A great sitcom finally restored to us, the first season of Car 54, Where Are You? is out on DVD this week. Car 54 (1961-63) was about two New York City policemen, Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross, a former burlesque comic with an adamant joke-delivery style) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne, later better known on The Munsters).
Creator Nat Hiken used them as a variation on comedy teams such as Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy — the tall/short, skinny/fat, smart/dumb paradigm. Toody’s catchphrase “Ooh! ooh!” became his trademark, while Gwynne played Muldoon as a sensitive, intelligent, rather lonely man. Together, they offered a portrait of men at work that was as closely observed as it was funny. Also, the theme song is one of the best in TV history.
Funny enough on their own, Ross and Gwynne were surrounded by a superb supporting cast that included Beatrice Pons as Toody’s sour wife, Emma, and Al Lewis (another future Munster) and Charlotte Rae (Diff’rent Strokes; The Facts of Life) as Officer Leo Schnauser and his wife, Sylvia.
This four-disc set has added value now for its regular use of outdoor shooting: You get priceless glimpses of what New York City looked like in the early ’60s. (Consumer beware, however: Inexplicably, the episodes are out of airdate order in this collection. Go to any number of episode-guide sites for the proper order, if that sort of thing is important to you.)
Hiken had already created a comedy classic with his sitcom with Phil Silvers. Car 54, Where Are You? was his second great one.