Friday, March 2, 2018

A tribute to Svengoolie

This past year has not been a good one.

In fact, I'll go ahead and call it the worst I've ever endured. The loss of both my job and a place I called home,'s been a sort of drawn-out torture. Yet as I kept throwing myself into the demoralizing process of job searching, as I worried about money every waking (and non-waking) hour, and as I genuinely wondered if I could take any more, I told myself the same six words:

"Just make it to Saturday night."

That's when Svengoolie's on.

Chicago's own Svengoolie (pictured above) is a host for (mostly) b-grade horror and science fiction movies. I started watching him on Chicago's WFLD 32 when I was a kid back in...longer ago than I care to mention. It was through Sven's show that I first saw all the Universal Monster movies, developing a special affinity for Creature from the Black Lagoon. On a cold afternoon one February, I saw Hammer's The Horror of Dracula for the first time, my little self gasping at the climactic scene as Peter Cushing holds candlesticks as a cross and drives Christopher Lee into the sunlight. Of course, the giant monster movies were the biggest hits at our house. I remember playing along to Godzilla and The Deadly Mantis, using plastic army men and dinosaurs.

As fun as the movies are, they are only half the attraction. In fact, I watch Svengoolie regardless of the feature that week, so I suppose one might argue that a particularly fun movie is but an added benefit. No, I watch Sven for his host segments. These include corny jokes and genuinely informative background on the actors in the films and sometimes behind the scenes accounts of the film's writing and production. Oh, there's music too...

On the right, that's the show's "musical director", Doug Graves. Each episode, Doug accompanies Sven in a parody song. A few are funny, a few are groaners, but they never fail to be fun.

By the way, have you ever been to Berwyn?


Berwyn is a suburb of Chicago. When Sven mentions the town's name on the show, "BERWYN?" is groaned back to him. Why? Well, check this for the answer.

A derivative of the town name's also forms the moniker of Sven's rubber chicken pal, Kerwyn. He joins in for Sven's reading of fan letters and for general wise cracks.

In 2011, Sven started airing on MeTV on Saturday nights. More recently, MeTV arranged for Sven's show to be the centerpiece of a true cavalcade of delight. At least that's what I think. It's called "Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night" and when I tell friends and family that I'm walling off Saturday night to watch Sven, it really means I'm sitting in front of the TV from 6pm until...well, at least midnight or whenever I fall asleep. The Saturday night line up features several shows I've covered here on ESE:

-Wonder Woman.

-Star Trek.

-Battlestar Galactica.

I should also point out that the original Batman with Adam West is a pivotal component of the line up. Oh and if you can stay up long enough, you'll also see Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I usually can't these days, but thank God for DVRs.

So why exactly has this Saturday night line up become such a fixture in my life? Might sound weird, but I've decided to examine that question through the lens of my profession: professor of writing. In the course of doing so I have come to three conclusions:

1. My study of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has mostly been relegated to texts deemed by academics as "worthy". That's my word for it. Another phrase might be "the canon." Sometimes in grad school I would get the false confidence to suggest there's a literary value to the types of films shown on Sven or the shows that are part of Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night, and I would inevitably get a haughty response from a few of my professors that suggested my taste in literature clearly peaked sometime around age 15. While they scratched the padded elbows of their tweedy jackets, I continued to ponder my response.
We write to communicate. We also write because humans tell stories. It's one of the traits that makes our species unique. One of the driving motivators ("exigencies") in telling stories is to entertain. That is what the movies on Sven aim to do and more often than not they succeed. In fact, one of my more common responses to a Sven film or one of the episodes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica is, "That must have been so much fun to write." The writers of b-grade horror and science fiction weren't trying to be Joyce or Moliere. They were just trying to be fun. How freeing that must be.

2. There is something of a metatext involved here too. One of the big attractions for me with Super Sci Fi Saturday Night is the "live tweet" feature. Using Twitter and the hashtag #Svengoolie, we viewers can add our own jokes and commentary as we watch. There's also tweeting for Wonder Woman, Batman, and all the rest. Our narrative grows out of the shows and gets added to them, creating a sort of external text above the shows. Sounds hoity toity? Maybe. What's for certain though is that this live tweeting creates a community. Every Saturday night, I look for the same people on Twitter and it's not quite the same if one of them is missing. Even though I've never met them in real life, sorry...IRL, they still get a virtual invite into my living room each "Sven night" and we enjoy the shows together. I have never before had such an experience with television programs.

3. Sacred space. Again, this might sound hoity toity, but I don't care. We humans create sacred spaces. These are places we demarcate as different from all others. Sometimes this includes the use of ritual, such as in a mosque or cathedral. Sometimes it includes a block of time, such as church every Sunday morning at 10am. Sometimes it includes storytelling, such as readings from sacred texts or rhetoric such as a homily or sermon. It is a meaningful time, meant to enrich ourselves.
I must ask, isn't this what I'm experiencing every Saturday night? I certainly feel much better after watching. I have rituals associated with my viewing. I get my snack foods set up and kept nearby. I make certain to have my iPhone charger positioned just so across the couch as my phone's battery will inevitably drain from all my tweeting and Facebook check ins. Judging by posts on those social media platforms, I'm not alone in these rituals. What's more, I see pics of whole families gathered together to watch these shows. I am reminded that I started watching Sven as a kid with my own family. My brother and I came to share a love of the monster movies, perhaps even spurring us on to our respective academic studies (myth and eastern religion for him, narrative and rhetoric for me.)
Are there that many things more sacred than family time?

It is sacred. Flirting with another lofty cliche, I'm going to say that Svengoolie is far more than a TV show. He's actually doing a great service to humanity.

How, you ask? How could a guy in black greasepaint and a whole pile of rubber chickens ever be thought of as more than diverting and disposable entertainment?

Well, these are dark times. They are full of deep political division, caustic rhetoric, and real-life horrors like school shootings. Many struggle to just to get by and wonder if they can afford basic necessities such as health care. I can certainly attest to the fear, stress, and anxiety of job loss, and I know my story is one of the tamer ones out there in terms of suffering.

Sven, if even for just a few hours, is an antidote to our condition. He's bringing happiness into the world. He doesn't do it with "edgy" and ironic, postmodern humor, which tends to be a reminder of all our daily woes. He does it with rubber chickens, a guy named Kerwyn, a cigar-smoking skull named Zallman T. Tombstone, and wonderfully bad movies. He brings people together, whether it's family and friends in our living rooms, or those we meet online in the live tweets. While the show may seem silly (and it is), there is a true nobility involved in bringing happiness to others that should not go without notice. I'm not sure Sven's aware of just how meaningful his show is.

I know that he, along with all my other blessings, saved my life this past year. An exaggeration?
I assure you. It isn't.

Thank you, Sven.

NOTE: I suppose I should point out that I am not employed by MeTV and am not on the payroll to falsely fluff up the network and its programming. I just love what they do. Then again, if one of the higher ups reads this and wants to hire me, I'm real cheap right now.

Jonathan Nichols. Writer/producer. Like the sound of it.
Maybe I'll finally succeed in getting Buck Rogers added to Super Sci Fi Saturday Night.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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