What I'm Watching: 'The Paul Lynde Halloween Special' | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: 'The Paul Lynde Halloween Special'


Perhaps the most significant moment of "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special," which aired on ABC in 1976 and which may now be found on YouTube, occurs near its end. As Lynde and Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly lead the show's entire cast in a lip-synched rendition of "Disco Baby" (a gender-neutralized version of Johnnie Taylor's hit "Disco Lady"), the members of KISS, the special's marquee musical guest, gaze down from a balcony in disapproval as stoic as their makeup will allow.

That disapproval — just barely glimpsed in the corner of the screen; one gets the sense that the camera operator was trying not to include it — bespeaks a complicated, contradictory cultural shift into which this strange little hour of television inserted itself. KISS' putative genre is metal, or perhaps "glam metal" — though true metalheads have long dismissed the band and their ilk as "false metal" of the type on which death ought properly to be wished. Yet here, as Lynde, Kelly and a horde of extras disco-dance their way around the stage, KISS' detectable scorn looks like nothing so much as one of the first salvos in one of the decade's most fascinating culture wars. 

It's telling that the members of KISS are the only cast members in the special who do not join the dance — even ol' Billy Barty, who plays a butler, gets into the act. They're symbolically excluded from the disco revolution that, in 1976, was sweeping into mass culture at its every seam. Yet that exclusion is ironic, as KISS is about as glitzy and shallow a "metal" band as has ever been conceived, precisely the brickbats that were being hurled at disco as early as 1976.

The clash between "real rock 'n' roll" (to which genre KISS decidedly does not belong, I say as a semi-fan of theirs) and disco was, at root, a coded version of a war between straight and gay culture.

The bloodiest battle in this war surely occurred on the field of Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1979. On "Disco Demolition Night," around 50,000 people bought tickets for the privilege of burning disco LPs in a mass bonfire. Given that professional sports have long been associated with white, blue-collar masculinity, and disco with a multiracial culture that embraces homosexuality, Disco Demolition Night was one of the ugliest and most public expressions of a class/gender/gender-identity/culture conflict that continues, in different forms, to this day.

But KISS is a group of men who wear spangles and makeup, and they were, on this show, the special musical guest of host Paul Lynde, who was officially in the closet but known to be gay, even to "the average viewer." (That's the main reason for the hilarity of the sketch in which Lynde plays a Valentino-esque sheik who romances a prim-and-proper Florence Henderson.) The gender and identity politics of this seemingly mundane one-hour show are actually rather complex.
In that it addresses (albeit indirectly) these cultural conflicts, "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" is a product of its time. But in its overall structure and its comedic lineage, the show is as clear a throwback to vaudeville as ever aired on 1970s television — and that's saying something. All of the hallmarks of vaudeville comedy are present: a modular structure in which most of the component skits are narratively unrelated to each other; a reliance on puns and wordplay; the inclusion of all types of performance, from standup to musical numbers to short narrative vignettes to dance numbers; and between-skit fades-to-black that serve as de facto "blackouts," the equivalent of dousing the stage lights. From its earliest days, television proved to be one of the great inheritors of the vaudeville tradition.

I'm a big fan of Paul Lynde, but I'd never seen this show before, so I was delighted to stumble across it online. Though it's had, since 2007, an official DVD release, the special has apparently long been bootlegged and unofficially distributed among KISS fans (if not Lynde fans).

What I love about it is the contradictions it embodies. The show celebrates both disco and metal. Though it casts the stars of its day (as well as days past), it hurls them headlong into sketches right out of the hoariest of all comic forms, vaudeville. And, while it aired in primetime on a major network (for the purpose of celebrating a holiday that's chiefly observed by kids), it features no shortage of sexually suggestive jokes. One joke hints rather strongly that a man will have sex with a parrot; several others, uttered by Lynde, make direct or indirect reference to his homosexuality and lasciviousness.

Sauciness was hardly invented by Paul Lynde in the 1970s: Nineteenth-century vaudeville comedy was rife with sexual double entendres of the type that was Lynde's stock-in-trade. But, man, he was really, really good at it. "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special" is easy enough to laugh at from the ironic distance of nearly four decades. But it is a far richer text than that suggests, and deserves better. It might even be the key we need to unlock the mystery of the 1970s, that strangest and most wondrously weird of decades.