Halloween specials have a mixed history on television. There are a handful of great, iconic ones — the It’s the Great Pumpkin, old episodes of Roseanne, about 60% of the Treehouses of Terror on The Simpsons — and then there are some genuinely bizarre misfires that I love even more, like Tim Curry singing bemusedly in The Worst Witch.
Among those lovable misfires, one of the most notorious is The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, a truly hypnotic TV artifact starring Betty White, Margaret Hamilton (the original Wicked Witch), Florence Henderson (aka Mrs. Brady), actors from Happy Days and H.R. Pufnstuf, and an up-and-coming band called Kiss.
And ruling over it all: Paul Lynde, the snide quippy comedian made famous as Uncle Arthur on Bewitched and as a Hollywood square. The show was only broadcast once, but it’s gained legendary status for its sheer strangeness — and the behind-the-scenes story is even stranger.
Paul Lynde — if you’re not familiar — was a comic actor who got his start on Broadway, working alongside Mel Brooks, Eartha Kitt, Cloris Leachman, and many others who went on to stardom. Paul’s particular specialty was what I like to call “the gay sniper” — he could pop up out of nowhere, offer a perfect punchline, and then disappear. Hollywood Squares is where he excelled, appearing on over a thousand (!) episodes; but he was also a mainstay of late night, game shows, and variety specials. At one point, he was rated the fourth most popular comedian in America, in the company of Katharine Hepburn and Robert Redford.
He was also, of course, closeted — as virtually all queer people had to be for their safety. But it was an open secret that he was gay, since his on-screen persona tended to have a certain recognizable flair. And off-camera, as his frequent collaborator Bruce Vilanch described it, “there was always some cute guy named Chad standing around holding up a martini glass.”
Paul longed for serious roles, but it was comedy where he seemed to land. Attempts at starring roles eluded him: A 1962 pilot called Howie, based on a play by Nora Ephron's mother, failed to make it to air, as did several subsequent attempts. The most famous is probably The Paul Lynde Show, on which he plays a long-suffering suburban husband. Recycled from the corpse of Howie, even Paul’s own show seemed to regard him as heterosexual with some skepticism; the character playing his wife notes in the pilot how long it’s been since they had sex.
The Paul Lynde Show was created in the early '70s to replace Bewitched, which ended early due to the separation of star Elizabeth Montgomery and director William Asher. It was, alas, a huge flop; big audiences tuned in for the pilot but were immediately turned off by Paul as the main course instead of as a tasty flavor. That left ABC in a bit of a bind, since he was still under contract to appear on the network according to Vilanch. So they started sticking him on variety shows (he was reportedly one of the only actors willing to fly to Utah to film with Donnie and Marie Osmond).
Paul’s Halloween special is a particularly memorable product of this point in his career. The newish president of ABC, Fred Silverman, decided that “there’s something essentially witchy about Paul Lynde” (he’d played a witch for years on TV, and before that on stage) so they crafted an entire hourlong special for him in 1976.
To give audiences a little break from Paul at his most intense, he was paired with some other larger-than-life figures: There was Margaret Hamilton, who played the original Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and Witchie-Poo from the psychedelic children’s show H.R. Pufnstuf. (McDonalds would later steal character concepts from Pufnstuf to create Grimace and Mayor McCheese, but that’s a story for some other nostalgia-dive).
The result is, indeed, bewitching. Paul jokes his way through encounters with the witches, including a meeting with Miss Halloween 1976 (“You had a beauty contest? And there was a winner?”) played by Betty White. Kiss puts in an appearance — their first time on primetime television, which has led to the special earning a place of strange honor among Kiss fans. And there are comedy sketches that seem to have more to do with promoting other ABC shows and stars than with Halloween.
There are two particularly fascinating details about the special, I think: One is that in the comedy sketches, Paul is given the sort of romantic leading-man roles he’d always dreamed of, first as a butch trucker and then as a seductive sheik. The second detail that I can’t stop thinking about is how he ends the special: As backup dancers sway to an egregiously rearranged version of the song Disco Lady, he turns to the camera, acknowledges his co-stars, and adds, “thank you for making me feel wanted.”
It’s an oddly touching moment amidst the goofiness. But it makes sense. Paul had been craving leading roles for his whole career, and they kept slipping through his fingers. I can see how he’d feel unwanted by this point. The colleagues he started out with had gone on to superstardom; he was stuck making one-off holiday specials.
His message at the end is for all the audience members who stuck around though this bizarre show, because they, at least, wanted what he had to offer.