Remember the “Night of 100 Stars”? More recently, NBC brought us “The Show of 100 Sucks.” It’s hard to recall a TV program that provoked a greater number of passionate denunciations from people in and near the television business than the “NBC 75th Anniversary Special”-a landmark of its kind.
Expectations were high. The production team included most of the bright lights behind “Saturday Night Live.” Clearly there are few-if any-people on this planet, still functioning and continent, who know more about producing a live TV show from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center than they do.
Of course some of those complaining said it shouldn’t have been done from 8H in the first place. The seating capacity is so small that no members of the public were allowed in, and it turned out that 500 mucky-mucks in formal wear make a really lousy and unresponsive audience.
They didn’t even laugh-not so’s you could hear them-at Jerry Seinfeld’s monologue, which was very funny and refreshingly irreverent for an event of this nature. Seinfeld, you may recall, pointed out that virtually all the shows about to be canonized were eventually canceled and that all the honored stars got the heave-ho. Seinfeld was masterful; he’s the Heifetz of stand-up. But at home it sounded like he was bombing. To paraphrase NBC’s beloved Uncle Miltie: What was this, an audience or an oil painting?
Finally they came to life when Martin “the show saver” Short came out. He’d get a rise from them if he had to hurl himself into their laps. And he did. He hurled himself in lotsa laps as he led a too-short medley of NBC theme songs. It was the only item on the agenda that should have been longer, that’s for sure.
Some of what seemed like jaw-dropping gaffes actually can be explained. One of the most glaring was having Sid Caesar hobble out from backstage, walking with a cane and requiring assistance, making it all the way downstage, getting his ovation-and then disappearing. The director cut to Bob Newhart, who was standing several feet away and had nothing whatsoever to say about Sid Caesar.
Much later that night, Caesar reappeared and did an amusing and Caesarian bit paying tribute to NBC stars who died in recent years-but doing it in his variety of wacky dialects. It was a clever and novel way to handle a potentially trite thing.
But why, if Caesar was in the lineup to make that appearance, had he been put through the earlier ordeal? People close to people close to the show say it was feared that the second Caesar bit would have to be cut for time and that it would have been sacrilegious not to have Sid Caesar at least take a bow on a show saluting NBC.
This was actually not one show but two. The first show was a bunch of clips selected and arranged by Andrew Solt, one of the major clipmeisters of our time. Solt buys up the past and recycles it in little tidbits. The “Saturday Night Live” people were brought in to produce the live studio show months after Solt was hired to do the clip collages.
Comparing these two shows, the live event from 8H was superior to the clip montages, which seemed poorly assembled in some cases, lazily done in others. Pulling clips together can be a nightmarish job, what with all the legal hurdles to overcome and all the greedy bastards out there who jack up the prices when it looks like a bull market. But the resulting array was less than awesome.
Needed more Tinkering
It was a relief to see that Jack Paar at least got a screen appearance, even if it was only as part of a tribute to Bill Cosby. Perhaps the most scandalous bit of editorial malfeasance was the decision to turn Grant A. Tinker, one of the most distinguished and successful leaders in the network’s history, into a nonperson. He was not mentioned. He apparently never existed.
Brandon Tartikoff is justifiably beloved and he did indeed help lead NBC out of the wilderness and into an era of quality and prosperity. But he had Grant Tinker there beside him. Tartikoff was head of programming under Fred Silverman, too, and that wasn’t exactly a golden age. In fact, a few minutes were set aside on the anniversary special to make fun of it.
Although Tinker was ignored, Dean Martin suddenly emerged as one of the major, pivotal players in the history of NBC. Huh? And while many an NBC star may have gone underrecognized, Bob Newhart, who only appeared on NBC a few times during his TV career (his home base was CBS), kept popping up and making lame jokes-and, about 25 times, clearing his throat.
Mistakes major and minor marred the show. A tribute to coverage of the Sept. 11 disaster was followed immediately with a facetious appearance by Mr. T, who seemed to be wearing a large frying pan. It would have been better to fade to black after the 9/11 footage and go to commercial. Worse was yet to come; at the end of the special, fireworks were set off atop and around the General Electric building. The imagery of a skyscraper exploding was incredibly unsettling and tasteless.
One VIP guest who attended the show told me he saw several people who tippy-toed out of 8H before the show ended go into panics when, upon reaching the ground floor, they were greeted by billows of smoke from the fireworks display. They jumped to the wrong conclusion.
They actually didn’t know they were leaving early. Andy Williams came out, looking cadaverous, and sang “Moon River” (and does anyone know WHY?), and they thought that was The End. And in a way it was The End-but not literally.
Jay Leno missed a rare opportunity during the special. He could have rectified a heinous blunder he committed when he inherited the “Tonight” show from Johnny Carson and failed to mention his predecessor on opening night-or for months thereafter.
How classy if, on the special, Leno had said something like, “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to do something now that I should have done a decade ago-pay tribute to Johnny Carson.” Instead, the producers had Leno sing the praises of Bob Hope, and listlessly, too.
However irked one might be about the show, the producers clearly merit a certain amount of sympathy. Imagine all the meddling and politicking and outright crap they had to put up with from network executives horning in. One alumnus of the executive suites, Don Ohlmeyer, didn’t show up for the event reportedly because he felt he was short-shrifted in “Brought to You in Living Color,” NBC’s 75th-anniversary commemorative book.
My my, what a tangled web, that NBC. While viewers probably deserved a better 75th anniversary special than they got, Bob Wright, Andy Lack, Jeff Zucker and the rest of the NBC executive pool really didn’t. They probably didn’t even realize the show wasn’t very good in the first place.