As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, I generally avoid middle-aged navelgazing about how much better things were when I was a kid. Mostly it’s because they weren’t, but it’s also because there are few things more trite and boring than old people smugly looking down on things that exist for the youth.
HOWEVER. However. I will say that you kids today will never know the simple pleasures of Saturday morning cartoons. That is, of course, because there are now multiple channels available that air nothing but cartoons, twenty-four hours a day. But it lacks the joy, the soothing satisfaction, of rising with the sun, sneaking around so you don’t wake your parents, pouring yourself a triple serving of Froot Loops, and sitting in front of the television for the next five hours. Sometimes you’d get there early, and end up having to watch the end of local morning news, but that was alright, it was only ever good news at the end, like a waterskiing squirrel or a Kiwanis pancake eating contest.
Because the Saturday morning cartoons ritual was such an innate part of the 60s through 80s childhood experience, it seems strange in retrospect for a network to air shows encouraging kids to watch them. After all, what else were we going to do during that time, go outside? God fucking forbid. Nevertheless, as previously covered in The NBC Saturday Morning Preview Revue, this was a common practice for nearly three decades, elaborate primetime affairs created largely to promote mediocre children’s programming. The programs were mediocre, I should point out, not the children, although I suppose some children are mediocre, pobody’s nerfect after all.
A few years ago, I did marketing for a medical supply company. When you think marketing/advertising, you think Mad Men, three martini luncheons in which you reel in potential new clients with drawings and mock commercials that will surely help them move at least twice as much product as the last quarter, and celebrate a deal with a few lines of coke in a restaurant bathroom. My experience, however, was closer to that of Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano, right down to the flickering fluorescent lights in the office.
As creative a person as I like to imagine myself to be, it turned out to be pretty challenging to promote neck braces and toilet chairs as good gift ideas. People don’t usually browse medical supply company websites if they don’t need to, and no amount of promotions, advertisements, or “buy one, get the rest of it free because we can’t get rid of this shit” discounts will convince them to stock up on “necessities” like dental bibs and urethral catheters. Needless to say, I’ve learned to look at marketing executives with some level of sympathy, even those who earn several times more per year than I did doing the same job. It’s a thankless job, in which recognition is only earned when the marketing campaign fails and the product is a flop. Even if you don’t believe in whatever it is that you’re selling, you better damn well make it seem like you do, otherwise the consumer is going to smell the indifference from a mile away.
Sure, you kids today might have your fidget spinners and your YouTube stars, but you know what we rapidly fading Gen X’ers had? Saturday morning preview shows, self-indulgent, half hour programs in which television networks promoted upcoming cartoons. Many of these shows featured stars who were already in established shows, and doing an almost adequate job of acting like they’re not there under contractual obligation.
There were dozens of Saturday morning preview specials, spanning all three major networks over nearly three decades. Why I don’t recall ever watching any of them I can’t imagine, other than probably after 8 P.M. most nights was when my father declared eminent domain on the television. CBS had specials featuring the cast of Good Times, and then, years later, one starring Hulk Hogan, Captain Lou Albano, Pee-Wee Herman, Herve Villechaize, and Patti Labelle–all in one show! ABC countered with shows starring Tony Danza and Weird Al Yankovic. But try as they may, none of them could top the sheer insanity of one of the earliest specials aired, 1974′s NBC Saturday Morning Preview Revue.
Being raised by parents who cared little about what I did as long as I came home each night with all my limbs intact, I read pretty much whatever I wanted as a child. I read The Shining at age nine, even though I really didn’t understand it much. Not long after that I read a book called The Piercing, about a girl who suffers from stigmata after the Devil sodomizes her. Let me be clear, I had no idea what sodomy was (and stigmata even less so), I just knew that it was bad.
One book I always avoided, though, because it just seemed too frighteningly plausible, was Go Ask Alice. Purportedly the real diary of a teenage girl whose very first time experimenting with drugs sends her spiraling into an abyss of addiction, promiscuity, crime, and violence, it was banned in most schools and libraries, even as most recently as 2007. Even after it was revealed sometime in the 80s to be fiction, Alice remains one of the most challenged books of all time, and you’d be amazed to realize just how many gullible souls not only still think it’s real, but believe that it somehow inspired Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” released four years earlier.
The 80s seemed to be a golden era for “that kid,” young actors whose familiar faces, if not particularly familiar names, always seemed to pop up on one TV show or another. There was Meeno Peluce (Silver Spoons, The Bad News Bears, The Love Boat, countless other sitcoms), Ronnie Scribner (Fantasy Island, Little House on the Prairie, Ralphie Glick in the TV movie adaptation of Salem’s Lot), Matthew Labyorteaux (The Love Boat, Little House on the Prairie, Amazing Stories), among many other names that nowadays are only brought up in advanced bar trivia competitions.
Then there was Dana Hill, who appeared in neither The Love Boat or Little House on the Prairie. You might not immediately recall her name, but you’d definitely recognize her–her best known role was probably the second Audrey Griswold in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but she also had memorable dramatic roles in Shoot the Moon and Fallen Angel, the first TV movie to address the scourge of child pornography. If Dana Hill seemed like a world weary adult in the body of a kid, she sort of was–type-1 diabetes stunted her growth, allowing her to play characters years younger than she actually was. Sadly, by the late 80s the illness began to take a toll on Hill’s appearance, limiting her to voiceover work, and in 1996 she passed away from a diabetes-related stroke. Unlike her male counterparts Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis, Hill wasn’t aggressively cute and cuddly, instead giving her roles, even in light comedies, a uniquely melancholy touch.
That melancholy touch is downright unsettling in 1980’s What Are Friends For?, one of the more bizarre episodes of ABC’s Afterschool Special. Essentially a cautionary tale for parents–don’t get divorced or your kids might lose their fucking minds–it’s about two mismatched young girls who (at least temporarily) ignore their differences and bond over their respective broken families.
Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever to follow a celebrity’s decline. Even celebrities no one cares about, such as Kardashians in-laws or former cast members of The Bachelor, get 24 hour coverage, and the more often that coverage catches them doing something undignified, the more entertaining it is. Britney Spears looking fit and happy at the People’s Choice Awards? Borrrrrrring. Britney Spears crying in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot while power eating a Thickburger? Now you’re talking. We’re nothing if not a bit sadistic, particularly when it comes to misfortune befalling the people we envy.
Though tabloid culture certainly existed sixty years ago, it didn’t have that play by play discussion of every failed relationship, coke binge, and nip slip that exists today. Without Perez Hilton around to draw spurting penises on their foreheads with MS Paint, yesterday’s stars fell a little more slowly and quietly, but with no less sadness.
Orson Welles’s career trajectory wasn’t so much sad as it was puzzling. How do you go from writing, directing, and starring in Citizen Kane to narrating a song on a Manowar album? Despite being one of the finest actors and filmmakers in the golden age of movies, Welles, particularly in later years, couldn’t get a nickel tossed in his direction for his projects, most of which, if they ever got off the ground at all, were never completed due to either lack of finances, interest, or both. It’s mind boggling to imagine Orson goddamn Welles having to scrape together his own resources to finance projects, when today producers continue to throw enormous piles of money at people like Adam Sandler, despite ever diminishing returns. Nevertheless, old Hollywood, while more glamorous, was also rather more cutthroat, and Welles, while a critically acclaimed auteur, was never a smash at the box office. If he wanted something done at all, he had to do it himself.
If such a thing can possibly be “trendy,” there was a strange but necessary uptick in TV shows and movies about child molestation during the mid-80s. Like eating disorders and domestic violence a couple years earlier, it was a significant real-life issue that Hollywood just seemed to sort of discover one day. In addition to the critically acclaimed Something About Amelia, normally lighthearted sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes, Webster, and Mr. Belvedere all had episodes dedicated to a young person being sexually abused by an adult they’d learned to trust. Naturally there was an ABC Afterschool Special on the subject as well, as young people with problems to overcome were the very lifeblood of the series.
Needless to say, Don’t Touch is a jarring change of pace from The Day My Kid Went Punk. It’s like eating a mayonnaise sandwich on white bread, and then the next bite has horseradish in it. But let us bravely proceed…
In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by enjoyable comedic actor turned inexplicable pop culture demigod Bill Murray. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, it’s very sly and self-aware, where even during the meant to be sincere moments Murray makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on him, most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st century TV audiences seem to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.
If you genuinely love that kind of thing, then the 70s was your peak decade. It offered multiple specials by the Carpenters, the Osmonds, John Denver, and Bing Crosby, among others. Presenting the kind of Christmas celebration most viewers would never experience, with horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow and singalongs around a piano, often the stars would include their real life families in them, as if to suggest that the shows were really more like a home movie than a TV program. Of course, hindsight being 20/20, it’s hard to watch a lot of these shows knowing the sadness behind the scenes. It’s heartbreaking to hear Karen Carpenter sing anything, let alone “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s difficult to see Donny and Marie Osmond lauding their parents for their traditional homespun values, knowing that they were the family’s primary source of income for many years, essentially missing out on their childhoods. It’s entirely possible that John Denver was sauced while filming his various specials. Then, of course, there was Bing Crosby.
“Teaching someone the meaning of Christmas” is probably my favorite genre of Christmas special. For one thing, it’s a situation that absolutely no one in real life will ever encounter. For another, they’re impossible to do without at least a small amount of, a shmear, if you will, of sap. Sometimes, as in 1984’s A Christmas Dream, it takes great, overflowing bucketfuls, enough to choke a reindeer.
A Christmas Dream stars Mr. T and Emmanuel Lewis, whom America had deemed among the “safe ones.” Despite looking and acting exactly like Mr. T, here he plays Benny, a street corner Santa who has a chance encounter with Billy (Emmanuel Lewis), a little boy wandering the streets of New York City by himself. Billy glumly informs Benny that he doesn’t believe in Christmas, and doubts Benny’s assurances that he can convince him otherwise. What’s got the wee lad so down, you might ask? Is he homeless? Is he an orphan? Has he been stricken with a terminal illness? No, he’s a latchkey kid, which Billy explains to Benny in a voice that suggests his parents keep him locked in a basement and feed him only bread and water.
Christmas episodes of sitcoms and cartoons are almost never their strongest episodes, mostly because there’s something a little forced and rote about them. With only a limited number of plot variations (It’s a Wonderful Life redux, a character rediscovers the true meaning of Christmas, etc.), it comes off as insincere. Is it December? Time to have an episode of Mr. Belvedere that’s a take on A Christmas Carol. It’s long been as predictable as that one member of your family who insists on giving you a picture frame as a present every year.
Considering that neither show took place on Earth, the makers of He-Man and She-Ra should not have felt obligated to do a holiday episode, but they did, and that’s how we ended up with the charmingly corny He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special, airing in 1985.Similar to Die Hard, in that it isn’t so much about Christmas as that it just happens to take place at Christmas, it offers mermaids, metal dragons, robot dogs, “beast monsters,” a mindblowing original holiday song, and He-Man wearing a Santa Claus costume, complete with a white pageboy haircut.