1990s

Raiders!, Teen Movie Dreams and The Legend of Kung Fool

Raiders posterI can’t get the image of Eric Zala begging his boss for another day off out of my head.  It happens about two-thirds of the way through 2015’s Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, which chronicles his efforts to reunite his childhood friends–Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb–so they can recreate the aistrip scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones fights a Nazi brute and wins when said brute is chopped up by a plane’s propeller.  It’s the only scene that he and his friends never filmed when they were teenagers and put together a shot-for-shot adaptation of the movie.  At this point in the film, Eric is woefully behind schedule due to constant rain storms, and we hear his boss, Alex, berating him for wanting just one more day off and he sits in his trailer looking like a kid who is being chastized.

For a split second, my thoughts line up with the frustration that’s boiling over to anger coming from Alex–this guy is middle-aged, has a wife and kids, and his responsibilities to them should take priority over this project.  Yeah, it’s cool that he got enough Kickstarter funding to put all of this together, but shouldn’t he just grow up already?  But then Alex gives Eric the day off, and Eric’s wife comforts him by telling him that what is important is that he is doing something that makes him happy.  It’s the moment in the film that puts me not only back on board with him but makes me actively root for him to finish because I’m thinking of myself, my friends, and my own abandoned cinematic efforts.

I was bitten by the “filmmaking bug” at an early age, evidenced by how I put down “movie director” as the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question on my first grade class survey.  I’d been watching Star Wars on a loop for at least the past year, and while I played on the playground as Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be George Lucas.  And while my interests when it came to play would travel through various iconic 1980s toy lines, the creative streak never left–I wrote short stories, thought of ideas for movies, and my friend Tom and I even conceived a Miami Vice-esque comic book series called Drugbust that got as far as a plot outline, a few cover sketches and a finished splash page.  It was enough to keep my young imagination active and sated, at least until Christmas of 1987 when my dad bought the family a video camera.

panasonic omnimovie ad

A print ad for the Panisconic Omnimovie camcorder circa late 1987/early 1988.

Retailing for somewhere close to $1000 (based on crack research–I found an ad for a similar model that had a price of $898), the Panasonic Omimovie camcorder was not a small purchase by any means.  It signaled that you had the money to blow on such an expensive toy, and was a literally hefty purchase, as this was a shoulder-mounted camcorder that took full-sized VHS tapes.  I’d learned how to use one the previous summer as part of an enrichment class called “video volunteers” and I’d like to think that’s maybe why my dad let my friends and I use it almost right away–although he did tell us that it “had a drop ratio of zero” as a way to remind us to be careful.  To this day, I have no idea if he was using any of that terminology correctly, but the message did get across.

At first, we made music videos, the best of which was a two-hour concert video by our fake band, The Terminators. Tom, my sister, and I would use G.I. Joe airplanes (specifically, the Sky Striker and the Cobra Night Raven) as guitars and a croquet mallet as a microphone with a stand while lip syncing to Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, and other hits of the mid-Eighties, getting the song onto the tape by placing the camera on the washing machine and putting my boom box next to it.  That tape featured a lot of Tom playing guitar and looking cool in a denim jacket and spiked hair, me melodramatically singing while wearing military camo pants and a Naval Academy sweatshirt, my sister looking happy that she wasn’t chased out of the room, and several shots of someone running toward the camera to turn it off so that we could cue up the next song.  We made a few more and then gave up fun with the video camera because the novelty wore off, until the eighth grade, which is when I attempted something more ambitious:  a feature film called Kung Fool & Company.

I can’t recall where the title or the character name came from, although I’m pretty sure it is because we watched Big Trouble in Little China so many times, but between that and the number of hyper-violent action flicks we were renting on a regular basis, I had enough to write a full-length screenplay about our hero going on a full-fledged revenge spree after his best friend is killed by the mafia.  It had roles for a number of my friends, and when I finished it, I roped them into helping me out, even though none of us had any idea of how we were going to shoot a gritty action flick in our quiet suburb.  I guess we thought we’d figure that out later.

We shot an opening credits sequence and two scenes.  The opening credits were handwritten on paper and filmed by placing them on a small easel, then zooming in to try and avoid getting my hand in the shot while I removed each page (and even then, you probably could have seen my fingers) while music I’d taped off of the Ninja Gaiden II video game played behind me on the same boom box used for our basement concert.  That, by the way, put the budget at the $1.99 it cost for me to rent the video game, a cost that would not get any higher.

The two scenes were the first two scenes of the screenplay, because it wouldn’t be until a few years later that I learned that movies were shot out of sequence, and even if I did know that I didn’t have access to editing equipment.  In scene one, my friend Rich played a mob boss who killed the best friend character, who was played by my friend John.  We shot the scene at the desk in my bedroom during the day and created atmosphere by turning all of the lights off and letting the sunlight shine through the red curtains, something I think was Rich’s idea and that we were all proud of because it seemed really cinematic when we were watching it back.  The second scene was not as cool–it was me as the future Kung Fool standing at my friend’s grave, which was really a cutting board placed in my parents’ backyard flower bed, and vowing vengeance.  I remember that the music we were playing drowned me out so much you couldn’t hear my lines.

I think we were supposed to shoot a training scene that would have taken place in a foreign country like Japan or China, but how we figured that we would duplicate that at a place where we could go to on our bikes is lost on me because we never shot the scene and abandoned the project in favor of whatever was going on in the world of professional wrestling at the time.  We would eventually get our first taste of shows like Saturday Night Live and In Living Color and shoot comedy sketches and return to actual attempts at music videos, and in between ninth and tenth grades, my friend Chris and I did complete a short film about cops busting drug dealers when I visited him in Florida for a week, this time with songs off of the Classic Queen compilation album providing the soundtrack.

At the heart of Raiders! is a story between three childhood friends, and shooting the airstrip scene is as much a reunion and patching up of a broken friendship as it is about getting the shot.  Eric, Chris, Jayson have a lot of baggage between them, with Jayson feeling like he was pushed out of the project before it was finished, and the friendship between Eric and Chris deteriorating by the end of high school and beyond.  As we see how they were able to not only finish the film but rent out a movie theater to show it (with local news coverage to boot), we see the tension between them grow and Eric’s social ineptitude along with Chris’s inner demons more or less destroy it.

I personally didn’t have any epic fallout with the friends involved in any of our movies–some of us stayed friends all the way through the end of high school while others just drifted to other groups.  I’m sure I was a dick to a few of them or them to me at one point or another, but it was obviously not enough for me to recall how.  It was just the drift that comes with getting older.  Plus, as we went through high school, my interest in films shifted to Eighties movies and I pretty much spent the back half of my teen years setting George Lucas aside for Cameron Crowe, with Say Anything … as my Raiders.  And I got my chance at that in the form of a humanities class project during the spring of my senior year.

I’d taken creative writing during the fall semester and that’s where I wrote a story about having the chance to kiss a girl but never actually taking it.  While structured as fiction, it was based on a moment where, after hanging out with my next door neighbor Elizabeth (on whom I had a massive crush–and no, that’s not her real name), we were saying goodnight and there was one of those moments with a tension-filled pause.  You know, the ones that have some sort of music swell or pop song in the background of the movie because the audience is being told to wait for a great kiss.  Sadly, this was reality, no music was playing, and I simply said goodnight and walked home.

Now, reality says and would later confirm that I actually had no shot–she’d friendzoned me pretty much from the moment we met–and while I still pined, I managed to muster up what maturity I had to not pursue her, because it was cool to have a friend.  But the moment became a great idea for a story and that got turned into a short film that I was not only able to shoot, but shoot out of sequence and edit using our high school’s video editing booth.

The premise of the story is that we see a couple on a date and it’s being narrated via the guy’s inner monologue, a monologue that starts off with the voice of a coach and then devolves into frustrated and angry yelling at our main character.  In the film, I played both guy and narrator, with the date scenes being shot at a nearby park and the narration in my basement using the same washing machine-as-tripod setup that I employed for lip syncing several years prior.  Originally, the girl in the story was going to be played by my then-girlfriend, but she didn’t want to be on camera (in retrospect, I don’t blame her) and my sister was supposed to be the cinematographer.  They switched places and when I showed the completed film in class, this made one of the girls in my class incredibly uncomfortable–even though, you know, no on-screen kiss happened.

That was the last time I used the camera to shoot, unless you count my senior prom, when my friends and I managed to commandeer it and take it with us to the dance after my parents were done shooting the pre-prom stuff.  I’d go on to make a college choice that was regrettable in some ways, as while I do think I learned how to be a better writer, I often found myself overreaching in my efforts to seem “literary” in class while the stuff I really wanted to write was relegated to my student newspaper column or short story and novel drafts that got tucked away on my hard drive and taken out only when I didn’t have schoolwork.  I don’t have the tapes anymore, either–they were taped over or thrown away years ago (well, except for the prom video).

So I watched Raiders!  and found myself surprised that I wasn’t filled with any sort of midlife crisis anger or regret about not standing my ground and pursuing the creative endeavors that anyone around me would have called distractions.  If anything, I rooted for Eric and his friends, sharing in the hopeful glee that they managed to still have the sense of wonder that so many of us often lose to cynicism.

I was O.G. TNBC

TNBC LOgoI’ve said before that Saved By the Bell is one of the most influential shows in the history of television, as Millennials and Gen Z were able to spend much of their formative years watching sitcoms that were targeted directly at them instead of having to settle for simply graduating from the world of Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoons like Generation X had. This was obviously helped along by Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, as the former increased its tween programming int he early ’90s with Clarissa Explains it All and similar shows while the latter became part of basic cable packages between 1991 and 1996.

That is, if you had cable.

But unlike all the times networks were chasing cable trends two seasons too late, NBC wound up being right on or slightly ahead of the curve for the 1992-1993 television season. This was the year that they completely replaced their Saturday morning cartoons with live action programming, giving birth to TNBC.

If you look at the Saturday morning lineup from the previous season, you see shows like Space Cats, Captain N and the New Super Mario World, and Wish Kid, and while I know a few people who watched Captain N, I can’t imagine that this lineup was doing much against the other networks, which were airing cartoons starring more well-known characters such as Bugs Bunny, Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, Darkwing Duck, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Plus, Saved By the Bell was popular at the time and so NBC saw the opportunity to double down on that success, not only giving us an extra half hour of the show (which led to the Tori episodes) and padded out the day with the TNBC lineup.

I started my sophomore year of high school in the fall of 1992 and by the time I shrugged off any Saturday morning programming whatsoever sometime during the 1993-94 television season (in favor of sleeping until 11:00 every Saturday), I was a junior and definitely a year or so older than the target demographic. NBC was clearly going for the kids who were in middle and the early part of high school, because the sitcom fantasy world of Zack Morris and company was not exactly anything cool when you were neck deep in your own high school drama. Still, I was “grandfathered in” to the original TNBC lineup because I had already been watching Saved By the Bell.

If you’ve followed me over the years, you have heard me talk about my relationship with Saved By the Bell more than once. I’m not so much a super fan of it as I am one of the many people who got sucked into the show during its run because it was just on television and there was nothing better to watch on a weekday afternoon between The Disney Afternoon and Full House, or on a Saturday morning when I’d gotten home from my job at a stationary store. That meant that I would be on the ground floor for the new lineup, especially since the Bayside gang was set to graduate that first season; I would keep going for some of the following season because I had a crush on one of the actresses on California Dreams.

The original two years of TNBC would be a mix of sitcoms, game shows, and early teen reality programming. While Saved By the Bell would shift to its “The New Class” series in the fall of 1993 (and I can tell you that that first “New Class” season is the Coy and Vance of SBTB) in hopes of keeping the original audience coming back and California Dreams would go on to be another mainstay of the lineup, the network would take a “throw it against the all and see if it will stick” and that meant that some of the shows that premiered in 1992, like Name Your Adventure and Double Up, would only be around for a little while.

Name Your Adventure LogoName Your Adventure was a reality show wherein a teenager would get the opportunity to do something they’d always dreamed of doing, a formula that would get reused in the early 2000s with the MTV series Made. Hosted by Mario Lopez, Jordan Brady, and Tatyana Ali, the show was a slightly slicker version of classic PBS shows like 3-2-1 Contact because it was less about the spectacle of nerd rehabilitation (which was 99% of Made) and more like someone being given an internship. I found one story on YouTube that featured teenager Jon Steinberg who was interested in becoming a sports broadcaster, so he was paired up with Bob Miller who at the time was the play-by-play guy for the Los Angeles Kings. The segment was definitely more educational than flashy, as Miller fed Steinberg a lot of information as well as gave him real-time feedback as he tried his hand at calling part of an Angels/Yankees game.

Name Your Adventure b-ball game

Broadcaster Bob Miller gives Jon Steinberg some tips on how to call a basketball game on an episode of Name Your Adventure.

I would have found this interesting in 1992 and found it interesting even now because of how Miller pointed out all of the intricacies of describing a game’s action while it happened. Of course, this doesn’t have the appeal of a teenager crying on camera because they just can’t seem to get anything to work correctly, so I understand why this show would have not had staying power. And it didn’t have a ton of staying power for Steinberg because this isn’t the career he chose–he is the former head of Buzzfeed. But the show did last for a few seasons (and I suspect it’s because it helped fulfill an educational mandate for NBC), so there’s a decent amount of footage available on YouTube.

YouTube, by the way, wound up being my avenue of choice to see if I could find any footage from this early TNBC era and ran into one of the common problems with tracking down the early 1990s on the Internet, which is that if it was never rereleased on a digital platform, it’s very hard to find. Steinberg happened to upload his segments from Name Your Adventure to YouTube (so I guess he had fond memories of the experience), but unless you have someone who still has a pile of VHS tapes and the means to rip them to a streaming format, then you’re pretty out of luck. And who would have taped and then uploaded an episode of Double Up was probably hoarding VHS tapes.

Double Up was an attempt at a teen dating show, one that was obviously trying to capitalize on the popularity of Studs, which in itself was a slightly raunchier version of Love Connection. Hosted by J.D. Roth (the host of the afternoon Double Dare rip-off Fun House), the premise is that brothers and sisters set one another up on dates and we see how things went. Complete with a M.C. Skat Cat-type rap theme and in in-studio deejay, this is very much a show that was developed by an adult who was working off a “1991 Teen” checklist and it’s no wonder it only lasted seven episodes.*

 

Brains and Brawn Auto Tracking

Mark-Paul Gosselaar hosted Brains and Brawn around the same time he was shooting SBTB:TCY.  I captured this image because of the way the “auto tracking” from someone’s VCR was preserved for all of YouTube to see.

Brains and Brawn, on the other hand, was a slightly better attempt at a game show and this lasted a little longer. Having obviously struck out with “Studs for Teens”, NBC decided to go with a more “Take the Physical Challenge” route and created a show that combined trivia, sporting events, and teen celebrities. Hosted by Mark-Paul Gosselaar with assists from Tatyana Ali and Danielle Harris, it was shot on the Universal Studios backlot in front of the clock tower from Back to the Future and had a live audience, probably comprised of tourists. Honestly, though, if I were a teenager visiting Hollywood in 1992, I would have totally gone to a taping of this.

 

Wait, I did go to Hollywood in 1992 and visited Universal Studios. Why didn’t I get a chance to see this tape? Shit.

Brains and Brawn Hockey

Jay Anthony Franke of “California Dreams” fame competes in the hockey physical challenge part of “Brains and Brawn.”

Anyway, on Brains and Brawn, teenagers were put in teams and worked with a celebrity “captain”–usually someone from another teen television show–and they would answer trivia questions before competing in a sporting event like shooting baskets or trying to get their slap shot past a goalie. The final challenge was an obstacle course, and while I was watching an eight-minute clip that featured the cast of California Dreams, I have to say that it really comes off as if your gym teacher had tried to do Double Dare in middle or high school. I probably would have found it fun and there are moments where the celebrities do look like they’re having fun, but there’s also this air of contractual obligation, hoping the check clears, and hoping that the kids watching this show would watch whatever the celebrities were promoting.

 

I can’t imagine that the budget on this was particularly huge–the winning team received a Bushnell telescope instead of a vacation or cash***, and for all we know, the money that NBC had earmarked for its teen shows mostly went to its sitcoms–Saved By the Bell, California Dreams, and the one-season wonder Running the Halls.

 

Running the Halls

Three characters from “Running the Halls” react to a guy wearing a gorilla suit.  From l-r: Trevor Lissauer, Senta Moses-Mikan, and Richard Hillman Jr.

Running the Halls was an attempt at a single-camera sitcom, which was something you would have seen if you were watching Fox at the time, which had the short-lived Tobey Maguire show Great Scott! and the underrated classic Parker Lewis Can’t Lose. However, unlike those two shows, NBC decided to throw a laugh track over the action and did very little except repeat the Saved By the Bell formula. Our main character here was a Zack Morris clone named Andy McBain (played by Richard Hillman Jr.) who is trying to be the big man on campus at a private school, getting into the same sort of trouble Zack would get into on both the original and College Years seasons of Saved By the Bell. There are even romantic interests and a Screech-like character. I watched a clip where Andy choked at a basketball game and saw characters that looked like they were dressed from the pages of the most recent issue of Seventeen. I can see why this was forgotten, although I remember enjoying it at the time. Maybe that’s because there wasn’t anything else on that filled the void left by Degrassi and the other two sitcoms were just way too technicolor for me, or maybe I thought that the girls on the show were hot at the time****. At any rate, when Senta Moses showed up on My So-Called Life the following year as Delia Fisher, I immediately recognized her from Running the Halls.

 

While California Dreams would go off the air in 1997 and Saved By the Bell: The New Class would last all the way until 2000, the other shows would all be off the air by the time I headed to college in 1995. TNBC itself would last until the early 2000s and feature shows like City Guys and Hang Time, but would then get replaced by the Discovery Kids on NBC programming block. NBC’s current Saturday morning lineup currently consists of the weekend edition of the Today Show and then travel and information shows that seem more like cheaply purchased time-fillers than anything else. In fact, they could probably run infomercials here but I think the networks have to run some sort of educational programming at some point in the week and this is probably their way to shove all of that in.

My age prevents me from saying what the Saturday morning viewing habits of the average American teenager was like after I left my time with these shows behind. For all I know, those last few years of TNBC were less of a network on the pulse of its audience and more of an attempt to hold on to the audience that once watched cartoons but were now pulled away by Disney, Nick, and MTV. And though I did watch a number of these shows, even I knew that they were time fillers. Then again, that’s what most Saturday morning television was to my generation–something to keep us occupied before your parents finally stepped in and made you go outside.

* I’m not doing this show’s bizzareness justice and I think that I’ll write a longer entry about it next week.
** Danielle Harris, who has been in a number of horror movies throughout her career, was at that point playing the teenage neighbor of the Connors on Roseanne. I had a major crush on her.
*** Although if I’m being honest, a Bushnell telescope isn’t exactly cheap. After all, Ronald Miller paid a grand to go out with Cindy Mancini and that money was originally going to go toward the purchase of a telescope.
**** Probably.

I am Lobo. I hunt alone.

mv5bztviztm2mzktyjllni00ntiwlwe5mzqtytzmodbjmzywy2q3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjkwntg3ndy40._v1_So I’m about thirteen or fourteen and my dad’s in the den watching a movie during the middle of the day, which he only did if he’d fallen asleep watching it the previous night and had to return the tape to the video store so he wouldn’t get charged a late fee. I walk into the room and he’s laughing at a scene where Shelley Long is serving Jamie Gertz some really disgusting-looking thing called “jellyfish salad.” He keeps laughing and talking about how hilarious Shelley Long is, something I agree with it because by that time I had seen the majority of the Diane episodes of Cheers, so I stick around and finish the film.

That is my Don’t Tell Her It’s Me origin story, and while I have no substantiated research to back up this claim, I bet that if you were to talk to a number of people, they would have a similar story because while this movie bombed at the box office in 1990, I’ve run into quite a number of people who have seen it. In fact, just as I finished streaming this on Amazon Prime, my wife asked what I had been watching and when I said “This movie with Steve Guttenberg and Shelley Long”, she replied, “Is that the one where he had cancer and became a buff dude? I’ve seen that!”

I don’t know if I could better sum up the premise of the film, but I will go slightly more in depth. Based on the novel The Boyfriend School (and currently streaming under that title), Guttenberg plays Gus Kubicek, a cartoonist who has just finished treatment for cancer. He’s bloated and bald as a result adn is wallowing in depression. His sister, Lizzie (Long), who is the alter ego of the best-selling romance novelist Vivian Leroux*, decides that she’s going to cheer him up by finding him a woman. Enter Emily Pear (Jami Gertz), a journalist, who after she interviews Lizzie at a romance fan convention (yes, there’s a rom-con in the rom-com) becomes the woman Lizzie’s going to set up with Gus. Emily kind of sort of has a fiance, Trout (Kyle MacLachlan), but Lizzie’s a professional at meddling in others’ lives as much as she is at writing romance.

The setup doesn’t go well. Emily vomits up the jellyfish salad I mentioned in my intro and while she thinks Gus is nice, she isn’t attracted to him at all. This causes Lizzie to take drastic measures. She helps Gus get in shape and then creates an alter ego for him–Lobo, a New Zealand biker who “hunts alone”. Lobo and Gertz meet at a gas station where the two of them accidentally wind up foiling an armed robbery.

Naturally, Emily falls for Gus’ bad boy alter ego and as it is with comedies like this, things get complicated. Gus is reluctant to keep things going because Emily has fallen for Lobo and she even breaks up with Trout (who was cheating on her anyway with their co-worker, Mandy, played by a twenty-year-old Madchen Amick). Eventually, the entire thing comes crashing down, but because this is a romantic comedy from 1990, Emily realizes that she actually was in love with Gus.

If I’m thinking with my modern sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The entire plot centers around deceiving a woman for the sake of romance and/or sex. Even with my writer’s sensibilities, I’m not supposed to like this movie. The characters are pretty formulaic–Gertz is the typical “mess” woman character, Gus is the down-on-his-luck nice guy, Trout is a PG version of MacLachlan’s sleazy Showgirls character, and Long is kooky–and the plot resolves itself so quickly I had to rewind it in my head. Plus, this came out right around the time of When Harry Met Sally, a movie that is the golden standard for modern romantic comedies.

The movie, though, works because of the actors’ performances. Shelley Long dials up the kookiness but gives Lizzie depth. Guttenberg is surprisingly appealing and it reminded me why he was a pretty big star in the late 1980s. I mean, the guy was not just in the Police Academy movies and the first Short Circuit film, but had bona-fide box office hits in Cocoon and Three Men and a Baby (and their sequels). I’d even posit that his career at that point mirrors Tom Hanks’, but the Nineties would take both actors in very different directions. And while my favorite Jami Gertz film is The Lost Boys, she’s making a pretty good effort to step out of the teen flick role and into something a little more adult.

This is, at best, a piece of its time, and a reminder of the random movies you’d come across while flipping channels or at the video store when you’d watched everything else. And yet, even watching this for the first time in nearly 30 years, I found this charming and remembered why I liked it when I first saw it in junior high. Yes, the Lobo deception is cringeworthy, but it’s more As You Like It or Twelfth Night than it is Revenge of the Nerds, and when I was that age I spent a lot of time wondering if any girl was going to like me. Gus Kubicek is an adult Ronald Miller from Can’t Buy Me Love, the type of guy who I identified with and even rooted for even when he made boneheaded decisions**. And even if I never rode a motorcycle and got an epic mullet (seriously, the Guttenmullet is insane), I can still appreciate any movie that gives down-on-their-luck guys a chance no matter how crazy the idea.

*Btw, props to … uh, the props department on this movie.  At one point, Lizzie gives Emily paperbacks of all of her books.  I noticed that they were all “published” by Avon Books, which was a huge historical romance publisher–and incidentally, the publishing company I interned for in 1998.

**I guess I have to clarify that I don’t approve of what are now considered cringey or even gross storylines like this, but I will say that I understand the mentality of male characters like this, and a lot of pretty awful male behavior.  In 2020, it’s grown into a “know the enemy” thing on my part, and I probably can write an essay about it but that’s not the type of thing anyone wants to read.

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 105: Teen Speed Freaks!

Episode 105 Website LogoIf you were a high-achieving teenager in the Eighties or early Nineties, there was only one way for you to get through feeling overwhelmed by all the pressure:  amphetamines.

Or at least it seemed that way on television.

Over the course of this episode, I look at four episodes where teenagers turn to speed (okay, sometimes it’s caffeine pills) to help them get through midterms, finals, a geometry test, or a crazy workload, all from the 1980s and 1990s.  It begins with Degrassi High, and then moves on to three classic NBC sitcoms: Family Ties, Saved By the Bell, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Are their messages effective?  Are they as lame as they seemed back then?  Or are they sending another message altogether?

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Dawn of the Decade

It’s the end of 2019, so I think that every publication has been doing some sort of “End of the Decade” or “Best of the Decade” article during the last few weeks. Even some of my friends have been making lists of their favorite pieces of popular culture from the past decade. Meanwhile, I and a number of people who have settled into oncoming middle age have been legitimately surprised that we are on the precipice of another ten-year period. I mean, I am able to do the math, but it still feels like 1999 was ten years ago.

Anyway, rather than lament that I pretty much missed an entire decade because I was adulting or becoming more lame or something of that nature, I thought I would try and remember what it was like to ring in 1990, which was the first time I remember a new decade coming into being (I had been all of two years old when 1979 became 1980, so I don’t remember any of that). At the time, I was twelve and in junior high school, so I probably didn’t do much in terms of actual celebrating during New Year’s Eve. More than likely, I spent the evening at my grandmother’s while my parents went to their friends’ party, and at some point or another I listened to all 106 songs of 106.1 WBLI’s end-of-the-year countdown. I may have even made a list–I was really into cataloguing stuff like that back then. So the memories, at best, are spotty.

I remember feeling that 1990 was going to be a big year. It’s probably because the dawn of the Nineties coincided with my transition to junior high school and teenagedom, and when you have one foot in childhood and another foot in the quasi-adult world, everything can feel like some sort of benchmark or milestone. I was also watching way too much TV back then and there that feeling of the next decade being some how markedly different was a pretty common message.

I wish I would have been able to find articles, shows, features, or even commercials that reflected this, but the prepositional phrase that seemed to permeate so much of what I read, saw, and heard, was “…of the ’90s.” Even in 1989, it was code for less frivolity and more substance in your life. Granted, that would become a pretty harsh reality for a number of people within seven months of the new year when the recession that would last until 1992 took hold, but we were more or less being told that we had to take things more seriously.

Foreclose on a Yuppie 1

An image from the “Foreclose on a Yuppie Contest” promo where the cool guy in the leather jacket and jeans gets the douchebag yuppie’s money.

MTV, which had latched onto and helped define youth culture throughout the Eighties, even got in on this, sponsoring a contest called “Foreclose on a Yuppie”, which had a decidedly non-yuppie-looking guy getting into the apartment of a typical ’80s douchebag and taking all of his stuff, then making the douchebag yuppie his butler. The prize was $50,000 and a BMW.* But nothing is that simple, especially considering that throughout late 1989, MTV was still airing NKOTB and hair metal in heavy rotation and they gave more exposure to lighter, poppier rap/hip-hop acts like Ton Loc and Young MC than harder-edged stuff. In fact, as the Eighties closed, we still hadn’t seen MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice release their biggest singles.

 

But MTV would make sure it was showcasing the ‘now” as much as possible as 1989 ended by airing The Dawn of the Decade House Party at the Palladium in New York City. Airing live on December 31, 1989 (naturally), it used a setting familiar to viewers, as the Palladium was where the station’s daily dance show, Club MTV, was filmed; and the channel’s veejays and hosts at the time were the emcees. These included Club MTV host and all-around late-1980s MTV icon Downtown JUlie Brown, Remote Control host Ken Ober, veejay Kevin Seal, veejay and Headbanger’s Ball host Adam Curry, Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy, and MTV’s Half Hour Comedy Hour host Mario Joyner.

Title CardI only know of this show’s existence thanks to YouTube, where someone uploaded the entire special, including commercials, and my train of thought was, “Oh wow, I can see how people rang in the Nineties and it’ll be this great time capsule of the era and it’ll be so different than what I’m used to seeing on New Year’s Eve!”

Well, part of that is true because what you get in this house party is basically a two-hour special that is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with just the performances and no Times Square ball drop. Now, I’m sure that there are people who absolutely love NYRE and crack up at the antics of Jenny McCarthy’s street-level interviews and dance in their living rooms to yet another performance from Pitbull or the Black-Eyed Peas, but in recent years, I’ve found that this is something you endure until midnight rather than look forward to. MTV’s Dawn of the Decade House Party wasn’t much of an upgrade, either.

On paper, it looks way more appealing than ABC’s programming. Excepting Clark, who was live in New York, NYRE ’90’s pre-taped Hollywood segments were hosted by Kirk Cameron and Lori Loughlin and featured performances by Michael Damian, Martika, Expose, and Dion**. MTV had the B-52’s, Young MC, Richard Marx, Neneh Cherry, Living Colour, and Lenny Kravitz, so they definitely had the edge when it came to cool. Granted, I’m not the best arbiter of cool, but I would take Living Colour belting out “Cult of Personality” rather than Michael Damian’s cover of “Rock On.” The show also ran through the top five videos of the year, which the show prior had led into with the other 95 videos of the year, so while we didn’t get to see Madonna perform, we got to see some of her video for “Like a Prayer”.***

So, considering the show was basically a “cooler” version of NYRE, would it have been worthwhile alternative programming? Assuming it was aired live, if you were actually in the audience, I think that it would have been something to brag about, if your friends cared about those things. Being twelve at the time and not having access to the channel (or such parties), MTV had the allure of looking in on the cooler older kids. I never emulated them by getting into the blazer with turtlenecks and Cavariccis or the huge cardigan with a turtleneck and Cavariccis or the sweater vest with a turtleneck and Cavariccis, though.

Neneh Cherry

Neneh Cherry performs “Buffalo Stance.”  Her outfit consisted of a Han Solo on Hoth parka over a bra.  I don’t know how comfortable that would have been considering the club was probably pretty hot.

Anyway, the hosts do a capable job for the show’s two hours and probably did some partying themselves****, and the acts feel very “in the moment” of that time. The B-52’s are in the prime spot, on the stage for the countdown to midnight and then ringing in 1990 with a New Year’s version of The Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” followed by “Love Shack,” a song I keep telling myself that I don’t like but then sing along to whenever I hear it. Young MC does “Bust a Move”, of course, and all I the highlight of Neneh Cherry’s performance is that she was singing to a tape (as has been and is still done on TV) and kept singing after the tape ended. Even though the rock acts–Marx and Living Colour–give some really solid performances–it all seems so normal for a channel that prided itself on smacking down those norms*****.

This wound up being the general problem that MTV would have for the next couple of years as it tried to find its footing in the early 1990s. Throughout the show, there are advertisements for something called “MTV Part 2: A New Beginning”, which isn’t a show or a channel as much as M2/MTV 2, but a slate of programming that would include Unplugged and Liquid Television. And I only know this based on the short clips in the ads along with thirty years of hindsight. I’m not sure if I would have found any of it enticing back then, because anything called “… Part 2” sounded like it was not going to be worth the price of admission.

MTV Part 2 Promo

New year, new decade, new block of programming.  Part 2: A New Beginning doesn’t sound very promising.

The decade would take a little while to become “The Nineties”, and we’d have an Eighties hangover for a couple of years. Even so, there is such a difference between the early and later parts of the decade that it is hard to define in simple ways. The people who put together MTV’s show at the Palladium weren’t thinking about any of this and were probably just looking to throw a cool party that hopefully skimmed some of the ratings off of Dick Clark’s stalwart of a show. But they inadvertently provided us with a snapshot of the decade-to-decade transition we were about to go through. Lenny Kravitz closes the show. This was a few years before “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, so his closing slot was the dead one–most people watching the show had probably already gone to bed. He finishes his set with “Let Love Rule”, a song that has its roots in the Sixties but with its stripped down aesthetic is less slick than Whitesnake or Motley Crue. Of all the songs I heard and all the moments I saw, this last one felt the most Nineties.

Lenny Kravitz

This embodies “transitional.” The saxophone is very 1980s while Kravitz would go on to be one of the biggest mainstream rock acts of the 1990s.

* In a look back at crazy MTV contests of the 1980s, Rolling Stone said that according to the Chicago Tribune, the winner of the contest, 23-year-old John Rogers, crashed the BMW and his resulting partial paralysis led to him spending most of the cash winnings on medical expenses.
**Yes, as in 1950s frontman of The Belmonts. According to Wikipedia, he had a comeback album in 1989 that was well-received.
*** The clips were cut to make room for the live show, so we got a little bit of each. The other four, starting from the bottom, were “Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty, “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul, “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour, and “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals.
****The look on Adam Curry’s face is that of a designated driver, or at least someone who had to stay sober enough to be the last veejay standing around 1:00 a.m. when he announced Lenny Kravitz.
*****Marx finished his set with “Edge of a Broken Heart”, which was a hit by all-woman heavy metal group Vixen. I then did some googling and learned that he wrote the song for them in the late 1980s.

Pop Culture Affidavit 101: Retrospecticus

Episode 101 Website CoverIt’s the most self-indulgent, ultra-sized episode of Pop Culture Affidavit EVER!!!

Join me as I take a look back at the history of the blog and podcast; giving you its origin story; and respond to both emails and past blog comments on topics such movies, comics, music, and random stuff.  Then I share never-before-heard outtakes and conversations with Michael Bailey, Stella, Donovan Morgan Grant, and Andrew Leyland before Amanda joins me for a brand-new segment about music from 1997 and 1998.

Plus, I introduce and preview my newest miniseries, which premieres in November!

You can listen here:

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Here’s where you can find all of the guest spots …

0:17:40 Michael Bailey and I talk about cast members from How I Got Into College and Summer School and then talk about the syndicated show Super Force.

0:42:00 Stella and I discuss our initial reactions to Alien Covenant.

1:16:05 Donovan Morgan Grant and I talk about Roboetch (in footage that did not make the final cut of our episode).

1:43:00 Andrew Leyland and I talk about Nineties music.

1:52:05 Amanda and I disuss music from 1997 and 1998.

After the cut, you’ll find links to posts mentioned in the episode as well as some extras:

(more…)

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 99: Livin’ Well in 1999

Episode 99 Website CoverIt’s the second of two “milestone year” episodes as Amanda sits down with me once again for a talk about 1999!

Over the course of our (much shorter this time) conversation, we talk music, movies, and television, but also delve into news, politics and culture.  We’ll look at the rise of and importance of Millennials, Woodstock ’99, teen pop, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, Office Space, the dawn of the age of reality televisionWho Wants to Be A Millionaire?, the Food Network, and MTV’s Undressed, among other things.

Plus, we talk about what it was like to graduate from college in 1999 and how we somehow survived our early twenties, and we also talk about how the issues and serious events of 1999, such as Columbine and the Bill Clinton impeachment still affect our culture and politics today.

Apple Podcasts:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 97: And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

Episode 97 Website CoverThey’re the 30-second segments you fast-forwarded through, ignored, or used for a bathroom break, but when you think about it, you know them better than you realize.  They are commercials.  In this episode, I talk about advertising and commercials that I remember, both fondly and not so fondly.  I begin by going over what makes a good and a bad commercial and then make my way through a bunch of commercials that I can’t get out of my head.  From cereal to fast food to toys to local car dealerships, it’s so much advertising that it’s … INSANE!

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

As a bonus, here are links to past blog posts about commercials.

“Your Winds Song Stays on My Mind”:  Wind Song perfume.

“When Clothes Shopping Became Cool”:  Kids “R” Us.

“Because Rock Should Make You Feel Good”:  The as-seen-on-TV compilation album Feel Good Rock.

“Why the green M&M’s have always been my favorite”: An M&M’s commercial featuring little leaguers.

“Coke Is It!”:  A 1980s Coke commercial.

“The Taste That’s Gonna Move You!”:  Juicy Fruit gum.

“Fuzzy Memories of Summer Camp”:  About local summer camp commercials from the NY tri-state area.

“Just ‘Round the Corner!”:  Long Island-area furniture store commercials.

“All You Have to Bring Is Your Love of Everything”:  Sandals, Mount Airy Lodge, and the Commack Motor Inn

“The Yearbook Myth”:  A post about yearbooks and yearbook DVD music from the mid-2000s that also features a 1980s McDonald’s commercial called “Great Year!”

“XOXO”:  Tic-Tac-Toes canned pasta from Chef Boyardee.

“Heaven in a Can”:  Franco-American gravy.

“Just What the Dr. Ordered”:  Dr. Pepper commercials from the early Nineties.

And here is a playlist of the commercials used in this episode …

 

Pop Culture Affidavit Episode 95: Stayin’ Alive in 1995

Episode 95 Website CoverIt’s the first of two “milestone year” episodes where Amanda and I sit down and take a pretty thorough look at what was going on in a particular year of the 1990s. First up, 1995. Join us as we talk about where we were in our lives in ’95 and then run through the television shows, movies, and music of that year.

You can listen here:

iTunes:  Pop Culture Affidavit

Direct Download 

Pop Culture Affidavit podcast page

I Spent My Adolescence Wandering the Teen Movie Desert

Heather Duke

Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke in the film that killed ’80s teen movies.  She’d later play the iconic Brenda Walsh on the ’90s teen soap Beverly Hills 90210.

I’m in the middle of prepping for my next episode, which is going to be about the 1995 film Clueless. It’s a movie that is culturally significant because it was one of a number of movies that started a teen movie boom in the mid- to late-1990s and early 200s after a period that didn’t see many successful films in the genre, at least on the level that we saw in the previous decade with the Brat Pack films. If we take what Jonathan Bernstein says in Pretty in Pink: The Golden Age of Teenage Movies and say that 1989 is a benchmark for the end of the movie genre’s initial success because, as he puts it, Heathers killed it “stone dead” and that 1995 was the beginning of what was looking like a revival, we have a period where teen movies of many genres–comedy, drama, and horror–saw very little success.

 

This period also happens to coincide with most of my adolescence. I began junior high in the fall of 1989 and graduated high school in June of 1995, which meant that I was the target audience for what wound up being a dearth of flicks. Now, I can tell you that I spent a lot of time going to the comic store and my adolescence also coincides with the boom and subsequent bust of that particular collector’s market, but not everyone I knew was into superheroes and comics on the level that I was, so this long intro and cultural context does beg the question: what were we doing if we weren’t going to the movies in the early 1990s? I’m going to try and plumb the depths of my fuzzy memories of this period to give you … some sort of explanation, and it starts with the very place we were supposedly avoiding.

Because we were going to the movies; we just weren’t seeing those movies. I remember seeing most of those classic teen flicks like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink when I was in junior high and high school because they were rerun on television quite a bit and if what I saw seemed interesting enough, I’d hit up Video Empire so I could see the whole thing instead of the 45 minutes or so I caught on WPIX (or in the case of movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the whole, uncensored thing). But trips to the theater were, at least for me, reserved for Batman movies, Terminator sequels, Van Damme and Seagal action flicks, and blockbusters like Jurassic Park. The closest that I think I ever got to seeing a movie aimed directly at me and people my age in the theater were the two Wayne’s World movies and even then, those were SNL-based.

Pump up the Volume

Starring Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume was one of the few movies of the early Nineties with an impact.

Not that we didn’t have stuff like Pump Up the Volume (an episode that I swear is coming at some point) and Reality Bites (which I covered back in 1994), but when looking at what came out during that time period, most of the movies had characters who were slightly older or younger than me. Pump Up the Volume and two Brendan Fraser movies–Encino Man and School Ties–were probably exceptions to this rule, as they did take place in a high school. But when I watched Singles or Reality Bites, I was watching movies aimed at the heart of Generation X, which was the core audience for most of the original wave of teen movies and whom by then had more or less grown tired or grown out of the genre. These two movies, while they did moderately well, did underperform and are more on the edge of the “cult classic” than bona fide cultural touchstones. And there was always a “looking at the older kids” aspect to them. Concurrently, there were a number of movies that were made for the early Millennial set–Now and Then, The Mighty Ducks, Man in the Moon, My Girl–and were a nice set-up for movies like Clueless, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Even the few that did match right up appropriate with my age, such as PCU (again, I covered this in 1994) and Dazed & Confused (another episode I will eventually do) were box office bombs that got new life on video and cable.

 

Besides, we were watching ourselves more on television. While the WB, which began in 1994, would unlock the secret to the teen audience in the latter part of the decade with Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, credit where credit is due needs to go to Fox and MTV for what they did in the early 1990s. MTV had already been around for a decade by the time I was finishing junior high and was the default station for teenagers; Fox was just starting out and had realized that they could use what was then a more “edgy” tone to some of its programming to attract audiences that the big three networks were more or less ignoring. So, you have stuff like Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, 21 Jump Street, and Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox and MTV’s seminal reality show, The Real World. And while ABC would throw its hat in the ring with My So-Called Life in 1994, Fox and MTV had more of an impact–in fact, MSCL got a second life in reruns on MTV way into the later part of the decade.

 

Real World Cast

The cast of season 3 (San Francisco) of The Real World, which premiered in 1994.

90210 and The Real World really are the shows to consider because to people my age they were aspirational in a sense–90210 was full of the glamorous life and The Real World showed teenagers how cool it was going to be when you finally left home. Yes, there was drama on The Real World and in those first few seasons, people were dealing with serious issues and problems, but we all wanted to live in that house at one point or another (at least until we hit our twenties and realized that the real world was a lot more boring). There also wasn’t much beyond that as far as programming was concerned. Outside of what I’ve listed, we were kind of stuck between Full House and Seinfeld and usually chose the latter, even if we didn’t get all of the jokes. That is, until Beavis and Butthead came along.

 

Now, I realize that I’m simplifying for the sake of argument here and probably could do an entire series of posts or a book on this teen entertainment desert (which isn’t that half bad of an idea, tbh), so there were other shows and movies out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Beavis and Butthead was a seminal show. Like I said, there was an “older kid” aspiration to a lot of the leftovers from the Eighties or what was on screen in the early Nineties. Watching the Hughes flicks or any other movies from that era sometimes felt like you were rifling through the room of your older brother or sister who had gone away to college and left everything unguarded, or that you were Judy in American Graffiti or Mitch Kramer in Dazed & Confused hanging out with the older kids. But watching an episode of Beavis and Butthead was like looking around your own high school. No, I didn’t do nearly any of the crazy crap those two did, but I know plenty of people who were just as idiotic; furthermore, there was a lot of sitting around and watching random crap on TV at my house and my friends’ houses while making snarky comments at what was on television. Plus, they were often watching music videos and while MTV would taper off playing videos throughout the decade, this was around the time–at least in my life–that music seemed important.

Based on the content of my last episode, it’s not revelatory to say that music is important to teenagers–it has been since my parents’ generation–but after the latter part of the Eighties and its vapid pop-rock and hair metal, the pendulum swung back to music that took itself more seriously. Oh, there was plenty of vapid crap in the early 1990s (nobody is comparing “Baby Got Back” to The Beatles), but the messages (if there were any) in “Girls Girls Girls” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” see seemed pretty empty considering how deep we were into a recession. The gloom of alternative and the anger of punk fit what many of us were going through or at least thought we were going through (in a Holden Caulfield sort of way) as opposed to songs about strippers and blow on the Sunset Strip. Plus, this was a time when you couldn’t access a song unless it was released as a single, so you had to make the conscious choice to buy an entire album on cassette or CD and that meant being smart about where exactly you put your disposable income and that also meant that the purchase held more weight and you sought out things that really did mean something.

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Mortal Kombat fatalities such as this one caused quite a bit of hand-wringing.

That is, if you weren’t bathing in the blood of Mortal Kombat opponents. If there’s one thing I have learned from being a late-period Gen-Xer (especially one with a tween of my own), it’s that video games are huge and can be all-consuming. The older part of my generation did play video games and they certainly had gaming systems in the house, but those of us who were tweens and teens in the late 1980s and early 1990s were really the first to take it to a level beyond novelty or something we would outgrow. Video games and systems were just as expensive in the early Nineties as they are now, and that meant an investment of money and time, and they began to reflect those costs. Games were become more complex and more adult–by 1994, they even had ratings on the packages to reflect that not all of them were for little kids–so fewer people were abandoning them as the novelty wore off or they got older. While I didn’t own my own system after playing on my NES, I spent countless hours at friends’ houses playing Street Fighter, F-Zero, Mortal Kombat, Madden, NHL, and a number of other games.

 

And in a few paragraphs, I just listed everything we were doing in lieu of watching the latest iteration of The Breakfast Club. And at the heart of it is that when I was a teenager, my friends and I were doing what we wanted and really didn’t care. We kind of shrugged at what was offered to us, which caused hand-wringing among a number of companies because teenagers and twentysomethings weren’t taking everything offered to them. The “Generation X” label tended to be a negative reaction to those groups’ unwillingness to part with all of their money after a decade of teenagers buying all of the shiny things corporations had to offer. It’s almost as if people forgot how adolescents tended to act.

As I look at my students and what they are into, I don’t know if things with teen movies have cycled back to the desert of the early Nineties or if things have diversified so much–after all, there are multiple platforms now on which to view or listen to things. I believe it’s somewhere in between, although my hitting middle age definitely doesn’t help.