History, Legacy & Showmanship

Remembering “The Brady Bunch” on its 50th Anniversary

September 26, 2019 - 11:43 am   |   by
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The Brady Bunch is ’comfort TV’ to the highest degree.” — Classic TV historian Herbie J Pilato

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the premiere of The Brady Bunch, the classic family sitcom which originally ran on ABC from 1969 to 1974 and starred Florence Henderson as Carol/Mom, Robert Reed as Mike/Dad and Ann B. Davis as housekeeper Alice.

The series (and ultimately franchise) — created by Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan’s Island, It’s About Time) and featuring as the memorable Brady kids Barry Williams (Greg), Maureen McCormick (Marcia), Christopher Knight (Peter), Eve Plumb (Jan), Mike Lookinland (Bobby) and Susan Olsen (Cindy) — premiered 50 years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a Q&A with classic television historian Herbie J Pilato, who offers some recollections and insight into the timeless series. [Read more here...]

Herbie J Pilato is the host of Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, the new hit classic TV talk show now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Herbie J is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Classic TV Preservation Society, a formal 501(c)3 nonprofit organization dedicated to the positive influence of classic television shows, and is the author of several classic TV tie-in books including Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Story (Jacobs Brown Press, 2019), The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man & the Bionic Woman Reconstructed (Bear Manor Media, 2007), Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2012), Dashing, Daring and Debonair: TV’s Top Male Icons from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2016), Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door: Television’s Iconic Women from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2014). (The latter two books feature profiles of Brady stars Maureen McCormick, Christopher Knight, Robert Reed, and Barry Williams, among several others legendary stars.)

Pilato presides over his own production company, Television, Ink, which produces family-oriented TV shows and was a consulting producer on the DVD season sets of Bewitched, CHiPs, Kung Fu and The Six Million Dollar Man.

For more details, or to order personally-signed copies of any of Herbie J’s books, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com, or email HJPilato @ yahoo.com (remove the spaces).

Herbie J Pilato

Herbie kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of The Brady Bunch.

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think The Brady Bunch should be remembered on its 50th anniversary?

Herbie J Pilato: The Brady Bunch is a pop-cultural phenomenon. Its characters and the actors who portrayed them have been considered family members to countless viewers for five decades. In this way, it will be remembered as more than just a TV show, but rather an intricate part of people’s lives, and our psyche. It’s always fun to watch. The characters are colorful. The sets are colorful. The colors are bright. It’s almost like watching live-action animation. And yet, in the midst of it all, the show is filled with teaching moments, giving everyone who watches it their own personal reasons for liking the show. Whether it’s a certain episode or a certain character that proves identifiable, the show delivers a mainstream quality appeal that doesn’t offend. In fact, The Brady Bunch is “comfort TV” to the highest degree.

Coate: Can you remember when you first saw the show?

Pilato: I do remember. I was eight years old, and I was at my cousin’s house. She was only about one year older than me, and she didn’t like the show. She thought she was too mature for it. And I just remember thinking, “Uh?! This is such a cool show.” I couldn’t comprehend her thinking. But in my heart, I think she loved the show just as much as the rest of us, but didn’t want to admit it.

Coate: In what way is The Brady Bunch significant?

Pilato: The show stands out from other classic family sitcoms like The Partridge Family in several ways. In the category of storytelling, it’s realistic, but it’s not. It presents an ideal family, but they really aren’t. Each of them has their flaws, and yet by the end of each episode, those flaws are either embraced or erased, and somehow enhance and define the characters in the most positive of ways. From a production standpoint in the history of television, The Brady Bunch is the only TV show that has been presented in every format in a series of sequels and spin-offs on all three original broadcast networks. First, there was the one-camera half-hour sitcom format of The Original Series on ABC. Then came the half-hour Saturday morning animated series in the guise of The Brady Kids, also on ABC. After that, there was The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, also on ABC, which was followed on NBC by The Brady Girls Get Married, which was the first TV-reunion movie, which was really a backdoor pilot for another half-hour series, NBC’s The Brady Brides. But NBC’s The Brady Brides was different than ABC’s Original Series, as it was filmed before a live-audience, whereas The Original Series was not. A few years later, a second TV-movie aired, this time, on CBS, with A Very Brady Christmas, which represented the industry switch from filming to filming-and-then-transferring-to-tape. In the process, A Very Brady Christmas became one of the highest-rated TV movies that year (1989), and then gave birth to yet another weekly series… The Bradys, also on CBS, which was a one-hour dramedy, along the lines of thirtysomething (which, for the record, had aired on ABC). In fact, many in the press coined that show, bradysomething. But then the Brady universe expanded even more, beyond television with live-stage productions like The Real Live Brady Bunch, which was followed by feature films, such as The Brady Bunch Movie and A Very Brady Sequel. The franchise then returned to the small screen with more a “behind-the-scenes” TV-movie based on Barry Williams’ best-selling memoir I Was a Teen-Age Greg. And after that, there was a TV-movie, The Brady Bunch Goes to Washington, which was a sequel to The Brady Bunch Movie, but with a different cast. And now today, we have A Very Brady Renovation, a reality show with the original cast from The Original Series. So, it’s really kind of amazing. There’s not another media franchise like it, not even Marvel’s multi-verse could catch up with the Brady-verse, from an historic standpoint.

Coate: Which are the series’ standout episodes?

Pilato: There are several of them… but right off the top of my head, I’m reminded of The Subject Was Noses, from the fourth season, in which Marcia gets hit in the nose by a football. Confessions, Confessions, from the second season, where we hear the continuous recitation of Bobby’s legendary line, “Mom always said don’t play ball in the house.” Greg’s “moving” episodes, first in Our Son, The Man, from the second season, when he moves into his father’s office, and then later, Room at the Top, from the fourth year, when he moves into the attic after another one of his monumental battles with Marcia for family supremacy. The episode, Dough Re Mi, from the third season, is also definitive in the series, when Peter’s puberty-changing voice throws a wrench into the Brady’s new quest to form a singing group. Then there are the Grand Canyon episodes from the third year, the Hawaii episodes from the fourth season, and The Cincinnati Kids, from the fifth season, where the Bradys visit the King’s Island amusement park. Like the Grand Canyon and Hawaii episodes, The Cincinnati Kids was filmed on location. So, that was always nice to see the characters in real, exterior settings, as opposed to the in-studio interior and fabricated exterior shots mostly seen on the series. However, in that fifth season, the cast and crew were allegedly to travel to Hong Kong for a series of episodes. But that never happened, apparently, due to budgetary issues. So, they settled for an amusement park in the States. But I think the most memorable episode for me was Adios, Johnny Bravo, the premiere episode of the fifth season in which Greg abandons his singing Brady siblings to be a superstar solo act. When I first saw that episode, I remember thinking and somehow inherently knowing that the fifth season of the show would be its last. The kids had pretty much all grown up… they were literally out-growing the show, which is why the producers did things like bring in Robbie Rist to play the younger Cousin Oliver, to help retain the show’s youth-geared demographic. And then there was also the unsold pilot episode for an intended sequel, Kelly’s Kids, which featured Ken Berry and Brook Bundy as childless parents who adopted a multi-racial trio of young kids. This was the show’s noble attempt to present more realistic programming, along the lines of All in the Family and Maude. So, I give it props for that.

Coate: Which episode is your favorite (if you could name only one)?

Pilato: But still, it is Adios, Johnny Bravo that still stands out as my favorite because, even though I sensed it was the beginning of the end of the series… and even though all the Brady kids were maturing beyond the show’s basic format… seeing them sing that opening number, You’ve Got To Be In Love To Love A Love Song, was epic. It was like watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Coate: Which character did you most relate to and/or was your favorite?

Pilato: I think that, like most of us, I related to the character that was closest to my age and gender, which is Bobby. He also happened to be the youngest of the Brady boys, just as I was the youngest in my immediate family growing up (although I have only one older sibling, a sister, as opposed to Bobby having four older and one younger siblings of both genders).

Coate: The series featured numerous celebrity guest stars. Which one was your favorite or most memorable?

Pilato: The four celebrity guest stars that stand-out the most in my memory are Joe Namath, Desi Arnaz Jr., Davy Jones, and William Wellman Jr., the latter of whom played a celebrity astronaut. But he did so with such credibility, I actually believed he was a real astronaut in real life, even though that was not the case, and whereas the others were actual celebrities who played themselves. And while I never really was a fan of football, I knew of Joe Namath from his TV commercials, and other guest appearances on TV. As to Desi Arnaz Jr., while growing up, people had said I had always looked like him... and I was and remain a big fan of Here’s Lucy, on which he starred with his mom Lucille Ball and sister Lucie Arnaz. So, it was nice to see Desi on The Brady Bunch, where two different worlds of classic TV collided so well from my personal perspective. And the Davy Jones episode stands out because I was a fan of The Monkees TV show, although I did think it strange, even as a kid, that Marcia Brady would be so excited about meeting Davy, considering popularity of The Monkees, as a TV show, and as a pop music group, had waned significantly by the time David appeared in that episode. The show and the group certainly experienced a resurgence later, but at the time, I was like, "Why is Marcia so excited about meeting Davy Jones?"

Coate: If you were to introduce the show to someone, which would be the best gateway episode?

Pilato: The pilot episode of any series is always a good thing to watch in becoming familiar with any TV show. But at the same time, The Brady Bunch was such a “transitional” series… meaning that the show not only evolved in its original five years on the air… but, over time, it also became something else in the eyes of the viewers in the syndicated reruns. When The Original Series premiered in 1969, it was a different world as opposed to when say, The Brady Bunch Movie premiered in 1995. That film was essentially a satire of The Original Series but it was presented in such an affectionate way… an homage of sorts to what made The Original Series so appealing, but with a modern twist of humor and parody without being insulting. So, with that said, I think it would best serve “new watchers” if they simply picked one episode from each of the show’s five seasons. Viewing five subsequent episodes like that would serve ideal representations and explorations of the show’s evolution and definition.

Coate: Where do you think The Brady Bunch ranks among 1960s/70s sitcoms and/or family oriented shows?

Pilato: I’m going to say that The Brady Bunch remains the top 1960s/70s family-geared half-hour sitcom ahead of The Partridge Family, while it can’t really be aligned with one-hour shows like Eight is Enough, a dramedy, or The Waltons, a drama.

Coate: Do you believe The Brady Bunch has been well represented on home video?

Pilato: With the new 50th Anniversary release on DVD, The Brady Bunch is perfectly represented, even though that package does not include The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Hopefully, one day, that show will be available for home-viewing.

Coate: How do you think the 1990s era movies and various spin-off series, variety specials, cartoon, etc. compare to the original series?

Pilato: The Brady Kids animated series was okay, but I wish the characters would have better-represented the live-action faces of The Original Series. It was a strange thing because that’s how it was in one of the print ads that I remember seeing in TV Guide. That ad included an image of the animated characters that better resembled the live actors from a realistic point of view. But then the actual show presented different renderings that were less realistic and more “animated” in the machinations of Filmation, the famed production company that produced the series.

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour remains an odd animal. First of all, Eve Plumb was not there in the mix. And this kind of thing would happen throughout the franchise, with not all the cast members reuniting for all the sequels. But also, too, the Variety Hour featured a new house… which right away distanced the viewer from the iconic connection to The Original Series. So, that was strange. And then it wasn’t Florence Henderson or Robert Reed or Maureen McCormick hosting the show… it was Carol and Mike Brady, and Marcia, etc. hosting the show. And then they would make cross-over appearances on The Donny & Marie Show, which, like The Brady Bunch Hour, was produced by Sid and Marty Kroft. But whereas Donny and Marie Osmond were real people performing their real selves, Florence, Robert, Maureen, et al, were performing as their characters. It was a collision of the real and surreal worlds in a variety show format that was surreal in general… but was then made too surreal in having too many worlds collide.

The Brady Girls Get Married remains my favorite sequel to The Original Series because it was filmed like the original show. The original set was recreated and all the original cast members appear in it without one replacement actor in the Bunch.

The Bradys, meanwhile, is my second favorite sequel or spin-off to The Original Series. I so wish this show would have continued beyond its short first season. I thought it was just fine, as it gave the Brady cast a chance to shine their dramatic talents, which made Robert Reed, in particular, very happy. But yet, too, he also embraced the song/dance aspects on The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. He viewed it as a challenge to do that because those things were not his specialty. But he was a trooper and gave it his best shot. So, go figure.

And The Brady Bunch Movie, from 1995, was just astoundingly perfect in so many ways. It was a satire, but not hurtful. The performances were spot-on, and the cameos by actors from The Original Series were sweet, welcoming, and respectful.

Coate: Do you have any thoughts on the (exterior establishing shots) house being renovated for the HGTV series?

Pilato: Mike Lookinland, who played Bobby, my most identifiable Brady, recently said it best with something like, it was the craziest idea he had ever heard, and the most brilliant. And I agree with that, adding, that it is the coolest idea, too. And somehow, HGTV and the Brady cast made it work — to perfection.

Coate: What is the legacy of The Brady Bunch?

Pilato: The legacy of The Brady Bunch is its charm. That’s really the one and best word that defines the series and the entire franchise. You just don’t see a lot of charm anywhere today on TV… or off.

Coate: Thank you, Herbie, for sharing your thoughts on The Brady Bunch on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

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IMAGES:

Selected images copyright/courtesy ABC-TV, Paramount Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Paramount Television. Herbie J Pilato image by Dan Holm Photography.

- Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

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