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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.Published in