Recap: I have been hired as a regular on a CBS summer replacement series called The Bobbie Gentry Show. (CUE: “Ode to Billy Joe” (who jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge.)
What’s a summer replacement series? Well, back then – this was 1974 – TV series, which began in the fall, would run for thirty-nine episodes (as compared to an average of twenty-two today.) Then, in the summer, when less people watched television because it was nice outside, rather than airing reruns the networks would replace the regular series with cheaper-to-produce summer series, which ran through June, July and August, disappearing in September, when the regular programming resumed after their break.
Summer series were also used as auditions. If your summer show clicked, encouraging viewers even in the East who hadn’t seen the sun for months to come indoors and check it out, the series would be assigned to the regular schedule, replacing some new fall series that didn’t make the grade.
The Bobbie Gentry Show was scheduled to run for four episodes. But if it scored, we could be the next Sonny and Cber.
But we could be a long-running variety show.
And I would be part of it.
1974 turned out to be a watershed year for me. In April, I had come down to Los Angeles to work on my first Hollywood assignment as a writer on a Lily Tomlin special. I also co-wrote an episode of Sanford and Son, which was produced later that spring. Now, I was writing and performing on a network variety show. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I arrived in L.A. with three guaranteed jobs. Without them, knowing me, I most likely would not have taken the risk. I have no gift for uncertainty.
When the excitement of performing on network television receded into reality, I was upset by how little money I was being paid. How’s that for ungrateful? Not surprisingly, serving basically as “bookmarks” for the real programming, summer series budgets were notoriously miniscule. Rather than the “thousands” that had been dancing in my head since the moment I was offered the job, there were instead “hundreds.” And not that many of them.
Still, I was on television.
Working at CBS Television City, corner of Beverly and Fairfax. They did All In The Family there (nine seasons). They did The Carol Burnett Show there (eleven seasons). They’d done The Red Skelton Show there (twenty seasons).
And now, they were doing The Bobbie Gentry Show there (four episodes, and counting).
The problem was, it wasn’t much of a show. Primarily, it was Bobbie Gentry and, what appeared to be, a literally countless number of wigs. Bobbie would sing, then change her outfit, which included her hair, then she’d sing again.
Interspersed were comedy sketches, including some forgettable ones by me, culled from material I had originally written and performed as syndicated “cut-ins” on Canadian radio. Crossover audience concerns were minimal.
“Hey! I heard that ‘peas’ routine on the Morning Show in Saskatoon.”
Yes, I did a routine about peas – it was a consumer report comparing “peas in a pod”, “peas in a tin” and “peas in a bag.” On another outing, I did a “cooking show”, instructing the audience on making the definitive peanut butter sandwich, using four ingredients: shelled peanuts, an elephant, a mouse and two slices of bread. (The mouse scares the elephant, who jumps on the peanuts; you scrape the squished peanuts off the bottom of the elephant’s foot – et viola! – you’ve got peanut butter!)
Bobbie’s guests ranged from Robert Goulet (who continually punched me in the shoulder until I punched him in the shoulder and then he stopped) to Wayne Newton, which, come to think of it, is not much of a range. It’s two Vegas guys, singing songs I don‘t care about.
The most memorable thing I recall about Wayne Newton was that he had a bodyguard who looked exactly like Wayne Newton. This was apparently deemed the safest plan for the singer’s protection, the would-be assassin being unable to determine which Wayne Newton to assass. Unless he forced both of them to sing “Danka Schoen” (Newton’s signature song.) Of course, Newton could also have trained his lookalike to be a “sing-alike”, and then all bets were off.
For reasons I can’t explain, though they were likely budgetary, The Bobbie Gentry Show was not taped in front of a live studio audience. Instead, it was taped piecemeal, one segment at a time. To me, this made the entire enterprise feel flat. The intensity only a live audience can provide was absent. This is especially problematic for comedy, where I was playing primarily to cameramen.
Also a detriment for me was that, though I was scheduled to appear at the studio at noon, quite often, due to technical delays and somesuch, I did not do my thing until after midnight. Having your energy sapped by being keyed up for twelve hours is seriously unhelpful to one’s timing. Sometimes, I would drink half a beer to “take the edge off.” Unfortunately, when I finally went before the cameras, a substantial portion of my “edge” had fallen asleep.
What I most liked about the experience was escaping, albeit temporarily, from “writer” status to “actual performer.” I reveled in the pampering. They put makeup on me, and poufed up my hair. For one now-forgotten comedy bit, they dressed me in a tuxedo. Filmmaker Gary Weis, who worked on early Saturday Night Live, snapped a picture of me in all my poufed-hair-tuxedo-wearing splendor through his television set. It is sitting on a shelf to the right of where I am typing these words. Man, did I look good!
Since I had to wait so long to go on, it was necessary to break for dinner, while remaining in costume and makeup, so I’d be ready, when called. Mostly, we repaired to a nearby deli named Cantor’s, a place that’s been around a while, and looks it.
I recall the glances directed my way, not because people recognized me from The Bobbie Gentry Show, but because I sported the giveaway sprouts of Kleenex stuffed in my collar, protecting my shirt from the makeup, while proclaiming to the world, or at least the diners at Cantors, my “performer status” specialness.
My favorite “Performer-For-A-Minute” moment? I went to a Dodgers game, driving to the stadium myself. When returning to my car after the game, I heard a voice behind me say, with what felt like actual excitement:
“Hey! Dat’s the guy from the show!”
It felt great to be recognized. Though I was a little embarrassed, stepping into, not a luxurious sportscar, but an orange and black Mazda.
The Bobbie Gentry Show ran four episodes, and that was it. The summer replacement show that followed us was Tony Orlando and Dawn. That show caught on, and was picked up for the regular season, running successfully until 1976. So it could actually be done. Just not by us.
Other than one line that I delivered on a sitcom called Buffalo Bill, The Bobbie Gentry Show was the last time I performed on television. Once, upon meeting me, Jack Rollins, Woody Allen’s longtime manager, observed, “You look like a writer to me.”
I guess that’s what I yam.
And that’s all what I yam.