CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU?: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (DVD) Image

The 1961-63 TV series “Car 54, Where Are You?” is mostly unknown today to people under 50. It never permeated the rerun culture – it was absent from TV screens until a 1987 Nick at Nite revival – and the series is only now making its way into home entertainment channels.

This is actually a major shame, since “Car 54, Where Are You?” is among the funniest sitcoms in U.S. television history. The new DVD release of the series’ first season will be a fresh and startling discovery for many people who never heard of this old-time gem.

The show centers on a mismatched pair of New York Police Department officers: the short, fat, catastrophe-prone Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross) and the tall, cadaverous, high-strung Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne). The officers are supported by a precinct full of blue-clad comrades who seem to spend more time accidentally spreading rumors than intentionally solving crimes. Their commander, Capt. Block (Paul Reed, a master of the slow burn), inevitably finds his precinct in an advanced state of shambles.

The episodes have the unique talent of taking supremely bad ideas and allowing the characters run with them blindly. In one case, Toody and Muldoon try to break a bizarre stretch of Thursday night fights between their colleague Schnauser (a pre-Grandpa Al Lewis) and his wife by convincing Schnauser that Thursday is actually Friday. A phony newspaper and switched calendar pages convinces Schnauser that he missed a Thursday (and, thus, a fight with his wife) – which is great, except that the whole precinct winds up falling for the ruse (except for a lone patrolmen who goes insane trying to convince his colleagues that it is Thursday).

Another episode has Toody and Muldoon trying to surreptitiously measure an older colleague for a birthday present of orthopedic shoes. This involves their sneaking into his home (complete with the bedraggled orthopedist) to measure the man’s feet while he is sleeping. Elsewhere in the series, Toody and Muldoon go undercover to ferret out a pickpocket (a deadpan Wally Cox), only to be arrested when the pickpocket lifts their badges and claims that he is a real cop and the duo are criminals.

The series was shot at the old Biograph Studios in the Bronx, and old-timer New Yorkers may recognize some street scenes used for location filming. Sociologically minded viewers will also appreciate the series’ ethnically and racially diverse cast, a rarity for the white bread programming of the early 1960s.

Not every episode is a winner – an adventure involving an attempt to get on Jack Paar’s talk show is remarkable for its sheer awfulness – and the 30 episodes gathered for the DVD are confusingly presented out of chronological order. The DVD’s special feature, an interview with recurring supporting actors Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett, is spoiled by their incessant badmouthing of the late Joe E. Ross, a blue-material burlesque comic whose career enjoyed a rare star turn as the dimwitted Toody.

Nonetheless, there is a wealth of undiscovered laughs in the “Car 54” episodes. It may have taken forever for the series to get back on screen, but it was certainly worth the wait.

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