Wednesday, 17 November 2021

A Talk Show For Mary Hartman's Town

“Only the certifiably embalmed will fail to laugh out loud several times along its outrageous way,” is how the New York Times ended its review of a summer replacement show in 1977.

There were mixed feelings in the critical world about Fernwood 2 Night. It satirised the left, the right, the obliviousness of the average American and so much more. It remains one of my favourite shows of all time.

Still there were people who thought “You can’t make fun of something *that* way.” One was the Associated Press’ Jay Sharbutt. Here’s what he wrote several days after the show’s American debut on July 4, 1977.

Mary Hartman Spin-off tacky

LOS ANGELES (AP) – The late Lenny Bruce was frequently tasteless and frequently funny. A new show, “Fernwood 2Night,” is only half that. It’s frequently tasteless. At least its first two chapters are.
It’s Norman Lear's 13-week summer series that opened July 4 as a follow-up to his “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” which closed Friday.
The new daily venture, syndicated to about 30 markets, is a spoof of TV talk shows like “Tonight” on which Johnny Carson occasionally stars. It is set in mythical Fernwood, Ohio, on mythical Channel 6.
Its star is Martin Mull, the fine satirist, guitarist and foe of the last decade's folk music. He plays Barth Gimble, a glib, smirking host who is on the lam from the law in Miami, site of his last TV show.
(Mull once played Barth’s brother, Garth, who in a rousing “Hartman” episode fatally impaled himself on an aluminum Christmas tree.)
The first “Fernwood 2Night” served mainly to introduce the regulars, including Barth, who nervously works on a day-to-day contract.
The others are his vacuum-headed co-host Jerry Hubbard (Fred Willard) and middle-aged Happy Kyne (Frank DeVol). Happy runs a four-piece band which sounds as if it uses leftover notes from Art Linkletter’s House Party. Happy also shamelessly plugs his hamburger chain, the Bun n' Run.
So far, so good. But one opening-day guest was a classical pianist in an iron lung. Another was a befuddled motorist, of Jewish heritage, booked to show Fernwood's mainly Anglo-Saxon residents what a real Jew looks like.
Barth introduced him and decried prejudice and stereotypes of Jews. His announcer later told the guy: “You look just like the rest of us. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.”
After this and the iron-lung pianist, I was surprised they didn’t bring on a blind Sicilian to dance the tarantella in a china shop.
On the much milder Show No. 2, in a segment called “Bury the Hatchet,” they brought on a Catholic priest and his non-Catholic parents. Seems they wanted him deprogrammed from a cult, the Catholic Church.
His verge-of-hysterical mother sobbed: “We want our son Joey to be taken away from the Catholics and to be given back to us so we can clear his mind of all that silly mumbo-jumbo.”
Audience applause gave the nod to the padre. The losing parents got free eats at "Home of Hotcakes" and a choice of a deluxe garden rake or ''two pounds of Mix-N-Match nails and screws."
This is called piercing social satire. But there were some actual funnies, like the MirthMaker version of disco-dom's "Shake Your Booty" in Western Swing Polka style, and a 5-year-old torch singer's "I Didn't Know the Gun Was Loaded."
Ditto the guest professor who, having studied harmful effects of synthetic fibers, opined: "Leisure suits cause cancer."
But such nifty goods were swamped by the deliberately tasteless wares, gross outs, if you will, that seemed aimed at starting protests pouring, publicity pumping and ratings rising.
I suspect such will happen as word of the shocking things they get away with on “Fernwood 2Night” gets around. But nightly outrage can wear thin, and I bet severe Nielsen droop will occur within three weeks.
It’ll happen this way: Reasonably massive gripes by offended viewers in Week One; an ominous lull in Week Two and, in Week Three, a small but fetal sound that goes, “Ho-hum.”

One writer spent more time talking about the star than giving his opinion of the show. This appeared in the Newark Advocate, July 9, 1977.

Lunacy still lives in Fernwood

Los Angeles Times Service
HOLLYWOOD — Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman is gone but its comical spirit lives on in all its glorious lunacy and tackiness in Fernwood Tonight, the nightly talk show that premiered recently. Where else would you expect to see a pianist in an iron lung, a huckster who bills himself as a consumer advocate so he can knock the competition and push his own product, the owner of a health food restaurant who says she eats no meat “except for burgers,” a Vietnamese refugee whose book about life in the United States is called “Yankee Doodle Gook,” a scientist who claims leisure suits cause cancer?
What must be made clear about Fernwood Tonight, for those who haven’t yet seen it and may not have guessed already, is that it is a fictional talk show. The host, the announcer, the guests — they’re all played by actors working from scripted material. Zaniness prevails as they enact what the series creators envisioned as the sort of squalid talk show that a TV station in Mary Hartman’s hometown would put on.
“It's the talk show equivalent of Bowling for Dollars,” proclaims Martin Mull, the painter-turned-songwriter-turned-nightclub performer-turned-actor who stars in Fernwood Tonight as Barth Gimble, the alternately earnest and embarrassed host.
The idea for the show sprang from the fertile mind of Norman Lear, who wanted to do something new for summer rather than rely on reruns when the syndicated Mary Hartman soap opera was scheduled to take a break. He liked the concept of maintaining the Fernwood setting so the frame of reference for the humor would stay the same and characters from Mary Hartman could appear as guests.
"Much as the evening news was worthy of being lived in our stories on the fictional Mary Hartman, the conversation and small talk among celebrities and authors on talk shows can be reflected in a fictional talk show," explains A1 Burton, a vice president of Lear's TAT Communications. “We’re not spooling it we’re just doing our version of it.”
Later, of course, it developed that Mary Hartman would not be returning in its present form in the fall, so now Fernwood Tonight is bridging the gap between it and its successor, Fernwood USA.
To host the new series they chose Mull, who had played Garth Gimble, a wife beater, earlier in the season on Mary Hartman. Burton had seen his musical-comedy nightclub act and felt the style was just right. “The quality that kept coming through was how likable he was in spite of the fact that all the time he was playing an obnoxious, surface character — a guy who should be despicable but is extremely likable,” he recalls.
Lear caught the act and agreed but there was a slight problem. Garth had been killed off, impaled by a Christmas tree. So Mull was brought back to Mary Hartman as Barth, Garth's twin brother, to establish him for Fernwood Tonight. On the new show Bart occasionally makes reference to things that happened on the old one — particularly with regard to his brother's death — but a knowledge of the Mary Hartman story lines is by no means a prerequisite for watching Fernwood Tonight.
Although a newcomer to acting — Garth was his first whack at it — Mull says he is comfortable starring in the series because the character of Barth is the same persona he had developed in his nightclub act. He's cocky, cynical, sarcastic, lecherous, larcenous — “just about every bad quality you can think of but in small amounts," the actor explains. “They're forgivable because he doesn't have the strength to bring any of them out.”
Mull has taken a circuitous route to get where he is today. He earned a master's degree in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1967 but made money by working as a backup musician on guitar. He began writing his own material and, after a year on the songwriting staff at Warner Bros. Records, formed a band and began to perform. Because his songs were basically comical, he says, he found he had to explain them to audiences, and through that process evolved a stage character and funny act. He has recorded five albums, including the current "I'm Everyone I Ever Loved" on ABC Records.
In the wake of a divorce, he moved to California from New York last February to continue performing and to try his hand at TV writing. The acting assignment on Mary Hartman came out of the blue a few months later and now he's caught up in it, hoping one day to move into motion pictures not only as a performer but as a writer and director too.
But first there is Fernwood Tonight (or Fernwood 2Night, as the sign on the set says), for which he has high hopes. "I think it may catch the imagination of the American people," he says. "My hope would be that it would be to Mary Hartman what Mary Hartman was to television at that time, that next step that people could really get behind."
Reaction from the studio audiences and around Lear's offices has been so strong that even before it went on the air there was talk of keeping it going beyond this initial 13-week run, perhaps to be sold separately from Mary Hartman-Fernwood USA. But no decision on the matter is expected until next month. Says Mull: "I haven't discussed this with anyone but what I'd like to see when Fernwood USA comes on in the fall is for it to run four nights a week and this would run on the fifth. Maybe what we need is a Fernwood Broadcasting Corp. It would carry all our programming: Mary Hartman, Fernwood USA, Fernwood Tonight ... and then there could be a Fernwood Today, Fernwood Tomorrow, The Fernwood Evening News ... even The Fernwood Tyler Moore Show."

Forever Fernwood (nee Fernwood USA) was a lesser show than its predecessor Mary Hartman. And Fernwood 2 Night was revamped into a lesser show. Lear wanted big name guest stars, so he moved the show out of Fernwood. He lost track of the appeal of the small-town oddballs and iconoclasts that made Fernwood 2 Night appealing. It didn’t need big names. The small ones made the show a hit.


  1. Loved the chemistry between Martin Mull, Fred Willard, and the unflappable Frank De Vol. I think De Vol must have channeled Buster Keaton on keeping a straight face. I also enjoyed the occasional appearances by the great Tommy Tedesco( The Wrecking Crew ).

    1. Yeah, he did "Skateboard Angel." Wonderful satire, from the lyrics to the visual "effects" to DeVol's soliloquy.

  2. This brings back fond memories of when Nick at Nite was actually watchable, and aired reruns of not only Fernwood/America 2Night, but SCTV and the first five seasons of SNL as well. A programming block made in comedy-nerd heaven.

    It has been a source of frustration that those last two programs I listed have long been available on DVD, while "Fernwood" has yet to reach home video release. I suspect music clearance issues are at least somewhat to blame. Oh, Happy Kyne, your penchant for Top 40 mutilations have once again brought agony to viewers.

  3. Back in 2002 or so when TV Land was doing a marathon of Fernwood 2-Night, my girlfriend was spending the weekend at my apartment and was taking a shower when I turned on the TV and started watching. Her response when she came out of the bathroom was "You know I love you, but I am NOT watching that."

    It was the first (and last) time she said she loved me, and we broke up about a week later. The moment she objected to Fernwood 2-Night I knew it wasn't meant to be.

    1. Chief, a wise decision on your part. She can stick with "The Bachelorette."

  4. Nobody remembers its predecessor "Fernwood USA" which tried to continue the "Mary Hartman" characters without Mary after Louise Lasser was fired. I bet Roseanne was hoping that would happen to "The Conners," which seems to be doing all right without her.

    1. That was "Forever Fernwood" with Shelley Fabares and Judy Kahan.
      I'll avoid comment on Roseanne.