There’s a line in Swingers where Mikey, played by Jon Favreau, talks about heading out to LA and mentions that part of it was because he was pretty sure they were “giving out sitcoms at the airport” to stand-up comics like him (or something like that, anyway). Naturally, this isn’t true and Mike’s really a struggling actor and comedian who spends the better part of his days lamenting his breakup with his girlfriend back home in New York. At the same time, there’s some truth to the line he has about stand-up comics and sitcoms, especially when you consider that both Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano had two of the longest-running sitcoms of the decade.
In 1993, NBC, which was riding the high of the success of two stand-up comedian-driven sitcoms, Mad About You and Seinfeld, decided to show off how much success it had been having by airing a one-hour primetime special called The NBC Super Special All-Star Comedy Hour. Meant to be a showcase of current talent as well as upcoming shows, it kind of acted like a comedian and sitcom version of the Saturday morning cartoon preview shows that we used to love as kids–an hour to stay up later than usual to see what we’d be seeing in the fall.
This show, which was hosted by Bill Cosby with some help from Paul Reiser, was something that I actually had been pretty sure for years I was actually misremembering. For years, I had been searching for some sort of evidence of it, evidence I thought would be easy to find since Reiser was on it, but a look at his IMDb profile didn’t bring anything up and I couldn’t find anything on the resumes of any of the other people I remembered. Until, that is, this past summer, I was going through a pile of old videotapes that I had grabbed from my parents’ basement and there it was, sitting on one of those random tapes. Yes, I’m sure I could have found this on YouTube if I really tried, but there was something so cool about scanning through an old VHS labeled “Tom’s Blank” and saying out loud to nobody at all, “I found it! I’ve been looking for this for years!”
The picture quality was solid even though the sound on the tape had deteriorated quite a bit, but it was good enough for me to watch it all the way through and take some pictures along the way (because nothing says quality blogging than pointing my cell phone at the basement TV).
We open with two women in NBC Peacock costumes doing a song and dance bit as Paul Reiser, who was going into his second season of Mad About You, which I think at that point was on Thursday nights at 8:00 with Seinfeld having officially moved into the 9:00 Thursday slot vacated by Cheers, doing a quick opening monologue before introducing Bill Cosby as well as Branford Marsalis and The Tonight Show Band, who were the musical accompaniment for the evening.
So Cosby comes out and he’s really the host for the evening and I can’t tell if he’s completely phoning it on or not. In the very least, he’s being a good sport as they do bits where they play him off as he tries to do some sort of monologuing, but not before he introduces each comedian. This was about a year after The Cosby Show had left the air and about a year before NBC would air his only season of The Cosby Mysteries, so the network clearly thought that there was something left from their venerable star. And for all I know, there was a contractual obligation being filled here. Still, to Cosby’s credit, he does a good job hosting and allows the show to be about the comedians that it is showcasing and not himself.
Our first comedian of the evening is John Mendoza, who at the time was debuting a sitcom called The Second Half (more on that in a moment). And basically what he and the other people on the show are doing are whatever few minutes of material they would have prepared for an appearance on a late-night talk show like Leno or Letterman. Mendoza has a low-key delivery and does a lot of random jokes about every day life and having kids, such as how when you leave the remote control on top of the TV, you wish you had a remote to go get the remote. But then you have kids and they become the remote to get the remote. It is almost as if Jerry Seinfeld was talking about his kids back in 1993.
As with most of the comedians featured in the show, the stand-up is followed by a promo clip from his or her upcoming sitcom. I actually remember watching The Second Half when it was on the air. It was a Tuesday night show that originally aired at 9:30 after The John Larroquette Show (which I remember as being a bit of an underrated gem in its day) before it was moved to 8:00 on Tuesday nights (replacing Saved By the Bell: The College Years). The premise was that Mendoza played a Chicago sportswriter who was newly divorced, so while he tried to navigate job stuff, he was also trying to navigate romance and divorce. As a concept, it’s very formulaic and I’m not terribly surprised that it lasted only one season, even though it employed Wayne Knight (in between stints as Newman on Seinfeld) and Mindy Cohn in one of her more high-profile post-Facts of Life live-action television roles.
Mendoza’s funny enough in both his bit and the clip (which also features that red-headed character actor guy who I am pretty sure appeared on every single NBC sitcom from 1992-1999 at least once), although he does seem to be what you would get if you crossed Jerry Seinfeld with Ray Romano.
After some banter between Cosby and the band, we get John Caponera, who has a little more energy and a tinnier voice than Mendoza and does a really good funny face while making jokes about being old, about people who are really stupid, and how crazy gun nuts tend to be (although he keeps it pretty low-impact when it comes to anything political, which is probably a safe bet for prime time comedy at that time). I probably thought it was hilarious when I was 16 and even chuckled a couple of times during his bits even if all the jokes were very much of their time and didn’t have a ton of bite. Not that I’m “Mr. Edgy Comedy” or anything now, but I think I may have grown a little desensitized as I careen through middle age.
By the way, when Paul Reiser comes to do some witty banter with Caponera, they both have looks on their faces that say, “I’m supporting you/I’m glad you’re supporting me … but we both want the checks to clear.” Caponera’s show, by the way, was not set to premiere that fall and had instead been slated as a midseason replacement. It was called The Bowmans and Caponera’s role was as a family man (again, shades of what would make Ray Romano successful on television later in the decade) and the show had two co-stars of some note. One I’ll show later on this post; the other was Justin Berfield, who would go on to play middle brother Reese on Malcolm in the Middle.
After the commercials, we have Valerie Bertinelli doing … stand-up?
Well, not exactly. It’s more like she was doing a tryout for a Saturday Night Live monologue, but she is there to basically hype her show Cafe Americain, which was the first sitcom that she had starred in since One Day at a Time went off the air in 1984 (she had spent the intervening years doing a lot of TV movies). Plus, she was only 33 at the time and her husband (Eddie Van Halen) was still very famous (I know this was the ’90s but as I pointed out in my Van Hagar episode, Van Halen was still riding the high of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge). NBC saw an established actress who was one of those “girl-next-door” sex symbols and thought they could do something. They’d try the same thing with slightly more success when Brooke Shields had Suddenly Susan a few years later.
Cafe Americain is basically a fish-out-of-water sitcom about Bertlinelli playing a GenX-er who is an American living in Paris and all of the hijinks that ensue. What’s notable about it is that it aired on Saturday nights along with another show highlighted on this special, The Mommies, because this was the tail end of the era where NBC could have Saturday night sitcoms–after all, The Golden Girls had only recently left the air.
Neither would last, though. Sitcoms would stop airing on NBC’s Saturday nights starting with the 1996-1997 season and Cafe Americain wouldn’t even make it past its first season. But before I move on to the next comedian, I would like to point out that everything in the two clips featuring Bertinelli is peak early ’90s fashion. I mean, look at it–the chunky, layered hair; the blazer over the blouse; the choker; the dress with the tights … it’s like Sharon Cherski was an ex-pat living in Paris.
Next up is the “young/new” comedian from this group that probably made the biggest impact on popular culture, and that’s Drew Carey. He was John Caponera’s co-star on The Bowmans and kind of distinguishes himself here by coming out in a full suit and doing some really witty bits. The one that I took a picture of here was a one-off joke about how he looks like the guy from the old X-Ray Specs comic book ad. Other jokes are, like I have already said, the type of stuff you would have seen a comedian do on a late night talk show, but what I loved about this back then and love about it now is that Carey’s got presence and I can see why he would wind up with his own leading sitcom (albeit on ABC) later in the decade.
They follow this with a clip of Carey and Caponera from The Bowmans. I actually had to do a double-take when I saw this because I remembered watching this but didn’t remember the title. That is because by the time NBC put it on the air, they had retitled it The Good Life. And, in fact, they had so much confidence in the show that they aired its fifth episode after the Super Bowl that year. Unfortunately, for as funny as I remember it being, it didn’t last beyond its thirteen episodes; fortunately for Carey, he formed a relationship with Bruce Helford and that led to The Drew Carey Show.
We then have a very quick taped bit with Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza where they talk about the pilot that failed in their previous season. It kind of reminds me of the “Olympic Moments” that they filmed back in 1992 for the commercial breaks in the Barcelona Summer Games, which were at a time when the show was on the rise. At this point, they probably didn’t need to do this but I can imagine that someone at NBC was all, “Help a guy out.”
In the second-to-last spot are Marilyn Kentz and Caryl Kristensen who were a comedy duo known as The Mommies and who would have a sitcom of the same name. The gimmick is that they fold laundry and talk shit about people they know–their husbands, their neighbors, other moms at school–and this would become the basis of their sitcom, which was successful enough to last two seasons before it was canceled in 1994. The humor is actually pretty good and I can see why this became a sitcom, although I wonder if they were slightly ahead of their time–half of the things they talk about are bits that would make many a Mommy Blogger famous in the 2000s. But I can’t fault them for getting their break when they did because if Paul Reiser, Ray Romano, and others could do “married guy/dad” standup, then they could do “married woman/mom” standup.
Unfortunately, the show is pretty forgettable. Both comedians do their best with what they’re given and the kids have very ’90s hair and outfits (seriously, there were at least a few guys rocking that haircut at my high school) but it’s the type of generic sitcom stuff that wouldn’t stand out among ground-breaking stuff like Seinfeld. Kentz and Kristensen would eventually get their own morning talk show, Caryl and Marilyn: Real Friends, which was the third in a string of unsuccessful 11:00 a.m. talk shows (after The Home Show and Mike and Maty). That show would eventually get replaced by The View in 1997.
The last comedian of the special is Greg Rogell who Cosby introduced as just having signed a development deal with NBC. A look at his IMDb profile shows roles on various other sitcoms including CBS’s The Nanny, but no starring NBC bit. Still, this is clearly a young comedian (and Rogell having been born in 1967 means that at this point he was 26 years old) getting a break and in the few minutes he has, he does his best to use his moment. He does a couple of bits that are very Jerry Seinfeld in their nature, especially one about how banks chain pens to desks, but has two pretty straight-up funny bits. The first is one about how he once wrote Santa a letter when he was a kid and basically called him an anti-Semite because he never visited his house as a kid (Rogell is Jewish if you’re not good with context clues). The other is a “real New York Marathon” joke that I actually still laughed out loud at–something about making it a triathalon where you start off in the South Bronx at midnight; run for your life to the Hudson; swim to Newark and steal a car; and then have to do the endurance part of the race, which is get the car registered at the DMV. I know I found this hilarious when I was 16 (DMV jokes always killed with me) and like I said, I actually still find it funny now.
There’s a story behind all of this that ties into my longtime love of stand-up comedy, which could probably be fodder for an entire podcast episode. But for now, I love the fact that this special, which had been buried for years on this tape, serves as a time capsule for a particular moment. I watched the hell out of this, rewinding and rewatching both Drew Carey and Greg Rogell’s performances many times–in fact, I remembered Rogell’s joke about taking the car to the DMV for years even when I couldn’t remember his name. Comedy and sitcoms have certainly changed since then, although even now I can appreciate a network’s effort to get its new talent in front of a new audience.