Terrible favorites from childhood
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I was reading the article on Joe Dante, and some of the comments about Innerspace got me thinking of movies I used to watch over and over as a kid—like SuperFuzz, a really bad Police Academy knock-off about a cop who got superpowers. What pieces of media do you remember fondly from your youth while knowing full well that they’re probably among the most awful things ever made? —Andy F
I recently watched a movie that had the A-Team movie trailer front-loaded onto the DVD, and it reminded me pretty viscerally of the degree to which I was dedicated to that show as a young’un. At least I can say (having not gone back and re-watched it as an adult, and going only on those sunny childhood memories of watching it with my family) that the performances were fun. But man, what a formulaic show, operating on a small handful of repeated jokes (Murdock is crazy, BA hates flying and loves milk) and a predictable series of events: A-Team goes after bad guys, gets captured and locked up in a garage or machine shed or warehouse, builds tank, goes after bad guys, shoots everyone in sight without killing anyone. It is beyond me why I loved that show so much, but thinking about Murdock escaping the asylum for the umpty-seventh time still makes me smile.
Like many members of my generation—popularly known as the Stephen Dorff generation—I was raised largely by television. This tends to engender having a level of nostalgia for a lot of horseshit even my feral 11-year-old mind probably realized on some level was, objectively speaking, pretty fucking terrible. Oftentimes our perception of the entertainment of our childhood has everything to do with the role it played in our lives, and very little to do with its actual quality. One of the most treasured rituals of my childhood, for example, was the “Alf parties” I had with my dad, where we would participate in the sacred tradition of eating frozen microwave burritos and watching new episodes of Alf. I’m sure if I went back and watched Alf now, I would find it to be a surreal exercise in kitschy mediocrity, but I will always treasure it as an oasis of escapism and fun in what turned out to be a fairly bleak childhood.
I was chatting with my husband the other day about why TGIF TV was such a hit back in the late ’80s, when it’s so clear to us now that it was completely terrible. His theory was just that there was nothing else to do. We were kids, too young to be out, but too old not to be pursuing more innocent, childish pursuits, so what were we gonna do but watch Family Matters, Full House, Perfect Strangers, and the like? Adding to the appeal for me was that for a long time, prime-time TV was not allowed for the kids in my house. It’s hilarious to me now that I once considered those shows taboo, as they’re more offensive to me now for their badness than anything else, but my parents’ black magic did their trick. Tell a kid she can’t watch bland, banal, unchallenging TV, and that’s all she’ll want.
I’m going to invoke my prerogative as an American male to stretch the definition of “childhood” here, because I’ve gotten too good at cutting myself slack to really be embarrassed over my pre-teen devotion to Harvey Comics, F Troop re-runs, and my mom’s well-worn vinyl copy of Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits. But then there’s the Gallagher thing. I was probably a pretty big fan of the old melon-smasher, around the time he was the face of stand-up comedy on Showtime. In my defense, to be young and interested in stand-up comedy in the early ’80s was to have just gotten your hands on the remote at a time when a lot of exciting, volatile, challenging performers who had dominated the field had burned out, turned hack, or decamped for the movies. If one didn’t want to accept that the party was over, and one was not yet capable of finding one’s own reproductive organs with two hands and a flashlight, one might possibly have mistaken overblown, soft-gummed goofiness for something that was at least “cosmic” and “surreal.” I swear I clearly remember thinking that Gallagher, in the course of his onstage rambling, used to sometimes hit on something sort of profound, but now, I can only remember one line I could ever point to as evidence for the defense: I can’t quote it word for word from memory, but it went something like, “You spend the first half of your life learning to do stuff that you then get too old to do.” True that, and truer for Gallagher than for some of us.
I’m going to go back a little further than Claire did, not only because I’m a little older than she is, but because without the terrible late-’70s and early-’80s sitcoms of my youth, TGIF would have never existed. I’m not talking about All In The Family and M*A*S*H, I’m talking about the sitcoms that were created for the whole family to watch, like Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, The Facts Of Life, Gimme A Break!, and shows of that ilk. Those were shows I watched religiously, guffawing at the silly antics of the too-wise-for-their-years kids and their bumbling-but-well-meaning parents. I was so addicted to Diff’rent Strokes, for instance, that I cried my 8-year-old eyes out when Todd Bridges mentioned on an episode of Password Plus that the show would be moving to 9 p.m., which also happened to be my bedtime. But looking back at reruns of those shows, I don’t get the warm, nostalgic feelings people used to get when watching sitcoms like Leave It To Beaver or The Brady Bunch, which were corny but endearing. No, I cringe listening to the bad jokes, watching the actors mug for the cameras, spewing catchphrases I’m sure I saw on T-shirts and notebooks at the time, and generally showing a lack of comedic sophistication that these days has been surpassed by every comedy out there, including the silly teen sitcoms on Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel.
I refuse to believe that this is the most awful movie, because tiny me had impeccable taste, but I will concede that the 1999 version of The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser is perhaps not film’s greatest achievement. It’s possible that I didn’t need to watch it constantly from the time it came out until I had the entire script memorized. It is also possible that I didn’t need to watch all of its sequels, including The Scorpion King, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. And maybe trying the mummy-raising incantations on The Field Museum’s collection was a bit much. Objectively, it’s all terrible, and loving it as much as I do invalidates anything I will ever say about movies. Today, I am the first to holler about historical inaccuracies and cultural misrepresentations. But somehow that stupid movie burrowed into my developing brain, and I still enjoy watching it more than just about anything else.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to when I loved Steven Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy film Hook. It’s a terrible movie, full of Spielberg’s worst excesses as a director: mawkish sentimentality, a shallow screenplay dominated by cliché, Robin Williams in tights, narrative bloat (it’s more than two hours long!), Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. But I adored it when I was 12, and I can remember coming out of the theater so excited and amazed, and getting honestly baffled when my parents weren’t all that keen on the whole thing. It’s not so much that I regret having (slightly) better taste now, or that Hook filled some otherwise vacant yearning in my soul for campy pirates and imaginary food fights. It’s just that there sometimes seems to be a limited capacity for enthusiasm in the world. As I get older, and my critical faculties improve, I can’t just love something because I think I should love it. The movie or book or show actually has to be good, and the more I see what “actual good” is, the pickier I get. Which is fine in some ways, and it has enhanced my appreciation for great work, but that enhancement hasn’t increased in direct relation to fun I’ve lost along the way. And it keeps getting worse. I’m terrified that some time in the next decade I’ll get so fixated and dismissive and picky that I’ll start to dislike everything, not because I want to, but because I can’t help it. Then I’ll have some sort of psychotic break, start grading everything A+, get fired because of it, and spend my declining years pitching a book about how The Goonies is a brilliant, insightful commentary on the frustrations and generational divide which would eventually inspire the Occupy movement in the late ’00s. Better to just go back in time to when I thought “Ru-fe-o!” was a legitimately awesome war cry.
When I was a kid, my elementary school used to offer the occasional Friday after-school screening of various kiddie films as a fun start to the weekend. Even at the time, I knew they weren’t all classics, but one really captured my fancy: a strange amalgam of fairytale and science fiction called… wait for it… Pinocchio In Outer Space. In my memory, it was an enthralling look into the strange direction the puppet-turned-real-live-boy’s life took after his original Disney adventure. In a nutshell, the Blue Fairy decides Pinocchio needs a bit more time as a puppet, so she puts him back into his original state and sends him on a weird trip with a turtle-looking alien named Nurtle the Twurtle (voiced by Arnold Stang). They encounter Astro The Space Whale, and by the end of the film, Pinocchio actually dies, only to be resurrected by the Blue Fairy and given the gift of humanity once more. I didn’t really remember any of this, however. I just remembered I thought it was awesome. I finally revisited it many years later, and it’s still enthralling, but on a completely different level. When I watch it now, I’m mostly just aware of how cheap the animation is, and how the studio blatantly skirted around copyright infringement with Disney’s version of the Pinocchio mythos by using elements from the original story. And to think my only issue with the film as a kid was the absence of Jiminy Cricket.
As a 10-year-old member of the Young Astronauts who grew up near NASA, I was the target demographic for 1986’s Space Camp. The movie stars Lea Thompson, Tate Donovan, Kelly Preston, and a pint-sized Leaf Phoenix (who later went back to his birth name, Joaquin) as a group of campers who accidentally go to space when a space-shuttle test goes wrong. (“Goes wrong” naturally means “is altered by a friendly but literal robot.”) I watched it incessantly. A couple weeks ago, I saw Space Camp for the first time since attending Space Academy (Level I)—Space Camp is actually for kiddies—when I was 14. (Trivia: Sean O’Neal also went to Space Camp.) I didn’t expect it to be good, but I didn’t realize just how not good it is. Setting aside the preposterousness of NASA letting anyone on the shuttle during an engine test, it doesn’t work on so many levels. During the “space” sequences, only the meekest effort is made to create the illusion of zero gravity. The dialogue repeatedly gets melodramatic, and isn’t helped by Phoenix’s constant Star Wars references. There’s a talking robot and liberal use of Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man.” Watching it again, I realized the pitch meeting at the studio basically went like this: “The Goonies, but in space.” “SOLD!”
One of the advantages of being a parent is that you have a legitimate reason to watch kid-friendly cartoons, so I can speak with some authority when I say that the generation born in the ’00s has had it pretty sweet when it comes to the TV animation geared toward them. (Phineas & Ferb alone gives this era the edge on just about any other, youth-entertainment-wise.) As a child of the ’70s, I was limited to what I could find on TV in the afternoons and on Saturday mornings, which meant the release of the new TV schedules every fall was an event, and which also meant I spent more time watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons than any reasonable human being should’ve: I’d wake up early so as not to miss whatever variation of Laff-A-Lympics or Yogi’s Space Race or what-have-you was on then. I’m grateful (sort of) to the generous home-video department at Warner Bros. for releasing so much of the Hanna-Barbera product onto DVD, so I can have that warm, nostalgic feeling of returning to childhood for a minute or two, and then be reminded of how awful so many of those shows were. Ugh, the cruddy animation and dim colors. Oof, the bad gags. Yikes, that annoying 100-bowling-pins-falling-down-a-staircase “laugh” sound. So, so soul-crushing.
Apart from all the terrible game shows I watched as a kid—The New Treasure Hunt, why?—I remember being a huge fan of the NBC show Here’s Boomer, the story of a stray dog who settled down each week to have an adventure before moving on to another setting for a different story each week. But why am I explaining this when the theme song lays it out so clearly?:
Like magic, he appears
A hero to save the day
And just when you think he’s here for good
That’s when he goes away
’Cause he’s Boomer
He’s never gonna settle down
Wandering from town to town.
Etc. To say the least, I doubt it holds up very well. But at the time, I thought it was cute, so much so that I was offended by an episode that broke with the usual format by supplying Boomer’s (probably Garfield-inspired) wisecracking thoughts via voiceover. Boomer, to my mind, would never be so mean. Even if he wasn’t the type of dog to settle down, wandering as he did, from town to town.
I wasn’t allowed to watch much television as a child—the horrifying origin story of many a TV critic—but the handful of shows I was allowed to watch included The New Mickey Mouse Club, where everyone from Britney Spears to Chase Hampton got their starts. (Who’s Chase Hampton? Surely you’ve heard of seminal recording artist THE PARTY!) The few times I’ve tried to look back on it now, I’ve been horrified that I enjoyed any of this; that I laughed at the stupid sketches; that I so loved the sound effects that host Fred Newman made, I wanted to have his job someday; that when asked by my classmates who my favorite band was, instead of saying “New Kids On The Block” like a good conformist fourth grader, I said, “The Party.” And on and on. And this shit is taking up valuable real estate in my brain! Like, I still remember that Wednesday is “Anything Can Happen Wednesday,” and that information is never going to be helpful. Or, for instance, when I hear that Keri Russell is going to be in a new FX series, my first frame of reference isn’t Felicity (which I very much enjoyed her in) but, rather, the part at the start of every episode where she stared at the camera in her MMC jacket and said, “Keri!” Or the idea of the “Mickey Mouse Club movie,” aired on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and split up into tiny little pieces, for no apparent reason. Now, doing some research, I realize MMC was kids’ TV as junk drawer, a collection of stuff Disney Channel didn’t know what to do with. Maybe that’s why it appealed to me then, but I’m cringing now.
The best part about being a kid is that taste is irrelevant. I think Brian Posehn has a joke about this, but nobody looks at an 8-year-old and thinks they’re a dork. You can get away with murder! I was lucky enough to be a kid in the ’90s, when everything geared towards zero-somethings was brazenly moronic (see: NanoPets, Madballs, etc). I bought into a lot of this garbage, but nothing had me hook-line-and-sinker like Goosebumps, R.L. Stine’s formulaic children’s novellas. I put these things down like I put down Flintstone’s chewable vitamins. (In theory. I don’t recall ever taking vitamins, which may account in part for my being a sickly, chubby kid.) Even though I knew at some level how by-the-numbers these books were, I couldn’t get enough. Whether I knew it or not, it also introduced me to the whole concept of dramatic irony. Every Goosebumps was basically a kid who liked worms bugging someone who didn’t like worms, and then, in turn, becoming a worm. I had shoeboxes of these things. Heck, I still do. My mother (a grade-school teacher who believes herself in tune with the value of trends she’s seen cycle across the schoolyard) still believes they’ll be valuable someday, which is kind of like expecting your Wayne Gretzky rookie card to somehow skyrocket in value, if they’d printed 9 million Wayne Gretzky rookie cards.
I had a pang of nostalgia when I listened to Logan Hill’s recent This American Life story about a friend who ran away from home to seek refuge with his hero Piers Anthony… well, maybe it was more a wince of nostalgia. When I was a nerdy tween, not yet having blossomed into the nerdy adult I am today, I demolished a fair percentage of Anthony’s practically inexhaustible bibliography. Incarnations Of Immortality, Apprentice Adept, Mode, Xanth—I burned through thousands of pages of occasionally pun-laden science fiction and fantasy from the man at warp speed, retaining almost nothing other than the premises. So when I picked up a battered copy of A Spell For Chameleon off a friend’s shelf a few years ago, I had no expectations, other than some possibly creaky ’70s YA fantasy writing—and I really wish I hadn’t touched it, so I could have remained as blissfully unaware of the magic-kingdom-sized gender hang-ups Anthony harbored as I had been when I was younger. Those hangups are head-slappingly exemplified in Chameleon by the love interest who waxes and wanes monthly from intelligent and ugly to dumb and beautiful. Looking around online later, I saw that Anthony is notorious for his gender issues, which is why I’m leaving On A Pale Horse to its extremely vague but fond place in my memory.
I would be hard-pressed to offer up examples of non-terrible entertainments I enjoyed as a child, from the time I quit taking piano lessons because it conflicted with the cartoon series The Beatles to the endless fun my cousins and I had one rainy afternoon rewinding to the robot pimp part in Ice Pirates. But I was too young to take responsibility for either of those transgressions, so instead I’ll choose The Secret Of My Success, a Michael J. Fox vehicle I saw in theaters, watched countless times on video, and will continue to watch whenever it turns up during an aimless channel-flipping session on TV. For reasons I’ll leave the armchair therapists among you to divine, I’ve always been compelled by any book or movie dealing with the world of finance, even though (or perhaps because) I have no understanding of how the stock market works. (Some people watch Trading Places for Eddie Murphy; I watch it for the fiscal manipulation.) The Secret Of My Success has many annoyances—the overuse of that ubiquitous-at-the-time “Oh Yeah” by Yello, the almost miraculously charmless Helen Slater—but the hero’s ingenuity and pluck in rising from the mailroom to the boardroom satisfies some get-rich-quick fantasy I found (and still find) irresistible.