[Article and illustration from Lowbrow Reader #10, 2017]
When I hit my late teens, like so many before me, I began to navigate my place in the world entirely through my relation to rock music. I had no aspirations to play music myself—I was just an eager listener. Having arrived at college with a CD collection that fit comfortably into a shoebox, I burned with a fervor unique to fresh converts. I was, without a doubt, incredibly annoying.
Of all the noise to which I bowed—new and old, black and white, famous and obscure—the mightiest was that made by the Velvet Underground. This was the sound of cool; alongside it, all but Dylan seemed dopey and compromised. Nothing on a museum wall could match the band’s artistic purity. Lou Reed and the Velvets existed in a bona fide and long-vanished underground encompassing vanguard art, edgy literature, and fabulous sunglasses. Falling under their spell seemed akin to being a character in a science fiction story who suddenly gains use of his full brain capacity.
In critical consensus, the great Velvet Underground albums are the band’s Warhol-immersed debut and its ravishing third album. Yet the record to which I gravitated was the group’s deranged second LP, White Light/White Heat, from 1968. The album was produced by the visionary Tom Wilson, who also recorded my favorite Dylan LP and, in the ’50s, had introduced planet earth to Sun Ra; it was the last VU album to feature John Cale. White Light/White Heat traffics in bedlam and pledges allegiance to no one, ultimately tumbling into the madness and joy of “Sister Ray.”
“Sister Ray” is the album’s 17-minute show stopper—but the song that unsettled me was “The Gift,” perhaps its most maligned track. “The Gift” features a sluggish, sloppy instrumental, over which Cale passively recites a short story in his exotic Welsh brogue. Written by Reed, it tells of the unfortunate Waldo Jeffers, who, short on funds to visit his girlfriend in Wisconsin—and dubious of her faithfulness—packages himself in a large box and mails himself to her. Most disconcerting was the contrast between the abrasive music and the conversational rhythms of Reed’s story, particularly the dialogue between the girlfriend, Marsha Bronson, and her yenta friend, Sheila Klein. “Ugh, God, it’s from Waldo,” Marsha groans upon receiving the package. “That schmuck!” Sheila responds. Years earlier, at sleep-away camp in northern Wisconsin, I borrowed a bunkmate’s N.W.A. tape and was floored to discover that it was permissible to curse on a record. “The Gift,” more bitingly, marked the first time that I heard the word “schmuck” employed in a song. It was like listening to members of my family yammering over discordant rock music.
At 20, I moved to London for a term abroad, at Goldsmiths College. The semester marked a painful separation from my burgeoning record collection. So I was cheered to discover, tucked away in the college’s shabby library, a reliably vacant room stocked with turntables and a bizarrely hip assortment of LPs, including work by the Velvets and several solo albums by Reed and Cale. (Years later, while interviewing Cale, I learned why: Before landing in New York, he had studied at Goldsmiths.) I devoured the records. Spinning White Light/White Heat—loudly, on headphones, in the middle of a library—proved strangely heartwarming. The music connected me to my college-radio friends back in Boston, while the kvetching of Marsha and Sheila in the lyrics evoked my family in Chicago. When people speak of the majesty of art, especially that existing along the margins, I think of sitting in the Goldsmiths library listening to “The Gift.” In my loneliness, I was aligned with fellow travelers an ocean away.
Coming of age in the privileged domain, some of the most uncanny moments are those spent at home between stints of adulthood: the Benjamin Braddock intermission. Returned from London to suburban Chicago, I skulked around my parents’ house, unsure if I belonged to the far-out milieu of the Velvet Underground or to the John Hughes reverie that surrounded me. By day, I taught tennis to little kids; at night, I dined with my parents. Contact with contemporaries was negligible. Although drugs were never my bag, I watched television with the devoutness of a first-class stoner. The world depicted on TV, years before the medium gained its current (and overstated) cachet, seemed beneath that which I had been experiencing through records. I viewed from a snob’s perch, laughing my head off at the slightest hint of camp, a cackling victim of the network overlords in an age before program curation.
And so it was that I found myself watching Family Matters, the ’90s sitcom remembered almost entirely for its accidental star, Steve Urkel. The episode opened with a hoary sitcom trope, prevalent in shows about African-American families: A middle-age couple sits in their living room eagerly preparing for a night of romance—oohed by the studio audience—only to be interrupted by their offspring. I was hooked! A plot quickly unspooled. The teenage daughter is headed to Nebraska for a cheerleading competition, staying in the same hotel as her pretty-boy suitor. Urkel—a stalker in suspenders—makes it his duty to follow them to Nebraska, at one point concealing himself in a room-service cart so that he can spy on his crush and ensure her purity.
But it was the episode’s B-plot that made me jump out of my skin. The show’s doofus character—named Waldo, like the character in the Velvet Underground song—hopes to visit his girlfriend at the cheerleading competition, but lacks the funds to get to Nebraska. And so, just as in Lou Reed’s story, he packages himself in a large cardboard box and attempts to mail himself there. Astonishing! The disparate universes had crossed!
The two Waldos suffer different fates: In “The Gift,” the character is killed when Sheila Klein, unaware that Waldo is hiding inside, opens the box with a knife; the sitcom Waldo is too inept to correctly address the package. Yet such details seemed trifling. The facts were unequivocal: Family Matters was paying homage to the Velvet Underground.
I leapt from my parents’ couch, unsure what to do with myself, then simply stood, staring at the TV, a dumbfounded maniac. In far-off Los Angeles, some subversive had slipped a hint of underground cool into that which was hopelessly square. Urkel himself may as well have stared into the camera and flashed me a knowing wink. The moment seemed strangely religious, a scene ripped from Pynchon. The world felt crooked and alive.
In 2004, nearing the midpoint of my decade of toil at Time Out New York, I interviewed Al Franken at his Upper West Side apartment. The interview was one of the music section’s “jukebox juries,” in which a writer played a series of songs for a subject, recording his or her comments for a concise Q&A. Through the distorted lens of memory, I recall spending the bulk of my twenties schlepping unwieldy bags of compact discs around Manhattan, traipsing to the hotel suites of touring musicians. The interviews were always a breeze, and brought me to artists whom, otherwise, I never would have encountered: Slash, Ray Davies, Sporty Spice, and Franken, the rare comedian.
At the time, Franken was a newly anointed hero of the left, his famous confrontation with the oafish Bill O’Reilly having occurred the previous year. Still, the thought that by decade’s end he would be elected to the United States Senate—representing Minnesota, no less—would have struck me as bananas. He still seemed a figure from the realm of comedy, albeit one sprouting political fangs.
Franken lived on Riverside Drive with a small wife and a big dog. The comedian greeted me at his door while restraining the latter, a slobbering beast named Kirby, the ruler of the house. The Frankens had been eating leftover ribs, and the future senator was picking meat from his teeth. I liked him immediately. He had a brusqueness often encountered in New Yorkers of his era, especially evident in early Saturday Night Live hands such as Franken, their porcupine skins shielding them from threatening environs.
The couple was leaving town that afternoon for a political expedition to Iowa. It was a last-minute trip. Mrs. Franken—deftly shunning the publicist apparatus relied upon by even the lowliest indie-rocker—had called me the night before to bump up our interview so as to accommodate their flight. Nonetheless, the comedian, a Judaic man, mostly seemed concerned about operating his sound system. He addressed me as if I were a master stereo technician, well-versed in the workings of any make or model. Then he stretched out on his living room floor, wrestling with Kirby as I manned the CD player.
The interview was intended to promote Franken’s upcoming speaking engagement at the CMJ Music Marathon, so I was playing him songs by artists scheduled to perform there: Sonic Youth, Juana Molina, Sufjan Stevens. Into this mix, I threw a curveball, playing a track by Eugene Mirman, a standup comic who was emceeing a CMJ show. I selected my favorite bit from Mirman’s album, in which he mocked the 1985 Michael J. Fox movie Teen Wolf. In the years to come, this comedic angle—poking holes in the cultural detritus of the ’80s and ’90s—would become pervasive and cheap. But at the time, Mirman’s routine felt vibrant.
“There’s a point at which Michael J. Fox is gonna tell his super-fashionable friend Stiles that he’s a wolf,” Mirman begins. “Stiles goes, ‘Dude, you’re not gonna tell me you’re a fag?’ And of course, Michael J. Fox is like, ‘No no no no! Don’t worry! No, no. I’m a wolf! I’m a magical creature that eats babies. I’m not gay! You can relax!’”
Franken chuckled. “I like his mind,” he said. “That’s a really funny idea. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not gay—I’m a wolf.’” Franken looked up from Kirby, who had been commanding the bulk of his attention throughout our interview. “But you know,” he said, “I think that was probably the intent of the filmmaker. I haven’t seen the film at all. But I bet the filmmaker was making the same joke.”
I was flabbergasted. Where Mirman had torn down this ephemera of my childhood, Franken had rebuilt it, leading me to some higher plane of pop-culture consciousness. I thought of Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s hallowed Batman series. As a little kid, I adored the program and, as I grew older, I learned to ridicule it. Yet by college, I came to understand Batman’s true powers—the insider references to Warhol superstars and pop-art arcana, the embellished ridiculousness and trailblazing camp. And of course, I thought of the berserk Velvet Underground homage in the Urkel show, still haunting me nearly a decade after its discovery. Was Hollywood in on every joke? Was the whole world smarter and hipper than it seemed?
Leaving the apartment, I gave Franken the one CD that he seemed to truly dig: TV on the Radio’s Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. Sometimes, I like to picture Franken in his current guise, resting his feet on some stately walnut desk in his senate office, blasting the album while ignoring noise complaints from nudnik neighbors like Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch.
Robert Illes was born in 1948, the heat of the Baby Boom, in Southern California. Attending USC, he was of the college-radio ilk; as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, Illes and his friend James R. Stein cohosted a comedy program on KUSC. “It was an edgy show,” Illes tells me, speaking in 2016. “We had wacky prerecorded bits and crazy guests—Frank Zappa, Steve Allen, Harry Shearer…. We were on FM, which most people didn’t have in their cars at the time. So it was literally underground.”
At USC, the pair signed up for a television-writing course taught by a moonlighting industry figure. Seemingly on a whim, the instructor hired Illes and Stein to write for Sing America Beautiful, a network variety show starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, a country singer loitering from an earlier cultural era. “It was the most right-wing, corny show,” recalls Illes, whose forthcoming memoir, Funny Is Money, details his exploits in television. “I was very conscious of the fact that this was not my world. We were these long-haired, stoned-out guys doing this stupid radio show where nobody was checking in on us. All of a sudden, we were in the middle of show business. We quickly got dazzled by all the glitz and the dough.”
While continuing the KUSC program, the pair pursued more television work. As with the Tennessee Ernie Ford special, much television of the time seemed to have missed the youth revolution that had spread through music and film. But inevitably, Illes and Stein brought their long-haired, stoner-guy sensibility to the sporadically urbane shows on which they landed. And their new colleagues were hardly slouches. At Tom Smothers’ Organic Prime Time Space Ride (a short-lived sequel to the famed Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour), Illes worked with Steve Martin and Bob Einstein, king of the stone face. In the years that followed, Einstein would gain a cult as the berserk stuntman Super Dave Osborne and the godsent Curb Your Enthusiasm character Marty Funkhouser; to the Smothers Brothers audience, he was Officer Judy, a California motorcycle patrolman who once ticketed Liberace for playing too fast. “When I met him, he was putting on some delivery guy,” Illes says. “He would insult you in a second, just to screw with you. Kind of a cruel guy. He’s hilarious—just weird, weird, weird. He became a good friend.”
In 1972, Illes and Stein halted the radio show, largely to devote time to their latest gig: The New Bill Cosby Show, a variety program on CBS. As relative novices, the men were credited as “researchers,” thus robbing them of guild wages—but Cosby took a shine to the pair, appointing Illes and Stein his monologue writers. The show was a short-lived mess. Cosby resisted the Laugh-In–style sketches that were then in vogue and favored by much of the writing staff; from the get-go, he clashed vehemently with the producer. “It became known that Cosby was doing drugs and womanizing,” Illes says. “Although we didn’t know if it was just the producer floating things about him.” (Illes was unaware of the star’s roofie habit.)
The New Bill Cosby Show was canceled after its lone season. Yet Illes and Stein rolled into a succession of new jobs, writing for a raft of ’70s touchstones, among them Sanford and Son, What’s Happening!!, Fernwood Tonight, The Love Boat, and The Carol Burnett Show. By the early ’80s, they were seasoned pros, their college-radio origins a distant memory. In the decade since they had left USC, American culture had changed so radically that one would think the entire country had undergone a lobotomy. On television, many shows venerated rich people, encouraging viewers nationwide to identify with the fortunate. Most egregious was Diff’rent Strokes, which debuted on NBC in the fall of 1978, two years ahead of Reagan. The sitcom—my own childhood favorite—famously features a tycoon who takes in a pair of Harlem kids; herein, poverty is a niggling detail to dispense with during opening credits, as a limousine whisks the wee protagonist down Park Avenue. Good Times, this was not.
In 1982, NBC introduced Silver Spoons, a likeminded sitcom with a suburban landscape and vanilla cast—Ricky Schroder, its pipsqueak star, was seemingly scouted from his previous work, modeling for Hitlerjugend propaganda posters. Illes and Stein worked on the show from its outset, eventually rising to executive producers. Much of their time on Silver Spoons seems to have been devoted to handling the young star and his mother, a religious fanatic bullish about her spawn’s career. Illes says that Jason Bateman, who portrayed a foil to the Ricky character on the early seasons, ultimately left the series at the behest of the Schroders, who were fearful of being overshadowed by a superior young rival. Later, Illes became locked in a showdown with his star after the actor determined that his dressing room was in dire need of a pool table. (Schroder prevailed.) Yet as with Diff’rent Strokes, there was something oddly engrossing about Silver Spoons—maybe it’s simply comforting to watch the wealthy clown about. Three decades after viewing the show, I can recall, with the spooky precision unique to formative memories, particular zingers and well-timed pratfalls.
While he was at Silver Spoons, Illes traveled to New York and dropped in on the set of a new sitcom starring an old boss: The Cosby Show. After Illes had parted ways with Cosby following the failed ’70s show, the comedian became, according to Illes, “sort of washed up. They had asked us to work on The Cosby Show. Honestly, I had thought, Bill Cosby—really? They gave him another show?”
But suddenly, Cosby had a colossal hit. “He became like the Nelson Mandela of the United States,” Illes says. “We went into his studio and it was like walking into the Oval Office. He had the giant cigar. I tried to remind him who the hell I was and mentioned that I was at Silver Spoons.” Illes slips into an admirable Cosby impression: “‘Silver Spoons! I saw that show the other night! The stupidest show I’ve ever seen!’ He basically started shitting on me and my show! He thought it was silly and didn’t make sense. In comparison to what he was doing, which was, of course, this really important stuff.”
Yet in his Huxtable clan, Cosby was effectively borrowing from sitcoms like Silver Spoons, with the Reagan-era family of privilege dosed with a patina of racial progressiveness. For Illes, The Cosby Show phenomenon proved both blessing and curse. It revitalized the sitcom, which, as periodically happens, had been declared moribund before Cosby debuted in 1984. But at least until Seinfeld established a new paradigm a decade later, seemingly every show in Cosby’s wake had to bear its mark in some way. The breezy fare in which Illes trafficked was shunned in favor of shows bearing a social message. A project he was developing that was to feature Jim Nabors as an aging Hawaiian bellhop fizzled, too far removed from the Cosby model. Nonetheless, after they left Silver Spoons in the mid-’80s Illes and Stein remained busy, working on a range of TV projects, both familiar and forgotten.
Seinfeld debuted in 1989, the final year that The Cosby Show would dominate ratings. Reagan was gone, and one could smell cultural shift on the horizon. Still, new sitcoms were being crafted from the Huxtable mold. Among the most successful was a lighthearted ABC program about the Winslows, an African-American nuclear family in Chicago. The Winslows were middle-class yet comfortable—at least until the arrival, in the midst of the first season, of an unfathomably annoying next-door neighbor.
This show was Family Matters. For much of its run, the sitcom was produced by David Duclon, who previously had helmed Silver Spoons. And on a couple of occasions, Duclon called on Illes and Stein to write Family Matters episodes. The pair’s scripts included 1995’s “Cheers Looking at You, Kid”—a.k.a., the Velvet Underground episode.
At this point in their careers, Illes and Stein “were these real TV writers,” Illes says. “But we still had some of that old [college radio] sensibility. So you tried to sneak in some stuff, even if it simply meant bending the rules of the show.”
I ask Illes about his Family Matters episode in relation to the Velvet Underground song—about how both “Cheers Looking at You, Kid” and “The Gift” feature young men racked by jealousy, stowing themselves away to visit girls in the Midwest; how in both stories, an imbecile named Waldo, lacking money, packages himself in a giant box in a failed attempt to reunite with his love interest via post.
“Come on!” Illes says. “Damn. That is…that’s amazing.”
The sitcom writer pauses. “But it’s a total coincidence,” he says. “I’ll tell you how the other part of the story happened—the aspect with Urkel hiding in the room-service cart. When I worked for Duclon on Silver Spoons, we did an episode where Ricky hid in a room-service cart to see a group called Menudo.” Illes begins describing the episode, but I cut him off, as I recall it vividly from childhood. By the time I caught it on repeat, Menudo’s star had faded, leaving me mystified about the characters’ fervor toward a Puerto Rican boy band. Watching a clip on YouTube decades after I last saw it, I find myself anticipating jokes and even remembering bits of dialogue.
“The Menudo episode was frowned upon by the studio,” Illes explains. “They thought it was silly. I remember thinking, Have you seen the show overall? It’s not All in the Family here. Anyways, flash-forward maybe ten years, and Duclon is doing Family Matters. He’s recycling a lot of Silver Spoons stories. So when he asked us to do that Family Matters episode, he said, ‘Hey, do the thing where Urkel hides in the room-service cart, like what we did on that Menudo show.’”
And so it is that I learn how the fabled Family Matters episode, penned by the college-radio refugees, was not inspired by the coolest band that ever stalked the earth. In fact, it was inspired by perhaps the least cool band. “Sometimes in the TV comedy grind there are simply coincidences,” Illes says. “It’s certainly a bit that has been done in TV shows. It’s a logical ‘solution,’ at least in sitcom world, for a dopey kid to get from point A to point B. The fact that they’re both named Waldo—that’s weird. But honestly, I’m not sure how unique the idea was to Lou Reed. It’s an old idea. Lucy could have mailed herself to Clark Gable’s house.”
I no longer listen to Velvet Underground records with much frequency, preferring, as I do with the Beatles, to play the musicians’ solo albums. The work of the band seems too weighted down with history, both personal and cultural, to casually deploy. But after I speak with Illes, I dig out White Light/White Heat. The album still has the roar of Kong, undimmed by decades of plaudits and parrots. And “The Gift” strikes me as more peculiar than ever. The song has aged better than more outré Velvet Underground fare, like “Heroin” or “Venus in Furs.” With its touch of Yiddish and sitcom plot, “The Gift” seems a more honest reflection of the young Lou Reed, Long Island native and Syracuse grad.
I also watch the Family Matters episode. In the 20 years since I caught it on television, “Cheers Looking at You, Kid” had built up such mythic status in my mind that it seemed perverse to merely summon it with the click of the mouse. But there on my Mac were the Winslows, frozen in time, recoiling from the dastardly Urkel. The program itself looked lovely with the added years. It had not occurred to me how much television was once geared toward children and their families, a big-tent model of entertainment that fades as audiences retreat to individual screens. The episode was legitimately funny, too, with Urkel embodying a fleshed-out cartoon in the mode of other comedic stars of late-20th century America: Mr. T, Pee-wee Herman, the Diceman. Witnessing the famed geek preen felt like coming home following a long trip to unfamiliar lands.
What shocked me, yet again, was the B-plot, with Waldo’s botched attempt at human mail. Only this time, the jolt was not because of any ties to “The Gift,” but rather the slightness of the storyline. In my memory, Waldo’s exploits threatened to engulf the episode, a thundering salute to the Velvet Underground. Watching it anew, I realized the character appeared for only a few minutes, sharing part of his screen time with a scroll of end credits. Waldo was an afterthought. Only an utter lunatic would connect this madness to the Velvet Underground.
Yet deep down, no matter what facts are presented, I will always believe a correlation exists between the Velvet Underground and Family Matters. I still believe what Senator Franken told me about Teen Wolf, too. Once certain truths come uncorked, all cultural product appears more sophisticated; demarcations between the chic and corny fog up. Such are the charms of white light, these gorgeous blurs of disparate wavelengths, locked in unison.
—Lowbrow Reader #10, 2017