“Maybe it was just as well (the show was cancelled) because, retrospectively, we had a halo…”
–Creator Leonard Stern
On Christmas Eve 1961, builders were in a hurry with their remodeling of a house. Eager to leave and go enjoy the holiday with their families, the workers quickly ended their various projects for the day. One of those projects was the finishing of a new fireplace, complete with built-in brick chimney. But in their haste, the construction crew neglected to remove the eight-foot ladder they’d used to help build the fixture from the inside of the fireplace. They just bricked up the hearth and left.
They’d likely forgotten all about the ladder. A generous person would say that, perhaps, the crew wanted to make it easier for Santa to make it down from the roof. Either way, television producer Leonard Stern got a gift.
You see, it was Stern’s house, and after he got over his amazement at the discovery of the apparent builder ineptness, he immediately decided the misadventures of a pair of construction workers would make a terrific television comedy. The result was seen the next fall on ABC, in the form of I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster.
Starring John Astin and Marty Ingels, the series followed the wild and wacky co-workers (and best friends), both on the job and at home. Harry Dickens (Astin) was the more level-headed of the pair, but would sometimes get a bit distracted by his problems and concerns. The freewheeling Arch Fenster (Ingels) was always dating a new young lady, but was just enough of a bumbler for his efforts (both at work and in his love life) to be unsuccessful.
Of course, since this is television, “unsuccessful” isn’t sad. It’s funny.
The comedy was light, practically slapstick at times, with the setting of a home in the midst of reconstruction resulting in a gold mine of physical comedy. And with the nervous Harry Dickens, playing the straight man to the oddities of his buddy Arch Fenster, pratfalls ensued.
Watching all this was Harry’s wife, Kate (Emmaline Henry). Loving and supportive, she was usually the voice of reason for her husband and his best friend, encouraging the best in both of them. Kate was wise enough to know their faults, and yet strong enough to weather whatever disaster might loom while “the guys” tried their best to make things work, especially around the Dickens’ home. Between faucets gushing and cabinets with magnets strong enough to make pots fly across the kitchen, Kate’s patience was tested continually. But if she wasn’t patient, we wouldn’t have had so much fun watching things go hilariously wrong.
“The married man would always like to live the life of the single man, and the single man was envious of the existence of the married.”
The above quote makes it seem like I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster is more about the “grass is always greener” relationship shared by Harry and Arch, with the long-suffering Kate always there to help remind our characters of how good they really do have it in the lives they’ve already chosen to lead. While that kind of character subtext is great, it wasn’t the focus of the show by any means. I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster existed during a simpler time, back in the early 1960’s, when shows didn’t have to be socially relevant or feature important character storylines. They just wanted to be funny.
Harkening back to the days of early movies, and the great comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy or Lewis and Martin, the team of Dickens and Fenster were one of the first to bring the true “buddy comedy” to the early days of television. Pratfalls and physical humor were common in almost every episode. Between Ingel’s facial contortions as an established funnyman, and Astin’s insecurity-riddled characterizations as the straight man who bore the brunt of Ingel’s “mistakes”, sight gags and stunts were both plentiful and worthy of guffaws.
While Lucy Ricardo back on I Love Lucy occasionally may have had her best friend Ethel as a reluctant cohort, Dickens and Fenster (and their construction work setting) made that type of comedy the central part of their show. Not surprisingly, both I Love Lucy and the subsequent I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster were from Lucille Ball’s Desilu studios (which later became part of Paramount Pictures). Utilizing the expertise of the previous show and its crew, Dickens and Fenster was better able to show off the early “3-camera” system of filming a situation comedy than many shows of the day, and better build the physical elements as well.
Elements of the show later informed the throwback comedies of both Laverne and Shirley and Perfect Strangers, each of which used “buddy” elements and physical comedy to build their stories. While traditionally one member of the duo supposedly was the “straight man” (or woman) of the team, having both individuals be adept at the physicality of comedy meant the stories could layer bits upon bits, with a “can you top this?” mentality developing in the stream of gags. I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was a tremendous example of this in numerous episodes.
Although not a part of the “buddy team”, Dickens’ wife Kate got to do some small part of the physical work as well, being the unfortunate recipient of some of the results of their remodeling. The Dickens’ household was in a constant state of minor repair, as the home of a construction worker also means jobs that aren’t quite finished (since paying work takes a priority). Emmaline Lilly had her own moments at the steady center of the wildly orbiting title duo, as she not only put up with their own foibles and adventures, but also made do as best she could with their “help” in her own home. The woman had the patience of a saint… and sometimes, the wisdom of one, too.
Why didn’t I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster last? Remember, it’s 1962. There’s no such thing as demographics, or detailed research noting the particulars of whom exactly is watching what. A 12-year old counts just as much as a 25-year old or a 60-year old as far as the Nielsen ratings are concerned, and just getting a larger head count is the goal. And it was difficult to get that kind of significant number when the show was scheduled against some of the largest “hits” of the time. Route 66 was on rival CBS, while the extremely popular Sing Along with Mitch topped the charts on NBC. ABC was a young, upstart network trying to make a mark, and while they had high hopes for their new “buddy comedy”, it didn’t look good.
Shows also made more episodes for a season than they do now, and while ABC had lost faith in the series and officially cancelled it, they still had a number of episodes to run off. They did so, and ratings started to climb. The show was also noticed by the critics and, thanks to their promotion of the series, people continued to find its unique flavor. By the time ABC realized they had something of a hit of their own, they’d already let the cast and crew go on to other projects. Astin, in particular, had just signed to be the lead in a new situation comedy called The Addams Family, and his portrayal of Gomez Addams was a life-changing part for the actor.
But I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was left in the past, forgotten. There were only 32 half-hour episodes filmed, and therefore not enough for wide syndication where so many old shows became familiar to newer, younger fans. Generations got to know Gomez Addams, simply through years of reruns on local stations. But that fate didn’t await I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster. It faded away, lost to memory of almost all… just like Santa’s ladder. But like the best Christmas presents, there’s more than meets the eye. It turns out that someone remembered… and still believed in both Santa and I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster….
JOHN ASTIN (Harry Dickens) is the only person (so far) to be featured THREE times on this site, but this is the first time he’s had the lead role in the series profiled. He’s had supporting roles in both The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Eerie, Indiana, and a lengthy career which includes memorable roles on The Addams Family and Night Court. His one-man play Once Upon a Midnight tells the life story of author Edgar Allan Poe, and is a fantastic night of theatre.
MARTY INGELS (Arch Fenster) first came to creator Leonard Stern’s attention as a recurring character on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing Dick’s old army buddy. The rubber-faced comedian was seen on numerous variety shows of the early television era. Later, he became a force behind the scenes, both as a voice actor (he spoke the words for the animated character of gaming hero Pac-Man) and as an agent for a number of Hollywood stars. He’s been married to actress Shirley Jones (of The Partridge Family fame) since 1977.
EMMALINE HENRY (Kate Dickens) is likely best known to comedy audiences as Mrs. Bellows, a recurring (yet memorable) part on I Dream of Jeannie. Her own original dream was to become known as a singer, and she had been cast as part of the chorus in a number of movie musicals. Her talent as a comedienne won out over her singing career, and she was later cast as Mickey Rooney’s wife in the self-titled comedy Mickey. She passed away of cancer in 1979.
Producer Leonard Stern had wondered about what might have happened to the comedy series he’d made almost half a century ago. The original master tapes, originally thought lost, had been stored for all this time, and thanks to the hard work of a company called TV Time Machine, Santa had something else to offer this past holiday season. The initial set of DVDs, released just recently, contains the first half of the episodes, and features interviews with creator Stern, stars Astin and Ingels, and original commercial spots featuring the duo in character that served as “bumpers” into more traditional ads. The second set will be coming out later this year, and I urge any fan of early television to go order these immediately.
TV Time Machine has also established a terrific website for the show, featuring a number of stories and clips from various episodes. It also delves a bit into the history of the series, and how it was one of the few beloved by classic comedy and movie actor Stan Laurel. Also, just to be complete, it should also be noted that Stern was not only a TV producer (with shows like Get Smart and McMillan & Wife to his credit), he also created the perennial children’s game of Mad Libs. Many a lengthy car ride has been saved by his inventive pastime.
“Some of the critics said it’s the kind of humor that makes you laugh out loud in the living room, and that’s an accomplishment. How often do we really laugh out loud in the living room when we’re watching a television show? We’re lucky if we smile.”
Physical pratfalls have been the basis of humor for many years. The slapstick of the Keystone Cops and the escapades of Laurel and Hardy were mainstays of the early movies, and seltzer bottles were standard issue for many comics on the vaudeville circuit. With the advent of television, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster helped move the concept into our homes. Although the humor wasn’t the most cultured by any means, it was universal enough to be shared by both old and young, in a much more innocent time.
These days, the culture has turned a bit more direct, and the unfortunate offspring of such humor has become the much more crass Jackass and Wipeout shows. But on I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, we still loved both Harry and Arch, just as Kate loved her boys, and although we laughed at their pratfalls, their successes still meant something. They were good people, although they were occasionally far too easily distracted and didn’t watch exactly where they were going… until they’d fallen, humorously, and without injury (except maybe to a bit of their pride).
And distraction can be easily forgiven… because, after all, if it wasn’t for a few distracted workmen, Santa wouldn’t have had a ladder to get down a certain chimney. And we wouldn’t have had I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster all these years later to enjoy.
32 half-hour episodes — none unaired — half currently available on DVD, the rest to follow
First aired episode: September 28, 1962
Final aired episode: May 10, 1963
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central? Oh, so close. An hour later, at 9/8 Central on Friday nights. Its lead-in was, of all things, The Flintstones, so a physical comedy wasn’t so far away from a cartoon after all….
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.