Sunday, June 21, 2015

An Interview with John Barbour - Part Four

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned comedy writer Chris Hayward. When I was a kid in Canada they used to rerun late at night, back to back, an episode of Get Smart and an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Chris Hayward's name was in both credits and I was always intrigued by that. He must have been great.

Chris Hayward: He's my son's godfather. Chris Hayward and Allan Burns created The Munsters. Their agent took the idea to Screen Gems and sold it as his idea. It took Chris and Allan ten years  to get the rights to their show back through the courts. Their agent stole the property!

I'll tell you how dumb some of these people are that end up accidental heroes. Barney Miller was originally designed by Danny Arnold and his partner - who he screwed. The first half of the show would take place in Barney Miller's apartment and the second half would take place in the police station. Well, Chris Hayward and a girl were signed. She was signed as Barney Miller's wife. She was signed to a five-year contract. So the show wasn't getting very good ratings.

Chris went to Danny and said, "Remember Detective Story with Kirk Douglas? The whole thing takes place in a police station. Let's have this whole thing take place in a police station." Danny said, "No, nobody at home wants to stare at a dirty police station for the whole half hour." Chris had the next script assignment and he wrote an episode about a snow storm. Because of the severity of the storm nobody can get out of the police station for the whole half hour. And who watched it but a critic from Time who gave it a rave review.

ABC saw the reviews and instead of canceling it as planned, they gave it another thirteen weeks. The next thirteen weeks they stayed inside the precinct and the woman who was cast as Barney Miller's wife only appeared one or two more times. She had to be paid off for the entirety. Danny Arnold had kept her under contract because he never thought the show would work in the precinct. Chris Hayward was responsible for its success and nobody knows it. There are hundreds and hundreds of those kinds of stories in this business. 

Kliph Nesteroff: We previously talked about Joe Pyne. Let's talk some more about the old Los Angeles talk show scene. ABC tried to compete with Carson in the mid-1960s using radio personality Les Crane.

John Barbour: Oh, yes. I remember Les. He was a real nice looking guy, but I didn't think his show worked. There was just something artificial about what Les did. But there was nothing artificial about Joe Pyne because that's who Joe Pyne was. I think Les was sort of manufacturing an image and he sort of disappeared from the scene.

Kliph Nesteroff: 1968 - you appeared on the next Johnny Carson competitor from ABC - The Joey Bishop Show. Regis Philbin was his sidekick. 

John Barbour: Yes, I'll tell you a side note to The Joey Bishop Show. I was not a fan of Joey Bishop. I thought he was a great stand-up and could be charming, but he was a lousy talk show host. A couple times I called Elton Rule and asked him to give me that job because I didn't think Joey could make it. But Joey was famous and he had substituted for Carson a couple of times, so they chose Joey.

The first time I was to do his show I was bumped because Senator Hubert Humphrey was coming on. I remember when they introduced Senator Humphrey, I was sitting in the audience because I was no longer on the show. The entire audience stood and applauded. I got up but my wife did not. 

The show was over and Bishop's panel was God awful, didn't know how to talk about Vietnam or anything. The next day I was booked back on the show and he introduced me. In the middle of my monologue Martha Raye's daughter, who was sitting on the panel, had a panic attack. She was on the sofa and collapsed. So there was all this rumbling around me, but I couldn't turn around to look because there were bright lights in my eyes.

All of a sudden I feel an arm around me and it's Joey Bishop telling me something is wrong. I turned to him and said, "I knew you didn't want me on your show!" I thought because he was friends with Carson he was trying to sabotage me on his show, but it was Martha Raye's daughter and she had a breakdown, a panic attack. About ten years later I was a star on Real People and I was on a plane with my wife and child. Joey Bishop walks on the plane and he looks over at my son and says, "You know, your dad accused me of trying to sabotage him on my own show!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: You hosted a show on KNBC Los Angeles in the same time slot that Saturday Night Live had just a few months later.

John Barbour: Yes, it was called the Nineteen Inch Variety Show. It was only on in Los Angeles. And guess who I hired as my cohost...

Kliph Nesteroff: Bryant Gumbel.

John Barbour: Bryant Gumbel. He had been doing weekend sports. He majored in Russian Literature and I thought that's some bright guy. So I hired him. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I found a review. It said you interviewed Burt Reynolds and a Vietnam veteran who had held three people hostage in Griffith Park.

John Barbour: His name was John Lebron. He was a military assassin who had a severe flashback in Griffith Park and had to be arrested. So I took him back to Griffith Park and did the interview there. Burt Reynolds was a huge fan and he was wonderful. When he came on he was the biggest star in Hollywood and here he was doing this local show for forty dollars. I asked Burt, "How do you like it that a school teacher makes twenty-five thousand a year, a cop makes thirty thousand a year, but someone who pretends to be a school teacher or pretends to be a cop can make a million dollars a picture?" We only did six episodes of that show.

Kliph Nesteroff: You opened for Frank Gorshin in the early seventies.

John Barbour: Yes, I did. He was a wonderful impressionist. That idiot turned down the Dean Martin roasts. They wanted him to be the regular impressionist on the roasts and his wife talked him out of it and they gave it to Rich Little instead. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Rich Little ended up doing a lot of impressions that were just impressions of Frank Gorshin's impressions.

John Barbour: Oh, absolutely. If you look at Frank Gorshin's impressions he is so dead-on. Rich does some nice ones, but Frank was really good. Then there was a guy named David Frye who did Richard Nixon better than anybody on the planet. He appeared at the hungry i too. David Frye was a little bit wacko. The problem with Frank Gorshin was the same as a lot of comics. He had twenty-eight minutes of stuff. He was so stuck on doing the stuff that was already proven and wouldn't do anything new. That would bore me to death. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you about...

John Barbour: And you know I created Real People? That changed the face of American television with what I called reality television. Gary Deeb wrote a review of it when it first came out saying it would change the face of American television.

Kliph Nesteroff: George Schlatter produced Real People. 

John Barbour:  Alfred Hitchcock said, "I make all my villains smart, bright and witty because that's the only way they can get close to their victims." The first two years I worked for George Schlatter were the most enjoyable, creative times of my life. I literally ran the show. I wrote every episode, supervised the editing of every story and I'm the one who single handedly made that show a hit. George got a contract to do a thing called Speak Up America. I went to George and said, "George, do me a favor. Give me ten percent of your company and I'll create ten other reality shows based on what we do." He said, "I don't have partners." I said, "Okay, fine. I'll just keep on doing what I do."

So he goes on with Speak Up America. One of the hosts was Marjoe Gortner. Schlatter came to me, "I need some help with the show." I said, "George, I've got my hands full." He said, "No, I need help with the show." I said, "There's only one story I'd like to do and if you let me do that then I'll help you." He said, "What is it?" I said, "Jim Garrison, the DA from New Orleans. Two months ago the House Select Committee concluded four shots were fired at JFK, therefore a conspiracy had to exist. This wasn't on the front page, but page thirteen of the Times. This is an important story." He said okay. I took Hal Kanter's daughter, Donna, to New Orleans and did a bunch of stories for Real People while I was there. We went to Jim Garrison's house while Marjoe Gortner stood off in a corner for three hours.

When I called Garrison to let him know I was coming I said, "You know they just ruled four shots were fired. Do you feel vindicated?" He said, "John, I feel like a blind man who has a trophy in a dark room." When I told him I was coming he said, "You'll never get away with it." I must tell you, Kliph, it was the most exhilarating, inspiring and frightening three and a half hours. We finished putting him on tape and then we put Marjoe Gortner on camera and I gave Marjoe ten questions to ask. It was to be a two-partner. The first clip was great. It was Garrison leaning forward with these large eyes and bass baritone voice saying, "Lee Harvey Oswald killed no one. As a matter of fact, he didn't even fire a shot. He wasn't even on the sixth floor of the depository." That's how it opened!

I'm telling you people were rushing to the set to see this. For part two Marjoe Gortner asks, "Mr. Garrison, how many shooters do you think there were?" Garrison says, "Three. It was a triangulation. A military set-up. An intelligence set-up. He didn't stand a chance. He was sent into an ambush." The next question Marjoe has, "How many people do you think knew this was going to happen?" Garrison thought for a minute and said, "It's all on a need to know basis. Probably about thirty-two." That's how we edited it. The show came on. Part two. Here's Marjoe Gortner says, "Mr. Garrison, how many shooters do you think there were?" They cut to Garrison and he says, "Thirty two." I screamed at the set! The phone rings. It's George Schlatter. I screamed at him, "What did you do! What did you do!?" He said, "Garrison is a nut." I said, "No, he's not! You are!" I was screaming at Schlatter. The next morning I called Jim Garrison and I was crying. I said, "Mr. Garrison, please sue NBC and sue George Schlatter for deliberate slander. This was malicious intent." I called Donna Kanter who was the associate producer on the piece. I said, "What happened?" She said, "Schlatter called me at eleven o'clock and I went in at midnight." I said, "Why didn't you call me!?" She said, "He told me not to." Garrison said to me, "John. I get this all the time. I don't expect anything different, but I appreciate what you're doing. Just send us a Real People t-shirt." 

So that is what I think of George Schlatter. He took credit for Digby Wolfe creating Laugh-In. And you'll notice Rowan and Martin ended up suing him. Bob Wood, who was head of CBS after he fired me, called Schlatter and said, "Why is it every time you look like you're going to have something great, you fuck it up? Barbour is your show!" Then Bob Wood called me at Musso and Frank. I was having lunch when he told me I was fired. Only a half a dozen people in America know that I am responsible for reality TV. George Schlatter is an absolute, total pig. 

Kliph Nesteroff: We talked about your first comedy album, but you did a second comedy record years later...

John Barbour: The second album was called I Met a Man I Didn't Like and has some real good stuff on it. The liner notes are by Neil Simon. Neil Simon had written The Sunshine Boys with Walter Matthau and George Burns. The great thing about the original Sunshine Boys when it appeared on Broadway was that it had two Jewish actors, Jack Albertson and Sam Levene. In my review I said, "What did Neil Simon do in order to appeal to America? He turns the characters into Presbyterians! And the movie is God awful! There's nobody likable in the movie! The next thing Neil should write is a letter firing himself as casting director."

I wasn't off the air five minutes when he called. He was laughing. We started to talk. He said, "I love some of the stuff you do. You should put out a book of your reviews." I said, "Well, maybe I should do an album." He said, "If you do the album, I'll do the liner notes." So I put together a bunch of material and he did the liner notes. When I created Real People I announced I wasn't going to do reviews anymore. Neil called and said, "John, you can't quit! How many people are going to tell Neil Simon he should fire himself?" I said, "Neil, I've run out of ways to say "It's a piece of shit." He said, "Well, speaking of pieces of shit, the least successful piece of writing I ever did was the liner notes for your album."


Anonymous said...

"I invented reality TV"---Allen Funt would like a word with you, Mr. Barbour.

Anonymous said...

Will there be a part 5? I'm interested in hearing his side of the story of The Gong Show. All we hear is Chuck Barris saying how much Barbour didn't get it, but I can't imagine a guy as bright as John Barbour not digging.

Anonymous said...

So...we have him to blame for the KARDASHIANS!!!

Mike Doran said...

I wonder if you've heard from George Schlatter yet about your Barbour series.
It would be interesting indeed if his reaction to Barbour's recollections would be similar to his reaction to hearing your age ...