The King of Nick at Nite
by Ronald Sklar
“I’m still working,” sixty-eight-year-old Alan Rafkin says. “They’ll have to carry me out in a body bag.”
If you had his job, they would drag you out kicking and screaming too. Alan Rafkin is a TV sitcom director. And not just another forgotten name you don’t pay attention to during the opening credits. Rafkin is king. In fact, he has justifiably nicknamed himself The King of Nick at Nite. That’s because he has had a part in most of the shows you have internalized since your mother first put you in front of the TV set. He has directed more than – count ’em – eighty different television series, from Captain Kangaroo to Veronica’s Closet. And the best part is, you don’t even have to get him drunk to have him tell you all the dirt on your favorite TV stars. He explains it all for you in his recently published memoir, Cue the Bunny On the Rainbow (Syracuse University Press).
First, of course, an explanation of the title. That little nugget was something Rafkin found himself having to say on the set of Captain Kangaroo back in the fifties. That little phrase gave him a big epiphany. That direction forced him to realize what a silly business television really was – and is. Little did he know. To cue a bunny on a rainbow was only the beginning. It wouldn’t be long before he would be cueing a lot more than that. In time, he would be working with chimps, genies, witches, junk dealers, secret agents and Lenny and Squiggy. To boot, he would also battle superegos and super-assholes, while privately surviving three divorces and three open-heart surgeries.
“Everybody has their own truth,” he says in a telephone interview. “I wrote everything as I remembered it. I tried not to hurt anybody. Whatever I said negative about certain people I was sure about.”
Talk about no punches pulled. Oh boy, kids, are you in for a treat. The book can be read in about two sittings, and what a book it is. I am tempted to give it all away, but like the Newhart finale, it’s best for you to be surprised. Still I can’t resist giving some highlights:
Best experience: The Andy Griffith Show. The cast was made up of “delightful people” and each show was like a “great old movie.” Sorry to disappoint you, but there really is no dirt on the folks in Mayberry. Not even Aunt Bea sitting around in her bra and panties. Bo-ring!
Worst experience: Me and the Chimp. Even TV Land wouldn’t dare dust off this turkey from 1971, in which That Girl‘s Ted Bessel adopts a chimp for a pet. The laughter was supposed to build from there, but all you heard were not chimps but crickets. The idea was as dead as a vaudeville routine, especially being broadcast in television’s second golden age, alongside Archie, Mary and Maude. The president of CBS had Rafkin convinced that the show would be so popular that people would start adopting chimps as pets. Isn’t that how Planet of the Apes got started?
Worst experience since Me and The Chimp: Coach, with an overly sensitive Craig T. Nelson and a potboiler of a cast and crew. Of that experience, Rafkin recalls, “There was enough whore in me that I’ve done some shows I shouldn’t have done.” But we forgive you, Alan baby. Even one bad behind-the-scenes Coach story is worth the entire five-year run of that bafflingly bland series.
Best turnaround: those feisty gals on Laverne and Shirley. Although he describes them today as lovely people, Rafkin spills the beans on the spoiled-brat antics of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on the turbulent set of TV’s most undeserved second-highest-rated show (the first, of course, being the mysteriously popular Happy Days).
Proudest moment: winning an Emmy for directing an episode of One Day at A Time. Congratulations are in order for Rafkin, but I’m more grateful that he confirmed my long-time suspicion that Bonnie Franklin was TV’s all-time worst actress. He really must have earned that Emmy.
Biggest pain in the ass: David Groh, who played the ill-fated Joe on the once-funny Rhoda. Not only did the Joe character take away our beloved Rhoda; the actor himself seemed incapable of understanding comedy.
Proudest association: M*A*S*H. Sure, why not? Let’s hear one more praise of this tiresome old favorite, as if it hadn’t received enough kisses on the ass. Fifteen years after its final episode, my skin still crawls whenever we become obligated as Americans to over-praise this show for the bizillionth time. But good for Rafkin. It was his post-Me and the Chimp reward; I’ll give him that. Of M*A*S*H, he says, “It was like some kind of shooting star and I was holding onto its tail.” Sweet.
Most surreal experience: probably directing Suddenly Susan (a surreal act in itself), but most particularly being involved with the episode in which the cast learns of David Strickland’s death. It’s comedy and tragedy, or comitragedy, if you will.
Most unexplained reason for continuing to work: even though Rafkin probably has more money than God and has grandchildren to play with, he insists on directing the amazingly, bafflingly unfunny Veronica’s Closet. Here’s a sitcom with plenty of situation and no comedy (a shitcom?). Even America’s Director Emeritus can seem to make this turkey trot, but you have to hand it to him. It’s not written well, but is sure is directed well.
With all this glorious trivia under his belt, is Rafkin a TV sitcom fan? Hardly! In fact, he didn’t even watch Seinfeld until it descended unto rerun heaven (it originally ran during his poker night). Like a Monday-morning quarterback, he admits that it’s “exceedingly well-done.” And he feels that certain contemporary shows, like The King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond, are good for a chuckle.
“There is not much that amuses me in sitcoms,” he admits, and can you blame him for saying it? After all, for you to watch Samantha twitch her nose and have a goose appear in the living room is funny. But who had to make the actors freeze while that freaking goose was led in and chased around until it stood on its mark – and who had to step around the damn goose shit? Alan Rafkin did, that’s who. And there is nothing funny about that.
Copyright ©1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 6, 1999.