David C. Tucker has been my friend for many years. We share an interest in vintage TV and movies and laugh at the same things. He’s written five books, and his latest (Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy) will be available in 2014. I admire David for his keen intellect and sense of humor. He’s also a damn good writer. I’m thrilled that David will be my first interview. He will definitely class up the joint.
Your book, Lost Laughs of 50s and 60s Television: Thirty Sitcoms That Faded Off Screen, was recently named one of the best books of 2013 by Classic Images. Which of those sitcoms were your personal favorites and why?
Most of them I had never seen before writing the book, because they’re difficult to obtain. I was surprised sometimes that I was wrong in predicting which ones would really appeal to me. A couple I especially liked were Mrs. G Goes to College, which made me want to write a book about Gertrude Berg someday, and Wendy and Me, which I had expected to shun because I thought no one should be trying to do Gracie Allen-type humor except Gracie Allen. For both of those, I watched all the episodes I could find, and then wished there were more.
Were there any that hurt to watch?
I tried not to be judgmental when I wrote that book – I wasn’t out to put the shows down – but the one that struck me as an almost complete misfire, creatively, was Mr. Terrific. But after the book came out, I received a letter from an annoyed reader who loved that show, so obviously it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Let’s say you’re hosting a viewing party at your home. What food and beverages would you provide for your guests and which TV shows, movies, excerpts, etc. would you show?
Probably depends on what day you catch me, and who the captive audience is. I haven’t done it in a while, but I used to enjoy watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 with friends. I love that moment when you break up laughing at one of their pop culture references – like when they’re watching a woman at the wheel of a car, and one of the ‘bots croons, “How will you make it on your own…?” – and your friend is sitting there mystified. Then a minute or two later, the situation is reversed, and he has to explain a joke to you. As for food, if I’m going to prepare it, we’re probably better off meeting for dinner beforehand.
Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
Not usually. I’d rather face that cold, empty screen in dead silence. I probably should start, though – it scares the cat when things are going badly and I start growling.
I know you love Peggy Lee. Do you remember the first time you noticed her? What is it about her that made you a fan? Have you thought about writing a book about her?
I love female vocalists, and she was one I hadn’t really experienced until I checked out a “Best of” CD from the library. Before the end of the first song, I knew she was great. I don’t think anyone cared more about getting things right than she did, and she has such a gift for conveying a persona, and a mood, for every song she chooses. As for writing a book, I don’t have nearly enough technical knowledge to write well about a singer, but Robert Strom published a terrific chronology of her career a few years ago.
For the most part, your books have focused on female actors. You’ve written books on Shirley Booth, Eve Arden, and now Joan Davis. You also wrote The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Why do you think you focus on women performers? Are there any male performers you’d like to write about?
It sounds odd, but I think most writers would agree with me that there are themes coming out of your work over time – even ones that seem obvious in retrospect – that you didn’t necessarily anticipate. But so many of these women were fascinating, complicated, hugely talented individuals, and so much more captivating to me than the typical leading man, or leading lady. I do appreciate some of the male comic geniuses as well – Groucho Marx, Jack Benny – but I try to write about people who haven’t already been done to death. Do we really need any more books about Marilyn Monroe?
Name some stars, living or dead, who you don’t understand why they’re stars. You simply don’t get their appeal.
Gee, thanks, Lynn, just what I need – a year’s worth of hate mail. Okay, if I’m under oath, I really can’t abide Jimmy Stewart. Every time I see one of the movies he made for Hitchcock, I can’t help thinking how much better it would be with someone else in the lead. Beyond the Golden Age, I don’t see a lot of current movies, but no one has ever sold me a ticket by putting the name William H. Macy in the credits.
You’ve done a number of interviews for your research. Who and/or what surprised you the most?
I loved talking to Joyce Van Patten for the Shirley Booth book – she not only gave me great answers, but as we were winding up, she said, “Oh, you should talk to my brother Dickie,” and gave me his phone number then and there. Talking to Betty White was a privilege, and I’ll bet I was the first person in quite awhile to ask her about Date with the Angels. But I’m not sure anyone could top Gale Storm, whom I interviewed only a few years before she died. She was in her eighties, not in the best of health, and still so funny and such a charmer that you knew why people fell in love with her.
Name some lost gems (TV shows, movies, actors, etc.) that you’ve discovered that you think everyone should know about.
Well, since I’ve just spent a couple of intense years with Joan Davis, naturally she’s at the top of my list. She’s brilliant, and it’s sad that so much of her work is hard to see. I’m pleased that one of her biggest fans has been posting restored episodes of I Married Joan on YouTube, so that people can see that she’s not just a second-rate Lucy. Very little of her work has been properly released on DVD, but I hope the book might give a little overdue attention to some of her best movies, like She Gets Her Man.
You’re a funny guy and a terrific writer. Have you ever thought about writing fiction?
Thank you! When I was in my twenties, and had a fresh degree in English literature, I thought I should try to write a serious, literary novel. If I were to write fiction now, it would probably be something fun like a murder mystery. I’m a big believer in the power of escapist entertainment.
Let’s assume you have unlimited resources and research assistants, what book would you write?
Oh, let’s do assume that. That’s a fantasy I hadn’t even gotten around to having yet! Actually, if I had unlimited resources, I would use them to have the luxury of doing all the research myself. I had a couple of research assistants in Los Angeles who did a great job digging out new information for the Joan Davis book, but I was a little envious that I couldn’t be there to go through every page of the material myself. I definitely want to mine the incredible resources of places like the Margaret Herrick Library, UCLA, and the radio collection at the Thousand Oaks Library, for any future books I write.
What contemporary TV shows and/or movies do you enjoy? I do like The Big Bang Theory, and I watched Desperate Housewives from beginning to end on DVD. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m curious about Devious Maids.
You now have a blog. What’s going on at davidctucker.blogspot.com?
Notwithstanding my last answer, I do often say that all the good movies and TV shows were made before 1970, so I use the blog to talk about the shows and stars that I love, and hopefully to connect with other people who share those interests. I’m also reviewing some of the best books being published on Golden Age movies, radio, and TV. Years ago, I was a regular reviewer for Library Journal, and it’s been fun to take that up again.
Thank you, David. I’d like to end with an excerpt from David’s excellent book, Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances:
“…Eve confessed that she had yet to see her own performance in Mildred Pierce: ‘I never went to see the picture. I couldn’t stand seeing myself on the screen. In the theater I could envision myself as wonderful because of the audience response to my lines. But I was always disappointed with myself on the screen.'”