Eric Samuelsen on writing about children's television for radio – RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA

Eric Samuelsen  |  Photo credit Adam Finkle

Eric Samuelsen | Photo credit Adam Finkle

Eric Samuelsen has been writing for Plan-B for a decade: seven SLAM plays, two Ibsen translations presented as part of the Script-In-Hand Series (A DOLL HOUSE and GHOSTS) and four world premieres (MIASMA, AMERIGO, BORDERLANDS and NOTHING PERSONAL).  The 2013/14 #SeasonOfEric is fully dedicated to his work.

I am a life-long fan of hard-boiled detective fiction: cynical, world-weary cops and private eyes scratching out a living in a tough-as-nails urban environment.  Carroll John Daly started the genre in the 20’s, handed it over to Dashiell Hammett, and on to Raymond Chandler.  But I first encountered it in two writers who I couldn’t get enough of, growing up: Elmore Leonard and Donald E. Westlake.  And Westlake was my favorite of the two.

I especially loved Westlake’s Dortmunder novels.  Over the course of fourteen novels, I followed the adventures of John Dortmunder, a small-town New York crook, who was a brilliant planner of capers, but plagued with bad luck.  His gang always included Kelp (who got the stuff they needed) and Murch (the driver), and often included a motley group of sidekicks, including strong man Tiny Bulcher, Judson (the Kid) Blint (utility infielder), Arnie Albright (the fence), and Rollo the Bartender, who ran the OJ Bar just off Amsterdam Avenue, with the back room where all their jobs were planned.  The Dortmunder gang never got caught, but they never made much money either, mostly coming away with about the same scratch they would have had if they’d had honest jobs.

I loved everything about these novels.  I loved the wry and cynical commentary on New York life, the amoral world of crooks and victims, the carefully planned jobs and the almost miraculous ill fortune that derailed them.  I also grew to love the language of the characters, the pitch-perfect ear Westlake had for hard-boiled diction.  Plus, they were just laugh-out-loud funny.

I always wanted to see if I could capture at least something of their language and attitude in a play, and I began fooling around with various ideas. But then, flipping through the channels one day, I found an episode of Barney.  Okay, so, when my oldest son was tiny, he absolutely loved a video called “Barney’s Sing-Along Adventure.”  It was colorful, moved fast, had lots of songs, and was absolutely the only thing on earth that could get my son to nap, and so I got to watch it fourteen billion times, developing along the way a loathing for Barney that will outlive the sun.  So, accidently re-exposed to (shudder) “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family,” I started to imagine the horrible, horrible people who wrote Barney.  On Youtube, I’m not kidding, you can find a video where you can watch Barney singing “I love you” fifteen times back to back. I thought that was prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

Anyway, I began to think  of these people, characters from a Dortmunder novel, writing for a children’s television show like Barney.  But I thought maybe it should be, not Barney, but something even worse, even more treacly and awful.  Something with fairies, I thought, and then it came to me: Fairyana.  Three cynical, alcoholic, misanthropic people writing a children’s television program even worse than Barney.  With a main character even more unbearable.  Really, the whole thing came to me in a flash—Max, Stan and Viv, writing for Princess Amber, interacting with Snoogums.  Boom.  RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA was born.

RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA  |  Photo credit Rick Pollock

RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA | Photo credit Rick Pollock

It was so fun to write.  I was writing characters out of Scorcese movies, out of Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but without the F-bombs, onnacounta, you know, for kids.  I exaggerated for comic effect. Max is the kind of guy who can’t say “I need to get a bicycle.”  Instead it’s “I need to get one of them bicycle-type deals.”   Stan, the untalented hypochondriac.  And Viv, the broad with the heart of gold, in a loser relationship, but also with a tattered sense of honor.

And the play (and eventually, the radio version of it), has a serious point to make.  Children need to know about villains.  They’ll learn, soon enough, about bullies—they need to be prepared.  I remember what a shock it was as a kid, to discover that grown-ups weren’t all looking out for my best interests, that some grown-ups were mean on purpose.  That there was a grown-up world and a kid world, and while the grown-up world cared about me sometimes, it was also obsessed with other things, like mortgages and car repairs.  And that kid world was scarier, a violent and dangerous place, but also alluring-because-forbidden, one you didn’t dare betray, but one that could, and would, do you harm.

In grade school, I was a member of the school Safety Patrol.  We wore a white and red sash, and walked around the playground at recess looking for kids who were breaking the rules, who we were supposed to turn in to the authorities.  Although I was never dumb enough to turn anyone in, I learned, soon enough, that the coded meaning of the Safety Patrol sash was ‘beat this kid up.  Often and relentlessly.  He’s a fink, a narc, a rat.  Beat him.’  But I also couldn’t not wear the damned thing—my Mom was so proud of me.  Her son, on the Safety Patrol!  My first conscious Catch-22.

The meaning of Snoogums is that villains are cute and cuddly.  Because we don’t want to frighten children, we tell them that the world is basically benevolent and safe.  It’s a lie, a vile and vicious lie, and a lie that’s damaging to children.  Children need to be told the truth—that life can be tough and violent and mean and damaging.  I mean, look at Barney.  He’s snuggly and cuddly and loves everyone.  And he’s a dinosaur.  A T-Rex!  A predator!  As Calvin and Hobbes once pointed out: “Barney should be eating more of those kids.”

Growing up in Indiana, WTTV, a local independent station, showed IU basketball, lots of cartoons, and Sammy Terry.  Sammy Terry wore ghost-y make-up and hosted a midnight horror movie show.  I wasn’t allowed to watch it; too scary.  But from time to time a lenient baby-sitter would let us stay up, and I was completely entranced.  I grew to love schlocky horror flicks, and I think in some respects they were healthier for me than the wholesome-and-educational fare my Mom would have preferred.

I liked disreputable movies, and also loved disreputable fiction, especially Westlake, where crooks were decent enough joes, who made you want to root for them.  I found I liked reading stuff that I wasn’t supposed to read.  That it was good for me.

RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA is a fantasy, of course.  I don’t know anyone who writes for children’s television, but I’m sure they’re estimable and virtuous folks, even the lady who wrote Barney.  I don’t think they’re all cynical or alcoholic.  (And above all, FAIRYANA must not be understood as an attack on Mr. Rogers. Fred Rogers is a saint.)  Mostly, I was trying to be funny.  But I do think the radio show says something that may be of value.  Maybe we should rethink cute and cuddly.  And Christmas.  Maybe we should re-think that too.

Plan-B Theatre’s #SeasonOfEric continues with Eric Samuelsen’s RADIO HOUR EPISODE 8: FAIRYANA – featuring Dave Evanoff, Michael Johnson, Jay Perry, Eric Robinette, Teresa Sanderson and Jason Tatom, directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff – on Tuesday, December 3 at 7pm in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner.  Also broadcast live on KUER’s RadioWest – you are literally the live studio audience.  Click here for tickets and more info.

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