Thursday, October 20, 2011

Culture Shock: 10.20.11: Whatever happened to the Halloween television special?

Like a lot of things from the days when there were only three TV networks and cable TV was mostly reruns and wrestling, the prime-time Halloween special is largely a thing of the past.

"It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," a holiday staple since it first aired in 1966, is pretty much the sole survivor from that bygone era.

It aired annually on CBS before switching to ABC a decade ago, a transition that came as a shock to those of us who grew up accustomed to seeing the swirling "CBS Special Presentation" logo — accompanied by a slightly alarming drum-and-brass fanfare — introducing each year's broadcast.

Halloween-themed episodes of regular prime-time shows don't count.

Besides, it's a little difficult to think of the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes of "The Simpsons," which have aired since 1990, as proper Halloween specials ever since Fox got the rights to the World Series and began delaying them until early November.

That's like watching a Christmas special in January. By then, you're over it.

The 1970s and '80s were a fertile period of Halloween programming.

"The Fat Albert Halloween Special" began its run in 1977.

What you need to understand about "Fat Albert," which was based on Bill Cosby's stand-up comedy routine, is that back then, childhood obesity was hilarious. Really, there was nothing better, especially if you tacked on a heartwarming life lesson.

The heartwarming life lesson at the end of "The Fat Albert Halloween Special" is that old people are, indeed, people, too.

More instructive in retrospect is the special's accurate depiction of trick-or-treating, which didn't yet involve parents hovering over you as you and your friends ventured from house to house wearing costumes unmarked by gaudy, reflective safety tape.

It's a wonder I survived the '70s, what with all of the horribly dangerous behavior I engaged in. We called it childhood.

A year later came "Bugs Bunny's Howl-oween Special," a glorified clip show comprised of classic "Looney Tunes" shorts linked by new and distractingly inferior footage. But who cared if the new animation was lousy and Mel Blanc's voice had changed so much in the intervening decades that Bugs didn't always sound quite right? It was Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in prime time, and that's all any kid needed to know.

But not every Halloween special was animated, and not all were instant classics.

In 1976, ABC gave Paul Lynde, best known as the center square on "The Hollywood Squares" and Uncle Arthur on "Bewitched," his own special.

It's on DVD now, but it aired only once, and with good reason. It was terrible. When I watched it recently, it was against my doctor's orders — he told me to avoid ham.

Yet "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" does have a secure place in television history because it featured an early TV performance by Kiss and established that the Wicked Witch of the West from "The Wizard of Oz" (Margaret Hamilton) and Witchiepoo from "H.R. Pufnstuf" (Billie Hayes) are sisters.

It is also the only known instance of Tim Conway not being funny.

By the end of the show, most of Kiss look like they're going to have a long, serious discussion with their agent. They wouldn't do anything this embarrassing again until their sans makeup period.

The last gasp for Halloween specials was "Garfield's Halloween Adventure" in 1985, which had the advantage of being entertaining and airing before most people started to hate Garfield the way Garfield hates Mondays.

At least I assume Garfield still hates Mondays, because it's not as if that joke ever gets old.

You know, come to think of it, maybe there's a reason they don't make Halloween specials anymore.

No comments:

Post a Comment