Childhood entertainment we still love
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What early pop-culture obsession has stuck with you? Like a band you idolized when you were 12, or maybe you watched all of Dawson’s Creek and still wish you had a rowboat. What did you love during your formative years that you still prize? —Claire
Most of the music I listened to when I was 12 or so is gone and forgotten, and most of the films and TV I liked back then look pretty schlocky today. But I still have a number of books from my childhood, and I still occasionally revisit them—particularly the works of Roald Dahl, including Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Charlie And The Great Glass Elevator, James And The Giant Peach, and my personal all-time favorite, Danny, The Champion Of The World. Dahl was one of the first authors to lead me to what I still consider one of the greatest feelings of all time: the realization that someone whose work you loved when you were a kid also wrote books for adults. It’s awesome enough to be able to go back and revisit books from childhood and find out that they’re actually well-written enough to still hold up. It’s even better to find out that an artist has left you even more to discover as you get older. I highly recommend Dahl’s short adult (sometimes extremely adult) fiction, particularly the anthology Switch Bitch. The eponymous story is hilarious and brutal. Other books from childhood still on my grown-up shelves: William Steig’s melancholy Abel’s Island and Dominic, George Selden’s The Genie Of Sutton Place, and naturally, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Lewis is another one of those authors who just keeps on giving: Discovering his adult novel Till We Have Faces as a grown-up was like taking that step up from playing with dolls to driving a car.
There’s the germ of another, more specific question in here: What early pop-culture obsession do you still defend against those who have long since moved on? My answer lies in the comments for I Watched This On Purpose: Xanadu. Scott Tobias was kind enough to refrain from trashing the ELO half of the soundtrack album, but some of the commenters were not so kind. I send heartfelt vibes of gratitude to each commenter who took the time to defend ELO—not just Xanadu ELO, but ELO as a band, a concept, and a discography packed full of purely gorgeous, simply joyous pop songs that I fell in love with at age 12, riding in my older brother’s car with the 8-track of Out Of The Blue blasting through the open windows. ELO was my first pop-music obsession; their 1981 science-fiction concept album Time was the first LP I bought with my own money. Through ELO, I discovered The Beatles, another obsession I’ve never gotten rid of, albeit a much more respectable one. Yet every time I think guiltily that perhaps I loved Jeff Lynne and his string sections a little too much, all I have to do is listen to the music to reassure myself that my faith was not misplaced. Lynne’s sparkling, chunky sound falls in and out of fashion, and ELO tunes waver between movie-trailer kitsch and advertising quirk in the American consciousness. But you’ll never convince me to be ashamed of loving them. (And by the way, Scott, the four songs on side two of the Xanadu soundtrack may be the band at their very peak of awesomeness. Surely by now we can divorce them from that movie and its ironic Broadway spawn.)
Much of my warped taste in pop culture and skewed view of the world can probably be attributed to the fact that I spent huge chunks of my childhood living with my grandparents. And my grandparents were old; my grandfather was born in ’07—that’s 1907, you little millennial motherfuckers—and my grandmother was just five years younger. Accordingly, I was weaned on reruns of Gunsmoke and Green Acres (I had the theme song of the latter memorized by age 6—I’ll sing it for you next time I see you), and I think I only partially understood at the time that these shows weren’t, you know, contemporary. But one of my grandparents’ favorite programs that particularly enthralled me as a kid, and still does, is The Lawrence Welk Show. I honestly have no idea why this show appealed to me, but every time it came on I’d sit in front of the TV screen, stuck in stasis between boredom and rapture. But even now, when I happen across Lawrence Welk during a fit of free-associative channel-surfing, my eyes glaze over and I’m transported to my childhood—one in which pomade, crinoline, and accordion-raped showtunes are all trapped in champagne-tinted amber. Oh, and don’t forget the bubbles. Pretty, pretty bubbles.
People never ask me, “Leonard, where did you get your incredibly distinctive sense of humor?” And I’m pretty pissed off about it, too. But if they were to ask, I would tell them that I was a latchkey kid, and much of my mental development can be attributed not to what my parents taught me, but what was on television when I was sitting at home alone waiting for them to get back from work. The show that’s probably most responsible for twisting my mind in one particular direction was Get Smart, the 1960s spy parody by Mel Brooks that was ubiquitous in syndication. It was on at least five days a week in that stretch of the mid-afternoon that spanned from when I got home from school to when my mom and dad got back from work, and I have no doubt that its combination of wordplay, slapstick, satire, and sheer surrealist humor helped turn me into the pathetic comedy nerd I am today. It’s also held up surprisingly well; since the DVD collections started appearing last year, I’ve been transported back to the hideous orange plaid couch of my formative years, Slurpee in hand, and discovered that it’s even funnier than it was then, largely because I get the references now. And the acting—something I didn’t care much about as a kid—is the work of top-shelf comic performers. (The Addams Family, or, specifically Carolyn Jones as Morticia, had another very specific effect on my childhood development, but that’s another Q&A.)
Like Tasha, I still love many of the books I read as a kid. In particular, Susan Cooper’s Dark Is Rising sequence and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles (both heavily influenced by Welsh myths and legends) have hung with me. But I want to primarily focus on two series: L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and books collecting comic strips. The Oz books are so refreshingly weird, particularly the further you get into the series, though the first four or five are definitely the best. The film, while good, also sanitizes what is a very odd series. Return To Oz, while problematic, captured the books’ borderline dangerousness much more accurately. I also have to mention The Far Side by Gary Larson and especially Bill Watterson’s Calvin And Hobbes. Far Side defined much of what I found funny. I used to pin ones I found ghoulishly hilarious to the refrigerator, much to my mother’s chagrin. But Calvin proved longer-lasting. To this day, the tone I most love in art might be best described as “wistful melancholy,” and Calvin certainly could be best described as that. I revisit the series every few years, and what saddens me most is how unwilling I am now that I am older to accept that Hobbes is real and not just Calvin’s imaginary friend. I recall on my last read-through thinking, “Boy, that kid has an active imagination.” The thought saddened me deeply. Back when, I simply accepted Calvin’s exploits as real. Like Calvin, I had a beloved stuffed animal. Unlike his, mine now sits on a dusty shelf. I know putting aside childish things is part of the process of becoming. But the gap between Calvin and me just keeps getting wider.
I think I may have mentioned my undying love for Mr. Mom in passing in a previous AVQA, but that may be the movie I’ve seen more times than anything else. To this day, I can quote dialogue from it with an enthusiasm some may find off-putting. I know part of my devotion simply boils down to nostalgia; I remember seeing it in the theater with my sister, my cousins and I used to watch it a few times every summer, and the sax during the opening credits couldn’t sound more ’80s. I’m sure the cartoonish hijinks of Michael Keaton’s fish-out-of-water stay-at-home dad cracked me up as a kid (and, um, an adult), but the film is genuinely charming, thanks largely to its solid cast (Michael Keaton, Teri Garr, Martin Mull, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Lloyd). The gender politics are hugely dated in 2010, but hey, it was 1983. And this exchange between Keaton and Mull will make me laugh until the end of time:
“You want a beer?”
“It’s 7 o’clock in the morning.”
Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent the last 20 years forging a life for myself that allows me to keep doing what I did when I was 12: watch TV, listen to records, go to the movies, and read comics, pretty much from the time my alarm goes off in the morning until I sink into unconsciousness at night. And it’s the comics that most bring me full circle. I know “comics aren’t for kids anymore” and all that jazz, and certainly my comics diet is about 70 percent stuff my mother would’ve been skeptical of when I was growing up. But I supplement with old comic strips and all-ages superhero fare, and I still like to end my day by reaching down beside my bed and pulling a comic off my carefully organized stack. And now my 5-year-old daughter does the same. She has Peanuts collections, Calvin & Hobbes, Archie, Little Lulu, Mutts, Cul-De-Sac, Casper, Richie Rich, Owly… if it has panels and word balloons, she’s got it in a not-so-carefully organized stack, ready to read until it’s time for lights-out. I hope it’s a habit she keeps up for the rest of her life, whether she has the “Hey, it’s my job!” excuse or not.
Off the top of my head, there are two movies I feel like I enjoy as much as I did when I was young, but for slightly different reasons: Naked Gun movies and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. When I was a kid, the touchstones of Pee-wee were Large Marge, “Tequila,” and the basement of the Alamo. For Naked Gun, it was mostly about the montages, specifically “I’m Into Something Good” and “I Love L.A.” I feel like as I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to enjoy the parts of the movies that are silly just for silliness’ sake, little dumb throwaway jokes, like “Is this something you can share with the rest of us, Amazing Larry?” in Pee-wee or Ed crying “My father went the same way!” after Ludwig has been hit with a poison dart, fallen off a building, gotten run over by a car and a steamroller, and trampled by a marching band. I guess as I’ve gotten older, my sense of humor has gotten less mature.
Like a lot of people my age, I read Peanuts collections religiously when I was little. Fantagraphics’ wonderful ongoing reprint series has allowed me to revisit them as a grown-up, an experience that left me struck by both how much I remembered from childhood, and knowing they were about, well, life. I’m hardly to first to observe there’s a lot of depth to Charles Schulz’s work, but I don’t know if I’d ever noticed the unrelenting tension between anxiety and perseverance before. Charlie Brown worries constantly about failure. He carries on anyway. His defeats greatly outnumber his victories, yet there he is atop the pitcher’s mound. Or trying to kick the football. Or just carrying himself to another difficult day at school. I was feeling down a couple of months ago. Really down. These past six months or so have been the roughest time I’ve ever faced, and I found reading a stretch of Peanuts strips from the early ’60s almost unbearable. Strips that normally looked like a pleasing shade of blue started to seem almost black to me. It was probably my mood providing the coloring as much as Schulz’s strips. But, in a strange way, it made me happy to find the strips spoke to me as an adult in much the same way they did when I was an awkward kid—they provide a bit of comfort without wrapping it in any misplaced hopefulness.
Like Keith, Claire, and many of my colleagues (Damn A.V. Club hive mind), I find myself returning to Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure regularly as an adult, and am never disappointed. I’ve been on a Michael J. Fox kick as of late (which only partially explains why I was live-Tweeting Teen Wolf Too a few days ago) and my girlfriend had never seen Back To The Future, so I was only too happy to return to it. One of my happiest childhood memories involves watching Back To The Future and its two sequels back-to-back-to-back just before Back To The Future 3. (I held onto the tacky little button reading “I went back to back to back” far longer than I should have.) Rewatching Back To The Future, I was struck by how beautifully structured it is. It’s like a goddamn Swiss watch in its painstaking precision: no fat, no unnecessary scenes, no filler. Everything that happens pays off later in the film. I was similarly struck by how weird and kinky the film remains. It really is all about a young man trying desperately not to fuck his incredibly hot, extremely willing mother. (Mmmm, young Lea Thompson.) The fact that Back To The Future can revolve around such a Freudian mindfuck and still be one of the most beloved family films of the ’80s is largely a testament to the charm of the eternally boyish Michael J. Fox and a terrific supporting cast, especially Christopher Lloyd as the quintessential mad scientist. Plus, a DeLorean! How awesome is that?