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For the current issue of Washington City Paper, I reported an oral history of the Kennedy Center’s long-running production of Shear Madness. After the play’s creators, actors, and the couple who married at the show, perhaps no one is more associated with Shear Madness than WJLA-TV entertainment critic Arch Campbell. Campbell, then working for WRC-TV, saw Shear Madness in August 1987 and in filing his segment on the play, famously proclaimed it to be one of “the most fun nights I’ve ever had at the Kennedy Center.” The blurb has topped the whodunit’s advertisements ever since.
Campbell acknowledges the flak he’s taken over the years for being, in his words, “Mr. Middlebrow.” The comedian Patton Oswalt, who grew up in Sterling, Va., famously included Campbell in his list of gripes in a routine about growing up in the suburbs.
But Campbell, in his Texas drawl, was unmoved by Oswalt and other critics when we spoke a few weeks ago. He openly embraced his role as critic and cultural correspondent for “middlebrow” audiences, saying in the oral history, “I’ve been attacked. I’ve been called a philistine, lowbrow, a clown, but you know, go ahead. Some of it is knowing your audience, so the only thing I can say in my defense is I knew my audience. And yes, I was Mr. Middlebrow, and Patton Oswalt is right. And he’s welcome to bash me all he wants.”
Campbell also said his enthusiastic reception of Shear Madness was in keeping with his beat at the NBC affiliate, in which he ended many 11 p.m. newscasts with a fresh-from-the-venue review of a film, play, gallery opening, or other cultural offering. It’s a beat that, to his dismay, doesn’t really exist anymore.
My role on Channel 4 at that time—and imagine that they would assign somebody to cover entertainment—was to serve the audience for the news, who were middlebrow by and large. And I was delivering those reviews in front of Jim Vance, George Michael, Bob Ryan, and Doreen Gensler. I had to keep their attention. If I lost them I wasn’t going to keep the people watching and the gig was going to end. So my role as I saw it was to make the arts accessible. You can call that middlebrow, but occasionally I would go out and—hell, I remember seeing Othello with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer, and Plummer was Iago and he stole the show and I left the theater at about 11:01 and got back at 11:25 and went on the air and gave it a rave. I got Shakespeare on Channel 4. I wasn’t on the public TV station. I was on a local affiliate leading into Johnny Carson.
Now, you don’t see theater reviews on television. You barely see them in the paper. Maybe on Channel 26 (WETA). When was the last time I did a real review of theater? It’s been several years. I would like to see some television station assign somebody—man or woman—about half my age to go out every night and report on theater, movies, concerts, art. I’d call it “Out Every Night.” The time for me is passed to do that. I think it would be huge, but nobody’s doing it. Twenty-five, 30, 35 years ago every TV station had a movie critic and a theater critic. And that’s how I got it. How I survived, I don’t know. But I made it over there for 32 years and I’ve been over here for five.
I have a show on NewsChannel 8 where we have comedians. I wish [Oswalt] would come in and do it.
WRC declined to share footage of Campbell’s 1987 review of Shear Madness with Washington City Paper, but we did obtain a copy of the original transcript—including the infamous blurb—which is posted below:
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