In a Season 9 episode of “Seinfeld,” Kramer reconstructs the remnants of the “The Merv Griffin Show” in his apartment so he can host his own talk show. As far as “hipster doofus” fantasies go, it’s a pretty good one — what TV lover hasn’t fantasized about sitting down behind Johnny Carson’s desk from “The Tonight Show,” or wished they could post up for a pint next to Norm and Cliff at the bar from “Cheers”? Thanks to James Comisar, curator of the Comisar Collection, you can now do just that — and unlike Kramer, you don’t have to fish it out of a dumpster to do it. Starting on June 2, Comisar is selling almost 1,000 items from his personal collection of television memorabilia, from the 1950s to present day, that fans and collectors can win for as little as a dollar, if they’re lucky.
Starting in the early 1990s when he was working on studio lots as a young television writer, Comisar began collecting anything he could find from various props departments — not just shows he loved, but from any whose history threatened to disappear as production companies recycled or in many cases discarded their ephemera. Decades later, he’s assembled an expansive archive that includes everything from Adam West and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin costumes from the 1966 series “Batman” to Pamela Anderson’s C.J. Parker swimsuit from “Baywatch” to the well-worn furniture occupied by Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” to, yes, the actual bar used on screen in “Cheers.”
There are older props, from shows like “Howdy Doody” and “Daniel Boone” — and new ones, from “Breaking Bad” and “American Idol,” among many others. Working with Heritage Auctions, Comisar is selling them all. He spoke recently with Variety about the reasons for selling this decades-in-the-making collection, and detailed the process of preparing them for what for fans will likely consider a one in a lifetime opportunity to own a piece of their favorite show.
How did this collection get started in the first place?
Our goal was always to try to create a public space for my private archive and others that are out there where we could pay homage to television storytelling, which is really very important to people all across the world. We wanted to set up a place where when a show wraps or even during production run, there would be a place. But museums are awfully expensive to develop. I don’t even know what the museum, the Motion Picture Museum is up to, 300, 400 million or something like that. Ironically, the people who support those kinds of developing institutions are usually studios themselves, yet to get them to look at this stuff as a treasure instead of trash, proved to be very difficult.
So the catalyst for putting up this collection was just the realization that you were not going to be able to create a museum space for it?
Absolutely. As this collection started to grow, it became clear that what I needed to archive were the important TV shows of our time, whether it’s “Star Trek” or “All in the Family,” “ The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad,” these great, important shows, didn’t matter if I liked them or if they appealed to me personally. That’s how we built this archive. But now that the TV museum mission is over, at least with my team, I could not rationalize these pieces just continuing to sit in an archive.
How did you decide what would be put up for auction and maybe what, if anything, you would hold onto?
My first call was to Heritage Auctions in Dallas because these guys, they’re the biggest collectibles auction company in the world, and biggest auction house in America. All the founders of the company are fellow collectors, and they understood this gargantuan task that was now in front of me. We all put our heads together and thought, “Well, this is going to be a three-day auction. What goes in and what doesn’t?” It became fairly organic. It became my strong belief that many, if not most, of these pieces need to be attainable by just a regular collector. I didn’t want to curate a collection that only a billionaire could consider.
After we decided the great majority of these pieces, some of them fantastic, we decided that what the balance would be. Some of the decisions were based on the immense footprint some of these pieces require in storage. That was the impetus for deciding it was time to part with the “All in the Family” set or Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” set. We always treated this like a very serious mission.
What percentage then of your collection would you say is up for auction now?
Many, if not most, of my very best pieces and most valuable as far as iconography is concerned, valuable as in present art market is concerned, is in the sale. It’s not like we held back any super, great pieces for future sales. Batman and Robin costumes, that’s got to be a half million bucks. Archie and Edith’s chairs, who knows where that lands. This is not just the very best of my collection. This is the very best that our art market has ever seen. And one of the things that Heritage and I agreed upon was nearly every lot, I list exactly where it came from — if it came from Johnny Carson, if it came from Aaron Spelling — to let a collector have some peace of mind that that was the situation.
Can you highlight a few of the things that you are personally excited to be able to offer people the opportunity to own?
It sounds dorky, but every single piece is like a family member to me. When I see them, I remember what I had to go through to get it, find it. [But] they’re all memorable to one age demographic or another. Some people grew up watching the “Cheers” bar, and so that to them is a cultural icon. Some people grew up watching “Beverly Hills 90210,” and the Peach Pit is where they hung out and so on. Whether you grew up in the Midwest or New York City, I believe we really have something for everybody. And 90 plus percent of the pieces start at a dollar, that’s it. If you can get to a dollar and you’re the only one who wants it, you get it.
Is this the first time you’ve done this personally?
This is not the first time I’ve sold this sort of rarefied pieces. This is definitely the first time I have let my super AAA-list pieces like the “All in the Family” living room chairs. There will never be a day that I or anyone else will acquire pieces more important to television than those chairs.
But this is the first time I’ve just opened the vault, and nothing was held back. If I’m being honest, as I walked through the gallery and look at this stuff, I’m like, “Shit, I want to buy that back. Why did I ever get rid of that?”
After this literal and metaphorical clearinghouse, what do you expect or anticipate will be your status as a collector?
Well, I think my days of collecting for my own archive are over. I feel like I will continue to represent the buying interests of important buyers all over the world. But in actual fact, what I’m going to do after this is going to my wife and I and my daughter. We’re very committed to rescuing animals, dogs, and cats. Always with an interest towards very senior animals, animals that have stage four something-or-another. We always take those animals into our home. As my daughter was when she was a little younger, we had to put that on hold because it was hard to see an animal in the house three months and then it was gone. But we see a future in really focusing in on saving these animals and giving them a little dignity and comfort in the last chapter of their lives. I guess in some ways, that’s another saving and collecting. But that’s where our interests will go, though it’s not going to be any more years of gathering. We had a incredible run. We’ve created a collection that never existed. We fostered and pioneered an area of collection that simply did not exist before I got the call to be of service to these pieces. That’s for me personally, it’s very satisfying. Because at many times during the journey I thought, “Am I out of my mind? Does anybody care about this stuff like I do?” The answer is hell yes.