By the time Fred Willard debuted on Fernwood 2 Night in 1977, he was already in his mid-40s, with nearly 20 years of showbiz experience — yet he was hardly a household name. He had logged time as a part of multiple comedy troupes and teams, and featured on multiple talk shows and variety shows. He was also appearing fairly steadily in guest shots and supporting roles on TV sitcoms. Still, he had yet to land a gig that would make him a star.
In other words: Willard was the perfect actor to play the second banana to a small-town TV host, aching to break into the big time.
Willard never did become a “star,” per se, but from the 1980s onward, he did become a familiar and welcome face on television and movie screens: As a host on the proto-reality series Real People; in a memorable cameo in This Is Spinal Tap; as the MVP of the Christopher Guest comedies Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show; and as a regular on the likes of Roseanne, Everybody Loves Raymond and Modern Family. Whenever and wherever he appeared, Willard popularized a particular comic type: a harmlessly dimwitted, cluelessly overconfident, charmingly upbeat boob.
Willard honed that character first, though, on the fake late-night talk show Fernwood 2 Night in the summer of 1977, and then on its follow-up America 2-Night in the summer of 1978. Both series were spinoffs of the syndicated soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and both ran five nights a week, for about half an hour (including commercials). Neither was a hit, except among the kind of comedy nerds who would go on to hire Willard to do the schtick he refined on that show.
Willard played Jerry Hubbard, the Ed McMahon to Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night’s Johnny Carson-esque host, Barth Gimble. The stand-up comedian and satirical musician Martin Mull played Gimble, a quintessential Carter-era sleazoid, with feathered hair, a porn-y mustache and an aggressively unbuttoned shirt. At the time, Mull had already become a counterculture favorite with his songs and jokes, skewering the kind of privileged white dudes that Gimble represented: the kind of cutie-pies who mocked anything that seemed uncool, flirted shamelessly with women and expected to be showered with affection and money.
But Mull’s persona on Fernwood wouldn’t have worked without Willard’s Hubbard. One of the big jokes of the show was that the smug hosts assumed the audience was tuning in to see them, the way that The Tonight Show viewers watched for Johnny and Ed. One of the other big jokes is that Barth and Jerry may have been right, given that their guests were usually local heroes, novelty acts and the occasional celebrity who’d been booked by mistake. Mull played Gimble with a wink, fully inhabiting a character who figured he was better than his own show. But Willard played Hubbard sincerely, as a man who genuinely thought he must be doing something important, just because he was on TV.
Mull and Willard were an incredible comic team, spending long stretches of any given Fernwood 2 Night or America 2-Night episode just riffing. Gimble would introduce a topic, Hubbard would pontificate gravely, and Gimble would pause and then crack a joke at his oblivious co-host’s expense. That routine carried the series through more than 120 episodes of sublime TV comedy. Together, Mull and Willard subtly skewered the innocuousness of television itself, while also poking fun at the kind of broadcasters who took themselves way too seriously.
Fernwood 2 Night and America 2-Night haven’t maintained the reputation they deserve, largely because they’ve vanished from television. They aired on Nick at Nite for a few years in the early 1990s, and then briefly on TV Land in the early 2000s. Neither is available on any streaming service and only a handful of episodes have been released on DVD, as an extra to the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman complete series set. Even YouTube only has a few episodes and clips — and who knows how long they’ll last, now that Willard’s death has drawn attention to them.
But even if you’ve never seen those shows, you’ve probably seen the character Willard created. The essence of Jerry Hubbard — equal parts admirably enthusiastic and embarrassingly insensitive — became the cornerstone of Willard’s comedy. It’s why he was so beloved, and why he’ll be so missed.