Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What I Watch: Predicting the 2014 Emmy DRAMA Nominations

Once again, I’m taking a whack at predicting the Emmy nominees. This year, I’m going to concentrate solely on the DRAMA categories. Not because I now co-host a podcast titled THE SERIOUS TV DRAMA PODCAST WITH SCOT AND DAN; I’m simply not that fired up about most of the potential COMEDY nominees.



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party: 
Breaking Bad - “Felina” 
Downton Abbey - 1st episode of S4 
House of Cards - 1st episode of S2
Mad Men - “Waterloo”

I will say right now that my prediction in this category will be wrong, as they almost ALWAYS give one show a couple nominations, which probably means Breaking Bad’s “Felina” will push out either Mad Men’s “The Strategy” or The Good Wife’s “The Last Call”. Unless they expand this category as has happened with all the subsequent ones here...



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party:
The Good Wife - Archie Panjabi
Grey’s Anatomy - Sandra Oh
Mad Men - Christina Hendricks
Scandal - Bellamy Young

Actually, the person I would LOVE to see get a nod probably has no chance at all: Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party:
Downton Abbey - Brendan Coyle
Game of Thrones - Charles Dance
Homeland - Mandy Patinkin
Ray Donovan - Jon Voight

Wish there was a way for me to squeeze Justified’s Walton Goggins into the mix, but I think it was a weaker season for that series.



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party:
The Americans - Keri Russell
The Bridge - DIane Kruger
Downton Abbey - Michelle Dockery
Orphan Black - Tatiana Maslany

I’m very much opposed to googly-eyed Danes getting nominated, but I know it’s gonna happen.



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party:
The Americans - Matthew Rhys
The Blacklist - James Spader
The Bridge - Demian Bechir
Downton Abbey - Hugh Bonneville

It breaks my heart not to list Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi, but maybe next year. Also, I won’t list Homeland’s Damian Lewis on general principle.



And here’s four possible nominees that could crash that party:
The Americans
Downton Abbey
Masters of Sex

It was a passably good but not great season for Justified and Boardwalk Empire might have been deserving, but it's more likely to have a better shot at a nomination next year. I adore Hannibal, but it may be a bit too extreme and let's face it, Sons of Anarchy never got any appreciation at the Emmys when it was one of the two or three best dramas on TV, so it sure as hell isn't gonna get jack-squat now. I don’t think Masters of Sex is quite ready to break into the top category — those possible acting nods will be a big enough victory for them. The Bridge will almost certainly be criminally overlooked, and as for The Newsroom — does anybody even remember they had a 2nd season? 

In case anyone was wondering, FX's FARGO was submitted in the miniseries category, otherwise it would have definitely busted into most of these categories, you betchaAfter the smoke clears and I see how well I scored here, I'll do a quickie follow-up to predict the winners. Probably use the old "Who I Want to Win/Who I Believe Will Win" method.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Getting the Last Laugh Part 2: My TOP TEN Most Memorable TV Comedy Leads

In Part One of GETTING THE LAST LAUGH: MY MOST MEMORABLE TV COMEDY LEADS, I listed my choices for numbers 25 through 11. Now put down your copy of THE FAULT IN THE STARS or the Bible or whatever reading material you have stashed away under your bed and make sure you've read this first:

Now you're ready to move on to...

It’s no coincidence that Bob Newhart appears back-to-back (#'s 11 & 10) on this list, which you would know if you read the previous blog -- shame on you for ignoring my instructions. The only conceivable debate that raged in my mind was the chosen order: who would rank higher, Dick Loudon or Robert Hartley? I imagine Seventies Bob on one side of a shrubbery (naturally the Top Ten is surrounded by foliage as opposed to a fence -- this isn't HOGAN'S HEROES) having a dead-pan stare down with his Eighties counterpart. Here's how I made my decision...

NEWHART was more genteel, initially based around a DIY author attempting to run a country inn with his sweater-loving wife in the idyllic hamlet of Stratford. THE BOB NEWHART SHOW had a more urban feel, covering the life of a (mostly) happily married couple working in the bustlin’ and toddlin’ town of Chicago.

Just look at their opening credits:

NEWHART is light strings and woodwinds, peacefully playing as we glide over pastoral hills and contemplative lake views until we finally reach the Stratford Inn. 

The original opening sequence for THE BOB NEWHART SHOW trails our favorite headshrinker during his weary commute home by both foot and train. Later versions moved away from having Emily the dutiful wife waiting at home to both spouses leaving for their respective workdays.

But while TBNS dealt with assorted comical doctor-patient conflict/resolutions as well as the ups and downs of both friendships and marital relationships, NEWHART got downright surreal. It was both unexpected and admirable that a show that could have easily plugged along relying on gags and storylines based on revolving guest stars (since the setting was an inn) – instead shifted the comedic focus to the various oddball denizens of the small community. Often times, Dick Loudon was the lone sane person in an increasingly bizarre world. Which only makes the “notable moment” of choice an absolute no-brainer…

NOTABLE MOMENT: Here we have the real reason I popped Dick Loudon one spot ahead of Robert Hartley: it’s revealed at the end of NEWHART’s run that Dick Loudon and every other citizen of Stratford were all part of a long and strange dream brought on by too much Japanese food. To this day, the final minutes of the NEWHART series finale continue to be acknowledged as the greatest (and most surprising) end of any TV series, ever.

The impish side of me found the notion of having a subconscious persona outpacing its creator to be vastly amusing. In a sense, that actually happened, for while THE BOB NEWHART SHOW logged 142 episodes…NEWHART racked up an even more impressive total of 184. Add it all together, and there’s my tenuous rationale for Dick beating Bob by one spot. Had I done this as one blog/list as opposed to splitting it in two, I suspect this would have been a dead heat.

Of course, not every surprise “it was all a dream” series ending works out quite as well as NEWHART’s did. The less said about the off-putting way ROSEANNE closed out its run, the better. But even though the series ended poorly, there’s no denying that for several seasons, ROSEANNE was one of the best comedies on TV, due mostly to the life and comic routines of Roseanne Barr (only so much blog space, so not about to list her Erica Kane-esque number of surnames).

ROSEANNE was a departure from the suburban sitcom families of the Eighties, and the blue collar trials and tribulations of the Conner family were instantly relatable, helping make the show the most real “family sitcom” since the Seventies (where shows like ALL IN THE FAMILY and GOOD TIMES weren’t afraid to focus on people just barely eking out a living). 

Sure, the titular star could be annoying and abrasive to some, but her keen insight into familial relationships (parents, spouses, siblings) made her show a must-see for millions every Tuesday night. And like those shows from more than a decade earlier, the series occasionally dealt with serious issues that ranged from abortion to racism. Most of these attempts avoided the pitfalls of your typical special episode/afterschool message, proving that Roseanne knew how to make us laugh, but she also knew how to test the limits of societal acceptance and make us think.

NOTABLE MOMENT: The highlights of ROSEANNE could veer from the moments when Roseanne saw herself in her daughter Darlene to every Halloween themed episode (one looked forward to a new ROSEANNE Halloween episode with just as much anticipation as the latest SIMPSONS “Treehouse of Horror” installment). However, I’d direct anyone starved for laughs to the munchy goodness of “A Stash From the Past”, where Roseanne, Dan and Jackie light up some ganja they find in the basement. Yeah, there’s a little anti-drug message here too, but it’s more hysterical than heavy handed, especially for network TV.

Hotel manager Basil Fawlty was constantly beset by impulses both greedy and paranoid. At times snobbish and condescending, he so clearly detested most people that his being involved in the hospitality industry was probably the biggest joke of FAWLTY TOWERS. 

There were only a dozen episodes of this wildly popular and outrageous British comedy series that John Cleese did shortly after the Monty Python show ran its course. It’s one of the few comedies (and lead characters) that could be alternately highbrow and low, and mix fast paced dialogue scenes as deftly crafted as any Marx Brothers film with pure slapstick comedy. Never lovable (and sometimes barely likable), watching Basil sputter, stammer and give any number of double-takes was always cause for laughter, as were his many muttered asides.

NOTABLE MOMENT: I considered citing the insanely funny final episode of the series (“Basil the Rat”), but after watching a recent World Cup soccer match, I realized I had to pick the all-time classic comedy moment from “The Germans”, when after Basil’s oft-repeated warning to everyone to “not mention the war” around a visiting group of Germans, he then proceeds to pepper his entire conversation with WWII references before lapsing into a Hitler Silly Walk. It might be the most deliriously funny thing Cleese ever did post-Python.

Outside of cartoons or daytime soap operas, few actors can lay claim to playing the same character for thirty years, but Kelsey Grammer did just that. In the Eighties, elitist psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane eventually learned to commune with the common man in a bar in Boston, But in the Nineties, Frasier apparently forgot those lessons, and became even more uptight and prissy than ever before when he relocated back to Seattle. Of course, his brother turns out to be an extreme version of that Crane nose-in-the-air persona, while his father Martin would have been right at home with Frasier’s previous group of Boston barflies.

I thought Frasier would have had an easier time relating to his dad just based on those Cheers years, but perhaps his jet from Boston to Seattle passed through a mysterious cloud of regressive radiation. However, the writers made these canny decisions in order to foster material for the most laughs – as the foibles of such snobbery are always ripe comedy fodder.

Amazingly, as his flaws became more pronounced and comical, Frasier Crane also became a more fully realized person. Even despite his occasionally insufferable attitude, Frasier still evolved. That character growth and Grammer’s commanding elocution...not to mention a number of clear homages to the late great Jack Benny combined to make Frasier Crane one of the all-time great TV characters, completely outstripping and surpassing all his barroom buddies from years before.

NOTABLE MOMENT: I was tempted to pick Frasier (ahem) hiding in the closet in “Daphne’s Room”, but instead, I’m going with his mounting losses to his father in “Chess Pains”. It’s not only funny, but it also explores a key component that made FRASIER a success – the frequently contentious relationship with his dad.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was groundbreaking and emblematic of the women's liberation movement, regardless of the fact that Mary Richards never identified herself as a feminist at any point on the series. It wasn't about labels, it was about taking a step forward past previous depictions of women on television. That hat Mary tosses up in the iconic opening credit sequence was a metaphor for shedding the restrictive roles of the past and embracing the freedom of a new age of women in pop culture.

Of course there were some strong female characters on television in the Sixties, but they were often still housewives (including Moore's previous role as Laura "Oh Rob!" Petrie on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW) with only a small handful of exceptions like THAT GIRL, a show co-created by and starring noted activist Marlo Thomas. But THAT GIRL's Ann Marie often relied heavily on both her father and boyfriend to help guide her life decisions. That was not the case for young Mary Richards that fateful day in 1970 when she walked through the doors of WJM-TV in Minneapolis. And while one could say Lou Grant and Murray Slaughter were older men who both took on surrogate familial roles for Mary, they mostly transcended gender: employer, colleague and eventually friends. As the series went on, Mary was soon seen less as the office girl and more as a true equal.

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was also a pioneer in having a amazingly wide array of sharply written characters, any of whom could be counted on for a solid laugh. Mary Richards, Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Ted Baxter, Sue Ann Nivens, Rhoda Morgenstern, Phyllis Lindstrom, Georgette Franklin -- this stable of comedy stars (along with writers like James L. Brooks and Allan Burns) created a template for comedies that would be both honored and repeated in shows like TAXI, CHEERS, MURPHY BROWN, NEWSRADIO and 30 ROCK among others.

And at the core of it all -- was Mary Richards. She could be sweet and sappy -- the child-like hitches in her sobbing were a recipe for tear-inducing laughs. But she was also sharp, clever and at times quite forceful as well, whether she was standing up to Lou Grant or putting Ted Baxter in his place. But more than anything else, she inspired loyalty and love from her co-stars and even more so from the audience.

NOTABLE MOMENT: I wonder if it is remotely permissible to select something OTHER than the "Chuckles the Clown" episode?

But if I was bold enough to pick anything would be this musical moment from the "Murray Can't Lose" episode.

There is a long standing tradition of stand-up comedians starring in their own sitcoms. Several have already appeared in the Top Twenty-Five and many others were relegated to the Ya Missed It By This-Much pile. To be perfectly honest, one could make a case for Jerry Seinfeld being the worst actor in the entire bunch. But that's only if acting was judged solely on drama and heart-tugging special moments -- the sort of thing that could never happen on SEINFELD. 

Much has been made of the fact that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David set out to make "a show about nothing" -- most of the meta-tastic fourth season mocks and exploits that very idea. What's even more admirable, is that despite logging 172 episodes, the show always remained unapologetically unsentimental. There was never a "very special" SEINFELD, and if someone appeared with that sort of baggage in tow, chances are they'd be worse off by the time the credits rolled.

The blending of Seinfeld and David's sensibilities was easy, as they shared much in common: Two Jewish/New York comedians who mined the minutiae of their daily lives for laughs. Larry was the more edgy of the two, which may have been the reason why Jerry was popular with the masses while virtually all of Larry's fan support was from fellow comics. 

But that edge not only led to the creation of Larry's virtual stand-in on the series (George Costanza, who was essentially a short and squat Larry David), it also brought out Jerry's suppressed dark side. As a result, the laughs on SEINFELD didn't come from Jerry's "Did ya ever notice..." routines about airplane food and going to the supermarket. But they often bore a resemblance to the flickering and inappropriate thoughts that cause us to stifle a laugh when sitting in a funeral or crowded elevator. They manifested in events most of us could not only relate to, it became common to refer to such occurrences as "having a Seinfeld moment". That instant recognition coupled with Jerry Seinfeld's stage-honed timing and delivery yielded more laughs over the course of nine years than any other comic in the history of the medium. And (spoiler alert) that's why I rank him higher than any other comedian who ever got his or her own sitcom. 

NOTABLE MOMENT: It’s worth mentioning that similar to another comedy lead who will appear later on this list, Jerry Seinfeld was exceedingly generous by often conceding the biggest laughs to his co-stars, leading to signature scenes such as George’s Marine Biologist saga, Elaine’s funky dance and Kramer hosting his own version of the Merv Griffin show. But picking a moment for the titular star himself? I’d call it Sophie’s Choice, but only if Sophie turned out to be the Octo-Mom.

The brief identity switch between Jerry and Kramer in “The Chicken Roaster” is gloriously silly. But not only does it  echo a classic ODD COUPLE gag (that is actually funnier in execution), George and Elaine also switch places in “The Opposite”. So that led me away from that scene.

I considered  Jerry’s reaction to “The Puffy Shirt” or his efforts to remember the female body part/name of the woman he’s dating in “The Junior Mint”. But what about “Man Hands” or “It was a scratch, not a pick” or his anger over Tim Whatley converting to Judaism “for the jokes” –  the more I ruminated on the show, the harder it became to decide.  And while all of these would all fill out a top ten or twenty…none felt right for the top spot.

Most fans would pick “The Contest” as the greatest SEINFELD episode of all time, and Jerry losing his mind due to his sexual frustration is wonderfully over-the-top. But would I call it my  favorite Jerry moment? It’s close, but I instead settled on a duo that seem to go hand in hand, or more likely two other body parts joined together…

Sex did play a major part in my final decision, but I slid away from the more commonly cited neo-classics to two episodes that delved into the relationship between Jerry and Elaine – both of which result in them hitting the sheets again.

First, there’s the fabulously funny negotiation between Jerry and Elaine as they try to strike a “Friends with Benefits” accord (years before anyone ever used such a phrase) in “The Deal”... 

And…Jerry’s insistence at getting one more crack at bedding Elaine after he learns that she faked every orgasm in “The Mango” is just as notable moment-worthy. Yes, I cheated by picking a pair – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Other than HOGAN’S HEROES (set in a POW camp during WWII), it’s hard to conceive of a less comedic setting than a mobile surgical army hospital during the Korean War. The fact that the stories were often thinly disguised allegories for the Vietnam War (which was still being fought when M*A*S*H premiered in 1972) – forget churning out the chuckles, how did it ever get green lit for prime time TV? In fact, ratings were poor throughout that first season (which could  be said about many comedies that grew to be immensely popular, such as CHEERS and SEINFELD), but CBS continued to buck the conventions of safe programming and paired it up with another controversy-courting show (ALL IN THE FAMILY) for its second season. From that point on, M*A*S*H would continue to net huge viewership numbers for the next ten years.

Although CBS stable mate ALL IN THE FAMILY often dealt with serious issues, M*A*S*H was the first true dramedy. Clearly NOT shot before a live studio audience, there was still the familiar standard sitcom laugh track throughout the show – EXCEPT when the doctors were in surgery. In later seasons, some stories were more experimental or simply far more somber in content – and the laugh track would be largely absent from those episodes as well.

Lanky and lovably lecherous early on, Hawkeye Pierce was the martini-swilling, authority bucking protagonist of the series. He was the synthesis of Groucho Marx, Holden Caulfield and Abbie Hoffmann all rolled into one prowling prankster with the best surgical hands in the unit. Over time, more of Alan Alda’s own persona and views seemed to surface in Hawkeye – even at one point making that character (along with popular talk show host Phil Donahue) the poster boy for the feminization of men. Of course, those espousing such views tended to be idiots.

I wouldn't classify Hawkeye Pierce as  a hero who railed against a specific political party or movement; often times M*A*S*H was often about his battle against bureaucracy and any system of authority that dehumanized people, turning flesh and blood into statistics and acceptable losses. And while he made us laugh when taking on the likes of Major Frank Burns or Colonel Flagg…he’s probably better remembered for any number of searing and powerful moments on the series. M*A*S*H truly excelled when they balanced the comedy and tragedy, producing some of the best dark comedy and gallows humor ever done for television. Which leads me to the…

NOTABLE MOMENT: In “The Late Hawkeye Pierce”, Hawkeye has been mistakenly declared dead by the US Army. At first it’s an amusing goof, the typical US Army red tape snafu. But the episode takes a more serious turn, as an anxious Hawkeye realizes he’s unable to stop the news of his premature death from reaching his elderly father. Frustrated and resigned to his fate, Hawkeye takes “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” to a new level when he boards a bus loaded with corpses that’s about to depart. But as a whole new wave of wounded descends upon the camp, his conscience kicks in and he goes back to work sewing kids back together again. Life goes on, despite what the Army might say.

Two landmark sitcoms exploded onto the CBS schedule within a few months of each other during the 1970-1971 TV season: THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and ALL IN THE FAMILY. But there was a third sitcom that lifted off on ABC that season as well, forming a trio of classic comedies that in my mind cinches the 1970-71 TV season as the greatest period of comedy premieres – ever. As for that third comedy -- I wasn't talking about THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY; I meant THE ODD COUPLE (a.k.a. my personal all-time favorite sitcom).

In 1965, Neil Simon's THE ODD COUPLE made its debut on Broadway. It featured a dream casting coup of Art Carney as Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as Oscar Madison -- and it was directed by Mike Nichols, no slouch in the world of comedy  himself. 

A few years later, Matthau reprised his role as the sloppy sportswriter, and he was joined by his close friend and frequent co-star – the great Jack Lemmon. Their chemistry (as always) was undeniable…and after success on the stage and the silver screen – the next medium for Simon's bickering buddies to conquer was television. 

And it was on TV that THE ODD COUPLE made its most indelible mark. As good as the previous beloved icons were in the roles of Felix and Oscar – it became clear that Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were the definitive mismatched roommates.

Pairing up strikingly different personalities had been a comedy staple for several decades, with famed duos like Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Martin & Lewis. One could reduce Felix & Oscar  to their most overt traits, habits and lifestyles. Felix Unger was a nasal-honking, cleanliness obsessed hypochondriac. Oscar Madison was a curmudgeonly slob, at home wearing an askew baseball cap and a mustard stained sweatshirt while placing bets with his bookie.

One can find the comedic DNA of these two characters in any number of TV series and films that followed. The more successful  productions influenced by Felix & Oscar understood that Felix & Oscar added up to far more than the perceived sum of their parts. For even though their surface details could border on cartoonish, both Felix and Oscar felt quite real, with considerable depth and emotional range.

While mining comedic territory that had been barely touched on TV beforehand (such as divorce -- and in the pre jiggle TV era, there was quite a lot of sexual innuendo as well), there was also a strong sense of old school classic Catskills-style of comedy. Felix & Oscar may have been gentiles on-screen, but there was as almost as much Jewish flavor to the show’s humor as any episode of SEINFELD or CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. That’s not just a credit to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman (both of whom were Jewish), but to the writing staff and the guidance of co-creators and former Bar Mitzvah boys Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson. Let’s face it, from the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks, the Chosen People know their comedy!

Randall and Klugman were superb in their roles, earning three Emmys between them. But unlike any other duo or pair on TV – from Lucy & Ricky to Batman & Robin to Mulder & Scully, I believe it’s borderline sacrilegious to separate Felix and Oscar for any award or any ranking on a list. Like the Sinatra song about Love and Marriage – you can’t have one without the other. 

I’d assume any true ODD COUPLE fan would agree with me, but you know what they say about assume

NOTABLE MOMENT: In terms of picking a favorite episode, there’s a vast treasure trove to dig through. Every time Felix & Oscar ended up in court (including “My Strife in Court” which feature that classic ASSUME scene) made for a worthy contender. Game show appearances on “Password” and “Let’s Make a Deal” would rank very high, as would the episodes when they win a car (“The New Car”), join a monastery (“The Odd Monks”) or tangle with the IRS (“The Ides of April”).

I tend to be partial to a few musical Felix moments, such as the "Oscar-Oscar-Oscar" song from “Felix, the Calypso Singer”, and just the thought of the lyric "M-A-D is what he gets at me" from the episode “You Saved My Life” never fails to make me smile.

Certain lines will always get me giggling too, such as the fourth-wall breaking moment in "The Moonlighter" when Felix says to the camera "It'll be dark...I better bring my big spoon." Not to mention hearing the echoing voice of Felix declaring "I don't like pits-pits-pits in my juice-juice-juice" as an angry sleepwalking Oscar smacks the finicky fussbudget with a newspaper in "The Sleepwalker".

But...If I have to pick my favorite EPISODE, it would be “The Exorcists”, in which two-chicken craving Doctor Clove (Victor Buono) advises Felix on how to remove the spirits from a haunted air conditioner. 

On a side note, continuity was often sacrificed in the name of comedy on THE ODD COUPLE, so talk of what is “canon” on the series can often lead to frothing at the mouth and tears of blood. Here’s a web page devoted to many of the inconsistencies that abounded over the show's five year run:

Much like THE SIMPSONS originally started out as a collection of animated shorts on THE TRACY ULLMAN SHOW, THE HONEYMOONERS was a running sketch on CAVALCADE OF STARS and then THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW for nearly four years before graduating to series status in the fall of 1955. Although the Kramdens and Nortons appeared dozens of times before their series debut -- and would appear many times in sketches and specials for years after THE HONEYMOONERS ended its brief run, generations of viewers are solely familiar with The Classic 39. Few other shows have attained such immense iconic status and had as seismic an effect on comedies to follow with such a relatively small number of episodes.

THE HONEYMOONERS didn't take place in some cul-de-sac, suburb or idyllic small town; most scenes took place at 328 Chauncey Street, a rundown apartment building in Brooklyn. The Kramden's apartment was strikingly sparse and desolate, as if it were something Kafka had dreamed up.** At the center of this low-rent universe was Ralph Kramden, a city bus driver who was barely scratching out a living while forever hatching get-rich schemes that usually involved his best friend and neighbor Ed Norton. 

**I was going to make an allusion to the set being like something out of a Beckett play, but I didn't think it would land quite right.

Ralph Kramden was a veritable force of nature. At times he was all bravado and bluster -- particularly when he was put on the spot by his eternally patient wife Alice. But beyond the yelling and oft-repeated threats of a one-way ticket to the moon, Ralph was always proven to be all bark and no bite, and the truly sweet nature of the man inevitably shone through, be it in his friendship with Norton or his loving relationship with his wife.

Admittedly, one enduring and dubious legacy of THE HONEYMOONERS is the premise of the overweight guy with the "out of his league" attractive spouse. I'd give a rundown of examples, but these guys have already saved me the trouble:

But beyond that trivial trope, THE HONEYMOONERS set the precedent of sitcom storytelling that has surfaced in so many shows. And not just live-action -- would there be a FLINTSTONES, SIMPSONS or FAMILY GUY without THE HONEYMOONERS to pave the way? And outside of Homer Simpson himself (who is languishing at the barricades outside of all these "No Toons Need Apply" lists I've churned out), Ralph Kramden wasn't simply the most bombastic and larger than life character ever to grace a TV screen, he was portrayed by perhaps the most talented and versatile performer to appear on this list: Jackie Gleason.

Despite his size, Gleason had a grace and agility that later heavy set comedic actors such as Belushi, Candy or Farley emulated if never quite matched. He may not have been Fred Astaire, but the man knew how to move.

And was there a better and funnier TV character ever when it came to facial expressions? From shocked reactions to slow burns, no one did it better than Gleason. It's worth noting that unlike so many other sitcoms over the course of the past sixty years, THE HONEYMOONERS had no laugh track. Every sound you heard was the actual live audience reacting to the show (which was shot like a play -- no additional takes due to gaffes or to capture other angles). As you watch this Kramden compilation, be aware that every single giggle and guffaw happened as Gleason, Carney and company were being filmed.

NOTABLE MOMENT: As with any comedy lead on this list, there was an abundance of scenes and/or episodes to choose from...such as Ralph mocking the unseen threat of Harvey in "The Bensonhurst Bomber" or Ralph spitefully filling out the character reference questionnaire about Norton in "The Deciding Vote"...

...but there's no way I could ignore the most obvious choice. It HAS to be Ralph as the Chef of the Future in "Better Living Through TV".

The fact that the prop unexpectedly came apart, and Gleason had to ad-lib to keep the proceedings going -- made this even more impressive. Almost sixty years later, few sitcoms that have even come close to topping this gem.

As I write this, it occurs to me that four of the top five TV Comedy Leads actually resided in New York City:

#5. Jerry Seinfeld: Upper East Side
#3. Felix Unger & Oscar Madison: Central Park West
#2. Ralph Kramden: Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY

...and the Number One choice lived in Corona, Queens, NYSo let's give a good old Bronx Cheer for the anti-New York crowd.

Sitting atop this impressive heap of laugh-meisters and merry-makers, undoubtedly in his favorite chair -- My Most Memorable TV Comedy Lead is Archie Bunker. Like Ralph Kramden, Archie was a red meat-eating, blue collar-wearing kinda guy, a man who worked his way up to the middle class from being a child of the Great Depression. But where THE HONEYMOONERS primarily focused on the unraveling of Ralph's schemes and other purely comic fodder, ALL IN THE FAMILY did something that no American comedy had ever done before, and few have ever attempted since.  

Inspired heavily by the popular and bracing British sitcom TILL DEATH US DO PART, Norman Lear and his staff of writers used AITF to hold a mirror up to all the issues of the day. Nothing was too taboo to be tackled on the series: politics, religion, sex, race...and bear in mind this show started in 1970. Race riots and the Stonewall riots were still very much on the minds of most people in America. The Women's Liberation Movement was a frequent cover story on many news weeklies, and the increasingly polarizing war was still raging on in Vietnam. More than forty years later, I'll watch an episode of AITF and not only marvel about how it got past Standards & Practices, but also realize that AITF could not be made in today's political and social climate.

ALL IN THE FAMILY quickly became the most popular TV show in the US and remained atop the Neilsen ratings for several years. At the core of the show was the oxymoronic Archie Bunker, for he could be best described as a "lovable bigot". More so than in real life, fictional characters can evolve, and Archie did learn to overcome and minimize most of his prejudices over the years. So by the time AITF became ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE, Archie was unlikely to say anything like this nugget from "We're Having a Heat Wave".

But beyond the examination of issues from hot flashes to homosexuality, AITF could come up with some marvelously dense dialogue comedy scenes that revolved around Archie. This classic scene from "Pay the Twenty Dollars" manages to make math funnier than one could ever imagine.

In addition to juggling more laughs than most other comedies as well as scalding hot button issues -- there were moments with Archie that were as powerfully moving as any drama then or since. The passing of Edith actually occurred on ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE, and ranks among the most heartbreaking goodbyes to any beloved TV icon. Before that, this was the moment that inspired millions of teary eyes from coast-to-coast: the final minutes of "The Stivics Go West".

Yes, episodes dealing with character departures are always going to be sad. But here's something you hadn't seen on any comedy series before ALL IN THE FAMILY...a scene from the bottle episode "Two's a Crowd" in which Michael** learns about the nature of Archie's relationship with his own dad.

**I've had high praise for both Jean Stapleton (see My Comedy Supporting Players blog) and now Carroll O'Connor for their magnificent work, but watching several clips and episodes this weekend, I've come to the conclusion that Rob Reiner does't get nearly enough credit for how good he was on AITF.

NOTABLE MOMENT: Believe it or not, I'm not picking the Sammy Davis Junior scene from "Sammy's Visit". Nor am I going with Archie struggling to deal with Edith's menopause in "Edith's Problem". In fact, I'm straying away from all the issue oriented scenes or any interactions with guest stars or recurring characters like George Jefferson (although those scenes were consistently priceless). No, there's one scene that will always come to mind whenever I think about Archie Bunker and ALL IN THE FAMILY... 

From "Gloria Sings the Blues"...a sock and a sock and a shoe and a shoe...

I now bring this series of MY MOST MEMORABLE TV CHARACTERS to a close. Hopefully you enjoyed these little sojourns down my memory lane of television. Maybe it reminded you of a beloved show you watched as a kid after school, maybe it inspired you to track down something you've never seen. My hope was to be equally entertaining and informative; if I accomplished either one of those two objectives, it was a worthwhile trip for me as well. 

Since I don't quite know how to end this...I'll just steal a classic ending from somewhere else. This Top Ten list began with citing Newhart as having the greatest final episode in the history of situation comedies. Now some may pick M*A*S*H or CHEERS or any number of others for the Number Two slot...but MY choice will always be the last time we ever saw the entire gang at WJM-TV in Minneapolis...

It's a long long way to Tipperary
But my heart's right there