It took several attempts before the life and work of James Thurber came to TV. My World and Welcome To It starred William Windom and ran on NBC during the 1969-1970 season. Despite positive reviews, NBC cancelled it due to low ratings. It then won two Emmy Awards.
James Thurber Adapted For TV
Writer/cartoonist James Thurber (1894-1961) is best known for penning dozens of short stories, many of them satires and some of them autobiographical, and drawing an equal number of cartoons that were published in The New Yorker. He also wrote a handful of novels, a play or two, some essays, a good number of fables and a satire with E.B. White called Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do. His work has been adapted for film — The Male Animal (1942) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), for example — stage, radio and, most extensively, television.
The first television adaptation of Thurber’s work likely came in October 1948 when ABC’s Actor’s Studio broadcast an episode based on Thurber’s short story “The Catbird Seat.” This was followed in December by an installment based on “The Night the Ghost Got In.” Several episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents were based on Thurber stories, including “The Male Animal” (originally broadcast February 27th, 1950), “The Catbird Seat” (originally broadcast July 14th, 1952) and “The Greatest Man in the World” (originally broadcast December 28th, 1953). Short Story Playhouse, broadcast on NBC’s midwest network, aired an adaptation of a story from Thurber’s collection My Life and Hard Times in August 1951.
The Motorola Television Hour adapted “The Thirteen Clocks” on December 29th, 1953. Omnibus presented at least one of Thurber’s short stories, “The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl,” in January of 1954. A Kukla, Fran and Ollie special based on Thurber’s fantasy novel Many Moons was broadcast on December 24th, 1954 on ABC. “The Catbird Seat” was brought to television for at least the third time in February 1956 on Matinee Theater on NBC.
Playhouse 90 presented “The Male Animal” on March 13th, 1958, starring Gale Gordon, Andy Griffith, Dick Sargent and Ann Rutherford (who, a decade earlier, had co-starred in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, loosely based on a Thurber short story). General Electric Theater adapted “One Is a Wanderer” in September 1958 and Armchair Theater took a stab at “The Greatest Man in the World” in November of that year.
A Pair Of Proposed Series Fizzle
An attempt was made to bring a weekly series based on Thurber’s writings to television as early as 1953 but the project went nowhere . In April 1958, The New York Times reported that producer Jules C. Goldstone had acquired the television rights to Thurber’s work and was planning a weekly series called “The Secret Life of James Thurber,” with Mel Shavelson attached as writer and Walden Productions producing . Goldstone called the project “anti-family” that would include both reality and fantasy segments . In January 1959, UPI‘s William Ewald wrote that a pilot for “The Secret Life of James Thurber” was to be filmed on January 12th with Arthur O’Connell starring and Screen Gems producing .
On June 9th, Hal Humphrey revealed that it took Goldstone “a lot of negotiating” before Thurber agreed to hand over the rights to his work . The pilot episode, titled “Cristobel,” was broadcast on Monday, June 9th, 1959 as an installment of The Alcoa-Goodyear Theater. According to Humphrey, Goldstone was still trying to find a sponsor for the proposed series. Airing the pilot would allow him to recoup some of the production costs.
“I hate to use the term,” Humphrey wrote, “but I suppose it must be called situation comedy. Even so, it is considerably more adult and has more genuine charm about it than any of the dozen or so such comedies on the TV schedule today” . O’Connell played James Monroe, who was both a Thurber character and a stand-in for Thurber himself. Georgann Johnson played his wife and Susan Gordon his daughter. The plot of the pilot involved the daughter wanting a puppy and Monroe insisting she couldn’t have one.
Copyright © TV Guide, 1969 
Although he praised the cast, the writer, the director and the UPA cartoons, Humphrey railed against the laugh track, arguing it “makes about as much sense here as an editor insisting that Thurber put the word ‘joke’ in parenthesis after each sentence where he feels the reader should chuckle or howl” . William Ewald of The Sarasota Journal agreed, writing that the laugh track “cheapened the show” while opining that the “overlay of cute touches clashed with Thurber’s hard prose” . The Miami News suggested that the pilot “has much to recommend it, but on [the] whole is [a] disappointment,” calling the animation wonderful and the acting good but lamenting that “too much is set up in [a] conventional TV situation-comedy framework” .
Goldstone was unable to find a sponsor and the weekly series never materialized. Likewise, Leland Hayward’s attempt to bring the Thurber-penned Broadway revue, “A Thurber Carnival,” to television also went nowhere. In August 1960, The New York Times reported that Hayward was working to obtain the television rights to the revue from Thurber for a proposed March 1961 broadcast . James Stewart was said to be interested in starring in the broadcast. Thurber’s wife, Helen, told The New York Times they would be “agreeable” to the broadcast if it did not interfere with staging the revue, which at the time was suspended. Ultimately, the broadcast never took place and the revue closed for good in November.
A second attempt to launch a weekly series called “The Secret Life of James Thurber” resulted in another pilot, this one starring Orson Bean as John Monroe and Sue Randall as his wife. It aired as an installment of The DuPont Show with June Allyson on March 19th, 1961. Unfortunately, by the early 1950s Thurber was entirely blind and thus unable to see either of these unsold pilots. He died on November 2nd, 1961 at the age of 66. But efforts to translate his work to television lived on.
William Windom As John Monroe
In February 1969, when NBC announced its 1969-1970 schedule, included was a sitcom based on Thurber’s works (and life) called My World and Welcome To It, starring William Windom as a cartoonist . It was given the Monday 7:30-8PM time slot where it would compete with Gunsmoke on CBS and The Music Scene on ABC. According to Broadcasting, NBC called its new slate of programming “contemporary” and “realistic” . In an August article discussing pivotal programs and time slots, Broadcasting called My World and Welcome To It an “unusual comedy,” suggested that “it could take situation comedy in a brighter, more imaginative direction” and stated it had “undeniable promise” . Because it was followed by Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The NBC Monday Night Movie, even if it failed to draw an audience it wouldn’t do all that much to dent NBC’s strength on Monday evenings .
The series would follow the life of John Monroe, writer/cartoonist for a magazine called “The Manhattanite” (based on The New Yorker). John, a relatively bitter man, spent the bulk of his time either worrying or complaining about his work, his home life, his relationships with his wife and daughter or any number of life’s many and varied frustrations. His outrageous fantasies and daydreams would play out in animated segments based heavily on Thurber’s work. Joining William Windom in the series were Joan Hotchkis and Lisa Gerritsen as Ellen and Lydia Monroe, John’s wife and daughter.
The cast also included Harold J. Stone as Hamilton Greeley, John’s boss, and Henry Morgan as Phillip Jensen, one of John’s co-workers.
My World and Welcome To It was a Sheldon Leonard Production with Sheldon Leonard serving as executive producer and Danny Arnold as producer. According to the closing credits, the series was “conceived for television” by Melville Shavelson who, more than a decade earlier, had written “Cristobel.” Jules Goldstone, who had produced “Cristobel” and personally secured from James Thurber the television rights to his work, was also included in the closing credits: “Thurber material by arrangement with Jules Goldstone.” The animation for the series was provided by DePatie-Freleng.
Not All Critics Are Impressed
Although it has a reputation for being a critical darling, not every reviewer was impressed with My World and Welcome To It when it premiered. Perhaps the harshest review came from John Gould of The New York Times, who called the debut “hackneyed gibberish relieved only by an occasional Thurber drawing” and suggested that “the conceit of the Hollywood producer that he could do a variation on Thurber for TV rating purposes speaks for itself” . Dwight Newton of the San Francisco Examiner said the premiere was “a heavy-handed go at fragile fantasy” while Norman Mark of the Chicago Daily News wrote that it “tried to appeal to all parts of the TV audience and failed” . The San Diego Union‘s Donald Freeman was “fearful” because “flashes of Thurber emerged but the strain was heavy, the whimsy plodding” and Clarence Peterson of the Chicago Tribune had “a dark feeling that it will get old pretty fast.”
Other reviewers, however, were effusive in their praise. Percy Shain of the Boston Globe called the premiere “a joy and treasure.” Kay Garddella of the New York Daily News wrote that it was “a delightful change from what we’ve been accustomed to.” New York Post‘s Bob Williams said “it’s warm, it’s witty and it’s a sophisticated cut above the best of the TV network situation comedies.” Terrence O’Flaherty of San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the “premiere episode was a delightful improvement over every TV attempt at domesticity I have seen.” Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times called it “a genuine original in the redundant world of television.” And the St. Louis Globe-Democrat‘s Pete Rahn said it was a “fresh piece of comedy.”
Barry Harrison of the Washington Evening Star, perhaps sensing that television audiences wouldn’t embrace the series, stated that he had “an uneasy feeling” about the show, suggesting that “it is not long for TV.” Frank Judge of the Detroit News felt it “may take time to catch on.” And Lawrence Laurent of The Washington Post, after noting that the premiere “does capture some of Thurber’s world,” opined that it “will have a small and fervent collection of followers.”
The Many Worlds Of My World
Episodes of My World and Welcome To It were not strict adaptations of Thurber stories. Many of Thurber’s short stories were in fact very, very short and thus not well suited to a half-hour television episode. That didn’t stop the series from crafting at least one episode based on a single Thurber cartoon, however. Every episode was in some way influenced, inspired or suggested by Thurber. The premiere episode, broadcast on September 15th, 1969, saw John tell Lydia a story about Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant meeting at Appomattox that bore little resemblance to their actual encounter. The tall tale was based a short story written by Thurber called “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.” In a fantasy sequence, John saw himself as a drunken General Grant who surrendered to General Lee.
The character of John Monroe had been featured in several Thurber short stories, including “Mr. Monroe Holds the Fort” and “The ‘Wooing’ of Mr. Monroe” and some of these stories were used into episodes of My World and Welcome To It. For example, the February 9th, 1970 episode was based on the latter story and utilized the same title. The October 6th, 1969 episode was based on several Thurber works, including “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery,” all of which were about dogs. One of Thurber’s most famous short stories, “The Unicorn in the Garden,” was used in the October 13th, 1969 episode, which also incorporated another story, “The Night the House Caught Fire.”
Many episodes opened with a combination live-action/animated sequence in which John exited his house only to have it partially transform into his wife who would then proceed to nag him. Other animated sequences faithfully recreated Thurber’s drawing style in black and white. Sometimes, John’s cartoons would come alive and interact with him, more often than not belittling his behavior. Episodes also sometimes involved elaborate fantasy sequences based on John’s overactive imagination. In the January 26th, 1970 episode, for example, John had several fantasies about his beautiful new neighbor, played by Lee Meriwether. John also frequently broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the viewer, lamenting the situations he found himself in.
Episodes of the series saw Ellen becoming jealous about the relationship between John and a female coworker, Lydia running away and John tagging along to keep an eye on her, John quitting his job after an argument involving a cartoon, the family falling apart after their cat went missing, John and his friends pitted against their wives in a battle of the sexes, and John trying to defeat Lydia in a game of chess.
Guest stars over the course of the season included Paul Ford, Frank De Vol, Ray Walston, Larry Storch, James Gregory, Vic Tayback, Neva Patterson and Danny Bonaduce. Producer Danny Arnold had a bit part in the October 6th, 1969 episode.
Cancellation & Emmy Awards
My World and Welcome To It was not an outright failure in the Nielsen ratings and in some parts of the country did quite well. The premiere drew a 20.6/37 Nielsen rating in New York City, beating Gunsmoke‘s 11.2/20 rating easily, but the 7:30-8PM half-hour was NBC’s lowest for the evening in that market . The second episode was down slightly to a 19.3/34 rating but still comfortably beat its competition . The third episode rose to a 22.4/37 rating, again first for the city . The fourth episode drew a 19.4/31 rating, this time only slightly ahead of Gunsmoke‘s 17.0/27 rating .
Nationally, however, CBS and Gunsmoke easily beat My World and Welcome To It, regularly ranking in the Top Five or Top Ten. ABC’s competing The Music Scene was regularly at the bottom of the Nielsen chart. That left My World and Welcome To It somewhere in the middle, neither a smash hit nor an outright failure. The October 6th episode, for example, was comfortably in the middle third of the Nielsen chart, along with other news shows like The Bold Ones, The Debbie Reynolds Show and To Rome with Love .
NBC was happy enough with the show’s performance to renew it for the remainder of the 1969-1970 season. But in February 1970, the network canceled My World and Welcome To It along with five other shows . It was replaced by a half-hour version of The Red Skelton Show, which was moving from CBS to NBC for the 1970-1971 season. As Broadcasting had predicted in August of 1969, the show had not impacted NBC’s overall strength on Monday evenings; Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was more than strong enough to lift the network’s average rating and The NBC Monday Night Movie often performed solidly as well.
A total of 26 episodes of My World and Welcome To It were produced and broadcast during the 1969-1970 season. The last first-run episode aired on Monday, March 9th, 1970.
When nominations for the 22nd Annual Emmy Awards were announced in May of 1970, the show had earned two: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, for William Windom . It won in both categories when the awards were handed out in June 1970.
There was some viewer protest over the cancellation. The Los Angeles Times reported in March 1970 that My World and Welcome To It was the cancellation of the 1969-1970 season receiving the most letters from angry fans . A May 29th, 1970 editorial in The Bryan Times lamented the fact that a show with 21 million viewers (a figure that may not have been accurate) could be canceled, especially one that was “beautifully acted” and “true to life” .
On Thursday, June 1st, 1972 CBS began repeating select episodes of My World and Welcome To It. The repeats aired from 8-8:30PM and ran through September 7th. Also in June, The War Between Men and Women opened in theaters. The film, written by Danny Arnold and Melville Shavelson (who also directed) was based on James Thurber’s life and work. Jack Lemmon starred as Peter Edward Wilson, the Thurberesque character with Barbara Harris as love interest Theresa and Jason Robards as Theresa’s ex-husband, Stephen. Although not otherwise connected to My World and Welcome To It, Lisa Gerritsen appeared in the movie as the daughter of Theresa and Stephen.
After My World and Welcome To It ended, William Windom developed a one-man show based on Thurber’s works, and began touring the country in the early 1970s, eventually adding a second version featuring additional material. These performances continued into the 1980s. My World and Welcome To It was seen on superstation WGN’s national feed (but not locally in Chicago, Illinois) in 1990 and perhaps a handful of other local stations over the years but otherwise has never been syndicated. It has never been commercially released on VHS or DVD.
2 “Comedy Is Making A Comeback On TV.” New York Times. 14 Apr. 1958: 47.
4 Ewald, William. “Television in Review: Garry Moore Show Worthy Tuesday Night Addition.” Bend Bulletin [Bend, OR]. United Press International. 7 Jan. 1959: 6.
5 Humphrey, Hal. “Will James Thurber Make It?” Evening Independent. [St. Petersburg, FL]. 7 Jun. 1959: 7-D.
7 Ewald, William. “Television in Review.” Sarasota Journal. 8 Jun. 1959: 17.
8 “Behind Your TV Screen.” Miami News. 8 Jun. 1959: 4B.
9 Adams, Val. “TV Rights Sought For Thurber Play.” New York Times. 16 Aug. 1960: 59.
10 Gent, George. “N.B.C. Replacing 7 Shows In Fall.” New York Times. 18 Feb. 1969: 82.
11 “‘Get Smart’ switches networks, nights.” Broadcasting. 24 Feb. 1969: 65-65.
12 “Next season’s make-or-break show.” Broadcasting. 18 Aug. 1969: 38-42.
14 Gould, Jack. “TV: ‘Laugh-In’ Dispels Doubt of Timorous Season.” New York TImes. 16 Sep. 1969: 95.
15 All review excerpts from “Mixed reviews pour in on ’69 season,” Broadcasting, September 22nd, 1969, Pages 50-53.
16 “New crop stirs up same old claims.” Broadcasting. 22 Sep. 1969: 50-51.
17 “Ratings race goes into first turn.” Broadcasting. 29 Sep. 1969: 58-59.
18 “Advantage of an early start.” Broadcasting. 6 Oct. 1969: 42-43.
19 “NBC-TV clings to Nielsen lead.” Broadcasting. 13 Oct. 1969: 46-47.
20 “NBC, CBS Tune Out Several Old Programs From Fall Schedules.” Wall Street Journal. 20 Feb. 1970: 21.
21 Some sources indicate that My World and Welcome To It was nominated in a third category, Outstanding Achievement in any area of Creative Arts, for special photographic effects seen in the episode “Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys” (the December 15th, 1969 episode was actually called “Rally Round the Flag”). This was likely a Creative Arts category and may have had a different title.
22 “Protest Letters on End of My World.” Los Angeles Times. 24 Mar. 1970: E22.
23 “My World, and Welcome To It.” Editorial. Bryan Times [Bryan, OH]. 29 May 1970: 4.
Originally Published August 26th, 2010
Last Updated May 7th, 2018