Revisiting a (literal) chapter in my life

Last summer, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be writing again online in any capacity. It’s not out lack of desire but perceived lack of opportunity. Luckily, that didn’t come to fruition, and I’m writing at a more feverish pace than I did before I reached that weird crossroads during those insanely hot New England months.

But lack of paid assignments didn’t mean I stopped writing. I had an idea for a book, an idea that I still have but currently have no time to execute in proper fashion. That being said, I did knock out two chapters for it, neither of which are polished but they are certainly readable. And rather than hoard something that might not ever reach the light of day anyways, I thought I’d put it out here on the interwebs. It’s half autobiography, half TV criticism. It’s a mix of the topics I used to write about and the topics that consume most of my keyboard time now.

I enjoyed writing it. Hope you enjoy reading it!

My family had a particular distinction while I grew up. It wasn’t that we invented anything, or started up a charitable foundation, or even were exposed to cosmic rays that gave us superpowers. No, we were distinctive due to the number of televisions that we owned. I’m not exactly proud of this distinction, but as distinctions go, this is a pretty benign one, all things considered.

Essentially, if we had a room in which it was socially unacceptable to relieve oneself, that room had a television. The bathrooms were out, but everything else was in. The kitchen, den, living room, basement, and all bedrooms eventually had a television by the time I was in fifth grade. I only knew this was unusual because the cable guy one day took great pains to tell my father that we literally had more cable boxes than any other customer they had at the time. My dad relayed this story with great relish to my mother, who responded with less with relish and more with alcohol.

Children are products of their environment, so it’s no surprise that I watch what some might consider an unhealthy amount of television due to being raised in the domestic equivalent of the Electronic section of Target. What we lacked in overall programming we made up with sheer number of physical units. Amidst the thousands of pictures currently sitting in my basement is one of my father, lounging in his recliner, proudly displaying a remote control. Course, we didn’t call it that: we called it the “clicker.” Or, since we grew up in Massachusetts, we called it the “clickah.” (I contemplating calling this book “My Friend Flickah,” but decided that would cause too many headaches and/or lawsuits.)

039_12682all-in-the-family-posters-739344.jpgBecause we had so many televisions, it was pretty hard to monitor what we were watching at all times. Sure, my brother and I knew the rules about what we could or could not watch, but it’s not like our folks could be everywhere at once. During the early part of the 1980’s, my parents worked different shifts, which meant there was usually only one parent around at any given time to watch myself and my brother. My mom worked nights, which meant that Dad would cook for us. Our version of “Must See TV” during these years were back-to-back reruns of “All in the Family” and “Taxi.” I thought the latter was pretty funny (definitely dug Latka), although the former went completely over my seven-year old head. I remember thinking that the mother in the show couldn’t sing very well, but that’s about as far as my understanding of that particular program went at the time.

(Short aside: For a while in the early-90’s, I was convinced that Jean Stapleton sung the hook on C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.” Go on, play it in your mind’s stereo. See what I mean? She’s just a squirrel trying to get a nut to move Archie’s racist butt. Anyways. Moving on.)

Mostly, however, I found myself watching more MTV than anything else. Although it took time for the network to penetrate most major markets, I seem to remember that we got it pretty early on. (I’m sure having the most televisions of any household meant MTV used us to boost its ratings during its nascent years.) There were all these rock stars imploring me to call my cable company and say I wanted my MTV, but all I wanted to do was call Pat Benetar to chill out: I was already covered, thank you kindly. I knew Pat Benetar from the “Shadows of the Night” video, which I didn’t associate so much with its WWII roots as with what I perceived to be its Snoopy roots. (Go, Red Baron, Go!)

I know it’s more than cliché to note that MTV actually showed videos at one point in its lifecycle, but I’m sure a generation that contributes economically to our world already exists that cannot conceive of music videos as anything other than one of many clips you can find on YouTube. The difference between Lady Gaga and LonelyGirl15 isn’t all that much these days. But in the 1980’s, accessing videos on the internet wasn’t exactly in play, or even conceived of on a level other than the one that also contained flying cars. About the only thing I used our computer for around this time was to play games like “King’s Quest,” which came with approximately 7,285 floppy disks for our so-called “amusement.” Trying to read someone’s poker face on the same screen in which I attempted to control a 12-pixeled, faceless hero didn’t really seem possible.

Thinking beyond what we had wasn’t in the picture, at least as far as I was concerned. Other than figuring out a way to shower while also watching television, I wasn’t aware that there were other options for consuming media at the time. About the only form of variety came from shows like “Casey Kasem’s American Top 10,” a syndicated video version of his popular radio countdown show. I listened to that show religiously at the time, taping songs that I liked onto blank cassettes via my boombox. Owning each song outright was impossible, even if I went the cassingle route. (Note to the youngings out there: we used to buy individual songs on cassette. I’m not making this up. It didn’t seem weird to drive to a store and pick up one song. Stop looking at me that way. No, I didn’t drive a dinosaur to get there. Stop that right now.)

caseykasem.gifThe problem was recording off the radio, of course, is that you never got the full song. That still holds true today, but I literally don’t know one person right now sitting at home waiting to tape songs off the radio onto a cassette tape. I can now listen to the radio on my iPod, tag a song, and have it ready for download upon my return home. That shit’s insane for someone like me who would have to wait hours to be able to tape Matthew Wilde’s “Ain’t Nothing Gonna Break My Stride,” only to have Casey Kasem talk over the first and last 30 seconds of the song.

As such, I had little sense at this age of how a song actually began or ended. Buying a cassingle or full cassette was a revelation at first, since I’d grown accustomed to Casey’s melodious words during the intro and outro of a song. Of course, since I’d try to record as little as Casey as possible when compiling my radio mixes, I’d end up with a series of tracks that featured these surreal intros intoned by America’s favorite DJ. Recording the last 10% of any of his infamous long-distance dedications yielded a bizarre, but in retrospect, highly entertaining set of dialogue snippets. Beck’s song “Loser” was probably compiled by him recording Kasem in the same way I did, putting the snippets into a hat, and pulling them out at random.

If you don’t know about these long-distance dedications, here goes: each week, Casey would read out a letter, in its entirety, from a listener of the show. Usually, this letter was written by someone either too cheap to go through therapy or actually convinced that an Air Supply song could reconnect them with an estranged family member. But Casey Kasem sold the living shit out of these songs, intoning them in ways that tore at the heart strings even while loading up your arteries with enough saccharine to give each and every listener Type 2 diabetes. You never knew when Casey would bust out that week’s dedication: sometimes he did it after Song 8, sometimes in the mid-30’s. Casey Kasem was a cruel bastard that way.

In any case, I’m sure the dedications were fine and all, but hearing only the final few moments of each yielded some unintentional comedy. So I’d hear things like, “…and his ashes sit on my bedside to this day. So Casey, could you please play Naked Eyes’ ‘Always Something There to Remind Me’?” or “… we all learned our lesson the hard way after that late-night car accident. So Casey, can you please play Corey Hart’s ‘Sunglasses at Night’?” I’m exaggerating, albeit only slightly here. Because Kasem’s voice has the type of tone that could soothe the savage beast (or Red Sox fan, in my case), the stories were by and large Jerry Springer-esque tales of suburban insanity that only sounded less than crazy thanks to Kasem’s dulcitone renderings of his listener’s problems.

(Incidentally, his voice would be ideal as an option for the ultimate money-maker: celebrity GPS voices. Honestly, how great would it be to have Kasem say things like, “In 400 yards, keep your feet on the gas and keep reaching for the expressway?” He’s just one of dozens that would be ideal, although my all-time Must Have voices would need to include Morgan Freeman and Sean Connery. The former would make those long cross-country trips more palatable, and the latter would just make me giggle no matter how bad the traffic was. If you’re looking for something a little more modern, get Jeff Donovan from “Burn Notice” to get you to your aunt’s house, Michael Weston-style. Anyways, I digress. It happens.)

It was actually Kasem’s syndicated television program that introduced me to Van Halen. I reacted to them in much the way that my Dad reacted to seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show: I laughed. I laughed hard. My young brain could not process men with hair that long, and I might have temporarily gone Joker-esque insane for about five minutes. I collapsed on the ground, squealing with laughter. It didn’t help that David Lee Roth was more flexible than any man with attached sexual organs should be. Of course, at this point, that laughter brought my mother downstairs. Horrified by what I was watching, she turned off the TV and told me I wasn’t to watch anything more like that again.

Naturally, at this point, Van Halen turned into something that “funny” into something that was “the most important thing to seek out in the entire known universe.”

Point is this: with Casey Kasem, there was now an option. I wasn’t a slave to MTV, at least for 60 minutes or so a week, anymore. Later on I learned about USA’s “Night Flight,” which showed a really bizarre mix of documentaries, reporting, and yes, music videos. I still watched 90% of my videos on MTV, but at least I knew that network no longer had a monopoly. Even if I didn’t actually known the word “monopoly” at this time. So these were the first steps of MTV’s music video decline: they no longer had control over the distribution of this particular form of media. They went from the only place that would play it to simply being the biggest resource for it. Not a big change in the long run, but a change all the same.

The much bigger blow came with the advent of the widespread proliferation of videocameras in society. Sure, devices to record home movies had been around for a while, but around the mid-point of the 1980’s, they finally started making breakthroughs in technology that no longer produced end-results that looked like poorly produced Buster Keaton films. Early adopters bought expensive units that were roughly the size of station wagons, but a little after David Lee Roth decided he was too big for Van Halen, we finally had one of our own. I know two things about this camera: 1) it was probably the most expensive single thing outside of our house or car that we owned, and 2) my parents were willing to let us use in as much as we wanted if it meant they could finally get some fucking peace and quiet in their lives.

img_ccd-tr55.jpgI only realized the latter part later in life after (spoiler alert) they got divorced and I started replaying my life in my head, sort of like how people went back to “Lost” after the series ended to figure out everything they missed the first time. But really, there’s no other explanation for letting a bunch of kids operate a sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment without supervision for hours on end. Sure, they can now claim that it fostered creativity and led us to become the people we are today. But primarily, I think they were glad that they could spend a Sunday afternoon remembering what it was like when they weren’t parents but merely people.

By the mid-80’s, videocameras that took decent footage with manageable sound transformed from something only the rich could afford to something the not-exactly-poor-so-let’s-call-it-comfortable could also obtain. They were that decade’s version of iPods: when the first iPod came out, it held eleven songs and cost roughly $11,000. Nowadays, the Nano comes with enough computer power to send a spacecraft to Mars, all for the cost of a meal for four at Applebee’s. Videocameras didn’t make quite so dramatic a leap in between the time U2 released “The Joshua Tree” and the time they threatened the world with “Rattle and Hum,” but prices still came down enough for my family to finally purchase one of their own.

What we children discovered quickly after obtaining this camera was something it took MTV nearly a decade and a half to realize: we suddenly weren’t interested in watching anything on television so much as ourselves.

The genesis for MTV’s transformation from music video channel to all-reality, all-the-time started of course with the seminal granddaddy of all reality shows, “The Real World.” But what really greased the wheels for a gradual programming overhaul was Total Request Live, or “TRL” as it was called during its heyday. Hosted by that generation’s Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, the show took the old “Dial MTV” format, added a live studio audience, gave them vials of crack, and used Pavlovian conditioning to induce wild screams at…well, pretty much anything. The intro to the newest Britney Spears video? Screaming. The announcement of an impending guest’s arrival? Screaming. Carson forcing two audience members to duel to the death to obtain the sweat rag from the cute Hanson brother? Screaming.

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the screaming, but I figured it had something to do with Daly’s voice, which didn’t induce the sonorous pleasures of Kasem but in fact had a subliminal level, one that was apparently picked up by braces and massive amounts of hair product. Daly was the Pied Piper of Popularity, Due North for everything that was cool. And after a time, the kids that went on the show realized that they could potentially tap into this epicenter of cool through osmosis, leveraging their proximity to the black hole of the music world and by extension be cool themselves.

Nothing showed this gradual transformation more clearly than in the ratio of music video to studio time. Normally, TRL would show ten videos over the course of an hour. Even factoring in commercials and a guest or two, fitting in 10 3-minute songs into an hour of programming should have been a snap. But as anyone that’s sat through the final weeks of “American Idol” can attest, having plenty of time for music doesn’t mean the show will actually fill it with the content for which we have nominally tuned in.

At first, at the show’s apex, the amount of stars seeking face time in front of millions of eyeballs cut into the time normally dedicated to showing the videos voted on by viewers to, you know, actually view. But eventually, the studio audience started to dominate the content, deciding that their voice was actually more important than the one digitally processed, lip-synched on a soundstage, and broadcast for the MTV viewing public. Carson segued from the host of the show to creepy emcee, as mic duties shifted from himself to the ravenous pack of child-things that slowly took over the studio.

britneycarson.jpgMost of this herd mentality developed around the shout outs during the various song, in which a member of the audience would state their name, location, the name of the song playing, and then something a little extra, and then the Howl of Insanity. Usually, that little something extra was supposed to be related to the song, which led to some awkward moments leading into the primal scream. You’d hear things like, “Yo, this is Austin. Brooklyn represent! This here is TLC’s ‘No Scrubs,’ and man…uh, I’d…you know, I’d scrub Chili anytime. For realz. WHHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

That would take up 7 or 8 seconds, tops, with the idea that such interruptions would add to the party feel of the show. Well, eventually, those shoutouts started to drown out the songs themselves, with speeches rivaling those of Oscar winners or, in special cases, Lucky’s monologue from “Waiting for Godot” in terms of sheer length and lunacy. Once people got a taste for the camera, there was no turning back. People onscreen were loathe to get off, leading to various shoutouts that devolved from relatively recognizable English into something too fast for even that MicroMachine spokesmen to understand. And people at home started asking the question that transformed MTV forever: “If that person can be on TV, then why can’t I?”

If MTV had been living in my household during the latter part of the 1980’s, they would have seen this coming well in advance. With the power to be the next Spielberg in our hands, we spent months and months of our formative years scripting and shooting films for the sole purpose of being able to say, “Look at us!” to our by that point more than slightly inebriated parents. While light beer and boxed wine flowed upstairs, our imaginations flowed downstairs, as our basement became McGee Studios.

It wasn’t a particularly versatile studio. Wood paneling lined the walls long before Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video made them vaguely vogue again. A thin red carpet covered the concrete floor, thin enough that when I would replicate that week’s “All-Star Wrestling” with my younger brother I would do serious damage when I would emulate Jake “The Snake” Roberts and DDT his cranium against the floor. (Important lessons such as “wrestling is fake” came a little later in life.) There was a full bar in one corner of the basement, a few support beams strew throughout to maintain structural integrity, and a wall of folding, wooden-slatted doors along the back wall to conceal the toy closet and laundry facilities. But to us, it was better than any green-screen set you could imagine.

When we first got hold of the camera, the first thing we did was try and recreate the music videos we saw on MTV. Somewhere in the recesses of someone’s closet lies footage of yours truly lipsyching about the heart of rock and roll and the rhythm that was gonna getcha. We didn’t try and match the video shot-for-shot, so we’d set up the camera, grab our “instruments”, press Record, and Milli Vanilli it up. For microphones, we had a hockey stick. For drums, we’d bang on a chip-and-dip plate like a bongo. The coup de grace was this tiny Casio keyboard, which had a built-in “Demo” melody that any child of the 80’s still hears in their nightmares. It’s the sound of a million fluffy bunnies coming to kill you in the night. So, naturally, whoever “played” the keyboards in these videos couldn’t resist playing the “Demo” in order to attempt a Diddy-esque remix.

But soon we got bored of just doing music videos, so we moved onto more and more elaborate scenarios. We’d dye our hair white with talcum powder, tuck a sock into our t-shirts as makeshift ties, stand behind the bar as if it were a newsdesk, and script out entire fake newscasts, long before “The Daily Show.” We got fairly good at holding the camera still while pausing in order to create what we thought were special effects on par with “Star Wars.”

twin-peaks-header.jpgWe even went so far as to create an entire parody of “Twin Peaks” called, “Twin Geeks.” My brother played Agent Cooper, I played The Giant (basically, I stood on a chair so my head would be against the drop ceiling), and my cousin played literally everyone else in the town. He played an officer, the villain, the Log Lady, and the legendary unnamed character “School Boy,” a nickname that has stuck with him to this day in our households. We used the wood paneling to great effect during these filming sessions, and with a CD of the show’s actual soundtrack constantly being pumped through a boom box behind the bar, we did an honest (if honestly terrible) homage/parody to the show.

But all of this wouldn’t have mattered much if we couldn’t show it to anyone. These home movies were meant to be seen, not remain unwatched. And so we’d drag our poor parents into see the results after hours of preparation yielded something like 4 minutes of actual footage. Sometimes, the films honestly amused them. Other times, they smiled so we would feel good about ourselves. Other times, they would scream in horror.

One such case happened when we filmed a commercial for human washer/dryer combos. Apparently, taking a shower and then drying off was too boring for us. So we filmed a scene in which my brother climbed into the washing machine and we closed the door on him. Using our Super Secret and Totally Patented Freeze-Pause-Record Technique, we instantly re-opened the door, got him out, tossed in a shoe, turned on the washer, and had him talk off-camera into a plastic cup to affect that he was inside. We thought all of this was insanely clever, but all my mother saw was her baby child inside an air-tight container.

His reaction? “We didn’t do it!” Which was pretty much our standard reply to whenever confronted by an angry parent. Now, on a fundamental level, this was true. At first, we treated her as if she had been duped by the power of cinema, unable to realize that he was talking off-camera after deploying our Super Secret and Totally Patented Freeze-Pause-Record Technique. But after we realized she DID in fact understand, “We didn’t do it!” no longer covered our butts as it had so often during our childhood. After all, it’s one thing to say “We didn’t do it!” when confronted with a mysterious broken vase. It’s quite another to try and talk your way out of it while showing your parents footage showing you breaking the vase.

320×240_image2.jpgOur sins were there for our parents to see. Fast forward a few years and most of our sins are there for the world to see. When the cast of “The Real World” agreed to the then unheard-of experiment to have their lives tapes under the guise of uncovering the mysteries that reveal themselves when people stop being polite are start getting real, there was no need to put the word “real” in quotation marks. It’s not that what made it to air in that first season was uncut, unvarnished verité, but it didn’t feature reality stars consciously producing Must See TV either through mimicrky or mere machination. Same thing goes for the first casts of “Survivor,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race,” and so on. These people were pioneers, like Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks, and the first person to ever utter the words, “That’s what she said.”

These initial casts didn’t have anything to fall back on for their everyday actions, so people at home watched in rapt attention at the first racial squabble on “The Real World” or Richard Hatch’s plotting on “Survivor.” It’s not as if this was the first time anyone had seen such behavior, but it was the first time anyone had seen such behavior on television in unscripted form. Somehow, this difference made what transpired both elevated and yet incredibly accessible. In the early days of such programming, we weren’t savvy enough as consumers to realize even these early iterations were the product of selective editing on the part of the networks and premeditated actions on the part of the participants, so we could watch Susan Hawk’s infamous “Snake/Rat” speech in the Season 1 “Survivor” finale and think we were listening to a modern-day version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech.

The popularity of reality television didn’t merely stem from its supposed authenticity so much as its easier entry point from “couch potato” to “celebrity.” The person at home watching “TRL” didn’t see much difference between Britney Spears and the girl sitting in the crowd eight feet away. I mean, they were both on television, right? And once the point passed from “being rich” to simply “being famous,” a sudden cottage industry exploded, fueled by studios looking for low-cost product and people willing to forgo oodles of money simply for the chance to be whisked away to “Temptation Island.” People wanted to be watched, to be seen, to be acknowledged. It didn’t matter that they were being acknowledged through giving head to “Joe Millionaire.” Context seemed superfluous to simple recognition.

Of course, as more and more programming popped up, and more iterations of now bonafide franchises aired, people got wise to what came before them. Would-be “Real World” participants studied past seasons more in-depth than Kennedy conspiracy theorists have studied the Zapruder film. “Survivor” contestants put aside “The Art of War” for “The Art of Boston Rob.” People realized which past participants got the most air time, and what acts/events/statements got said attention on the part of the editors. The godfather of these conscious manipulators has to be David “Puck” Rainey from the 3rd season of “The Real World.” The man ate his own snot, belittled his HIV-positive roommate Pedro Zomara, and still managed to hook up with two fairly attractive if completely insane roommates. We should remember that season for Pedro and Pedro alone. Instead, we rewarded a provocateur and enabled a generation of would-be celebs that turned reality into caricature.

tv_sanjaya.gifDecades later, we’re in a period of continual one-upsmanship, with simultaneously lessening shock value. Tracing the evolution of reality programming reads like a lost chapter of The Bible. From Probst 3.16: “The Real World” begat “Road Rules,” which begat “The Road Rules/Real World Challenge.” Shows like “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “American Idol” try to replicate the purity of experience from their initial seasons that tweak expectations but only yield variations on a same, often dull theme. For every Kelly Clarkson there are a few dozen Sanjaya Malakars. While shows try to squeeze every ounce of spontaneity out of their nominally unscripted programming, viewers have learned the tricks of the trade as well as the participants. In short: everyone now understands that “reality” should always be in quotes. For some, “Cops” is just “The Shield” on a lower budget.

Thus, in the end, to the surprise of possibly no one that paid attention to cultural trends since the dawn of man, our insertion into the medium in which we so desperately craved a part eventually devalued the entity itself. Fire probably seemed cool when only one clan knew how to produce it on demand; when everyone started rubbing sticks together, it seemed less special. Groucho Marx famously declared that he wouldn’t want to be a in  any club that would have him as a member. Nowaways, people gravitate not towards reality stars that make them jealous but rather feel comparatively awesome. It’s truly difficult to feel bad about one’s station in life once one realizes that he/she is not Snooki.

We certainly didn’t want to be an Italian Oompa Loompa down in my parents’ basement a few decades ago. We were too busy putting thick plastic sheets in front of the camcorder and producing that day’s hit show, “Throw Things at The Camera.” We didn’t have FourSquare to alert people where we were filming. We didn’t have YouTube to share our master creation. We didn’t have Twitter to spread the word of its presence on Al Gore’s interweb. We only had our parents eyes to validate our work, and by extension, our existence. For kids that only wanted their parents’ approval, sitting them down and holding their eyeballs hostage was the easiest way to verify we had it. If you’re wondering why so many reality stars have so many Daddy issues, wonder no more. They were just unlucky enough not to own a video camera as a kid.

Of course, now owning a video camera is as easy: just own a cell phone.  With social networking part of the everyday fabric of existence now, the question becomes this: when you can be seen by anyone, how can you be seen by everyone? Notions of privacy fly out the window when there are tangible ways to measure one’s existence: by number of Facebook friends, Twitter followers, FourSquare scores, and the number of creatures you’ve enslaved in Farmville…well, the quantifications are limitless, really. As the cost of technology decreases, and the possibilities for publishing content increases, the costs for producing content that yields eyeballs approaches zero. For the cost of a typical episode of “Twin Geeks,” someone could easily get 10,000,000 views on YouTube.

The larger world just didn’t exist for us back then. The world ended at the edge of our lawns. For better (occasionally) or worse (usually), that’s just not how things work anymore. Anyone can be heard these days. The challenge is having something to say.

One Comment

  1. Sareeta
    Posted March 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted say go for it with the book. You’re a good writer and I really enjoy those Talking TV podcasts.