Back in the 1970s, anybody considered a popular enough musical act or TV personality got their own variety show special thing. It was the age of variety programs and everybody from Donny and Marie to Tony Orlando and Dawn had them. Hell, David Letterman got his start on TV as a bit player on the Starland Vocal Band show. But there were also these insipid holiday specials that happened all the time in which somebody would host a party at their fake house with a studio audience and a whole bunch of other celebrities would stop by for no reason other than ratings. These happened all the time, but perhaps none of them were as infamous as the 1976 Paul Lynde Halloween Special. The horror…the horror!
Usually, these kinds of TV specials would never have been repeated or even remembered after their initial airing, but because Paul Lynde, the famous center square for a number of years on The Hollywood Squares, has become some sort of icon of campiness, the desire to find this weird-ass special grew and grew. A few years ago, a friend of mine was working in the warehouse of an online DVD retailer and happened upon copies of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special. Having never heard of it but being very curious, he procured himself a copy and brought it to a Halloween movie night we had with other friends. The result was so weird, so off-putting, so groan-inducing and off the wall that we have since watched it every single year on or around Halloween. It can’t be oversold just how insane this is.
Paul Lynde, for those who don’t know, was famous for being incredibly gay but never came right out and said it. He was like the comedy world’s answer to Liberace, if that title wasn’t already taken by Charles Nelson Reilly. Lynde was in the film Bye Bye Birdie playing the put-upon father who sings the song “Kids,” he played Uncle Arthur on Bewitched, he voiced Templeton the rat in the animated Charlotte’s Web, and other than that he was just a TV personality who showed up everywhere. He’d had specials of his own in the past, but hadn’t had one for a while when ABC gave him this monstrosity.
Now, I keep talking about it being awful, but why is it so awful? It’s perhaps one of the lamest hours of comedy ever produced. Nearly every single joke lands with a thud, especially by today’s standards. They’re all groaners. Lynde was known for his double-entendres and laughing at his own jokes, but here he’s laughing at nothing. His humor’s been more or less entirely watered down and it just doesn’t work at all. One of the writers of this was Bruce Villanch, a writer for Lynde on Hollywood Squares so I’m sure the pair of them came up with most of these dialed-down “laugh” lines.
There are also a series of weird vignettes that have, and I can’t emphasize this enough, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH HALLOWEEN. At all. The “story” of the special is that Paul Lynde’s housekeeper Margaret (played by Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) takes him to her sister’s house in the mountains to get away from all these darn kids. The house is a spooky looking mansion and her sister happens to be Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuff. Turns out Margaret is a witch also and they’re tired of witches getting a bad rap, so they give Lynde three wishes. He can wish for ANYTHING HE WANTS.
What’s the first thing he wishes for? He wants to be a trucker. Yeah, a big-rig driving, CB radio-using trucker. WHYYYYY? This is all to set up a sketch in which he plays the Rhinestone Trucker who is racing to reach his girlfriend (HA!) to get married before his rival does. The rival is played by an actual funny person, Tim Conway (clearly slumming it), and the girlfriend (HA!) is played by Roz Kelly. Now, if you don’t know who Roz Kelly is, she played Pinky Tuscadero on three episodes of Happy Days. And most people wouldn’t have known that either which is why she was credited several times as “Roz ‘Pinky Tuscadero’ Kelly”.
His second wish is an accident but he ends up being a Sheik (attempting to mimic that famous old Rudolph Valentino movie) in the desert attempting to woo an ice-hearted heiress (Florence Henderson) but ends up being foiled by Tim Conway’s Legionnaire. Florence Henderson comes back later (she is billed as a “special guest” after all) to sing a disco version of “That Old Black Magic” and the director decides being as close to her face as possible is the best course of action.
But, honest to God, perhaps the strangest part of this whole experiment is that the big musical guest for the show is… and get ready for this… the rock group KISS. Yes, KISS. Makeup, spikes, glam metal, area rock, pyrotechnics and big huge amplifiers — they’re on a show hosted by Paul Lynde that features TWO disco music numbers, the worst jokes anyone’s ever heard, and celebrities peoples’ grandmothers might have enjoyed. What a weird, weird addition. KISS performs three numbers on the show, “Detroit Rock City,” which features the camera spinning about 60 times, they slow it down with “Beth” by Peter Criss at the piano, and they finish up (which is Paul’s third wish) with “King of the Night Time World” in which Gene Simmons does his best to never actually play the bass and instead make weird arm motions and breathe fire. This was one of KISS’ first television appearances, but not their actual first like it’s billed several places.
There’s really only so much expostulating I can do about The Paul Lynde Halloween Special beyond simply saying it never fails to make my head ache trying to figure out why it exists, how it got made, and who thought it was going to be a good idea. But there’s truly only so much talking I can do about it. You really should just watch it for yourself, which you can do below courtesy of some sadistic YouTuber. It’s worth a look, just know you’ll never be the same.