TVparty! Television’s Untold Tales
by Billy Ingram
Billy Ingram’s TVparty! Television’s Untold Tales intends being a nostalgic, humorous look at television, largely that of the 1950s through ’70s. The book is full of interesting stories I’d never heard before, such as pointing out the creepy coincidence that in the pilot episode of Baretta, the wife of Robert Blake’s character is murdered outside an Italian restaurant.
One of my favorite articles is on the ’70s series Good Times. I was never much of a fan in the series heyday, partly because I was watching Happy Days with most of the rest of America, but probably mostly because I was five. I’ve caught some reruns on early morning cable and been struck by how strong John Amos and Esther Rolle were and how strange it now seems that Jimmie Walker became a star. And how sad it is (relatively speaking — I mean it’s not death-of Princess Di sad or anything) that such a promising series so quickly went up in flames. When a show has “irrevocably lost its balance,” as Ingram writes here, it’s almost always too late to save it, and he tells the story of how that can happen here as well as I’ve seen it told.
Ingram’s light, pleasant touch as a writer is mostly appreciated throughout, my favorite example being his opening a Tallulah Bankhead article with “If you’ve ever been in the presence of a flamboyant, bitter drag queen, you’re looking at Tallulah Bankhead’s residual energy on this planet.” Sometimes, however, I have to question not so much Ingram’s writing style as his sanity. The pilot special of Mama’s Family built “like a low-rent Tennessee Williams play,” and the early episodes “stand as some of the funniest sitcoms of the decade?” I call “Sure, I can see how — what?” OK, M*A*S*H was running out of things to say (and was more a sitcom of the previous decade), but Taxi was still running smooth at the time, and Cheers was on the way. Ingram “redeems” himself some ten pages later, though, when he claims that Mama’s Family “rescued (Ken Berry’s) TV career in 1983, if you want to call that a rescue.”
All kidding aside, this book is a great deal of fun, and I recommend it (with some reservations, which I’ll get to in a moment) to those interested in pop culture figures from Groucho Marx to Redd Foxx. It’s value to you will depend somewhat on where you grew up and when; true — the lengthy section on Memorable Kids Shows of the ’50s and ’60s was easily skimmed by me, born in 1971.
TVparty does fail my test of trustworthiness as a reference book — that being when you find in such a work at least three things that you know are errors, assume it’s riddled with others that you just don’t know about. For example, it was on The Big Show that Fred Allen and Bankhead did their popular satire of morning programs, not Allen’s own. Some of these errors, granted, may be matters of opinion — Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall was a hit album, but I wouldn’t say he “changed the face of music” until Thriller — and they are all trivial (Robin Williams co-star from Mork & Mindy spells her name Dawber, not Dauber). But as someone said: trivia worth collecting in a book is trivia worth getting right.
As a reading experience, Tvparty is approximately (and appropriately) like zapping your way up and down the cable box, glancing only briefly at things of mild interest to you and lingering longer on items you enjoy. It’s based on the Web site of the same name, where almost all of this material first appeared.