If you think you've seen everything, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees advises you to check out John Ritter's performance as a punk rocker.
Six faces of John Ritter you've probably never seen.
This TV special from 1980 showcases the late, beloved comedian in half a dozen assorted skits, in several of which he is joined by celebrity guest actors (including his Three's Company co-stars, Suzanne Somers and Joyce DeWitt). The sketches are linked with behind-the-scenes footage of the actors in rehearsal and of Ritter discussing his perspective on the characters he portrays. Although the sketches themselves are not exactly classic comedy, they offer a nice variety of roles for the talented young Ritter, and it's also enjoyable to get the chance to see the actor offstage and in his own good-natured, amiable persona.
In the first sketch, "The Move is the Message," Ritter plays a clumsy loser at a glamorous party who keeps striking out with the female guests. Fortunately, suave Vincent Price is on hand, playing a self-help writer who explains what's wrong with Ritter's approach. Suzanne Somers also makes an appearance as (what else?) a drop-dead gorgeous blonde. The circa-1980 party fashions make this sketch particularly striking, especially the disco suits. (The elegant Price seems to be serenely unaware of the indignity of wearing gold medallions and a wide-lapeled shirt.) Ritter also shows off his well-known aptitude for pratfalls and physical comedy in this skit.
"Fear Itself" casts Ritter as the nerdy manager of a movie theater, who vainly attempts to establish order when concession employee Joyce DeWitt is hassled by a trio of hoodlums who want more butter on their popcorn. The hapless manager tries to imitate the assertive style of some of his favorite movie characters, with mixed results. Star Wars fans will be pleasantly surprised to see that some of the then-topical jokes still hit home 24 years later.
The next offering, "My Life," is not exactly comedic; here Ritter plays one Walter Simmons, a character who documents his life on film starting in 1925 and extending through his old age. Through brief clips spaced out in time, we see Simmons aging, changing, starting a family, and so forth. I can see why this material would appeal to an actor, who gets to dramatize an entire lifetime's highlights in about five minutes—in fact, Ritter is given partial story credit on this sketch. However, the overall effect draws more attention to the technical aspects of the sketch, like costume and makeup design, than to the acting or story. The age makeup effects are in fact sadly unconvincing for the most part, and Simmons seems to make a huge leap in age from 30 to 65, where he seems to stay for decades.
Fortunately, "The Over-Reactor" takes us back into the realm of pure comedy, as Ritter undergoes a bizarre transformation triggered by airport security scanners. The following sketch, "The Rock Doctor," gives Ritter a chance to do something truly unusual when he appears as punk rocker Nick Anger, complete with spiked wig and missing tooth. Howard Hesseman makes a welcome appearance here—and a most apt one, since at this time he would have been associated with his role as deejay Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati. Hesseman plays the titular doctor, who comes to offer some therapy for Nick and help him get in touch with his real persona. (When I tell you that his true self is called "The Fabulous Nick," you may begin to grasp the dramatic nature of his transformation.) I found this to be the most enjoyable of the sketches, and it's fun to see Ritter playing a character so different from the other lovable schmoes.
"Sleep," the final sketch, ends the show on a more contemplative note. The skit is not overtly comedic and is a monologue by Ritter as a young father left to put his baby son to sleep without his wife's help. It's believable and touching, but it doesn't exactly take the show out with a bang.
Audiovisual quality is nice for material that's almost a quarter-century old. Most of the skits are videotaped, which of course lends a rather flat appearance to the picture, but the picture is remarkably clean and vivid. The filmed behind-the-scenes intervals betray some lapse in quality, but overall this probably looks about as good as it did when it was first aired. Likewise, audio is often muffled in the rehearsal footage but comes through clearly (including the studio audience laughter) during the bulk of the program.
Overall this is a pleasant, smile-inducing 49 minutes (not 58, as the cover claims). However, I wouldn't say, as the cover further claims, that this 1980 special shows the comedian "at the peak of his career," since he would go on in the next twenty-plus years to many successful and varied projects. What I find strangest about this release is that the TV special is not accompanied by anything else. Such a short program hardly seems to warrant a solo release, and I imagine it would have been much more appealing to the general purchaser if it had been supplemented with more of Ritter's work. Those who miss this talented actor—and that's a great many of us—will be glad to see this rare early material available, but this disc could really have used some beefing up with more content.
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