The following excerpt is from my memoir, Some Dude’s Life
Briefly, when I was around five years old, I became convinced that it was possible to trigger the faceless reactions of a live studio audience in my everyday life. I was a big fan of Happy Days and worshipped the Fonz. One night, as we were heading over to the Jeffersons for dinner, I decided that I would make my entrance like Fonzie, with the lapels of my jean jacket popped and my thumbs out. I assumed that this entrance would be met with the disembodied, admiring whoops that signalled Fonzie’s entrances at Al’s, but when I strutted through the Jefferson’s front door going “Ayyyyyyy!” only Tracy reacted, bursting out laughing, leaving me confused and disappointed.
Network television was the shag rug womb of the 1980s, its electrons firing insistently through the week, delivering comical misunderstandings, cops who had no choice but to break the rules, and adults looking devious while holding glasses of Zinfandel. My mother 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, watching a DVD of some of these epiodes as an adult, I was overcome by the eeriest nostalgia. I had no visual memory of these cartoons and sketches, but some part of my midbrain received them as echoes rising as from a televisual mine shaft plunging deep into preverbal memory.
The Monkees, a staple on KVOS channel 12, inspired my imaginary friends, Jack and Johnny, with whom I played in an imaginary band. I came to understand the 1940s cultural references in Warner Brothers cartoons and what “whoopie” meant on The Newlywed Game. I became emotionally invested in the plight of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. In one episode, they’re hit with a typhoon, forcing them to frantically scramble for shelter. When the storm whipped Gilligan’s hat off his head, I burst into tears. Gilligan losing his iconic hat was an unimaginable tragedy to me. One scene later, he reappeared, having miraculously retrieved the hat, and I felt both relieved and disappointed that the show had skipped over how it had ended up back on his head.
The bargain basement parallel reality of Canadian broadcasting gave us two shows that in retrospect seem to have been more hallucinated than broadcast. The Friendly Giant featured an old man who stood amid dioramas, arranged doll furniture, and played folk songs on a recorder with a chicken puppet. Then jolly Mr. Dressup appeared, with his puppets Casey (a little boy) and Finnegan (a mute canine). I adored Mr. Dressup because he drew pictures on pads on an easel and looked like my dad.
My dad watched the news. Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson intoned the Pynchonian names of the Reagan era: Casper Weinberger, Tip O’Neill, Booth Gardner, Scoop Jackson, and, in the Gipper’s second term, Fawn Hall and Ollie North. The three networks kept American culture glued together by asserting a prevailing morality while simultaneously making playful jabs at the mainstream. No one was more deft at this balancing act than Johnny Carson, as reliable as a cultural metronome, taking another pretend golf swing, raising his eyebrows in mock surprise. Then David Letterman sneered his way through the country’s rec rooms, throwing frozen turkeys off buildings onto trampolines and prank calling delicatessens.
Saturday Night Live entered my consciousness in the Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat and Billy Crystal “Maaaah-velous” era. One afternoon after YMCA day camp, my mom said, “Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Dennis Miller are doing a free standup show at Seattle Center tonight. If we leave right now we can make it.”
Crossing each of the 55 miles between my house and Seattle took about a minute. My mother and I showed up right on time at the Mural Ampitheater. I remember Dana Carvey gazing skyward and saying in his Church Lady voice, “Well! The Space Needle looks like a giant penis!” My mom I doubled over on the lawn, howling.
Cable arrived, but not where I lived. If you wanted cable channels in Conway, Washington circa 1985, you had to commit to a satellite dish the size of a pizza, if pizzas came in sizes large enough to feed hundreds. So I rarely glimpsed MTV, but when I did, at friends’ houses in Mount Vernon or in vacation motel rooms, it grabbed my attention like nothing else. The Eurythmics, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, ZZ Top, Michael Jackson, Madonna, post-makeup Kiss. If I wanted to watch rock videos at home, I had to tune in to Friday Night Videos, which aired so late on KING-5 it should have been called Saturday Morning Videos.
There was 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 in which 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!” This was around the same time one of the local stations miraculously broadcast a profanity-filled documentary called Streetwise about Seattle homeless kids who scrounge food from the trash, solicit johns, and smoke weed. Even though it was only an hour south, Seattle in the eighties came across as dangerous and transgressive yet unfailingly dorky, crawling with rodent eaters, teenage hookers, and John Keister deadpanning “The Rocket Report.”
Network television didn’t show me the kinds of environments I spent my time in, but I brought television’s narratives with me into the 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 crime-fighting motorist with a talking car and a perm. Most revered among these wisecracking vigiliantes was The A-Team, in which Hannibal, Murdock, Face, BA Barackus, and a criminally underwritten token female character thwart wrongdoers in a place enigmatically known as “the Los Angeles Underground.” Every week, I wondered when it was they were going to get around to visiting the tunnels of this subterranean part of LA.
Television was a tributary that merged with Stephen King novels, heavy metal albums, John Hughes movies, and Dungeons and Dragons modules to create a roaring river of entertainment in my brain. I squirmed on our thick living room rug over the sexual tension of Three’s Company, scrutinized the weird sci fi/fantasy hybrid cartoon Thundar the Barbarian, and came to know 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 the uncanny that was That’s Incredible and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a show that exposed a world full of ancient tombs, religious cults, mummies, and zoological oddities. Jack Palance narrated these tales of the macabre in a voice that sounded like it had been scrubbed with steel wool. In one episode, a man reported on a near-death experience in which he momentarily descended to Hell. It terrified me so badly that I burst into tears, fled the room, and cowered in my bed.
Television provided the themes 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 tuned 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 recounting highlights from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, debating how various lines had been delivered, piecing together a story doomed to be lost outside our recollections. We witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall and the explosion of the Challenger, understanding that this might be our only opportunity to experience this moment in history unless we happened to hit the record button, at the risk of taping over our moms’ Richard Simmons and Jane Fonda workout tapes.
When VCRs appeared, they were boxy and mechanical and faux wood-grained, bearing into America’s living rooms a hushed promise of pornography. Early on, video stores rented out the machines as well as the tapes. I joined the Jeffersons for marathon viewings of Friday the 13th, The World According to Garp, 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 pause it and take a pee, was such a novelty that we popped popcorn and bought Red Vines and Junior Mints for the occasion.
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, if chronically exhausted 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 Nelson’s experience at a track and field tournament. My journalistic ambitions extended beyond print, however, and when I started asking questions about television news, 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 the station, Cliff descended the stairs into the lobby like a television 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 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 splattered on the floor. Somehow, despite my mortification, I managed to get a new lunch, and Cliff proceeded to regale us with high-powered broadcasting lore, destroying 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,” eleven year-old me said, “I do.”
The morning show host leaned in close and lowered his voice to a villainous whisper. “Then you’d better have A LOT of money.”
The studio felt smaller than it appeared on television. They described how the cameras worked and instructed us to pay attention to the Applause sign. There was a segment with a chef who made something called “invisible zucchini bread.” I sat rigidly in the studio audience in a state of sustained horror over having dropped my burger in front of somebody so famous (and rich, apparently).
Weeks later, my mom kept me home from school so we could watch the broadcast of the show. We didn’t own a VCR, so this was our one and only chance to see me on TV. She squealed when Cliff promised to be right back after these important messages and the camera zoomed in on my grinning face. I was applauding, as instructed. My hair was an oily mess and on my chin, beaming like the signal from a television tower, throbbed a gigantic zit.