Wednesday, July 13, 2016
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for July 13, 2016
An Unpublished Interview with a Sit-Com Pioneer Who Died This Week
A scene from "In the Soup," an episode of "Leave it to Beaver" directed by Norman Abbott. [photographer unknown]
The sit-com was a new invention when director Norman Abbott, who died at age 93 on July 9th, started making them in the early Sixties. And the series he helped to create -- "Get Smart," "Leave It to Beaver," "The Munsters," "Sanford and Son," to name a few -- are among the all-time landmarks of classic television comedy. (Though, to be sure, he never quite eclipsed the legacy of his uncle, Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello.)
I conducted a one-on-one interview with Abbott in August 1997 for a newspaper article, but ended up not using the interview for the piece. Hence, my audiotaped Q&A with him has been unpublished -- until now. Here's my conversation with him.
Paul Iorio: What is your favorite ["Leave It to Beaver"] episode of all the ones you did? What's the best one?
Norman Abbott: I like the one in the soup cup on the billboard. [The 1961 episode "In the Soup," in which Beaver gets stuck in a giant cup on an advertising sign.]
Iorio: How did that evolve? What about your part in that?
Abbott: We were sitting around talking. I had just come back from New York and was talking about Times Square. And [writers] Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher had also been in New York. And we were talking about the sights. And there was an actual billboard in Times Square -- I think it was a soup cup or a bowl or something with heat coming out of it. And Bob and Joe said, "Let's put Beaver up in one of those cups." It was their idea, based on our kicking around stories about New York City. And that's how it happened.
Iorio: You started directing ["Leave It to Beaver"] in '60, '61?
Abbott: Some time in there. I was working at ABC as a stage manager and my first show was "Bachelor Father" with John Forsythe. And from that show, at the Universal lot, I got the "Leave it to Beaver" job.
Iorio: So you weren't there with the CBS incarnation of the show?
Abbott: It was on ABC initially, I think. Wasn't it?
Iorio: No, actually, I think it was on CBS for one season and then was canceled by CBS.
Abbott: Yeah, that's probably right.
Iorio: For a time, you were the main director, though Norman Tokar --
Abbott: Norman Tokar was the one. Norman Tokar was responsible, really, for the success of the show. The writing was very good. Connelly and Moser did most of the writing. They hired Norman Tokar, who set the style of the show, he was a very gifted director and worked for Disney for many years.
Iorio: Who do you think was most responsible for the character or Eddie Haskell? Because he is the one thing, whenever you bring up the show --
Abbott: I don't know where the character came from...There was no antagonist on the show -- ever. Everyone was a protagonist. No bad guys. And Eddie kind of fit that picture [of an antagonist] a little bit. He was abrasive, he was someone you could bounce off of. And good writing comes from that kind of an attitude.
Iorio: Did you ever think of basing a spin-off show around Eddie Haskell, like "Eddie and the Gang"?
Abbott: No, I don't recall any talk of doing a spin off with Eddie, because Beaver was too important to Bob and Joe.
Iorio: The show was obviously done on a back lot.
Iorio: But my research says there's a house at 1727 Buckingham Road in L.A. that apparently the facade is based on. Was it ever filmed on site?
Abbott: I doubt it very much. The Beaver house was on the back lot. And on a three-day schedule, which is all we had, we had a day of rehearsal, we had a three-day shoot, and time was always of the essence because the boys had to be in school. We would never go off the lot to shoot. Once in a great while, maybe. But, generally, everything had to be done in that three-day period. Because [the child actors] had to have five hours of school everyday. And we only had an eight or ten-hour day to shoot....
Iorio: Everybody always mention how well-crafted the show was. But everybody also mentions that the series had an idealized portrait of suburbia, never a hair out of place --
Abbott: All of that can be attributed to Joe Connelly. Joe came from an Irish-Catholic family and he attributed the good life to his lifestyle. And [Barbara Billingsley's character] was always the epitome of what every mother should be, as far as Joe was concerned. And that in turn cast the perfect husband, understanding to the children. And while we never did anything religious on the show, Joe was staunch in that area...
Iorio: What did you do after "Leave It to Beaver"?
Abbott: We went on to do ["The Munsters"]. There were two writers who worked for us, Norm Liebman and Ed Haas. They worked for Joe and Bob. And Ed Haas was an artist in his heart and would take the trade papers every day and [jokingly] re-do whatever picture was on [the cover]. He would erase the face and put a new one on. That sort of thing.
One day there was a Frankenstein picture in the paper and he redid it with a smile on Frankenstein's face. And -- I remember the day so well -- that's how "The Munsters" started.
He then took the picture to Joe and Bob and said, "Look at this funny thing I did." With no idea they would say, "Hey, that's a good idea for a pilot!" But that's how the "Munsters" pilot started. Exactly as it started. We did a ten-minute presentation, we didn't even do a full pilot. And I had a friend at CBS in charge of programming. And we had two days of shooting. The second day, you couldn't get near the soundstage. Everybody on the lot came down to see what we were doing. And I called my friend at CBS and said, "I don't know what the hell this is, but, my god, you can't get near the place, you'd better send for the film once we finish it." And he did. And it went on the air.
Iorio: "The Addams Family" --
Abbott: That came afterwards.
Iorio: Who was in production first?
Abbott: We were.
Iorio: Did you ever think of doing "Leave It to Beaver" as a feature film?
Abbott: No, never entered my mind. At that time, not many television shows were being done as features....
Iorio: Are you surprised at the durability of these shows (you were involved with]?
Abbott: Well, no, I'm not. My wife and I were discussing what garbage there is currently on television....And here comes material from the past that was strong....That's why the revival has happened.
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 22, 2016
I heard Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros live a week or so ago. Very entertaining stuff.
Two nights earlier, on the same Greek Theater stage in Berkeley, Bob Dylan had done his now legendary cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," which was just beginning to loom large over the pop culture landscape.
Not only has it gone viral online, but offline, too. At that venue, John McCauley, vocalist for Deer Tick, who opened for Sharpe, said: "It's an honor to be on the same stage on which Bob Dylan performed 'Freebird.'"
Clearly, that cover has resonated. Not quite the Altamont of the 21st century, but very, very close.
Future historians will ask "When did the sixties really end?," and the answer may well turn out to be, "When Dylan played 'Freebird' on the UC Berkeley campus."
I was in the hills above the Greek and so heard the whole Dylan concert (and recorded it, too).
What happened was this: someone in the audience ironically shouted "Freebird" when Dylan finished his final song, "Love Sick." The band, without missing a beat, did a note-perfect cover of the instrumental climax of the Skynyrd song. One minute and fifteen seconds of it, by my stopwatch. It was played almost mockingly, emphasizing only the gaudy parts.
But it was so faithful to the original -- something Dylan never is to his own stuff -- that I initially thought the concert had ended and pre-recorded music was streaming from the speakers. But, no.
In fact, Dylan even ran slghtly over the 10 p.m. cut-off because of his commitment to southern rockin'.
Anyway, the following Saturday, I went to hear Sharpe, who sounded so great that I started recording his set -- and I accidentally recorded over both "Love Sick" and "Freebird."
I was depressed about this for many days, even had several dark thoughts, but I made it through that long night of having recorded over something I wanted to keep. (Call me a survivor of Accidental Erasure Trauma Syndrome (AETS).)
For many days, I didn't even want to look at that tape, so upset I was. But then I started listening to it and began really enjoying Sharpe. Pulled me right out of my funk.
The rap on them is they're sometimes too much fun, too much chocolate cake.
But fun, it is. I mean, they did a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Who Loves the Sun" as if it were a track by the Association or the Turtles. Wonderful version. (Would love to hear 'em do the Turtles' "Love in the City.")
Don't know the names of their songs, but they started with a catchy track that sounded like "I lost my car car car...," went on to something that sounded like early Arcade Fire and then did a melodic thing that slightly resembled Ray Davies' "Well Respected Man."
Sort of reminded me of an obscure Warner band of the eighties called Red Box, who I once championed in the trade press back in the day but who nobody else seemed to like much. Sharpe of course has become way more successful.
Opening acts Deer Tick and Harriet both did terrific sets.
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 15, 2016
Spirit's "Taurus" appears to lift its riff from Johnny River's "Summer Rain," which preceded it by a year. Zep's defense team should take note. (Nobody's brought this up yet.)
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 10, 2016
Last night at the Greek in Berkeley, Bob Dylan sure made a persuasive case for "Tempest," his 2012 album of originals, which supplied the setlist with more songs than any other album.
And those tracks were the show's highlights, particularly "Long and Wasted Years," which had escaped my notice when it was first released. Here, it was the height of the night. And "Duquesne Whistle" had a lot of swing, got everyone going.
"Tempest" tracks overshadowed everything else, including stuff from his two collections of songs made famous by Frank Sinatra -- like the new single "Melancholy Mood," with the memorable phrase "crack of doom" -- which were evocative of, say, sounds heard on a car radio from a distant station on a late night drive through Kansas in the 1950s.
Still, wish he had chosen to cover forgotten Sinatra classic "Drinkin' Again," or the better known "Let's Face the Music and Dance," tracks even better-suited to his range and sensibility.
Those who came to hear Dylan's gold from the sixties and seventies got only three songs: an unrecognizable "She Belongs to Me," a re-arranged "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue," re-written with new lyrics and a guitar figure that sounded like George Harrison's "Wah-Wah."
But this wasn't about that. The gig focused exclusively on his work of the past two decades, which would be a landmark oeuvre even if he had done nothing else and if "Time Out of Mind" had been his debut album.
Ultimately, I left the show humming the hypnotic "Long and Wasted Years," which felt like faded photos or distant memories of a small town childhood, or a kid's music box. Magic.
And I think everyone did a double take when he finished "Love Sick" with a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird"!
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 6, 2016
A few hours ago, I shook hands with Bill Clinton and shot this photo of him in Hayward, California.
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 4, 2016
I heard Paul Simon perform last night and am still floating somewhere between Shattuck and assorted cumulus clouds this morning. So invigorating that I might take in a second dose tonight.
And I've seen him all different ways over the decades: with Simon & Garfunkel (1980), on opening night of the "Graceland" tour at Radio City Music Hall with (among others) Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who I've seen perform from three yards away (doing "Beautiful Rain") and whose leader, the late Joseph Shabalala, I spent time with one on one in the 1980s.
And then there was the time Paul Simon stood right next to me at the Brill Building in '87 (there was a performance going on, so I couldn't exchange words with him). Oh, and I also was the first trade reporter to write about a new album called "Graceland" in August 1986, back when it was considered anything but a sure hit. (Thanks to Liz Beth Rosenberg for slipping me an advance copy all those years ago!)
On the list of songwriters I admire, he's right up there with Dylan and McCartney, which is to say at or near the top of Everest.
This concert, coming on the day his new album, "Stranger to Stranger," was released, was as good as recent Simon gets. And, as he loves to say in interviews, the rhythm is central to everything,
I left the Greek Theater feeling like I'd been to the Andes, the Amazon, Capetown and the French Quarter in one night. And if you can resist dancing to his live version of "That Was Your Mother," then you're a better person than I am.
What is so fascinating after so many decades is that "Graceland" has become so central to his set -- the crowd roared when it heard those first words, "She's a rich girl" -- eclipsing even some of the Simon & Garfunkel oeuvre Who would've guessed that Simon could give concerts that included only two or three S&G songs without the crowd feeling shortchanged?
Here he did "The Boxer" as a country-ish song -- as if he were about to do it Johnny Cash-style, which might've worked. And when it came to that magnificent horn part, all I could think of was that incredibly moving performance of it on SNL after 9/11, the camera panning across the faces of firefighters. I get choked up every time I hear it.
Other highlights included his surprisingly strong new single, "Wristband"; "The Obvious Child," which just leaps out of the speakers; "You Can Call Me Al," which got everyone going; the jazzy coda of "Cool Cool River"; the doo-wop echoes at the end of "Boy in the Bubble"; an instrumental "El Condor Pasa" segueing into "Duncan." (Hearing him sing "playing my guitar/lying underneath the stars" as the stars in the hills above the Greek Theater (where I heard the show) emerged was a special thing.) And "Me and Julio" -- fresh as an evergreen.
Yeah, I'm going back tonight!
THE DAILY DIGRESSION
for June 2, 2016
I went to the gargantuan Bernie Sanders rally in Oakland on Monday. Got there four hours early and the line was already so long that nobody actually knew for sure where the end was. Didn't get in. But outside, it was wild. Here're a couple anti-Trumpsters.
[photo credit: Paul Iorio]
And here's a Sandernista in a Bernie dress!
[photo credit: Paul Iorio]