Fernwood 2Night: The Great Lost American Comedy

Fernwood 2Night was a talk show satire starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard. Preceding Alan Partridge and Larry Sanders by quite some years, Fernwood 2Night came on the air in 1977 when I was eleven years old and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Where I lived, it was on a station called Channel 53, a low rent UHF channel in Pittsburgh that was like a junkyard of cheaply licensed television. Like a real life version of the fictional cheapo cable channel in SCTV, Channel 53 showed an insane low-budget mix of Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Aussie women in prison soaps, Monty Python, Flash Gordon serials, The Avengers, Hammer horror, Sgt. Bilko, My Favorite Martian, Jack Benny, Tom Baker-era Doctor Who shows, freakazoid televangelist, Dr. Gene Scott, Dave Allen at Large, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman five days a week. It was TV heaven for some, telly hell for others. Me, I loved it.

That’s where Fernwood 2Night comes in. Fernwood 2Night was the summer replacement series so that Mary Hartman’s cast and crew could take a much-needed break from pumping out five weekly episodes. It was my favorite TV show and I would throw a FIT if my parents wanted me to go someplace when it was on. Like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was on five nights a week, too, and I probably saw ALL of them.

Martin Mull was brilliant as Barth Gimble, the twin brother of Garth Gimble, a caddish wife-beater character Mull portrayed on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman who had come to a gruesome end (he was impaled on a Christmas tree!). It is implied that Barth has legal issues (which may or may not involve an underage girl in Miami) so after his brother’s death, he’s stuck working in the podunk town of Fernwood, where he feels smugly superior to everyone, especially his announcer/side-kick Jerry Hubbard. played by Fred Willard.

In a scene-stealing role that defined his entire career playing the clueless white guy—is there ANYONE more Caucasian that Fred Willard?—Willard portrays what is quite possibly the dumbest, most dense character in all of television history. I’ve always thought that Willard was a comedic genius—the obtuse angles of his observations, so off the cuff and spontaneous, so REAL—and he was never funnier than he is in this role. The core cast was rounded out by their dour band leader, “Happy” Kyne” (Frank De Vol) and his “Mirthmakers.”
The Fernwood 2Night writers overlapped somewhat with the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman crew, but by and large (I think) Harry Shearer seemed to be the head writer, with other material provided by Mull and Willard and future rightwing shill Ben Stein. Alan Thicke—who must’ve been a hip, hip guy before Growing Pains, he even wrote for Richard Pryor—was the producer and the whole enchilada was, of course, executive produced by the great Norman Lear. Guest appearances included Dabney Coleman, Kenneth Mars, Jim Varney and even Tom Waits

In the second season—which was renamed America 2Night—the show “moved” out of small town Fernwood to the fictional town of Alta Coma, California, “the unfinished furniture capital of the world” (mainly so the writers could stop having to come up with contrivances for why a particular celebrity would happen to be in Fernwood, Ohio in the first place). The America 2Night series saw the likes of Gary Coleman, Vincent Price, Robin Williams, Peter Frampton, Steven Allen, Paul Lynde, Milton Berle, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston and many others making guest appearances. America 2Night was shown on the United Broadcasting System, or UBS, “the network that puts U before the BS.”

Other than sporadic showings on TV Land in the early 90s, the 130 episodes of Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night have seldom been seen since it originally aired. It’s a comedy goldmine that’s remained untapped for a long time—as brilliant as the original SNL if you ask me. Back in my Disinformation days I tried to license the show for DVD release but even Norman Lear’s company had no idea who owned it (turns out it was Sony who still haven’t done anything with them). A couple of years ago, I was able to download the entire series of Fernwood 2Night from a rare TV torrent tracker and I was in absolute TV heaven again. 

Dr. Emanuel Kazinsky explains the differences between the races:

A spanking demonstration by Marshall Petty:

“Sylvia Miller” (Fannie Flagg) relates her UFO abduction story:

Chartlon Heston on the very first episode of America 2Night:

Tom Waits finds himself in Fernwood, Ohio:

Posted by Richard Metzger



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