The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Remember a few years a back when 30 Rock was still on and they would do the occasional live episode? Remember the excitement you’d feel watching it? The joy you’d get as Fred Armisen made Jimmy Fallon crack up? That little extra kick the jokes would get from having that live studio audience there to laugh? What if every sitcom on TV was done like that? Wouldn’t that be neat? Except the novelty would probably wear off because you wouldn’t know any other form of sitcom? Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of television in 1956.
Stanley is a sitcom that you’ve probably never heard of, but it is an example of one of these live sitcoms that aired for 19 weeks on NBC and features a host of talent. The titular role was performed by comedian Buddy Hackett, in his first leading role. A 23-year-old Carol Burnett, in her third appearance on television and her first regular role, played his girlfriend Celia on the show. Among the show’s tiny writing staff was comedy legend Woody Allen, who was no doubt brought on by the show’s producer, Max Liebman, who was at that time one of the bigger names in television, having previously produced Sid Caesar’s various programs. While we’re at it, the show was introduced by none other than Don Pardo who lets us know that Stanley is sponsored by Bobbi brand hairpins.
Buddy Hackett, if you’re unfamiliar is most well known as one of the lead characters in the comedy classic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (along with every other comedian of the time period). Born in Brooklyn in the 1920s, Hackett followed a common path for entertainers during this time, serving in World War II before hitting the Catskills as a standup and then making a number of guest appearances on television. While he never truly had a successful vehicle all his own, he continued performing standup and became a talk show mainstay, appearing on both Jack Parr and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Shows peddling his off-color brand of humor.
Going back to 1956, Hackett played the titular character in Stanley, the manager of the lobby newsstand and the ticket agency in the New York Sussex-Fenton Hotel. He speaks with a Lou Costello sort of baby talk voice, and has the immature, man-child attitude to match it. The episode begins with Buddy receiving a call from his girlfriend Celia, whom he asks if she used his drill instructor’s recipe for apple pie that he gave her. She informs him that she did but had an awful lot left over. Covering his face with his palm, he realizes that he neglected to tell her that it feeds 144 troops. Yes, folks. That’s the kind of ride we’re in for. The cast is playing to the crowd in the bleachers so there are a ton of jokes following the “obvious setup / punchline” construction, and any number of giant takes to the camera with enormous wacky faces. This is by no stretch of the imagination a subtle program.
The plot of this particular episode is simple. So simple, in fact, that I wondered if the pacing was so slow because the show was being broadcast live and as such couldn’t have many sets that would need to be changed, or if that’s just the way the earliest sitcoms went. Buddy has to stay at work and take inventory and has to cancel their date for the evening. When Celia says he doesn’t sound sorry, Stanley responds, “Can you hear me? You hear how loud and sorry I am?” managing to reach a Jerry Lewis-level whine. They were initially planning on going to a taping of the Larry Cross television show, a fictional Elvis-style heartthrob, but now Stanley suggests that she go to the TV show alone and he’ll meet her after “and we can have a bowl of chili or a Fudgicle or something.”
Stanley watches the Larry Cross program from the shop and sees his girlfriend in the audience, watching the star sing. For his next number, Larry moves out into the audience as the female members of the crowd fawn over him and tear at his clothing as Larry laughs at their ridiculous behavior, saying that his Celia would never act that way. “She has dignity.” This, obviously, is put to the test, when Larry begins singing to Celia, who initially seems very composed before Carol Burnett performs an enormous reaction, screaming, pounding her legs, and then falls to the ground, rolling. Larry tosses a bow tie with his face on the center into the crowd and Celia violently fights the teeming mass of teenyboppers away from the prize.
Stanley and Celia ride the bus home together, and Stanley is sulking. Celia points out he hasn’t said a word and goads him to talk about “anything. The weather,” which launches Stanley into a stream of consciousness rant on both the weather and what’s really on his mind. “You think the weather will go back to normal now that the TV star Larry Crown has finished singing?” and then ends with the threat of domestic abuse: “Star light, star bright, first star… give him a left and you a right.”
The fight continues as Stanley makes a fool out of himself (an old woman in a fur coat hits Stanley over the head with her purse, which, when I thought about it, is something I’ve never actually seen acted out) to a point where Celia is angry with Stanley for his behavior and now he is on the defensive. Stanley walks her home and the fight reaches it’s crescendo.
Stanley: Why don’t you admit the truth and confess? You’re in love with Larry!
Celia: Alright! That’s the way you want it? I am madly, passionately in love with Larry Cross! I think about him everywhere I go!
Stanley: The shower? (This possibly improvised line gets a ribald titter out of the live studio audience as they imagine a naked woman.)
Celia: I have a special vault at the bank where I keep all his records. And I run out and play as many as I can over and over as many times as I can. That bow tie, I’m going to have it bronzed and put it on the mantle piece!
A now incredibly sheepish Stanley is now incredibly embarrassed, having been yelled at and switches into armchair psychologist mode, and simply because of the subject matter, launches into a short rant that I’m going to bet was a Woody Allen contribution. “You’re really not in love with Larry Cross after all! It’s a feeling you feel for somebody else! Somebody who don’t sing, whose shorter, and almost certainly is very near you right now. You’re a psycho-switcher, but when you change these things around, you probably don’t know that this feeling is for somebody who’s much closer at all times.” Apparently, this is close enough to an apology for Celia to forgive Stanley for being a petulant baby the entirety of the evening and she kisses him.
The most interesting part of the episode for me comes at the end where Buddy Hackett, no longer in character, directly addresses the audience. “If you enjoyed Celia,” he tells us, “send your letters and she’ll spend some more gay adventures with us.” While The Carol Burnett Show is still several years away, he is effectively beginning a letter writing campaign to help build her audience. It’s a fascinating little moment in television history in which not only is a star being launched; it’s being given a few extra oars to help paddle it to the finish line. And, on top of that, you get to hear Buddy Hackett try to sell hairpins. “Use Bobbi pins, ladies. [They] give you the hair that’ll make one sailor say to the other, ‘Hey Charlie, what a nice looking head on that girl.’”
Stanley was among the last of the live sitcoms and as far as I’m able to research, was never rerun after their initial airings. And, if I’m being honest, it’s not hard to see why. The performances are fine, and the writing staff was talented (I’m basing this on Allen’s name alone, but I feel safe in saying he could carry them), but it just wasn’t working. The live nature of the program forced them to do a lot with a little, and perhaps Buddy just wasn’t the right fit for the constraints of the 1950s television landscape. The majority of those involved would go on to success in other venues when Stanley didn’t last, and ultimately, it worked out for them. But still, for all those interested, it remains a fascinating look at the very different world of television in the 1950s and a glimpse of what it looks like when talent is allowed to bubble under the surface, but not allowed to erupt.