somewhere in time

Dave Holmes Revisits the Nielsens Circa the Infamous 1989 Oscars Telecast

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by AP

This Oscar season marks the 25th anniversary of the 61st Annual Academy Awards, and as you may or may not remember, the ceremony was fucking bananas. It had no host, it took place on a Wednesday, and it was produced by Allan Carr, a human pile of cocaine whose previous producing credits include the classic Village People/Bruce Jenner film Can’t Stop the Music. His career never recovered; the miracle is that he did not serve jail time. We’ll get to the particulars of what made the telecast so uniquely terrible soon. But first, stick some shoulder pads into whatever you’re wearing and travel with me to March 29, 1989, as we check out shows appearing in the Nielsen ratings the week of Oscar’s Snow White moment.

No. 79: The Tracey Ullman Show

It’s kind of fun to reminisce on how raw and in-your-face we all thought early Fox was, because it basically boiled down to Duet, a sophisticated relationship comedy; 21 Jump Street, about cops going deep undercover in a high school; and The Tracey Ullman Show, wherein everyone’s (definitely top-ten) favorite British flibbertigibbet dispensed comedy sketches, musical numbers, and interstitials featuring an embryonic, glacially paced version of The Simpsons. The short in this week’s episode concerns a gluttonous Bart and his cookie-fueled nightmares, and it ends with him on an oddly penitent note. There is hardly a hint of the proud troublemaker who would launch a million T-shirts only one year later. To quote Roger Meyers Jr. in the season-eight classic “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”: I don’t know whose face he’s in, but it sure isn’t mine.

Voicing these characters must have been an afterthought for Tracey Ullman Show cast members Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta, a contractual obligation, a quick thing to do at the end of a rehearsal day. And now because of it, they are millionaires many many times over. This is why I never say no to anything.

No. 75: Men

We are right in the thick of pilot season here in Los Angeles, which means every elliptical machine in town is occupied by an actor preparing sides for an audition. If hopefulness could be harnessed as fuel, our state’s energy crisis would instantly be solved. But I must temper your optimism, my fellow performers: Even if you do book that part, even if that pilot does get picked up to a series, there’s still a better-than-average chance that the show will fail and be forever forgotten. Exhibit A: This show, starring a pre–Marcellus Wallace Ving Rhames and a post–Pink Panther Ted Wass, which you can barely find anything on the internet about. (The same internet, by the way, where there is still a lively Small Wonder fan-fiction community. Nothing.) But, you know, break a leg.

No. 73: Great Circuses of the World

In the time when original scripted cable programming was limited to Dream On and not much else, the three (and a half) major networks had a virtual monopoly on television entertainment. And you know what? They got super lazy about it. Behold this ABC show, hosted by Mary Hart, where they basically just set up some cameras around a circus and went for coffee. GASP as some guy jumps off some kind of a thing and you can’t really tell how high it is because it’s on a small screen! THRILL as you see a picture of a lion! THANK GOD there’s such a thing as AMC now!

No. 70: Moonlighting

Moonlighting was appointment viewing for me and my parents. And at least three times in each episode, when things would go saucy — Bruce Willis would make a reference to “boinking,” a David-on-Maddie French kiss would get a little too ravenous — Mom would loudly tsk and sigh “Oh, honestly!” (phonetically, because we are in the Midwest: O, annistly!): a quick reminder that We are Catholic and this is not the way we do things before she sent me out into the world. It didn’t take, but I appreciated the effort, and I am relieved for their sakes that my parents have only a peripheral awareness of the internet.

Annistly, though, Moonlighting was the bee’s knees. Snappy writing, charming supporting characters, and the kind of sparking chemistry between the lead characters that you can only get when the two actors hate each other’s guts. Even with all the ‘80s fashions, ABC could air reruns of this show in prime time and it would still be the freshest thing on network television. (Cybill Shepard’s 2014 camera-gauze demands would make an updated version prohibitively expensive.)

No. 63: Friday Night Surprise

Also forever lost to the sands of time: this Dick Clark Production, in which mid-level stars like John Davidson and Scott Baio play mild pranks on one another or an unsuspecting fan. Surprise! It only lasted one season.

I hate to brag, but a decade or so ago, I was a presenter at the First Annual DVD Exclusive Awards, which was a Dick Clark Production that aired on FX. (Best DVD Menu Screen was my category. No, I’m serious.) When I showed up for rehearsal, I was told that Mr. Clark would be stopping by, and I thought: Why? You’ve got a staff here, Dick- go take a nap on a pile of hundreds. Well, Mr. Clark stopped by: He did a page-one rewrite of the show’s script, crossed out jokes on cue cards and wrote in new ones, rearranged the seating chart, changed two camera angles, and might actually have personally replaced the bulbs on a few of the stage lights. Turns out Dick Clark hated to hire people to do jobs he could do himself, and like me, he never turned down work, even as a very rich, very old man. And although (surprise!) there was no Second Annual DVD Exclusive Awards, it certainly wasn’t for lack of engagement on his part.

No. 59: Married With Children

Just two months before this, Fox aired an episode of Married With Children that sent one Michigan mom on an anti-smut rampage. Terry Rakolta was so offended by the plot of season three episode “Her Cups Runneth Over” that she formed the advocacy group Americans for Responsible Television, which, like the Parents Music Resource Center before it, basically only served to bring more attention to the things it was protesting. The objectionable content of this episode: Al buys a bra for Peggy, and while at the mall, reacts to the off-camera naked breasts of a model. Isn’t that adorable by today’s standards? I think that was the plot of a recent Austin & Ally.

After her Bundy-bashing proved counter-productive, she set her sights on bigger targets, such as … Phil Donahue. Oh, I just want to cup her little face in my hands. In 2014, I like to think she watches FXX all day long with a legal pad, a big glass of Pinot Grigio, and a smile. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

No. 49: Kate & Allie

There are times when I am walking in the West Village in autumn, and I have a strange desire to wear something with a cowl neck and have wry conversations with a close friend. Kate & Allie is why.

No. 48: My Two Dads

Further proof that there was a time before Thought Catalog and Queer Theory programs at major universities: this show, about two former rivals forced to share custody of the daughter of the now-dead woman they once fought over, ran for three seasons and nobody wrote a single think-piece about it. If it were to run today, Greg Evigan would be our Lena Dunham. (His wardrobe alone would launch a thousand Tumblrs.)

Fun fact: This episode, “Together We Stand,” features the early work of a promising young actor named Vonni Ribisi, who would later go on to a respectable career as Giovanni Ribisi, and who would later become one of the leads of another show about two dads, except this one would just be called Dads, and would be so dreary and desperate to shock that Terry Rakolta wouldn’t even waste time on it.

No. 32: Designing Women

In this episode, “The Engagement,” Charlene (Jean Smart) accepts her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, but is hesitant to meet his wealthy family. What are the chances the family treats her horribly, forcing Dixie Carter into a gusty monologue about respect and tolerance? No less than 100 percent, right?

No. 21: The NBC Monday Night Movie: Your Mother Wore Combat Boots

One great, lost element of the network era was the made-for-TV movie, which ate up whole nights of a network’s schedule and served for actors as a way station in between more regular gigs (or in between more regular gigs and the grave). In this one, Barbara Eden plays a plucky, overprotective mom who enlists in the U.S. Army to keep an eye on her son. It’s like Private Benjamin, if Goldie Hawn were 61 years old.

No. 11: The Barbara Walters Special

This particular year’s pre-Oscars Babs-a-thon features Audrey Hepburn, Candice Bergen, and Diana Ross, promoting her new album, Working Overtime (“the kids call it house music or hip-hop”). Somehow, future The View producer Bill Geddie failed to point out that Diana and Barbara are dressed like ketchup and mustard dispensers that have been left in the TV room of some kind of fancy San Diego convalescent home.

No. 1: The 61st Annual Academy Awards

Okay. You know about the Rob Lowe/Snow White duet. But have you seen it in context? I can assure you it makes even less sense in context. A frantic Snow White asking Army Archerd for directions into the Shrine Auditorium, while standing four inches from the wide-open front door of the Shrine Auditorium? A dance number incorporating Hollywood’s oldest superstars, many of whom need assistance walking? A grand finale in which Snow White wears Grauman’s Chinese Theater like a giant, Beach Blanket Babylon-style hat, from which Lily Tomlin emerges? Oh, this opening number has all of that and so much less. (Incidentally, this is the only version of the whole thing I could find online, and it’s taped off of Brazilian television. When the translator comes on to speak to the audience in Portuguese, it’s the most normal thing that happens in the whole 11 minutes.)

And then there’s the song, a deliciously misbegotten reworking of “Proud Mary” whose lyrics advance the strong and vital argument that movies are pleasant. Rob Lowe is clearly aiming for Bruce Springsteen with the affected vocal rasp, and landing among the John Parrs. You’ll want to watch it a second time, just to see the forced smiles on the audience’s faces.

But do you know who has probably come to appreciate the opening number the most? I’ll tell you: the 19 “triple-threaters” of Young Hollywood, whose “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner” number would have made them all the laughingstock of any Snow White-free Oscar ceremony. We didn’t have the power to live-blog such a thing then. Let’s fix that now.

0:08 I want to believe this clip starts right after Walter Matthau calls Bob Hope the C-word.

1:11 This audience looks like they’re in prison.

1:25 Oh snap, Steve Garvey — you just got zung.

2:25 What you are witnessing right now is a lost art called “selling it.”

3:22 Nineteen of the hottest young actors and actresses in pictures? This is 1989, so … River Phoenix? Winona Ryder? Keanu Reeves? Uma Thurman? Wait.

3:45 Listen to the support Lucy gives Bob on that Shirley MacLaine joke! She is straight Morning Zooing it. A pro to the very end. (And I mean very end; she died two months later.)

4:02 This is important. Keep in mind, as you are watching and listening, this song was written by Marvin Hamlisch and Fred Ebb.

4:12 One of the Blair Underwood three-threats is not particularly threatening. See if you can spot which one.

4:28 It’s the singing.

5:20 Fred Ebb wrote “Gee, but it’s great to be an Oscar winner/A super-trouper, super-duper Oscar winner.” Fred Ebb. Who wrote the lyrics to Chicago and “New York, New York.” Was he in a hurry? Was someone triple-threatening his life?

5:22 Oh, look, it’s hot young Hollywood triple-threater Patrick O’Neal Jr., who is not even on IMDb.

5:35 Oh, look, it’s future talk-show host Ricki Lake, who apparently barreled through a Claire’s store like a Katamari ball.

5:38 Tricia Leigh Fisher is related to Joely Fisher (whom we saw earlier) and to Carrie Fisher, in a way that I would have to re-watch Wishful Drinking to get exactly right, and, you know, no.

5:40 Who is the gal with the kicky hair bow and the Madonna top? You won’t believe it. Stay tuned.

5:49 There’s a subtle Michael Jackson influence in Corey Feldman’s performance tonight. See if you pick up on it.

6:21 Patrick Dempsey was in his awkward phase in 1989: McDreamy hair framing a Can’t Buy Me Love face. Like Winston Churchill’s stylist said: If you’re going through personal aesthetic hell, keep going.

7:01 This is the only moment in the whole thing that rings absolutely true: To this day, if you are the black girl in a musical number, you will have to do the gospel breakdown. Even if you are Holly Robinson.

7:28 Mrs. Lowe’s 1989 Christmas newsletter must have been a sobering read.

9:17 They’re saying what we’re all thinking!

9:30 A fantasy dance interlude, like in Singin’ in the Rain, except with the Valley Girl from Square Pegs and a guy whose only film credit on IMDb is “Dirty Dancer” in Dirty Dancing!

10:33 “Sweetheart, you can do it” is among the phrases you are least likely to hear in a sword fight to the death.

10:52 Oh, look, it’s Savion Glover from the hit movie Wait a Minute, When Was Savion Glover in a Movie? How do you think it felt to be Savion Glover watching Patrick Dempsey do that soft-shoe? Probably not unlike how it felt to be Bob Hope and Lucille Ball watching this from stage right.

11:25 Boy, Chad Lowe’s petulant, principled actor character has really come around on the whole idea of whoring, hasn’t he?

11:42 Yes, Midriff Lady is Jan from The Office. And her dance partner was Olivia Newton-John’s husband at the time.

11:55 This is now the second time these kids have assured us they’ll know how to dress for the Oscars, even though they are currently at the Oscars and they are dressed like extras in a Seagram’s Golden Wine Coolers commercial.

12:08 Keith Coogan has spirit, yes he does.

13:01 The audience member pumping his fist is my favorite part of the whole thing. Gotta be Patrick O’Neal Sr., right?

So, there was the show-stopping 1989 “I Want to Be an Oscar Winner” number featuring 19 young Hollywood triple-threaters, 17 of whom stopped being in movies around 1991. You want to be a little nicer to Seth MacFarlane now, don’t you?

Dave Holmes Revisits 1989 TV