By: Brian Berger
August 25, 2018

One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite TV shows from the Fifties (1954–1963).


CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? | 1961–1963

Faulkner enjoyed an undistinguished television comedy, Car 54, Where Are You?, which he watched every week in James Silver’s house.
— endnote in Faulkner and Material Culture (University of Mississippi Press, 2007)

Undistinguished?! Are the Marx Brothers undistinguished? Mae West? Butterbeans & Susie? Preston Sturges? Fact: Car 54, created by comedy genius Nat Hiken, is an apotheosis of American culture, period. I won’t name the errant Faulknerian because I doubt he actually watched the show. Received “wisdom” sucks. I know, because for decades I didn’t watch it either. Worse, I didn’t even know I should.

Which is crazy because as a kid I watched so much goddamn tv it’s a wonder I’m even semi-literate. Forget Yoknapatawpha, in monochrome I was transfixed: Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Leave It To Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Addams Family, The Munsters. Other lesser crap. Today I’m still catching up: Decoy, Naked City, M Squad, Dragnet. Neil Young “Mideast Vacation” (1987) taught me another: “I used to watch Highway Patrol / Whittlin’ with my knife / But the thought never struck me / I’d be black & white for life.”

Before Car 54 there was The Phil Silvers Show — aka Bilko — but Hiken burned out after two seasons (1956–58). He came back rejuvenated with a sharply satirical cop show celebrating an idealized but recognizably class-conscious New York City where character and voice are all. Co-stars Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne had both done Bilko; now they’re Officers Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon, partners in the 53rd Precinct under the command of Captain Paul Block (peerless straight man Paul Reed).

The show was filmed in the Bronx: Biograph Studios, 807 East 175th Street in East Tremont, with Crotona Park and the Cross-Bronx Expressway nearby. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982) considers the neighborhood’s post-Robert Moses scarification but says nothing about its near-direct predecessor, the “I Won’t Go” episode of Car 54, starring Yiddish-theater legend Molly Picon. If only Marshall knew! Likewise Charlotte Rae in “A Star Is Born In The Bronx.” Katz the Butcher. Frederick O’Neal, Ossie Davis and Nipsey Russell as black cops and men like other men. Beatrice Pons’ barbaric yawp. Se Habla Español on the stationhouse wall. But who knew? “Undistinguished.”

In “How Smart Can You Get?” Toody and Muldoon are joined by an exceptionally educated rookie. Lately Toody has been expounding on the “nonchalant” qualities of Yankee baseball players. The newcomer isn’t interested in sports but when he mentions Voltaire, conversational sparks fly with Muldoon, repressed intellectual. References to Montaigne, the Baconian Theory of Shakespeare, Cicero, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, Schumann, Tchaikovsky and other long-hair heroes follow. Musically, Toody counters with Vaughan Monroe, Spike Jones and Muggsy Spanier — to no avail. Toody decides to educate himself via the Encyclopedia Britannica, starting with “aardvark,” and when this also fails to impress, he laments to fellow sports fanatic Officer Leo Schnauser (holy Al Lewis):

“The worst thing that could happen to a guy happened to me. I’m not a highbrow, I’m not a lowbrow, I’m something worse — I’m something new, I’m a nobrow!”


TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Luc Sante on LOONEY TUNES | Chris Spurgeon on THE THREE STOOGES | Adrienne Crew on MY THREE SONS | Barbara Bogaev on ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | Devin McKinney on THE TWILIGHT ZONE | James Hannaham on THE NAT KING COLE SHOW | Mimi Lipson on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES | Jessamyn West on THE JETSONS | Gary Panter on THE OUTER LIMITS | Peter Doyle on THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS | Mark Kingwell on ROUTE 66 | Josh Glenn on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW | Lynn Peril on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW | Rob Walker on LEAVE IT TO BEAVER | Dan Reines on DAVEY & GOLIATH | Adam McGovern on HIGHWAY PATROL | Erik Davis on HAVE GUN — WILL TRAVEL | Greg Rowland on THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW | Annie Nocenti on THE AVENGERS | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on GUNSMOKE | Sarah Weinman on NAKED CITY | Douglas Rushkoff on THE HONEYMOONERS | Kio Stark on ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS | Gordon Dahlquist on PERRY MASON | Brian Berger on CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? | CODA: Crystal Durant on Marc Anthony & Pussyfoot shorts | CODA: Mike Watt on “A Stop at Willoughby”


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