Vol. LXV, No. 3
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The first time I listened to the Beach Boys song “Disney Girls” from the Surf’s Up album, I thought I hadn’t heard right, so I played it again. Sure enough. “Hi Rick and Dave, Hi Pop, good morning Mom” is the line sung by Bruce Johnston, who also wrote the song. What kind of a lyric is that? Rick and Dave who? Pop and mom? It’s a mystery unless you happen to be familiar with the slice of American sitcom life called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
“Dave” is David Nelson, who died at 74 last Tuesday, January 11, the only member of the Nelson family to make it into the 21st century. The creative force behind the show, Rutgers graduate Ozzie Nelson, died in 1975; teen idol rock star Ricky was killed in a New Year’s Eve plane crash in 1985; and Harriet died of congestive heart failure in 1994. As an only child growing up with the Nelson boys, I thought of Dave as a kind of steady, solid, blandly benign big brother, although I didn’t like the way he called Rick “little man.” The brothers bantered constantly but Rick got most of the funny lines, a fact that Dave acknowledges in the commentary provided with the 2-volume DVD set he produced, The Best of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
On radio from 1944 (the real Rick and Dave took over from child actors in 1949) and on TV from 1952 to 1966 (435 episodes), the longest run ever for a live action sitcom, it’s no wonder that the Nelsons were called “America’s family.” Of course this happy American home had nothing to do with such things as racism, sexism, and McCarthyism. Doing your best to keep a straight face, you might even say that the Nelsons’ civility, togetherness, and good-natured decency offered a weekly refuge from the hatred, prejudice, and ignorance festering in American society during those years (and these years). Among the show’s few groundbreaking moments are episodes in the uptight 1950s showing Ozzie and Harriet sharing the same bed (Ozzie’s exile from that bed is the subject of another, earlier episode). Then there’s the controversial moment in April 1957, apparently the subject of outrage from the custodians of morality, when Rick summons his inner Elvis to sing Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’, “ even going so far as to do a swivel-hipping variation on Presley’s signature move. You can see Rick’s evolution speeded up in Disc 1 of the DVD set, from the scrawny kid in 1952 to the singing star in 1957 who looks more like Elvis’s kid brother than David’s.
While I watched plenty of Ozzie and Harriet on TV, my most intimate and memorable contact with the show was on radio. Up to the advent of the Nelsons, my sense of the Great American Family was confined to a diverse bunch of eccentric surrogate uncles and aunts with grown-up radio voices: Jack Benny and his crew, Fred Allen and the folks on Allen’s Alley, Fibber McGee and Molly, Burns and Allen, Edgar Bergen, and Charlie McCarthy. It was all great fun, but unless you count kidshow characters like Froggy the Gremlin and Midnight the Cat, this was a family where children were either ignored, kept in the background, or grossly caricatured. So imagine what it was like when David and Ricky came along. If you were roughly their age, your involvement acquired another dimension; no longer were you merely an audience to a lot of polished comic pros; your family merged with the radio family in the house of familiar voices where you stretched out on the living room floor while your parents sat in chairs the way civilized adults were supposed to do. But you and they were equals laughing together whenever Ozzie messed up (as he regularly did) or Ricky pulled one of his cute comebacks or said “I don’t mess around boy.”
Watching in 2011
During the opening moment of my first exposure to Ozzie and Harriet since the 1960s (in a 1952 episode on the DVD), I was asking myself, “Am I really going to sit through this?” Having enjoyed the antics of Patsy and Edina on Ab Fab, not to mention the bizarre, ever fascinating family life of Tony Soprano, how could I sit still for the relentlessly good humored, infinitely agreeable Nelsons and their ebullient neighbor Thorny (Don Defore)? Wow, a thrill a minute! Listen to this plot. Rick wants Dave to go to the movies with him but Dave can’t because he’s agreed to help a friend with his homework. Ricky pleads. Ozzie intervenes, and takes Dave aside for a fatherly lecture. You’re too nice, he tells him. Don’t let people take advantage of you. Then, lo and behold, along comes old Thorny asking his old pal Oz if Dave can take Thorny’s niece to a dance. Ever agreeable, Oz says of course but when he asks Dave, Dave follows his dad’s recent advice and says, sorry, I’d rather not, I’ve got other plans. Ozzie in his characteristic earnest, soft-spoken way persists but Dave stands his ground, true to the lesson of not letting people take advantage of him. At this point, the whole situational dynamic of the show comes back to me: it’s Ozzie’s fate, his karma, and this is just another well-intentioned fiasco the overgrown Jersey boy is forever creating, always affably and earnestly, always tripping himself up (“inadvertently” could be his middle name), hoisted on his own sitcom petard. The agony he goes through trying to weasel out of his promise to Thorny may fall short of tragedy but as a piece of human comedy, it’s perfect.
Trying to imagine so mild a bit of comic business taking place in the mad world of, say, Ab Fab, I realize that, in fact, that sublimely outrageous British import from the 1990s revolved around the same basic idea, the central character being someone who never grew up, never grew out of the swinging London sixties, and was forever getting into absurd jams and making a fool of herself to the horror of her very grown-up daughter (the main difference being that Edina’s intentions were rarely good).
Think of other family sitcoms that followed Ozzie and Harriet, from I Love Lucy to All in the Family, and however broad and knockabout the comedy, the plots follow the same pattern, whether the embattled or self-confounding main character happens to be a racist loudmouth or a ditzy housewife married to a Cuban bandleader (Harriet, for that matter, was also married to a real-life bandleader). What makes Ozzie and Harriet unique is the natural, everyday quality of the humor (obvious differences aside, The Cosby Show had comparable appeal).
The only sitcom that has enjoyed a longer run than Ozzie and Harriet centers on the animated American family headed by Homer Simpson. With its over-the-top, allbets-are-off approach, The Simpsons would seem to occupy another realm entirely. Watch what happens to Ozzie in “Tutti Frutti Ice Cream,” however, and you’ll see an obvious precursor to the plot-propelling obsessiveness Simpsons creator Matt Groening refers to when he pictures Homer “launching himself headfirst into every single impulsive thought that occurs to him.”
For Ozzie, it all begins when he sees a photo of a lost boy rescued by the police and treated to a big double-decker tutti-frutti ice cream cone. Ozzie fondly recalls tutti frutti being served at an ice cream parlor in his New Jersey hometown, Ridgefield Park. That night he has a dream: he’s back in his boyhood ice cream parlor, he and Harriet are dressed in 1920s style and she’s singing, “Goody Goody” (with its rhyming tutti frutti undertones) while he’s playing the mandolin. After Harriet and some other flappers do a sexy, spirited Charleston, the couple orders their tutti frutti ice cream (served by David in the guise of a dream waiter). But Ozzie lacks the 20 cents to pay for it, so David the waiter takes it away and Ozzie wakes up, crying, “David, give me back my tutti-frutti!”
This is when Ozzie launches himself “headfirst” into the obsessive quest. At the same time, it’s a special, even historic, television moment, for Ozzie wakes from his dream in bed with Harriet; yes, there they are together, husband and wife in a cozy regulation double bed, sleeping side by side, clearly, casually, genuinely, naturally in contact, and when in the course of telling Harriet his dream, Ozzie says, “I was playing the mandolin,” she says, “I know, you were strumming on my backbone.” It’s the best line in the show, a nice sample of Harriet’s lively wit (which Ricky inherited); it not only suggests a true to life instance of a married couple’s same-bed intimacy, it was blithely disseminated into American society at a time when twin beds (or even separate rooms) for husband and wife were mandated by the legions of almighty decency, a rule that survived well into the television sixties.
It’s also nice that Harriet is not just a wife but a pal. Ozzie’s dream has inspired the same craving in her, and so there they are acting like kids, jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, putting on street clothes over their pajamas, and rushing forth on their tutti frutti mission. The nearest drug store is closed but they bang on the door and the owner lets them in (a bit of fantasy, that, even in 1957), but he’s out of tutti frutti, so they have to settle for a less exotic flavor. That’s enough to satisfy Rick and Dave and Harriet; they go on to bed after the midnight dessert, but not Ozzie; he can’t drop it; he’s possessed. Out into the night he charges, this time with his equally obsessed next door neighbor, and the goal is finally, absurdly achieved. In its way, the whole episode is Ozzie’s portrait of the artist, take a thought and run with it. He’s a grown-up playing out a child’s fantasy, in this case a slightly more civilized alternative to Little Richard’s hit record, “Tutti Frutti,” which had appeared the previous year.
Hello and Goodbye
I saw Ozzie Nelson once waving from a motorcade on Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, part of a parade, probably during the 1969 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Rutgers-Princeton football game, the first ever played. When we waved back and yelled “Hi, Ozzie!” we were echoing, as “Disney Girls” does, the everyday radio voices we grew up with: ‘’Hi Rick and Dave,” “Hi Mom, Hi Pop,’’ “Bye Ozzie. Bye Harriet, Bye Rick, Bye Dave.’’
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