There are a few pop culture moments that have become uncomfortably sad, if not even macabre, in retrospect. Take Bill Cosby’s bit from Himself about how his wife once became so frustrated with their son’s behavior that she demanded that Cosby murder him. Or Dennis Miller greeting guest Phil Hartman on his talk show with “How’s Bryn?” barely a year before Hartman was shot to death by his wife in a murder-suicide. Or the exhausted sigh Kurt Cobain lets out near the end of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, recorded just five months before he killed himself.
Depressed yet? Well, then allow me to sink you deeper into the pit of despair and talk about Freddie Prinze. Prinze, a stand-up comedian, experienced almost instant stardom after an appearance on The Tonight Show. In 1974, he was cast in Chico and the Man, a warm, uplifting sitcom about a streetwise but good hearted Puerto Rican youth, and the miserable old white man who barely tolerates him. Chico and the Man was a hit, and Prinze proved to be such a popular guest on the talk show circuit that he was offered a four year contract with NBC.
His first gig with NBC following the new contract was, curiously, hosting a primetime preview show called The NBC Smilin’ Saturday Morning Parade in 1976. I say “curiously” because nothing about Prinze’s persona, despite being just 22 at the time, or his comedy, screamed “popular with the little ones.” And yet, here he is as “The Grandest Parade Marshal of Them All,” singing and dancing in a garish cape and top hat, and doing an almost convincing job of not looking completely out of his element. Four months later, Prinze, who struggled with depression and drug addiction since his teens, committed suicide.
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.