Monday, May 30, 2016

1986: Television

Thirty years ago I was ten years old, which means I was still at optimal receptiveness for the things that would in 2016 evoke fond memories and feelings of nostalgia. I got the idea for this post from the first Dragon Con panel I was a part of – 1982: Best Sci-Fi Movie Year Ever? (or some such thing). We had a great discussion about the movies that came out that year. Sadly nobody recorded it, but I thoroughly enjoyed having a topic that was both broad and focused. It was only 1982 sci-fi movies, but there were plenty to discuss!

Two weeks ago I reminisced about the toy lines of 1986 (because of course I did) and last week I wrote about 1986 movies. In this final post I’m going to look back on the television shows that were a big deal to me back then.

I was and still am a TV kid. I’m sure I’ve devoted far, far too many hours of my life to watching television. If I had spent all of those hours doing something useful, like learning how to build cabinets or play a trumpet or something, I’m sure I’d be much better off.

But I also wouldn’t have learned the magical lesson that sharing some cheesecake in the kitchen with your friends is the answer to all of life’s problems.

Like I said – much better off.

I get annoyed with the people that claim they don’t watch TV, or worse – that they don’t even own a TV. My immediate gut reaction to these people is to want to kick them in the shins and then, when they fall down, pee on them. But I know that the true source of that anger is envy. I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life glued to the Idiot Box.

Oh, man – Idiot Box was a great show.

Well, some envy and some disbelief. Because I firmly believe that anyone that makes those claims that hasn’t just emerged from a centuries-long, ice-encased slumber is a fucking liar.
I wasn’t trying to start a treatise on my or anyone else’s TV habits. I think it’s time to move on to the TV shows of 1986. Once I started poking around I realized that there were a ton of amazing shows on that year and that, being ten, I was watching a lot of them. So for the sake of keeping this thing at a manageable length I’m just going to write about the shows that debuted in 1986. That’s mostly what I did with the other posts, so it makes sense to restrict it thusly here.


Off the top of my head I’d guess that ALF has to be one of the most famous non-Muppet puppets of all time. I’m sure the most famous worldwide is some wooden German monstrosity named “Mister Weisskammeren” or something, but ALF has got to be up there.
Side Note: Actually, if I was playing trivia, I’d guess that Punch and/or Judy are the most famous.

My love of puppetry has been reignited in recent years thanks to the delightful Mr. Beau Brown, but when I was a kid I was fascinated by puppets. I grew up with The Muppet Show in Prime Time, but ALF was something else entirely. Though clearly a puppet, he was meant to be an alien character interacting with a human family on Earth. He was dry and sarcastic and hilarious and I loved him.

It also helped that I had a huge crush on Lynn Tanner. I’m honestly not sure if she or ALF was a bigger reason for me watching.

ALF was created by puppeteer Paul Fusco, who had developed a character based around a puppet he had created. While he did have connections, he basically made the TV show happen on his own and not as part of a larger entity like The Jim Henson Company. I admire the heck out of that.

Perfect Strangers

Standing tall, on the wings of my dream
Rise and fall, on the wings of my dream

If you didn’t just sing that to yourself, we probably can’t be friends.

Larry Appleton and Balki Bartokomous had the funniest relationship on television. The dynamic between Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot is one of my favorites to this day. I’ve seen countless couplings on TV over the years, but the chemistry between these two always stands out to me.

Side Note: It blew my mind the first time I heard Pinchot speak out of character. Balki with an American accent was extremely disorienting. Other examples of revelation I couldn’t handle were Bob Hoskins’ English accent and the first time I heard Bob Saget say “cock”.

The Hogan Family

The main thing I liked about this show was Jason Bateman. I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. His signature humor appealed to me in a way that the standard “funny teenager” of the era often did not. His character was more of a wise guy than a clueless tool and I always preferred that. Granted, as a teenager he was obviously still a clueless tool, but I didn’t pick up on that a s a ten year old.

After the second season the show’s lead, Valerie Harper, was replaced by Sandy Duncan. I remember being upset about this and not wanting to watch the show anymore. At present I can’t explain this because I can’t recall any particular emotional attachment to Harper and Sandy Duncan had been on The New Scooby-Doo Movies, so I should have been delighted. This might have been an early instance of my redhead bias.

I thought that this was the coolest thing ever when I was a kid and now my entire body is shriveling up from shame just from watching it.

Head of the Class

I had been watching sitcoms from an early age thanks to afternoon syndication. I’m sure an inordinate portion of my personality was shaped by classic 70s shows like Three’s Company, Good Times, and my personal favorite, WKRP in Cincinnati. I wonder if maybe that’s where my love of broadcasting and talking into microphones comes from.

WKRP introduced me to the character of Dr. Johnny Fever, played by the great Howard Hesseman. He might have been the first guy that I recognized as “cool”. Hesseman was the reason that I first watched Head of the Class and was the only reason I continued watching it, as I found the kids to be annoying as shit. Especially Dennis. I assume we were supposed to hate Dennis, but I almost couldn’t watch the show because of him.

Hesseman left the show after four seasons and was replaced by Billy Connolly(!). I wasn’t at all familiar with the Scottish comic at the time and was disappointed. I specifically remember tuning in to the first episode of the fifth season and seeing the story of how Mr. Moore’s acting career had finally taken off. I’m sad to say I didn’t give Connolly a chance and stopped watching the show.  

Designing Women

Yeah, that’s right.

I have two defenses for why I watched this show about ladies living in the South running an interior decorating business:

1 – I had a huge crush on Annie Potts. I liked her as Janine in Ghostbusters, but on Designing Women she didn’t have that insane New York accent and sometimes had much better hair. I was in love.

2 – The show was hilarious. The cast was amazing and the comedy ranged from biting social commentary to broad humor. It set a standard for sitcoms. And no character on television will ever, ever deliver better speeches than Julia Sugarbaker. Dixie Carter was a powerhouse.


Saturday nights on NBC used to be known for so much more than just Saturday Night Live or Saturday Night’s Main Event. It was known for a solid block of sitcoms that included classics like 227, The Golden Girls, The Facts of Life, and Empty Nest. In 1986, a new vehicle for Sherman Hemsley was added to the lineup.

Amen followed The Golden Girls and was the final sitcom of the night before Hunter, one of the many private investigator-type shows that were competing at the time. It was funny, but I didn’t love it. Which is why I would switch over to ABC and watch the next show…

Sledge Hammer!

Not everyone remembers this show, even though it ran for two seasons.

I loved Sledge Hammer!. I don’t have specific memories of it, but I definitely remember thinking that it was special. I didn’t know anyone else that watched it.

A few years ago Anchor Bay put out an impressive DVD set of the entire series. I preordered it from Amazon and could not wait to experience the show again. Just like now I couldn’t remember anything specific about it, I just knew that I had loved it as a kid.

It didn’t hold up for me. I don’t know what happened, but it did nothing for me. I didn’t find it funny at all and it seemed cheap and… just bad. I’d like to give it another chance, but the DVDs are long out of print and likely very expensive. There isn’t much that I liked as a kid that I don’t still enjoy now, but this show falls squarely in that category.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show

There are some shows on this list that I realize now were a little odd for a ten year old to be watching, but this one definitely seems strange. If you had asked me yesterday I would’ve told you I was watching this show when I was twelve or so. I realize that coincides with the time that FOX started airing the reruns, but I specifically recall watching it on Showtime because I wasn’t really supposed to be watching Showtime. We had the premium cable channels at that point and I wasn’t supposed to be watching them.

Obviously I did, as much as I possibly could.

Garry was amazing. As a kid, I think I just liked that he was this guy talking to the audience. There was this sense of inclusiveness, like we were getting to take part in this great show as opposed to just watching it.

Double Dare

I’ve mentioned a lot of cool guys in this post, but none were cooler than Marc Summers.

I mention Double Dare because it is the greatest game show of all time and it debuted in 1986, but a mention is all you’re going to get today. At the very least Nickelodeon of the 80s deserves a post, and Double Dare might well warrant its own. I can’t possibly do all of the stunts, the brilliant framework, and the pure joy of the show into the tail end of a different post.

For now I’ll just say that I dreamed every single day of being a contestant on Double Dare. Heck, I didn’t even need to be a contestant, I just wanted to try all of the obstacles and games. This show is a huge inspiration to me and I hope that one day you can see exactly how much as The Dirty Dirty Con Con Game Game Show Show continues to grow and evolve.

1986 was an incredible year for TV if you were a ten year old kid. My humor and understanding of the world were all influenced by what I was watching. I got to know actors whose careers I would follow and learned what I liked and didn’t like about television. Even if something was based on an old formula – like Perfect Strangers or the satirical Sledge Hammer!, I was seeing it for the first time.

It was a good year.

I wrote a bit about cartoons in the first post, but I think maybe a cartoon post is in order. Check back next Monday to see if I can put together something about the cartoons  of 1986! In the meantime, join the Needless Things Podcast Facebook Group and get in on the conversation! Let me know what you think!

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