I occasionally drive through South Lake Union to get to Seattle Center, and recently I’ve noticed the demolition of the old King Broadcasting Company building. The new HQ of King 5 is directly opposite the home base corner of Safeco Field, with a shiny sign that seems to be staring at the stadium’s butt. First Avenue South and Edgar Martinez Way has to be the most fascinating intersection in Seattle right now. Within the space of a block you have a major sport franchise, a television broadcaster, Oculus Rift offices, a strip club, and a workspace for independent VR game developers.
But on Dexter in SLU, Amazon’s neighborhood, backhoes are bringing an old institution down. Driving past it yesterday I reflected a bit on what shows I used to watch on NBC and how they all came through this building on their way to my house fifty-five miles away. The A-Team, Saturday Night Live, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Diff’rent Strokes, Miami Vice, the Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, Knight Rider. NBC was my favorite among the four channels of television entertainment I had to choose from in the eighties.
I’m also reminded of something that happened to me in that building in the summer of 1983. What follows is a chapter in a memoir I’m calling Nerd in a Time Machine.
Television’s electrons pulsed insistently through the week. TV consisted of NBC, ABC, PBS, KVOS, and occasionally a spotty Canadian channel, CBC. Our antenna didn’t pick up CBS, meaning that Magnum PI or Dukes of Hazzard mostly failed to register with me. The Monkees were a staple on KVOS channel 12 and inspired the birth of my imaginary friends, Jack and Johnny, with whom I had an imaginary band. I became emotionally entangled with the plight of those resourceful souls stranded on Gilligan’s Island. In one episode a typhoon descends on the island, sending the castaways frantically searching for shelter. When the wind whipped Gilligan’s hat off his head I burst into tears. Gilligan losing his hat was an unimaginable tragedy to me. One scene later, he reappeared, having apparently retrieved the hat, and I felt both relieved and profoundly disappointed that the show had skipped over how he’d retrieved it.
The bargain basement parallel reality of Canadian broadcasting delivered two shows that I seem to remember being on the air on Sundays. The Friendly Giant featured an actor whose job it was to stand amid dioramas, arrange doll furniture, read story books to the camera, and play folk songs on a recorder with a chicken puppet. Then jolly Mr. Dressup came on, with his puppets Casey (a little boy) and Finnegan (a mute canine). I loved watching Mr. Dressup because he drew pictures on pads on an easel. Watching grown-ups draw never failed to make my sense of time disappear.
My dad watched the news. Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson intoning the Pynchonian names of the Reagan era: Caspar Weinberger, Tip O’Neill, Scoop Jackson, and, in the Gipper’s second term, Fawn Hall and Ollie North. Johnny Carson, as reliable as a cultural metronome, would seemingly never go off the air. I heard rumblings at day camp about David Letterman and howled at his stupid human tricks in friends’ late night rec rooms while stuffed on microwaveable snacks and pop.
Then cable arrived, but not where I lived. If you wanted cable channels on the outskirts of Conway, Washington circa 1985, you had to commit to a satellite dish the size of a pizza large enough to feed a hundred people. So I rarely glimpsed MTV, but when I did, at friends’ houses in Mount Vernon or in vacation motel rooms, it captured my attention like nothing else. The very first video I ever saw was a mind-bender—“Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics. Otherwise, if I wanted to watch rock videos, I had to tune in to Friday Night Videos, which aired at some insane hour on channel 5. There was also a local Seattle show called REV: Rock Entertainment Video on Sunday afternoon. It was on REV that I witnessed live footage of a performance by a Seattle band called Red Dress that completely freaked me out. The singer, Gary Minkler, prowled the stage singing a song about eating mice. “I like to eat my mousies raw, I love to eat them raw!” he screamed. This was around the same time one of the local stations broadcast a documentary called Streetwise about Seattle street kids who ate food from the trash, solicited johns, and smoked weed. Even though it was only an hour south, Seattle in the eighties felt distant and dangerous and sophisticated, crawling with rodent eaters and teenage hookers.
Television didn’t show me the kinds of environments I spent my time in, but I brought television’s narratives with me into my outdoors, acting out plots I’d seen on my favorite shows, like Matt Houston, the crime-fighting Texas oilman. Or The Fall Guy, the crime-fighting stuntman. Or Knight Rider, the motorist with a perm who drove an intelligent car and… what was it he did again? Right. Fought crimes. Most revered of all among these renegade wrong-righters was The A-Team, in which Hannibal, Murdock, Face, BA Barackus, and a criminally underwritten token female thwart wrongdoers in a place called, enigmatically, “the Los Angeles Underground.” I always wondered when it was they were going to get around to visiting one of the tunnels.
Television was another tributary of information that merged with Stephen King novels, metal bands, and Dungeons and Dragons modules to create a roaring river of entertainment in my head. I squirmed on our thick living room rug over the anxiety-producing sexual tension of Three’s Company, lapped up the weird sci fi/fantasy hybrid cartoon Thundar the Barbarian, and laughed along with the celebrities who amused each other to no end on The Gong Show. Most of all I looked forward to Sunday night’s double punch of weirdness that was That’s Incredible and Ripley’s Believe it or Not. One episode of the latter, about a man’s near-death experience in which he momentarily descended to Hell, scared me so badly that I fled the room crying and cowered in my bed.
Television provided the social glue of morning bus ride conversations. With under a dozen channels to choose from, chances were high that my friends and I had spent the previous evening plugged into the same shows. One week a series of Ray Harryhausen movies aired in prime time and my friends and I spent the ride up Starbird Road enthusiastically recounting highlights from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, debating the way various lines had been delivered, knowing that the show was lost forever. We watched the fall of the Berlin wall and the explosion of the Challenger understanding that this might be our only opportunity to witness this footage unless we happened to hit the record button and tape over our moms’ Richard Simmons tape.
When VCRs appeared they were boxy and mechanical and faux wood-grained, bearing into America’s living rooms the hushed promise of pornography. Early on, video stores rented out the machines as well as the tapes. I joined [our neighbors] the Jeffersons for marathon viewings of Friday the 13th, The World According to Garp, Lords of Discipline, and Blade Runner. The act of watching whatever movie you wanted, in your own home, whenever you wanted, with the option of being able to stop, rewind, freeze frame, or fast forward, was some kind of novelty.
A few years ago I bought a DVD called Sesame Street Old School, which featured episodes of the show from the early seventies. These would have been episodes I’d seen in our house in Concrete as a toddler. My mother had plopped me in front of a Canadian version of Sesame Street with animated segments that taught the alphabet and numbers in French (“Un, deux, troi, quatre, cinq…”). Half a life later, when I watched the DVD as an adult, I was overcome by the eeriest kind of nostalgia. I had no literal memory of these various gags and skits featuring Henson’s Muppets and friendly neighbors like Gordon, Lydia, and Luis, but I could tell that some deep, preverbal part of me remembered. It was like looking down a mine shaft at some televisual ore sparking deep below.
Maybe it was the ephemeral quality of television that made me pay such close attention to it. A few years ago I met TV comedy writer George Meyer, who was responsible for many of the SNL sketches and Letterman bits I spent the eighties memorizing with my friends. I asked George what sketches he was most proud of writing, and he mentioned a little seen sketch comedy show called The New Show, which I had enthusiastically tuned into during its short run. He mentioned a bit called “The Food Doctor” that he was fond of. “Oh,” I said, “You mean the one where the guy brings in his pretzels because all the salt fell off during a motor boat ride?” George eyed me uneasily, like I was some sort of stalker.
In the summer between fourth and fifth grade I enrolled in a journalism program for “gifted” kids. The program involved weekly meetings with a reporter from the Skagit Valley Herald, a friendly woman with a column in the Living section. By the end of the session I’d see my first ever published piece of writing appear in the Herald, a short article about my friend Matt’s experience at a track and field tournament. My journalistic ambitions extended beyond print, however, and when I started asking questions about television journalism, the reporter arranged a field trip to Seattle’s King-5, the regional NBC affiliate.
The plan was to have lunch with Cliff Lenz, host of the morning show Good Company, then attend a taping of the show. When we showed up at King-5, Cliff descended the stairs into the lobby as a sort of televisual god. Was he good looking? Hell yes. Charming? Check. A giant in the field of softball interviews for a tiny media market? You know it, Seattle.
We ate lunch at the King-5 commissary, where I spotted several other television personalities while waiting in line for my burger and fries. When I got to our table, the only open seat was next to Cliff. Everybody still had their plates of food on their trays and there wasn’t much room to set my own tray down, so I sort of overlapped it with Cliff’s tray. My plate with the burger and fries immediately slid off the table and onto the floor.
To say I was mortified doesn’t quite capture the night terrors this moment would inspire for the rest of my childhood. It’s still the story I tell when somebody asks the perennial most-embarrassing-moment-of-your-life question. Somehow I managed to get a new lunch, and Cliff proceeded to regale us with high-powered broadcasting lore, obliterating my dreams of a career in TV journalism in the process.
“So,” Cliff said, turning to me, “I understand you have an interest in going into TV news?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I do.”
The morning show host leaned close and lowered his voice to a villainous whisper. “Then you’d better have A LOT of money.”
I remember the studio being smaller than it appeared on television, and that there was a segment on making something called “invisible zucchini bread.” Mostly I sat in the studio audience, mortified that I had just dropped my burger in front of somebody so famous, and so rich, apparently.
Weeks later I watched the broadcast of the show in my living room with my mom, who squealed when Cliff promised to be right back after these messages and the camera zoomed in on my dorky, grinning face. My hair was a mess and on my chin, beaming like the signal from a television tower, was a gigantic zit.