Martin Mull (RIP) Satirically Interviews a Young Tom Waits on Fernwood 2 Night (1977)

These days, ref­er­ences to sev­en­ties tele­vi­sion increas­ing­ly require prefa­to­ry expla­na­tion. Who under the age of 60 recalls, for exam­ple, the cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non that was Mary Hart­man, Mary Hart­man, an absur­dist satire so faith­ful to the soap-opera form it par­o­died that it aired every week­night, putting out 325 episodes between ear­ly 1976 and mid-1977? And even for those who do remem­ber the show, it would sure­ly require a stretch of the mem­o­ry to sum­mon to mind its minor char­ac­ter Garth Gim­ble, an abu­sive hus­band who meets his gris­ly fate on the sharp end of an alu­minum Christ­mas tree. (We’ll set the ques­tion of how many remem­ber alu­minum Christ­mas trees aside for the hol­i­day sea­son.)

Garth Gim­ble was the break­out role for a musi­cal come­di­an turned actor called Mar­tin Mull, who died last week at the age of 80. Trib­utes have men­tioned the char­ac­ters he played on shows from Roseanne and Sab­ri­na the Teenage Witch to Arrest­ed Devel­op­ment and Veep.

But to those who were watch­ing TV in the sum­mer of 1977, Mull has always been — and will always be — not Garth Gim­ble but his twin broth­er Barth, host of a low-bud­get late-night talk show in the small town of Fer­n­wood, Ohio, the set­ting of Mary Hart­man, Mary Hart­man. Fer­n­wood-2-Night pre­miered as a tem­po­rary replace­ment for that show (and thus as yet anoth­er expan­sion of the tele­vi­su­al uni­verse cre­at­ed by mega-pro­duc­er Nor­man Lear), but it soon took on a coun­ter­cul­tur­al life of its own.

The fic­tion­al talk-show form of Fer­n­wood-2-Night was ahead of its time; more dar­ing still was its occa­sion­al arrange­ment of real-life guests. That ros­ter includ­ed a young Tom Waits, him­self a liv­ing embod­i­ment of the blurred line between real­i­ty and fic­tion. As the show’s announc­er Jer­ry Hub­bard, Fred Willard puts all of his dis­tinc­tive deliv­ery into declar­ing Waits “very famous for Fer­n­wood.” Mull plays Gim­ble as the kind of man on which the appeal of Waits’ art is whol­ly lost: “I know he sells a lot of albums, and he makes about half a mil­lion big ones in one year,” he says by way of intro­duc­tion. “In my book, that spells tal­ent.”

Nat­u­ral­ly, Gim­ble is game to set the liquor-swig­ging singer up for an old groan­er by remark­ing on the strange­ness of talk­ing to a guest with a bot­tle in front of him. “Well, I’d rather have a bot­tle in front of me than a frontal lobot­o­my,” Waits growls in com­pli­ance. This comes after his per­for­mance of the song “The Piano Has Been Drink­ing (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)” from his then-most recent album Small Change. It’s safe to say that many view­ers on Fer­n­wood-2-Night’s wave­length became fans of Waits as soon as they heard it. Near­ly half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, they no doubt still remem­ber his appear­ance fond­ly — at least as fond­ly as they remem­ber the Won­derblender.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Tom Waits’ Clas­sic Appear­ance on Aus­tralian TV, 1979

Watch Tom Waits For No One, the Pio­neer­ing Ani­mat­ed Music Video from 1979

Tom Waits Shows Us How Not to Get a Date on Valentine’s Day

Tom Waits’ Many Appear­ances on David Let­ter­man, From 1983 to 2015

RIP Nor­man Lear: Watch Full Episodes of His Dar­ing 70s Sit­coms, Includ­ing All in the Fam­i­ly, Maude, The Jef­fer­sons, and More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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