Thursday, September 6, 2001

Oooeey-gooeey

Back when I was a kid, American TV was stupid and crappy the way it should be.

My family had an old black-and-white Zenith ("The quality goes in before the name goes on!") that was more like a Nadir. No cable. No clicker. Only three channels.

In fact, we didn’t even get three channels. ABC came out from Channel 10 in Largo and another Channel 10 in Fort Myers. My hometown was pretty much equidistant between the two--thus, the signal was equally crappy from each. So I spent my childhood with no ABC. No Batman. No Bewitched. No Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” Poor me. Years later, I actually saw the shows I'd missed. Jesus. I didn’t miss much. (The poor damn actor from La Strada reduced to dueling with ghost pirates for Irwin Allen, etc.) But I’d be lying awake at night thinking wow, what am I missing, a submarine with big windows in the future, Batman kicking the crap out of the Joker, aliens ...

The two stations we could get came out of Tampa: WTVT Channel 13 and WFLA, Channel 8. My brain was filled with phantom reference points: Dale Mabry Boulevard, The Frisch’s Big Boy (We didn’t even have a Big Boy) Courtney-Campbell Causeway -- aw, shut the hell up, somebody drop a bomb on Tampa, I hate Tampa.

WTVT had a guy called Salty Sol Fleishman who talked about fishing, another freckle-faced guy called Andy Hardy, who looked like Howdy Doody, who did the weather. Late, late at night (in an interminable live commerical, plunked, evilly, dead center in the horror movie time slot), Andy Hardy would do a fake interview with an old Cuban guy who looked like a corpse and owned the Columbia restaurant chain. Both of ‘em would be there at this big photogenic spread of Cuban food on a white tablecloth. Mr. Whiteboy’d be sitting there and the undead Cuban would raise a glass of wine and say, “Salut and happy days.” Hardy’d ask him, “Uh, what’s all that Manuel?” and the ancient Cuban dude would explain, "Well, this is flan de leechy custard, this is..."

And I’d sit there watching that shit because I was a TV addict.

Addict. Not in the sense of, ha-ha, exaggeration for rhetorical effect. I was a little TV addict. “TV will ruin your mind,” as they say. They were right.

I’d pop up at 4:30 in the morning to watch -- whatever.

If the tube was showing a steaming turd, I'd watch it.

I'd watch snow.

There were times when there was NOTHING on. Even Saturday mornings....

But I’d be up. Watching. Dead black around me. Everybody else in the house asleep. Must have TV. Need TV. Aghhhhh....

I’d be there, in front of the Zenith, in a modified zazen sitting posture in front of the TV screen, flickering blue light pouring over my face, eyes wide open like the “2001” space embryo. Watching.

The camera would be panning back and forth over fucking BAROMETERS and windspeed indicators -- rows and rows of big black round dials with various weather information -- slowly, slowly, back and forth. And I’d sit there watching it.

Because there was nothing else on.

Sometime around 5 a.m., they started broadcasting some crappy early-1950s space opera, damned if I remember the name. A spaceport with gantry, etc. Rockets with fins that shot flames like 4th of July firecrackers. Guy with big chin. Woman with big tits. I think there was a monkey, but this may be progressive memory interference from “Amazon Women on the Moon”...

As dawn approached, Saturday morning content got less and less shitty. Block of real cartoons were just ahead. If I could just hold on.

Gumby. Some low-rent puppet show....

Then, around 8, we’d enter the big cartoon block -- “Space Ghost,” “Banana Splits,” “Scooby Doo,” I’d be mainlining the stuff. Starting to get a headache about 3 hours into it. Dad screaming DON’T SIT SO CLOSE TO THE TV! YOU’LL RUIN YOUR EYES! Fighting with my sister over content control. NO, I DON’T WANT TO WATCH PENELOPE PITSTOP, aggghhh WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN THERE STOP THAT WHO STARTED.

All this time, I'd be maintaining constant battle with my parents not to turn off the TV and do chores (which succeeded or failed relative to parents’ hangover) and with my sister not to watch icky girl TV.

I fought this battle, always knowing at some level what I was seeing is horseshit. I mean, come on. I'm a kid. But I could see every joke coming a mile away. Then, sometime around 10 a.m., there was an oasis of Warner Brothers -- Roadrunner cartoons, Bugs Bunny cartoons, a segment I’ll remember for the rest of my life where Yosemite Sam dies, slides down a chute and goes to hell...

Then, around 12:30 p.m. the cartoons flickered out. After that, Salty Sol started talking about fish. “Well the tarpon are...” Fuck the tarpon! Do I give a shit about tarpon? No. A shit I do not give. No towheaded fishing pole-carrier I. But I'd watch anyway. Because THERE WAS NOTHING ELSE ON. I knew that, if I held out, if I could just hold out, sometimes (depending on the whim of Channel 13’s erratic programming schedule) they’d show “Shock Theater” at 1:30 p.m., a neat, mini-seminar on the effects of radiation on bugs, gila monsters and 50-foot women with big tits. Around 2 p.m. my parents would kick me outside.

No more TV.

I wanna watch TV!

No. Go play, you little shit. Play! That's what kids are supposed to do!

Now, if any of you out there are still with me after this self-indulgent, projectile-vomit inducing nostalgia trip, here’s more...

The same TV-addict shit applied after school. I’d get in, and fight my parents over whether I’d watch TV or do homework. (I had a very strange household, namely one with parents in it. Dad, a one-book published writer suffering from a five-year spell of “writer’s block” was always home; Mom, a teacher, got home around 2:30 or 3 p.m.)

At 4 p.m. there was a bizarre little kiddie show featuring Uncle Dave -- “Uncle Dave’s Restraining Order,” or whatever the hell they called it. A by-the-numbers kiddie show, natch. "Uncle Dave" had a peanut gallery of screaming kids and a clown assistant (of the Hobo Kelly knockoff variety) called “Barnie Bungleupper.” Uncle Dave entertained kids with stupid games, humiliated the clown, had a “Cavalcade” of old, cartoons, showing crappy Popeye cartoons (evil King Features mediocrity) and a few surprisingly good cartoons -- surreal, R Crumby stuff from the 1930s in which fire grew legs and ran down stairs ...

As to the stupid kiddie games, one was more along the lines of bizarre, surrealistic, sado-masochistic, David Lynchian and disturbing.

The game was called “Oooey Gooey.” It was a sort of Russian Roulette for kids, I kid you not.

Six kids would sit around a lazy susan -- a wooden wheel, about one foot in diameter, about six inches off the floor. Six upright paper bags were poised above the wheel, mouths hanging in emptiness.

Inside five of the bags were cheap little prizes. Decoder rings. Viewmaster projectors. Candy. Balloons...

Inside one bag was something nasty. Runny eggs, etc., inserted by Uncle Dave (or his exploited clown assistant).

How it worked --

Uncle Dave would spin the wheel with six kids sitting around it. Wheel spins, stops. In clockwise order, each kid puts hand in bag expecting either prize -- or slime. When one of the kids got slimed (awful facial expression, pulls out hand covered with nastiness) all the other kids would shout out "OOEEY GOOEY!” and Uncle Dave’d would come up, haha, you’ve been a good sport, here’s your consolation prize, a ticket to...

So, one day, it doesn’t work out so well.

They spin the wheel, wheel stops, each kid takes turn.

Kid #1 - gets prize.

Kid #2 - gets prize.

Kid #3 - gets prize.

Kid #4 - gets prize.

Kid #5 - gets prize.

And there's only one freaking bag left.

Now it’s Kid #6’s turn. All the kids kinda turn and look at him. Mixed expressions. Feeling sorry for him with a little ha-ha thrown in.

He knows there’s slime in the bag. He knows.

He knows, now, that what he’s supposed to do is stick his hand in the bag of slime, pull out his slimed-hand, and have all the other kids shout “OOEY GOOEY!” Everybody’s waiting around for him to do it. But he’s not going to do it. He’s not sticking his hand in there.

“C’mon,” says Uncle Dave. “Stick your hand in there.”

“Uh-uh.”

“Be a good sport.”

“No.”

“You’ve gotta stick your hand in there.”

“I don’t wanna stick my hand in there.”

Uncle Dave and the kid exchange looks. It’s a battle of wills now. Uncle Dave realizes this kid is making him look bad on his show. (My God...what if this kid gets away with this? It’ll be anarchy...anarchy!) On some deep, sick, control-freak level, Uncle Dave is morally outraged at this kid. The kid knew the rules when he got into this game. He was willing to take a prize, natch. He lost. Now he has to pay the price. (Bust a deal -- face the wheel.) It’s the principle of the thing!

“Stick your hand in the bag.”

“No.”

“Be a good sport, kid. You don’t want all your friends to see you and think you’re a bad sport, do you?”

The kid shakes his head no -- meaning, Fuck you, Uncle Dave. I don’t give a shit, I don’t care what my friends think, I’m not sticking my hand in the bag.

The kid starts to get up and walk away.

At this point Uncle Dave loses it.

Uncle Dave grabs the kid by his skinny little wrist and starts man-handling the kid’s hand into the bag. The kid is howling NO! NO! like there’s sulfuric acid in there. The kid fights, with everything he’s got. But Uncle Dave, with an expression like Mister Hyde on his face, is winning. He forces the kid’s hand down into the slime. All the other kids shout “OOEEY GOOEY!” The kid pulls out his dripping hand and starts bawling at the top of his lungs.

WAHHHH! MOMMY! WAHHHHH!

Suddenly, Uncle Dave realizes he’s in deep shit.

All at once, he realizes his assertion of authority was a mistake.

He pats the kid on the back, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Barney Bungleupper is wiping the kid’s hand off. Kid’s still crying.

“Say, we’ve got a consolation prize!”

“WAHHHHHH!”

“It’s...I’ve got a ticket to -- wouldn’t you like to go to...”

Kid’s backing away like Uncle Dave’s a child-molester.

“It’s a whole day’s pass to -"

“WAHHHHHHHH!”

“Hey, dry those eyes kid. I’ve also got --"

Mommy's screaming off-camera.

“Leave him alone! Haven’t you done enough...”

Outraged Mom is coming up now -- kid runs to her, buries head in her skirt. Uncle Dave’s looking trapped. Barney Bungleupper’s sorta caught in the middle. Kid’s still holding onto Mom and screaming. You can hear his voice kinda muffled.

Which is when the PLEASE STAND BY card comes up.

The Barney Bungleupper Show premiers the next day.

And Uncle Dave was never seen again.

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