Weekend Viewing: HE AND SHE

Someone has posted the first episode of one of the most influential flops of all time: He & She, the 1967-8 series starring the husband-and-wife team of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss.

Leonard Stern, the showrunner of Get Smart, created this show, but it was very different from Get Smart and indeed different from any other comedy on TV at the time. It was an urban show where most sitcoms of the time took place either in the suburbs or in fantasy-land. Benjamin and Prentiss played a deadpan-guy/ditzy-wife couple in the mold of Burns and Allen, but both of them worked for a living: he was a cartoonist, she worked for the city travel bureau. It had a cast of supporting characters who were eccentric but not completely cartoonish, plus one outlandish scene-stealing character: Jack Cassidy as an egomaniacal actor who plays Benjamin’s superhero character, “Jet Man,” on TV. (This plot point was inspired, of course, by the success of the Batman TV series.) It was a multi-camera show shot in front of an audience at a time when this format was basically dead: once The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air, almost every other TV sitcom except The Lucy Show went with the single-camera, no-audience format. And the jokes were more observational and less punchline-y than most sitcoms of the time.

 All these things — the urban setting, the live studio audience, a woman who works an office job, character-based jokes, an egomaniac media personality character — sound familiar because The Mary Tyler Moore Show, three years later on the same network, borrowed heavily from this show. Mary’s apartment looks kind of like the main set of He & She, and the creators of Mary (including Allan Burns, who had written for He & She) actually offered the part of Ted Baxter to Jack Cassidy, who turned it down. MTM made this formula into a hit, in large part because CBS actively re-shaped its lineup and image to promote the success of that kind of show; in 1967 CBS was mostly dependent on wacky one-camera comedies with rural or suburban settings, and He & She just didn’t fit: it followed Green Acres, which was a great show but whose audience simply wasn’t compatible with H&S’s.

But He & She‘s first and only season, still unavailable on DVD, is overall a lot better than Mary Tyler Moore’s first season; if H&S had gone on, it would almost certainly rank as one of the great sitcoms of all time. And the gorgeous and funny Paula Prentiss would have had the stardom she deserved but never quite attained in movies or TV.

This episode has been uploaded rather sloppily — it’s not supposed to be letterboxed, and it’s missing a gag (which gets a huge audience laugh) where it’s revealed that both members of the couple are sleeping in pajama tops (the joke being that we’re set up to think that she’s wearing the top and he’s wearing the bottom, and then they get out of bed — a double bed, which Rob and Laura Petrie never had — and the audience laughs). But it’s all we’ve got until there’s a DVD. And why isn’t there?

Familiar faces in this episode include series regular Kenneth Mars and the late, eternally old Charles Lane.

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