Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A very rare treat

Okay... as promised...

This is an episode of television you'll want to see.  It hasn't aired in thirty years.  This is from the short-lived ABC series, THE ASSOCIATES.    James L. Brooks & company, the creative team behind TAXI is also responsible for this forgotten gem.  The series is about a group of young upscale lawyers, starring a very young Martin Short.

This episode in particular is very special and should resonate as much today as it did when it first aired.  The subject matter is television network censorship.  Short is asked to get involved in a dispute between the network censor and a sitcom showrunner over a scene the network finds offensive.  Actually, I give ABC a lot of credit for airing it.

The episode was written by Ed. Weinberger & Stan Daniels.  They won a WGA Award for it (duh).  Sincere thanks to Howard Hoffman for taping and saving it all these years.

I'm looking forward to your thoughts. 


THE ASSOCIATES - The Censors - April 10, 1980 from Howard Hoffman on Vimeo.

50 comments:

That Neil Guy said...

I read the novel The Associates last year - I'd only been toting it around since the early eighties - and wondered how it got translated to TV. Thanks for letting me see the answer.

Directed by Tony Mordente. There's someone I haven't thought about in years, maybe decades. I need to go IMDB him right now...

Mark said...

I thought this was amusing and well-acted, but it didn't resonate with me as being "memorably great." I think you'd need to have worked in the industry and fought those battles yourself to really take this to heart.

Bruce B. said...

I remember watching this episode when it first ran, and it really stuck in my head all these years. I still remember how brave it seemed at the time. The problem with viewing it now, in the age of "Family Guy" and "South Park," is simply the lack of context. There were three networks and some local independent stations then. 1980 was a time when just what was acceptable to the public, who owned the airwaves, was in flux. Cable existed, but wasn't setting the rules yet. This show reflected it's time extremely well. Beautiful script, beautifully done.

Dave Kovarik said...

Love the Delta House line.

Dave Kovarik said...

Love the Delta House joke.

Michael said...

From the day I saw My Fair Lady, I thought Wilfrid Hyde-White was an unsung comedic genius. I was right.

Anonymous said...

In my view, The Associates is the Great Lost Sitcom. Absolutely hilarious. I wish the studio would release the handful of episodes on DVD.

Sebastian said...

Son of a bitch!

RIP John Ritter

Anonymous said...

Weird trivia: Louisa Moritz, who plays the blonde girlfriend, later left acting and became a lawyer.

Mac said...

I'd never heard of the show, but I loved that.
For me that was funny right out of the gate.
Wilfrid Hyde-White was tremendous. Lots of great moments - like the writer whose rant is defused as soon as he gets a compliment.
I was prepared to overlook the "camp gay rights guy" scene as being "of its time," but when he turned out to be acting, I realized it didn't need any concessions on account of its age.
They weren't afraid to have quite long exchanges with no gags, so the storyline and what was at stake was never sacrificed. Not afraid to end on a non-gag either. Or, for such a smart show, to do big daft physical jokes.
I love that they made the arguments both for and against censorship, and did it in a fair way. They showed how it sacrificed the funny, but then to say "it's only a TV show" and "let me think about it" was so much more effective than using it to hammer home their own case.
Perhaps that episode was a bit of an industry in-joke, but I'm guessing they covered lots of other subjects in the series(?) but I was amazed how good that was, and that it didn't take off if the rest were anywhere near that standard.
Warm, intelligent, smart, amazing writing, great performances. Thanks a lot for posting this, I'm off to see what exists on DVD.

MikeFab said...

I never saw this on TV, although I thought this episode was well written and acted, and most importantly....funny. For the most part, I quit watching sitcoms years ago. To me, the "funny" quotient has been MIA for a long time and systematically replaced by "let's see how raunchy and crude we can make this." It seems that many of todays writers have either abandoned, or perhaps never had the ability to use clever, thought provoking innuendo in their scripts. Nowdays, it seems that smashmouth, in-your-face tactics are the only way many writers seem to be able to scrape up a few laughs. Give me an old "Leave it to Beaver" episode anyday. Thanks.

The Curmudgeon said...

Yes, Anonymous, I wish they'd release these as well. I cracked up every time Wilfred Hyde-White entered the room.

The funny thing is, I agree with Tucker. I loved the scene as written -- but I wouldn't have wanted to watch it with my kids when they were younger. My mother would have been embarrassed.

Bruce B. mentioned Family Guy and South Park. I've never made it through an entire episode of either (despite my kids' urgings). I'd start watching and be mildly amused -- and then something would be said so over the top that I had to change channels.

I used to get embarrassed at the commercials for upcoming shows on Fox during the Bears games. I didn't think anything could be more embarrassing than John Shoop's offense - but the promos were. (Then, as I got older, and started watching the History Channel or really old re-runs on ME-TV, I learned what embarrassment really is. I became completely desensitized to the never-ending ED commercials -- but the commercials about no longer having to re-use catheters truly grossed me out.)

I know you've written that you can't write good comedy and worry about giving offense at the same time. But you've also written that the best comedy comes from character -- which is why Jack Benny holds up over time. Maybe this is a Friday question: Can truly recognizable comedic characters really develop in modern comedy or -- given the modern short attention span and, on TV, compressed time slots -- must all comedy rely on problems with bodily functions?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

There's an Emily Levine in the credits. Any relation?

Never seen The Associates before. Pretty nice, even if feels a little too much 1970-1980's.

The jokes are nice, and the concept of this episode at least resonates pretty well. How far do you compromise and butcher the show's integrity just to avoid upsetting a few bad apples? Sadly, I feel this has only gotten worse with time.

I do like that they make the point that it's only a TV show at the end. You can't win every battle, even if I'd definitely root for the showrunner in this case.

Something bugged me about this show, or at least this episode though. It didn't feel like the show was about Martin Short's character at all. It feels like they've built the story around the plot itself and the guest characters who served as spokespeople for the issue at hand.

I know that comes with the territory in lawyer shows, but I felt Short was wasted until he came into his own on the show's second half.

sartorias said...

At first I was so distracted by the godawful set that threw me back in time that I had to rewind.

As others said, it's both funny and smart, but what really got to me was how, in about two minutes, they captured how a bunch of well-meaning, creative-in-various-ways people can, in compromising and extrapolating into the stratosphere of 'what-if', edit something into inanity, if not total incomprehensibility.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I barely recognized John Ritter. He was clearly honing his "Three's Company" moves in this episode. A shame. He was such a nice guy. I dated Shelly Smith briefly in the 80's (that's why I'm posting anonymously today) She left the business and went into the baby adoption placement biz.

Johnny Walker said...

Holy cow. That was amazing, I absolutely loved it. It's still relevant today. Thanks for sharing it.

Nat G. said...

In support of television, let me note that this series has aired on cable at least a few times since its original run; when channels are dredging up the "overlooked classics", it tends to show up.

Ray said...

I can see why the show was cancelled.

LookingforaReference said...

@That Neil Guy Referenced a novel that the show was based on. Does anyone know the author's name? I checked on Amazon and most searches for "The Associates" turn-up books written after the show came out.

cadavra said...

Ken, I am not kidding when I say that I always cite this as the single finest sitcom episode ever (no offense to your own work, of course). I despaired of ever seeing it again--it's not on YouTube and I didn't think to look anywhere else. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Mike said...

@ LookingForReference :-
From the end credits, John Jay Osborn Jr.
Lots of cheap editions currently available, like this. Or use a library, before the Republicans close them all.

That Neil Guy said...

@LookingForaReference

The book was indeed by John Jay Osborn http://t.co/53S2hob

He also wrote the original novel The Paper Chase.

benson said...

Mr. Curmudgeon,

You, sir, made me laugh (and cringe at the memory) with your John Shoop reference.

Thank you.

Charlie Muph-anne said...

Fir-bish? That's what you're going to call him?

willieb said...

I remember watching the pilot of this series. They had a great-looking lawyer that everyone liked and Joe Regalbuto,the annoying guy everyone hated, vying for a single opening on the staff. At the end of the show, Regalbuto was picked and the great-looking guy everyone liked left, never to be seen again. Pretty risky for a 1980s sitcom.

Jimmy JoJo Jr. said...

Never saw this before (at that age, I was too busy thrilling to them Duke boys outrunning Hazzard County's best-and-brightest during this particular time slot), but enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing!

I have to ask: did this episode run with a viewer advisory at the beginning? Sure it was a show that ran outside the Family Hour, but wouldn't having characters say "The Bastard" or calling the Lassie spin-off "Son of a Bitch" have caused instantaneous fits of apoplexy in the ABC Standards and Practices office?

I know that this entire episode was vetted (and it didn't hurt that the pedigree behind the show was as strong as it was), but I agree that it was actually pretty damn courageous even to try to get this on the air. That ABC actually broadcast it was a victory for free speech – and for the idea that even when we disagree about what "free speech" entails, we still have the right to openly voice our disagreements.

Others have referenced Family Guy and South Park in their comments, but I wonder if anyone else thought the sitcom-within-a-sitcom plot on this episode felt pretty much like every episode of Two and a Half Men (minus the genuine physical comedy genius of the late, great John Ritter)?

Mark Murphy said...

I also remember a great episode featuring both Wilfred Hyde-White and John Houseman -- with Houseman as Professor Kingsfield of "Paper Chase."

mcp said...

I remember the Wilfred Hyde-White and John Houseman episode too. Hyde-White got to say to Houseman as Professor Kingsfield "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

Dave Olden said...

Brilliant, Ken. Thank you.

@ Eduardo Jencarelli - This is, after all, a situation comedy. Why shouldn't it be all about the situation?

jbryant said...

Ironically, the fact that the episode actually aired somewhat undercuts its message. Not enough to ruin anything, of course.

Hyde-White is hilarious, but it seems to me that his scene has been carefully and cleverly edited to eliminate awkward pauses or perhaps some forgotten lines or rambling digressions (and surely that paper he's holding is a cheat sheet). Not complaining, really. It worked well enough, and his humor and charm come through unscathed. He was about 77 here, I believe, with another 10 years to go.

Breadbaker said...

Hey, Ken, I just looked on the USS Mariner and saw a number of comments thanking you for wishing Dave Cameron well in his fight against leukemia.

You, sir, are a mensch.

Johnny Walker said...

Amazed that so many people don't like this. I was compelled from the very beginning and then it got really good, and just when I thought it couldn't get any better, it topped itself.

Maybe it's because I'm able to understand exactly how this show would have been seen at the time? I couldn't compare it to Family Guy even if I wanted to.

Anyways, the reason for my comment is this: The video runs for 22 mins -- I'm pretty sure sitcoms ran for 25 mins in the 80s didn't they? Does that mean there's a longer version out there somewhere?

Kirk said...

Like many others who have commented, I remember the show, the episode, and also the episode with John Houseman. Very funny show. Too bad it went off the air. Speaking of Houseman, I remember the scene where Joe Regalbuto starts stuttering in court in front of his old law professor(Houseman as his Paper Chase character). He recovers, but is then upset when the Judge declares the case moot, even though that's to his clients favor, and, showing his mastery of the hard C sound, calls Houseman both cantakerous and craven and a couple others C words that I've long since forgotten.

Frank said...

Very Taxiish which is good!

estiv said...

...showing his mastery of the hard C sound, calls Houseman both cantakerous and craven and a couple others C words that I've long since forgotten.

@Kirk, one of them was "crapulous," which led to a nice punchline delivered by Houseman.

I'll join the chorus, Ken: thanks so much. I remember this episode well and am grateful to see it again.

Craig M. said...

Ken, I know this was written by two masters of the form, but I'm afraid that whole first act went off the rails the minute the scene switched to L.A. Splitting off one character and leaving the rest behind this early in the series seems risky enough; but then reducing him to a bystander to what is essentially an entirely different sitcom cast just stopped the show dead in its tracks. I loved "Taxi," still love it, and heard many great things about "The Associates" over the years, but I couldn't hang with this episode even the act break. Sorry.

Michael said...

As I recall, there's a scene where Kingsfield says that he became a professor to train young minds rather than become an unethical bottom-feeder and Hyde-White's character says, "Charlie, I always knew you envied me."

Phillip B said...

I remember watching this show and just assuming it would run for years. Part of the shared illusion we had of "quality television" back in the day...

But the strongest memory is a long newspaper piece on Wilfrid Hyde-White. He went on about how he would only consent to do television -- at his advanced years and professional stature -- if he could be assured of the quality and high mindedness of the material.

A year passed, The Associates was cancelled, and he found himself teamed up with a wisecracking robot on "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" on NBC.

cadavra said...

Johnny: The main titles are missing, so there's about a minute right there. So 23 + 1 ought to b about right. It doesn't seem like anything else is missing, but as I said, it's been a long time...

Great Big Radio Guy said...

@Craig M:

"I couldn't hang with this episode even the act break. Sorry."

Too bad. The cast comes back at the end to deliver the episode's payoff.

Dave said...

So I can't say I liked the clip overall....it's definitely a show made by and for Hollywood insiders, and I can see why it didn't resonate with most of America. I did however really like the run-though, and that part won me over, although the rest of the clip killed it afterwords. I loved the middle part of it for one reason, and really one reason only...damn I miss John Ritter.

Rick said...

A set of 12 of 13 episodes of THE ASSOCIATES is available on DVD, with a bit of online searching, in the so-called "collector's market" (AKA "gray market").

This is the kind of thing the collector's market is most justifiable for: selling something that is otherwise unavailable and likely to remain so.

Selling--or BUYING--gray market copies of items available legitimately is, I think, not just illegal for the seller but morally reprehensible by the buyer.

Craig L. said...

I passed it on to MetaFilter http://www.metafilter.com/106171/ with the title "at 18:43: '...which kind of explains why there's never been a funny show about lawyers'" and a little explanation for the web-based youngsters (and an embarrassing misspelling). It went over pretty well with the non-insider audience. But in doing further research, I found the Associates pilot episode in two parts: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6wuly_the-associates-pilot-part-1_fun and http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6wufe_the-associates-pilot-part-2_fun Now if only someone would put the John Houseman episode online.

Johnny Walker said...

Losing the characters early on may be unconventional, but that doesn't automatically mean it's bad.

Also: Yes, I guess with credits it's actually 24 mins, which sounds right.

Hans said...

The sitcom within the sitcom wasn´t funny. Which sort of undercut the whole message. The rest was very funny.

Craig L. said...

The sitcom within the sitcom was a different style (Ritter being much more 'Three's Company-ish'); I think it worked in a different way, but the only thing that struck me as awkward was hearing the laugh-track-or-studio-audience guffawing at the physical business as the camera switched to Short and The Network Guy sitting stone-faced, then Short breaking at the end. Probably a concept that read funnier in the script, but otherwise near perfect for me.

Brian Phillips said...

Fun episode, great writing (to quote a great statesman,"Duh"). My conclusion about the show is akin to Spike Milligan's opinion of the first two seasons of the Goon Show. He partially described it as "...the threat of electricity to come". Good writing, good cast, but some of the elements weren't quite in sync. So I have heard, in the early script readings of "Friends", the cast supposedly sounded like they had been working together for years. This show, overall, for me didn't quite have that chemistry. The cast had talent, but it at times seemed to be shoehorned in. Martin Short can do a Judy Garland impression? Let's work that in. Wilfrid Hyde-White does wonderful monologues? Let's work that in.

[Sidenote] Great Hyde-White line: "...the great Lena Horne performed at this party. When she got off the bandstand, as she passed me she said, "Good 'bones". I took it as a compliment."

Joe Regalbuto is a great actor, but he never struck me as a great jerk; he was better served by "Murphy Brown". Shelley Smith's role seemed to be an homage to Loni Anderson's role on "WKRP in Cincinnati".

Having said all of that, it was a good show that deserved more time to find its footing.

I won't spoil anything, but as to the episode itself, it most certainly covered previously trodden ground (the Smothers Brothers did a sketch in which censors changed the line, "My heart beats wildly in my breast when you're near". to "My pulse beats wildly in my arm when you're near"), but it turned out to make an eloquent point about another issue entirely, which, I gather, is harder to do nowadays, without sounding like a "Very Special Blossom" episode.

For those who would like to see Stan Daniels, look for the Mary Tyler Moore blooper reel on YouTube. The best rendition of "Old Man River" since Paul Robeson.

Lisa said...

oh my god. The Associates. Sometimes I think it was a show I dreamed of. Nobody remembers it.

I remember loving it, thinking it was one of the smartest things I'd seen on tv.

And then, like Keyser Sose, it was gone.

bevo said...

I knew a faculty member who was the embodiment of the Wilfrid Hyde-White character.

The show worked very well. Today, though, I doubt any of the networks would run it. Perhaps FX or Showtime.

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