and yet, as a curiosity, arguably worth watching -- "NBC's 60th Anniversary Celebration," at 8 tonight on Channel 4, takes about 40 minutes' worth of appealing old clips and inflates them into a three-hour ordeal both laborious and leaden.
If Grant Tinker were ever captured by sadistic terrorists, they would tie him to a chair and force him to watch this show.
An astonishingly unimaginative clunker designed to celebrate 60 years of NBC radio and television, the program was put together by writer-producer Hildy Parks and director Clark Jones, and they couldn't have spent much time in preproduction brainstorming sessions. The format -- a whimsical tour of NBC studios in New York and Burbank -- is trite and the production numbers insipid.
When Bob Hope confronts Michael J. Fox and begins singing him a mournful rendition of "Be a Clown," you know you have hit rock bottom, and with a deafening thud at that.
Viewers are tipped from the outset that they are in feeble hands. Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Keshia Knight Pulliam of "The Cosby Show" wander through the marble halls of 30 Rock, NBC's New York headquarters, while a flossy chorus of peacock girls and male dancers flounces and prances. It's the kind of thing David Letterman would do as a spoof.
Letterman and Bill Cosby are conspicuous -- and, it turns out, extremely shrewd -- absentees during the five-minute parade of the "NBC family of stars" that follows the opening number. But a smiley and tuxedoed Tom Brokaw is there; he lopes out between fellow entertainers Tempestt Bledsoe and Pierce Brosnan.
This sequence is not only poorly staged, it's also misleading, since it implies that all those stars will be participating in the show. Many do not, except to return near the conclusion for the videotape equivalent of a group photo and to lip-sync a stupid original song ("Hey, Didja Know?").
What perks the show up are the clips from past productions, although even here there is much room for complaint. An NBC celebration that fails to pay homage to "Victory at Sea," "Wide Wide World" and the "Project XX" documentaries is not a very authoritative one.
However, many of the clips are entertaining memory-prickers. Grace Kelly, Sidney Poitier, James Dean, George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon are glimpsed in highlights from live dramas of the '50s. Milton Berle's barnstorm clowning runs riot again, and he shares stages with Ed Sullivan, Tallulah Bankhead, even Elvis Presley.
The variety show segment includes appearances on NBC by Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Sid Caesar, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby (with Flip Wilson as "Geraldine"), and Richard M. Nixon, on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," asking the rhetorical knee-slapper, "Sock it to me?" Nixon also appears playing piano on the prime-time "Jack Paar Program," erroneously included among "Tonight Show" clips. From the 1960 "Astaire Time" special, one of four legendary Astaire specials, Fred dances to "A Shine on Your Shoes."
These moments rather outshine such contemporary clips as a swirl of squealing tires and a fall into a fountain from "Remington Steele."
Several are fetching oddities. John Forsythe shares a scene on an old "Bachelor Father" with current costar (on ABC's "Dynasty") Linda Evans; one of the featured tots on an ancient "Juvenile Jury" grew up to be musical-comedy star Bernadette Peters; Veronica Hamel of "Hill Street Blues" plays opposite James Garner (also absent from the "family of stars") in a "Rockford Files" episode; and a pony tries to eat Eydie Gorme's dress on a Steve and Eydie variety series.
The clips from the old musical-variety shows are so bright and polished, and the new production numbers staged for this anniversary special so tackily banal, that those with long TV memories will have new cause to mourn the death of TV's once great vaudeville-of-the-air.
A short history of "The Tonight Show" -- inferior to a recent tribute on "Entertainment Tonight" -- includes Steve Allen's greeting to the audience on the first broadcast in 1954. Allen said of the show, "It's not a spectacular. It's going to be kind of a monotonous, I think." Jack Paar, his successor, tells viewers, "It's a telethon, but I can't figure out who for." Paar supplied many of his own clips, since NBC has thrown out much of its historic footage.
Johnny Carson, because he is still on the air, gets the most deference. His montage includes the funniest Carnak joke ever, a punch line to "Sis boom bah." Carson is a running theme of the anniversary show. One of the Cosby kids says after the "Tonight" segment, "I wish we could see Mr. Carson!" Then he turns up later in the "Today" portion as an interviewee. For the bland finale, Carson strolls in to join the other stars already assembled and stands at the front of the group.
When the kids wander into the "Today" show studio, they talk with Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, but it's obvious that Gumbel wasn't even in the room at the time and was edited in later. The whole program has that kind of cut-and-stitch ambiance.
Paar hosts a too-short sequence on hellos and goodbyes, including Barbara Walters' last words on "Today," Chet Huntley's goodbye to David Brinkley (Brinkley, who later left NBC for ABC, is radically underrepresented on the show) and the first, and last, words to be spoken by Clarabell, the mute clown on "Howdy Doody Time." It was the final program, and Clarabell said, "Goodbye, kids."
After all this vintage TV murderously interspersed with stale new inanity, you come away with the impression that, despite the hullabaloo about its current ratings success, NBC hasn't much to shout about. CBS was always the classy network, but NBC had pizazz. Its 60th-anniversary show, though, is less champagne toast than barium spritzer.