Before Late Night with David Letterman and within a year or two of Saturday Night Live and SCTV there was a little show that firmly planted the irony flag on the comedy landscape: Fernwood 2Nite.

This offshoot from the equally groundbreaking Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman deconstructed talk show television in a way rarely seen on TV before. Created by the great Norman Lear and produced by Alan Thicke, the series was purposely cheap and cheeky. Like all great cult shows, you felt like you were in on something new and wonderful whenever you watched it.

Much of the credit goes to Martin Mull, who died June 27 in Los Angeles at the age of 80 after a long illness. With his pastel leisure suits and whispy, so-blond-it-was-white moustache, Mull’s Bart Gimble was a cringe-worthy amalgam of many a local market talk show host.

Joining Gimble on the set-in-Ohio talk show parody was Fred Willard as sidekick Jerry Hubbard. “Happy Kyne and the Mirthmakers” was the band. In the second season, the setting switched to Los Angeles and the show was re-branded America 2Nite.

When Willard died in 2020, Magician Penn Jillette went so far as to tweet that Willard and Mull were responsible for “inventing modern comedy.” Yet Gimble and Hubbard could easily have been working for SCTV‘s Guy Caballero. There are certainly hints of Fernwood on SCTV‘s recurring “Sammy Maudlin Show” sketches. These were shows that deconstructed television in ways that hadn’t been done before; shows that embraced life’s most awkward moments.

It is hard to reference examples as the series remains somewhat locked in a mid-’70s time capsule due to the fact that it was never really released in any home format. Clips do exist on YouTube, however. For example, check out “Talk to a Jew,” an uncomfortably brilliant sketch that seems too touchy — yet incredibly timely — for TV today.


Mull was also unafraid to poke fun at his own roots. Featuring Steve Martin, Teri Garr, Willard and others, his 1985 Cinemax mocumentary History of White People in America is a hilarious “journey into whiteness.”

I interviewed Mull on the phone several years ago and encountered him later in person on a Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, Ca. Mull was part of the ensemble cast of the (too) short-lived Fox sitcom The Cool Kids (2018-19). It was about a group of rambunctious retirees at a seniors residence. Vicki Lawrence, David Allen Grier and Leslie Jordan were all part of the Cool cabal.

“We’re not old,” Mull explained to reporters at the 2018 session. “We’re very young people with older skin.” Mull felt that he and the others (and older people in general) “still act and talk and think like we did when we were 35. The only difference is, when I wake up in the morning, literally, I realize I am driving a used car.”

Age does bring some limitations, he conceded. For one, putting on shoes becomes a challenge.

“But you do gather a little bit of wisdom. And it’s not wisdom like you’re smart. It’s like you’ve made all these mistakes that you can now account for. So you have what kind of becomes a little bit of wisdom, and your body still will get across the room. When you have that little balance there while you can still get out of the chair and remember why, that’s gold.”

The Cool Kids (l-r): Jordan, Grier, Lawrence and Mull

Between Fernwood and The Cool Kids Mull packed in plenty of film and TV credits, and often in some very cool projects. Films include sketch roles on cult faves such as “FM” (1978) and “Television Parts” (1985). “Clue” (1985), “Jingle All the Way” and “101 Dalmations” (both 1996) were more mainstream.

Mull was part of the ensemble on director Robert Altman’s lesser known comedies, “O.C. and Stiggs” (1985).

“Most directors on movies would very privately see their dailies,” Mull recalled. Altman, however, “would bring in hotel staff, friends, family, people off the street” to sit with him and watch the dailies.

“Why are you doing that?” Mull asked Altman, who answered, “We are doing this for humans to watch.  How do I know how they are going to react unless I see them react?”

Mull said that wisdom came back to him on the set of The Cool Kids, where the live studio audience provided similar feedback on taping nights. The studio response, he said, “gives you an incredible energy.”

Mull’s other TV credits include popping up in recurring roles on both Roseanne and Arrested Development. As a guest, he ducked into some of the greatest TV comedies ever, including Taxi, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, Family Guy, Veep, Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Not bad considering Mull was also busy with his other passions, music and art. He graduated with a MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and had showings of his paintings in Boston and Los Angeles. Steve Martin owns one of his works, “After Dinner Drinks,” and used it for the cover of an album he recorded with Edie Brickell.

When I spoke with him, Mull seemed humble about his accomplishments. He was cheered to hear Fernwood was held in high esteem in Canada as well as the States. Why the series was never released in any home format was a mystery to him, although he suspected it may have had something to do with the usual DVD box set bugaboo — the expensive clearance of music rights.

Mull was never really on a long running hit. Even his Roseanne appearances, where he appeared as one half of a gay couple (with Willard), were sporatic and late in the original series’ run. Popping up now and then may be one reason he never seemed to wear out his welcome on television. He semed to straddle the generations, appearing on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In one week and The Hollywood Squares the next. He was as at home on The Golden Girls as he was on NCIS: Los Angeles.

Mull never took the medium for granted, and in fact he felt it held a certain special power.

There was, he told reporters at the Cool Kids press conference, something about being on TV and “literally going into people’s homes, and sometimes they forget how it is you happened to get into their home. And I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, by the way, the dryer is working great.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He said, ‘You fixed our dryer. Do you remember it had all of the lint buildup in there?’  And I said, ‘No, I don’t think’ ‑‑ ‘Yes, you did.  I remember I met you.’ So you are literally in their homes.”

And will he ever be missed. Condolences to his friends and family.

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