Thursday, May 01, 2008


In the words of the Talking Heads, “I was born in a house with the television always on.” At least, that’s the way it felt to me. I awoke to cartoons, my mom watched games shows and “her stories” during the day while she did house work, I watched cartoons and Gilligan’s Island until my dad came home and we had dinner, and I finished up the day with prime time shows like Mod Squad, Laugh-In, and the Partridge Family. Television was my window to the world beyond my street in the boring suburbs. I even gleaned bits of information from the nightly news, like Viet Nam and Watergate. In 1973, Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by the signing of the Paris Peace Accord which ended the Viet Nam War (sort of). Television was not merely entertainment for me; it was hardwired into my very being.

Small wonder that my normal play activities were conceptualized through a television perspective. I spent an awful lot of time playing alone as a kid, and I usually pretended to be performing a television show. It had to start at a specific time and run for an allotted period (usually 30 minutes since my short attention span rarely afforded me the ability to launch a 60-minute storyline). During the day, I acted out my shows in my front or back yard. The front yard was especially good because we had a tree there where I could act out my high-flying stunts. I could imagine myself as a pirate swinging from the mast of a creaky ship, or a maverick cop chasing a bad guy over the girders of an unfinished office building.

Not that all my shows were action dramas. I did sitcoms as well, often enlisting my puppets as comic foils with me playing the straight man. I had a show with Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, then switched to a different series with Charlie McCarthy, and eventually worked with my Will E. Talk ventriloquist dummy who I considered a close friend when I was 10 years old (but that’s for another session, Doctor).

One of my favorite early evening reruns during the 70s was Get Smart, so I created my own version of the sitcom and acted it out at 7 o’clock, right after WBFF- TV Channel 45 aired Get Smart at 6:30. There was a bumbling secret agent of course, but instead of having a female partner, my show had a young, hip sidekick. Eventually, I became so enamored with the cooler side kick that he ended up doing more on the show than the main character. Think of Fonzie on Happy Days. I finally gave in to my obsession and created a spin-off show for him; however, I quickly realized that he worked better as a side kick than as a front man. Think Fish after he spun off from Barney Miller. Since I couldn’t think of a way to bring him back to the original series, I lost interest in both and I stopped acting them out in my front yard. This was my version of cancellation.

As I grew older, the television fantasy took on more shape and texture. I named my fictional TV network the Intercontinental Broadcasting Company (IBC), which I swiped from Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. All my shows were simply reworkings of programs that I was currently interested in. My fascination with Columbo and Banacek morphed into a hybrid I called Banzo (don’t ask). When I read about this odd science fiction show in England called Dr. Who, I created a sort of rip-off called The Captain. My interest is Star Trek and M*A*S*H became a science fiction dramedy called Aurora. Basically, I merged the premise of a starship roaming around the galaxy with crew members modeled after Hawkeye, Radar, etc. I even envisioned a new Batman TV show reflecting the darker, more gritty version of the Dark Knight appearing in 70s comic books.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this fantasy play acting of mine continued until I was 14 years old. Of course, as I hit puberty, I could no longer run around outside acting goofy, so I limited my activities to the basement, or maybe in other parts of the house when family members weren’t around. I convinced myself that I was merely acting stories out which I would later write down. By age 12, I was convinced my only true skill was writing, so this play acting allowed me to work out stories before actually writing them down. Both The Captain and Aurora ended up as novels which I wrote at age 13 and 14 respectively.

A few months into my 15th year, I had to admit that my TV fantasy had to be put to an end like the rest of my childhood. The Intercontinental Broadcasting Company quietly went out of business around December 1978. I was no longer acting out shows, but my brain continued to think in terms of visual stories. In high school, I started writing screenplays. I still have some of those old handwritten manuscripts and cringe at the writing, but I am impressed that I was so obsessed with writing at such a young age. Now when I struggle to write even a simple blog entry, agonizing over every word, I yearn for a time when I could write so freely simply for the sheer enjoyment of creating stories. Just as I became self-conscious of my play acting as a teenager, I am now self-conscious about my writing as a middle-aged man.

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