Saturday, May 2, 2009

Lessons from Charley and Humphrey: Solipsistic Nostalgia of a Local Boy from Richmond Raised on Televison in the Late 80's

Part 1: Searching for Charley and Humphrey

For years now, the practice of going around on websites like Retrojunk to ask for help in identifying some vague pop-culture phantom from one’s childhood has been a common diversion on the internet. The person with the fuzzy memory will post something like, “what was that one show where they had the girl who could stop time by touching her fingers together? It’s drivin’ me crazy!” And then someone will invariably chime in: “Out of This World!” It's a genuinely effective system: with all the zillions of people on some of these forums, the law of averages dictates that at least one of them is going to know what you’re talking about.

But until today there was one memory of mine that no one on the internet could identify.

Here’s how I described it:

"A short spot featuring puppets, namely a white horse with a big red mouth and a fire helmet housed in a brick building (possibly a fire station?) I remember him teaching me that borrowing without asking is the same as stealing."

To improve my chances of stirring someone’s recollections, I made a sort of police sketch to go with this description; working the best I could off a fuzzy, almost twenty-year-old memory, I rendered this visual aid in MS Paint:

Yet all was vanity, to paraphrase Solomon; even with the help of my picture, no one in all the internet found any of this even vaguely familiar. And so, after many, many attempts in this vein, I gave up and became resigned to the prospect of never knowing where this mysterious memory had come from. I even went so far as to consider the possibility that it had never existed beyond my own mind: perhaps I remembered it from a dream; perhaps my memory had confused impressions from several different puppet shows and thus shaped something entirely original from their residue.

Today, however, my memory was redeemed with startling precision.

Like most good things, it happened by total accident. I was on Youtube digging up some 80’s independent Bay Area TV station nostalgia (KBHK 44 bumpers, things like that) when in the related videos column I saw something that took my breath away:

That's it! The reason why nobody on the internet could help me remember Charley and Humphrey was because they were from a local, independent broadcast!

Still, I wonder how my memory substituted a firefighter helmet for a naval cap. Anyway...

Part 2: A History of Charley, Humphrey, and Independent Television Stations in the Bay Area:

(Hey: If you watch only one of the videos in this article, watch this one.)

As the video above clearly demonstrates, Charley and Humphrey were a product of KTVU Channel 2, the first independent television station in the San Francisco Bay Area (as we are informed by Ronnie Shell, "a local boy from Richmond"). The song at the beginning of the clip, though written over twenty years ago, resonates more than ever with today’s wistful melancholy in wake local programming's decimation: "I know yesterday is gone forever/ but my favorite dreams are still in black and white." Gone forever indeed. Gone are the days of local B-horror M.C's like Elvira, Vampira, and Dr. Gangrene, who would lovingly present the night’s schlocky horror film and answer fan mail sent from kids around the area. Gone are the local game shows you actually had a chance of appearing on. Gone are Charley, Humphrey, and the other puppets. The only thing local stations do anymore is the news, presumably because they’re evil and they know that the only thing more depressing than no local broadcasting at all is local broadcasting that pops up only to tell you that there's a serial rapist in the neighborhood.

Sigh. I don't about you, but I could really go for a time machine right about now. I want the happy back. I want to escape into my naive, unjaded fantasy world of bright city lights, cloying saxophone solos, sparkly electric piano samples, and cheap puppets. I want to go back to a world where there weren't so many haters, where men could wear rainbow suspenders and not have their sexuality questioned. I want to go back to a world where guys could look like this and still be able to "score big on Love Connection" (i.e. women would still have sex with them). And I want to go back to where I can find a pair of glasses like Perry's, goddamn it!

But I digress.

Above: "Where is the familiar and friendly announcer’s voice to say goodnight to us now?"

As silly as it sounds, watching all this local broadcast stuff as a wee preschooler had a profound effect on my malleable little brain. How to describe it… it’s like it made me feel more connected to the place where I lived… like it made the TV seem less cold and distant and more like an integral part of the community. Okay, so that is silly, but compare that to the way we have it now: where is the familiar and friendly announcer’s voice to say goodnight to us when it’s time to go to bed and the station signs off? Where’s the part where that voice invites us to submit our questions and comments? Or the part where he gives us the address of the station so we could even go down there if we ever wanted to? And why don’t these stations still sponsor and put on events we can actually attend? As an impressionable child, all these little touches went a long way towards making me feel somehow involved. I'd see the stock footage shots of San Francisco, watch "Big Bird in Japan" on KQED, and then have my aunt (who always sent me stuff from Japan when she was living there) come and visit and take me to Japantown to get sushi and play a coin-operated Centipede machine. I was there, I was living the dream! It was like one big nebula of reality and fantasy all congealed in a delicious consomm√© of recycled stock muzak with one foot still in the 70's.

What I have shared here represents a great deal of what I consider to be the most deep-seeded and sacred of my personal aesthetics. What will become of them another twenty years from now, I wonder? Will they vanish further into obscurity, or will we dust them off and build something new from them? Will our culture descend into further alienation and cynicism, or will we rebuild our innocence and once more allow ourselves these tacky little gestures of community? I guess it’s important to remember that it's all relative, that one person's nostalgia is always created by someone nostalgic for something else.

Well, that's it for tonight's broadcast. Have a good night an a great weekend. And now, one last relic of Bay Area television to rock out to (in stereo):


yahstay said...

I really liked this and you know after seeing that Charley and Humphrey video I totally remember them now. I must have seen them when I was living in Paradise up by Chico. I don't know why we would be getting Bay Area programming instead Central Valley programming but I swear I remember it. I really think it's interesting how this downfall of independent local television becomes an allegory for something larger happening to our society and community. Where did the connection go? I wonder if the internet, which could have been a great tool for bringing people together, has had the opposite effect and actually made communities and people in general less connected in an intimate and real way.

Ryan Avery said...

I had a similar experience once with an oldies song. I remember hearing it from my childhood and would call up the local oldies stations every few years asking "It starts off like an AC/DC rock song, then it sounds a bit like Roy Orbison in the chorus and verses, and the bridge is like an early Beatles song. And the lyrics in the chorus are something like 'Please baby, go away'". I even hummed the melody for them on occasion. For at least 10 years, no such luck - I was never near a phone when the song was played on the radio, so I couldn't call stations to find out. I even tried asking my question on the usual crowdsourcing response sites, nothing. Since I knew the melody, I tried querying by humming - nada.

Eventually, I heard it on the radio last year in the car, and got home in time to go to their website and see that it was "Go All The Way" by The Raspberries. Kind've disappointing, because I thought the song was Four Seasons-esque in that the singer was in love with the girl but needed her to leave because he didn't want to get his heart broken (I'm a sucker for songs like that). Turns out it's just about a guy pressuring a girl into having sex... oh well.

Oh, yeah this comment was totally not about independent stations.