A couple of weeks ago ABC paid tribute to 96-year-old Norman Lear by producing karaoke versions of two of the television shows he created, All In The Family and The Jeffersons. Lear was responsible for many innovative TV shows, but one of his more obscure works was a talk/variety show parody that was created in 1977 so that his syndicated daily soap opera parody, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman could take the summer off. A spin-off/summer replacement program is odd enough, but for it to be a different format too makes Fernwood 2 Night a true television oddball.
Fernwood 2 Night was a fake talk show hosted by fictional characters from a soap opera parody, and that might seem like a bizarre premise for a TV show. Hosted by Martin Mull as “Barth Gimble,” the twin brother of the character “Garth Gimble,” who had been killed off earlier on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, his sidekick was Jerry Hubbard, played by Fred Willard, another regular character from the Mary Hartman show. Set in the fictional hometown of Mary Hartman, Fernwood, the show featured guests who were played by regulars on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, as well as other recurring characters created for Fernwood 2 Night, usually played by improv comedians, many of whom went on to greater fame afterward.
Although the show was created by Norman Lear, it was developed and produced by Alan Thicke, years before he had a real talk show, and listed Harry Shearer (Spinal Tap, The Simpsons) and Pat Proft (Police Squad, Police Academy) among its creative consultants. Fernwood 2 Night only ran for 65 episodes. The following year, when it was time for a summer replacement for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a storyline was created that saw the show moved to Southern California (they claimed to be broadcasting from “Alta Coma, the unfinished furniture capital of the world!”) and became America 2 Night. This move allowed them to have more celebrities on the show as themselves, instead of playing characters from Fernwood.
Decades before The Larry Sanders Show and The Colbert Report, Fernwood 2 Night showed that a fake talk show could be very entertaining. Today it’s an odd curio of 1970s comedic timing, filled with recognizable faces (the episode above has Dabney Coleman, playing his character from Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), with large amounts of improv comedy sprinkled throughout. With only 65 episodes (and 65 more, for America 2 Night), Fernwood 2 Night does not get shown regularly, nor is it currently available on any streaming service. It’s not even available as a legal DVD release. Maybe that can change in the future. For now all we have is low-quality video dubs of one complete episode, and a few clips on YouTube.