Friday, May 1, 2015

Remember Every Day of Your Life? Forget About It

Are these smart people, people with good memories, or both?

Barbra Streisand only had it half right. 

Memories do indeed light the corners of your mind, but they can drive you crazy, too. We all have those moments of wondering why we remember our sixth-grade best friend’s phone number but can’t remember what we did yesterday. 

And then there are those who remember everything. And I mean everything. 

A 2010 film, “Unforgettable,” documents a man from La Crosse, Wisconsin, who has been dubbed “The Human Google” by his uncanny memory of his own life. Brad Williams has been diagnosed with the rare hyperthymesia, also known as superior autobiographical  memory. Marilu Henner of “Taxi” fame has a similar kind of memory and she appeared with Williams on a “60 Minutes” story about the topic. Only 20-some people in the world have been found to have this ability.

The film is on Wisconsin Public Television on Friday, May 1. 

There are probably those who are amazed by that, in a good way. I can’t think of anything more horrible than remembering every day of my life. 

To some extent, I speak from experience. While my life has been far from tragic, no one has good things happen to them all the time. And it’s only in recent years that I realized that I have a really good memory – though nothing like Brad Williams or Marilu Henner - which I both treasure and curse.

“You’re the one who can’t get Alzheimer’s,” said a friend who herself worries about dementia because of a family history. “You’re the one who remembers everything.”

For most of my life, I thought memory was this thing we are all born with like an arm or a leg. And that, like other body parts, it might get beat up or worn out but everyone’s basic raw materials were always the same. Then I  grew up and lived most of my adult life in other places, where the memories I shared with friends didn’t go back very far. 

And I worked in newsrooms, which are filled with people with spectacular memories. Brad Williams himself is a radio news host. I learned my craft from people who were encyclopedias, some of whom unfortunately took important reference material to the grave because they never bothered to write it down. 

I, and my memory, fit right in with those folks. We all thought we could kick butt on “Jeopardy,” though it’s hard to know if those contestants are actually smart or just have spectacular memories or a combination of both.

As the years went on, I seemingly had a better memory than my non-newspaper friends about things we did over the years. But let’s just say there are particular things they did that I didn’t that might have clouded their memories as these events were originally happening. 

Then I moved back to where I grew up. Suddenly I was continually sitting in rooms of people who were there at the very same time things happened when we were little kids, and had no idea what I was talking about. The storyteller in me loved this – I had a whole new audience for tales they had no memory of.

I often wondered if maybe I just made that stuff up, but then I found others in my family who had the same memory. It made me realize that memory isn’t like an arm or a leg – it’s like a birthmark, everyone has one and they’re all different. Eventually I realized that my youngest brother and a few older cousins also have these good, detailed memories, and that because of the age difference between us all we could be like the old griot in “Roots” and tell the oral history of our generation of the family.

That’s the good part. The rest? Do you really want to remember every slight you experienced in life? Because the actual memory isn’t the only thing there like a movie playing in your head, so are the feelings that went with it. They clog my mind in ways that still sting a little, but mostly as an irritant because I’d rather remember where my garage keys are. 

Yes, boy in kindergarten, I’m still kind of ticked that you told Mrs. Jabs that I was up and wandering the classroom while she was out of the room when the truth was I was the last to sit down and there were actually no chairs left in the room.  No, boy in third grade, I’m not still mad at you for saying to once-skinny me, “Don’t you eat?” I’m still intrigued by the memory of a mean thing a girl did to me in kindergarten and how, in retrospect, it was already the pattern for the mean girl she remained.

I used to test my memory, too, when I was a kid. I’d take random moments to say, “OK, I’m just going to remember what I am doing right now and see if I can remember it for the rest of my life.” So the memory of me getting a drink from the bubbler in fourth grade while wearing a green polyester pantsuit remains. 

But jeez, where did I put my library card? 

Yet memory can be a beautiful thing, too. I remember my brothers’ first steps and words (sorry, Mom, they began with a “D.”) I remember the beautiful indigo color my favorite blue corduroy coat turned under the street lights when my family walked to church on a snowy Christmas Eve when I was about 4 years old. I remember the touch of my uncle’s hand as he held my chin and stroked my cheek at my grandpa’s wake. Remembering old locker combinations and other details from youth helps create good Internet passwords, so there’s that too.

I’m lucky. I’m not harboring evil memories that hound me. Just this odd documentary of my life that pops up in the strangest ways sometimes, randomly edited and maybe with an R rating for language. 

Too bad there are no outtakes that can appear on a DVD. Because then someone else could watch and tell me where my garage keys are.

Friday, February 13, 2015

40 Years Ago, 'SNL' Changed Late Night Forever

The original cast of "Saturday Night Live": nobodies who became legends. (NBC photo)

As much as "Saturday Night Live" has been in the popular culture for 40 years, which is being celebrated this weekend, it wasn't until 2006 until the first season was released on DVD. This, a look back at that first season almost 30 years later, first appeared in The Capital Times (Madison, Wis.) in December 2006.


The beginning came quietly enough, a call and response between a soft-spoken professorial type helping an immigrant with his English: 

    Repeat after me. I would like ...

    I wood like ...

    To feed your fingertips ...

    To feed yur fingerteeps ...

    To the wolverines.

    To dee wolver-eens.

And so it began on a TV Saturday night in October 1975, a bit of a different look for anyone who was looking for the Johnny Carson rerun that used to fill that spot. By the time that professor clutched his chest and collapsed of a heart attack, followed onto the floor by the immigrant who was told to mimic his teacher, late-night television had changed forever. 

Or at least it was on its way. 

For the first time, fans of "Saturday Night Live" can see the first season in its entirety with a new eight-DVD boxed set release of the original 24 episodes. Each episode is intact, including musical guests. 

Various versions of the 32-year-old sketch show have been available for years (come on, isn't "The Best of Chris Kattan" on everybody's Christmas list?). Cable reruns have chopped them up for decades, yet these DVDs are the first time in a long time anyone has seen the originals from beginning to end.

And for many Madisonians, it might be the first time many people have seen them, period. The local NBC affiliate, Channel 15, didn't carry the show until Feb. 14, 1976, opting to stick with its killer lineup of "Space: 1999" and "The Midnight Special." 

NBC affiliates in Milwaukee and Rockford carried it, though, and depending how good of an antenna a TV had, many people could watch it on those channels. School conversations on Monday centered around what happened on "Saturday Night" and not just Saturday night, told for the benefit of those whose TV wasn't good enough to tune in. I remember my sisters and I scurrying to nab the baby-sitting jobs in the homes that got a clear signal from Rockford so we could be sure to tune in. (And these people thought we loved their children. ...)

What didn't air here was a work in progress, and watching the DVDs doesn't so much solidify the "it used to be so much better" camp as chart the show's evolution.

That first episode, airing on Oct. 11, 1975, was nothing like the show that became iconic. For starters, it was called "Saturday Night" because Howard Cosell had a show called "Saturday Night Live" over on ABC.

George Carlin hosted the NBC version, and the first 30 minutes of the show included two of his four monologues, Weekend Update, the Muppets and two musical acts. Billy Preston and Janis Ian performed on the first show (because, really, nothing gets a party going like Ian's "At Seventeen"). 

Andy Kaufman was sweet and surreal, a world away from the obnoxious presence that led to viewers voting him off the show years later. The cast was barely acknowledged, introduced by announcer Don Pardo as "The Not For Ready Prime Time Players."

It didn't improve much the second week, which was more or less "The Paul Simon Show." He opened with a song, did some more songs with Art Garfunkel, later Randy Newman and Phoebe Snow did some songs, 10 in all in the show.

To think of "Saturday Night Live" at anytime in its history is to think of a certain format. So it's so surprising to see the early episodes and realize the format wasn't there. There was Weekend Update and a vaguely amusing opening monologue, and there were Bees. But all in all, it was a shadow of what it would become.

By the fourth week, things started to kick in. I have no idea what Candice Bergen was famous for in 1975, but she was the first host who clearly was not the star of the show. She was part of it, not the center of it, and the cast came alive around her. By the time John Belushi started riffing on Ray Charles while dressed as Beethoven, the show picked up a steam it wouldn't lose again for five years.

In finding a format of recurring characters and catch phrases, the show wasn't as revolutionary as it seemed. Yet the cast, which earned its tag as "The Beatles of Comedy," endures as a versatile troupe of performers. They did it all, a mere seven of them compared to the cast in recent years that seemingly required the show's first 10 minutes just to introduce.

The biggest impact was commercial; the show helped NBC find that younger viewers indeed were a powerful demographic, a demographic every media company has knocked itself out trying to reach ever since.

But was it better? Little things stand out to answer yes, including a raucous performance by the rarely seen Patti Smith Group, the utter delight of watching Gilda Radner, the brilliant danger of John Belushi and topical humor that few would have the nerve to try on network TV today. (The Richard Pryor episode oozes with it.)

Other things stand out to answer no, including painfully boring films by Albert Brooks and the mystery of why Chevy Chase was the show's first big star.

So watch it for a time capsule or watch it to ride a nostalgic wave. Just watch it and remember there was a time when nobody bothered to put anything decent on TV after 10:30 on a Saturday night. 

Generations of baby-sitters remain eternally grateful.