Just admit it - you have NO idea who Pat Paulsen is. Without the omniscient help of Google (or Wikipedia) or some insight from older members of your family, you've probably guessed he was a famous politician, an infamous televangelist, or some sort of scandal prone bureaucrat - and in all three cases, you'd be wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, we might give you the first one, since Paulsen ran as an 'alternative' candidate for President of the United States in 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 1996. No, for many the hound dog faced comic (hint one) was part of one of the most revolutionary counterculture TV shows of all time (hint two), and won an Emmy award for it (hint..oh, who cares?). In the world of second bananas, satiric sidekicks, and go-to players in a prime time variety show format, Paulsen was a prince - so much so that ABC thought he could carry his own series after his first home, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was finally canceled. Sadly, Paulsen proved to be a perfect bits and pieces performer - he was tolerable in bits and pieces, but over the course of a half hour, he was almost unwatchable.
Running a scant 13 weeks and changing its set-up almost as many times, Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy Hour might have a decent creative pedigree (soon to be comic superstar Steve Martin wrote for the show, and Bob "Super Dave Osborne" Einstein was one of the regulars) but today it's really dated and dull. Each installment usually started with an interview (sometimes with someone - or something - as unusual as Daffy Duck or Foghorn Leghorn), offered up various skits trying to force the deadpan square into some manner of physical comedy hijinx. Then the guest star would show up and try to salvage the stale, often empty segments they were featured in. Then Paulsen would wrap things up, apologizing for something or making one of his standard off-kilter observations, and the show would be over. Regular rotating sequences included a couple of kids in a candy company, our star as a couple of clumsy TV presenter, a take-off on Then Came Bronson called, Then Came Paulsen, and take-offs of current hit shows (like Medical Center). Stars featured included Don Rickles, Angie Dickinson, Tom Smothers, Debbie Reynolds, Andy Williams, Don Adams, Henry Fonda, Mike Connors, Tiny Tim, Miss Vickie, Joey Heatherton and JoAnne Worley.
Welcome to the world of 'decent in small doses'. Pat Paulsen was never a major media superstar, and with good reason - his hang-faced fool was tolerable when taken alongside other comedic counterparts. When placed on the stage by himself and forced to fend for the funny business, he often failed miserably. No matter the guest star talent involved, from a seemingly lost Henry Fonda to a good and fed-up JoAnne Worley (just watch the Laugh-In star's face as she battles yet another slapstick spray of water), Paulsen was the central focus here, and he remains a fuzzy and incomplete one at that. Set up like a standard skit showcase, the writers (including the mostly invisible impact of one Steve "Wild and Crazy Guy" Martin) wedged their workingman mensch into anything and everything, looking for something to succeed. On a few occasions, the choice was inspired (Paulsen as a TV how-to "Handy Man") but the execution was tame - or in some cases, racially inappropriate. In other instances, the setting was stupid (our lead as a leering kid show science instructor) only to watch in surreal satisfaction as Paulsen endlessly mugged for the camera.
The problems with Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy Hour can be seen from the opening bit in the opening episode. Trading on his patented political notoriety - at least at the time - the comedian inadvertently finds himself at the home of 1968 Democratic Presidential Candidate Hubert Humphrey (who was also a renowned Senator and Lyndon Johnson's VP). As the non-actor stumbles through his lines and tries to crack wise, Paulsen has nothing to offer. Nothing! No funny physicality, no inspired higher office satire, no juicy bits of backstage campaign cleverness. Instead, the overlong segments dies a dozen deaths before Humphrey disappears and Paulsen is left to attempt a weak, wimpy pratfall...and that doesn't work either. Throughout the 13 episodes here, you will see several instances where the material almost makes it, where the busty visitor to Mr. Science's lab almost causes a chuckle or two. But for every time such a situation occurs, we are quickly rocketed back to reality, as when two under-aged African American kids play Apartment like office games in a continuing sketch series about a Peanut Brittle Company (it's just painful).
One even has to wonder why the special guests were added to these shows. Andy Williams makes a slapdash last minute appearance, while Debbie Reynolds gets a single segment as a rebellious prison inmate. Many don't have much to do except deliver straight lines for Paulsen to strangle, and even when a punchline is provided, you just know that someone like Don Adams or Tom Smothers could do better...MUCH better. Of course, it is a kick to see Tiny Tim in all his post-Tonight Show Miss Vicky glory (don't know what I'm talking about - Google it!), and there is never a dull moment when hopped up sexpots like Joey Heatherton attempt to shake their sly '70s moneymaker. But as a showcase of his by now questionable abilities to star in a series all by himself, Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy House is barely capable of a fourth of fun - and there's even a smaller fraction of entertainment value involved. Sometimes, the cancelling of a series is really nothing more than a media mercy killing. In the case of this often unfunny mess, no amount of nostalgia can lift it out of its dated doldrums.
Since it was captured on video more than three decades ago, you would think that the 1.33:1 full screen transfer offered by MPI would be dodgy at best. Oddly enough, there are few of the flaws (flaring, ghosting, bleeding) that we've come to expect from such antique offerings. The image is sharp and clear with few indications of its age and there are several segments that look almost brand new in their '70s technological finery. Still, this is far from reference quality, especially for those used to intricate remasters of their favorite forgotten TV shows.
There is really nothing that can be done with pre-Dolby, tinny Mono. While the digital 2.0 tweak is decent (the laugh track is sure turned up to 10!), it's really nothing more than offering the same singular sonic statement our from both sets of speakers. The dialogue is always discernible - but beware of the subtitles. There are a few misspellings that are absolutely hilarious in their near illiteracy over what's being said.
There are some nice bits of added content to be found here. The remaining Paulsen family members remember the late comic in a lovely tribute, while we get to see how the accidental icon was used in TV commercials way back when. There is also a look at some of his best TV work, original network promos for the series, and a hilarious "water safety" PSA. Toss in a look at his Presidential bids and a bio and you have a wonderful outlay of extras. Too bad the show itself doesn't live up to the adulation expressed throughout the bonus material.
In one of the oddest taglines ever for a DVD cover, someone at MPI actually came up with this truth-in-advertising testing bon mot - "Before There was Saturday Night Live, There Was Pat Paulsen's Half a Comedy Hour." Huh? Is it possible that we are supposed to view this weak attempt at quasi-topical humor as a match for the revolutionary irreverence of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players? Again, huh? Still, there is some curiosity value here, especially for those who've heard about Paulsen and his work on the seminal Smother Brothers show (which, by the way, is also less controversial and radically today as it appeared back in the '60s). For that fact alone, this set earns an interested Rent It. While it's clear that Paulsen didn't work well alone, he was still an intriguing aspect of a time in comedy when boundaries were being pushed and the old days of vaudevillian level joke telling was being replaced by an obtuse, observational approach to wit. It's just too bad the Half a Comedy Hour didn't try for something more inventive. At least then it would have originality on its side. All it has now is some faded importance, and a feeling of over-familiarity.