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August 10
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JULY 9, 2009 2:14PM

"America Tonight"-The Precursor of Outrageous TV

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Does anyone remember the tv show from the 70's, "Fernwood Tonight", later known as "America Tonight"? It was co-hosted by Martin Mull and Fred Willard.




“Fernwood Tonight”, began as the summer replacement for the show, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and was created to find out just how offensive could TV get.  (Obviously the precursor for so many shows to have followed.)


Was it sacrilegious? Tasteless? Outrageous? You bet it was. The satirical, deliberately weird “talk show,” parody, “Fernwood Tonight,” was the summer replacement for “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”  At the time it was a truly groundbreaking show. The series, which was another of Norman Lear’s groundbreaking shows, was a  version of every talk show ever broadcast.  That summer it was running in the usual “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" time slot.  


The show was such a hit it soon replaced “Hartman” and was translated into “Fernwood USA,” which began in September of 1977. Thus, the original series metastasized into two – both without Louise Lasser, who had other floors to wax.


“Fernwood Tonight” was cheerfully designed to infuriate practically anyone who can turn on a TV. Its full-blooded premise was in bad taste, sick humor, and “All Those Things You Don’t Do On Television.”  Or didn’t used to do. 


“We will offend the sensitivities of a number of Americans, for which we apologize out front,” said Alan Thicke, a jolly Canadian, comedy-writer sort, acting as chief script writer and producer, “but we’re not being discriminating in our satire. We’re offending everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, or income level."


That's where yours truly entered the picture. At the time, I was getting quite a bit of publicity as the Special Project coordinator of Children of the Night, mostly because I would travel around giving lectures about prostitution.  Actually, it was called C.A.T. at the time (California's Advocacy for Trollops), but I digress.


One day I received a telephone call from none other than Alan Thicke. He had heard I was a writer, and he wanted to know if we could "get together and write something for this new show?"  Oh gosh, I had to think about it long enough to pick my jaw up off of the ground before saying, “Yes!”


The deal was I would go to his home in the San Fernando Valley. I truly didn't know much about this man, except that I had worked with his actress/wife on Days Of Our Lives, Gloria Lorring. But to have the opportunity to work on this show, was far too tempting for me not to go and meet him, surely he wouldn’t try something stupid?


His house at the time was a white antebellum style mansion, although I remember it as being very sparsely furnished, as if they were either moving in or moving out. He answered the door dressed very casually, his dark hair immaculately coifed, and wearing white socks on his feet.  Funny the things which stand out in my memory.  I told him who I was, and we shook hands before he led me into his home-office/family room, and offered me a drink of soda as I sat down on the couch. I refused it, afraid I would end up laughing and have it spew out of my nose.  That would be more embarrassment than this young girl could stand.  


I was still really curious what he had in mind, hoping like hell it wasn't some phony deal and I'd be exploited.  In Hollywood, it happened all the time, and with me, a few times in particular...like the time I was spotted coming out of a building on Sunset Blvd. and was recognized from a newspaper clipping...but I’ll save that story for another day.


Alan was the real deal though and soon he was pumping me for information about prostitution, the topic for the show he had in mind. I pretty much gave him antecdotes drawn from my personal experiences, he was eagerly jotting down notes. I felt at ease with him and we shared more than a few laughs as we found it easy to make fun of the topic. I threw out my own “witticisms” that I used during my own college lectures.  He must have liked them, because after our meeting he told me that he was going to be using some of my material for the show. This only meant one thing to me; I would be getting paid!


About a week later, Alan called and told me to come to the taping of the show. "Of course, I'd love to."  I was hopeful there was a good reason for it; not just to filling up an audience seat.


I was correct in my assumption.  It was a taping for “America Tonight”.  As it turned out, Martin Mull (as Barth Gimble) and Fred Willard (as sidekick Jerry Hubbard) ended up using one of my lines in their opening volley.


Curious what it was? Of course you are.


"If you really want to do away with prostitution, you will let the government subsidize it; like they do the farmers. You will pay the prostitutes NOT to turn tricks. That's how you clean up this problem."


And that was my first television writing credit. 


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Beamed straight from the jury room in Ventura, CA....
Not THAT's an anecdote! I remember those shows...but then came "Married, With Children" to sink to levels of low where no one had dared to go!
Both Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood Tonight were insanely funny at times. And they were highly addictive.
Hope you get on a jury!
Martin Mull and Fred Willard are two very funny guys. What a great initiation into television writing. You talented girl you.
Glad you're keeping yourself busy while waiting for the wheels of justice.
oh god, i do remember that show... now that you've reminded me.

i'd be glad not to turn tricks for money. i'm already doing that for free.
Man, you've led an interesting life. I remember this show. Martin Mull and Fred Willard are two of the funniest guys on the tube. Now a days they are character actors on about all the comedy shows that are on at one time or another. Great Post, brings back memories!!
Bravo!!!!!!! I was a fan and it seems as though I remember the bit from the show. now I'm sheepish and starstruck;).
I've always been a fan of unbridled and offensive satire. I fairly wallow in it.

And "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman", "Fernwood Tonight" and "America Tonight" occupy a warm spot in my darkly jocular heart.

As some of your probably know, Martin Mull, besides being a comic talent is also world-class artist.
At the time this was the wildest stuff. Now we have Jerry Springer, and even an unexpurgated version. I rarely watch TV...wonder why???
Congrats--an EP from the Courthouse!
I also remember those shows. Now I admire Alan Thicke for recognizing true talent! rAted!
... and don't forget the lounge singer, live from the Fernwood Holiday Inn, with his misplaced toupee, and off-key voice. Bill Murray had nothing on him.

Mary Hartmann, Fernwood, America ... they all launched a lot of talent. Let's not forget the mayor of Fernnwood, Merle Jeeter, played by Dabney Coleman. How about Doris Roberts and Mary Kay Place; both were regulars. Kenneth Mars, the original Nazi in the movie, "The Producers", had a recurring role; Jim Varney, also. The list goes on and on.

Norm Lear was a genius who changed the face of TV, and launched a lot of careers. But I think the trio of shows mentioned above was his finest work, certainly his most outrageous. Buff, you were blessed to have been involved.

what a cool story!

and that vid rawked.

Oh man! Fernwood tonight. We loved that show. It was indeed way ahead of its time.

So Buffy, I had no idea we were being graced with such a renowned lady.

RATED for the surprises life gives you
Very interesting....I never saw the show. I was busy with two jobs teaching law and public policy, producing and hosting a local TV talk show and my music performances.....
I always thought Alan Thicke had really small ears. Rated.
Fun story! You need to keep rolling these out.

(p.s. I think you mean "anecdote" not antidote!)
Excellent post! Fernwood Tonight helped to warp my young mind...followed by SNL when it was first on...saw the first episode...stuff like "Kill Gary Gilmour" sung as a Christmas Carol by Gildna Radner, Jane Curtain, and Chevy Chase, et. al. I am so glad I grew up on that stuff...I worry for the kids now. xox
I remember this with great affection.
Your life sure has been an adventure, and this is another great episode. I totally love all your postings. rated.
Yay (for your first television writing credit)!
I remember well Mary Hartman Mary Hartman and the Fernwood loonies.

Once again I'm amazed at the life of BuffyW...

Great story!
Those were two fun shows. What a star you are.
Zuma--Yes, and All in the Family :)
Walter--I almost made it on, whew! Thanks.
Life is good--I had just posted when I got called up. Just now got home. Everyone had computers.
Cap’n--Lol. Thanks for coming by.
Scanner--Fred is part of Christopher Guests’ ensemble for his very talented and funny films.
bobbot--I could probably go through all the dvds of the show and find it, but not at the point I have that much free time. Glad you remembered though.
Skip--I’m shocked these shows would appeal to you :) Yes, I knew that about Martin, world class...like you!
Ralph--I refuse to watch those shows now, there is no clever writing, just people showing their worst sides.
Walter--That was surprising to see when I got home!
Mr. M--Thank you. I’m blushing.
Rod--I have to agree, great shows that did change tv, and I was very blessed.
Bees Tone--It cracked up the jury room too! Thanks!
Boomer Bob--Well, not exactly renown, but nice to have been a part of something so innovative, no matter how small!
Ron--I can understand why, thank you for taking time now to read my story.
OE--You know, now that I think of it he did! And I was fixated on his socks, lol.
Silkstone--Thank you for the edit...I didn’t have time before they called my name. Fixed it.
Robin-- I hear you, it was a different time for sure. Thanks for coming by.
Duane--I’m glad, me too.
Old new lefty--Thank you, and I enjoy your stories too!
Sourie--Thanks! Nice of you to come by.
Trig--You guys make me want to remember these things, thank you!
Stim--Never was a star, but sure rotated around them! Thank you.
Michael--Now that you mention it, it was!! Thanks :)
Those were the great kind of comedies that when you were out partying at happy our and then came home and turned on the TV you found them very hilarious. Skipped Donnie and Marie, but remember to watch Fernwood Tonight!
A classic story. I LOVED that show. My first introduction to Fred Willard who might be the funniest person on earth. . .
What a fun, interesting story. I'm glad the court case isn't getting you down.
California's Advocacy for Trollops -- priceless!
Buffy....I'm always amazed at your stories! What a life you have lived and are still living!
I used to love that show.
I LOVED that show! I can still remember each week, starting to chuckle with the opening credits and quickly graduating to full-blown belly laughs within seconds...non-stop.
Well, first, what a great first writing credit. And I certainly do remember Fernwood Tonight; specifically, I remember that they had perhaps the single funniest moment ever on TV (and it won't seem so funny here, because it was the visual that almost caused me to herniate laughing): a researcher came out near the end of the show, claiming that polyester causes cancer, and at the end of the interview, in the final seconds of the show, offered to demonstrate his experimental methodology, whereupon he brought out a bunch of lab rats dressed in teeny little leisure suits.
Shows like Fernwood, seemed all that more funny. Mostly because you watched them with your friends, and you were all stoned out of your minds! Well, that's how it was for me, anyway.

"Children of the Night", Hmm I do believe I was one of them. However as you like to put it, " I'll save that story for another day".
Buffy, sounds like you have been "around the block" as many times as I have!
We are diehard Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fans and have definitely enjoyed what little Fernwood Tonight we had the opportunity to catch. We’ve been regularly looking for it to come out on DVD, but no luck yet. We have nearly given up hope of ever seeing a successor to the Volume 1 DVD of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, but not quite. Don’t suppose you know any of the inside gossip on why this brilliance—either MH, MH, or FT—is being cruelly witheld from addicted aficionados?

We’re also big fans of Fred Willard’s work in Christopher Guest films. His characters always seem to be a clever variation on his Fernwood Tonight role—our favorite incarnation being as Buck Laughlin in Best in Show.

BTW, have you seen Louise Lasser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness? We suspect Solondz was significantly influenced by both of these shows, so perhaps you had something to do with inspiring his black comedies.

Thanks for sharing this fun episode in your career, Buffy!

( m&m )
I always thought Martin Mull was kind of hot.
Do I remember "Fernwood Tonight" ?! How could anyone ever forget it? Lines from "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and "Fernwood Tonight" still echo through my addled brain from time to time. Who could forget that classic how-to book "Power Tennis for the Blind"? Mull and Willard were the then-modern version of Laurel and Hardy. Their interplay was exquisitely biting, ... so good at times that I often cringed with empathy for Willard, forgetting for a moment that he was acting. No one can play the clueless dupe as well as Willard.
Neat piece. Always nice when we can identify someone we know (you) with a piece of cutting edge Americana. Those shows seem so tame today, which says something about how far we have come, or have dropped backwards. Each will come to his own conclusion on that one.