Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series that wants to be somebody, wants to go somewhere—so it’s waking up and paying attention.
Full disclosure: I’m one of the few gays who doesn’t love Halloween. I’m not sure why: I love dressing up, pulling pranks, and laughing maniacally by the light of a full moon, but Halloween has never done it for me. But I’m glad so many people love it because it leads to things like The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, a mythically bad variety special that boasted a veritable “Who’s that?” of Hollywood.
It only aired once, on October 29, 1976, but bootleg copies of it floated around on VHS for decades before it was officially released on DVD in 2007. YouTube followed suit, as did, most recently, Amazon Prime, where you can watch this screen gem in all its cheesy, extremely retro glory (?). Of course, most of you reading this probably have no idea who Paul Lynde was, so let’s start there.
Lynde was the biggest queen in Hollywood this side of Liberace, having crafted a lovingly acerbic persona in ’60s fare like Bye Bye Birdie, Bewitched (playing the sneaky and snarky warlock, Uncle Arthur), and The Munsters before finding his true calling as the center square in The Hollywood Squares. Though clearly a homosexual, Lynde, like Liberace, existed in a glass closet where no one talked about the pink elephant mincing into the room.
Lynde was also a notorious alcoholic, fueled by his insecurities and the pressures of having to remain closeted despite fooling literally no one. In 1965, a young man fell to his death after spending a boozed-up night with Lynde in his hotel room. Instead of being a career-ending scandal, it was covered up and Lynde was still slinging tired zingers when this special aired a decade later.
Those zingers, much like Lynde’s famous one-liners from Hollywood Squares, were written, at least partly, by Bruce Vilanch. Judging from the quality of the writing on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special, Vilanch may have snorted an eight-ball, grabbed a dirty napkin, and feverishly scribbled down whatever fell out of his nostrils. How else can you explain the hodgepodge of ideas, limp half-jokes, and truly questionable stylistic choices?
Within the first 15 minutes, Donny and Marie sneak in a wordless cameo, Betty White bitches out Lynde, and Margaret Hamilton (the OG Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz) gets back into her Elpheba drag.
And that’s not even the weirdest part—we haven’t even gotten to the first of three Kiss performances. Fucking Kiss. The Knights in Satan’s Service sold out so hard in the ’70s.
Next thing you know, Lynde, as an earring-wearing “chic sheik,” is phoning in a “passionate kiss” with Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson, who later really commits to a discofied version of “That Old Black Magic.” After all, it was the ’70s, and if we weren’t pandering to the disco set, then really, what were we doing at all?
By the time Happy Days’ Roz “Pinky Tuscadero” Kelly (as she’s billed in the opening credits) starts up a spirited rendition of “Disco Lady” featuring the entire cast—including Kiss hanging out in the balcony and wondering just why in Satan’s name they agreed to this—you’ll legitimately find yourself wondering how this hot mess ever made it on television in the first place.
However, I, personally, was riddled with glee that it did mince its way into the zeitgeist.
Paul Lynde was such a homo, and that was evident to me even as a kid watching him exaggerate the gay hell out of Elizabeth Montgomery’s character’s name on Bewitched: “Sa-maaaaa-aaaa-haaan-thaaaaaa.” And what prepubescent queer doesn’t dream of being visibly drunk on television, wearing an ascot, and shouting, “Circle gets the square!”?
What, just me?
Gays have always existed in Hollywood—between Lynde, Agnes Moorehead (who played the fabulous Endora), and Dick Saregent (who played the second Darrin), Bewitched accounted for like 90% of the gays on television for nearly a decade. But gays like Lynde, who were out in everything but the word, and who were able to find their own fame, deserve some credit for making the unspeakable a bit easier to say aloud.
Now go watch this special and see for yourself just how ridiculous the whole thing is.