THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE PAUL LYNDE SHOW”

One of the most popular titles on today’s bootleg video circuit is, ironically, one of the least popular titles of the 1970s: “The Paul Lynde Show,” a sitcom which limped its way unloved through a single season but which somehow gained a cult following thanks entirely to the posthumous gay icon stature of its zany star.

“The Paul Lynde Show” was created in 1972 by producer William Asher, whose long-running hit “Bewitched” was finally wrapping up. ABC needed a replacement show from Asher and he recommended a sitcom starring Paul Lynde, who had a recurring role on “Bewitched” as the wacky warlock Uncle Arthur. For Lynde, the chance to star in his own show was a career dream come true. Prior to this, he was relegated to supporting roles in movies and guest appearances on TV shows. The highest profile he enjoyed came as a panelist on the “Hollywood Squares” game show, where he dished out risque (and well-scripted) one-liners. But while Lynde was the funniest member of the “Hollywood Squares” cast, he was still one out of nine performers on the program’s daily line-up.

“The Paul Lynde Show,” as proposed by Asher, was basically a retread of an early pilot called “Howie” that Lynde shot in 1962. In that proposed program, Lynde played a conservative, put-upon lawyer whose daughter marries a laid-back slacker. According to the upcoming biography “Center Square: The Paul Lynde” by Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski, “Howie” was meant to replace the low-rated sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” But that program got a last-minute reprieve and “Howie” never became a series.

For the new show, Lynde reprised the conservative, put-upon lawyer character. Former MGM star June Allyson was considered to play his wife, but at Lynde’s recommendation the role went to Elizabeth Allen, who starred with him in several regional theater productions. The slacker son-in-law role went to blonde newcomer John Calvin. But for the new show, the son-in-law character’s importance was scaled back as more emphasis was placed on Lynde’s off-beat delivery of one-liners and zingers; in several episodes, the son-in-law was barely present.

Many people viewing the show today claim “The Paul Lynde Show” was doomed to failure because Lynde was not credibly cast as a married man and a father. While Lynde’s sexuality was never a secret during his lifetime, the problem was not with the star’s off-screen sexuality. If anything, Lynde was perfectly cast – the character was a variation of his most famous role of Harry MacAfee, the harried patriarch at a loss with the younger generation in the stage and film versions of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Lynde doesn’t play the role as a stereotypical homosexual, so the suggestion he couldn’t act “straight” is absurd.

The problem with “The Paul Lynde Show” was that it was a lopsided lump. Plain and simple, Lynde had all of the genuinely funny lines, which he shamelessly milked in his trademark snide delivery and sing-song voice. All of the characters seemed to exist as a vehicle to feed him set-ups for punchlines; in Allen’s case, she greeted him with martinis when his character arrived home at day’s end. Yet the material Lynde was given was among the weakest and most contrived of his career. A typical flat joke: when a hippie girl offers a plateful of brownies with the claim it was her grandmother’s recipe, Lynde peers at her suspiciously and declares, “Who was your grandmother, Alice B. Toklas?” Or when his wife Martha gets a rare comeback on his sarcastic observations, Lynde retorts: “Watch it, Martha. I hear mistresses are ‘in’ this year.”

According to biographers Wilson and Florenski, Lynde tried to rewrite much of the dialogue to get some genuine laughs. But there was a major problem here: ABC was much stricter in its standards and practices than CBS (home of “All in the Family,” against which this show was unfairly judged), so any controversial material relating to social issues was verboten. Thus, what could have been a pungent commentary on the contemporary youth culture and the older generation’s bafflement at changing mores became a standard parents-vs.-kids sitcom. It also didn’t help that the show’s youthful characters (the son-in-law, Lynde’s married daughter and a younger teen daughter) were basically good kids and not the counterculture freaks that would’ve made the situations truly comic.

Inevitably, “The Paul Lynde Show” fell into a pattern of plotlines where the adults misunderstood the kids’ actions and get into chaos. Whether Lynde is neurotically fussing about his teen daughter’s first attempts at dating or whether he is anxiously trying to recover a nude painting of his older daughter, the stories were contrived and stale. The presence of a swimming pool in the characters’ backyard was inevitably used for the fully-clothed descent of someone (usually Lynde) into its chlorinated waters – and that joke got old very quickly.

Complicating matters was timing: “The Paul Lynde Show” was slotted against “Adam-12″ and “The Carol Burnett Show.” Ratings were dismal from the get-go and “The Paul Lynde Show” limped through its 26-show season before ABC cancelled it. For all of his labors, Lynde received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy Series; when he lost to Redd Foxx, he became so angrily disruptive during the award ceremony that security guards had to escort him from the event.

Since “The Paul Lynde Show” was a single-season flop, the program never found its way into the rerun culture. Over time, it became quickly forgotten while Lynde continued to find appreciative audiences in more successful endeavors (most notably in his long-running “Hollywood Squares” gig and his memorable voice characterization of Templeton the Rat in the animated film “Charlotte’s Web”).

But in the years since his 1982 death, Lynde’s star has ascended as the gay community rediscovered his comedy. His wicked “Hollywood Squares” zingers have been credited with introducing gay humor to mainstream America, and his unwillingness to hide his sexuality was seen in retrospect as being among the earliest attempts by a Hollywood star not to hide in the closet (when a fan once asked Lynde why he never married, the funnyman asked the fan if he lived in a cave!). In 2001, I hosted a one-time screening of “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” at the Two Boots Den of Cin in New York and the venue sold out within five minutes; subsequent screenings of other Lynde-relating programs also drew large audiences.

Two decades after passing away, Lynde’s star is brighter than ever. One might think this retro interest in Lynde would encourage “The Paul Lynde Show” to be repackaged for commercial DVD – despite its less-than-sterling content, the show might have collector value today with gay audiences. But to date, the program has never been made available for home entertainment release. Bootleg episode collections (including some episodes in black-and-white) have circulated on video for years, and more recently bootlegged DVD anthologies are making the circuit.

If Lynde were alive today, he’d probably be shocked and appalled that people are seeking out bootlegs of his failed sitcom (he actively hated the show during its run and never spoke kindly of it afterwards). While it is not representative of his talents, it nonetheless offers a diverting curio treat for Lynde’s still-loyal fans.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on June 10, 2005 in Features by
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