Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky throws a pie at this underachieving PBS documentary.
"We had to pay our dues."—Milton Berle
The extra content on the DVD release of Pioneers of Primetime, a documentary on the history of early television, consists of 26-minutes of additional interview footage of six of the interview subjects. Milton Berle, Steve Allen, Red Skelton, Donald O'Connor, Buddy Ebsen, and Rose Marie. I bring this up in order to note two things. First, all of the interviewees talk exclusively about their careers in vaudeville, rather than their television careers. Second, in the documentary itself, only the television careers of Berle and Skelton are actually discussed: O'Connor's brief television series is mentioned in passing, and we learn nothing at all about Allen, Ebsen, or Rose Marie as television performers.
This should clue you in to the major problems with this PBS documentary. Clocking in at under an hour, Pioneers of Primetime tries to cover too many personalities and too much history. In a Washington Post interview around the time of the show's 2005 broadcast, director Steve Boettcher ascribes the show's brief length to problems clearing enough footage from these early shows. But that does not account for the focus problems and the documentary's lack of historical exposition, much of which could be accomplished with stronger narration (less gushing, more facts) and judicious photographs. For example, compare the sentimental, superficial, and short Pioneers of Primetime to Ken Burns' more successful and detailed history of early radio, Empire of the Air. PBS was apparently so underwhelmed by this documentary that they did not even put up a page on their website about it.
The premise of the Pioneers of Primetime is sound. In 1948, television executives had no idea what sort of shows should populate their new networks. So they went to established entertainers from vaudeville and radio, many of whom simply transferred their shtick over to the new medium. Milton Berle is a classic case. He was never that great a comedian, but he was a perfect personality for television. He could grin his way through a sketch, get upstaged by guest stars (watch Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis run circles around him), and mug for the audience. It worked, and Berle became a huge celebrity. Sid Caesar was a better performer, a better writer (and had a legendary writing team, including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen), and almost as big a star, at least for a few years. Red Skelton, Steve Allen—all these guys came up through the ranks of live stage comedy. So Pioneers of Primetime, after an overlong introduction, shifts to a brief history of vaudeville to show the roots of television comedy.
But the depiction of vaudeville, like everything else in this documentary, is gushing and devotional. No real controversies or conflicts; no politics. Details are sketchy, like an encyclopedia article, rather than an actual book. There is no flop sweat in this vision of vaudeville, just good white folks entertaining your family. We do see some cute clips, including Steve Allen's legendary mother, Belle Montrose, who had whip-crack timing. But rather than using her influence over Allen's career path as a sign of television's familial relationship to vaudeville, director Steve Boettcher segues right into Milton Berle's sentimental reverie over his own mom. Awww. Sloshy, but not informative or helpful in understanding the legacy of vaudeville.
The message throughout the show is that hard work and dedication will naturally pay off in stardom. Even racial tension can apparently be overcome by sheer talent, as evidenced by the token non-white performer here, Sammy Davis, Jr. (Rose Marie is included as the requisite woman.) It should be noted however that Davis was never a television star. He fought plenty of racism in his time, but he stayed on the stage, only crossing to television or film as an occasional guest star. Indeed, while some black performers did well in the vaudeville era, nearly all of them were left behind by radio, vaudeville's successor. This fact goes unmentioned by Pioneers of Primetime, which seems to have devoted its required few minutes to the race issue by this point and dropped the topic entirely.
Instead, we hear of the "smooth transitions" of Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and Red Skelton. A minute or two on each of these artists, no developed background or history, and we move on. We get a clip or two, which we assume must be funny because the audience is laughing. Every moment, I wanted more, more, more. I wanted this documentary to stop introducing new topics and start developing the ones it already had in play. But then the next performer would be brought in. Perhaps this is meant to imitate vaudeville: each performer comes out, does a quick bit, and then rushes offstage before the audience can get settled in.
Early television, which embraced that variety format, was able to keep its audience by anchoring shows with discernible personalities: Berle, Skelton, Caesar, even Ed Sullivan, who was not even an actual performer—just a personality who held the show together. Familiar faces would turn up on every show and network—Bob Hope would take any job offered in those days—as a way of making audiences feel that there was something recognizable in this flickering, alien television world. According to Pioneers of Primetime, all these figures became huge stars. We hear little about the forgotten shows. The only notable failure in the documentary is vaudeville star Ed Wynn, whose show did not last—but he still won an Emmy, then went on to become a successful character actor.
By the end of the documentary, I had learned little of the actual history of television. I suspect that this would have turned out better if Boettcher had refocused his efforts on a more expansive project: tracing the history of vaudeville as the foundation of American popular culture in the 20th century, then tracing the shift from radio to television as the last act of the story. This would allow a more detailed look at the nature of American comedy. As it is, I learned nothing about what a vaudeville show was like. What sort of comedy was popular? How important was musical performance? How did a sketch evolve through audience feedback? All this is crucial to understanding the strategies employed by early television performers, who were also expected to perform live, but who had to come up with new material every week (a fact noted by several of the interviewees). How did these guys manage it? The narrator in Pioneers of Primetime calls these stars "gladiators of entertainment," but this is all bloodless combat. And many of the interviewees (Steve Allen, most notably) do not even have their television careers mentioned in the documentary itself, as if they are just available as witnesses to the bright stars of Berle and Skelton and are themselves not so important.
Pioneers of Primetime is only really notable for featuring some of the final interview footage with many of the great stars of American popular culture (Red Skelton died mere days after Boettcher filmed him). It is unfortunately that such important memories could not be anchored by a documentary that actually taught us something about our cultural history, showed us the vitality of these pioneers in their prime. Instead, Pioneers of Primetime just tips its hat to these stars of yesteryear without really teaching us to appreciate their talent.
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