The programming executives at NBC, now drawing up their fall schedules, have a great opportunity to come to the aid of the comedy one-liner if they go ahead with a series based on Neil Simon's much acclaimed play and movie, "The Sunshine Boys."
Knowing what a sucker I am for the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] vited me out to the MGM studios to see the pilot, which was written by Simon.
It was hilarious - as good as the movie. Red Buttons plays the Walter Matthau role of Willie Clark. Lionel Stander plays Al Lewis, the role that won an Oscar for George Burns.
A small historical footnote is in order. Watching Lillian Hellman on the Oscar Awards show talking about the witch-hunts of the late '40s and early '50s, I thought of Lionel Stander. He was one of the best omedy and character actors in Hollywood, starring in pictures like "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "A Star Is Born." But when he was harrassed by congressional investigators, he left for a new life as a successful actor in Italian films.
Now Stander is back. I hope he and Buttons are given an opportunity to entertain a TV audience. Many Americans never have savored the joy of old vaudeville one-liners, delivered with the precision and interplay of chamber music. The finest and perhaps only examples we have on the air currently are in "M*A*S*H" and "Barney Miller."
"The Sunshine Boys," if NBC decides to develop the pilot into a series, could do much to prevent the comedy series based on the one-liner from becoming an endangered species.
Here is one example. Al has come to spend the night in Willie's apartment.
AL: "I just sat on the bed . . . The winters, the summers and the falls are all right."
WILLIE: "But the springs are no good."
AL: (Nods) "You got it."
WILLIE: "I stopped doing that joke in the '30s."
AL: "So why do I have to sleep on it in the 70s?"
WILLIE: "You don't like it, go to a Holiday Inn."
AL: "It ain't a holiday."
WILLIE: "I'll declare one."
It seems very simple, but it is not. It is a carefully arranged pattern of word exchanges, verbal postcards instead of verbal essays. The lines have the rhythm, cadence and sense of timing that we seldom see on television.
We once heard it on radio, especially with Jack Benny and Fred Allen. The greatest moment of timing in all modern comedy was when Jack Benny had a man stick a gun in his back and demand: "Your money or your life." There was a pause that seemed to last hours. The robber repeated his demand once more: "Your money or your life." Then Benny said quickly: "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."
Or Fred Allen, perhaps the most articulate of all our modern comedians, commenting on Hollywood: "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it in the navel of a flea and still have room left over for an agent's heart and a caraway seed."
I don't pretend to know what goes into the decision-making process of NBC programming executives as they decide which shows will be aired and which will not. It is said that they, as well as programmers at other networks, test a pilot before selected audiences before deciding whether to make it into a series.
That shouldn't be necessary with "The Sunshine Boys." All they have to do in this instance is to look at Neil Simon's track record as a comedy writer, the skill that Buttons and Stander bring to their roles and the time-honored tradition of the one-liner in comedy.
Considering the kind of comedy series NBC gave us last season, it is not taking much of a risk to gamble on "The Sunshine Boys." All it takes is a decision that relies on their own judgement.In this case, the decision should be the shortest one-liner of all: yes.