Tuesday, June 25, 2024

TV: The fiction-driven documentary

Truth.  Does it matter?


We think it does.  Others seem to value it only some of the time.


Janeane Garofalo spoke out against the Iraq War -- from before it started.  We applaud her for that.  In the run up to the war and the immediate aftermath, she was working on two pilots.  Both were not picked up.  There was a feeling that the reason was due to Janeane's speaking out.  Janeane pushed back at that idea.  It would have made her even more popular on the left for some if she'd gone along with the false claim that her activism cost her sitcom opportunities or even if she'd just stayed silent and said nothing.

Janeane went with the truth.

We were reminded of that while watching NETFLIX's OUTSTANDING: A COMEDY REVOLUTION.

There's a lot of truth -- sometimes hard truths -- in the documentary; however, there was also some pure nonsense.

Robin Tyler.

Tyler is an out lesbian today.  She wasn't when she started out and pretended that she and her lover and stage partner were sisters or when she did rah-rah Vietnam USO shows -- a fact she sometimes been honest about and a fact she's more often lied about in recent years insisting that she was kicked off the USO tour for being too radical in her comedy.  Not a detail she ever included in real time or the years that immediately followed.  Examples?  There are many.  So many.  From Cassandra Tate's "Despite Adversity The Message Remains The Same" (LEWISTON MORNING TRIBUNE, March 13, 1976), "A few years ago, Patti Harrison and Robin Tyler donned tiny miniskirts and lots of make up and went out to audition for a USO show that would tour Vietnam.  They sang songs like 'My Man,' looked cute and sexy and got accepted."  UPI's "Harrison and Tyler Very Serious About Funny Business" (June 14, 1972) quotes her stating, "We were doing a really sexist act, in those days with blonde wigs and everything. We didn't know then  that we were women libbers."

Truth for Robin Tyler depends upon her mood.


There's much to admire about Robin, there's much to cringe over as well.  Under cringe, we'd list, for example, her efforts regarding housing Elizabeth Bouvia who had announced her  desire to die (noted in the January 1, 1984 edition of THE LUMBERTON ROBESONIAN, A-6) resulted in Bouvia rejecting them and stating Robin was "out for too much publicity."

Under cringe, we'd also include her 'support' for female comics over the years -- she didn't support female comics.   Her ad campaign for her 1982 comedy tour, see THE VANCOUVER SUN, June 14, 1982, C-8, found her using a blurb comparing her to Lenny Bruce and proclaiming "Mort Sahl . . . Richard Pryor . . . now Robin Tyler." To promote her 1983 comedy tour, her advertising billed her as "a female Lenny Bruce" (see, among others, the ad that ran in section D of THE PITTSBURGH PRESS, April 28, 1983).  Over the years, she has repeatedly praised Lenny Bruce (see Patrick Tivy's "Lesbian Comic Blasts Increase In Racism," May 14, 1983, CALGARY HERALD).  UPI's "Harrison and Tyler Very Serious About Funny Business" and "Female Comedians Stepping Out" (same feature, ran under different titles from June 28th through July 1st of 1972) note  Bruce as an influence and Dick Gregory while dismissing Totie Fields, Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller. There were no, we are told, female role models in stand up. Martin Portus' "Sharing a Joke In These Gay Times" (SYDNEY MORNING HERALD, February 17, 1988) found her citing Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. 


Moms Mabley is one of many women Robin Tyler could have cited over the years but never did.  OUTSTANDING: A COMEDY REVOLUTION doesn't overlook Moms.  And, fortunately, it includes many other trailblazers including Judy Gold and, especially, Todd Glass.

Now it's great to hear from Sandra Bernhard, Margaret Cho, Rosie O'Donnell and others but it's Todd Glass who lays it on the line about being in the closet and why he stayed in the closet and then why he came out.

It's not a story that Robin tells.  Or, really, one that anyone else really tells in the documentary.  But many of them could tell it.  We love Lily Tomlin but in a documentary focusing on LGBTQ+ issues, we don't need to hear lies that she was basically always out.  She wasn't.  And her pretend affair with John Travolta to promote MOMENT BY MOMENT doesn't back up her claim that she was always out nor does her lawsuit against Joan Churchill and Nicholas Broomfield over their documentary -- authorized documentary -- authorized by Lily herself -- LILY TOMLIN.  The documentary covers the early stages of THE SEARCH FOR SINGS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE all the way up to the show's Broadway premiere.  Lily liked the documentary when Churchill and Broomfield first showed it to her but then Cheryl Swanack, Lily's manger, got in Lily's ear about how some of the scenes of Lily with Jane Wagner made it clear that the women were more than best friends.  And that's when Lily sued.  (In 2019, Lily appeared with Joan Churchill at The Traverse City Film Festival where both LILY TOMLIN and the film of THE SEARCH FOR SIGNS OF INTELLIGENT LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE were shown.)

Joel Kim Booster and Fortune Feimster are among the ones noting how bravery in the past allowed them the present.  And we're glad for those moments.  We just would have preferred Lily, for example. talking honestly about those times in the past and the true costs that were imposed on performers like herself.


 Not only do we not get that honesty, we don't get honesty in the 'martyrdom' of Robin Tyler -- sacrificed for being too gay -- long before Ellen and ELLEN!!!!

Without going into too much on DeGeneres, the documentary may remind you of how heroic Ellen's  actions were in the 90s.  The more recent implosion of her image as TV's Queen of Nice and her out-of-touch-with-the-world life today?  They don't destroy the bravery she showed.  

Instead of the brief mentions of Ellen, the documentary could have done a lot more on her and a lot less with Robin Tyler.


It's fine to have heroes of all genders; however, heroic Robin is really not there in the documentary or in how she presents herself today.  


Robin, we are told, took on Anita Bryant and ABC cancelled her series.


What series?


From Tate's March 1976 report, "This summer they'll begin taping five 90-minute specials on the ABC television network, and there's a possible ABC series in the offing.  It ended up being just one.   TV listings saw it as a comedy special, not a new series.  For example, see the July 28, 1978 print ads noting the special would be airing July 29th on ABC and that it was at 8:00 pm EST.  (We found print ads in east coast newspapers, but not in west coast ones.)  THE SPOKANE DAILY CHRONICLE, in their July 28, 1978 TV listings, notes, "COMEDY SPECIAL: THE KROFFT COMEDY HOUR Redd Foxx, Sha Na Na and Kaptain Kool and the Kongs join Patti Harrison and Robin Tyler in a comedy variety special." Or see the listings in THE BANGOR DAILY NEWS July 28, 1978.  Page B-2 of the July 29, 1978 edition of THE DESERET NEWS also noted it was a special.  Page 15-A of THE LEWISTON MORNING TRIBUNE's March 11, 1976 edition probably came closest to the truth -- the duo was set to tape a pilot for ABC and then record a series of specials.


In 1976, ABC was interested in a pilot and interested in some comedy specials.  All that came of it was one comedy special.  Why was that?


The answer lies in the guest list for the comedy special. Specifically, one guest: Redd Foxx.


In 1977, Foxx left NBC and SANFORD AND SON.  ABC gave up millions to sign Foxx and get him on the air immediately.  THE REDD FOXX COMEDY HOUR bombed big time and got lousy reviews.  ABC cancelled it almost immediately and burned off their contract with FOXX by putting him on anything they could -- junk like THE KROFFT COMEDY HOUR special.  Variety shows were coming to an end. DONNY & MARIE would be axed by the network the following year.  


If you're not getting it, the fall of 1975 through summer of 1976, when ABC was interested in doing a pilot with Robin and Patti Harrison for a variety show, the networks were airing the following variety programs: CHER, THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, JOHNNY CASH AND FRIENDS, THE RICH LITTLE SHOW, THE JOHN DAVIDSON SHOW, THE SONNY AND CHER SHOW, TONY ORLANDO AND DAWN, THE JACKSONS, THE KELLY MONTEITH SHOW, THE MAC DAVIS SHOW, DONNY AND MARIE, and SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE WITH HOWARD COSELL (this ABC variety show had no connection to NBC's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE).  


By the fall of 1978, there was only three:  THE OSMOND FAMILY HOUR, DONNY AND MARIE  and DICK CLARK'S LIVE WEDNESDAY.  By the fall of 1979 it dropped to zero.

So the notion that a July 1978 variety special -- that garnered very low ratings despite being the only new content broadcast on network TV on July 29, 1978 -- ended due to Anita Bryant is bulls**t.

We spoke to several people at ABC when Robin was trying to get a TV show and we read seventy-two newspaper articles about Robin Tyler to write this article and let's be very clear that she never -- in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or 2000s -- claimed that her joke on the special about Anita Bryant (the only one who hates Anita Bryant more than gay people are music lovers) got her show cancelled.

Again, what show?

First off, the special was taped and it was approved.  Back then, standards and practices meant censors at every network.  Cher, on the CHER show, had to fight them repeatedly over her wardrobe.  At one point, she drug Norman Lear in to tell the censors that her outfit wasn't 'dirty.'  Point: ABC had already signed off on the joke.  It wasn't a live special, it was taped, the script was vetted. 


And, again, Robin never claimed that the 'show' was cancelled because of Anita Bryant.


Not even when she was quoted in THE REAL PAPER's "The Anita Bryant Weekend" (September 9, 1978).  The article was written two months after her one and only ABC special aired and it dealt with a homophobic political candidate bringing in Anita Bryant to speak for his campaign.  Robin isn't quoted about TV but she does say, "Anita Bryant, you are to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art."


And let's be clear that we're not talking about a shy person.  She took part in the 1979 National March on Lesbian and Gay Rights in DC, she was at a DC action October 10, 1987 where gays and lesbians staged "mass wedding" to protest the lack of marriage equality, she was outside the Grammys in 2001 protesting Eminem's nomination and noting he can say what he wants but to pass "neo-Nazi lyrics" as art was wrong, AP covered her 2000 protest against homophobe "Dr" Laura.  All that and so much more.

ABC lost interest because she came off a little stiff when they first started working on ideas with her and she never really warmed up on camera.  They really lost interest when they tried to salvage the deal with that one and only special and it couldn't deliver ratings.  The variety show format was dying.  That's reality.   Pretending otherwise doesn't help anyone and actually cheapens the battles of others -- Sheila Kuehl, being but on example, who lost her planned spin-off from THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS most likely because CBS learned she was a lesbian.  Pretending otherwise makes all stories suspect.  


In many ways, NETFLIX made a great documentary.  But they lose the thread when they start pimping Robin Tyler as having been crucified for an Anita Bryant joke.  OUTSTANDING: A COMEDY REVOLUTION deserved better and so did the viewers.

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