Big John, Little John - The Complete Series (1976)
Big John has a problem, as you can plainly see
One minute he's 40, the next he's 33
Big John keeps a-changin', before your very eyes
To 25, and then 19, then 12 years old in size
Big John, Little John, what a way to grow
Big John, Little John, he grew from high to low
Big John drank from the fountain of youth, he took a little drink
And that magic water, is the thing that made him shrink
Now, when he's little John he never knows just when
ZAP! He'll change and rearrange, and he's Big John again
And that fantastic little opening ditty sums up this madcap seventies children's sitcom perfectly.
Curiously dated even for its time, this charmingly pedestrian studio bound low budget series is a throw-back to fifties family comedy. Full of moralistic family values, with never a hint of knowing adult humour, this is a series that's perfectly cool about a fully grown woman having an (occasionally) 12 year old husband.
In common with 'Monster Squad', released earlier this year by Fabulous, this series looks pretty grim on the transfer, though represents a fairly peripheral show that was so lame that it couldn't limp into a second series. Though all of us that love this terrible stuff should be immensely grateful that it gets a release at all.
Big John, Little John was an American Saturday morning sitcom produced by Sherwood Schwartz which starred Robbie Rist as Little John, and Herb Edelman as Big John. The show first aired on September 11, 1976 on NBC, and ran just the single season of 13 episodes all included here.
The premise is pretty simple and outlined in the story-song introduction (a trend at the time and a device used by HR Pufnstuf, Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch). John Martin is a 45 year old school teacher. Whilst vacationing in Florida, he takes a sip from the fountain of youth and suddenly finds himself transformed into a 12 year old boy - but only temporarily. Only his wife, Marjorie (Joyce Bulifant) and son, Ricky (Mike Darnell) know his secret. In order to explain the appearance of the younger John, the Martins claim that he is their nephew. Throughout the series, "Big John" unsuccessfully tries to find a cure for his predicament, but his experiences as "Little John" often give him insight into what all the young dudes in the school really think and feel, bridging the generation gap.
Apparently, to make the two actors resemble each other, Rist's blond hair was dyed brown, while Edelman wore a hairpiece though it has to be said that the two couldn't look more different. The transition from one to the other is charmingly pre-CGI old school and makes the Universal 'Wolf Man' sequences look positively sophisticated. There are a sequence of mixes of head and shoulder shots of a variety of people who are supposed to represent John at various ages. The results are truly preposterous.
The two disc DVD holds all 13 episodes from the series. My personal favourite was Episode 5 (Big Scare, Little Scare) where we get treated to some Monster Squad type japes served up 70's style. Spook-tacular!
1. A Sizeable Problem
First aired: September 11, 1976
While on a trip to Florida, John Martin stumbles upon the legendary fountain of youth. Willing to test the waters, John sips a handful of the liquid. It's not long before he's regressing to Little John, often at the most inconvenient of moments.
2. Peter Panic
First aired: September 18, 1976
Oh dear. At a production of Peter Pan at school it is unclear which John will play which part, with predictably farcical consequences.
3. Very Little John
First aired: September 25, 1976
John tries a new formula in the laboratory that apparently might cure him from his conversions. Due to a mix up, his wife assumes that the baby she finds at home is none other than her husband.
4. The Great Escape
First aired: October 2, 1976
John Martin is detained when a sheriff demands his ID and he cannot produce it. Reverting to Little John, he squeezes out of his jail cell.
5. Big Scare, Little Scare
First aired: October 9, 1976
John has summoned Mr. Boswell, Stanley's dad, to account for his son's continuous absence to class for five days. Boswell explains that the boy is afraid of crossing in front of the Crabtree mansion, an abandoned house that neighbours believe it to be haunted. John decides to find out who's behind the Crabtree ghost.
6. Big Shot/Little Shot
First aired: October 16, 1976
It's vaccination day at school and Little John has to take his shots. Then at the end of the episode he becomes a man again and the other teachers take him to get vaccinated again.
7. Time For Change
First aired: October 23, 1976
On Thanksgiving Day John has to be a chaperone for a Thanksgiving dance at the school. He also has to deal with a girl who his son likes but who has a crush on Little John..
8. The Principal Who Came To Dinner
First aired: October 30, 1976
Big John's voice in Little John's body puts not only Martin in a squeeze but his family as well.
9. Bully For You
First aired: November 6, 1976
Stanley is again late for the class. The teacher is speaking to his students about the importance of facing up bullies. This leads to trouble for Little John when he's threatened by the class bully, Gasey.
10. Off The Wall
First aired: November 13, 1976
John is assigned to find who's behind the vandalism inflicted on the school walls. Martin is invited to join the school basketball team since he was once a superhero for his old team.
11. The Missing John
First aired: November 20, 1976
Little John receives a severe reprimand for having played a joke on the school principal.
12. Speak For Yourself, John
First aired: November 27, 1976
Because of the arrangements for the annual dance that it is held at the school, Ms. Bottomly proposes to professor Martin that he be one of the chaperones.
First aired: December 4, 1976
In order to arrange a show for the school annual party, one of Martin's students prepares a set of different magic tricks.
I liked 'Big John Little John' well enough in a nostalgic kind of a way. Those who recall it more clearly through the rose tinted spectacles of childhood memory may well enjoy it even more than I.
Strangely, this came from a thoroughly dependable stable and the story-telling opening theme would probably be enough to help identify this as a Sherwood Schwartz production whose other credits included such notables as the Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island (a personal favourite of mine), and Harper Valley PTA, all sugary feel-good family comedies.
As a comedy the laughs are very slight, with canned laughter often raising more questions than answers; why was that funny being the most obvious of these. The adult cast play it like a pantomime and Herb Edleman (a tall balding gentlemen who you'll have seen in any number of seventies and eighties shows) is easy to like in his role as 'Big John'. Herb is perhaps best known for his role in the 'Golden Girls' as one of the principal's husbands. Less easy to like is 'Little John', a pudding bowl hairstyle sporting youngster with piggy eyes and a portly tum. But he plays the part well enough.
The transfer here is decidedly on the dodgy side giving us the worst that a careless NTSC transfer to PAL can give, but despite this there is plenty to enjoy.
Definitely one reserved for nostalgia freaks or yesteryear TV trash lovers like my good self. Everyone else should avoid.