The elevation of TV writers and producers to auteur status is a fairly recent phenomenon, but savvy sorts have long known the name of Nat Hiken. A writer for Fred Allen and Milton Berle during their radio days, Hiken moved to TV as a writer on Four Star Revue and The Martha Raye Show before co-creating the Sgt. Bilko character with Phil Silvers. Then Hiken created his masterpiece: the cop sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? Set in the Bronx, Car 54 starred Joe E. Ross as a squat, dim-witted patrolman and Fred Gwynne as his lanky, book-smart partner. The sitcom’s scripts had the fast-talking crackle of radio plays, delivered by the best collection of faces in early-’60s TV comedy: Ross, Gwynne, Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell, and dozens of other non-matinee-idol types of varying ethnicities. Much of Car 54 was shot on location in the Bronx, too, giving the show an authentic New York flavor, depicting a city full of high-strung souls and sad-sacks intertwined in weirdly symbiotic relationships.
But the authentic Hiken flavor was what made Car 54 a favorite, especially among other comedians and comedy writers. The 30 episodes on the Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete First Season DVD set have the occasional situation that’s too wacky or running joke that gets old, but for the most part, the show has aged well, thanks to the cast’s offbeat line deliveries and the writers’ willingness to follow a story wherever it might lead. One episode opens with Ross reading a book because his TV is broken, and ends with Gwynne seriously considering quitting the force to become an exterminator. Another opens with the partners trying to convince a colleague to let them onto his brother-in-law’s deep-sea fishing boat, and ends with Ross and Gwynne causing a disturbance on the street because they don’t want to give a rogue motorist a ticket. There’s a screwball logic to the best Car 54s; even when the jokes are predictable, the plots rarely are.
In fact, it’s tough to pigeonhole exactly what Car 54, Where Are You? is. The comedy is broad and hardly highbrow, yet the dialogue is witty. (When Ross lists what’s on TV that night, he mentions, “From 6 to 7, Seaside 7776,” and when Gwynne lists reasons why he might not want to quit his job, he notes, “I’ve got so much money tied up in uniforms.”) And though Car 54 isn’t satire, Hiken and company get a lot of mileage out of the bureaucracy of a police precinct, from the captain obsessed with the neatness of the duty roster board to the way one incorrect date on a report can cause the whole station to slide into madness. More than anything, Car 54 endures because of its cast, which gets larger and nuttier throughout the first season, adding characters with distinctive quirks. The show is like a live-action version of a classic kids’ comic, where a thick-lined cartoon walks down the street on an ordinary day in the first panel, meets an eccentric friend at the bottom of the first page, and by the last panel is dancing on a high wire at a traveling circus.
Key features: A disappointingly dry 30-minute Robert Klein-hosted roundtable interview with series regulars Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett.