him engage in the exposure form more thoroughly than after he made the sweetheart deal with CBS, though. Letterman then (as now) had the traditional talk show desk and chairs, but he would also, for example, request that the show’s director, “Hal”, emerge from behind his counsel in the control room and show off what he was wearing (always the same bland slacks and chino shoes) or engage in some other tomfoolery. Later on, Letterman would (like Philbin) pepper the show’s producer standing just off camera, “Morty”, concerning this or that “on the show tonight that I just don’t get.” “Morty” would answer inaudibly (for he was rarely miked), to which Letterman would crack a joke. Of course, Letterman and Robert Mortimer understood perfectly what they were doing and talking about. As with Live, the moments on Late Night where it seemed the show had broken down somewhat, where things weren’t certain, were just a pantomime in the effort to make the show seem natural and spontaneous.

To this end, Letterman would occasionally leave behind the Late Night set, pushing through heavy doors located a few feet to his left, to a white hallway, where various, usually surprised people were milling about or doing their jobs, and look for laughs by (for example) yelling through a bullhorn at fellow NBC hosts presenting a live show on the street below. On this particular occasion, he also used the megaphone to loudly berate those going about their business in the corridors, demanding that people ”stop crowding the hallways.” Another similar gag had Letterman securing the telephone numbers of office workers in buildings across the street from the NBC studios, and then calling them for their on-camera reaction to him (it was during this that Letterman came into contact with “Meg”, an attractive young book editor, whom he called and spoke to from an office window periodically for years, until he left NBC).

The long-time chat host Johnny Carson, star of the Tonight Show (which preceded Late Night with Letterman on NBC) would occasionally ask the show’s producer, Fred De Corva (who played a chat-show producer in the King of Comedy) a question or two. But De Corva was rarely if ever shown on-screen. Carson was a host of the “show must go on” variety, where no ignorance of on-stage and off-stage was tolerated. However, the most memorable moments on the show were those when order did break down, when two famous guests would ignore the host and begin talking with one another or become involved in some other hijinks. It is telling that Carson, given his hosting style, was visibly annoyed when this occurred (and why, in later years, very famous guests would leave immediately after their chat, begging that “I have a plane to catch”).

It may have been this peevishness that made Carson initiate, by accident, the sort of “guerilla” format later perfected by Letterman. One evening on the Tonight Show in the late ‘70s, Carson had returned to the programme after comic Don Rickles guest-hosted the night previously. Carson was bantering with his sidekick, Ed McMahon, when he moved to open his wooden cigarette box, and found a hinge or something was broken. McMahon informed Carson that Rickles had inadvertently broken it while clowning as guest host. Evidently, the box was expensive or meaningful to Carson, for when he saw the damage, he said, “What the hell happened to this?”, genuinely annoyed.

Carson then left the set with a remote camera, proceeded down a white hall to a studio where Rickles was taping a sitcom in which he starred as a naval petty officer. Carson entered the set and proceeded to rant and berate the uniformed Rickles about the broken butt case. It may have been a set-up, but Carson actually seemed pissed-off, just as Rickles and his co-stars (dressed in their naval costumes) appeared truly surprised and embarrassed about the intrusion. The next day, however, it was the talk of the town, reported in newspapers and on the news. The whole scene was ultimately replayed on the “best of” Tonight programme for that season, and probably again elsewhere.

It’s curious, though, that the first use of the “producer” persona in a television programme was not in the chat genre, but in a skit show, Bizarre, which was broadcast on Canadian television in the late 1970s. The show starred, and was introduced each week by an American actor, John Byner, who had appeared in the send-up Soap TV series in the U.S. Each episode, there was an intro and closing with Byner on a bare stage with curtains. Sometimes he would request the participation of one or more audience members. Byner would then involve them in short bits, but just when he asked them to do something particularly outrageous and “bizarre”, a tall man in a business suit would appear on camera and sombrely yet insistently announce, “John, you can’t do that on the show”, to which Byner would seem surprised and disappointed. Byner would ask why, and he’d then offer an alternative, equally bizarre prank for the audience-member to perform, to which the “producer” fellow would invariably respond, “You can’t do that, either.” At first restricted to these audience-participation segments, the “producer” (the fact that he was an actual producer of the show, Bob Einstein, has no relationship to the fact that he Einstein was playing a part when he appeared on-screen) would later on show up with his “You-can’t-do-that” line in the middle of skits, also, and his brief appearances stretched into skits in their own right, with Byner and Einstein leaving the studio to go outside on one occasion. It was evident by then that the “producer” intrusion was a comedy bit, but it was carried off at first at least half-

This use of exposure of the off-stage in contemporary television is paradoxical. It makes what is ostensibly “behind-the-scenes” part of the show, thus seeming to abolish the distinction between off-stage and on-stage. However, most of the interaction between “on-stage”/public and “off-stage”/private actors is itself staged, a fiction, and there are probably many elements of Live, in common with Late Night and Bizarre, that are always off-stage and private (it is rumoured, for example, that Reject and Smelly privately despise each other, but that never comes out on the air). Indeed, in some ways the staged use of the off-stage serves to obscure the less pleasant or uninteresting aspects of the show. Perhaps, then “exposure” is only the contemporary form of “masquerade.”

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