Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Classic TV (And Still Funny)

By David Luhrssen
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Nostalgia for 1950s family sitcoms centers on “Leave It to Beaver,” presided over by an all-knowing dad, and the moral of the genre is summed up by the name of a series called “Father Knows Best.” But ‘50s sitcoms weren’t monolithic in their view, and in the popular program starring Danny Thomas, father seldom knew best. Episodes of the show from fall of 1958 are collected on a new DVD, “Make Room for Daddy Season 6, Vol. 1.”

The program was a bit unconventional for its day. For starters, Thomas played a version of himself, a multi-talented entertainer with a great stand-up comic’s sense for timing. His partner Kathy (Marjorie Lord) was his second wife and—unlike some other TV couples from the era—one had the impression they enjoyed sex together. Danny and Kathy didn’t live in an idyllic small town but a Manhattan high-rise apartment. Danny was Ward Cleaver’s temperamental opposite, given to yelling. He was a hot head who spoke faster than he thought. And unlike most American TV families, whose white bread lack of ethnicity suggested roots on the Mayflower passenger list, Danny’s heritage was occasionally featured. He was Lebanese and knew his way with shish-kabob.

All of this would be interesting mostly to historians of early television if not for one thing: Danny Thomas’ show is still funny after all these years. The writing was sharp and crisp and the delivery was expert. Thomas’ performances added an edge missing from his WASP counterparts among TV dads of the Eisenhower era. His character had a good heart and meant well, even with his foot in his mouth.

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