MARGARET DUMONT (looking like a sequined aircraft carrier in full dowager regalia): "What are you doing?"
Groucho Marx: "I'm defending your honor . . . which is more than you ever did."
With her snooty, yodeling contralto and behemoth Valkyrie torso, Margaret Dumont she was the favorite patsy of the Marx Brothers. She was the unsuspecting grande dame who would spend whole movies and plays having horrible lewd wisecracks bounced off her grandiose self.
Forget her for a minute, though. Think of Allen B. DuMont, the fellow who, in 1930, figured out that TV pictures ought to be broadcast into people's homes the way radio was, and not shown in special theaters (as was then barely possible with the time's technology). His name was eventually slapped on one of the primordial TV networks -- original home of the "Amateur Hour," "Captain Video," Morey Amsterdam and, that demographic smash from television in 1950, the "Johns Hopkins Science Review" (it ran at 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays opposite Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater"; it was TV's original suicide time slot).
One way or another, they gave these annual Dumont Awards their name. They are now celebrating their "sweet 16th" birthday of trying to recognize TV achievement fearlessly for exactly what it is.
The 16th annual Dumont Awards for 1990 include:
The Hallowed Annual "Mr. T. and Tina" Memorial Bonsai Tree for Worst Television Show of 1990 (formerly called the "My Mother the Car" Cup): With the advent of the Fox network and the much-copied success of "Married . . . With Children," the pickings are festive and plentiful, even if you don't count such flashes-in-the-pan as "E.A.R.T.H. Force" (or "Woodsman! Spare that Tree!"). Only the survivors need apply. So take your pick from among "Uncle Buck," "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "The Fanelli Boys" and "Get a Life." Because Chris Elliott ought to know better -- I mean really ought to know better -- my pick is "Get a Life."
Soreheads and Hard Feelings of the Year: 1) Jimmy Griffin, whose response to Delano-gate was to go on the personal offensive and mount the most graceless televised mayoral press conference in recent Buffalo history. 2) Nora Dunn, of "Saturday Night Live," who, at the first sight of street-mouth comic Andrew "Dice" Clay walking through the door of the show, publicly announced she'd sit that week out. Singer Sinead O'Connor followed suit. What was thereby set in motion were all sorts of feminist protests at Clay's act and Clay's bizarre, tearful "I did it my way" speech on the "Arsenio Hall Show." Neither Dunn nor Clay is in imminent danger of still having a career when 1995 rolls around. 3) A prominent reporter for a gay magazine quoted Andy Rooney saying clumsy racist things (which Rooney adamantly denied saying in the unrecorded interview), whereupon CBS News President David Burke suspended Rooney from his "60 Minutes" gig. Public outcry was instant and huge. Burke eventually lost his job and receded into probable anonymity. Rooney is still on the air, writing columns and selling the heck out of books.
The Jimmy Walker "Say What?" Award for 1991: To Mayor Griffin, who, after the bitter, televised press conference, went on Bill Besecker's WBFO-FM "Jazz Favorites" radio show to play his favorite jazz records.
Toupee of the Year: To the "Today" show, which hired long-lost kibitzer Joe Garagiola to warm up the frosty temperatures set up by the tandem of Bryant Gumbel and Deborah Norville.
The Edmund Wilson Award for Mini-Literary Criticism of the Year: To TV thumbster Roger Ebert, who, in his TV review of Phil Kaufman's movie "Henry and June," claimed that "everybody" now knows that Anais Nin was a far greater and more interesting writer than Henry Miller.
Domestic Abuse of the Year: The year's biggest mass TV phenomenon was "America's Funniest Home Videos," a show founded on the humor of children, fat people, old people and domestic animals falling down and being otherwise in distress.
Are You Sure Kate Smith Started This Way?: Roseanne Barr's raunchy comedy-club rendition of the national anthem at a San Diego Padres game touched off nationwide ire. By year's end, she had her own record out. But then, so did the Simpsons.
Anybody Hungry Here?: The most bizarre sitcom sight of the year was Robert Mitchum sitting at the head of a family table full of cute moppets. No, he wasn't going to eat them. He was just being a kindly paterfamilias -- the weirdest piece of "benign" TV casting in a long time. (In some of his most memorable movie roles -- "Night of the Hunter," "Cape Fear" -- Mitchum played the movies' all-time definitive child-stalker.)
The Edsel-New Coke-Whammy Weenie Award for the Bad Idea of the Year: To ABC, for "Cop Rock."
Sad Farewell of the Year: To "The Tracey Ullman Show." (While we're on the subject of sad goodbyes, whatever did happen to Kathleen Sullivan?)
Good Riddance of the Year: To "The Pat Sajak Show."
Oh-No-Not-Again: The latest lame glibster to get into the late-night sweepstakes was Rick Dees with ABC's "Into the Night." It wasn't quite up to the exalted standard set by "The Pat Sajak Show."
Prodigal Children Returneth: Susan Banks, one more time, as the noon queen of Channel 7 and anchor heiress-apparent. And Kevin O'Connell, with a bit of extra poundage, as the noon king of Channel 4 news and heir apparent.
The Billion-Dollar Misunderstanding: CBS reportedly shelled out $1 billion for the privilege of yanking Major League Baseball away from NBC. Ratings were so weak that, at year's end, the network was asking baseball to give some of it back.
Towel of the Year: The one that New England Patriot Zeke Mowatt conspicuously wasn't wearing when Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson was in the locker room, setting off yet another weirdly anachronistic flap that seemed to be a terrible replay of the early '70s.
Don't Tell ABC, But It Already Peaked: "Twin Peaks" came back as a weekly series, solved Laura Palmer's murder after an unconscionable delay and veered off into the land of "let's do anything to get another week of TV on the air."
Unwise: CBS' "Wiseguy" came back as a weekly series without Ken Wahl and set in Miami, no less. It did not go unnoticed that a Miami undercover cop series had been done before.
Applause, No Wisecracks: For "Northern Exposure," "Shannon's Deal," "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill," James Earl Jones in "Gabriel's Fire," "WIOU," "Over My Dead Body" -- not a bad year, all in all.
Broadcast Artifact of 1990 (previous winners include "The Gong Show," "The Abscam Tapes"): The sting tape of Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Berry sitting on the edge of a hotel bed and murmuring over and over: "I can't believe it. The bitch set me up."