September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
To pick a single show out of the thousands of hours that we earlier generations of couch potatoes suffered through on the mighty io-inch screen, and to dub it the most overrated of that era is tough. We had a lot of mediocrity then.
However, I nominate: Arthur Godfrey and His Friends . An island of daily drear, presided over by one jovial ukulele-strumming emcee.
He was also mean. One of his discoveries was young Julius La Rosa, a fine singer. Having decided that his discovery was becoming too arrogant, Godfrey, without any prior notification, chose to announce to his audience, after La Rosa’s performance, “Thanks ever so much, Julie. That was Julius’s swan song with us.” No one in the audience could have been more startled than the young singer by being a public participant in a live TV tragedy, Godfrey’s personal putsch.
The arrogant, tyrannical, affable, Middle American Godfrey kept right on chuckling, humming and strumming.
Forgive me. I offer not one but two.
The first was inhabited by a cadre of puppets, brilliantly conceived by Burr Tillstrom and known as the Kuklapolitans, who popped in and out of a small screen at the behest of a lady, Fran Allison. Can we also agree that the inhabitants of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” are equally as underrated now as the comedy fantasies of Ernie Kovacs?
Both these geniuses provided us with worlds uniquely their own. Kovacs brought himself, his cigars, and a character named Percy Dovetonsils, who lounged with a book of poetry, funny eyeglasses, and a martini and lisped stupid poetry at us. He also invented the Nairobi Trio, three monkeys who played jazz àla wind-up toys. On Kovacs’s shows, you could never be sure of what would happen next … nor could he. Since the network gave him little money, he improvised and built up an audience that adored these trips into madness.
As for Tillstrom, the godfather of Jim Henson’s Muppets, he never once appeared from behind the drapes, but he sent out Kukla, Oliver J. Dragon, Madame Ophelia Oglepuss, Fletcher Rabbit, and, best of all, Beulah Witch, to captivate us five nights a week.
Would that they were with us still, Kovacs and Tillstrom; let them share the laurels of Most Underrated.