In Praise of Barney Miller

A few days ago, we lost another one. Comedian and actor Steve Landesburg passed away. Sadly underused and underrated, he made his most lasting impact as the fact-filled Lt. Arthur Dietrich on ABC’s Barney Miller, the great sitcom of the 70s.

I’ve always had a special affection for that show. When it originally aired, I was too young to “get” its droll sensibilities. So much of its comedy was derived from pondering, pauses and outright silence, that I hadn’t a clue what could be inspiring so much laughter from the studio audience. Still, I faithfully watched it by my Pop’s side (it was one of his favorites). He’d sit there laughing and laughing, and I’d be saying in my pipsqueak voice, “What’s so funny? I don’t get it? There’s nothing going on! They’re not even talking! Why are you laughing?!” I started to catch on when I was around 11 (aka Barney Miller’s 7th season).

I could go on and on about show’s many accomplishments/merits:
        -its depiction of bankrupt New York City in the 70s and the impact that had on crime and the city’s mentality
        -its theme song, arguably the most-sung bassline of all time, giving air-bassists a weekly workout

-its principle cast (don’t get me started!)

        -its supporting cast, a rotation of character actors, which made the show virtually a weekly Preston Sturges film; creators Danny Arnold and Theodore Flicker fearlessly reused actors season and season, always in different roles, like a stock company. (For example, the crumpled Phil Leeds appeared 7 times in 8 seasons, each time playing a different victim or perpetrator.)

But that praise will have to come another time. Until then, here’s a clip that sums up the show’s strengths. It’s the conclusion of season 3’s 4th episode (“Bus Stop”), which aired October 14, 1976, but that’s all irrelevant. Lt. Dietrich is doing what he usually does—espousing fact after fact—to his fellow detectives, Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda) and Nick Yemana (Jack Soo). It’s a beautiful example of comic timing.

Who could imagine so much laughter could be derived by simply watching two homely men chew doughnuts?


Filed under Comedy, R.I.P.

7 responses to “In Praise of Barney Miller

  1. Nick

    What a great clip. I thought of you when Landesburg died, of course.

  2. Adam L

    come to think of it, you might BE dietrich

  3. Pingback: A Very Barney Christmas to You All! | Peel Slowly

  4. Chris Houghton

    I learned about the Nisei division while watching Barney Miller with my Dad. He explained why the recruitment officer, who had been riding Nick for the whole episode, was so impressed when he found out Nick was in the 442nd. Have to love that Barney Miller didn’t feel the need to explain the moment. I guess they figured that anyone who who didn’t get it would figure it out later.

    • “He explained why the recruitment officer, who had been riding Nick for the whole episode, was so impressed when he found out Nick was in the 442nd.”
      It’s a wonderful moment. For a split second, the racist recruitment officer is humbled–but then tags on his parting line, “So I guess it didn’t matter to you who won!”

      It was a really smart show, wasn’t it? Sure, it had it’s share of bladder humor (especially during the Fish seasons), but where else would you see an exchange like this…
      A Polish actor and a Polish critic, both locked up for fighting in public, stand in the jail cell and witness some of the typical high-energy ranting-and-raving that could happen at the “ol’ One-Two.” The actor comments, “Very Chekovian, isn’t it?” The critic shakes his head and replies, “More intense.”

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