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Back in the days when rock stars were public domain, it wasn't out of the ordinary for one to turn up in your nocturnal imaginings, probably with a guitar slung over his back, ready to entertain at your barbecue and maybe exchange existential tidbits over chicken salad recipes.
And that's what it's like watching John Lennon and Yoko Ono making like normal/abnormal folk over five days of co-hosting The Mike Douglas Show in 1972. Today, the Lennons seem less like dangerous radical rock stars and more like the kooky hippie couple in the next apartment who'll try any new fad once. In addition to demystifying their personae, John and Yoko wanted to introduce Middle American audiences to the nonviolent agendas of revolutionary friends like Yippie Jerry Rubin and Black Panther Bobby Seale. The Douglas show gave them a platform, and Rubin actually helped the pair draw up a desired guest list while Douglas' staff chose the remainder, which explains why people such as comedian Louie Nye are on the program.
Whatever political discussions ensue, it's Lennon's star power that keeps you watching this 450-minute, five-video set from Rhino, The Mike Douglas Show With John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Because you've seen Lennon's legendary likeness from every conceivable angle as a Beatle, the mundane sight of him turning around in a chair inadvertently reminds you of some chair-turning scene in A Hard Day's Night. This strange star-gazing dynamic carries you through some intermittently dull interview segments with ecologists or Peace Corps appointees. You stay tuned, if only to satisfy your curiosity of what a truly bored ex-Beatle looks like.
The Rhino set is trumpeted as "Five days that changed the course of television." That's overstating the case a bit, but it's fascinating to see how much television has changed in 26 years, particularly talk shows. Watching Mike Douglas, the most popular national daytime talk show from 1965 to 1982, one is taken aback by how cheap everything looks. The opening graphics look as if they were culled from the world's ugliest shopping bag; the onscreen letters are rub-ons that appear cracked in places and wiggle on and off camera like the cheesiest Wayne's World effects. Worse, whenever Mike asks a guest where the audience can write for more information, no graphic ever comes up on the screen and viewers scarcely have time to run for some pad and paper. And stagehands are seen throwing up notepads to Mike or pushing tables onto the set.
Forget about imagining there's no countries; imagine an afternoon talk show where guests come on and actually talk to one another instead of beating each other up, where a host comes out and opens with a song. Douglas, who actually had a Top 10 hit during The Beatles' heyday in 1966 with the saccharine, mostly spoken-word "The Men in My Little Girl's Life," does the honors every day, massacring a Beatle tune for the first two shows. As a host, he is as calm and reassuring as a pastor. Once you put a microphone in his hand and you strike up the band, he's suddenly a ham and cheese en wry, rolling his eyes and mugging before switching to his "sincere" delivery.
"How about my band?" he shouts, wringing the audience of any residue applause. That band, led by Joe Harnell, is indeed amazing. How it can take any tune from The Beatles to Jerome Kern to Disney and make them all sound like the theme from The Bob Newhart Show is beyond comprehension.
While many viewers were ready for a counterculture battle of "us vs. them," the resulting shows have John and Yoko more than going out of their way to be nice and Mike stretching his open mind 'til it snaps under his strange, toupeelike hair. Here's a run-down of the shoulder-shrugging highlights:
Day One: On this show, Douglas molests "Michelle" to a bolero beat and finds it necessary to tell the audience that John wrote it. John, on his best behavior, tells Douglas "You sang it well" (!!!) and commends him for not singing "Yesterday," the Beatles standard for which he had no hand in writing. "At least I wrote the middle eight [to 'Michelle']," John nods, to which sycophant Mike replies, "That's usually the toughest part!" How does the establishment expect to win this round if Mike's rope-a-dopin' like Larry Tate from Bewitched?
The audience's boisterous bewilderment to Yoko's performance-art pieces makes her seem like the wacky substitute teacher you always wished for. First there's the Unfinished Painting, a blank canvas that everyone on the show and in the audience signs and is supposed to be auctioned off by the end of the week. It's encrusted with obscenities by Day Five, so that idea's scrapped. Lennon is diligent about getting everyone to sign, to the point of holding up musical guests the Chambers Brothers from starting their next number. Mike tells John and Yoko, "We'll finish it later, guys," sounding very much like a parent.