Monday, November 10, 2014

TV Guide helps them decide: Boston stand-up Ken Reid and his fellow comedians rummage through old TV Guides on TV Guidance Counselor

An upcoming intense episode of Gotham will be all about little Bruce Wayne devoting his precocious energies to sewing together this same exact raglan jersey with a bat on the chest because Gotham is such a subtle TV show, with subtle lines like 'Hey, Nygma, stop being a RIDDLER full of riddles, alright?!'
Ken Reid (Photo source: Time Out)

Long before Brad Pitt became a respected movie star and incomprehensible perfume pitchman, he started out as a guest performer on '80s shows like Growing Pains and the original 21 Jump Street. Twenty-seven years ago today, the first of Pitt's two guest shots on Growing Pains aired on ABC (the season in which another future movie star, Leonardo DiCaprio, joined the Growing Pains cast as the Seavers' adopted son would take place much later). In the November 10, 1987 Growing Pains episode "Who's Zoomin' Who?," the future star of Moneyball and Fury played a hunky transfer student who made the heart of teenage Carol Seaver go pitter-patter, no pun intended.

If you listen to just the middle portion of an episode of Boston comedian Ken Reid's TV Guidance Counselor podcast, you could sometimes mistake TV Guidance Counselor for being a podcast about Growing Pains, due to how often Reid brings up the Seavers and the Seaver kids' quirky classmates (remember Stinky Sullivan, Ben's frequently mentioned and initially unseen buddy?). But it's more than just a Growing Pains lovefest.

What makes TV Guidance Counselor an interesting listen--especially for TV nerds--is the focus of the conversations between Reid and guests like Hari Kondabolu, Kumail Nanjiani, impressionist James Adomian, Parker Lewis Can't Lose star Melanie Chartoff and O.G. SNL cast member Laraine Newman. It isn't yet another umpteenth podcast about how these performers got started in comedy. Instead, the focus of TV Guidance Counselor is on their pop culture obsessions and TV-watching habits (as Jackie Kashian has frequently said on her podcast The Dork Forest, people whose only job is as a road comic often find themselves watching a lot of TV during the day to bide their time). Reid's framing device for getting his guests to open up about their tastes in TV is especially clever: he has each of them pick out programs they'd like to watch from the listings in an issue from his collection of old TV Guides, and then Reid and his guests share with each other their memories of those programs.

So in addition to mentions of the Seaververse, listeners are treated to discussions of short-lived gems like the underrated sitcoms of Bonnie Hunt (she's another favorite Reid topic) or the cheesiest elements of forgotten '80s and '90s afternoon cartoons like the Fantastic Four clone Bionic Six, as well as intriguing tangents like Kondabolu's encyclopedic knowledge of obscure characters from '90s ABC "TGIF" sitcoms. That's bizarre to see coming from Kondabolu because you wouldn't expect Kondabolu--currently the sharpest and most provocative stand-up in terms of material about racial issues--to have devoured the most whitebread '90s sitcoms when he was younger (it's like finding out that Malcolm X liked watching The Donna Reed Show). It's just one of many odd revelations from guests throughout Reid's podcast, and over e-mail, I got the TV Guidance Counselor host to discuss his fascination with TV Guide as both a conversation starter and a magazine and why he's built a podcast around a magazine nobody really uses anymore as a listings guide due to the ease of getting much more up-to-date and comprehensive program listings off the Internet or the cable/satellite box.

For an evil high school principal, Ms. Musso was oddly hot, in a present-day Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Veep kind of way.
(Photo source: Reid)

Jimmy J. Aquino: Did you inherit your TV Guide collection from a relative or did that collection grow because you simply loved the magazine from the start?

Ken Reid: It's kind of a mixture. We always got the magazine in my house, ever since I can remember (and we always had a two-slice toaster, but I digress...). I would pay for my own subscription after a while when times were tight. I kept a few from growing up, but the bulk of my current collection comes from two libraries. One in Maine and one in Nebraska. They were both purging their periodicals and I picked up decades of issues for nothing.

JJA: Did you have a favorite TV Guide staff writer? For instance, I liked anything Frank Lovece wrote for TV Guide because he was a Taxi fan who authored a whole book on Taxi.

KR: I liked Howard Polskin because he would tend to write about trends and "new" innovations. His pieces tended to incorporate a bit of the social analysis stuff that I really enjoy. It wasn't too in-depth, it was still 1980s TV Guide, but it was a good taste of that for a mainstream magazine. Jeff Jarvis, the Couch Critic was the other one whose name always stuck in my head. He was really the only person with a specific weekly column, that I can remember. I enjoyed how opinionated his reviews were, without always being negative. He backed up his opinions and they were well-thought-out and he wasn't afraid to trash a show, despite potentially angering a network. So much of the TV Guide writing wasn't attributed to anyone, which is kind of fascinating to me. The movie reviews, Jeers and Cheers and the show descriptions were always my favorite things in the issue, and they were written by this monolithic, mysterious "TV Guide Staff."

The people who kept tinkering with Mork and Mindy and adding pointless characters every season were enormous shazbotheads.
(Photo source: Michael Schneider)

JJA: What reasons would you give to someone to not throw away any old TV Guide issues that are still lying around in their basement or attic?

KR: They are great time capsules. It's always the same way people use the Internet Wayback Machine now. These things that were designed to be extremely "of the moment" and disposable always reflect an exact place and time best. The articles are always interesting as well. There's a fair amount of predictive writing in TV Guide, which shows will be hits, what new TV technology will be and it's fun to see where they were right and where they were wrong. It also makes you put our current media culture into perspective. Changes happen so gradually people don't tend to notice them as much. When you look at a TV Guide from 1987, and look at say, their gossip section, The Grapevine, you see how much our culture has changed in relation to its relationship with celebrities and the media.

They really do jar memories you never knew you still had. Just flipping through a week and reading some show names or descriptions tends to flood people with memories. That's one of the things I love doing about the show. I've had a ton of guests say things to me like "I didn't watch a lot of TV" or "I don't remember anything really from when I was a kid" and after the five-minute flipping through the TV Guide, they prove both of those statements to be incredibly inaccurate.

If Fresno were a 2014 show instead of a 1986 show, the raisins would be heavily Botoxed.
Remember the miniseries spoof Fresno?
It's one of many forgotten--and actually
not-so-shitty--'80s and '90s shows that
made the cover of TV Guide.
Also, if you need an alibi, it'll provide you with some pretty detailed, date- and time-specific information.

Outside of that, one word, decoupage.

JJA: How did the podcast come about? Was it because you were itching for a way to put your IMDb-ish encyclopedic knowledge of TV actors and '80s and '90s sitcoms to use?

KR: Ten years into stand-up, I was falling out of love with performing here in Boston a bit. All of my friends and peers had more or less moved to N.Y. or L.A. and the scene here was in a real lull. For years, people had told me I should do a podcast, but I never really had an idea that I thought was different enough from everything else out there. The idea itself actually came from my friend and a very funny comedian himself, Sean Sullivan. I had all these TV Guides displayed in racks in my house, I flip through them and I watch a lot of old TV. He had been prodding me to do a podcast for years and at one point just laid the concept out. Get someone over, have them go through your old TV Guides and then you talk about it.

That was enough to motivate me to give it a go. I figured if I recorded a few and wasn't happy with them, I didn't have to put them out. I listen to a fair amount of podcasts, but some of them, even ones I recognize as being good quality ones, I find very alienating. It becomes a bit too "inside" and although the people on the mics are having fun and are funny, I feel like I'm eavesdropping on strangers at the booth behind me in a restaurant. So I wanted to make sure I wasn't doing the same thing with something I might record.

I never really show off my IMDb brain stuff. I never talk about pop culture stuff on stage. All my stand-up is real stories/experiences. So getting to use that part of my brain on the show has been really fun.

JJA: You're a fan of both Growing Pains and its spinoff Just the Ten of Us. Growing Pains was dismissed as a bland Family Ties ripoff when it aired, but Growing Pains was actually kookier than Family Ties because it boasted writers from WKRP, and they came up with a few meta or high-concept episodes that were genuinely funny. Personally, I think Just the Ten of Us holds up better than Growing Pains, because it wasn't concerned with doing preachy Very Special Episodes like Growing Pains frequently was. Plus [Just the Ten of Us lead character] Coach Lubbock's older daughters were hot, and [middle daughter] Connie, who was sort of a precursor to Lisa Simpson and Daria, was way more interesting than either of the Seaver kids. If you had to persuade viewers to give Growing Pains a chance on DVD or Amazon Instant or to give Just the Ten of Us a chance on YouTube, what would you say to make your case for both of them?

KR: I agree with all your statements. Just the Ten of Us is a better show for a lot of reasons. Most of the writers on Growing Pains jumped ship to Just the Ten of Us, they got four seasons of GP under their belts and were really in the prime of their writing on Just the Ten of Us and were not afraid to try some dark, clever and weird stuff. It was also a strange set-up, a poor Catholic family. The dynamic between the parents was fun and seemed "real" to me. They fought, sometimes they hated their kids, but ultimately always were a family and not a cartoonish collection of clichés and plot devices.

You had the pedigree of WKRP, but you also had people who had sharpened their skills on a solid family sitcom. It managed to make a lot of great meta commentary about sitcoms themselves without losing its heart and the reality and humor of the characters. I think it also benefited from not having [a Kirk Cameron-type heartthrob star] on the show. It was a true ensemble. The daughters being hot helped as well, no doubt. But the characters were pretty complicated. It managed to have the blue-collar gallows humor that I'm a sucker for on shows like Roseanne and tackle a lot of issues like questioning faith, mental illness and some other potentially really heavy topics in a light way without making light of them or using them for dismissive fodder for shock humor. It's a pretty delicate and difficult balance to achieve and they pulled it off pretty well. It also benefits from having less than three seasons, so it never really had time to lose steam like Growing Pains did. Short answer: it's a sweet, fun, funny show with smart humor and a great cast. Plus hot daughters, if that's your thing.

Growing Pains at its best did capture what it felt like to be a teenager. There are some great "epic quest" episodes, specifically the two-part "Dance Fever" episode from season 3 and Ben's search for glue to finish a school project in "Ben and Mike's Excellent Adventure" from season 5, [that] really capture that all-nighter, high-stakes, night-of-your-life, coming-of-age quality that so many teenage movies and television series strive for but miss. Its best episodes stick with you and have a real sense of a universe of the show. It builds on itself and has a history that's nice. It doesn't feel like a totally artificial, no-stakes sitcom world.

TV Guidance Counselor, which just recorded a live on-stage episode with Emmanuel Lewis as Reid's guest, can be heard at or Reid's SoundCloud. Below is my favorite TV Guidance Counselor episode, which features Kumail Nanjiani, star of HBO's Silicon Valley and host of his own TV-related podcast, The X-Files Files.

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