Thursday, October 06, 2005

Camp Classic

Mark Evanier has a good post here on Hamilton Camp, the comedic actor and singer who died recently.

Camp was a member of the improv comedy troupe The Committee, one of the most influential comedy groups of the '60s and one that produced a roster of talent comparable to Second City (with whom Camp also performed). Members of The Committee did a lot of sitcom work in the late '60s and early '70s, and helped to inject some edge into what had become a somewhat staid, by-the-book era of TV comedy performance. Camp, with his nervous energy and strange grimaces, livened up the otherwise stolid first season of "Mary Tyler Moore" when he guest-starred in an episode as Mary's latest and shortest date. The part itself wasn't anything special; Camp made it seem special by playing the guy as if he were seething with barely concealed fury at the proximity of the irritatingly perfect Mary.

Of course Camp was also part of probably the best ensemble cast of the '60s, that of "He and She" (along with Paula Prentiss, Richard Benjamin, and Jack Cassidy as "Jet Man"), the original sitcom that was just too good and too smart to succeed, a one-season wonder as treasurable as any Judd Apatow show and considerably cooler than "Firefly." (Where's the DVD?)

Some Committee members, like Peter Bonerz found a home on "The Bob Newhart Show," and in the late '70s, former Committee members started to appear with increasing regularity on "WKRP In Cincinnati," whose creator, Hugh Wilson, also corralled a bunch of Second City people to write for the show, and sort of anticipated the late '90s vogue for improv comics on sitcoms. (Actually, Wilson said in 1979 that his dream was to do a sitcom without scripts, just a scenario and a cast of talented improvisors who could make the whole thing up as they went along; this concept, which he never actually put into practice, anticipated "Curb Your Enthusiasm" by over twenty years.) Howard Hesseman was a regular member of the cast, and guest stars over the years included Larry Hankin (shown with Hesseman and the future writer of the movie Jaws, Carl Gottlieb), Ruth Silveira (in an episode that also guest-starred Camp) and Julie Payne in a memorable turn as Hesseman's pill-popping ex-girlfriend ("When will I ever learn to listen to my psychic????").

Anyway, what all that is leading up to is that one of Camp's most memorable TV appearances was in an early "WKRP" called "Hold-Up". The episode is almost all Camp, Hesseman, and a third Committee guy, Garry Goodrow (it's so focused on the guests that Loni Anderson doesn't even appear in the whole episode). Camp, as Del Murdock, a stereo store owner even more sleazy and desperate to make a sale than Herb Tarlek, was handed the showiest role, and he ate it for lunch, knocked it out of the park, and any other metaphor you care to mix. How much of his rapid-fire, nearly-insane sales-pitch dialogue was scripted and how much he made up, I don't know; I do know that words on the page can't do justice to his delivery, or the expert way he uses broad movements (pointing, tilting his body back) to punctuate the lines. But here's his first speech in the episode:

Hah? Hah? Did you ever see such a selection in your life? Wait a minute, I know exactly what you're going to say. "Can Del Murdock, personable owner of Del's Stereo and Sound, set me up with the exact stereo system I need?" Well, let's take a look at you: Busy executive on the go, your belt matches your shoes, but there's a hole in your life. Well, let's fill that hole with sound!

Until "WKRP" goes back into circulation, or until "He and She" gets released to the public again, you're mostly going to have to take people's word about how good Camp was. But he was very, very good.

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