Category Archives: Television

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Widower Sitcoms, Celebrity Grief-O-Rama, Standing Rock, and Similar Diversions For the Discerning Media Consumer

Until his wife died last April, I had only the slightest bit more knowledge of the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s existence than he has of mine, which is to say nil.

Let’s be clear: I am truly sorry for Oswalt’s devastating and untimely loss, and that he now has to raise their seven-year-old daughter by himself.

Nevertheless, as a card-carrying member of Reluctant Widower Nation, Parents of Minor Children Subdivision, I believe I’m entitled to say this: Compared to some of us, including me, he has it relatively easy.

Mr. Oswalt is responsible for raising one neurotypical, probably bright and delightful seven-year-old girl. I am raising two 11-year-old boys, one of whom is nonverbal, with developmental and learning delays (although they fall under the big autism umbrella, my late wife and I were and are highly dubious about applying the A-word to what’s going on with the boy).

On top of that, Oswalt has a huge fan base and presumably extended support system, including over three million Twitter followers and over half a million Facebook likes. I don’t begrudge him any of this — he earned it by dint of the original, amusing and sometimes poignant stuff that comes out of his brain. I know he didn’t ask for the role of Celebrity Widower, just as I didn’t ask for the role of Occasionally Humorous Grief Blogger, but here we both are.

I don’t know what kind of grief counseling Oswalt is getting, but for most widowers, it doesn’t include appearing on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, where he compared his new life to “every bad ’80s sitcom” in which “there’s no punchlines, there’s a lot of insomnia, there’s a lot of me eating Cheetos for dinner…”

Except for the part about Cheetos (I can manage to put together semi-decent meals for myself and the boys), this is familiar ground. There are nights when I stay up far too late watching Donna’s old cabaret videos on YouTube, or just mindlessly surfing through Internet detritus, or playing Clash of Clans on my son’s iPad, or just watching whatever’s recorded on TV. Anything to avoid facing the lack of being part of a duo.

So what would my sitcom resemble? Perhaps something like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” if you’d give Eddie a nonverbal special-needs twin and lose the housekeeper. Or crossbreed “My Three Sons” with “Speechless,” “King of the Hill” and  “Married With Children” or throw in a spinoff to “Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon and Amy are the parents of two very different fraternal twins, one nonverbal, one too smart for his own good.

More recently, Oswalt wrote this honest, engaging piece for GQ magazine. Among other things, he said, “It feels like a walk-on character is being asked to carry an epic film after the star has been wiped from the screen.” I can, also, relate to this; I feel much the same about my late wife as he does about his, an extraordinary person gone from the world for no discernible reason.

Add the awful political year we’ve just gone through and the sword of Damocles that’s hanging over our nation, and it’s no wonder I’m feeling burned out on pretty much everything on top of the first year of widowerhood. Lately, too, I’ve found reading my Facebook feed to be intolerable, due, I suppose, to the constant barrage of posts about Trump and Clinton and the Electoral College (the latter of which I’ve railed about in the wilderness for years; evidently, it takes the horse escaping to get anyone interested in closing the damn barn door). Then there’s the business with the pipeline and the Native Americans and the standoff at Standing Rock, ending in an apparent victory for the protesters, which I suppose is a good thing, but the truth is I can’t bring myself to care the least bit about it. In fact, the primary reason I’m relieved the standoff is over is that I won’t have to read about it every fucking day on Facebook.

I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about this. People without immediate pressing personal problems have the luxury of caring about social justice issues. Right now, I don’t have that. This is an important thing to remember.

I won’t be signing petitions for anything any time soon, and I don’t feel bad about it. If anyone objects to this, that’s their problem, not mine. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel compassion; I just need it all for myself, and my immediate family, right now. We have lives to run.


Lisa Gerritsen, Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You


Note: Since its publication in 2014, this entry has become by far the most popular single post on this blog. Which just goes to show you that even though Lisa may not particularly want to be found, there are still some people out there searching for her, for whatever reason. If I were her I’d take it as a compliment, and leave it at that.]

Even though I’m not Catholic, the last few days before a fast-approaching birthday seem to me as good a time as any for making a confession, so here’s one for you: Unlike many of my U.S.-raised peers in my generation (sometimes known as Late Boomers or Generation Jones), I have no childhood memories to speak of involving watching The Monkees or The Brady Bunch, nor do I feel much fondness for the likes of Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie. Due to a likely combination of personal preference and selective memory, however, I do have strong recollections of many shows that were, to put it gently, not exactly hits. Many of these date from roughly the 1968-70 era, when I was unhappily settled in a strangely quiet, oppressively grassy Long Island suburb after my family had moved from Queens in ’67. Lonely, feeling isolated, and missing the bustling streets of Flushing, I watched a lot of TV to compensate. There was one bonafide hit, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that firmly planted itself in my memory banks, but also a sitcom called The Good Guys (starring a post-Gilligan Bob Denver and a pre-Golden Girls Herb Edelman, as old buddies running a diner; the theme song is indelibly imprinted in my mind, particularly the phrase “by the teeth of our skin”); an equally undistinguished sitcom, Arnie, starring Herschel Bernardi as a working-class Greek-American promoted from the loading dock to the executive suite (oh, the hijinks and scenery-chewing that ensued); and by far my fondest 1969/70 TV memory of all, My World and Welcome To It.  (Follow that link for a good general outline of the program, including capsule descriptions of all 26 episodes. A DVD of the complete show has been one of my greatest entertainment-based wishes for years, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I myself have to be the one to see that particular project through. Message me if you have ideas.)

Despite general critical acclaim and two Emmy awards in 1970 (for Outstanding Comedy Series, and Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for the star, the late William Windom), it never saw a second season; in his Emmy acceptance speech, Windom, in full sarcastic mode, reportedly thanked NBC for canceling the show. My World was based, loosely at times and more closely at others, on the cartoons and writings of James Thurber, a singular myworldtvguidecover20th-century humorist. On the off-chance you need an introduction to him, Thurber was a prolific short-story writer, cartoonist, and playwright from Columbus, Ohio who wrote a lot for The New Yorker and whose fate seems to involve having his writings screwed with without compunction by Hollywood, especially his best-known short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” made into two films to date (starring Danny Kaye, 1947, and Ben Stiller, 2013, neither of which I’ve seen, nor particularly care to; in Hollywood’s defense, the story itself takes perhaps 10 minutes to read, as Thurber was neither a novelist nor a big fan of the long-form essay).

My World, however, was a notable exception to the rule, treating Thurber’s cartoons (animated within the show by the good graces of DePatie-Freleng), plots, and a good deal of his prose with respect and intelligence. The milieu was updated to the 1969 present and set in a Connecticut suburb (which contained a few rural hayseeds apparently relocated from the Ozarks for comic effect). To me, the show at its core was about the power of the imagination and its sympathy for both the creative spark and for artistic, dreamy types trapped in the banality of the quotidian, personified by the Thurber analogue, Windom’s brusque suburban knight John Monroe, a cartoonist and writer, and his occasionally sullen but often sweet, smart, inquisitive and forthright tween-age daughter, Lydia. Windom played Monroe with a definite curmudgeonly edge, but the soft, dreamy center was never too far away. Try on this dialogue for size:

Lydia: “Daddy, are people who see things and daydream, are they, well, normal?”

John: “No, they’re much better than that. Why, for heaven’s sake, they’re the artists, the poets, the bums, the cream of society. They get a lot more out of life than normal people. For one thing, they’re never lonely or cold or hungry,
because they’ve got their imagination to keep them warm and to keep them company. And, don’t you believe for a minute  that because they see things that you don’t, that those things aren’t there.”


Chess in “My World”

Which brings us to Lisa Gerritsen. Was she my first, and only, TV crush? If I ever had one, I suppose that, yes, she would be it, and I’m far from the only introverted, bookish kid she had this effect on. And, yes, like the esteemed Chicago Tribune columnist who penned this key bit of Gerritsen lore back in 2000 (making the definitive case for leaving her alone into the bargain), I’ve long since moved on.

But when the conversation turns to smart, somewhat geeky but endearing young female characters on TV, this is where Lisa and My World deserve particular mention. Before Mayim Bialik played Blossom (and later, Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory), before Alyson Hannigan portrayed Willow Rosenberg on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, before Sara Gilbert embodied Darlene Conner on Roseanne, and even over a decade before young Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker entered Weemawee High School as Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs, there was Lisa Gerritsen as Lydia Monroe on My World and Welcome To It and Bess Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis.

Gerritsen, arguably the most accomplished and least affected child-to-teen TV actor of her generation (which is also mine), excelled at playing smart-but-vulnerable characters. On My World, she held her own with superb performers like Windom and Joan Hotchkis, who played her mother, Ellen, with a fair bit of spark and verve.

Lisa Gerritsen came from a long-established show business family on her mother’s side, stretching back at least as far as her great-great-grandmother, Carro True Boardman, an actress and acting teacher in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (here’s a link to a short piece with a photo in the San Francisco Call from 1901, describing Carro as a “well known exponent of elocution, physical culture and dramatic art”).

The moniker “True” recurs again and again in the Boardman family as a first or middle name given to, or adopted by, both males and females (including Lisa herself, who was occasionally billed as Lisa True Gerritsen). It does seem like a fortunate talisman for an actor to carry and a lodestar to sail by; after all, it means “real.” Carro Boardman’s son, William True Boardman (1882-1918), dropped his first name and, as True Boardman, starred in early silent films, as did his wife, the much longer-lived Margaret Shields, who adopted the stage name of Virginia True Boardman. Their son, William True Boardman, Jr., later True Eames Boardman (1909-2003), Lisa’s grandfather, acted alongside Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford as a child, and later had a long career as a scriptwriter for radio and TV, including westerns like The Virginian, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Although I suppose it wasn’t exactly coincidental that Lisa appeared on all three of these shows (per IMDb, she was on Gunsmoke four times between 1968 and ’70, in four different roles), and her grandfather’s connections undoubtedly smoothed her entry into show business to some extent, she wasn’t just another forgettable, two- or three-note child actor. The camera didn’t lie: she came across as remarkably natural and genuine in whichever role she played.

However, Lisa Gerritsen retired from acting over 35 years ago; her last credit on IMDb is for an episode of the religious anthology program Insight which aired in November 1978, shortly before her 21st birthday ( summarizes the plot as “A pregnant young girl finds a friend in her boyfriend’s mother”). I don’t know whether her decision was due in part to her experiences taking Bess Lindstrom into young adulthood (to the point of being married and expecting a baby) in the troubled MTM spinoff Phyllis, starring Cloris Leachman in the title role as Lisa’s antiheroine mom (here’s a superb, detailed recounting of that show’s travails), not wanting to be in the public eye anymore, or something else, because she hasn’t granted an interview in decades and from all accounts, doesn’t even like to talk about her years in show business to anyone outside, I suppose, her family and close friends. After hanging up the phone on Bess Lindstrom she went to college, then worked for a couple of software companies, then became (per IMDb and other sources) an independent relocation consultant and facilities project manager. She’s also been married since 2000, and lives a quiet, private, apparently very normal life with her family in a town north of San Francisco (I know which one, but won’t name it here).

A friend of mine once told me that the only thing worse than changing is not changing, which I think is probably as good a definition of the human condition as any. The trick is not only knowing when to close the door on one chapter, but knowing when to refrain from paging through the old chapters (which perhaps explains why so many people find Facebook a stressful experience).

The desire to read about people spillin’ it all will always be with us, but so will the value of silence and privacy. (Even as a journalist, this is something I can appreciate.) Yes, there’s power in a dignified silence and the quiet grace that comes with saying, “This part of my life is now finished. I have moved on and am in a different place now. I’ve let go; maybe you should do the same.” How much better is what Lisa did than the path taken by so many of her acting peers: staying fixated on their childhood in the spotlight for want of anything better, and, drugs and early deaths aside, stumbling from one reality TV show to the next, publishing memoirs and cookbooks ad nauseam, traveling from one fan convention to the next, endlessly pushing the nostalgia cart from one town to another or dancing on a stage in Branson, Missouri, because, let’s face it, ain’t much else going on. How much better to have a life in the now, not condemned to wander the land endlessly because your life peaked at age 12, and everyone you sign an autograph for knows it.

I also think most of us civilians (the non-famous, non-showbiz public) have a big problem understanding how people who have been successful, even partially, in creative pursuits like acting and music, can voluntarily give it up at a relatively young age, never looking back, and do something totally different — write software, work as a museum archivist, become a lawyer, teach, sell real estate — and seemingly be happy about their decision, not feeling they owe their old fans an explanation, not feeling they have to get together for a reunion concert every few years, host a retrospective of their old shows on a TV nostalgia channel, get together with the old gang for a “Where Are They Now?” photo spread in People, or write their autobiography, unless they really want to. They had the nerve to want to hang it up and be normal; and so, they did.

Who knows how creative people who give up that life deal with what I sometimes think of as the golden reactor core of creativity — something that can never really be shut down, regardless of whether the public outlet for that creativity still exists or was walled off, voluntarily or otherwise. Do they write songs still, just for themselves and their family? Do they put on plays in their kitchen for five people and the cat? One never knows. More likely, though, is that they live more or less normal lives and are no more or less happy than the rest of us, except for having some special memories and, one hopes, a deep sense of satisfaction for what they were and what they did, even though that time is no more.

And time has, indeed, passed. Lisa Gerritsen is now, believe it or not, 56, a decade older than William Windom was when he played her father on My World. (As for myself, it’s disconcerting to occasionally see the mid-to-late 1970s Windom looking back at me in the mirror these days, though I know I could do a lot worse.) With so much of our lives behind us, we can surely discern the outlines of that far shore looming ever closer, but still, through it all, somehow, we maintain a child’s sense of wonder and optimism, and impulses urging us on to playfulness and love. Our better selves. We live on, and our creativity never really stops, the golden reactor core keeps glowing; it just takes different forms toward different ends. But it’s real; oh, it’s real. Never doubt that.

If Lisa ever reads this, I don’t expect her to answer, but I’d like to say thanks, anyway, for what she gave us in that time, and also for leaving when the time seemed right to her. Lisa, I miss your talent and your presence, but I also understand that you knew better than anyone else when it was time to close that door. You did a real and genuine thing. One might even say, True.

You can read it in the Sunday papers

I’ve had a busy weekend in print in the Austin American-Statesman. Here’s my interview with comedian Steven Wright, in advance of his playing a new comedy festival in Austin, the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest. I remember Wright from his early days starting out in Boston’s comedy clubs, and it was good to talk with him and inquire into the workings of his unique mind.

Oh, and I also interviewed Carol Burnett, who’s making an appearance in Austin on Tuesday. I know it’s usual for journalists to affect a blasé pose about the people they speak with for print, but this one is kind of special for me. It’s also one instance where my being old enough to, well, remember the Carol Burnett Show (and rather well) was a distinct advantage. It took me right back to my high school drama club, where her show was part of the cultural fabric and one student thespian of my acquaintance worshiped her as the be-all and the end-all. Carol did seem to be one of the nicest people ever and she did not disabuse me of this in our conversation and I even made her laugh a couple of times. She also told me an interesting anecdote about how she turned down the lead role in the original Broadway production of “Funny Girl” and might have given a huge career boost to someone named Barbra.

Finally, I wrote a sidebar referencing the repurposing of Burnett’s childhood home in San Antonio as an early-childhood education center (which explores the little-known connection between Burnett and former San Antonio mayor and US education secretary Henry Cisneros).

I’ll just end by quoting myself from the main article:

<<Burnett might be, as she describes herself, “a clown,” but she also seems to be one of the few remaining people in show business who is a fully functioning grown-up. If you come to the show you might get to ask her a question yourself, or just say: Thanks, Carol.>>

Harvey and George

You may be familiar with the ‘celebrity deaths come in threes’ trope. I’m still waiting for the third shoe to drop, but I found these last two particularly inspiring. Harvey Pekar was a real loss; Steinbrenner, not so much. Still, the thought persists…





On July 12, Harvey Pekar was asked to remove himself from his earthly plane of existence. One day later, George Steinbrenner followed suit.

They were requested by the Powers that Be to share a living space for eternity, as part of a special celestial project.

Can two dead cultural icons share an apartment in the afterlife without driving each other crazy? Tune in Thursdays at 8:30 pm (7:30 Central) and find out!


Based on an idea by Neil Simon


Paul Giamatti as Harvey

Oliver Platt as George

(OK, casting was too easy; you have better suggestions, go for it.)

Osteen v. Trump and Cowell: This Time, It’s Personal

Happy new year. To life. L’chaim. Drink up. Should auld acquaintance. Blank slate, blank page, new calendar on the wall, new refill in the Day-Timer, taxes coming due, time to take down the lights, hey hey. Naught but sparkling stars in a cold, clear, bright sky in naught-eight. Let’s start over.

It’s only the 17th, not too late to say that, right?

Hey, I’m the father of twins who will be freakin’ three next month. Give me a break. I’m still here, I’m still postin’, I’m not on vacation (what’s a vacation?).

Well, let’s get settled, then. One of this blog’s primary objectives is to make not-obvious connections between two or more seemingly disparate people/places/things that don’t usually get compared, so on to today’s business.

Plenty of Jewish journalists seem to like Joel Osteen. (Probably a lot of that has to do with him not going around saying we’re going to hell; of course, it’s not his thing to say anybody is going to hell, which is one of the reasons he’s The Most Popular Preacher in America Today.)

Let’s see: there’s Barbara Walters (she named him one of her 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006)…Larry King (who interviewed Joel and/or Victoria in ’05, ’06 and ’07)…a New York Times reporter named Blumenthal, who wrote a feature on him in March of ’06..and, well, me. I can’t speak for Baba and Larry and that other guy, but I’ve met Joel and interviewed him and been to his church not once but twice, and I’ve read lots and lots about him and his dad and Victoria and Lakewood, including lots and lots of relentless criticism, everything from Word Faith and the Prosperity Gospel to his lack of seminary background to Accusations of Apostasy and That Incident on the Airplane (none of which I trust I have to rehash yet again here).

I’ve delved into the Christian blogosphere. Every commentary discussing Joel Osteen seems to draw at least 400 remarks, most of them irate and sneering, with a few defending him just to spice things up a bit.

Me, I still like the guy.

2006 was a very good year for Osteen, just like 2007 and, I assume, ’08 will be. Joel has discovered the champion in himself, and is living his best life now. Just over two years ago, I traveled to Houston to interview The Most Popular Preacher in America Today, along with Victoria, for the cover story of a relatively new Texas magazine oriented toward families. The focus of the piece (per the editor’s explicit instructions) was not to be religion and faith, but Joel and Victoria’s relationship with each other.

It was Elvis’s birthday, although I didn’t bring that up at the time (it made a handy hook to hang the piece from, however, comparing Joel to Elvis — you know, Southern gentleman, religiously inclined, good sense of humor and just-folks manner, lots of charisma and stage presence, plays arena shows, et cetera). If you’ve seen his TV program, being in the audience at Lakewood was just like being inside the box, except you get to look wherever you wanted and got to see the parts they don’t show (like passing the buckets, and Joel’s climactic invitation to everyone who wanted to come down and accept Jesus as Lord, and much preliminary music and expertly done lighting effects, and moments like Joel’s breaking down when he referred to his father, who had died seven years ago that month, as having set up a reservoir of grace for his family; someone called out from the audience, “We love you, Joel!” and there was applause, and he regained his composure a few moments later).

It had taken a good two months or so of preliminary inquiries and arrangements to get the interview; as you know, Joel has been and continues to be journalized to a fare-thee-well, and I suppose it’s a rare weekend at Lakewood that passes without he and/or Victoria being interviewed by someone. On that January day, in addition to me, a young French journaliste named Anne-Sophie was waiting to interview Joel for her piece in Match du Monde on les megachurches du l’Amerique, and the high-level Lakewood staffers who were shepherding us along (very considerate and friendly, very mindful of how to present Joel and the church in the best light for our benefit) took us down to a basement-level VIP reception room with adjacent offices. (I was actually introduced to Joel and Victoria in the elevator going down.)

The magazine I was on assignment for had sent the publisher, a photographer and a couple of staffers along to make a presentation of their product to the Osteens and Lakewood’s management, and they joined us in the reception room (which suggested an expensive suite in a downtown hotel). Joel and Victoria divided their time between myself and Anne-Sophie, who conducted our interviews in separate rooms; it seemed the best way to go for us, since we, of course, had different questions and very different audiences to consider. So for some minutes, I sat alone with Joel Osteen in a small room furnished with little more than leather couches and a large digital clock (a none-too-subtle reminder that time constraints were always to be considered).

In person, Joel seemed almost painfully shy at times, yet very focused, self-directed and intense. He answered the questions quietly, rapidly, thoughtfully, and most of the time, gazing downwards. I got the definite sense that although he enjoyed being in the spotlight when he preached in front of thousands at Lakewood and millions through the TV screen, he didn’t particularly enjoy being the focus of attention when the cameras were turned off. Victoria was much more social and chatty. (The Airplane Incident had happened less than three weeks before; no, I didn’t ask her about it. Call me a wuss, but I thought it would just poison the atmosphere in the room, I’m sure I wouldn’t be told anything new, and the publisher had told me straight out that he wasn’t interested in printing anything about the story.)

Feeling myself up to a challenge, I went out of my way to engage Victoria, who I could tell from the start was someone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. Still, we both had young children (I showed the Osteens photos of Leo and Luka, who were less than a year old at the time, and she said something to the effect that they were important to me because I liked to hold them close). After the official interviews had ended and the photo session was being set up, I stood in the hallway with Victoria and the photographer and we chatted together for a time; she talked about the things her son and daughter were interested in, and I said something about how you can try to influence them, but in the end they do what they want to do (speaking more from conjecture than from personal experience at that point). In the end, Joel inscribed my copy of his book, and I drove home to Austin. It was a long and interesting day.

Joel Osteen’s most virulent and persistent critics don’t come from the left, but from fundamentalist Christians who think he’s glossing over Bible teachings in favor of self-help messages (at best), and is a heretic who’s going to hell and leading others there along with him (at worst). As you can find these criticisms readily enough on the Internet, again, I don’t feel the need to go into them here in any great detail. I don’t think I have to go around apologizing for liking him, either (and neither does Mrs. Pogoer, who started watching him shortly after he went on the air and was the one who first told me about him). As I wrote in my piece, he brings hope and encouragement to countless troubled and searching souls, and although he may not be doctrinally pure (like I give a damn), I don’t think there’s a whole lot wrong with that.

In America, where everything, certainly reality TV, is structured as a contest which ends with one winner and a whole bunch of losers, whether it’s a singing contest, a dance contest or a business competition, where the contestants are tasked to slag each other’s qualifications in order to boost their own chances, and where Donald Trump was recently quoted verbatim on Celebrity Apprentice not too long ago as saying, “Most people are losers,” and Simon Cowell makes a living out of being the meanie who dashes clueless contestants’ dreams, well…it seems like Joel “Discover the Champion in You” Osteen is going just a bit against the grain here. He says things like “You are a child of the Most High God,” encouraging everyone to live their best life now, and become a better them, and so forth.

Perhaps some people get mad if they’re told lots of people are capable of being winners, too? That things can actually improve?

All I can do is to repeat my favorite quote, from the British cultural historian and author Raymond Williams:

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing.”

You go, Smiling Preacher Man.

My world… (January 7, 2004 as well as December 2006)

I am still waiting for the DVD containing the complete run of the 1969/70 TV series My World and Welcome To It, starring William Windom as a James Thurber-like cartoonist and that early Late Boomer avatar Lisa Gerritsen as his precocious daughter. Does anyone else remember this?

(Whaddaya want from me…all these years later, I still can’t get the theme from The Good Guys out of my head)

[Contemporary update: The entire country seems to be revisiting those fabulous mid-’70s this week. For example, I haven’t seen Jerry Ford in the newspapers this much since I was in high school. Go figure.]