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Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald’s Idea for a Television Show

March 2, 2010

Recently I wrote a post about a wonderful book of correspondence, A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967-1974. Dan Rowan was a nightclub comedian who found tremendous success on television with his anarchic variety show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. At the advice of a mutual friend, Rowan became pen-pals with the crime novelist John D. MacDonald. The book covers the seven years of their correspondence and the letters end when their friendship ended suddenly in 1974.

One aspect of the book that I am beginning to rediscover is the penetrating insight that the letters express regarding the complexity of the creative process. The majority of Rowan and MacDonald’s conversation is focused on the inner workings of the production of Laugh-In. Rowan frequently vents his frustration about issues such as trying to get certain sketches past the censors, the omnipresent threat of cancellation and maintaining the high quality of the show through all six series. By comparison, MacDonald is slightly more guarded in describing his writing process for the Travis McGee series of novels. At one point in the correspondence, when their friendship was at its closest in 1968, it seemed that Rowan and MacDonald might actually work together on a television series. Rowan describes his vague idea to MacDonald:

One day at the beach at Manasota Key I was lying in the sun waiting for the Dutchman to come and take a walk in search of shark’s teeth. As usual there were no people in hearing distance and it was naturally silent. A sudden loud squawk made me blink my eyes open, and peering through that red, bright haze I first saw a crab just emerging from his hole not three feet from me and his open mouth aped the sound I had heard which had come from a large blue heron. It struck me as funny at the time and made me think that the relation between sight and sound is tenuous; that we are often in the midst of wondrously fascinating things and are unaware of them.

Rowan’s idea developed out of vagueness into something more substantial, albeit he would never get to the stage of having a finished working script. Rowan wanted the show to consist of an abstract series of scenes which would explore the relation between sight and sound, or more importantly man’s unawareness of this wondrous connectivity:

EXAMPLE: The guard in the Metropolitan Museum, surrounded on all sides by some of the world’s art treasures, reading Playboy. Bored and unseeing he spends his life with beauty and isn’t aware of it.

EXAMPLE: The steelworkers in the open hearth of the mill, surrounded by gigantic wonders, blazing heat and ear-splitting noise, looking at a print on a workshop wall of one of the art works at the Met.

Rowan’s idea for two scenes do not contain a linear structure but do have some striking parallels. This was abstract and original material for a comedian. Perhaps it is even more revealing to read that MacDonald was very interested in being involved with the show:

About your idea. I like it. D likes it. I want to let it sit on one of my back shelves for a time and ripen before I make any comment. I know right now that it is a highly creative and stimulating and kind of timeless thing. It is what just here and there, infrequently, the best of the foreign directors will do. And there is so much scope in making visual comment on the way people anthropomorphize things.

Son, I would be right proud and happy to have something to do with a thing like that. Once upon a time Dorothy walked through the main public park in St. Pete and saw a lady on one of the benches, so withered and frail she looked a hundred and nine. She was reading, with avid concentration, a magazine called Your Future.

It is remarkable to think what a unique addition this project would have been to the careers of Rowan and MacDonald. It would have been unlike practically anything Rowan had done before, but at least Laugh-In was renowned for its quickfire, zany sketches with little or no connectivity. That mad-cap style evidences itself in this idea, but comes through in a more sombre art-house form. For MacDonald it would have been an even bigger departure in style.  Critics have argued that in crime fiction every scene, character, even line of dialogue has to connect as part of a larger narrative puzzle. In this unnamed project the connectivity is deliberately more fluid and allusive. Only MacDonald’s science fiction novels could be  seen as a comparable career shift from his main identity as a crime novelist. Of course all of these points are now academic. The television show never happened. Laugh-In proved to be the peak of Rowan’s career, not the launch-pad to better things he had hoped it would be. Rowan and MacDonald’s friendship came to an end and they never worked together professionally other than to publish their correspondence in A Friendship, shortly after they reconciled in 1986. But the idea itself has been explored by other artists before and since Rowan conceived his never producued television series. As MacDonald comments Rowan’s idea is similar to the work ‘of the best foreign directors’. He is probably referring to European film directors of the time such as Luchino Visconti and Federico Fellini. But in those cases stylised sequences are part of a wider, coherent narrative. Rowan’s idea is perhaps too slight for a television series. Once the viewer finishes marvelling at the originality of the concept, the whole thing is in danger of becoming tedious very quickly. Still it is remarkable to imagine a crime writer and a comedian working on a project that was completely different from anything they had done before. It is a testament to Rowan and MacDonald’s skill as creative artists that they would attempt such a project, and it is a terrible shame that it was never completed.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2010 10:30 pm

    Great insights into a wonderful but criminally-ignored collection of letters. I’m in the process of re-reading it myself. The correspondence reveals Rowan to be a far more intelligent and creative artist than posterity has allowed. He started out as a junior staff writer at Paramount and never stopped wanting to be a writer. He was working on a screen adaptation of MacDonald’s A Man of Affairs during his friendship with the author and his letters are filled with great humor, fine writing and deep insight. Unfortunately his main gift to history, Laugh-In, has not stood the test of time very well. Like all humor that is primarily topical, it has not aged well.

    Regarding MacDonald, he was far more than simply a “crime novelist.” His two science fiction novels were written very early in his career and he made several forays into “mainstream” fiction with titles such as Cancel All Our Vows, Contrary Pleasure and The Deceivers. He wrote a comic novel (Please Write for Details) a comic fantasy novel (The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything) and hundreds of short stories that had little or nothing to do with crime. As the letters in this great collection testify, he was a master of the written word. And while his art has survived in better shape than did Rowan’s, his work is mostly out of print and he seems largely forgotten today.

  2. Steve Powell permalink*
    March 4, 2010 9:37 am

    Thank you Steve,

    You’re right that Rowan was a fascinating character. He performed with a carnival as a child and was an ace fighter pilot during the second world war. I think the letters portray an inwardly very sad man. His two divorces, the chain smoking and the fact that so many of his dreams went unrealised after Laugh-In took its toll. He was a more innovative creative artist than Dick Martin, who ironically went on to have a far more successful career. I agree that Laugh-In has not aged well. The mad-cap style becomes very annoying after awhile, plus there is some unpleasant racial and sexual humour. It’s odd but in an earlier post I compared Laugh-In to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show that I loved as a teenager, but as I get older I’m increasingly of the opinion that madcap, anarchic humour is largely indulgent and pointless. Rowan and Martin’s appearances on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts now seem far superior.

    I very much agree that MacDonald was more than a crime writer. Given his towering reputation as a crime writer it is a useful label. But like writers such as James Ellroy and Mickey Spillane he will probably always be remembered as a crime writer despite his other accomplishments. Why is the work of so many great writers now out of print? It can be incredibly difficult to find the novels of authors as successful as Ross MacDonald, Eric Ambler or even Spillane today.

  3. Paul Sherman permalink
    October 16, 2010 3:59 pm

    Recently sought out ‘A Friendship’ and enjoyed it much. Rowan was definitely no slouch, as this great clip of him and Groucho on Cavett attests:

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      October 17, 2010 9:16 am

      Thanks for the clip and comment. ‘A Friendship’ was definitely my most delightful and unexpected find of the year. Dan Rowan was a revelation, shame his career wasn’t as successful as Dick Martin’s, who I thought was nowhere near as impressive.



  1. A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald, 1967-1974 « The Venetian Vase
  2. Jubilee Special: Dan Rowan, John D. MacDonald and a Royal Encounter « The Venetian Vase

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