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iStock / Norddeutscher Rundfunk

How An Obscure British Comedy Sketch Became The World’s Most Repeated TV Program

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iStock / Norddeutscher Rundfunk

The Simpsons recently cemented its title as America’s longest-running primetime scripted series with the announcement of seasons 29 and 30. For a time, Baywatch was the world’s most syndicated program, sold to 148 countries and a weekly global audience of over a billion people. And in 1983, up to 125 million people (an unprecedented 77 percent audience share) watched "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," the last ever episode of M*A*S*H. But when it comes to the single most repeated program in history, that title is claimed by none of television’s biggest names, but by an obscure British comedy sketch, filmed in 1963 with a cast of two, that has gained a cult audience all over the world.

The two stars in question were British comedian Freddie Frinton and 72-year-old actress May Warden. Frinton first made a name for himself in the music halls and variety shows of wartime Britain, and after World War II added a sketch to his show entitled "Dinner For One."

In the sketch he plays James, a butler, employed by Miss Sophie, played by Warden, an upper class woman who is celebrating her 90th birthday with a fine banquet. Sadly, Miss Sophie has long outlived her four closest friends—Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pommeroy and Mr. Winterbottom—but places are set at her dinner table regardless, with James valiantly stepping in to impersonate each one.

As each of the four courses are served—with Miss Sophie explaining each time that the pair will follow the “same procedure as every year” —James tops up the four missing guests’ glasses, toasts Miss Sophie’s health, and downs them all. And needless to say, by the end of the meal (and after four glasses of sherry, four glasses of white wine, four glasses of champagne, and four glasses of port) James is slightly the worse for wear. At the end of the sketch, as they're going up to Miss Sophie’s bedroom, James asks, “Same procedure as last year?” and Miss Sophie replies, “Same procedure as every year.” James responds, “Well, I’ll do my very best,”—a very risqué move at the time.

"Dinner For One" was originally written in the 1920s by English author and scriptwriter Lauri Wylie, but it proved so popular with his audiences that Frinton eventually bought the rights to it and continued to perform it as part of his show for the next seven years. Then, during a tour of English seaside resorts in 1962, a German entertainer and television star named Peter Frankenfeld happened to see Frinton and Warden performing the sketch in Blackpool and asked if they would like to reproduce it as part of his TV show, Guten Abend. The following year, the pair travelled to Germany and filmed it in English—though under the German title "Der 90 Geburtstag," or “The 90th Birthday”— in front of a live studio audience; by then, the pair were so used to the material that it took just one take to get a flawless recording.

But how did such an unassuming sketch become the Guinness World Records’ most repeated TV show ever?

Well, besides proving immediately popular with Frankenfeld’s audience, part of the skit’s success lies in Frinton’s expert physical comedy (which needs no subtitles and so works across the language boundary) and partly in its short running time, which for many years made it the perfect short to fill time between broadcasts. After being used sporadically as little more than a time-filler over the next decade, in 1972, German television network Norddeutscher Rundfunk decided to schedule it at 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. The viewers loved it, and a now annual tradition was established.

"Dinner For One" has been shown every New Year’s Eve in Germany since, and has established itself as such a traditional part of the country’s New Year celebrations that Miss Sophie’s catchphrase is now familiar to practically all native German speakers: In 1996, an opposition finance minister even accused his opponent of adopting “the same procedure as every year” in the German parliament.

More recently, others countries have gotten in on the tradition, and "Dinner For One" has now established itself as a New Year’s tradition in the likes of Denmark, Austria, and Sweden; as a pre-Christmas tradition in Norway, where it’s broadcast annually on December 23; and has amassed a cult following in countries as far afield as Estonia and South Africa. "Dinner For One" has since racked up more than 200 individual broadcasts (it was reportedly shown 19 times on different German networks on New Year’s Eve 2003 alone), easily taking the title as the world’s most-repeated television program. Although ironically, for such a quintessentially British sketch, it has yet to be shown in its entirety on British television …

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Her Other Forte: Comedian Phyllis Diller Was Also a Concert Pianist
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In 1971, a promising concert pianist made her symphonic debut, her fingers flying over Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. But the concert included a few surprising notes: The pianist was a woman. She was 53 years old. She just happened to be one of America's most famous comedians. And her concert was like nothing the classical music world had ever seen.

Even then, the thought of Phyllis Diller embarking on a career as a classical pianist was laughable. Since the 1950s, Diller—born 100 years ago, as Phyllis Driver, on July 17, 1917—had been breaking ground for women in comedy, morphing from a prop comedian to a TV and musical theater icon. But even though a spoof of a classical concert was one of the acts that propelled her to fame, Diller had long since given up on her dream of playing piano professionally.

As a child growing up in Ohio, Diller trained as a pianist. In her comic memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, she recalls her mother pushing her toward piano, and though she was "no Mozart," she took intensive lessons and imagined herself "sitting before a fabulous concert grand" instead of giving performances for a piano teacher and her sleepy dog. She even studied piano in college. But eventually, Diller told a reporter, "I decided it was too stodgy for me. So I gave it up."

Music filtered into her comedy repertoire, though, and when the Pittsburgh Pops came calling in the 1970s in the hopes of having her perform a stand-up routine with the orchestra, she stunned the representative by telling him she would perform on the piano, as well. It's safe to assume nobody from the Pops had seen her on TV with Liberace two years earlier, her fingers flying over a piece she'd written herself called "Phyllis's Fugue." Diller signed on for a show called The Symphonic Phyllis Diller, never suspecting that her concert career was about to begin in earnest.

The show was half-gag, half-serious piano performance. The orchestra would perform without Diller, but eventually she'd make a grand entrance as Dame Illya Dillya, a diva who took forever to begin playing. Dame Dillya wore an 8-foot-long train and opera gloves and performed a 12-minute silent pantomime aping the pretensions of classical musicians.

"During the musical prologue, I'd dust the piano, check the score, and look at the audience through my binoculars—it was a long preamble," Diller later recalled. Then she launched into Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. "Once I was into the music, I was serious," she wrote, "and many in the audience were more than a little surprised."

During her concerts, Diller played selections from Bach, Chopin, and other classical musicians. Over time, she earned a reputation as a solid performer, with one reviewer calling her "a fine concert pianist with a firm touch." Eventually, though, Diller tired of the brutal regimen and retired from the concert circuit. "It became drudgery, it was taxing," Diller told The New York Times. "I needed at least three hours a day of practice and I didn't have the time."

Though her concert career was over, her comedy career certainly wasn't. After retiring from symphonic work in 1982, Diller did stand-up for another 20 years. She died in 2012 at the age of 95—and while her comedy is rightfully her biggest legacy, her surprising skill on the piano is worth a standing ovation as well.

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16 Classy Facts About Anchorman
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Dreamworks

One-time SNL writer Adam McKay’s directorial debut about a chauvinistic 1970s San Diego news anchor forced to deal with changing times is regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made. In celebration of star Will Ferrell's 50th birthday (he was born in California on July 16, 1967), here are some facts about Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy to pair with a tall carton of milk on a hot summer day.

1. WILL FERRELL WAS INSPIRED BY A DOCUMENTARY ON JESSICA SAVITCH.

Savitch was one of the first women to ever anchor a newscast. Her former co-anchor, Mort Crim, admitted in the documentary to being cruel to her because he was a pig. Crim was invited to the movie premiere. Savitch passed away in 1983.

2. THE PHYSICAL INSPIRATION FOR RON BURGUNDY WAS HAROLD GREENE. (MAYBE.)

Greene worked at KCST-TV and KGTV in San Diego during the mid-1970s. When producers conducted research for Anchorman they looked at one of Greene’s colleagues' scrapbooks. Years later though, Ferrell ran into Greene, and Greene asked him if Burgundy was based on him. After Ferrell said no, Greene said he didn’t believe him and walked away.

3. PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON OFFERED TO PRODUCE.

After reading and enjoying Ferrell and McKay’s script for August Blowout (McKay once described the never-produced screenplay as Glengarry Glen Ross at a car dealership), Anderson told the two that if they wrote something else he would help get that movie made. His enthusiasm motivated the two to write Anchorman on spec.

4. DREAMWORKS DIDN’T BELIEVE THAT WILL FERRELL WAS A MOVIE STAR.

Specifically, those were Walter F. Parkes’s words, after turning down Ferrell’s initial pitch for Anchorman. After Old School became a hit, DreamWorks bought Anchorman for $4 million more than they would have paid if they had said yes to the pitch in the first place.

5. THE FIRST DRAFT INCLUDED SUGGESTED ACTORS.

McKay and Ferrell envisioned John C. Reilly as Champ (David Koechner), Chris Parnell as Brick (Steve Carell), Ben Stiller for Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Ed Harris as Ed Harken (Fred Willard won the part), Dan Aykroyd as Garth Holiday (Parnell ended up playing this role), Alec Baldwin as Frank Vitchard (Luke Wilson), and William H. Macy for a character that didn’t make the screen, Marshall Connors.

6. CHRISTINA APPLEGATE BEAT OUT AMY ADAMS, MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL, AND LESLIE MANN TO PLAY VERONICA.

McKay said that Adams looked too young for the role, Mann didn’t have “that '50s wholesome thing,” and in regards to Gyllenhaal, “you don’t put Meryl Streep in a comedy.”

7. BOB ODENKIRK WAS ALMOST BRIAN FANTANA.

Paul Rudd was a fan of the script, even when it looked like the movie wasn’t going to get made, which ultimately gave him the edge over the future Saul Goodman. Ron Livingston also auditioned.

8. JAMES SPADER REALLY WANTED TO PLAY BRICK.

He was “obsessed” with the mentally challenged character, and told McKay he would do anything to get the part. Steve Carell got the part after it was determined that Spader was “too good” an actor to be in the movie.

9. AN ENTIRE STORYLINE FEATURING AMY POEHLER, MAYA RUDOLPH, AND JUSTIN LONG WAS CUT AND PUT INTO A STRAIGHT-TO-DVD MOVIE.

Instead of the panda birth story in the third act, a subplot about a group of bank robbers known as “The Alarm Clock” kidnapping Veronica and putting Ron in their live broadcast was written and shot. All of those scenes were deleted in the theatrical cut and put in Wake Up, Ron Burgundy: The Lost Movie along with alternate takes. Poehler had a feeling back then that her role as a bank teller wouldn’t make the final cut because the movie was already running long.

10. THE NARRATOR REFUSED TO SAY "PENIS."

Veteran Chicago news anchor Bill Kurtis had never done voice narration for a movie before Adam McKay asked him to do the honors. Harold Ramis convinced a reluctant Kurtis to take the part. Kurtis refused producer Judd Apatow’s request to say "penis," later admitting that he didn’t want to say it in a movie that might be an “embarrassment.” Once it proved to be popular, he said he was open to saying it in the sequel.

11. THEY HAD TO MONITOR HOW LONG BAXTER’S PENIS WAS IN THE MOVIE.

McKay trimmed several shots of Ron’s dog’s member to keep their PG-13 rating.

12. THE NEWS TEAM FIGHT SCENE WAS FILMED ON A VERY HOT DAY.

"I swear it was like 103 degrees," McKay told Vulture.

13. ONE MEMBER OF THE SPANISH-LANGUAGE NEWS TEAM WIMPED OUT.

During the battle, the Spanish-language news team featured seven guys on the stairs, but only six entered the circle to have the sewers run red with Ron Burgundy’s blood.

14. YOU SHOULDN’T EAT AT THAT MEXICAN RESTAURANT.

When Veronica and her friend hatch their plan to mess with the teleprompter, they’re at a restaurant called "Escupimos en su alimento." That’s Spanish for “We spit in your food.”

15. JON HAMM AND ADAM SCOTT ARE LISTED AS WRITERS OF THE NEWSCAST.

Hamm and Scott weren’t famous actors at the time of filming, but they were already long-time friends of Paul Rudd.

16. YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD AND SEEN THE GHOST FLUTIST.

Katisse Buckingham was responsible for Ron Burgundy’s jazz flute solo. Buckingham played Todd, the young man who gave Alyssa Milano a hickey in the Who’s the Boss? episode “The Hickey.” He also played the flute and the saxophone in Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.

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