Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bad TV not For My Kid

Before my son was born, I made a vow to myself that I’d only let him watch “good” TV. Shows with singing octopuses or barnyard characters that talk like babies would be off limits. I didn’t want my son to act like a girl or grow up talking like a baby. He’s a boy. He has to grow to be a tough man. That’s what I was taught, and that’s what I’d teach my son.

To explain how serious I was about this viewpoint on television content, I’d like to recall my son’s first birthday. He received several “bad” TV shows on DVD as gifts. I gave the disks to his friends, as I did not want my son watching “bad” TV. My son was sad, but I figured he’d thank me for it later in life.

I introduced my son to “good” TV from the start, showing him the classics like the old Looney Tunes cartoons. Ah, that’s entertainment. But ever since going to school, my son has been finding out about “bad” TV. His friends talk about “bad” TV shows and characters from those shows. His teachers have even played some of those shows for the class. And now my son wants to watch that stuff on TV at home.

And while I want my son to grow up to be a man, I don’t want to be cruel to him, and I certainly don’t want to alienate myself from him, either. So when the boy asked if he could watch “Oswald,” who happens to be a singing octopus, I gave in and said I’d watch it with him.

And then I saw what happened to my son when he watched the show. He loved it. Fear hit me harder than a knuckle sandwich. What if the show is actually “good?” That would be horrible. Either way, I wouldn’t let myself find out. (I didn’t really watch the show.)

But as soon as I made that decision, that’s when my eyes betrayed me, sneaking peeks at the blue octopus singing on television. And once my eyes got a glimpse of the program, that’s when my brain betrayed me and got emotionally invested.

I felt like a diabetic succumbing to his “no sugar” diet, devouring chocolate like that kid Augustus Gloop in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” I actually really enjoyed the show.

And then I wanted more. I started watching all the “bad” TV available on those “bad” TV stations. I got so hooked on the shows that I found myself watching them without my son in the room.

I made a vow to myself that I’d never tell a soul that I actually watched and, worse, enjoyed those “bad” TV shows. I’m a man. I have to be tough. I can’t be watching chickens and bunnies saving the world. But some of these programs have good stories about teamwork and moral dilemmas. And I have to admit, there were several instances where I was on the edge of my seat due to the gripping drama presented.

My son is now 4 years old, and he and I continue to watch the same shows on TV. And we love them. He’s agreed not to tell anyone that his dad enjoys the programs as much as he does.

The other day at karate class, I sat outside the studio with many other parents to watch our kids practice martial arts. I noticed that several mothers were talking about children’s TV programming. I became very interested when they brought up one of the shows I watch called “Oswald.” They made fun of the show, saying that it’s so silly because most of the characters never work a job but always seem to have money to buy things like ice cream. These mothers were breaking the show into pieces with some of the harshest criticism I’d ever heard.

I was irritated since most of these mothers probably watch soap operas where grease monkeys on the show look cleaner and are more made up than most people at weddings. These mothers were criticizing "Oswald,” yet their soap opera women always seem to be dressed for the prince’s ball, with nowhere to go except their girlfriend’s house to dish out dirt on other characters in the show. (It’s always amazing to me how many of these women in these programs show up to places with nothing in their hands. No purse in hand, and clothes that couldn’t possibly accommodate a set of car keys. Yeah, that’s realistic.)

I couldn’t let these soap-opera-watchers bash my favorite TV shows, especially “Oswald.” So I sucked up my pride and defended the singing octopus and his cartoon friends. The women were surprised that I watched such programs. But I didn’t care.

Ever since then, I’ve been proud to say that I love children’s TV programming. I’ve even got an “Oswald” T-shirt to prove it.

-April 2008

To Hit or Not to Hit

My wife and I are parents of a 4-year-old boy, and we’re faced with the duty to discipline him.

Some parents spank their kids to discipline them. Some won’t even yell at their children. My parents put the fear of God in us kids the same way “Jaws” director Steven Spielberg made his audience fear the shark in the movie; not seeing the danger and imaging it is often more terrifying than the danger itself.

The shark in my childhood home came in the form of a wooden spoon. I’m of Italian heritage, and one of the heirlooms Italian women pass down through the generations is the wooden spoon. Once the oldest child (male or female) of the family marries and reproduces, the woman (or the man’s wife) inherits the wooden spoon so that she can make the family sauce. And so that she can use the instrument to beat the tar out of her kids if they get out of line.

My siblings and I knew of the dreaded wooden spoon. We’d heard the stories of how it temporarily crippled our aunts. So we stayed in line so that we wouldn’t have to see the thing -- except on Sundays when Mom was making the sauce.

And while Mom occasionally threatened us kids with the wooden spoon, we eventually learned that we would have to commit murder before she’d ever take it out. Mom was somewhat lenient.

When my younger brother and I were over at friend’s house playing and it was time to come home, my mother would call us on the phone and tell us to come home right away. That meant that my brother and I had another half hour to an hour to get home before she’d threaten to hit us with the wooden spoon, at which point we’d promptly respond to her request.

Dad didn’t need to threaten to hit us with the wooden spoon, and we always immediately responded to his requests the first time around. When my father wanted us home, he’d walk all of two steps out the front door onto the porch and whistle for us, even if we were on the other side of town. If we weren’t home in time to shut the door behind him as he walked back into the house following his whistle, he’d kill us, plain and simple. We always made it home to shut the door for Dad.

My father let us kids know when he was unhappy with our behavior -- without saying a word. Like the silent gun fighters in those old spaghetti western movies, you’d know from a look or slight gesture that you were going to die if you pushed your limits. We never pushed our limits with Dad.

Today, my son is beginning to test his limits, and push them as far as he can. As a means to combat that kind of behavior, my wife has my family’s wooden spoon and the recipe to threaten the boy, and I’ve adopted my father’s secrets to scare the living daylights out of him without laying a hand on him. And it all works. Our son stays in line.

And then came last week, when my son was misbehaving over at a friend’s house. The adults in the house called to tell me what he was doing wrong. Over the phone, I couldn’t give the boy that look that usually makes him get back in line. I felt somewhat handicapped.

As an Italian-American, who can’t even communicate without using hand gestures, trying to discipline my son over the phone was like trying to play a videocassette in a DVD player. I even tried threatening the boy with the wooden spoon. He wasn’t flinching. He knew I couldn’t do anything to him over the phone.

I felt like I had failed as a parent. To this day, I would never defy my father -- even over the phone -- and here’s my son, only 4 years old, and he called my bluff.

Obviously it’s against the law to kill my son for bad behavior. But there’s nothing that says I can’t put him up for auction on eBay.

-April 2008

My Son the Comedian

Some fathers teach their sons how to play baseball, with big dreams that their boys will play in the major leagues. My 4-year-old son doesn’t want to play baseball. He says he wants to be funny. So last weekend, I decided I’d take him to a stand-up comedy club.

I logged onto and found perhaps one of the funniest comedians on the comedy circuit today, New Jersey’s Bad Boy of Comedy, Mike Marino. I wrote him an e-mail and told him my son wants to be a comedian, and then I asked if he had any advice for him. (My son is, in fact, pretty darn funny. But he’d need to do his homework if he was going to compete with the talent currently out there.)

Within a day or two, Marino emailed me back and said he’d get us into one of his upcoming shows. There he’d introduce my boy to the world of comedy. My son was very excited.

The bar was packed when my son and I arrived. While waiting for Marino to go on stage, the two of us ordered some cocktails. I got a Roy Rogers and my son got a Shirley Temple.

Some fathers play catch with their sons. My son and I were sipping drinks, eagerly anticipating the show that night, and discussing the standup comedy club surroundings.

“That big man over by the door -- the man the size and build of an M4 Sherman tank -- he’s called a bouncer,” I told my son. I went into all the details of a bouncer’s position, the same way some fathers might explain the position of a baseball catcher or pitcher. And I did the same with all the other positions in a comedy club so that my son would know all the comedy field’s players.

During the conversation, Marino found us and came over to our table to say hello before he went on stage. He told us about how he got into stand-up comedy, what it takes to become a comedian, and how he used his comedy talent to get into the movie biz. Before Marino left our table, I got him to sign my son’s toy microphone -- the microphone I bought him to use for his comedy routines (in place of the catcher’s mitt I would’ve bought him had he been interested in baseball).

The show finally started, but we had to sit through a few other comedians’ acts before Marino was on. My son couldn’t wait to see Marino perform, as I’d shown him a few of Marino’s video clips on My son was anxious to see him in person. My boy loves Marino’s bit about an Italian from Jersey as president of the United States, ending the war by sending two guys from the neighborhood overseas to whack Osama bin Laden with a baseball bat.

And speaking of baseball, had my son been interested in the sport, the two of us would’ve been sleeping at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, getting in a good night’s rest before waking up early for a Sunday morning game. Instead, we were spending a boys’ night out at the club talking about the delicate use of the “F” word in a comedy routine. I told my son that he couldn’t use the word at all in his routines until he was old enough. I think he understood.

After the show, Marino came back to our table and talked about comic timing, how set-ups relate to punch lines, and so on. My son took it all in. I think he’s got the stuff that comedians are made of. Marino agreed.

Yes, I’m the proud father of a 4-year-old kid with a future in stand-up comedy. Last weekend, my son hosted his first open mike routine at our house to a sold-out garage. All the neighbors were in attendance.

Afterward, everyone went to Lampost Pizza and celebrated my son’s successful routine. (We had to share the place with a youth baseball team that won their first game.) And that’s when I woke up, realizing it had all been a weird dream.

But was it? Shortly after waking up, I found a Mike Marino autographed microphone in my son’s bedroom.

-April 2008