Sunday, September 13, 2009

TV: Specials

Each Thanksgiving, we brave the offerings. In 2005, we discovered Faith Hill is a very down home and pleasing TV friend while Kenny Chesney is best left to the failed gypsies of Broadway. Since then, we marveled over NBC's incredible poor taste in offering the very stale Madonna in a raunchy and dull two hours while reducing Tony Bennett's talent to a brief hour. Somewhere in there, we endured Rod Stewart's lost voice and barely made it through Live Earth. Last year, the turkey was served again by NBC, home of all turkeys, via Rosie O'Donnell. More recently CBS offered an amazing special by Barbra Stresiand.

Of all the specials we've caught in the last four years and nine months, only Faith Hill's and Barbra Streisand's truly lived up to the term "special." From time to time, we wonder if we remember wrong and maybe specials always pretty much sucked? Last week we decided to check and see if memories came equipped with automatic updates that transformed drek like From Justin to Kelly into classics?

We had two specials to examine. One a special for British television that a friend sent us a DVD of after he enjoyed "The Joni Roundtable" and the other just-released on DVD for the first time. We'll start with the just-released one.
mama cass

The Mama Cass Television Program, taped January 18, 1969, was hosted by the one and only Cass Elliot and featured as guests: Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Mary Travers, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Buddy Hackett. Cass had just begun her solo career, after leaving the Mamas and the Papas, and a close viewing suggests that ABC was attempting to kill her.

We're not joking. ABC, for those late to the party, was the struggling network that Aaron Spelling and Fred Silverman saved. Silverman in the 70s, Aaron from the late sixties on. With the exception of Desi Arnez productions, ABC had little to show for itself prior. Very little. Onscreen, anyway. Offscreen, back then, its news organization pretty much existed to provide a front for CIA agents in other countries. (Furthering the CIA connection, Chuck Barris was the executive producer on the Cass special.) Right-wing owners thought that's what a broadcas network did (provide cover for CIA agents) and, as a viewing on any given night tended to indicate, they thought that was all a broadcast network did.

Peggy Lipton emerged in the fall of 1968 on Aaron Spellings' The Mod Squad which was among the shows that finally gave the network cachet. Into this environment strolls Cass. And for the first few seconds, all is well in the world as she sings "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" and it's even okay during the uptempo musical number that plays under the opening credits that Cass (and three female background singers) begin singing. It continues after the first commercial break as Cass sits on the stage and speaks to the audience. And then?

Buddy Hackett? Buddy f**king Hackett? Not since CBS saddled Judy Garland with Jerry Van Dyke has a second banana been so poorly picked. And the outfit she wears in the opening is the worst outfit we can think of. Tight around the top in a fabric that can only be described as Christmas gift wrapping with a train that starts below the breasts and has folds in it plus a line pattern in which the lines go every way imaginable.

The first half of the special contains one obstacle after another. Cass, an Olympian talent, manages to overcome each one. Sitting down on the stage with Hackett, she takes his standard TV corn lines and adds weight to them. She does that by listening with an intensity and responding not in yuck-yuck manner but softly. A wise choice and not one that others planned or intended. (Listen to the lines Cass recites. They were meant to be yuck-yuck, vaudeville.) She underplays allowing the exchange to have a weight that would otherwise be missing.

Then comes the second half of the first hour and she's joined by Joni Mitchell and Mary Travers onstage. Sitting, Cass introduces her two friends. Joni then performs (singing and guitar) a strong "Both Sides Now" (which she wrote) with Cass adding some harmonies. (The sound is poor during many music numbers. That's not a DVD issue, that's an ABC issue.) Mary follows with an upbeat version of Laura Nyro's "And When I Die." Watching today, you'll mainly notice Mary's bangs and wonder if she was the inspiration for the Muppet Janice because she looks like Janice's mother.

Mary plays to the audience present and her singing is up to her usual standards (she's "Mary" of Peter, Paul and . . . -- for any who don't know) but it's the still emerging Joni Mitchell that steals the attention. The three women join together on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" and it's really a magical moment. If you don't know better, you'll assume the special is about to really soar.

But after the commercial break, we're at the next half-hour mark and gone are Joni and Mary but Buddy's back. At least Cass looks lovely -- even if she's required to say she and Buddy make a "lovely couple." They're quickly joined by then-husband-and-wife Landau and Bain (who were then-starring in CBS's Mission Impossible). Though the couple knew Cass long before the special, there's nothing onscreen to indicate that. Bain frequently looks around at everyone but the people on stage with her (she also avoids looking at the camera) and Landau frequently appears to be only physically present. The four-some launch into a bad number entitled "Meeskite" which appears to exist -- like that gaudy dress in the opening -- only to say to America, "Can you believe this woman got her own TV special?"

You wouldn't get that kind of crap in any of Barbra Streisand's special but she had management that gave a damn and also a real network (CBS). Cass had the struggling ABC and it's obvious the network wanted to make a quick buck off the 'freak.' The second half of each half-hour allows Cass not just to overcome the trappings, but also to really shine.

If you're confused by that, you don't grasp life in the days of three big networks and, if you were lucky, an independent station or two. Five choices was considered a plethora of viewing choices. So with many artists (Lily Tomlin is an example of one) that the networks wanted to make a buck off of but never understood, they'd insist on the first half of the show being done to their satisfaction and then give in to the artist's demands for the rest of the special. If you're not following, back then, before cable and satellite, or Tivo or VCRs, the thinking was that if you could get them watching in the first fifteen minutes of each half hour, you had them hooked and they'd stick around for thirty minutes regardless of how much the program (whatever program) sucked.

So in the second half of each half-hour, Cass gets to be Cass and you have to wonder how ABC could have ever wanted anything else from her?

Following a non-funny skit of Barbara Bain and Martin Landau Buddy -- then the most famous TV acting couple and considered very hot -- in which they are prematurely grayed to play two people who have to resort to computer dating for romantic company, Hackett returns for a skit and you start to wonder if ABC is ever going to stop presenting Cass as a freak?

She and Hackett play two patients in a hospital. Hackett's eyes are wrapped from some surgery and he is about to have the bandages removed. He can't wait to see Cass who wonders if he'll still be interested when he can see. The performances are strong and redeemed by the ending when its revealed that Cass' character is blind which might indicate that was her concern about Hackett getting his sight back and not that there was something wrong with her.

There's nothing wrong with Cass. She not only was immensely talented, she was also a very pretty woman. In most of the special when she's wearing clothes you associate with Cass, she looks fine and dandy. John Sebastian shows up to perform "She's A Lady." Then he and Cass share an early story from the NYC days together before performing "Darling Companion." Cass will finish things out performing onstage with her band and backup singers. A sign of how third-rate ABC was, they don't give a damn about the sound quality. They've miked the backup singers louder than Cass, not only that, when it's on the microphone stand, her mike is too low for her. Were the technicians sleeping through the rehearsals? Following "California Dreamin'," she takes the mike off the stand and holds it allowing her to project better on the next three numbers (two she recorded with the Mamas and the Papas plus "I Can Dream, Can't I?") and then "Dream A Little Dream."

By the point John Sebastian (emerging from the Lovin' Spoonful then) has joined her, you've either forgotten the first part of each half hour due to all the good vibrations or else you're wondering why the whole special couldn't be something special?

The DVD explains it somewhat. The special aired with commercials. So the DVD has put commercials from back in the day in the commercial breaks. You'll notice women constantly worried about their looks -- including a young Bernadette Peters being instructed to wear a padded bra -- who are often paired with men that can best be described as "gruesome" (check out the band leader in the Listerine ad) and you'll get what a breakthrough and threat Cass was.

In an era where marketing ruled supreme, Cass refused to be like anyone else, she was who she was and she just was. It was the most natural thing in the world for her and that's what made Cass so very revolutionary. The last half of each half-hour gets that across.

DVD extras include Cass and Sammy Davis Jr. singing Peter, Paul and Mary's hit "I Dig Rock & Roll Music" -- with new lyrics that really don't have a great deal to do with rock and roll -- and, most importantly, John Sebastian remembering Cass which includes the story of how she introduced him to his future bandmate Zal Yanovsky, "And I'm not the only person who met a really pivotal person at Cass' houses. Obviously Crosby, Stills and Nash, you know, heavily motivated by Cass to be joined together. And I would say that what she had was a sort of like what they called 'salons' in the literary field. That's what she had in this -- what'd we call this? Folk rock neighborhood."

That neighborhood was global. A friend sent us a copy of a BBC special that aired in September of 1970, Joni Mitchell Sings Joni Mitchell.

It's only a year later, but Joni's bangs are gone and she's stopped using an eyebrow pencil (and she looks about five years younger). The amazing bone structure remains. As with Cass' special, Joni is onstage in front of an audience; however, Joni's allowed to just be Joni. It's like the second part of each half-hour of The Mama Cass Television Program in that Joni's just expected to entertain, not mingle with various comics and TV stars.

She uses the special to showcase her gifts. Opening on the guitar with "Chelsea Morning" and "Cactus Tree," she moves over to the piano for "My Old Man" and "He Played Real Good For Free." In one of the few moments when she speaks to the audience, she'll and explain of the first song, "This is a song that isn't really finished. It, you know, needs another verse to it still. But it's got a little bit of it there. And when I go home late at night this is a song I really like to sing right now, so I'll play it for you." She never came up with another verse for "My Old Man" but she'd record it the following year, on Blue, with the chorus following the second verse (the only real change to the song other than slowing down the tempo a bit more).

After the piano, Joni moves on to another instrument, a dulcimer, and she'll give a brief background of it and also show the details of the one she had made (by Joellen Lapidus). She'll talk about the song she's about to play, terming it a "letter back home," with the first verse written in Paris, the second in Spain and the third "when I got back home." The song is the classic "California."

Sittin' in a park in Paris, France,

Readin' the news and it sure looks bad.

They won't give peace a chance.

That was just a dream some of us had.

Still a lot of lands to see,

But I wouldn't wanna stay here.

It's too old and cold

And settled in its ways here.

Ah, but California . . .

She'll grab the guitar again for "Big Yellow Taxi" (with an additional verse: "Late last night, I heard that screen door slam, and a big yellow tractor came and took away my house, it took away my land") and "Both Sides Now" and, in the process, put together an incredibly charming special. We loved the disc and wish it were released with some bonus materials but you can watch the special online via Google video.

The Cass special is part of a Cass resurgence intended to showcase her amazing talents. As part of that resurgence, her self-titled RCA album and The Road Is No Place For A Lady have been released on a single CD. Kat reviewed them Labor day ("Kat's Korner: Cass Elliot's buried classic surfaces"). Both the DVD and CD can be purchased online at Collectors' Choice. Joni Mitchell's forever in a resurgence and this November sees the release of a new boxed set. At the end of her special, Cass says, "From my mouth to his [looking upward] ear, peace." She then makes the peace sign. It was 1969. It was the intensely conservative ABC. You can't talk about her talent without talking about her guts because they really went hand-in-hand and, in its best moments, that's what her special captures.
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