Golden Words — Barney Miller, “The Photographer”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

The folks who worked on the Barney Miller got invited to the Emmy ceremony quite a bit over the years, but they rarely walked away with statuettes. Beginning with its second season, which was also its first full season after debuting as a midseason replacement in early 1975, the were multiple nominations every year for the sitcom set in a Greenwich Village police station. There were acting nods for six different performers over the course of the series run, including seven straight for Hal Linden in leading actor category for the title role. None of them ever won. In fact, Barney Miller won only three Emmys while it was on the air: one for directing, one for writing, and one in the Outstanding Comedy Series category, the latter coming in its final season, for which it took home no other awards from the ceremony.

The Emmy for writing was claimed by “The Photographer,” an episode from early in the show’s sixth season. In most respects, it’s a typical Barney Miller episode with A, B, and C plots all centered on perpetrators who are hauled through the precinct house door. The comedy rhythms are largely driven by the various officers reactions of the largely unthreatening oddballs who have run afoul of the law, with a little sprinkling of coworker conflict to hang a punchline or two on. The plot line that gives the episode its title isn’t all that notable: a woman says she was mugged by a handsome, seductive fellow claiming to be a Vogue photographer, and the gag is that he’s actually a shrimpy geezer (played by shrimpy geezer specialist Phil Leeds). It plays out like countless other Barney Miller stories.

I suspect the plot line that helped the episode earn the favor of Emmy voters is the one about an arrested individual (Kenneth Tigar, who logged a lot of broadcast television guest appearance in his day and still works steadily now) who’s initially reluctant to reveal his identity. After being pressed by Detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz (Max Gail), the man finally gives his name as Jesus Christ, offering the assurance that he is indeed that Jesus Christ. As the working stiffs of the 12th precinct await the processing that will allow the man’s transfer to Bellevue for mental health care, discussion arises about the role of religion in their lives and the general moral state of society. None of it is all that profound by modern television standards, but it’s fairly weighty stuff for a television season in which the top-rated sitcom was Three’s Company.

The sole credited writer on the episode, and thusly the person who got to put the Emmy on his shelf, was Bob Colleary. He wasn’t someone who racked a bunch of credits on Barney Miller, landing his name on only three episodes. Colleary went on to be a producer and far more prolific writer for a fleet of other television series, including Benson, It’s a Living, and Touched by an Angel. His son became a Hollywood writer, too, scoring his first major credit with the wild 1997 action flick Face/Off.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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