A Glimpse of 1955

 

I’ve mentioned over the years my involvement with the life and works of Peg Lynch, an American humorist and actress. Small-town Minnesota gal gets into small-town radio, hones her writing chops on ads and skits, comes up with a thing we now call “the sitcom,” ends up in New York, makes a wild pitch to the networks, ends up on national radio. She’s a hit! TV comes along, and she’s in on the early days, doing terrifying live broadcasts on “The Kate Smith Show.” This leads to a network sitcom, which, like everything else, she writes and performs with her stalwart partner, Alan Bunce. After TV ends, she moves back to radio to turn out 750 more shows, each a lapidary example of her style: no schtick. No corn. No stinging, slanging banter. No cliches, no archetypes. Just a situation, laid out, a fuse lit, a slow burn, an almost daredevil-like decision to set the scene without laff-a-minute gag routines.

Most of her sitcoms were saved on kinescope. Perhaps a tenth have been transferred to digital media. (It’s an ongoing process at the U of Washington.) One of the most recent restorations was put up on YouTube for a fortnight by her daughter, and it’s the fabled Halloween ep. “Fabled” because George S. Kaufman said it was one of his favorite things he’d seen on TV; fabled because Peg, iirc, thought it a bit much, but it turned out to be wildly popular. Her co-star was unhappy because his face was obscured for most of the ep.

Well. Uncharacteristic as the ep may have been, Bunce does a marvelous job.

Like all of her work, you ride along — she’s completely comfortable laying out five minutes without a hard punchline — until you just suddenly snort, because she’s prepped you for the moment when everything turns. It probably takes too long for modern audiences who want it now, now, NOW, but that’s how she worked. Note how it’s all one take. How she breaks the fourth wall to introduce the flashback. How the ads — also one take, shot while the cast took a breath — are performed with effortless brio by the great Lee Goodman, who even manages to work around a possible prop failure.

If I know Peg — and I did know Peg — she set up the flashback-framing device to pad it out and provide a third-act closing callback zinger. She got the idea, took it as far as she could, knew it wasn’t enough for the running time of the show, and built the wrap-around to frame it. I can almost hear her explain it: Oh hell, we were up against it every week to get it done. I was relieved with this one because I didn’t have to cut, I had to add. But then you realize adding’s just as hard.

So: For the first time since 1955, Peg Lynch, Alan Bunce, and the ’50s sitcom that exists mostly in kinescopes in a dark basement, waiting for restoration.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnz8LMEwYQQ

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There are 17 comments.

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Chexatingaling!

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Never even knew it existed 

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    You know what Chekhov said: if you show a pumpkinhead in the first act …

    • #3
  4. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    The best thing about 1955?  I was born . . .

    • #4
  5. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    So, Saturday Night Live premiered 20 years after this sketch was broadcast. That’s a pretty astonishing amount of change in the aesthetics of entertainment. It’s been over 45 years since SNL premiered; more than twice as much time. SNL probably should have been put to bed thirty years ago. But entertainment no longer works that way. There’s no creative destruction, no making way for new forms. There are “institutions” that simply perpetuate themselves. 

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):

    So, Saturday Night Live premiered 20 years after this sketch was broadcast. That’s a pretty astonishing amount of change in the aesthetics of entertainment. It’s been over 45 years since SNL premiered; more than twice as much time. SNL probably should have been put to bed thirty years ago. But entertainment no longer works that way. There’s no creative destruction, no making way for new forms. There are “institutions” that simply perpetuate themselves.

    SNL is an institution “too big to fail.”

    • #6
  7. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Thanks James. I was not familiar with either Peg Lynch or her Ethel & Albert show. I watched the episode you posted which was fun.

    • #7
  8. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Stad (View Comment):

    The best thing about 1955? I was born . . .

    The year I graduated from high school.

    • #8
  9. Rapporteur Coolidge
    Rapporteur
    @Rapporteur

    The delightful saga of how James (Our Genial Host, or OGH, to the Bleatniks at http://www.lileks.com/bleats) met Peg and her family has been told over the years on the Bleat. Peg left us a few years ago, but James and Peg’s daughter Astrid have picked up the torch and run with it.

    The episode was fun to watch. The most ironic line was “There are no telephones on the hayride, are there?” Well, no, not yet there aren’t …

    • #9
  10. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Stad (View Comment):

    The best thing about 1955? I was born . . .

    Yep, I knew you wuz a youngin’.

    • #10
  11. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    What a delight!  Refreshingly clean comedy.  Thank you for sharing, James.

    • #11
  12. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Rapporteur (View Comment):

    The delightful saga of how James (Our Genial Host, or OGH, to the Bleatniks at http://www.lileks.com/bleats) met Peg and her family has been told over the years on the Bleat. Peg left us a few years ago, but James and Peg’s daughter Astrid have picked up the torch and run with it.

    And there’s more to come: Astrid has wrestled a biography out of her mother’s copious letters and interviews, and we’re doing a 10-ep podcast on her story. Astrid absolutely nails her mother’s conversational tone, and brings her back to life, along with recorded interjections from Peg herself. I was supposed to head to England last August to record my parts, but tested pos for the WuFlu a day before I left. 

    But it will happen.

    • #12
  13. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Caryn (View Comment):

    What a delight! Refreshingly clean comedy. Thank you for sharing, James.

    Glad you enjoyed it! There are almost a hundred more, waiting for restoration. 

    Fun fact: Peg not only owned the show, she owned every stick of furniture on the set. When I went to see her, the kitchen table in the TV show was sitting in the sunporch, piled with circulars and knick-knacks. 

    • #13
  14. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    I like Ethel’s smock.

    • #14
  15. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    I’m sitting in a bar in Budapest — if the WiFi works, there should be a photo attached — and need to say this: what a lovely post and lovely story. The early days of mass media are endlessly fascinating but also endlessly revealing about America, 2021. It’s like telling birth-of-the-railroad stories in 1921. How did we get here? That’s how.

    PS. It’s raining here. That’s why it looks like my hair is so thin on top.

    PPS. Pardon me for the vanity.

    • #15
  16. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Rob Long (View Comment):

    I’m sitting in a bar in Budapest — if the WiFi works, there should be a photo attached — and need to say this: what a lovely post and lovely story. The early days of mass media are endlessly fascinating but also endlessly revealing about America, 2021.It’s like telling birth-of-the-railroad stories in 1921.How did we get here? That’s how.

    PS.It’s raining here. That’s why it looks like my hair is so thin on top.

    PPS. Pardon me for the vanity.

    Looks comfy.

    • #16
  17. JennaStocker Member
    JennaStocker
    @JennaStocker

    “So: For the first time since 1955, Peg Lynch, Alan Bunce, and the ’50s sitcom that exists mostly in kinescopes in a dark basement, waiting for restoration.”

    What I get from traversing through the corridors of television eras of The Honeymooners to Lucy, to Mary Tyler Moore: Regretable that we can never go back, but thankful for the efforts of those with foresight (and maybe a little luck) we still have it to look back on, and lament. And to echo @roblong in a metta-sort-of-way, now we will have with Cheers. Nostalgia for the life we lived through our televisions.

    Thank you for bringing it back with such care.

    • #17
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