Remember When There Weren’t Any House Shows?

Every Saturday morning, instead of going to synagogue like the Torah commands, I sit in my living room and watch my wife watching what I’ve come to call “house shows.”  You know what I’m talking about.  Shows where people decorate houses, renovate houses, buy houses, sell houses.  Shows where contractors troll the parking lots of Home Depot and Lowe’s, looking for the unsuspecting owners of living rooms and yards in desperate need of television crews.

The first house show that I remember was called This Old House, hosted by Bob Vila and his flannel shirt.  At the end of the show would be an old residence, beautifully restored, like a Victorian or Neanderthal cave.  I don’t know how the show began because the only reason I went to that channel was to watch Gummi Bears, and This Old House came on right before it, and in my haste I sometimes went to the channel before This Old House had ended.  And as Bob Vila sat back on the stained porch he had just added to a Sumerian mud hut, I would say to myself, “How could someone stand to watch a show like this?”

Fast-forward about fifteen years, and pretty much the only kind of show we watch in my house is a show like that.

I never understood the interest in these house shows.  A show put together by professional contractors and designers.  People that know how to knock down walls, pour concrete, and install plumbing.  People that can rearrange entire homes in their minds.  People that can draw a straight line.  Homeowners, living in ordinary homes, with ordinary husbands who would rather be writing blogs than hammering nails, watch these shows and wonder why their homes don’t look like the homes on television.

Because the houses on these shows are far from ordinary.  Kitchens with a backsplash made of tile reclaimed from a Pompeian mosaic dug out from two tons of igneous rock.  New living room floors from hard wood reclaimed from that house that got swallowed up in Poltergeist.  The only thing that isn’t reclaimed is my use of the remote control.

And the shows all have catchy names.  One show that’s been getting a lot of playing time is called Property Brothers, where one brother is a real estate agent who shows the homeowners a few houses they like, and then leads them to a house they can afford, and the other brother helps stays up all night renovating it to look like the houses they liked.

I think a better show would be called Property Spouses.  The home would be already bought, and it would be husband/wife team that would help decorate it.  The husband would put in a leather couch and large television, and the wife would come in afterwards, replace the couch with a fabric chaise lounge and the television with a baby, and make the husband redecorate the garbage right out the kitchen.

Another show that gets a lot of playing time is called House Hunters.  Here is a typical episode.  A young couple puts on camouflage and grabs their rifles and heads out into the woods.  A small cape cod, three bedroom, two bath, leans over a brook and takes a cool drink.  The man is slow to unshoulder his rifle, but his wife is quick, sets her sight, and fires.  Her aim is true, but the house heard the husband’s Droid beeping and turned, catching the wife’s round in the chimney.  Panicked, the cape cod runs through the woods leaving a trickle of blood running down the outdated — but in good condition — vinyl siding.  The wife and her husband set in pursuit.  She gets off a few more rounds, but it turns out the home is a short sale, and the bank holds on to it until long after rigor mortis has set in.

But the house show that has become my favorite is probably DIY Disaster.  In each episode, a pair of homeowners have an unfinished project, so they bring in a professional contractor to finish the project while the homeowners stand around drinking coffee.   In one episode, a man had attempted to fill an inground swimming pool in the middle of the couple’s living room.  But halfway through the project, he had gone insane from too many viewings of that “discount double-check” commercial with Aaron Rodgers, and was committed to an asylum with the pool only halfway dug out.  Further complicating the situation was that to save time he had started filling the pool up with water as he worked, so that the halfway dug out pool was halfway filled with water, and the standing water had become home to many bugs and aquatic life.

Luckily, the host of the show arrived on the scene and was able to finish the project, using the aquatic life as independent contractors.  The sea otters turned out to be natural talents, and were used in subsequent episodes, until a labor organizer got hold of them and had them balancing picket signs on their noses.

Remember When It Was Fun To Go To the Movies?

This was the title of one of my earliest posts, but that post did not express what I truly felt in my heart on this subject. A more proper treatment follows. 

Remember when it was fun to go to the movies?

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

I do.

Going to the movies as a kid was one of my more cherished experiences during the Reagan Administration.  On a Friday night or Saturday afternoon, my father would ask my brother and I, “How would you boys like to see” and he would name a movie that he thought we would want to see and that he felt would be appropriate for children our age. Until I went away to college, this meant it had to be a cartoon or about a talking animal.

I distinctly remember my father handing the ticket cashier a $20 bill for an adult and two children, and getting back enough change to buy us candy. Twizzlers were my go to movie-food. I would make sure to open it before the coming-attractions so that the deafening Twizzler-wrapper noise would not disturb my fellow viewers. Then I would take each Twizzler, bite off both ends, and blow through it like a straw.

One of my earliest movie memories was when my father took my brother and I to see a popular holiday season movie called Gremlins.  The commercials that had probably influenced my father’s choice of film had showed these cute little primate-looking things.  Except at some point the movie became less about cute little primate-looking things and more about old women sent on an electric chair speeding up several flights of stairs and jettisoned through a window to certain death.  My father was more horrified than the characters in the movie.  He asked my brother and I if we wanted to leave, but we shook our heads, eyes never leaving the screen so that we wouldn’t miss any of the mayhem.

My wife and I recently went to the movies for the first time in years.  There were so many teenagers I thought the Garmin had accidentally sent us to the high school.  I said to my wife, “So this is where people go when they are not old enough to go to bars.”  She replied that my social commentary would sound a lot better while waiting on line for tickets.

While I was waiting for tickets I looked up at the prices, and realized I was going to have to hit the ATM that was conveniently located fifteen paces away in the theater lobby. While punching in my PIN I reminisced about the days when a movie ticket cost only $7.50. After we got the tickets I wanted popcorn, and had to hit the ATM again.  Thank goodness it was a week I got paid.

We sprinted to Screen # 47 and did not miss a single moment of the half-hour of coming attractions and commercials.  I looked around for the remote control and finally understood what was meant by the term “captive audience.”

Half the seats the theater were occupied by teenagers, and each teenager’s hands were occupied by a small glowing screen. I thought that perhaps the small screens were a visual aid for a generation so accustomed to viewing small screens that the big screen exceeded the viewing range.  But upon closer inspection of the Justin Bieber seated next to me, I saw that the little screens were just smart phones that were being used in the way that everyone uses them: tune in globally, tune out locally.  If there was ever really a fire in the crowded theater, at least I would be able to see where I was going.

As the movie started, I noticed that the younger members of the audience would get up and leave, and then come back, and then leave, and then come back.  These antsy adolescents were either part of a cult that drank a lot of water before a movie, or were hanging out in groups and treating public space like their den.

About a half-hour into the movie, a latercomer took a seat behind me.  He spent what seemed like ten minutes taking off his very large and crinkly coat, and made so much noise that I missed the framing of the protagonist’s major conflict.

Then someone in the back right corner decided it was time for potato chips or some other snack that comes in a deafening bag.  Two characters in the film started and ended a romance before the character in the back of the theater was done opening the bag, which the good folks at Dolby were nice enough to pipe through in surround sound.

During the final battle scene, two people a few rows back got into an argument over the federal budget.  And then someone shouted into a cell phone, loudly, “Just meet us outside! The movie’s almost over!” I started to get up and say something, but the soles of my shoes were stuck in congealed soda that a fellow film-goer had wanted to share with the floor.

When I got home I called up my father. I told him about my experience at the movies, about the cell phones, the coming in and out, the talking, the eating, the glowing screens. “Dad, it’s just not like it used to be,” I said, and thought that he would feel my pain and join in condemnation.  But he just laughed and said, “At last, my son, you are a man.”

Remember Voltron?

Remember the 1980s cartoon Voltron?

I do.

Voltron was a cartoon about five robot lions that combined to form a giant robot humanoid warrior named Voltron. The lions were not self-animating but were each piloted by a human being. I did not really care about the human beings. I don’t profess to know the history of Voltron, the story of Voltron, or even the names of the characters. In this pillar of geek culture I am, at best, a dabbler. Doctoral dissertations have likely been written on this subject and I am humbly aware that there is nothing that I can say that will contribute anything new to the analysis of 1970s anime that evolved into this show and its progeny.

All I can contribute is what Voltron meant to me. And what it meant was five robot lions forming a giant humanoid robot warrior with lion-heads for hands and feet, all to very awesome music.

My entire reason for watching Voltron was to watch them form Voltron. I watched He-Man for the moment when [spoiler alert] Adam turned into He-Man, and I watched Voltron for the moment when the five robot lions formed Voltron. These lions would be fighting some evil force in the universe – a giant alien monster, a giant alien robot, Grendel – and things would not be going well, and all of a sudden one of the lion pilots would suggest forming Voltron.

I never understood why they did not form Voltron the minute they saw the evil-doers coming over the Throgs Neck Bridge. But I will try to describe the experience. The pilot of the leader lion would press some controls, the key to his lion would shift around in the ignition and glow, there would be a collage of all five pilots of the robot lions saying “Voltron Force,” and then the music would start.

Oh that music. All great cartoon moments involve music. Voltron formed to electronic trumpets, guitars, and drums, and my image of the battle between good and evil formed to Voltron forming. The pilots of the robot lions would talk the audience through the formation.

[Trumpets, trumpets]

“Form feet and legs!”

[Guitars, drums]

“Form arms and torso!”

[Trumpets, guitars, drums]

“And I’ll form the head!”

I remember that Voltron was formed in exactly this manner in every single episode. I don’t recall any “express” formation of Voltron where certain steps were truncated. I don’t recall ever seeing Voltron show up to the party already formed, smoking a cigarette and sipping a giant robot martini.

The moment Voltron formed was the most exciting moment of my life for that day. There was nothing more satisfying to my pre-adolescent mind than the combination of electronic fight music and robot lions interlocking to form a giant humanoid robot warrior. But as happened with so many shows for me, the plot of Voltron became too complicated to follow. Something about a love story and zoning regulations. Perhaps I sustained brain damage from eating bowls of Count Chocula. Whatever the reason, I did not care about the story. I just wanted them to play the music and form Voltron, again and again. But alas, my family did not have a VCR at the time, and thus I had no means of recording the show. The forming of Voltron would be just another childhood gem that would live only in my fading memory.

And then along came this thing called YouTube, where an adult can be a kid when he’s supposed to be working. It did not matter that there was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and a pile of dirty snow in the driveway. I had returned home, at last, rocking back and forth in my chair, heart racing along with the music, watching them form Voltron again and again, and remembering the days when, in between commercials, good battled evil.

Remember When “You Can’t Do That On Television” Was On Television?

Remember when that show You Can’t Do That On Television was on Nickelodeon?

I do.

There have been shows where kids make fun of their parents.  There have been shows where kids put on comedy sketches.  There have been shows where kids are supposed to be in “reality”.

But there has never been another show where green slime fell on someone’s head every time they said “I don’t know.”  This was a show without equal.ycdtot

Imagine that every time you called the Department of Motor Vehicles and someone who was supposed to know something said “I don’t know” got green slime dumped on their head.

Politicians must have been religious watcher of YCDTOT because they never say “I don’t know”.

The show was the most brilliant display of what I call repeated punchlines.  Every episode took a group of these kids and rotated them through the same settings: the living room with the parents, the classroom, the arcade, the fast food restaurant, the summer camp.  Each of these settings was hosted by the same repulsive adult.  For example, the proprietor of the fast food restaurant was Barth, and every time the teenage patrons alluded to the fact that the burgers were made of roadkill, he would say, “D’uhhh I heard that.”  But you had to hear to really know how effective it was.

Blip.  Ross.  The Executioner who would say “Ready…aim…fi-” and then the executionee would say “Wait wait wait” and the Executioner would say “What is it dis time?”  These are the memories that get me through the cold, cold world of adulthood.

And now.  What have kids to look to now?  Yes there are more shows.  Yes there is more variety.  Yes there is more of everything on television.

But there are no shows where people get slimed for saying “I don’t know”.

Remember When “The Clapper” Was A New Invention?

Remember that invention called “The Clapper” and the commercials for it?

I do.

We were sitting around, watching television one day, when all of a sudden a commercial came on for this thing called “The Clapper.”  It was a device that you affixed to your lamp.  By simply clapping  your hands you could turn the lamp on.  Clap again, and the lamp turned off.

There was even a song that went with the commercial.

Clap-On [clap, clap]

Clap-Off [clap, clap]

Clap-On, Clap Off

The Clapper [clap-clap]

The purpose of the Clapper was that you could turn the light on and off without getting up.  The commercial showed people this – turning lights on and off without leaving the couch.

The last segment of the commercial was of an elderly woman in bed who claps off a television that is glowing blue snow.  She claps and collapses back into slumber.  What convenience!

I have yet to meet a person who owns a clapper.  In fact, I have yet to meet a person who has any device that turns lights on and off remotely.  Despite all the devices that have come our way in the last few decades, people still turn light on and off the fashioned way.

Except for Orthodox Jews on the Shabbos.

Remember “It’s 10 O’Clock – Do You Know Where Your Children Are?”

Remember that public service message where a guy would suddenly appear on television and say, “It’s 10 o’clock.  Do you know where your children are?”

I do.

It would be late, and I would be wide awake.  I was always wide awake because when I was a child the night was when I felt the most active.  And my favorite activity was watching television.  I would be sitting in our living room, glued to the television, and all of a sudden this guy would come with that well-known message.  And I would think to myself, “What are children doing out at 10 o’clock?”

I tried to imagine what children would be doing out at 10 o’clock.  I pictured them playing in cemeteries.  What else was there to do at night?  I also tried to imagine the reaction of those kids’ parents.  I pictured the parents answering, “No,” to the question posed, and then just sitting there, not doing anything.  I mean, if they didn’t know where their children were, what were they going to do?  Start looking in random places?  If they’d asked me I would have suggested checking the cemetery.

I always found the message depressing because it meant that my mother was going to tell me to turn off the television and go to bed.  Which meant that I would have to start the homework that I’d put off all evening to watch my shows.

Do they still air that message?  If they do, they’ve probably changed it to, “It’s 10 o’clock.  Are your children still logged on to Facebook?”

Remember When People Watched Sitcoms?

Do you remember when the almost all the shows that people watched on television were sitcoms?

I do.

When I was growing and learning about the world around me, most of the shows on television were situation comedies like Friends and Seinfeld.  Before that it was Full House and Perfect Strangers.  Before that it was Family Ties and Growing Pains.  The names of the shows changed but the theme of the shows did not.  The shows were all about ordinary people getting into situations that were both strange and familiar, and that was where the humor resided.  In every one of these sitcoms there was always at least one episode where:

  1. a character overextended himself or herself with commitments
  2. best friends fight over something and then make up
  3. one character tries to lend expertise to another character’s problem, but the character with the problem just wishes the helping character would butt out, but does not want to hurt the helping character’s feelings
  4. a character’s professional success makes things weird
  5. one character learns an embarrassing secret about another character and spends the whole episode dancing around the secret in various conversations

Et cetera, et cetera.  These sitcoms were surreal.  The characters and situations resembled real life, but we all knew, deep down, that real life never worked out that way.

Sitcoms still exist today.  I just don’t know anyone who watches them.  Everyone I know watches shows where they demonstrate how to prepare food, or how to put up drywall, or how to kick your addiction to hoarding.  The shows are all so…practical.  I can learn things from them.  In the nanosecond between the end of one show and the beginning of the next (a neat trick that keeps one “glued to the set” as they say) I think to myself, “Gee, I wonder if I should do something like that in my own life?”

It was easier when I could just say, “That would never happen in real life.”

Remember When Beavis and Butthead Was a Popular Show?

Do you remember Beavis and Butthead, that cartoon on MTV?

I do.

It was spring and I was in ninth grade.  A friend of mine quoted some dialogue at the lunch table one day.  I watched the show that night and thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life.  It was on at 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., I believe, and I started taping an episode every night on the VCR.  The characters spoke to me.  I too was a young man who saw the world divided into things that were cool and things that sucked.

One time my mother watched the show and forbade me from watching it anymore.  I had to watch and tape in secret.  I figured out how to tape the show without the television being on.  I would bring the tape to a friend’s house and we would watch it and laugh and I would think to myself, “This show is never going to go out of style.”

The two main characters spent a lot of time watching television.  Whenever an image of fire came on to their screen, they would shout, “Fire!  Fire!” not in alarm, but in excitement.  I too was excited by images of fire at that time.

Parents were outraged.  Educators were disappointed.  Congress got involved.  The “Fire! Fire!” got edited to “Fight!  Fight!” which did not make any sense.  Until that time I had thought censorship was something that happened only in places like the Soviet Union.  Now I knew the truth.

A few years ago while I was cleaning out some old boxes of stuff, I found my tape of Beavis and Butthead.  It was marked with a simple “BB” so that my mother would not know what it was.  I dusted off the VCR and popped in the tape.

You know something?  It was still funny.

Heh heh.  Huh huh.