Stream On: Comic cops through the ages

By on December 12, 2019


Car 54 Where Are You? was a cultural touchstone in the 1960’s with good reason: It was, and remains, very funny.

In 1961 Nat Hiken, whose Phil Silvers Show very successfully made fun of army soldiers on the young medium of television in 1955, turned his sights on New York’s finest.

In 1975 writer Danny Miller, in line with the times (Norman Lear’s 1971 comedy All in the Family successfully integrated topical concerns), conceived an edgier cop-comedy format, and in 2013 Brooklyn Nine-Nine debuted on Fox, getting cancelled there but moving to NBC, in a bit of a twist, in which network shows recently cancelled usually move to cable channels or streaming services.

CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? (Amazon Prime)

Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross, The Phil Silvers Show) and Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne, The Munsters) are patrol policemen in the Bronx’s 53rd Precinct. Toody is a short, round and credulous everyman, whose trademark exclamations “Ooh! Ooh!” and “Do. You. Mind?” soon became common in the country’s schoolyards. Muldoon is tall and cerebral; he and Gunther have been partnered in their radio car for nine years when the show opens, and despite their stark differences they are soulmates.

The comedy begins with Toody’s simple-minded gullibility, but incorporates the broadly drawn but endearing characters with whom they share the precinct, and the very involved comic situations they find themselves in. For example, when the pair, off-duty, look to protect Francis’ sister, an actress, from the dangers of the casting couch, Toody becomes interested in financing the play for which she’s auditioning. When Muldoon finally talks him down, he has already pledged $2000 (around $16,000 in today’s dollars), so he gets the other guys in the precinct to go in with him. Then the Police Commissioner goes on TV to denounce the play, which turns out to be about police brutality.

In response, the producers get the author to tone down his rhetoric (“It’s a slice of life,” he protests. “It’s a slice of baloney,” they respond) and he agrees to visit the precinct of the cops who invested in the play to experience the reality of police life. Meanwhile at the 53rd, the cops are shown in vignettes with thankful citizens who they have helped, and one is even taking the mop from a tired charwoman and mopping the precinct’s floors himself. But by the time Toody delivers the playwright to the 53rd, late, because Toody is Toody, and the guys, trying to prolong the idyllic situations, have alienated their charges, and bedlam ensues.

The epilogue has Toody addressing the guys. The playwright is changing the play to a musical about cops who invest in an inappropriate play, and Toody thinks they should all invest. He looks up and the room is empty. This very funny and ingenious show is available for subscription to Amazon Prime Videos, and ad-supported on the Pluto TV app, and many full episodes are on YouTube. [TVPG]

In the 1970’s, Barney Miller updated the cop comedy genre with topical issues, remaining a very funny show.

BARNEY MILLER (Seasons 1 and 2: Amazon Prime/Apple/$2.99 episode; Season 6: Crackle w/ads)

This show continued in the recent tradition of All in the Family of “edgy” sitcoms while surrendering none of the fun. It mostly takes place in a Detectives’ squad room in Greenwich Village; the plots are simpler than Car 54, but the comedy is smarter.

In one show sleazy lieutenant Scanlon comes to Captain Miller (Hal Linden), the title character, and says a member of the precinct has sent in an anonymous letter confessing to being gay (a not insignificant thing in 1970’s NYPD) and Scanlon is intent in finding out who it is. “You do realize that we follow nondiscriminatory hiring practices, and the department will hire regardless of sexual preferences,” Miller asks. “I do,” says Scanlon. “So why do you want to find him,” Miller persists. Scanlon stares at him. “To tell him that!”

When the detectives hear of it some are concerned, especially old-school, blue-collar Detective Wojciehowicz, but intellectual Detective Dietrich deadpans that “Only a small percentage of homosexuals are actually effeminate and even they can mask those traits in the “straight” world,” before stuffing his handkerchief into his sleeve and leaving the room. It’s subtle but effective humor all around. A trailer for the DVD release is on YouTube. [TVPG]

Today, Brooklyn Nine Nine retains the broad comedy and topical sensibility of its predecessors for comedy success.


In the new millennium we have, in this Fox, then NBC, series, the postmodern marriage of the broad humor of Car 54 with the social conscience of Barney Miller, although broad humor gets the upper hand. While Captain Holt (Andre Braugher, Homicide: Life in the Street) prides himself on being “the first openly gay Captain in a NYPD command,” no-one could ever tell from his serious and stern demeanor.

His hands are full with an underachieving but sarcastic young detective (Andy Samberg, Saturday Night Live) and an array of archetypes (one of the jokes): a fiery Latina, of whom everyone is afraid, a WASP millennial girl who might actually be tougher than the Latina, a big scary-looking black detective (Terry Crews, Everybody Hates Chris) who is actually a bit of a metrosexual, a shrinking Felix Unger type, and an old-time detective (Joel McKinnon Miller, Deadwood) who recalls one of the old time-marking detectives in The Wire. The show revels in smart and stupid broad comedy and is often laugh-out-loud funny. Here’s a 3:46  trailer. It’s on Hulu. [TV14]

More dramatic/comedic/whatever streaming suggestions next time. Email me and follow Stream On OBX on Twitter.

Click here for more articles by Pete Hummers.


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