In 1977, when other kids were discovering The Sex Pistols, I was discovering The Love Boat. I stayed at my grandparents’ house on most weekends, so on Saturday nights at 8 p.m., I’d settle down on the sofa with the two of them to watch Aaron Spelling’s marine masterpiece. This column is my attempt to reclaim the wonder of those weekends.
Please note: I accidentally switched the discs on the DVD set! I’ll be recapping episodes 5 – 8 for the next two weeks and will pick up with episode 13 and 14 after that.
Isaac The Groupie / Mr. Popularity / Help! Murder!
The Love Boat is truly hitting its stride with this episode, deftly blending laughs and poignancy without being overbearing or corny.
In “Help! Murder!” Denise and Brett Fredericks are taking a cruise but Denise – President of her local PTA and a den mother – is having difficulty relaxing. Michele Lee was a childhood fave of mine thanks to Knots Landing, so it’s interesting to see her in this neurotic, comedic role. David Groh (Rhoda) is the patient husband who, along with the crew, has planned a surprise birthday party for her, convincing a doubtful Gopher to take candid photos of his wife for the party.
High-strung, paranoid Denise first thinks that Brett is having an affair with Julie. Then, when Gopher calls the Fredericks’ cabin to apologize for not getting a “clean shot” at her, she’s convinced Brett is trying to kill her. If it sounds silly, believe me, it is totally that, but somehow The Love Boat pulls it off, turning the most innocent phrases (“You’ll be dead in the morning”) into ironically ominous predictions.
Then there’s “Mr. Personality,” Robert Tanner (“Capital R, Capital T”) played by Jim Nabors, essentially reviving his role as Gomer Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show, and its subsequent spinoff, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The American comedy tradition of “The Yokel” has always mystified me. As a kid, I found the broad strokes of the intended humor cringeworthy without totally understanding why. Now I realize it’s because I detest humor that punches down instead of up.
No one, not even perennially chipper Julie, can stand to be around Robert Tanner (“That’s spelled R-O-B-E-R-T”) for more than five minutes. Is it because of his goofy accent? Is it because he goes into great detail about what vegetables he’s having for dinner? Hrmmmm. When Myra and Harvey Grove spy newspaper headlines about a fugitive jewel thief who might be on the cruise (one who looks like Tanner and has the same initials), they decide to kiss his ass. Soon, Tanner is surrounded by a gaggle of gawking, fawning losers who laugh over his discussions of liver and onions.
The joke’s on them when he informs them the jewel thief has been caught. But the joke’s REALLY on them when it turns out he pulled a double cross and stole $90,000 worth of jewelry from them. D’oh!
By far the best segment is “Isaac The Groupie.” Diahann Carroll is the gorgeous, smoldering Roxy Blue, the torch singer who ditched an appearance on The Bob Hope Show to take a much-needed vacation on the Pacific Princess. Roxy happens to be Issac’s favorite singer so naturally, he is star struck. Roxy agrees to have a drink with Isaac if he continues to help her remain incognito.
Anyone who’s seen Hard To Hold or read any fanfiction can probably see where this is headed. Isaac and Roxy embark on a clandestine, but intense, affair and he tells Gopher he wants to marry her. It gets dark and ugly with a quickness, however, when Isaac confesses his feelings right before Roxy agrees to spend her last evening on the ship singing for the guests.
“Roxy Blue, Superstar” is a real bitch when she wants to be and it stings to see her ordering Isaac to refill her champagne. Then she sings a love song by the piano and Isaac’s entire face crumples, eyes filling with tears. He gets the message. Still, Roxy visits his cabin in an attempt to explain, but not apologize, for what she’s done. Digging the knife in deeper, she reveals that she’s had three husbands who couldn’t handle her stardom, “and they had a lot more going for them than you do.” OUCH. The episode does touch on the vast gulf between celebrities and regular folk and one can only imagine how much more profound it is now, in the age of social media.
The Joker Is Mild / Take My Granddaughter, Please / First Time Out
Now it’s Julie’s turn to have an emotional roller coaster ride. In “The Joker Is Mild,” Phil Foster (Frank De Fazio from Laverne & Shirley) plays Barry Keys, a has-been comedian and friend of Julie’s father who helped him get his start in show business back in the day. This is all presented as if Julie’s father’s showbiz past is common knowledge but this is the first time it’s actually been discussed.
At any rate, Barry is like your obnoxious, drunken uncle whose jokes weren’t even funny back in the days of vaudeville. Julie is torn between her loyalty to Keys and not making the crew and passengers suffer through his attempts to regain the spotlight. At one point he fakes a heart attack so that Julie will include him in the roster for the evening entertainment. He’s dying to get back into the comedy circuit and desperately wants to impress a talent agent named Freddy Stevens who is also on board the ship.
It culminates in a truly painful segment where Barry’s “jokes” bomb spectacularly. No one laughs and people start walking out, including Julie, who is comforted on deck by a sympathetic Gopher. When she returns below deck to face the consequences of what she’s put into motion, she’s stunned to find that Barry has switched gears entirely, adopting a vaguely Seinfeld-style series of generation gap jokes that has the crowd in stitches.
Stevens is thrilled: “Barry Keys, where have you been hiding?” and wants to talk contracts and comedy tours, but Barry says there’s something more important he has to do. He apologizes to Julie for manipulating her and putting her in such a terrible position. She forgives him and they hug and it’s a beautifully sweet moment.
The inimitable Ruth Gordon is the meddling Mrs. Warner in “Take My Granddaughter, Please!” while Patty Duke Astin plays Shirlee, her mild-mannered and very single granddaughter. Gordon is desperate to hook Shirlee up with a wealthy, handsome man (although she doesn’t force her to drink any health shakes, thankfully). The sadly underused Tab Hunter is Dave King, Shirlee’s former high school sweetheart, now divorced and still in love with her. Grandma is horrified that Dave is a teacher and schemes to set Shirlee up with Doc, who is hesitant until he sees that Shirlee is a real babe.
Shirlee visits Doc’s cabin and begs him to help her. She’s in love with Dave but Grandma just won’t listen. So Doc invites Shirlee and Grandma Warner over and fakes being drunk in order to put himself out of the running. It’s a classic “Doc does Foster Brooks” moment. Grandma actually hits Doc with her handbag out of sheer disgust! Then Shirlee and Doc confess what they were up to and Grandma agrees that Dave is the right guy for her granddaughter after all.
Robert Hegyes (Juan Epstein from Welcome Back, Kotter) is Danny, who is on the cruise with his three fraternity brothers, hence the title “First Time Out.” Immediately, they ask Julie about the “action” on the ship in a gross scene, that’s made grosser when she is forced to pretend she doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Their quest? To find a woman for Danny to sleep with so he’ll no longer be a virgin. They’re embarrassed to have a virgin in their midst! I mean, what will the other frat boys think of them, hanging around this virgin? Ugh. Hegyes is about a million times cuter and more fashionable than these bozos.
As Danny, Hegyes is charming and sweet and I didn’t realize how much I missed “The Epstein Walk” until I saw it during this episode. He’s so nervous and dorky that every attempt to chat up a woman turns into a disaster. Barbara Holmes, played by Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady!) is a fellow student who tries to chat Danny up because she thinks he’s a great guy, but he’s so fixated on losing his virginity and impressing his friends that he is oblivious.
Eventually, Barbara invites herself to Danny’s cabin where quotes John Donne to her. Of course, she knows it’s actually Wordsworth, and then Danny feels disarmed. (Poetry jokes work every time!) He tells Barbara she’s beautiful and they kiss and… it’s implied that they’ve had sex but never stated outright. When his frat brothers press him for info about him and Barbara the next day, he tells them she’s in his chemistry class. Speaking of class, not bragging about sex with Barbara shows that Danny has a whole lot of it. It’s a lovely ending to what could have been a grotesque spectacle.
Until next week, remember to let it flow, because it always floats back to you.
Fun Fact: Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. ran for five seasons, from 1964 to 1969, for a total of 150 episodes.