If you watched Saturday morning TV in the late ’60s and through the ’70s, then you knew all about Sid and Marty Krofft. The puppet and human combination adventures of H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville, Sigmund and the Sea Monster, and Land of the Lost were familiar fixtures to children of that generation. Puppets had made the mainstream with The Muppet Show airing in syndication starting in the late ’70s. As the children of the ’70s became the politically aware adults of the ’80s, Sid and Marty Krofft entered prime time with a syndicated show called D.C. Follies that brought them back to some of the more risque humor of their early puppeteer days. The premise is simple. Fred Willard is the bartender at a D.C. bar where pop culture and political figures of the day would show up for quick skits and jokes. The show ran from 1987-1989 for two seasons and 44 episodes through the end of the Reagan era and the start of the George Bush era. Shout Factory is releasing the Complete Series on DVD this month.
The show is hard to pin down. I wanted to have a pithy comparison that would quickly nail it for people who haven’t seen the show or hadn’t seen it in years. The first thing that hit me now that I missed when it first aired is that it’s brought to the screen by Golan and Globus, the producers of Cannon films that were known for testosterone-fueled Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone films like Missing in Action and Cobra. That maverick attitude is what it takes to think you can succeed with a puppet-based syndicated show set in a bar that talks mostly about the politics of the day. The show shares some elements of Laugh-In too. The topical humor of the day doesn’t age well in either show if you didn’t live through those days. Even if you did, you might not have total recall of the importance of Rona Barrett in her day. The humor is often low brow and the jokes are quick fire in a vaudeville way. The other thing that strikes me is that when the jokes aren’t simple and quick, there are more longform character scenes that often involve the human characters of Fred Willard or guest stars and some of the recurring puppet characters like Richard Nixon. Those scenes play out like some of the more experimental comedies of the era like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or Fernwood 2 Night. That testosterone, vaudevillian, and quirky combination mixed with political and pop culture humor walks a fine line and is pretty unique in television history.
The puppets are the stars. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and eventually Bush are the most recognizable for current audiences and the most satirical. They deviate the most from their actual personalities and become characters that only look like famous personalities but becoming their own characters. I love the anachronistic combinations of having Katherine Hepburn, Madonna, and Oprah Winfrey all in the same episode. I’m probably not stretching it much to guess that viewers younger than 40 might need a little help identifying Ed Meese, Jim Bakker, and Tip O’Neill. Lots of love went into the puppets and you will spend half of each episode admiring the work of the artists involved.
The human guest stars give the episodes variety. The “Mike Tyson meets his own puppet” is one of the best that’s worthy of a classic SNL skit. Robert Englund, Bob Uecker, and Betty White take turns on the show. It’s funny the choices of human stars because they are often just as much of caricatures as the puppets. All you need to know is that Yakov Smirnoff appears in multiple episodes. That tells you about the type of character the writers were attracting and the type of humor that passed for funny in those years.
So the big question is how has the show aged. To be fair, it was a show that I found entertaining but not a must-see on a Saturday night. The humor was predictable and I didn’t pay enough attention to appreciate some of the nuances. Early on there’s a show titled “Nixon’s Presidential Library Is A Bookmobile”. That episode has funny Dan Rather moments and Ronald Reagan in a panic over a War of the Worlds broadcast that he thinks is real. Do modern viewers laugh at Robin Leach and Lady Di? I don’t think there’s the same presence. There are some really clever gags that will get you through some painfully long skits that go nowhere. It’s valuable to have shows like this back on the market to fill in the gaps in television history. The folks at Shout Factory specialize in keeping unique shows in the public eye.
All 44 episodes are included in this set. The best places to start – “Nixon Impeached From Cub Scouts” (Ep. 9), “Super Bowl At The Follies” (Ep. 17) and “Freddy Krueger’s Nightmare – Dan Quayle Elected President” (Ep. 28).