BOOTLEG FILES 544: “It’s About Time” (1966-67 TV comedy series starring Joe E. Ross and Imogene Coca).
LAST SEEN: Episodes can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Considered by many to be among the very worst comedy shows of all time.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Ooh! Ooh! Not likely!
I don’t watch contemporary comedy programs on television. Quite frankly, I don’t find them very funny – and I am somewhat challenged to comprehend that anyone would go out of their way and laugh uproariously over stuff like “Two Broke Girls” or “The Goldbergs.” But, then again, perhaps I am a victim of my environment: I was a kid in the 1970s and watched gold-standard series like “The Odd Couple” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” when they were on network television in prime time.
But I also recognize that it is dangerous to carry the nostalgic notion that everything back in the day was better than it is today. For every series like “The Odd Couple,” the networks would have dozens of miserably unfunny flops that barely limped through a season. Most of these failed endeavors were mediocrities, and they were quickly forgotten.
However, sometimes a show can slip beyond the comfortable parameters of mediocrity to pure incompetence. One notorious wreck was called “It’s About Time,” which took a terrible idea and ran with it to atrocious lengths.
Created in 1966, “It’s About Time” sought to tap the mania surrounding the U.S. space program while incorporating a bit of off-kilter time travel adventure that permeated popular culture thanks to the success of the film “The Time Machine” and a large number of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” episodes. In this case, a pair of astronauts blast off on a mission that goes seriously awry – they wind up breaking through the time barrier and traveling back through the centuries until they land on Earth during the reign of the cavemen.
While the initial concept of contemporary Americans trapped in a primitive world might have been better spun into an action/adventure series (think of “Land of the Lost”), the series’ creator Sherwood Schwartz decided to play it for laughs. In this case, the cavemen spoke broken English and engaged in shtick that would have embarrassed the Borscht Belt jokesters. Contributing to the problem was the show’s shabby production design, which borrowed some of the sets from Schwartz’s “Gilligan’s Island” series and some none-too-convincing stop-motion dinosaur footage from the no-budget 1960 flick “Dinosaurus!”
The pilot episode of “It’s About Time” quickly established the show’s foundation. Two astronauts – the intelligent, take-charge Mac (Frank Aletter) and the dimwitted, high-strung Hector (Jack Mullaney) – emerge from their space capsule in a bizarre, overgrown setting. They use their space-age tools to measure the radioactive levels of their surroundings while keeping their helmet visors upright. In short time, they are given shelter by a family of cavemen consisting of the gentle but bumbling patriarch Gronk (Joe E. Ross), his common-sense wife Shag (Imogene Coca, whose character was later renamed Shad to avoid the vulgarism of the original name), their comely blonde daughter Mlor (Mary Grace – who certainly does not look like the offspring of a Joe E. Ross-Imogene Coca union) and their teen son Breer (Pat Cardi). The leader of this caveman tribe, Boss (Cliff Norton), and his goonish henchman Clon (Mike Mazurki) are suspicious of the astronauts and they are eager to have them killed.
The one interesting aspect of the pilot was that a young Richard Donner directed the episode. And while Donner was unable to work a spell of alchemy and turn this mess into something golden, at least he was able to keep the pace in quick motion and to offer intelligent camera movements.
But from the beginning, it was obvious that things were not going to work. Jack Mullaney, whose jittery character was constantly being frightened by his predicament, told entertainment columnist Joan Crosby that the show got off on the wrong foot. “In the pilot, everyone was trying too hard to be funny,” he admitted, adding. “I was terrible.”
As the production progressed, the show’s limitations became obvious. Attempts by the astronauts (who, oddly, never disrobed from their space suits) to bring modernity to cave life – including the use of matches and the concept of a birthday party – would be met with dumb disbelief by their primitive hosts. Even worse, the astronauts would look on with dismay at how the cave people lived – particularly the protocol of men dragging their wives by their hair across the ground.
After 18 episodes, Schwartz and his team realized that they exhausted the possibilities of the back-in-time idea, so the show was retooled by having the astronauts fix their space capsule and blast off with Gronk and his family, returning to their contemporary America. (Cliff Norton, upon learning that he was being written out of the show, reportedly exclaimed “Thank God!”)
But in order to keep the fish-out-of-water humor flowing, the cave family would be confused over the peculiar nature of 1960s American life. Incredibly, this attempt to save the series wound up making it worse. The situations were lame and dreary – a typical romp included Shad being chased around by a vacuum cleaner, which she mistakes as an angry monster. Gronk understands why this monster is angry – its tail is stuck in the wall! Gronk would later club a Volkswagen, mistaking it for a monster that ate a woman. The people that encountered the cave family were confused by their fur clothing and long hair, mistaking them for beatniks or hippies.
CBS, for some peculiar reason, had faith in the program and positioned it in the prime time slot of Sunday at 7:30pm, in between the long-running hits “Lassie” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The initial ratings were good, and the series’ bouncy theme song and cute animated opening credits (the only remarkable aspect of the endeavor) resonated with viewers. But the show’s unfunny scripts and anvil humor quickly drove away audiencess – no one was fooled by the program’s overpowering laugh track – and the show was cancelled at the end of the season. (Schwartz’s other show, “Gilligan’s Island,” was also cancelled by CBS, thus creating a double dose of bad news.)
The only positive thing to emerge from “It’s About Time” was its ability to put a new spark into the career of Joe E. Ross. A very minor burlesque and nightclub comic specializing in blue humor, Ross saw his career reach a new level thanks to his roles in a pair of Nat Hiken-driven TV programs: “You’ll Never Get Rich” (later called “The Phil Silvers Show”) as the beleaguered Rupert Ritzik and as the bumbling Officer Gunther Toody in “Car 54, Where Are You?” Ross’ trademark was prefixing his lines with the frantic grunt “Ooh! Ooh!”, which came about as a stalling technique when he tried to recall his lines. Although popular with audiences, Ross gained a reputation in Hollywood for loutish and difficult behavior, and both TV work and topline club dates dried up for him after “Car 54” left the air in 1963. “It’s About Time” was his first steady TV work in three years, and his presence on the program helped to bring him additional work, albeit mostly small guest roles and voice performances for cartoons.
“It’s About Time” was never syndicated for rebroadcast, and the program has yet to be made available for release in any home entertainment format. Some very badly faded prints can be found in unauthorized postings on YouTube, thus offering the digital age a glimpse into TV comedy’s stone age.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!