In 1961, a show debuted on NBC called Car 54 Where Are You. The man behind it was Nat Hiken, who was already something of a television legend for creating Sgt. Bilko. As funny, and wild as Bilko was however, Car 54 raised the bar for TV comedy to a new level. According to comedian Robert Klein: “The show was one of the finest television series ever produced.” After viewing Car 54 Where Are You: The Complete First Season it is hard not to agree.
Unlike many of the popular series from the Golden Age Of Television, Car 54 has not enjoyed much of a run in syndication. Most likely this is because the show only ran for two seasons. Where I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Andy Griffith have all seemingly been on the air in one form or another since their respective debuts, Car 54 has not.
Hopefully Shanachie Entertainment’s four-DVD set of all 30 (yes 30) episodes from the 1961-1962 season will alert people to the brilliance of this show. To begin with, Car 54 had an outstanding cast. The stars were a former strip-club comic by the name of Joe E. Ross (who looks like he is straight out of The Bowery Boys), and the refined (and very tall) Fred Gwynne. As Officers Toody and Muldoon, the two were like a Mutt and Jeff or even Laurel and Hardy combo. The situations Hiken wrote these guys into were hilarious, and often escalated into deliriously over the top scenarios.
One of these is “What Happened To Thursday?” In it we find our heroes trying to save the career of fellow officer Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis), who gets into loud shouting matches with his wife Sylvia (Charlotte Rae) every Thursday night at precisely 11:00 pm. Toody and Muldoon have been breaking up the bickering matches every week before the Schnauser’s neighbors have had a chance to call the station, but are getting awfully tired of it.
They come up with the idea to trick Leo into thinking that Thursday is actually Friday. In this way, the two think that they will be breaking the Thursday night curse, and the cycle will end. To keep up the ruse, they get a fake Friday newspaper printed up, change the sign-in book and calendars in the station, and talk to Leo about his Friday night plans. Soon the whole 53rd Precinct believes that Thursday is Friday, which results in complete chaos. The episode is comedic gold, and is deservedly legendary among fans.
With a total of 30 shows, the first season has plenty of other examples of brilliance. Whether we find Toody and Muldoon trying to change their schedules to go on a fishing trip, or dealing with Gypsies, or even appearing on The Jack Paar Show – Car 54 Where Are You is as funny as TV has ever been.
The level of respect the program was afforded early on is reflected in the caliber of guest stars who appeared during the first season. The aforementioned matriarch of the Gypsy family is Maureen Stapleton, on the episode where both Toody and Muldoon wind up on The Jack Paar Show, a young Hugh Downs is filling in as guest host. Other notable cameos come from the great Wally Cox, Shari Lewis, Alice Ghostly, and Jan Murray.
As a bonus, there is a recently filmed round-table discussion led by Robert Klein, featuring series regulars Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett (Officer Nicholson). Klein was a huge fan of the show, and gently leads the two actors into reminiscences of their experiences. One of the more interesting tid-bits was the reason Car 54 went off the air after only two seasons – evidently NBC wanted a 50% ownership stake, which Hiken rejected.
Car 54 Where Are You was filmed in The Bronx, NY at Biograph Studios – sans audience. One of the tricks Hiken used for the program’s laugh track was to show the completed episode to a live audience, then use their reactions as part of the show. At the time, critics called it “canned” laughter, but it really was not. The people at Shanachie have gone back to the original 35 mm prints for this DVD reissue, and all 30 black and white shows look fantastic.
I had heard that Car 54 was a TV masterpiece for many years, but had never previously seen more than a couple of episodes. With this DVD release, the show’s reputation as one of the great sitcoms of all time is secure. Car 54 Where Are You really was one of the best. Check it out.