Wednesday, 16 March 2016

A Division of Gimbleco Enterprises

In the summer of 1977, I spent five half-hours a week marvelling at the concepts and performances on a TV show designed to live only 13 weeks. And almost 40 years later, I still think Fernwood 2 Night was one of the most creative shows ever put on television.

It used the talk show format to satirise everything from right-wing gun-nuts to left-wing earth people. Some of the ideas were sheer brilliance—an expert claimed leisure suits caused cancer and brought on some fabric-wearing lab rats as proof, being one. The credit roll at the end showed all kinds of writers and consultants but a lot of the show seemed ad-libbed. And other than Fannie Flagg, I didn’t recognise any of the actors so they were more like real people (as opposed to someone playing a role). The casting couldn’t have been better. Fred Willard brought a great casual cluelessness to announcer Jerry Hubbard. Frank DeVol was wonderfully deadpan as bandleader Happy Kyne. Bill Kirchenbauer was perfect as the rug-wearing, lyric-forgetting lounge act Tony Rolletti. So was Terry McGovern as affected radio rock jock Larry Guy. The character that put me in a state of choking laughter was the president of the Tom Snyder Fan Club, who had the same hair-style and hurried staccato delivery and arm-waving as his idol. It was dead-on. The actor was one of the behind-the-scenes people on the show, a fellow named Harry Shearer.

(As an aside, you couldn’t pay me to watch one of those Ernest movies, but Jim Varney never had his talents showcased better than on Fernwood 2 Night).

Associated Press columnist Jay Sharbutt revealed on July 1, 1977 the show was intended as a summer replacement for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which was leaving the air because a) boss Norman Lear wanted to end it “before its popularity fizzled” (Sharbutt quote) and/or b) star Louise Lasser wanted off it. But Lear wasn’t prepared to end Mary Hartman altogether; he used the time Fernwood was on the air to re-work it without Lasser.

Allow me to dredge up a couple of newspaper feature stories from 1977 about Fernwood 2 Night. Both are from the King Features Syndicate. The first one answers the question I’ve always had about script-vs-ad lib. It appeared in papers around July 24th.
Fernwood Tonight First Talk Show For The Nobodies

“No, you can’t come on the show—you’re too well known” is the answer given to stars who wish to guest on Norman Lear’s new half-hour talk show, “Fernwood Tonight.”
The show is currently in the “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” time-slot five nights a week until October 1st. “Fernwood Tonight” has no room for the customary celebrity guests booked for Johnny, Dinah, Merv, and Mike, since glamorous stars would seldom be caught dead in the mythical Ohio town where Mary Hartman lived until July 1st.
This, “Fernwood Tonight” becomes TV’s first talk show for the nobodies of the world, eccentrics dreamed up by Hollywood writers, portrayed by improvisational actors, who for the most part, wing their material.
“We’re not spoofing Johnny Carson, or Dinah, or anyone else,” maintains blond Martin Mull, cast as host Barth Gimble. “Our show is about people you never see on the air—the plumbers, inventors, hobos—characters that might live or pass through a place like Fernwood, O. We’re not trying to make fun of the human race either. We just want to complete the talk show picture.”
Familiar to “MH, MH” fans as wife beater Garth Gimble, who died last February only to be resurrected this past June as twin brother Barth, painter-comic-musician Martin Mull remains in Fernwood as the pompous talk show host while his soap opera pals have the summer off.
Backing up Mull as co-host is Fred Willard, formerly of the Ace Trucking Company, playing talkative Jerry Hubbard. Musician Frank DeVol becomes band man Happy Kyne; and Bob Williams, with his dog, Louie, who never does anything—one of Norman Lear’s favorite vaudeville and club acts—signs on as Barth’s dad, Garth Gimble, Sr. Dad is a security guard, hired by his son who wants to be sure Gimble Sr. earns his keep in his old age.
After Williams, the field is wide open for Hollywood actors skilled at improvising at the drop of a cue card. One of the best around, Kenneth Mars will appear frequently as Will W.D. (Bud) Prize, Fernwood’s Ambassador-at-Large. Character actress Fannie Flagg is another chatterer adept at spinning thoughts of giddy ladies.
So far the only celebrity is singer Tom Wait [sic], a self-styled hobo, and an original. He pulls up a chair next to host Gimble, pulls out a bottle and begins yammering.
Success of “Fernwood Tonight” therefore, rides on writers dreaming up fresh wacky talkers, and the players’ ability to improvise the rest. Since two shows are taped a day, adrenaline runs high in the performers. At least Martin Mull and crew know that shows can be edited, lowering the fear of drawing a blank.
“We have real dead spots. No one knows what to say,” Martin admits. “It looks like a real talk show, the kind you see at 9 a.m. in little towns. I’ve seen my share touring with my act, and I love ‘em.”
Mull works from cue cards part of the time since he is the ringmaster, and improvises the rest. Ten years of performing on the road with his guitar and chatter makes the host post possible. But his first job acting came on “Mary Hartman” and that terrified the man.
“I was terrible,” Martin said. “You could see the sweat marks on my three-piece suit.”
But Mull impressed Lear when the boss caught Martin’s act at Hollywood’s Roxy. Mull was in top form. Suddenly, he stopped and called out, “Norman, do you need to see any more?” Ten years on the road just paid off, allowing Lear the gamble of going with a lead when only began acting within the year.
On the show you might even see Martin’s mom, Betty Catterton from Connecticut, appearing as a Fernwood librarian reading a list of famous people.
“To prepare, mother spent three days reading the phone book,” Mull said. “She was perfect, and had such a good time, she refused to take her makeup off.”
This story has more of Martin Mull’s thoughts. It appeared in papers beginning August 5th.
‘Fernwood Tonight’ Just Right For Its Zany Host Martin Mull

NEW YORK (KFS) – If Johnny Carson decided to throw caution to the wind one of these nights and allow his humor to run wild, he might approach what fictional talk show host Barth Gimble is trying to do on "Fernwood Tonight." The syndicated five-nights-a-week entry is the latest brainstorm of the innovative Norman Lear; and, although it has still to find its way, the show has managed to shatter many myths inherent to TV talk shows since the early days of "Tex and Jinx" (who?).
Sitting down to a chat with Martin Mull, who plays Barth Gimble, "Fernwood Tonight's" ingratiating host on the show, one quickly realizes that his talents are only being scratched on the mere surface on "Fernwood." Mull is one of the wittiest and consistently funny entertainers on the scene today. Norman Lear should give Mull the half hour and allow his fertile comedy mind to explode with its wild, improbable and thoroughly zany observations about life's foibles.
When Lear first met Mull, the TV impresario asked the stand-up comic-singer what sort of part he envisioned for himself in the then running "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." Mull, expressing a desire to use his talents as an artist (he has a Masters in painting from a Rhode Island art school), told Lear he saw himself as a high school art teacher who was instructing Mary's daughter, the teenaged Heather. Mull envisioned the artist as becoming obsessed with Heather as a model and having him paint her in a variety of poses, ranging from imitation Hallmark Card illustrations to Reubens' nudes. Lear laughed a lot and said no.
"That was the end of our meeting and six months later, I got a call to come and test for the part of Garth Gimble, the wife-beater on 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,' " Mull recalled.
Fans of "MH2" became intrigued with the character of Garth, and Mull had fun portraying the smiling cad who ended up impaled on a Christmas tree ornament after being locked in a closet. This single incident, along with another character's drowning in a bowl of chicken soup, were the two most talked-about plot events in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."
When Lear came up with the idea for "Fernwood Tonight," it was a foregone conclusion that Garth's twin brother, Barth Gimble would become Fernwood's answer to Merv-Johnny-Mike.
The show got off to an outrageously funny start and after some bumpy episodes, may be beginning to find its stride. Although it was designed as a summer show, "Fernwood Tonight" now looks as if there's a chance it may go on indefinitely. Martin seems to be enjoying himself and is ready for whatever the future might bring. He's no stranger to TV and the decision-makers at networks. He was once involved with a network on a development basis and everytime he came up with far-out ideas for shows, they'd look at him askance and politely reject them.
The times seem to have caught up with him, and "Fernwood Tonight" is the perfect showcase for Martin Mull.
Just as Lear couldn’t let Mary Hartman go, he couldn’t let Fernwood 2 Night go, either. He came up with America 2 Night, basically moving Barth Gimble, Jerry Hubbard and Happy Kyne onto a low-budget network and adding celebrity guest stars playing themselves. The revamped and redubbed Hartman wasn’t as good as the original. Neither was America 2 Night. But not too many shows were.


  1. I loved this show! Been waiting years for a DVD release.

  2. It was perhaps the best of the talk-show parodies.
    Norman Lear did plenty of experimental things, like the gender-reversal show "All That Glitters" (I think it had a soap format like MH2), and "The Baxters," which invited its studio audience to comment on the plot and situations (production moved to Canada in its second season, with a new cast including Megan Follows).
    One soap-style comedy that tried to cash in on the success of "Mary" was "The Life and Times of Eddie Roberts" (aka "LATER"), with Renny Temple as the title character, a college professor. It died and was quickly forgotten.

  3. Hard to say, rnig. I liked "Night Stand" but it suffered because it parodied daytime talk shows that were more over-the-top than it was.
    I never watched "The Larry Sanders Show" so I can't comment about it.