It was the night after Christmas and all through the house, everyone but me was watching "Diamonds Are Forever" on ABC. I was stuck with another Big Event on NBC: "That Was The Year That Was."
I did not feel stuck at the time I had looked forward to this particular Big Event, which was billed as an updated version of the delightful "That Was The Week That Was," and Americanized adaptation of a British satirical show. It played on NBC for about a year and a half during the middle '60s.
TW3, it was called in those days. Produced by Leland Hayward and hosted by David Frost, who had performed the same task on the BBC version - TW3 brouhgt us, in addition to some delightful political satire, new faces such as Buck Henry, Alan Alda, Phyllis Newman and Nancy Ames.
Buck Henry was back on "That Was The Year That Was" as a host, along with co-hosts, Blythe Danner, Robert Klein and Brenda Vaccaro. They were joined by other talented people like Art Buchwald, Jules Feiffer, Edwin Newman, Gloria Steinem, plus a lot of others, actresses and personalities.
A lot of talent had been assembled. A lot of money had gone into the production. But the show was a disaster. The faces were not new and the satire was not funny.
I have been brooding about the reasons for this show's failure ever since. How can so few people bring so little imagination to so many of us? Don't they know what has happened to this country in the past 10 years"
In the political sense, Vietnam hapened to us.The 1968 Democratic Convention happened to us. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew happened to us. Watergate happened to us. It has become impossible to satirize the political process because the political process has satirized itself without any outside help.
Then came "Laugh-In," which succeeded because, in addition to the new faces it brought us, it also made the most imaginative use of television technology since the late Ernie Kovacs used to sit in a control room. It was old-fashioned slapstick, brought up to date with topical political and sociological gags that moved along at breakneck speed. The effect was overwhelming.
Then after "Laugh-In" (or to be more precise, at a time when "Laugh-In" was coming to end), we started to watch "All In The Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show,"M*A*S*H" and, later, their spin-offs: "Maude," "Good Times," "Rhoda," and the lates, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," which is not really a spinoff of anything, including soap opera.
With the political process becoming satire in and of itself and with the advent of "Laugh-In" and the new situation comedies, our perceptions about what subjects we could laugh at changed dramatically. We soon found, that with limited exceptions, there was no longer any subject that could not be mocked, or satirixed: Sex, religion, race, marriage, family, divorce, war, conservatives, liberals. There are simply few, if any, sacred cows that have been left untouched.
The Big Event version of "That Was The Year That Was" might have worked - though I doubt it since the basic concept has been flawed by historical change - if new faces had been used to present it. But in an age where all of the faces we saw on this show had turned up at one time or another on the "Tonight" show, "Today," "Tomorrow," "Good Morning America," the "Dinah," "Mike Douglas," "Merv Griffin," "David Susskind," shows, plus "Hollywood Squares," where could one find fresh faces unless one was determined to really find fresh faces?
"NBC Saturday Night" proved it could be done. It found not only fresh faces, but also the fresh new ideas that usually come with them.
And we have learned that when "Laugh-In" returns to NBC next fall on six separate occasion, producer George Schlatter will not have Rowan and Martin host the show. That decision indicates that Schlatter understands - as those who produced "That Was The Year That Was" obviously did not - that satire like life moves on and takes on new forms and new meanings.
George S. Kaufman understood what tricky business satire is. He used to say it was what closed on Saturday night. "That Was The Year That Was" was different froma state production. It both opened and closed on Sunday night.