Tune in Tonight: "The Paul Lynde Halloween Special"
I know that The Paul Lynde Halloween Special has been covered many times over by various pop culture nostalgia websites, and there is virtually nothing left to say about it. But to not mention it would be like a science fiction blog not mentioning Alien. You have to give at least a passing acknowledgment of it, if for no other reason than to reiterate that it actually happened, and was not the result of some sort of mass hallucination. Like The Brady Bunch Hour (which was also co-written by comedy goblin Bruce Vilanch), to watch the whole thing requires a great deal of pinching oneself and checking whatever you were most recently drinking for strange residue.
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special aired in 1976, when Lynde’s career was at its peak, thanks to his regular appearances on The Hollywood Squares. His road to television fame after working in theater and a handful of films was a bumpy one, and it wasn’t until Lynde essentially began playing himself—a middle-aged queen who was always quick with a salty quip—that he became successful. Though in retrospect it seems impossible to believe that anyone with eyes and ears wouldn’t realize that Lynde was gay, evidently the fact that he never actually stated as much in public was enough to convince many of his fans otherwise: Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall claimed in an interview that he received hundreds of love letters from adoring female viewers. Reportedly, Lynde’s frustration at playing up to stereotypes in his professional life while having to keep his personal life in the closet (a not very well hidden closet, but a closet nonetheless) exacerbated his alcoholism and anger management issues, which would eventually put his career on the decline.
But hey, I don’t want to be a bummer, let’s bring our attention back to this ridiculous thing. The show opens in Paul’s home, where, for whatever reason, he doesn’t seem to know what day it is, guessing that it’s either Christmas or Easter. His housekeeper (Margaret Hamilton) reminds him that it’s Halloween, and Paul responds by singing a rendition of “Kids” from Bye Bye, Birdie, updating the lyrics so that he laments 70s young folks for their enjoyment of trick or treat pranks and scary Alice Cooper music. The song ends with him being stuffed in a trash can by Donny and Marie, whose entire contribution to the show is about twenty seconds long and without dialogue.
Looking to get out of town for the night, Paul takes up his housekeeper on her offer of letting him stay at her sister’s house, a spooky castle called Gloomsbury Manor. The housekeeper’s sister is Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf (despite not appearing in the credits, Sid and Marty Krofft’s fingerprints are all over this), and the housekeeper is really the Wicked Witch of the West in disguise. It’s at this point that the “Halloween” aspect of The Paul Lynde Halloween Special ends, unless you count the special guest appearance by KISS, which I’ll get to later. Witchiepoo and The Wicked Witch of the West are tired of being the scary kind of witches, and want Paul to help them improve their public image, offering him three wishes as an incentive.
Why don’t they just use their wish magic to improve their image themselves? It doesn’t matter. And what does Paul want for his first wish? Money? Power? The ability to live and love openly? No, he wants to be a trucker. The “Rhinestone Trucker,” to be exact, wearing a white, bejeweled, chest hair exposing suit, complete with the “male” symbol on one arm (he also, for whatever reason, has red hair and eyebrows, which might be the scariest effect of the whole show). Paul, now calling himself “Big Ruby Red,” has to compete with fellow trucker Tim Conway for the easily swayed affections of truck stop waitress “Kinky Pinky,” played by Roz Kelly, Pinky Tuscadero on Happy Days. Kinky Pinky, speaking in a Brooklyn accent thicker than a slab of Junior’s cheesecake, eventually chooses Big Ruby Red, of course, and this leads into a mind-blowing “wedding hoedown,” in which a few weak trucker double entendres (”hug the curves,” “bump the bumper”) are thrown about.
I’m not sure how big an overlap there was between Paul Lynde fans and KISS fans, but KISS shows up anyway, following the trucker sketch. Paul looks as baffled as the audience when the band appears in a billow of dry ice and performs “Detroit Rock City,” complete with such state of the art special effects as the camera holding on Paul Stanley’s face and then rotating 360 degrees, making it look as though he’s inside a clothes dryer.
One perfectly good wish wasted, Paul then expends his next wish on being a Rudolph Valentino-esque sheikh who romances a kidnapped English heiress played by Florence Henderson. Initially resistant to his charms, she falls madly in love with him after he offers her the gift of a stuffed cockatoo. Tim Conway, stuck in two thankless roles as the guy who loses the girl to Paul Lynde, appears as a French Foreign Legion soldier who attempts to rescue the heiress, but accepts the cockatoo in trade. I feel like the cockatoo was intended to be a dick metaphor, until someone remembered that this was a primetime special.
Paul generously bestows his final wish on Witchiepoo and the Wicked Witch of the West, who wish to attend a “Hollywood disco.” Why can’t they just magic their asses to Studio 54, if that’s what they want? Does witch magic only work on other people? Why am I asking you? Rather than taking them to an actual nightclub, Paul transforms the house into a disco, complete with dancers wearing orange fright wigs and Florence Henderson singing “That Old Black Magic.” Andy Warhol would have been chomping at the bit to get into this joint. Bianca Jagger who? What’s a Halston? Even without one mirrored tray of coke being passed around, this is still clearly the hottest place to be, as emphasized when Paul shouts “I like that funky stuff!” at one point.
The show then slows to a near-standstill with KISS’s encore performance of “Beth,” a song you know was intended to be their answer to “Wild Horses,” but instead is just mostly Peter Criss tunelessly whining about his girlfriend’s refusal to accept the long hours he puts in wearing cat makeup and getting into dick-waving contests with Gene Simmons. The number ends on a hilarious note, when Simmons approaches Criss at the piano and gives him the most indifferent, insincere shoulder pat imaginable.
After some stiff banter with Lynde, KISS performs a third song, this time “King of the Night Time World,” which at least rocks harder than “Beth,” though I’m not quite sure what a “headlight queen” is. Is it something to do with boobs? It probably has something to do with boobs. Anyway, the shows ends with the cast, including Billy Barty, dancing to “Disco Lady” (changed to “Disco Baby” so as to be unisex, I guess), with KISS watching from a balcony and acting as though this is the most happening gig they’ve played since Cobo Arena.
Given how sincere Paul Lynde seems before the end credits, thanking the audience for “making me feel wanted,” it seems a little assholish to poke fun at The Paul Lynde Halloween Special overall. And yet, given what we know about Lynde, and how he felt about being pigeonholed into the “bitchy gay uncle” role, it seems justified. It’s a puzzling show, mostly because it’s unclear if Lynde literally playing “the straight man” is done with a wink at the audience, or if Lynde is making fun of himself, or both, or neither. Is it funny watching an obviously gay man play into macho hetero stereotypes? I guess…? It’s funny until it starts getting repetitious, which is about two minutes into the trucker sketch.
It would probably also be funnier if Lynde looked embarrassed or even vaguely repulsed at having to slobber all over his leading ladies, adding some level of absurdity to the situation. Instead it just comes off, like nearly every other variety show, as forced, a desperate plea for the audience to love him so he can come back and do this again sometime. Not to mention that a gay man’s fondest wish is to be attracted to women is, really, kind of sad, but I’m probably giving The Paul Lynde Halloween Special much more depth and nuance than it requires.
Nevertheless, is The Paul Lynde Halloween Special required viewing for lovers of 70s kitsch? Oh, without question. It’s a, maybe even the, classic example of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method of filming a variety show. A little bit of it works (73 year-old Margaret Hamilton disco dancing is adorable), most of it doesn’t, but overall it’s pretty entertaining, and, while definitely weird, it’s not the incomprehensible drug trip that The Brady Bunch Hour was. If Paul Lynde himself looks stiff and pissy at the beginning of the show, by the end he’s warm and relaxed, as if he learned to accept this silly bit of fluff for what it was, and eventually the audience does too.
Original airdate: October 29, 1976