The Corner of Bedlam and Squalor: Tom Waits on FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT

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Fernwood 2 Night was a short-lived television comedy series that aired in first-run syndication from July to September 1977. The show was a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spin-off created by Norman Lear and starring the inimitable Martin Mull and Fred Willard as Barth Gimble (the twin brother of a character Mull played on Mary Hartman) and Jerry Hubbard, the hosts of a low-rent talk show in the fictional town of Fernwood, Ohio where Mary Hartman was set. The following year the show was renamed America 2-Night and the location shifted from dumpy Fernwood to the fictional “Tri-City” area of Alta Coma (“the unfinished furniture capital of the world!”), Petaluma, and the City of Merchandise in scenic California. America aired from April to July 1978 in syndication.

Although the complete runs of Fernwood and America consisting of 130 episodes total have never been released on DVD the shows have garnered a cult following through rerun broadcasts on Nick at Nite and TV Land and bootleg videos. They served as an early showcase for the comedic talents of Robin Williams and Jim Varney and featured recurring characters played by Dabney Coleman and Kenneth Mars. Occasionally on the shows minor celebrities stopped by as guests but not because they went out of their way to be there. One of the funniest moments in Fernwood‘s three month history occurred during the twenty-first episode that first aired on August 1, 1977. That was the night the show hosted Tom Waits as a guest.

Having been stranded in Fernwood by a broken-down tour bus Waits makes the best of a bad situation in his own unique way by appearing on the show to perform his non sequitur-laced barroom hymn “The Piano Has Been Drinking” and talk about his experiences in the little Ohio burg. The song is plenty strange, especially when Waits is belting it out with his raspy pipes through eyes wide shut, but the real comedy from the bit comes from the cutaways to Mull’s priceless double takes. He doesn’t say anything during the song but his reactions are pretty easy to decipher and their evolution from “….THE HELL?!” to “This guy must have problems” to finally “Jesus Christ, I want to die” is typical of the Waits newbie.

I’m not sure if the post-performance banter between the hosts and Waits was scripted or improvised because it always seems more the latter than the former. Waits looks like he’s throwing out whatever absurd homely comes into his mind and Mull and Willard awkwardly play along and keep the discussion light and bemused, which is exactly what two hosts of a local talk show would do in a similar situation if they were any good at all.

This features one of the greatest quotes I’ve ever heard in my entire life, and it makes so much sense: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

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