Category Archives: My Youth

Nick & Jessica, meet Sonny & Cher

In April, 2004, I was sitting around, flipping the channels on the ol’ cable box, when I bumped into a program starring Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. I stuck around for a while, just to see what Jessica would be wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be). Pretty quickly, I realized it was not their grossly-successful MTV reality series, The Newlyweds, but rather an ABC special called The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour.

A few minutes later, I was puzzled. And amused. And feeling strangely like I was in my PJs, in my bedroom, with my brother, sitting before a 14 in. portable TV, circa 1976 (see above). Comedy vignettes were intercut with extended musical numbers. A low-rent animated version of Nick and Jessica took us in and out of commercial breaks. The canned laughter was too loud, too happy and too fast.

In short, more than a parody of the long-lost variety shows of the 70s (Sonny & Cher, Donny & Marie, Tony Orlando & Dawn, et al)—it was the Real Deal. In a good way. This goofy couple was a perfect fit for this brand of disposable entertainment that benefited from talent that could look attractive while singing, dancing, cracking jokes and being self-deprecating.

So while I sat there, feeling surprisingly warm and fuzzy, I think, hey, who did they make this show for?! Nick and Jessica’s target audience was 15 year old girls, aka teenagers born 15 years after The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was cancelled. Shit, it probably didn’t even have any relevance to the hosts. (In all fairness, Nick Lachey was born in 1974—news to me—but still…)

And as I pondered all of this, Nick and Jessica decided to mish-mash the 70s with the 80s and include sketches with Mr. T and KITT (from Knight Rider). And then, with this faux commercial (which takes a stab at Nick’s failing solo career), they took it to a whole new level of weird …

Astute viewers will recognize the silent guy as H. Jon Benjamin, famous as the voice of Benjamin Katz (Dr. Katz, top), Coach McGuirk (Home Movies), Sterling Archer (Archer, bottom), and Bob Belcher (Bob’s Burgers). Now my internal monologue included, “Wait…What?…Jon Benjamin? But he’s not even talking? What’s the point!?” (Honestly, casting Jon Benjamin in a non-speaking role is as clever as casting mime Marcel Marceau in a speaking role.)

By this point, I was bought and sold. I was firmly convinced that talented forces were behind this: their heart was in the right place; it looked and felt like something I embraced from my youth; and had contributions from one of my favorite comedians of the last decade.

Before the Hour was over, Kenny Rogers came out for a duet; a musical medley used excerpts from A Chorus Line and Godspell; and Johnny Bench joined Nick and Jessica for a skit that was both an uncanny impersonation of sports celebrity appearances from the 70s and a broadly funny gag in its own terms. Check it out–and pay attention to Johnny’s entrance: there’s a massive contrast between the enthusiastic canned applause and an audience full of confused teenagers lethargically clapping…

As far as paying tribute to the TV shows of a bygone era, the only things The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour was missing were the long dissolves-over-zoom shots that dominated ballads 30 years ago and a surprise appearance from Ray Jay Johnson, Jr.

They wrapped up the show on an obvious-but-well-earned note: Nick and Jessica sang Sonny & Cher’s signature song, “I Got You, Babe.” And even though it’s clear that Nick and Jessica are no Sonny & Cher, the ironies/similarities abound: The husband can’t sing as well as the wife (although Sonny wrote “I Got You, Babe” around his vocal limitations, not Nick’s); they genuinely enjoy performing together; and this marriage also has a shelf life. In fact, Nick and Jessica took the Sonny & Cher tribute so far, they were divorce a mere two years after this special aired.

So do I recommend you get The Nick & Jessica Variety Hour from Netflix? Aw, Hell. Not really. I enjoyed it because I had no idea what was coming—a fact I’ve spoiled in this post (sorry). If you want to take that trip down Memory Lane, you can get genuine Sonny & Cher episodes on DVD just as easily. But I’ll give the kids–and the forces behind them–credit for throwing my generation a bone. It was nice to know that for one hour, it was the Youth of Middle America that was scratching their heads, saying, “What the fuck is this?!


Filed under Humor, My Youth, TV

Little League, Big Fear

Spring is here and that can mean only one thing: baseball. But specifically for me, it can mean one more thing: anguished reminders of my panicked youth.

Naturally and obviously, I was a pipsqueak in my early days, neither muscular nor agile. (My father used to say that I wasn’t likely to win the title “Mr. Universe,” however I might win “Mr. Barney Fife.”) But I was also not competitive, which didn’t sit right with the prevalent vibe in working class Maple Shade, NJ, in the 70s. Oh, sure, the parents and coaches of organized sports would say the requisite, “Winning isn’t everything,” but they certainly didn’t mean it. This was no Special Olympics, where “everyone is a winner.” Hell, no. Long before there were Soccer Moms, there were Baseball Dads, and, for reasons I can’t recollect, I joined the CYO (aka the Catholic Youth Organization) baseball league. No one in my family made me play organized sports–as I’m sure was the case with a lot of my friends. I’m extremely grateful that I had neither a Soccer Mom nor a Baseball Dad, but joining the CYO plunged me headfirst into the world of “Winning is Everything.”

How much of a pipsqueak was I? How traumatic was the experience of playing organized sports? Here’s a brief story, a nugget, that answers both questions. The first day of practice for the Maple Shade Pharmacy Dodgers—my first day on the ballfield—the coach (a Baseball Dad for sure) decided to scope out his new team’s hitting skills.  We all went to the plate, one after another, and he threw us easy pitches. He let each of us stay there until we made contact with the ball, no matter how long it took. He’d shout encouragement (“Atta boy!” “Yer a natural!” “Good eye, good eye!”) and if necessary make the pitches super easy for those that were smaller and more frail. When it was my turn, I swung and swung and swung. And swung. Everyone watched. After a while—minutes in reality, years in Sweat Time–my teammates ran out of laughter and the coach ran out of encouragement, patience and ultimately pitches. “OK, let’s give it a rest. Give someone else a chance.” So, what is Shame? How about watching 15 of your peers look awkwardly away from you. Actual bullies and assholes were saying, “Aw, man. Give the kid a break.”

That was 1978 and miraculously I stuck with it, and by the following year, I was half-way decent. In fact, I toggled between pitching and playing first base, which means either I really blossomed or the rest of the team really sucked. Frankly, we were a pretty crappy team, hovering around 5th place in a league of 7 teams.

As the season progressed and April became May became June, one thing was clear: the Burlington County Pirates were unbeatable. It was like they had tenure for victory. Looking at their winning scores (i.e. 28-0 over the Astros) you’d think it was a football game.

Towards the end of the season, the Dodgers were due to face the Pirates one last time, or, as we on the Dodgers assumed, one last beating. Their record by game 16 (of an 18 game season) was 16 Wins and 0 Loses. Shit.

(At this point in the story, now that David and Goliath have been established, it’s best to imagine you’re watching a lost episode of Ken Burns’ Baseball.)

Monday, June 25, 1979. Late afternoon. The Dodgers’ manager Jack Graham picks me up on the way to Lower Field. He tells me in the car that I’ll be the starting pitcher. “Really? Are you sure?” I kinda sucked at pitching, but figured he was throwing in the towel…and I was the towel.

Even though I was only 10, I embraced some of the traditions of a major leaguer, including superstitions. For example, it was my belief that if my first pitch of the game was a strike, then I’d win; if it was a ball, I’d lose. My first pitch that day was a strike, and instantly I was no longer superstitious.

I gave up a few runs pretty quickly. Before long, the Pirates were up by 6. We had a slow start, with our Worst against the Pirates’ Best. Case in point: Johnny Cutillo ruined a promising inning for with his unassisted triple play (WTF?!). I mean, come on! It felt like we were being smothered with a tennis racket: it took forever, hurt like Hell, and we could watch the whole thing happening.

But, miraculously, the tide turned. I kept them at only 6 runs, which against the Pirates was Nolan-Ryan-esque. In fact, I got 12 strikeouts. And when we were at the plate, we were on fire! In the second half of the game, we scored 12 runs, thanks to a couple hits apiece from my buddies Tommy Gee, Walt Severns, and catcher Mike Rowan. It was like the Bizarro version of a CYO game.

As we inched closer to the last inning, the tension mounted. For sixteen straight victories, the Pirates had proven they were never more than a pitch away from a multi-run rally. But I held my own and, unbelievably, there were more people in attendance in the last inning than there were at the beginning.

Insert my 10-year-old face here.

I pitched a strike for the final out of the game. I leapt from the mound, arms straight up in the air. I’d say I was impersonating relief pitcher Tug McGraw’s victorious jump when he helped the Phillies win the World Series—except that didn’t happen until 1980, the following summer. (Hmmm…was Tug at that CYO game…?)

It was nuts. My team went ballistic. We ruined the Pirates perfect season. Fuckin’ A. How big was this victory? Well, here’s what the Maple Shade Progress had to say, but screw that. Here’s a better illustration: recently I told this story to my old friend Bobby. He grew up with all the players, so when I was talking about how my team lost a lot and the Pirates won a lot, he kept nodding, saying, “Sure. Sure. What do you expect? Makes sense. Those guys were killers” and so on. But when I got to the winning pitch, he said, “Get the fuck out!” and high-fived me. (You know what they say: if a 30-year-old story is high-fivable, then it’s bloggable.)

Afterward, the manager gave me the ball. “You earned this, Stephen.” (Frankly, he might as well have said, “Here you go. It’s never going to get any better than this.”) A few days later, at the season wrap-up pool party, I got my teammates to sign it. It stayed in my mom’s basement for a couple of decades, but since my son’s been around, I’ve had it on display, on a shelf, right next to my cat’s ashes.

I know they say winning isn’t everything, but it sure as Hell was that day.

(A BIG Thanks to my old teammate Walt Severns for holding onto that team picture for decades. Thanks, Bro!)


Filed under My Youth