The Quiz Show Scandals: "Twenty-One"

We end our two-part look at the quiz show scandals with the most infamous example of all -- the NBC program "Twenty-One." Contestants on the show were deliberately given answers to questions, directed to lose games and were even coached on how, for maximum dramatic effect, to hesitate when answering a question. The show's most popular contestant, Charles Van Doren, was celebrated for his intellect and humility and rewarded with a job on NBC-TV. But he ended up revealing his role in the hoax during a dramatic congressional hearing, and his reputation was forever tarnished.

The Quiz Show Scandals: "The $64,000 Question"

We end our podcast's first season with a two-part look at the quiz show scandals of the 1950s. Part two drops next week.

During the summer of 1955, a new TV show kept people in front of their sets on hot Tuesday nights. “The $64,000 Question” was a big-money quiz show that made its contestants instant celebrities and the show even displaced “I Love Lucy” as the nation’s top TV program. What nobody realized at the time was that the show was planned, paced and cast like a drama, and a contestant’s success depended not on the questions he or she answered correctly, but on a sponsor who would drop you when you ceased to be useful.

TV Game Shows, by Maxine Fabe
“The Cop and the $64,000 Question,” TV Guide, July 9, 1955
“A Summer Show Hits the Jackpot: $64,000 Prize, Carefully Picked Contestants Keep Nation Glued to Its Television Sets,” TV Guide, August 20, 1955
“Come and Get It: TV Giveaway Shows Lure Viewers with Bigger and Bigger Jackpots,” TV Guide, December 31, 1955
“The Quiz Show Scandals: An Editorial,” TV Guide, October 24, 1959
“Letters,” TV Guide, November 21, 1959

In Godfrey We Trust

In the late 1940s and early '50s the biggest moneymaker on CBS radio and television was Arthur Godfrey -- at one point he reportedly brought in 12 percent of the network's income. He had an unpretentious style of communicating with his audience, and a smooth manner of selling products that sponsors loved. But in 1953, at the height of his popularity, Godfrey suffered a huge, self-inflicted blow to his stature when he fired one of his regulars, known as "the little Godfreys," live on the air. The incident haunted the rest of his career.

The Rise and Fall of "Dragnet"

In the summer of 1949, "Dragnet" premiered on NBC radio. It was a show that sounded like no other thanks to creator-star Jack Webb's obsession with authenticity. "Dragnet" then moved to TV and ran for most of the 1950s. Its theme song and opening disclaimer -- "The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent" -- became part of pop culture history. During the turbulent late 1960s, "Dragnet" was revived, and it hadn't changed -- but the world had, and authority was something to be questioned rather than celebrated. We look at the influence of "Dragnet" and Webb's evolution into an outspoken advocate of police officers.

When Maude Findlay Had an Abortion

In the fall of 1972, the first spinoff from "All in the Family" premiered. It was "Maude," with Beatrice Arthur as Edith Bunker's liberal cousin. And right out of the gate, "Maude" took on controversial topics like psychotherapy, black militancy and modern morality. Then on November 14, in the ninth episode of the series, Maude found out she was pregnant at age 47. She considered her options, including abortion, which at the time was legal in New York state, where the show was set. (The U.S. Supreme Court wouldn't legalize abortion nationwide until 1973.) Maude's decision to get an abortion would go largely unnoticed during the episode's original run, but when summer reruns came along the show received a firestorm of criticism, driving the idea of abortion -- and even the mention of the word itself -- off of network television for the next fifteen years.

Ed Sullivan, American Gatekeeper

In 1948, Ed Sullivan began hosting a weekly variety series on CBS-TV. His background as a newspaper columnist served him well — he had an unerring instinct for what people wanted to see, and he used his unique power to become an influential American gatekeeper for most of the 1950s and ’60s. We take a look a Sullivan’s influence, including “blessing” Elvis Presley and the Beatles by praising them on the air and reassuring anxious parents of teenagers. We also review his feuds with the likes of Steve Allen, Jackie Mason and Buddy Holly.

Big Stars + Small Screen = Tiny Audiences

The big TV story in the fall of 1971 was that movie stars were coming to the tube, including James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Shirley MacLaine, Glenn Ford, Anthony Quinn, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis, among others. Many of them turned to TV because movie roles were growing scarce, and for lucrative paychecks. But the vehicles they chose were garden variety TV — family sitcoms and cop shows — and viewers tuned out. We look at the highest-profile failures — “The Jimmy Stewart Show,” Shirley MacLaine’s “Shirley’s World” and Henry Fonda’s “The Smith Family.”

The Keefe Brasselle Story, or Godfather Knows Best

Keefe Brasselle’s show business career includes a few movies, some TV work, probable arson, extortion, kickbacks, assault with a deadly weapon and lots of threats of bodily harm. His unholy alliance with a CBS executive led to the executive’s downfall, and his repeated boasting about his mafia connections, along with his lack of any real talent, made him a bitter has-been reduced to writing and acting in a 1970s drive-in quickie. In this episode we examine Brasselle’s career and his unsavory associations.

A Short History of Ridiculous Sponsor Interference

For almost as long as there has been broadcasting, there has been commercial sponsorship. But from the 1930s through the 1960s sponsors had an unusual amount of power because, through advertising agencies, they owned entire blocks of time on the program schedule and produced their own shows. In this episode we look at a few examples of sponsor power run amok, resulting in complications that were sometimes dangerous, sometimes just silly. Along the way we will sample clips from “The Jack Benny Program,” “The Flintstones,” “I Love Lucy,” “Playhouse 90,” “The $64,000 Question” and “30 Rock,” among others.

Who Shot J.R.?: The Plot Heard Round the World

I am throwing my hat into the podcast jungle, hoping to emerge with the brass ring! (And my hat.) “The Incredible Inman’s Pop Culture Potluck” looks at people and events in TV and movie history. Its voice is informative but irreverent, and it is also straight from my larynx. In our first episode, I look at the debt that shows like “Game of Thrones” owe to the show that invented the season-ending cliffhanger, “Dallas.” And we look at the mac daddy of cliffhangers – when “Who Shot J.R.?” swept the country during the summer of 1980. Give it a listen! It’s fifteen minutes out of your life, for cryin’ out loud!

The Barbara Stanwyck-Jack Benny Connection

It was Sunday, November 28, 1943, and there was trouble behind the scenes on "The Grape Nuts Flakes Program Starring Jack Benny."

The show would be live on the air within hours, and the show's female lead, Mary Livingstone, had laryngitis. And on a radio program there really wasn't a workaround for that. The real-life wife of Jack Benny, Livingstone was Benny's most regular on-air tormentor. Without her, at least half the show would be dead air.

Jack Benny got on the phone. He had to find a substitute, and one person immediately and clearly leapt to mind:

Barbara Stanwyck.

Not just because she could handle the role -- she was Barbara Stanwyck, after all. But also because she was also extremely tight with Jack and Mary. Sure enough, she happily showed up to play Mary's part on short notice.

That, friends, is almost a textbook definition of a solid Hollywood friendship. And it symbolizes the bond between Stanwyck and Jack and Mary Benny -- one that led to Stanwyck's numerous guest appearances on Benny's radio show, and at least one TV sketch with Benny that would end up being a topic of discussion at the U.S. Supreme Court.

First, a little background.

From 1934-55, Jack Benny's Sunday night show was one of the most popular on radio. To most Americans it was almost a religious ritual to check in with Benny, Livingstone, announcer Don Wilson, singer Dennis Day, comic Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and bandleader Phil Harris. It was a tight team and everyone had their place -- Livingstone needled Benny; Day sang a song in his Irish tenor and needled Benny; Anderson, as Benny's valet Rochester, played a "subservient" role and needled Benny; Harris told jokes about his drinking or his band's lack of talent and needled Benny; and Wilson did commercials for Lucky Strike cigarettes or Jell-O or Grape Nuts Flakes and needled Benny.

That was the key to Benny's success -- as talented a comic as he was, with a sense of timing honed by years in vaudeville, Benny was the straight man on his show. He was ridiculed as a ham, a miser, an egotist, a pedant and a lousy violin player. And he cried all the way to the bank. His hold on his Sunday night timeslot was so strong that when General Foods ended its sponsorship of Benny's show in the early 1940s, they gave him the slot to work with any other sponsor he chose.

Despite his on-air image, Benny was a generous boss to his cast and to his writers -- whom he signed to long-term contracts, something unheard in the cutthroat world of radio. They repaid him with great work -- Hollywood stars who didn't usually do radio gladly worked with Benny because they knew the material would be great. Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, James Stewart -- they all made several appearances with Benny. (Bogart even made a very rare TV appearance on Benny's show.) From 1945-47, Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume were practically semi-regulars with Benny, playing themselves as Jack's put-upon Beverly Hills neighbors. At first, Colman was terrified of doing straight comedy, but Benny's encouragement and good scripts helped convince him.

Now back to Barbara Stanwyck.

In real life, Jack and Mary Benny were close friends of Stanwyck and husband Robert Taylor. In her Stanwyck biography Steel-True, Victoria Wilson writes that Stanwyck's adopted son, Dion, was a playmate to Jack and Mary's adopted daughter, Joan. Wilson also writes that Stanwyck would visit the Bennys in Palm Springs, where she would sunbathe nude on the roof. (Makes you wonder if Billy Wilder had that in mind when he wrote Stanwyck's opening scene in "Double Indemnity.") Benny told interviewers that Stanwyck had the best sense of humor in Hollywood.

To make their connection even more complicated, Benny freely admitted that he appropriated his low-key comic style from Stanwyck's abusive ex-husband, Frank Fay, a leading vaudeville comic. When the major studios made their big talking revues in the late 1920s, Fay hosted the Warner Bros. entry, "The Show of Shows," while Benny was a co-host of MGM's "Hollywood Revue of 1929."

Although Benny made a handful of movies, including Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," he did his best work on the radio. And some of Benny's best radio work consisted of parodies of current movies. We've detailed some of them in other blog posts, like "Dive Bomber" and "City for Conquest." On January 7, 1940, Benny burlesqued "Golden Boy," and Stanwyck went along for the ride. The storyline begins with Jack and Mary at the Biltmore Bowl, a dance hall where Phil Harris played with his band. They come across Stanwyck -- she's good friends with Phil Harris, but she mistakes Jack Benny for bandleader Ben Bernie. Still, Jack convinces her to appear opposite him in his production of "Golden Boy" and they schedule a rehearsal at Jack's house. Listen for yourself:

Wilson writes that Stanwyck refused to accept any payment for her performance, so Benny bought her a sable coat.

This episode is from what, to me at least, is Benny's funniest period, mostly because of the contributions of writers Bill Morrow and Eddie Beloin, who worked for Benny from the mid-1930s until 1943 and gave the show a fresh, eccentric flavor. The team broke up when Morrow was drafted, and Benny turned to a staff of four writers, most of whom would stay with him until the end of his career -- Sam Perrin, Milt Josefsburg, George Balzer and John Tackaberry. From the time of that switch, "The Jack Benny Program" became slicker, more self-referential and, in one guy's opinion, just a little stale, but the show was still a ratings powerhouse. When Benny jumped from NBC to CBS in 1949 for tax reasons, virtually all of his audience jumped with him.    

In June 1953, Benny teamed with Stanwyck for a spoof of "Gaslight," called "Autolight," for his TV series, He had done the sketch on live TV in 1952, so this was simply a way of getting it on film. But once it was in the can, an unusual lawsuit was filed by MGM parent Loews, Inc. They argued that because the sketch incorporated the film's plot to an unusual degree, it went beyond being a parody and constituted "infringement and unfair competition." Benny and his sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, went to court, and the judge found in favor of Loew's. Arguing that the ruling would have a stifling effect on comics and comedy, Benny's lawyers took the case to the Supreme Court in 1957. The next year, the court upheld the lower court's verdict, and Benny knew he was beaten. He bought a seven-year "license to parody" from MGM and the sketch finally aired in January 1959, five and a half years after it was shot.

A couple of notes before you watch:

1. The cartwheeling girl who interrupts the sketch is part of a running joke introduced earlier in the show.

2. The man from Scotland Yard is played by Bob Crosby, who became the show's bandleader after Phil Harris left in 1952.

3. And while you watch, wonder if MGM maybe had a point -- the sketch includes a fair amount of the plot of "Gaslight," albeit infused with jokes about salami and horses in closets. Also notice Stanwyck's reference at the end to her friend, Mary Livingstone:

Lou Grant's Office

A few weeks before Mary Tyler Moore's passing, my wife and I began revisiting episodes of her show, which ran on CBS from 1970-77. We were doing it for enjoyment -- they still stand out as some of the best sitcom episodes ever -- but we were also watching for a kind of emotional sustenance as we faced our first Trump Winter.

As we watched, it dawned on me that inside this sanctuary the show represents is yet another sanctuary -- Lou Grant's office.

It's a little cubbyhole of fake wood inserts, frosted glass and no ceiling, but it's Lou's confessional and a lot of significant things happen there. It's where Mary Richards has her job interview (Lou: "You've got spunk. I hate spunk.") and it's where Mary and Murray come for advice, and Ted tries to come for advice, and it's such a safe space that even Lou pours out his heart there every so often. In one of the episodes we watched the other night, "Will Mary Richards Go to Jail?," it's the only place Mary feels safe enough to
finally break down (in that funny-cry way Mary Tyler Moore had patented) about her fear of being incarcerated, as Lou tries his best to console her. It's also Lou's sacred sanctuary -- in "You Sometimes Hurt the One You Hate," we know Lou is really guilt-stricken about injuring Ted by throwing him through a door because he ends up letting Ted share his office.

The thing that I love about Lou's office, though, is that it's only a small part of the show's much larger heart. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" endures -- and is reflected in the outpouring of sorrow over Moore's passing -- because, as the theme song always reminded us, love was all around. And it was all around because it was fostered by the way Mary treated people. In the first episode, there was someone who would have been easy to dislike -- Rhoda. She was abrasive and bossy, which was justifiable because Mary was displacing her from what Rhoda thought would be her apartment. Despite that beginning, they ended up as something very rare on TV at the time -- adult women who had a healthy friendship.

In fact, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" was about friends who became family, in the best sense. Mary talked about it in the final episode, after Mary, Murray and Lou had gathered in Lou's office (of course) to learn they were being let go -- along with everyone else in the newsroom except Ted. Here's what she says: "Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me, and I tell myself that the people I work are just the people I work with. And not my family. And last night I thought, 'What is a family, anyway? They're just people who make you feel less alone ... and really loved.' And that's what you've done for me. Thank for you being my family."

The humor on the MTM show came from the very hardest place to produce comedy -- from character. It came from recognizable people with common, if sometimes exaggerated, quirks. And for the times we are living in right now, like it or not, it's a reminder of our humanity when things seem to turn inhuman on a daily basis. Lou Grant's office is a reminder of that humanity -- a sacred place, that has nothing to do with organized religion, where people take care of each other. That's a message with special emotional resonance during this first Trump Winter.