Pioneers of Television: Acting Funny (Pt. 2)

In elementary school, I remember a group of my friends began imitating Mork from Ork by creating the iconic pronged hand gesture and shouting, “Nanu nanu!” With the advent of TV Land, 90s kids were exposed to a young and talented Robin Williams on the television show Mork & Mindy and his improvised comedy appealed to a new audience. My eight-year-old self thought the alien from Ork was a bit over the top and ridiculous, but after watching the final installment of Pioneers of Television, “Acting Funny,” this week, I gained a new appreciation for the television series as a whole.  In fact, I learned more from this episode than any other this season about famous comedians.

Improvisation is a staple in our understanding and appreciation of comedy in today’s television series and films. Shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” amazed me when I was younger at the ability of comedians to think of jokes on the spot and deliver them immediately. C’mon, Wayne Brady and his song lyrics? Before last night, I had no idea why Jonathan Winters was such an important comedian in history, but now I appreciate the path he created for other improvisational actors and actresses in the 1960s and beyond. Watch and learn, my friends:

During the interviews for Pioneers of Television, Winters was in fine form; willing to, at a moment’s notice, become a character to get his point across and evoke laughter. Robin Williams employed a similar interviewing style, which makes sense as Winters had a profound influence on him before and after becoming co-stars on Mork & Mindy. They also explained the importance of studio audiences in comedic sitcoms for delivery. I’ve had a jaded perspective of studio audiences due to laugh tracks… and I never considered the placement of actual audiences and how comedians like Winters, Williams, and even Dick Van Dyke valued the laughter.

My favourite portion of the episode was the section devoted to Cloris Leachman, the top Emmy-winning actress of all time (who knew?)! Her perspective on diverting clichés and making them different shines through in her performances on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and even in smaller parts like Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974). I had never viewed Leachman among the top actresses of the past century because I was tainted by Kiss Me Deadly (1956), but now I think I will examine her career further with a fresh attitude.

Sadly, Pioneers of Television has come to a close for the time being… but I’m confident this was the best season yet! Hopefully, 2015 will have another great set of episodes focusing on television’s greatest. In the meantime, check out their website and watch the episodes you missed or, heck, marathon the ones you’ve already seen! They’re worth a second viewing. Until next time, ladies and geraniums…

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