A Brief History of Wasted Time
Television shows geared towards kids have always been weird, and they’re getting weirder. Why is Spongebob the phenomenon that he is? Let’s take a look back.
It’s a tale as old as time itself, or at least as old as children’s television. Children and “tweens” as the new buzzword describes them, make up one of the largest consumer demographics, and therefore have television executives foaming at the mouth to come up with new and exciting ways to lure them to the boob tube. Looking back at the programming that has been most successful at achieving this, one will notice an interesting and somewhat disturbing trend: Children’s television is decidedly freaky.
Let’s start with the granddaddy of all children’s shows, Howdy Doody. If watching an old rerun of this show doesn’t give you flashbacks of your drunken uncle forcing you to sit on his lap at family gatherings and fondle you, then you don’t have a drunken uncle, which is highly unlikely. The metaphor of a little boy puppet with red hair and freckles whose thoughts are being controlled by an old man pulling his strings and doing his talking for him should not be lost on any child psychologist. In the ’50s, any kid under 10 years of age basically had no choice but to watch this show — and we wonder why our parents are so fucked up. And this was just the tip of the iceberg…
It pains me to talk about the recently deceased Fred Rogers in a negative light. I, myself, was devoted fan for many of my formative years. But it would be unfair for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to be glossed over when examining disturbing children’s television trends. The general message of the show is refreshing: Be happy being you… please won’t you be my neighbor no matter your color, creed, religion, sexual orientation. But as we delve deeper into the cast of characters that comprise Mister Rogers’ ‘hood, a dark side develops. The ever-present mailman, Mr. McFeely, is an obvious place to start. The name alone really requires no analysis… a mailman named Mr. McFeely who always is allowed to come right on in to Mr. Rogers’ kitchen, sometimes without even knocking. Mr. McFeely sports an obvious rug on his head, and his blue mailman trousers always seemed a bit too tight to me, an observation I made in my innocent youth. He ain’t kidding when he says “special delivery”. But enough on McFeely, draw your own conclusions.
Let’s take a look at Lady Elaine Fairchild. Forget Ellen Degeneres, Lady Elaine was the first openly gay woman in television. Now besides being my first introduction to a “lesbian puppet”, I found her to be a very disturbing presence as I ate my morning Malt-o-Meal. It wasn’t her sexuality that scared me; it was that huge red nose. It looked like a broken capillary festival. That, coupled with her unstable personality, (as I recall she was always getting into fights with the other puppets of the neighborhood and had an on-going rivalry with King Friday) was enough to confuse any young mind. Why the writers felt it was necessary to include a lesbian drunk with a bi-polar disorder in a kid’s show is anyone’s guess.
On to the decade of bellbottoms and Quaaludes, the latter of which Sid and Marty Krofft were no doubt indulging in when they created the wonderfully messed up H.R. Pufnstuf. Although this show didn’t last very long, it left an indelible mark on the minds of hippie spawn that tuned in. As if their acid-taking parents didn’t already scramble their pre-natal brains enough, along comes Jimmy, Witchiepoo, and H.R. to ensure that normalcy is just an illusion. The plot, which revolves around Jimmy and his magical flute Freddie, takes place on an island where inanimate objects talk to you, and the mayor is a big orange dragon/ cowboy. Witchiepoo, an evil witch, is on a constant quest to obtain Jimmy’s flute… I think that happened to me once in college.
Once the ’80s began, it was plain to see that small people were all the rage in children’s programming. Cartoons offered up The Smurfs and the The Littles, two Saturday-morning staple shows for most of the decade. Many young men who grew up on The Smurfs still carry a flame for Smurfette, whose sexual allure was comparable to that of Pamela Anderson for the tweenage boy. Her barely-there halter dress and fuck-me heels drew almost as much attention to her as the fact that she was the only Smurf woman in a village full of Smurf men.
The Littles were a lesser-known group of miniatures, who unlike The Smurfs were not blue in color. The social conundrum faced by Lucy and Tom Little was whether or not they should fraternize with a boy named Henry Bigg who, as his name would suggest, was big. Big and small were not supposed to come together. It was taboo for Lucy and Tom to venture into the world of the Biggs, but Henry took a special joy in playing with the Littles, thus presenting a Romeo and Juliet type situation.
We must not leave out the live-action favorites of the vertically challenged craze: Gary Coleman, as the precocious Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes and the lovable Emmanuel Lewis as Webster. There isn’t much one can say about these two pint-sized brothas that hasn’t already been said. It was a guilty pleasure that we all partook in as children. There was something about these little guys that we couldn’t get enough of. Michael Jackson summed it up best at the 1984 Grammy Awards when he carried a jubilant Emmanuel Lewis in his arms up to the podium and declared that he was his “inspiration” for writing “Beat It”.
The ’80s were such a vibrant time for zany, pedophilic children’s shows. From Alf to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the bounds of creativity proved limitless when it came to churning out vexatious kiddy entertainment. But the reigning king, up until his arrest for public masturbation in the early 90’s, had to be Pee Wee Herman. Pee Wee was an absolutely entertaining character, created by the brilliant, and wacky Paul Reubens.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Pee Wee in the ’80s, but when he was arrested for exposing himself in a porn theatre, I for one didn’t bat an eyelash. It seemed to me that it was just a matter of time before he’d crack. Playing a man-child in a tight gray suit and buzz cut had to be a smokescreen for deep-seated psychological problems. Inside Pee Wee’s playhouse was a cast of diverse characters including, Jambi; a floating, blue headed, turban wearing fortune teller, Cowboy Dan; an attractive man in chaps and spurs, Miss Yvonne; who resembled a Dolly Parton drag queen, and Captain Carl: played by the late, great Phil Hartman. An adult can appreciate the weirdness of this show, but why did Pee Wee click so successfully with children? Most of the humor seemed a bit over the head of a 6-year-old, but Pee Wee had a way of capturing a young mind, and inviting it into his playhouse. I remember being a teenager, and observing my little brother watch Pee Wee’s Playhouse. He didn’t laugh at the jokes; it was more like Pee Wee and his pals entranced him. He stared at the television with wonder in his eyes, waiting for Pee Wee to say the secret word so he could scream at the top of his lungs. My brother is in college now… I’m still a little worried about him.
The last decade of the 20th Century brought us Barney, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Powerpuff Girls, and the latest phenomenon sweeping the nation, Spongebob Squarepants. Being a bit older and, thankfully, childless it took a while for me to figure out what this Spongebob thing was all about. As far as I was concerned a sponge does two things: sit in my kitchen sink and get moldy, or prevent me from being fertilized during sex. Who would have a guessed that a sponge would generate millions in merchandising and ad dollars, gluing kids, children, tweens, pre-adolescents, pubescents, anklebiters, etc. to the television for the latest episode of Spongebob hilarity? Spongebob Squarepants is actually a sea sponge, not a birth control device. He lives in the underwater town of Bikini Bottom in a house made out of a pineapple and works as a fry cook. Now if that isn’t a career aspiration, I don’t know what is. What kind of acid are the writers at Nickelodeon taking, and why are they dosing our impressionable youth? Walk into any toy store and be immediately bombarded by Spongebob finger puppets, snow cone makers, water wigglers, and of course, the requisite inflatable sponges. I’m counting on these marketing wizards to create the Spongebob contraception device, but I’ve been checking in at Toys R Us and so far, no such luck. Maybe you can get them in Canada.