Monthly Archives: May 2015
Hey, Kids. Do You Like the Rock N Roll? Or How David Letterman Made Life Bearable & Helped Me Through Adolescence
I’m sure that I tried to watch David Letterman on TV before August 30th, 1993. By that date, I was six days into being 16 and I’d been suffering from insomnia (or poor sleep habits, either/or) since I was 9. This means that I would’ve tried watching Late Night with David Letterman at some point, and I faintly remember doing so. Trying, that is. Just as I tried to watch The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. I mean, all you heard about back in those quaint days of the 1980s was about how Johnny Carson did this, or said that, and then there’d be reminiscing by the adults in the room. Mom would mention the Potato Chip Lady. Grandma would chime in that Ed McMahon was “a bullshit artist,” but then reminisce about something Carson did. Carson was too damn old for me, though, between 9 and 14, and Letterman…I don’t know. There was something off-putting about him at that time in my life. And he stood too close to the camera. I’m sad to say that my first introduction to the late night talk show was The Arsenio Hall Show.
When Hall’s show premiered in January 1989, I was 11. I didn’t discover it until later that year, I think. I’m sure if I did research of who appeared on his show, and when, I could come up with a more accurate time, but who really has that kind of time? He’s not the topic of this story. The topic or not, Arsenio Hall’s show was cool. It had music that I liked, humor I liked, and was on at 10 PM on channel 64. That was the Fox Channel affiliate out of Providence, Rhode Island. (The show also aired at 11 PM on channel 25, the Boston Fox affiliate). Arsenio was speaking to me, it felt. Far more so than Johnny Carson. And as far as that Letterman guy with the gap between his teeth, weird hair and eyes…why’s he standing so close to the TV?!
Though I had many good times with Arsenio, by the time 1993 had come, I wasn’t watching nearly as much. I was still watching, but not as often. I was interested in the Late Night Wars from afar, though, and had been since 1991. In June of 1991, NBC announced that Johnny Carson would be retiring and that Jay Leno would be his replacement. To me, Jay Leno was the Doritos guy with the chin, who appeared on TV a lot and was supposed to be funny. He even made a buddy cop movie with Mr. Myagi himself, Pat Morita. You don’t remember the movie? That’s because it was a buddy cop movie starring Jay Leno and Pat Morita! The movie had aired on Cinemax and it always seemed to be on when I was looking for something to watch. Of course, I’ve never actually seen the movie. But I digress…. The entertainment magazines my mother subscribed to that I lovingly read cover-to-cover were very much about the “feud” between Leno and Letterman. When The Tonight Show with Jay Leno debuted in 1992, I feel like I tried watching it but found it…well…unfunny. Leno was no Arsenio Hall, I’ll tell ya! When rumors began that David Letterman was about to jump ship from NBC, the news had a field day. Again, I was mildly interested. I remember seeing video of the press conference where the news broke that Letterman had accepted an offer from CBS and would be taking his show and leaving. I remember reading about NBC not allowing their “intellectual property” to go with him and how he was going to have to change certain things.
I was interested. I don’t know if it was my budding maturity, being a wise, old 15, or if it was just interest in the entertainment business, but I was interested. So on August 30th, 1993, most likely a week before I would start my junior year of high school, I tuned in to one of the CBS affiliates at 11:35 PM, and watched the very much-hyped and ballyhooed first episode of The Late Show with David Letterman. There’d been so much talk, so much analyzing, so much…mythology building, how could I not?
I was hooked.
From Paul Newman’s surprise appearance in the audience; to Tom Brokaw storming onto the stage, grabbing a cue card, and announcing, “This joke is the intellectual property of NBC,” and then storming off (Dave’s comment: “That’s the first time intellectual and NBC has ever been used in a sentence”); to his comment about how the Top Ten List will cost the show $10 million; to Bill Murray spray painting Dave’s desk and taking him outside to introduce him to the people; I loved it. But, while I loved all that stuff, the thing that really spoke to me, the thing that really hooked me was David Letterman himself. At 16, I felt like a mutant. I mean, who doesn’t? But I’d been bullied for a 5-year stretch. I liked to read and write, and I loved movies way more than other kids my age seemed to. I still secretly played with my action figures because the words couldn’t be written down as quickly as the ideas would come. I had an unhealthy fascination with stand-up comedy. And I had a sense of humor that those around me called “witty,” “warped,” “weird,” and “unfunny.” I was also super sarcastic and was always in trouble for that at home. And here was David Letterman making jokes that only one person in the whole room was actually, truly laughing at: himself. Through the magic of TV, I was laughing, too. I got it.
Between 1993 and sometime in 1996/1997, I watched Dave every night. During my senior year in 1995, the National Honor Society took a field trip to New York City and I went to the Ed Sullivan Theater and had my picture taken in front of the marquee. When I got home, I sent for tickets and in August 1995, I went to New York to see The Late Show. I talked to Rupert Gee. I saw Van Halen (with Sammy Hagar) perform. Most importantly, I saw David Letterman. He was standing as close to me as the oven is to my right. Ten feet? I sat right behind then-executive producer Bob “Morty” Morton. In one shot of Morty, you can see a Star Wars baseball cap. That’s me. Unfortunately, except for the performances by Van Halen, the show kind of sucked. I was thrilled to be there, and still remember it fondly, but it wasn’t Dave’s best. Hugh Grant had been arrested with a prostitute earlier that summer and his first public appearance to promote his first big Hollywood movie Nine Months had already been booked…on The Tonight Show. Jay Leno scored his first #1 night since Letterman began his run on CBS and he never let it go. Well, except for when he let it go.
Anyway, The Late Show with David Letterman was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I became obsessed with the show and with David Letterman. And with late night TV. I loved Bill Carter’s phenomenal The Late Shift, which documented the whole Carson-Leno-Letterman fiasco. I studied how Letterman did his show. The set-ups, the remotes, the sarcasm. He interviewed people and he helped them along, but he was also fun to watch. Unlike Leno, who seemed to wait for his opportunity to throw in a joke, Letterman actually conversed with them in the time permitted by the format. He was also able to make those around him stars. From the owner of the Hello Deli next door, Rupert Gee, to the stage manager Biff Henderson, to his mother, Letterman took whoever happened by and made them a character you followed. Sure, it was partly inspired by what he saw another former NBC employee, Howard Stern, do but he found a way to make it his own, and unlike another late night host I won’t mention, Letterman often praised Stern for giving him the idea to do those kinds of things.
More than all that though, I saw another mutant who was full of self-loathing doing his best. He came out each night in a nice suit, he told jokes, he had a good time, and he made people happy. I wanted to be him. Or, at least, I wanted to be like him.
I’d already begun writing by this time, and was honing my craft writing (bad) books and (bad) short stories, but I secretly wanted to either be a filmmaker or, because of Letterman, a late night talk show host. Had I been a little more courageous, I may have tried my hand at stand-up comedy with the intention of someday having my own show. And now that I see Jimmy Fallon, who is only three years older than me, doing what he’s doing, I think maybe I should’ve attempted it. Ah, well, it is what it is. My time has come and gone and I have novels to write, oh so many novels, but Letterman is still an influence.
Unfortunately, I haven’t really watched Dave in a long time. I’ve seen the odd show here and there. Thanks to the Internet, I will often catch interviews a day or so after they air (especially when Howard Stern, Steve Martin, or Robin Williams was on). I watched it the night G was born in 2012, after watching the election results.
David Letterman isn’t perfect. His show wasn’t perfect. But I loved it. It’s going to be weird in September once Stephen Colbert sits behind the desk and becomes host of The Late Show. It’s going to be weird that Letterman won’t be there to hear about the next morning. I think about that. The pillars of our youth begin to crumble at some point. I understand why so many people were sad about Carson’s departure now. Even Leno’s. Late Night TV is going to be very different. The new guard is in place. But I think it’ll be good. Because when they talk about the late night host who inspired them, they don’t mention Carson, and they sure as shit don’t mention Leno. They all mention Letterman. Fallon, Kimmel, O’Brien…all of them. They all name David Letterman as the guy who turned them onto their paths.
Looks like there are a lot of mutants out there.
See that? That’s what’s at the very end of my manuscript for Echoes on the Pond. The reason I’m showing you is because—and I say this knowing it’s not 100% true, but roughly 98% true—I’m done with it. I have a few people giving this third draft a read, and if they all hit on things that have popped up in my head recently, or hit on things the other readers hit on, then I’ll do another sweep of the novel, but it’ll be a short one. The kind that takes a week or two instead of months. Of course, if an agent or editor at some point asks for changes that’ll make the novel better, I’ll be more than happy to oblige.
As you can see, I’ve been on this bastard for a long time now. When I began the novel in April 2008, I thought that I’d finish the first draft in three/four months, the second draft within six months, and then have the third draft to shop around in 2009. All long-form writing I’d done prior to this book indicated that should have been the case. Of course, things were different.
It’d been four years since I’d started—and finished—anything of significant length. Between 1998 and 2004, I wrote many novels. Most were pretty bad, few were terrible, and a couple were…good. For the time. They were written by a younger guy, of course. I turned 21 in 1998, so being in my early-twenties, I didn’t have much perspective on life, but I had an itch to tell stories and the insanity to think I could do it.
By 2008, I was in my early-thirties, had been through a divorce, severe depression, some of the hardest times in my life, and hadn’t written anything worthwhile except for several abandoned novels, garbage short stories, and little else of value. Well…that’s not entirely true. I wrote my late, great column American Gauthic for Dark Discoveries, a gig I really enjoyed doing and would love to do again, given the opportunity. I’m proud of those essays, though I admit that some of them are a little…well…wince-inducing. I also wrote papers for college, lesson plans, and blog posts.
But here I sit, twelve days after finishing what I consider to be my final edit, and I’m looking forward to what’s next. I have about six book ideas. Two horror(ish) novels, two “mainstream” novels (that I think may be darkly comic), and two YA novels. Way back in my mind are the science fiction novel takes on two Shakespeare plays that I’ve wanted to do for a long time now.
I think I’m going to do one of the YA novels. I want to do it something that’s fun, plot-driven, and fast. In other words, the kind of book I would’ve wanted to read when I was a kid.
Other than writing, I’ve got the real work ahead of me on Echoes…: Figuring out what the fuck to do with it now.
It’s a good place to be, though. Actually, it’s a great place to be.
We all say that when our child is born s/he won’t watch TV. Nope. Our lil one is going to learn the treasures of play and literature early, and while the TV won’t be off-limits, it will definitely be regulated more than when we were kids. I said that back in 1997 and early-1998 when my first daughter, Courtney, was in gestation and shortly after her birth in April 1998. By the following April, she loved Teletubbies, Elmo, and Blue’s Clues. By two, she was an avid fan of Bear in the Big Blue House, the Muppets, Rolie Polie Olie, and Little Bear. Throw in Franklin as well. I hated Sesame Street back then, and Barney, too. She got those when she was with her cousin or when I wasn’t home, which was rare.
Fast forward nearly 15 years. In March 2012, Pamela found out she was pregnant. She declared not long afterward that our child wouldn’t be raised on the glass teat. I agreed, but without the force that I had 15 years prior. I knew better. After you’d gone from reading to playing puppets to playing dolls to playing blocks to reading to more blocks to running around to…you need a break. And that giant rectangle in the corner will help with that.
G is 2-and-a-half. She loves to read. She loves to draw. She loves blocks, playing, jumping, exploring, dancing, puppets, make-believe, and so much more. She also loves TV. I’m not passing judgment on myself or my wife, we do our best to limit her TV-watching, but there’s shows she likes and, damnit, we kinda like them, too. So if you’re feeling guilty about your toddler watching TV, here are some shows that we watch and I think they’re good entertainment, as well as a little (sometimes a lot) educational.
All right, I know this goes without saying, but you have to understand something: I grew up hating Sesame Street. I loved The Muppet Show, which would air on Saturday nights at 7 PM, but Sesame Street was never my thing. Even when Courtney was a little one, I didn’t like it. And by then they’d gotten Elmo. Ugh. The sound of his voice sent shivers down my spine and goosebumps over my flesh. I was in my early-to-mid-twenties. Now I’m in my mid-to-late-thirties and I’ve finally discovered Sesame Street. And that high-pitched, bright red monster? Yeah…he’s kinda cute. He’s still not a favorite of mine, and I’m no fan of Abby Cadabby, but I’ve finally discovered why Sesame Street has been around for 46 years. From parodies on Game of Thrones, Star Wars, the failed Spider-Man Broadway musical, to the simple stories and whimsical moments, I’ve become a fan.
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
I’ve written about how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Fred Rogers have been there at important moments in my life. Thanks to Amazon Prime (or the PBS Kids website), the classic show is easily available for binge-watching. It’s by no means complete, but it’s still great. However, if you don’t have time for fussing with that, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a great modern take. Produced by the Fred Rogers Company and Out of the Blue, the show is created by Angela Santomero, who co-created Blue’s Clues and Super Why! The titular Daniel Tiger is not the Daniel Striped Tiger that you and I grew up with, but rather his son. DT, as my wife and I call it in code, is a kinda-sorta sequel. It takes place in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, which has the giant clock, the castle, the treehouse and tree, and the Museum-Go-Round, and familiar characters like Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, Henrietta Pussycat, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, and King Friday XIII and Queen Sarah Saturday with their son Prince Tuesday are all there. However, the new characters are the real stars of the show. Daniel Tiger, O the Owl (X’s nephew), Katarina Kittycat (Henrietta’s daughter), Miss Elaina (Lady Elaine’s daughter), and Prince Wednesday are the focus of the show. There are other new characters like Mom Tiger (the original Daniel, who is now an adult, is known as Dad Tiger) Music Man Stan (Lady Elaine’s husband and Miss Elaina’s father), Dr. Anna, and Baker Aker are all new additions. And of course, the neighborhood wouldn’t be complete without Mr. McFeely.
The show is broken into two segments with neighbors from our world (usually from Pittsburgh) in between and its focus is emotional development, just like Mister Rogers. Santomero’s work on Blue’s Clues and Super Why! comes into play as Daniel will greet us each day with, “Hi, neighbor!” and include us in the story, asking us to participate throughout. Small jingles help teach the lesson of the show. Pamela and I have found these jingles useful as we try to navigate G through the world. “Use your wor-or-ords. Use your words!” has come in handy when she’s been frustrated. “When you have to go potty, stop! and go right away! Flush and wash and be on your way” is another good one. And this past winter, with all the sickness we all seemed to get, singing “When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” has come in quite handy. She’ll sing these lessons to us as well. When I made a mistake recently, G chimed in with, “Keep trying, you’ll get beh-etter!”
My one complaint is some of the creative choices that were made. Harriet Cow is no longer a resident or teacher in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, instead it’s a human woman named Teacher Harriet. And poor Anna Platypus is nothing more than…a puppet at the pre-school. Her entire family is wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be a Westwood, no mention of Lady Aberlin, and nearly no outside conflict. Lady Elaine, the biggest grump in Fred Rogers’s day, has had work done, married, and never plots, schemes, or even complains. Other than those few small things, it’s an excellent show.
Neither Pamela nor I were impressed when we first watched the PBS/Imagine Television adaptation of the classic book series by Margaret and H.A. Rey, but Curious George has grown on us and G loves it. Yeah, the plots are far-fetched and silly. I enjoy making fun of the fact that all these humans can’t seem to figure out what a monkey can, but it’s fun and, more or less, educational. Fluff, but good fluff.
A show starring an African American girl as a play doctor, whose mother is a real doctor, Dad seems to be a stay-at-home dad, and a fun little brother may seem foreign, even to Gen Xers like me, and it’s wonderfully so. I can happily turn this show on and know that, if nothing else, my daughter will see a positive female role model as well as an intelligent, beautiful, and fun person of color as the lead. Creator Chris Nee and her staff also write some great stories for this wonderful little girl with a huge imagination. The lessons aren’t just medical-based, though they often are, but they also cover the landscape of the human heart. A wonderful show if you haven’t checked it out. And if you have a boy and are afraid it’s a “girl’s show” (which I’ll get to in a little while) it’s a great show for him, too. He should also be inspired.
It’s British. It’s funny. We love it.
Sofia the First
When I first heard of this show I though, Nope. No need for Disney Princesses in this household. Now I’m a fan. So is my wife. And, more importantly, so is my daughter. The show has a feminist ideology that is proud to be “girly,” but isn’t hampered by it. What I mean is…well…let me tell you about the show and I think my commentary will make sense.
Sofia and her mother, Miranda, are commoners. Miranda is a cobbler who is hired to make shoes for King Roland II. The King and Miranda fall in love at first sight (this is Disney, after all) and they marry. Now Sofia is a princess with two step-siblings, twins James and Amber. There’s no mention of their mother that I know of. Anyway, Sofia is the average girl who’s been thrust into this new world of magic, royalty, and etiquette. She handles it well. James is a typical boy who is sometimes real nice, and other times a fool. But it’s Princess Amber, Sofia’s new sister, that I really want to focus on. Amber is the typical “princess.” I put the word in quotes because she behaves in the way a woman (or girl) who fancies herself a princess and makes demands of those around her in a fashion that is unbecoming, rude, and can never be fulfilled would behave. For instance…
I know of a couple a few years younger than my wife and I who married around the same time we did, and had their first child around the same time G was born (Pamela’s first child). The guy is a public servant. Let’s say a firefighter. Good guy. Stand-up guy. Nice guy. His wife is a “princess.” Her engagement ring not only had to have this, but this and that, as well, and it better not be under…ooohhh…$XX,000. She must have this, and have that, and she simply cannot work with two children (they’ve had another) though she’s constantly dropping them off with grandma and grandpa so she can go to yoga, or for coffee, or…. She is a “princess” and has called herself one. You know these kinds of “princesses.” Unfortunately, I’ve known a few myself. Get it?
Amber is that kind of princess. She is the kind of princess that girls growing up on a steady diet of Disney Princesses believe they should be. Of course, none of the Disney Princesses are actually like that. These Real World Princesses base their princessism on “And they lived happily ever after…” assuming that these women would become those kinds of princesses. She is full of herself, wishes to do as little work as possible, is rude, is narrow-minded, and is obsessed with appearance both in terms of clothes and what others think. This is not the complete picture of Amber. The show’s writers are very good at adding dimensions to the characters and Amber can be quite kind, giving, and selfless. She’s also quite intelligent. But the overwhelming portrayal is of the typical mythical “princess.”
Sofia, on the other hand, is Disney’s reinvention of the Disney Princess. She is kind, intelligent, imaginative, quick-to-laugh, inclusive, open-minded, strong, resilient, and human. She has faults. Sometimes she gets a little full of herself. Sometimes she’s jealous. Sometimes she does wrong. She is given an amulet that, unknown to anyone, gives her the ability to speak to all the princesses that ever were. This means that she sometimes gets to speak to Cinderella, or Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), or Ariel (The Little Mermaid), or any of the other Disney Princesses. The classic princesses aren’t in every episode, not even close, but are in enough to help move product–I meant…er…to rewrite some of the less feministic aspects of their original stories.
Sofia makes Amber a better person. Amber isn’t one- or two-dimensional. She is well-written and changes a over time.
This is a show that teaches about emotions, tolerance, how to treat people, and kindness. Like the aforementioned Doc McStuffins, it tells girls that they can do anything. I am a fan and highly recommend it.
I have to mention Arthur. The PBS series based on the Marc Brown books is great. I used to watch it with Courtney, and now G loves it. Yeah, it’s a little old for her, but she still digs it, and so do I. Their stories have skewered standardized testing, the loss of original intent with the American Girl doll line, and other topics that one wouldn’t expect in a children’s show. It’s really not a pre-school show but it’s on when I get home from work and G watches it and enjoys it.
I could go on and on, I’m sure. Sid the Science Kid (G loves it, Pamela and I don’t, though it preaches science and we’re for that, so we stomach it), Peg + Cat (also from the Fred Rogers Company; Pamela and I love it, G isn’t as fond), Dinosaur Train (fun show), Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and Caillou (which I used to hate, have now grown more fond of, but Pamela hates; G loves it) are a few of the others. If it sounds like G consumes too much TV, it’s because that is a lengthy list, but it’s not watched all in one day, and she rarely goes above the 2 hr limit that researchers have found is bad for kids. On the rare days she does go over the 2 hr, she’s sick, I’m sick, or Pamela is sick, and it’s a good way to keep her calm while someone rests.
And if you’re thinking that a lot of these shows are girl shows, I suggest you chill out. I think Sofia the First, the “girliest” of these shows, can be great for boys to watch if they sat down and actually watched them. The stories are often filled with adventure and Prince James is a great role model for them. Basically, if they’re not interested, fine, but I think we should be beyond worrying about such things.
Now I’ll climb off my soapbox and go watch some TV. Maybe Doc McStuffins has an interesting new case, or Sofia has a new adventure.