I couldn’t sleep last night. I started to watch television, only to come to the sad realization that I have reached the age where, when an advertiser wants to make its products appear desirable, it necessarily casts actors and actresses who are much, much younger than I am. (The same basic principle also holds true with most TV shows. If the characters on “The Big Bang Theory” were forty years old, instead of twenty-five, wouldn’t that be the most depressing show ever?). Turning off the television, I decided to wallow in my decrepitude by slouching over to YouTube and watching a bunch of old network TV promotional spots for their respective fall lineups.
Some of you may recall that every fall up through the 1980s, the broadcast networks used to slap together a half-hour TV show, or a series of long commercials to hype their new programs. My favorite examples of the genre:
NBC, 1969 (“NBC’s New Ones for 1969-70″): An early entry, hosted by Hugh Downs and Joe Garagiola. Both of whom are still alive today, I thought I’d add. I enjoy both Garagiola’s obvious lack of enthusiasm for this endeavor and Down’s (accurate) description of one program as a “James-Thurber type comedy.” Way to speak to the audience, Hugh. (*Pause*) He was talking about “Animal Practice,” right?
ABC Cartoons, 1973: I don’t know why ABC executives thought that the best way to introduce their Saturday-morning cartoons was to have Michael Constantine wear an undertaker’s suit, put him on a dark set, and then slip several sleeping pills into his tea, but that’s apparently what happened here. On the bright side, did you know that in the mid-1970s, Yogi Bear battled a villain named–I swear I’m not making this up–”Mr. Bigot” (at 0:39)? What, again, does ethnic insensitivity have to do with pic-a-nic baskets?
ABC, Fall 1980 (“You and Me and ABC”): Because anytime you can see Ricardo Montalban, Tom Bosley, Cathy Lee Crosby, Tom Hanks, Burgess Meredith, Penny Marshall, Hal Linden, Robert Guillaume, Danny Thomas, and Donna Dixon perform a song-and-dance routine together, you pretty much have to watch. A much stronger entry than prior-year ABC promos, like the ones that shoved Cheryl Ladd, Robin Williams, and a disconcertingly bearded Henry Winkler into hot-air balloons and called it a day. Although if we could do the same to Justin Bieber, only forget to tell him how to come down, I’d probably watch.
And, yes, watching Burgess Meredith “dance” is . . . awkward. And strange. Not quite as awkward and strange as this 1967 interview of Patrick Macnee and (*sigh*) Diana Rigg by a German television host, but still, pretty awkward and strange.
The Penguin Mickey Burgess seems a little more invested in this promotional ad, in which ABC’s Stars of 1980 become the world’s worst Habitat for Humanity crew.
CBS, Fall 1980 (“Looking Good Together”): Unlike ABC, CBS couldn’t rally all of its stars to join together for a “Chorus Line” performance. So for 1980-81, the eye network counterpunched with a series of ads in which the stars of CBS programs (Loni Anderson! Lou Ferrigno! Larry Hagman! Pat Harrington!) visited lucky viewers at their homes or offices, either to lend advice or just a helping hand. Because what woman, alone in her house, wouldn’t want to turn around to see the Incredible Hulk grimacing at them?
The CBS promos win points for originality (they had plots!), but I still longed for at least a cameo from the maraca-themed “A CBS Special Presentation” intro. (When I was a kid, hearing those maracas was absolutely the best possible way to grab my attention. To this day, play that theme, and like Pavlov’s dog I will immediately turn to and stare at the closest TV set. Sometimes for hours, until it’s clear that neither “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” or “Rikki Tikki Tavi” will appear.)
NBC, Fall 1982 (“Just Watch Us Now”): Note the tone of desperation in the peacock’s slogan. They could have added “Please! We’re Begging You!” to the end and no one would have missed a beat. NBC executives at that time knew they had a quality lineup (OK, except for “Voyagers.” And “Gavilan.” And “The Powers of Matthew Star.” Where was I going with this again?), but nobody was watching. Also notable for a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it David Letterman cameo (at 1:31).
By the next year, NBC’s prospects had improved just enough to warrant the more upbeat “Be There” campaign. But, underscoring their status as the Fredo of TV networks, NBC would pretty much kill any momentum that fall by unleashing “We Got It Made” on an unsuspecting public.
FOX, 1987 (“Don’t Let Fox Weekend Pass You By”): A blues-y theme accompanies a bunch of shows that, except for “Married with Children,” “The Tracey Ullman Show,” and “21 Jump Street,” no one remembers anymore. Worth watching for a young Johnny Depp, who stands atop a tower to give his career literal, not just figurative, distance from those of his network colleagues.
For more cheap nostalgia, consider this tremendous series of clips from Saturday-morning ads and shows from the 1970s, including some from series and products that I hadn’t thought about for, oh, twenty-five years or so.