What do you get when you combine Florence Henderson, KISS, and the Wicked Witch of the West? You get the Paul Lynde Halloween special, of course!
The Paul Lynde Halloween Special was a TV variety show that aired on October 29, 1976. It was a bizarre combination of sketches, musical numbers, and celebrity guests that was so absurd it developed a cult following mainly because it was the first TV appearance of KISS.
I adore this special and watch it every Halloween. This special falls somewhat in the same category as the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, but this is actually watchable. It’s watchable in an absurd, feel-you’re-watching-a-train-wreck way, but it’s still amusing.
If you want a crash course on the Star Wars Holiday Special, check out my article here.
This is a look back on a show that even though it came out in the late 70s, found an audience in the 80s and beyond thanks to KISS fans and bootleg videotapes.
Grab your Dr. Dentons, and put on some “Disco Baby,” it’s time for the Paul Lynde Halloween Special.
Who Was Paul Lynde?
This is probably a good place to start. If you didn’t grow up in the 60s and 70s, you’re probably not familiar with Paul Lynde. If you did, you would know him from “Bye Bye Birdie,” along with his guest spots on “Bewitched.”
And for years, he was also the center square on The Hollywood Squares. It was his quick wit and savage one-liners that made him the perfect supporting character. For anyone younger, he is the influence for Roger the alien on “American Dad.”
Here’s another fact that blew my mind: Paul Lynde was the voice of Templeton, the rat in the Charlotte’s Web movie from 1973. I watched this movie so many times as a kid but never made the connection until now.
When it came to TV and movies, his scenes were always memorable, but he never carried a show all by himself.
Writer Bruce Vilanch observed Lynde was best when he came in with a quick zinger and ducked away quickly. But he still was a true talent. He was also famous enough that he deserved his own show. This led to the “Paul Lynde Show” in 1972.
ABC developed this show, and it served as technically the ninth season of Bewitched. There was a lot of interest in this show and it debuted to one of the highest ratings for a debut show ever. But then it fell off a cliff.
It was that same issue of Lynde being better as the comic relief than carrying the entire thing. The show obviously didn’t last, but ABC still owed him something. To keep him happy, they gave him his own special.
And since there was something decidedly “witchy” about Paul Lynde: it would be a Halloween special.
The Premise of the Paul Lynde Halloween Special
In the 1970s, variety shows were a big deal. This is an age when there were only three networks, so anything on TV could be a massive event. Variety specials were perfect because it was like a night of going to the theatre but you could eat dinner on your lap.
The shows had dancing, singing, comedy, sketches, and guest stars. And everyone had a variety special. Here are just a few from over the years:
- The Carol Burnett Show
- Sonny and Cher
- Dolly Parton
- Johnny Cash
- The Brady Bunch
- The Smothers Brothers Show
- Tom Jones
- The Jacksons
Honestly, there are probably close to 100 that happened over the course of the 1970s. Paul Lynde and the variety show format seemed like a match made in heaven. Here’s the “plot” of this special:
Lynde starts out confused as to what holiday it is. He dresses up and sings Christmas, Valentine, and Easter songs. We meet his housekeeper (the iconic Margaret Hamilton aka the Wicked Witch of the West) who informs him it’s Halloween.
This leads into an opening monologue with some of the worst writing and jokes you’ll ever see. We are then taken into a musical number where Lynde reprises the song “What’s the Matter With Kids Today” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” It ends with an unspoken cameo from Donny and Marie Osmond.
The special then follows Lynde and Hamilton to visit her sister, who lives in a Dracula-like castle. It turns out her sister is a witch: WitchiePoo from H.R. PufnStuf, played by Billie Hayes. This is when Hamilton turns into the Wicked With of the West—or basically an elderly version of her.
For some reason, they gave Lynde three wishes. His first is to be a trucker… I’m not joking. This puts him in a sketch where both he and Tim Conway (from the Carol Burnett show) both try to marry Roz “Pinky” Tuscadero from Happy Days. (She played The Fonz’s girlfriend.)
He then returns to the manor where KISS of all people performs “Detroit Rock City.” I should point out—and we’ll cover more of this in a moment—that this was KISS’ first TV performance. They had appeared on one other midnight show previously, but this was the first time the country got to see them and during prime time.
Pauls’s next wish—for some reason—is to live like a sheik in the Sahara. There, he tries to woo Mrs. Brady herself, Florence Henderson. And it gets uncomfortable. Then Tim Conway comes back in to kidnap the sheik.
His last wish is to go to a disco; which was the style at the time. Everyone shows up and we get to see Florence Henderson (who was a good singer) belt out “That Old Black Magic.” KISS plays two more songs and the whole thing finishes with the entire ensemble singing “Disco Baby.”
What the Hell is Going on in This Thing?
The huge ensemble was because the network didn’t think Paul Lynde could carry the thing by himself. Guest stars were also a way to get more viewers to watch. This was when the Brady Bunch was at its peak, and Florence Henderson was like America’s mom.
Tim Conway was a variety show staple, and who didn’t want to see the Wicked Witch of the West?!
We also get appearances by Betty White and Billy Barty. Barty played the cameraman in UHF with Weird Al Yankovic.
The funny thing is, Lynde had no idea who most of these people were—especially KISS. So why was KISS in this? Well, there’s the Halloween theme, so that fits in nicely, but mainly they were trying to get as much exposure as possible. They didn’t care what show they were on as long as it was in prime time.
Gene Simmons shares they were actually thrilled to be there because they were obsessed with The Wizard of Oz and couldn’t believe they were meeting Margaret Hamilton.
Lynde maybe could have carried the show, but he was still considered “a flavor in a recipe.” But all of these unrelated elements combined are what make this thing like a car wreck you can’t look away from.
It’s hilarious to see a combination of people who have zero connection to anything, and honestly, no actual connection to Halloween. Besides the opening number, the whole thing feels like leftover variety show material. The writing is atrocious, and the entire thing feels like a way to debut KISS to the world—and also to hear Mrs. Brady sing disco songs.
It’s bad—but it’s amusingly bad.
How Did This Show Go Over?
There were so many bizarre variety specials over the years that the Paul Lynde Halloween Special sort of fit right in. But this one-upped the bizarre factor by quite a bit. Why in the hell was this collection of celebrities put together? Why does a Halloween special finish with a disco number?
Back in the 70s and early 80s, no one had a VCR unless you were very well off. And I’m assuming these aren’t the type of people who tune into a Halloween variety show.
However, in those days, you had one shot at seeing something on TV. Sometimes, you may be left shellshocked wondering if you had seen what you thought you just saw. All you could do was talk about it the next day and try to piece together the moments that you quickly forgot.
This is the same issue with the Star Wars Holiday Special: people wondered if that had actually really happened.
If a special was good, they may re-run it. If something was awful: it was gone forever. And that would have been the fate for the Paul Lynde Halloween Special if it wasn’t for what would become a huge fanbase: The KISS Army.
Fun fact: Ringo Starr’s son was the president of the KISS fan club.
After 1976, this special disappeared, but KISS was really taking off. They were more of an underground niche group before this, but the Halloween Special introduced them to a nationwide audience.
Between 1976 and 1978, KISS exploded in popularity and developed an intensely passionate fan base. Going into the 80s, they were arguably the biggest band in the world. As their fan base grew, so did interest in all of their past recordings and appearances–especially their first TV appearance.
New fans who never saw them on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special clamored to find this thing. Fortunately, those few people who owned a VCR in 1976 had taped the special. This would lead to a massive amount of bootlegging of the tapes to share them around the country and world.
Slowly, but surely, the Paul Lynde Halloween Special experienced a resurgence in the 80s and this was when most people saw it for the first time. They came for KISS but were left with how absurd—but amusing—this show really was.
The Legacy of the Paul Lynde Halloween Special
If it wasn’t for all these tape traders in the 80s, this special would have been lost forever. The interesting thing was, the head producer of the show had wanted to keep this thing alive. But with only crappy VHS copies of it, there wasn’t a way to reproduce or re-release it.
Then, producer Bob Booker found the original footage of the show. It was thought that it had been lost for good. But it took two years to secure the rights before he could re-release it. I’m not sure why people would be fighting over the rights—but I’m sure KISS is involved somehow.
They released the Paul Lynde Halloween Special on DVD on October 2nd, 2007. Then, some decent copies started to make the rounds on YouTube, where it should still be available to watch.
Then, for some reason, Amazon Prime Video released it on their streaming service. This was back in 2020 and I just happened to come across it. As am I writing this (October 4th, 2021) I don’t see it available. They may release it in a few weeks, as I would think it may now be a yearly Halloween release, just like Monster Cereals.
Check out my article all about the best cereals of the 1980s here.
So whether you watch it on DVD, Prime Video, or just on YouTube, you can see this thing in all its absurd glory. As mentioned, this show somehow became part of my Halloween-watching ritual. I do not know how this started, but like the show: it’s not going away anytime soon.