CBS: The First 50 Years
In one of those small betrayals of the ’60s counterculture that have become common, the Smothers Brothers — regularly censored by CBS for anti-Vietnam War jokes during the run of their satirical Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour — rejoin their former network masters to serve as happy hosts of A Really Big Show: Ed Sullivan’s 50th Anniversary. That show is followed two nights later by CBS: The First 50 Years and was preceded on May 4 by We Were There: CBS News at 50. (Somewhere among these shows, by the way, Walter Cronkite takes credit away from Ed Sullivan for being the first guy to present the Beatles on American television — not a very collegial moment.)
That the once-radical Tom and Dick (well, Tom, anyway) should join in CBS’ ongoing celebration of its own golden anniversary is a tad sad, but hey, aging upstarts have to eat, right? At least A Really Big Show is a collection of clips whose entertainment value holds up very well. To my eyes and ears, the high point is not the predictable snippets of the Fab Four, Elvis-above-the-waist, and bits of stand-up from Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson. No, I appreciate executive producer Andrew Solt’s effort to include rarer sights, such as the Young Rascals doing ”A Girl Like You” in what must have been 1967, the year the song was a top 10 hit. Unlike almost every other act on display here, the Rascals don’t seem familiar to the point of tedium; coming off his biggest hit earlier that year, ”Groovin’,” the group’s leader keyboardist Felix Cavaliere is in control yet vulnerable, literally sticking his neck out (toward the microphone) to hymn soulfully the praises of his girlfriend. It’s these sorts of evanescent pleasures, which Sullivan himself probably didn’t fully appreciate, that give his show an enduring pop-culture fizz.
As for mis-sung praise, The First 50 Years makes an exceedingly unwise association between Walter Cronkite’s evening news slogan ”And that’s the way it is” and Bruce Hornsby’s mushy 1986 song ”The Way It Is,” used as recurring theme music. Over Hornsby’s lugubrious pop-jazz keyboards, we see sights ranging from the arrogantly misguided (cohost Carol Burnett digitally replacing Vivian Vance in a classic scene from I Love Lucy) to the gratifyingly frank (David Letterman discoursing on how the greatness of CBS is due in part to network founder William Paley’s willingness to shell out big bucks to steal away other networks’ talent — or the way CBS stole Dave).
60 Minutes honcho Don Hewitt unintentionally points out precisely what’s wrong with most broadcast journalism when he lauds Cronkite as ”the ultimate television personality” (um, shouldn’t a journalist strive to be as anonymous as possible?). Hewitt asserts that after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, all of America said as one, ”Father Cronkite, tell us everything is going to be all right.” The image of TV personality as clergyman is wrongheaded enough, but to actually approve of the idea that a desired element of hard-news coverage is to provide comfort to the audience is — well, let’s just say it’s no wonder CBS new hire Howard Stern (gee, why isn’t he here?) scoffs at the cherished ”Tiffany Network” slogan, having remarked that ”Tiffany is a stripper’s name.” (After all, ecdysiasts provide their customers with a kind of comfort too.) One comes away thinking that 50 years on, CBS still knows how to nurture potential-classic sitcoms (in addition to the obvious nods — I Love Lucy and Cosby — Everybody Loves Raymond gets its props), while its news division succumbs to the same softening directionlessness that characterizes its competitors.
In the midst of all this self-congratulation, CBS offers a change of pace: Sonny & Me: Cher Remembers, an hour of Cher congratulating herself for hooking up with Sonny Bono. Ask yourself: If you were doing a show about the recently deceased California congressman, the writer-producer of such irresistible hits as ”I Got You Babe” and ”Baby Don’t Go,” where would you begin? Well, Cher begins by showing us childhood pictures of…Cher. There’s a little bit about Sonny’s canny apprenticeship with Phil Spector, virtually nothing about his political career, and lots of clips of 1971-74’s The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, in which, you’ll recall, Sonny was the stooge and Cher got the good lines.
Hey, I like Cher as much as the next devotee of schlock culture (in fact, solo Cher — ”Half Breed” and ”Dark Lady” Cher — is my favorite Cher), but sometimes you gotta check your ego at the door, babe. Instead, we get Mother Cher, telling us everything’s going to be all right. C+