It Came Upon the Small Screen Clear

It’s the simple things that mark the arrival of the holidays at Chez Rochat.
Things like discovering which of our pre-lit tree’s lights have pre-burned out, so that we can have the stimulating mental exercise of finding and untangling our old string.
Or the eternal debate as to whether decorating is better done to the strains of John Denver and a chorus of Muppets, or Alvin and his band of helium-voiced chipmunks. (Making the tally “FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!!” versus one “HUUUU-LA HOOOOP!”)
But never is Christmas more surely on the way than when the subsonic tones of  Thurl Ravenscroft begins rumbling from our television speakers.
If you don’t recognize the name, I dare you to read the following words without hearing it in his distinctive voice:
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,
 You really are a heel …”
OK, how many sang along?
Thought so.
In a time when traditions seem to have the lifespan of a Raiders fan on Bronco Sunday, a family’s holiday movie choices are all but unshakeable. I have known people who could do without sleigh bells and snow, but would consider the season incomplete if it passed without just one more viewing of Die Hard. (“Yippie-ki-yay to all, and to all a good night.”)
It’s comforting. Reassuring. Familiar, to the point where if the TV burned out, everyone could quote their film of choice letter-perfect – in between jokes about which Clark W. Griswold light display burned things out this time.
For us, it’s a quartet: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Story (yes, the never-ending chronicle of the Red Ryder BB gun) and the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol. These old-school classics have dominated the networks, our shelf space, and significant portions of our family’s  gray matter, to the point where we can mentally count down the moments until Ralphie “didn’t say fudge” or the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come rolls through the graveyard on a hidden scooter board. (Hey, special effects are expensive.)
But these four have a lot more in common than their deathless production values. In each case, the story centers around what we think we want versus what we need.
Charlie Brown sets lights  and aluminum trees  against “what Christmas is all about.” Whoville celebrates not the stolen gifts, but the togetherness that lay at their foundation. Mr. Scrooge famously has his priorities shifted in one night, and even Ralphie’s story, the most materialistic of them all, is less about actually getting the coveted BB gun (which – spoiler alert – loses its charm after one accident, anyway) and more about getting a grown-up to actually listen to him for once and take him seriously.
In each case, it’s not about the stuff. It never really was.
OK, maybe it’s a little corny to say it out loud. But at a time when most of us are frantically trying to get through the holiday decathlon, maybe it’s not bad to claim a moment of quiet and think about why we’re doing all this, beyond muscle memory and social expectation.
Is it just about easily-torn paper and misplaced decorations? Does it really come down to whether we can make enough clicks on Amazon before time and money run out?
Or is there something else? Something not just limited to a few weeks in December?
That’s the real gift. And it’s one we’re all going to need going forward.
Though if you still want that hula hoop, I completely understand.

An Open Letter to Kermit the Frog

Dear Kermit,

Well, it finally happened. If the mainstream entertainment press can be trusted, you and Miss Piggy are officially kaput. Mind you, I’m still a little skeptical – when it comes to celebrities, the pen can be a dirty business, never mind the pigpen. But so far, you and she have backed this one up.

I wish I could say I was surprised.

I’m sorry if that sounds a little harsh. My sisters and I grew up on you, after all. We watched “The Muppet Show” religiously during its original run, objecting loudly when Mom wanted us to miss an episode for some silly reason like taking Dad to the emergency room. OK, granted, he had just fallen on the ice and needed several stitches in his forehead, but still – Muppets!

The show had it all. Good music. Intelligent humor. Projectile fish. To this day, I can quote several of the sketches by heart, and know that if I ever call out “Mahna Mahna,” someone in the room will respond with “Doot doo, do doo doo.” Classics do that to you.

But even then, I think we could all see the tension between you two.

Oh, the movies made a lot of the “meant to be” romance; Hollywood does that. But on the original show, it was pretty obvious what was going on. Half the time, Miss Piggy would chase you harder than Batman pursuing a villain of the week. The other half, she’d flirt non-stop with any cute guest star that caught her eye. (John Denver seemed to be a particular object of porcine passion – I suppose there’s something to be said for country ham.(

You? You were usually caught up in the latest drama of the moment, oblivious to – or even mocking of – any attempts at romance that were less subtle than a karate chop to the gut. Which you caught, more than once.

I hate to imagine the medical bills.

This isn’t a formula for long-term romance. Two people – or whatevers – who aren’t truly engaged with each other aren’t a couple, even if they share the same room most of the time. It takes attention and commitment, even when times are chaotic. Maybe especially then.

But we all wanted to believe. And for a long time, you seemed to make it work. No relationship is perfect and there’s something to be said for trying and trying and trying again. As I’ve said before, weddings are easy and marriages hard, even without storylines that regularly blow up your supporting cast.

But when the two of you were headed back to television, with its daily pressures – well, a storyline like this was kind of inevitable.

Did that sound skeptical? I’m sorry. Maybe it’s because it fits the general pattern of life in the old “Muppet Show,” where things always just barely came together in the nick of time, night after night. Jim Henson used to say that if the show were a basketball game, the final score at the end of each episode would be Frog 99, Chaos 98.

So having this tension coming in at the start of a new Muppet series is kind of dramatically convenient. You can’t start a story on a happy ending, after all. There has to be some sort of conflict, some challenge that takes a struggle to overcome. If it involves the leads, so much the better.

Funny enough, if it is just one big plotline, you’ll make a lot of people very happy. They’ll get to watch their favorite pair strike sparks again in their natural environment: utter insanity. Hey, it worked before.

And if it’s not – well, you’re professionals. You can work together even if it isn’t exactly hog heaven, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d better let you hop. There’s a karate chop out there with my name on it, and I’d really hate to be here when it arrives. There’s got to be less painful ways to bring home the bacon.

Always a fan,


The Greatest Show on Earth

Dinner was over at the Hargett house. Now it was time for the floor show.

Elizabeth and Ashleigh, my wife’s grade-school sisters, sang and danced with all their might. Lyric sheets sat before them on the living room floor, sometimes intensely studied for a second or two before the singers rejoined the song on the stereo.

“Whoo!” “All right!”

Earlier, they had been talk-show hosts with the same fervency, giving each of us the World’s Silliest Interview as a monitor-mounted camera recorded it all for posterity. (“What’s your favorite color?” “Blue.” “Wrong!!!”) Still earlier, they had been infomercial hosts, selling a torn office chair and other products for gazillions of dollars.

I smiled and laughed and cheered them on. And remembered. Oh, yes, remembered.

In a very real sense, that was my sisters and me out there all over again.

When we were kids, Leslie, Carey and I put on more impromptu variety shows than the Muppets.  Sometimes for my parents. Sometimes for our grandma. Very occasionally, it was just for each other and the eyes of a few dozen admiring stuffed animals.

Record albums were the most common prop. Not exactly titles off the Billboard 100, either. A Li’l Orphan Annie fitness album (“Feeling Good With Annie”) may have been the most used, starring one sister as Annie, myself as Daddy Warbucks and a babysitter as “Professor Fitness.”

This was deathless entertainment, mind, especially when Professor Fitness accused Daddy of being “Flabby, flabby, flabby!” As my own frame was spindly, spindly, spindly, the show quickly reached the levels of high comedy – though not nearly the bladder-opening levels of hilarity achieved by my sisters and their Strawberry Shortcake disco album.

Yes, really.

It went beyond musical extravaganzas, mind.  Often way beyond.

Sometimes it would be skits, with the scripts either checked out from a library or made up five minutes in advance. (Our combination of A Christmas Carol with the characters of Star Wars lives on in my mind for some reason.)

Sometimes it would be self-developed games like Commercials – do a 60-second spot on a random “product” – or Channel Changers, where each person had to jump in with an overlapping radio show, every time the dial was re-tuned.

And of course, there was no missing the Christmas Eve Fashion Show ™, featuring the latest in pajamas unwrapped by us just 45 seconds before.

It was wild. It was weird. And I think it was a big part of why we grew up the way we did.

No, not in need of psychiatric assistance.

There was always a chance for that moment in the footlights. In the end, it didn’t even really matter what the moment was. We were having fun. We were learning confidence and creativity. We were developing decidedly odd senses of humor.

We were being a family.

Those are the best moments of all. The ones that build the mental photo album and remind everyone, then and years down the road, just how lucky they were to have each other.

It might not be ready for Broadway.

But it’s not too shabby, shabby, shabby.