Feb 27, 2018
Ultimate Nostalgia Act: Let’s Revive This Long-Forgotten Paul Provenza Sitcom, For No Good Reason
Rifle through the VHS bins at your local Salvation Army and absorb the contents. Look at the myriad copies of Jurassic Park that will never be purchased, even if America stands another thousand years. Look at the homemade tapes with labels like “CADDYSHACK TV VERSION + OLD COMMERCIALS.” Look at the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that film historians once considered lost and are never mentioned save in one thread on a South American message board. Consider that pop culture was readily discarded until the internet, with its preservation fetish, reached ubiquity. There’s something evocative about that VHS bin, isn’t there? Something ethereal. For all you know, here lie the last remaining copies of these Jean-Claude Van Damme films, and you are in the unique position to save them from the purgatory of this dusty shelf.
In the digital age, any pop culture relics requiring manual preservation possess this evocative quality, and filmmakers and artists are starting to capitalize on it. Winnebago Man, Everything is Terrible and the Found Footage Festival, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, and the internet’s ongoing fascination with the Max Headroom Incident – these all rely on the mysterious and spooky qualities of pop culture that is of sufficient age to predate YouTube and torrent sites. An exercise video that was merely useless in 1988 can be confused with outsider art when you find it in 2013 at a Porterville thrift shop or a Nebraska yard sale. Why did it survive?
Horse_ebooks played right into this aesthetic: pop culture (in this case spam) as cosmic white noise, preserved seemingly at random. And Reddit lost its mind when they discovered Nickelodeon outright erased a film it produced and aired on Halloween, 2000 (Cry Baby Lane). Here was a scary children’s movie co-starring Jim Gaffigan, made interesting strictly because, like most pop culture, it was simply thrown away. If it still existed, it could only be on a homemade VHS tape lurking in a long-abandoned Midwest entertainment cabinet.
The time is right for this aesthetic to go mainstream. Here we have the basis for a great avant-garde art project disguised as a TV show just waiting to be made. Remember how Arrested Development came back after 6 years? Remember how insane that was? How entertaining it was just to see a show find its footing after going off the air for so long? Let’s do Mitch Hurwitz one better and pick up a canceled show where it left off 25 years ago, then pitch it to IFC (or whoever courts an artsy crowd). We must find a show that doesn’t exist anymore really, and if it does, it only exists in that Porterville thrift shop, on a tape labeled “Dave’s BBQ + Miscellaneous ABC Shows 86-89.”
I have a few criteria for what sort of show needs to be un-canceled to capture that appropriately spooky, analogue ambience. First, it cannot be a show anybody remembers. Further, it must contain no particularly famous actors. And it absolutely must have been canceled in its first season before the back nine.
The first show I considered was 1988’s Hard Time on Planet Earth. But this is far too easy. It’s an ultra-dated science fiction show, it’s fantastically unwatchable, and the credit sequence is already the sort of mescaline-addled fever dream that would kill at the Found Footage Festival.
Any show we re-launch with an arthouse ulterior motive must be completely forgotten. Fifty thousand views for the credit sequence is far too much. So I finally decided on 1987’s Pursuit of Happiness. What is this show? It’s nothing. It’s an anonymous workplace sitcom, rightly erased from history, and its Wikipedia contains virtually no information beyond TV Guide plot synopses. This is our winner. The one clip I found had only 562 views and looked like something that would be brought up as evidence at a trial in the third act of a really “experimental” David Lynch film.
It’s a show about a history professor (Paul Provenza) who gets a job at a small college in Philadelphia. It is 30 minutes long, and ostensibly a comedy. That is all we know. It is nothingness.
So this is the perfect show to bring back to television as an homage to the VHS era, to the thrift stores and Midwest entertainment cabinets. How do we do it? We do it with authenticity, and we pitch it that way. We are not rebooting the show and we are not modernizing it. To do this, we need as much of the original cast and crew as possible. We will apologize for taking 25 years off after episode 10 and get back to work. It will make for amazing television if done correctly; stilted, alien, and utterly divorced from the zeitgeist.
The Portlandia crowd at IFC is ready for a project like this. Get Penelope Spheeris in on the meetings. Somebody who understands the alienation of vintage bad television, the voyeuristic quality of old VHS tapes at a secondhand shop, and has the punk rock credibility and leverage to force this onto television for a few episodes.
Naturally, this cannot be advertised in any conventional sense. The whole idea is too abjectly alienating. People have to discover it on their own. If it has to be advertised, the spots must also look like outsider art. Do a 30-second spot, run through a few layers of tape decay, of Carrie Brownstein simply watching the one circulating clip of the show. No noise. At the end of the ad, styled after the famous “Captain Midnight” message, display the words “MIDNIGHT SATURDAY.”
Once financial backing is in place, the show must be produced exactly as it was in 1987. The sets must be historically accurate and the stories un-knowing, with no winking to our postmodern audience of liberal arts majors.
There will be road blocks. First, preserving continuity will be difficult. This show is gone. We don’t really know where it ended. History tells us the best we’ll be able to do is find a 90-year-old publicist in Valley Village who has maybe half of one episode that was taped for a client. If there are surviving network copies of the show, they’re probably deep underground in that Kansas salt mine where the Johnny Carson tapes are buried, and they won’t get them for you no matter who you are.
So we’ll have to go to IMDB and hope a user knows more. I went there and discovered there is one man who, as of 2002, is looking for tapes of the show. He lives in Irving, Texas. We will need to send a research team to Texas and interview him. Of course, he won’t have the tapes either because this show never made it to syndication, but we can make him tell us all he remembers of the characters and stories. This will give us the show’s new canon and if we bring a camera crew we’ll probably get a fine indie documentary out of the journey. It will also give us artistic credibility, as that kind of stubborn commitment is what defines great modern art.
As for what Pursuit of Happiness 2013 will look like, well, that’s the easy part. All we have to do is keep it ABC-in-1987 faithful. No iPhones. No jokes about the internet. Nothing whatsoever that can place our new episodes in 2013. We must thoroughly reject modernity.
Luckily, Paul Provenza has been on Marc Maron’s podcast, so he’d know exactly what’s going on here and hit all his beats correctly as an actor, with no winking at the audience.
Unfortunately, his co-star, Brian Keith, died 16 years ago. That’s not a problem really. It’s just our story for episode 11. Keith played Provenza’s boss. Presumably a stuffy dean. And he had a daughter who played Provenza’s love interest. There’s our story.
We cast a new dean, somebody who would realistically get such a part in 1987 (Charles Grodin). Then Provenza is promoted and things start moving too quickly with the dean’s daughter, who is too clingy following her father’s death or whatever. Over the course of the episode, ill at ease with their new positions in life, they drift apart and then reconcile for the usual 1980s sitcom reasons. Close on the characters embracing while we play a song as mysterious, awful and obscure as Pursuit of Happiness. (I know some Swedish DJs recently found out who plays this song. But for over two decades it was a total mystery.)
And there we have it. An avant-garde art installation disguised as a forgotten sitcom.