Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Importance of Being Ernest T.

Yes, I realize that the voice of Tony the Tiger is stilled. And Thurl Ravenscroft was certainly a name pregnant with possibility.

But of more moment to me is the death of the more dully monikered Howard Morris, of Your Show of Shows and The Andy Griffith Show. I never saw the former until they assembled some segments and released them in theatres as Ten of the Best from Your Show of Shows, a title whose diction mystified me at the time. Still, I'll never forget the segment in which Mr. Morris latched onto Sid Caesar's leg in a burlesque of This is Your Life, and stayed latched. Or the segment (did I see it in the feature-length show, or on some other retrospective?) in which he assists Sid Caesar to don the uniform of a Field Marshal in some obscure Teutonic duchy, before Sid stepped outside to take up his post as a doorman.

But the pinnacle of Mr. Morris's career must be Ernest T. Bass: absolutely unforgettable; a character I'll take with me to the grave. And I wonder why. Certainly, when we see videotapes of early sit-coms, we blush at the asinine plots, grainy pictures, cheap production values, puerile themes, and corny jokes (even on the best of 'em). What makes something like Ernest T. Bass stick in the mind? Perhaps the low production quality itself: the performances, set in such primitive simplicity, become mythic. (To take another example, we who were there will never forget Jerry van Dyke calling everyone "Beresford"--but don't get me started on The Dick van Dyke Show; it's got a million of these memories.) Somehow, either because of the cheesiness of it all, or in spite of it, the performers' art shone through.

Part of this unforgettability, no doubt, is that we saw these things when we were infants. But isn't that half the reason that myth has such staying power? Telling it to impressionable youth ensures that it makes an impression. Well, Ernest T. made one on me, of which Adam Arkin's character on Northern Exposure was a hollow echo.


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