BOOTLEG FILES 499: “The Joe Franklin Show” (U.S. TV talk show that ran from 1951 through 1993).
LAST SEEN: Bits and pieces can be found on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Performance clearance rights prevent a full-throttle DVD release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Nope.
For many years, sleep deprived New Yorkers found a wonderfully warped diversion on the late night TV dial with something called “The Joe Franklin Show.” This talk show was noteworthy both for its longevity – it first appeared in 1951 and stayed on the air for 42 years – and for its sheer strangeness.
Joe Franklin first turned up on television on the New York station WJZ-TV, the forerunner of today’s WABC-TV. In 1962, Franklin moved his program to WOR-TV, the New York independent station that was owned by RKO General. Franklin took over the 1:00am time slot – which may not have seemed like an ideal location on the schedule. However, his program began right after NBC’s “Tonight Show” went off the air – and WOR-TV gambled that viewers would turn their channels to Franklin’s offering.
But unlike Johnny Carson, Franklin had no skills as a monologist or a skit comic. Furthermore, his no-budget, audience-free program was considerably less expensive than Carson’s. Indeed, one could imagine that lunch for two at the Carnegie Deli cost more than a week’s production budget on “The Joe Franklin Show.”
However, the appeal of “The Joe Franklin Show” rested in its unpredictable guest line-up. Over its very long run, the program presented 21,425 episodes, with Franklin conducting over 300,000 interviews. Needless to say, there weren’t 300,000 bona-fide celebrities to fill all of that time. Thus, this weird little program happily mixed appearances by show business royalty with bizarre and often baffling appearances by an endless number of unknowns – many of whom had only the vaguest connection to genuine performance talent. But it didn’t matter if the guest was an Academy Award winner or an off-key singing policeman from New Jersey – Franklin was always happy to have them on his show.
Sadly, many of the episodes of “The Joe Franklin Show” from the 1950s and 1960s were not preserved. These included some of Franklin’s most intriguing moments, including a 1963 episode that introduced TV audiences to a little-known singer/actress named Barbra Streisand. Bits and pieces of Franklin’s episodes from the 1970s through the early 1990s can be found on YouTube, offering intriguing slices of the sublime and the ridiculous.
Unlike his peers in the talk show world, Franklin was not a master of starting and maintaining a conversation. One could easily imagine that he barely knew the people he was interviewing – for example, when Italian director Dario Argento showed up, Franklin clearly did not know his guest’s work and meandered about with vague questions relating to cinema and Italy.
Typical of Franklin’s modus operandi was bringing together a panel of individuals who had nothing in common except for being English-speaking bipeds. Franklin routinely popped questions in a helter-skelter manner across the panel, unconcerned whether the chat had a coherent rhythm.
One utterly amazing gathering found the boisterous wrestler Captain Lou Albano, the ragtime pianist Mark Birnbaum, “triviologist” Richard Ornstein and some character in a lab coat (I didn’t quite get his name) who ran an operation called the Invention Convention. In terms of conversation, Franklin orchestrated an ADD-worthy exercise as these four very different personalities took turns in highlighting their diverse activities and then asking questions of each other – and, trust me, having Captain Lou Albano present in a conversation on mechanical engineering is television’s equivalent to balm in Gilead. Franklin added to the madness with a bizarre statement: “During a recent economic recession – maybe not that recent, maybe 100 years ago – a lot of people demanded that they stop all inventing in the United States because they feared that more machines would keep even more people out of jobs.” Huh?
Franklin prided himself as being a show biz historian, and his best interviews found him opposite notable Hollywood legends. Although his questions were often elementary, his raconteur guests knew how to fill a void with charming anecdotes. Among the more memorable star turns was Bing Crosby in one of his last interviews before his 1977 death, joking about his allegedly mammoth record sales (when Franklin remarked that Crosby allegedly sold 40 million records, the crooner laughed that he never received royalty payments that came close to a 40-million sales volume). Another fascinating exchange featured Milton Berle, who explained (with somewhat surprising seriousness and verbosity) the origin of his “Uncle Miltie” nickname.
Franklin’s unflappable demeanor slipped slightly during a 1988 appearance with The Ramones, in which he asked the punk rockers if they knew who he was. To his surprise, they did – though whether Franklin knew who the Ramones were was hard to determine.
To his credit, Franklin treated everyone like royalty, even if they bombed on his program. One video online has an early TV appearance by a then-unknown Conan O’Brien, who was introduced by Franklin as the man who would lick anything. O’Brien licked a shoe and a tape dispenser – not particularly funny, but Franklin gamely laughed along at the dull shtick.
WOR-TV rarely promoted Franklin’s program, which quietly found a cult following in the New York market. When the channel upgraded to superstation status in 1979, more Americans stumbled over the show. Over the years, Franklin became the subject of unlikely tributes. Woody Allen, who appeared on the program early in his career, offered Franklin a scene-stealing guest appearance in “Broadway Danny Rose.” Billy Crystal imitated Franklin on “Saturday Night Live,” which was probably the first time that many people learned that Franklin existed. And in 1997, filmmaker Joshua Brown offered a documentary called “50,000,000 Joe Franklin Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”
Due to problems in clearing performance rights, a DVD issue of Franklin’s surviving episodes is highly unlikely. Although parts of episodes are on YouTube, they don’t truly capture the original joy of staying up to the wee hours to witness this astonishing program. Franklin, thank God, is still with us and he can be heard offering his unique insights on show biz nostalgia on a New York radio station. But there will never be anyone like him again on television.
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