An old friend of mine was once hired to write jokes for the great comedian Jackie Gleason. This was in the late 1960’s, when Gleason’s television career was waning but he was still top- lining nightclubs in Miami Beach. Writing for him was, as they used to say, a “choice gig.”
So my friend takes the train from Manhattan to Miami Beach, and along the way he writes a stack of Jackie Gleason-sounding material. By the time he arrives at Gleason’s hotel, the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, he has a solid sheaf of jokes. He meets Gleason’s manager in the lobby who quickly scans the material as he escorts my friend up in the elevator.
“These are pretty good,” he says. “Fresh. I like it.”
They get to the penthouse, introductions are made, and Gleason — in a silk bathrobe and a highball — puts on his reading glasses and sits down to read the material.
He reads it all very carefully and without any reaction. He gets to the last page, reads that, and then sits quietly for a moment in silence. Then he begins to read it all again, very carefully and without reaction. My friend and the manager stand there, awkwardly.
Finally, Jackie Gleason puts down the material, removes his glasses, and looks up.
“The hell is this?” He asks.
The manager nervously replies that this is some new material — “Remember, Jackie? You said you wanted some new stuff, some fresh stuff, for the road?” — and that this was the young writer they had hired to deliver it — “He’s the best, Jackie, young and plugged into that scene, funny cock-eyed take on the world, Jackie, the best.”
Gleason looks utterly baffled. He taps the pages in his lap. “I don’t know this material,” he says. “It’s new. It’s new material.”
He pronounces the word “new” as one might pronounce the word “fecal.”
“I don’t know this material,” he says again. “What I need, are you listening to me? What I need is new material that I already know. Do you understand me? Get me new material that I know already. Understand me?”
“Of course I understand you, Jackie,” said the manager who did not understand him. “One hundred percent.”
And so my friend was escorted back down to the lobby and put on a train headed for New York and ended up having one of the shortest — but probably not the shortest — career writing for Jackie Gleason. Get me new material that I already know.
Get me new old material. Fresh, but stale. New, but I already heard it.
In the 1970’s, when I was a child, honestly, there was this — at the time, inexplicable — nostalgia for the 1950’s. Movies and plays like Grease, and of course the long-running smash- hit TV show “Happy Days” — these are all big trends in the 1970’s. If you were 40 or 45, though, in 1978, you were born in 1940, roughly, and were a teenager during the time of Happy Days. Those years were a big imprint on you. So flash forward to the 1970’s, when some of those teenagers had grown up to become television executives, who had the ability to sit in a hotel suite in a bathrobe — I’m making an analogy here, not being literal, although back then I’m pretty sure there was some hotel-suite-bathrobe stuff going on — and put on the shows that tugged at their memories. And tugged at the memories of millions of viewers, too.
Now, with the revival of the 1990’s hit Roseanne about to premiere — and everything I hear about it is that it’s a great show — and with the revival of the 1990’s hit Murphy Brown on the way — it’s awfully hard to believe that this is a product of nostalgia. If you were a teenager in 1995, say, you’re barely 30. Fifteen years is not much to be sentimental about.
What broadcast television is sentimental about, it turns out, and the past they long for, are the last great years of the business of broadcast television. The 1990s were its Happy Days. What they miss isn’t the music or the clothes or the innocence of a younger time. What they miss is the money.
Which is why they’re sitting in the bathrobe, in a hotel suite, trying to get some new old material.
And that’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll go for a checkup. For KCRW, this is Rob Long.