Retro-Streaming: Old TV on New Media

Now that we can find tons of ancient television shows on various streaming services, it is tempting to fire up some stuff that, years ago, tickled our fancies. Sometimes, it’s good nostalgic fun. Other times, it drives home just how bad television used to be. What stuff have you retro-streamed recently?

I persuaded my wife to watch the first episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In last night. Laugh In was a show I remember fondly from my childhood. I watched it when it was in production and later IIRC in re-runs. The first episode aired in early September, 1967, on NBC. I remember this time because it was almost exactly when my father shipped out for Vietnam (great timing, because Tet happened early in 1968, and who would have wanted to miss the festivities?).

The show does not, ahem, age well, as comedy TV, but is fascinating as a cultural time capsule. Including, as it were, the built-in sponsorship spots from Timex, which advertised a line of watchers from like ten to twenty-five bucks. Most of the jokes and skits are terrible, there’s an underlying (or more often blatant) sexism on display, and the production values are crude by modern standards of course.

But, there is also a wealth of cultural detail and insight here. The fact everyone is smoking cigarettes, to the extent that they are not even props, just assumed as normal parts of the experience. Alcohol is joked about in ways that are very familiar to Mad Men viewers or those who grew up in this era, but which are jarring for modern audiences I think. There are tons of often fairly funny slogans, buttons, stickers, and signs, parodying contemporary protests but also in some ways supporting causes that skirted the edge of mainstream America at the time. 1967 was a time when corporations were beginning to shift from “what the hell are these hippies doing?” to “how the hell can we exploit this youth culture for profit?,” and NBC I think was willing to risk dipping a toe in the counter-culture waters.

The first episode of the show set down the basic framework, though later it would refine a lot of it into a more polished and organized sort of chaos. The humor is similar to early Monty Python TV shows, or the later Benny Hill show, and some of the people on the show were extremely talented (if not always able to display that talent in the show’s limited format).

In any event, it was very interesting, and I’ll probably watch a few more episodes (though I doubt I can convince my wife to watch too, as she was pretty much over it after a few minutes).

What have you seen lately?

I watched a bit of Barney Miller not too long ago and it still held up pretty well. The production values not so much, but the characters definitely. I didn’t happen find any of those episodes but there’s definitely some cringe, as I remember some cross-dressing jokes and the like.

Too bad music copyright has WKRP in hell. I’d love to see some of that.

We recently watched Yes, Minister/Prime Minister and even though it is set in the 80s the writing is so amazing it holds up wonderfully.

That Girl.

My wife found it on some channel that comes with our Samsung TV? She’s plowing through them all now. Sort of like a pre-Mary Tyler Moore Show. Cool to see mid-60’s NYC.

The Addams Family is available on Youtube. I don’t know how my daughter, (6 at the time) learned about them but wanted to watch. So we watched a couple of episodes. They are still fun to watch.

My kids have become huge fans of vintage cartoons - they love old Woody Woodpecker and Tom and Jerry, they just laugh like madmen when they’re watching. A lot of that stuff is up on YouTube.

And yet there were also efforts to bring live theater to the heartland that I dimly recall. Programs like “Kraft Television Theater,” “Philco Television Playhouse,” “General Electric Theater” and “Playhouse 90.”

I remember watching Lee Remick starring in Death of a Salesman when I was a little boy and can still see it in my mind’s eye. Those performances made a big impression on me.
EDIT: Lee J Cobb, not Lee Remick.

Not sure where I would watch them now, though I’m sure a bit of research would answer that question but I prefer to leave that bit of magic in my past.

I do think that The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle along with Fractured Fairytales would hold up. Johnny Quest maybe not so much

Da. Moose and squirrel still good today.

The last vintage TV show I got into, a couple of years ago now, was Emergency!, which is, for my money, easily the best action-adventure medical melodrama from the early/mid- '70s. Granted, there aren’t that many action-adventure medical melodramas from the early/mid- '70s. But if you do happen to be looking for an early/mid- '70s action-adventure medical melodrama, Emergency! has you covered, is what I’m saying.

I saw it occasionally when I was a kid, when it ran in syndication in the “after school” time block, but at the time I wasn’t impressed. Even by the end of its original run it was looking dated, and by the early '80s it seemed positively quaint.

Its premise, though, has solid and durable appeal: “There are a lot of fires, accidents, and other emergencies that require prompt and action-packed attention. Let’s watch!” Fire trucks, defibrillators, and impending catastrophe, all at the same time!

The show was produced by Jack “Just The Facts, Ma’am” Webb—possibly the squarest jazz fan of his generation, now best remembered for the police procedural Dragnet—and Emergency! closely hews to Webb’s established formula of portraying serious white men matter of factly doing dangerous and important work.

One on level (probably more than one), it’s an objectively terrible show. The melodrama is heavy-handed and often painfully didactic. The plots are formulaic. The writing could charitably be called workmanlike. In general, the acting is game, but not especially distinguished.

And yet, in addition to its “so bad, so good” time capsule qualities, Emergency! has real charm. The ensemble cast has charisma and great chemistry. The action sequences are varied and believable. Whatever money they saved on scripts they evidently spent on a lot of location shooting and a ton of practical effects. And as an historical snapshot of what one man (actually two men, including Robert Cinader) wanted people to see when they looked at Los Angeles in the early '70s, it’s an interesting and often entertaining subject.

Sadly, after all that, it does not appear to be streaming (legitimately) anywhere at the moment. /sad trombone.

Was that the one with “Rampart, this is Squad 51” or whatever on the radio?

Yes indeed, immediately followed by “51, this is Rampart. Go ahead.”

The exchange that always stuck in my mind concludes with a beautifully delivered statement of the obvious by one of our heroes, Fireman John Gage:

“Rampart, we have a male, about 45, wounded in the upper left quadrant by a large caliber grenade. The round is embedded in his abdomen. It has not exploded.”

If you want to see the fictional world that apparently a substantial part of our country wants to live on, The Andy Griffith show is available out there in several places.

Speaking of Jack Webb, it may not be the entire series, but the classic Dragnet “Blue Boy” episode is on Youtube.

Have you seen him in Sunset Boulevard? He’s a regular party animal in that one. :-)

Also, he was co-creator of Adam 12, which I watched as kid.

That’s right, he was in Sunset Boulevard! Yeah, very different from his minimalist Dragnet persona.

He was an interesting dude. He’s remembered as Joe Friday, but jazz really was his true love, apparently, though never his vocation. That was his original connection with Julie London (“Cry Me a River”), who, after she and Webb divorced, married jazz man Bobby Troup (“Route 66”), and Webb then cast them both as leads in Emergency!

Not so much at home with the beatniks and the hippies and the whole post-war counterculture, though.

I read an essay on Adam-12 somewhere that described it as the last of the “straight” police procedurals, which seems right.

Pete Kelly’s Blues is a very good movie, directed and starred in by Webb.

I’ve posted before about Roald Dahls’ answer to Twilight Zone, Way Out, which scared the shit out of my 9-year-old self far more than Zone ever did. It only lasted 1 season, but many of the 14 episodes can be found on Youtube. Unfortunately not Soft Focus, which really stuck with me.


I believe I’ll be going back to that this week.

I can hear the voice of the dispatcher, “1 Adam-12, see the man at…”

Emergency, Adam-12, and SWAT were all daytime TV on the LA networks back in the 80s. I spent many a feverish day home from school watching them (rather than game shows or soaps), but hadn’t really thought about them since.

The exchange of “Rampart, this is Squad 51” – “51, this is Rampart, go ahead” reminds me of lying sick on a couch, trying not to vomit, while watching this TV show and thinking “this is so much better than being in school!”

I still hear “1 Adam 12, 2-11 in progress…” in my head sometimes.

And there’s the future Colonel Potter AKA Harry Morgan!