It’s amazing to me how I can look back in my life and not remember when things happened, or even that they happened, but I can remember entire seasons of certain TV shows as if I had lived them myself. (Or entire plots of books I’ve only read once, but which had a profound affect on me.) It’s a symptom of this world we live in now–this go go go all of the time, where we only decompress briefly in front of a TV screen or in the pages of a book… rarer to take time out just to sit on the porch or visit with friends.
On the other hand, I had some of the best lessons in life from the TV that I grew up with, and sometimes, I have a hard time remembering that these people aren’t actual crazy relatives that came and camped out on my sofa for a while.
My earliest memories are of the Red Skelton comedy show. (Which I am almost sure was something I saw in re-runs.) I don’t remember a lot about him–but that he was hysterical to me as a kid. I’m almost afraid to go back and watch them now, for fear it’ll ruin the memory. Then there was the Lucille Ball shows–which was also re-runs. Lucy, of course, was incredibly funny, though the one thing about Lucy’s humor that didn’t quite resonate for me was that she was always funny as a victim — of circumstance, of poor choices and cloudy judgment, or of trying to assert what she wanted to do in the face of a male dominated society. I actually more admired the woman behind the comedienne, the real Lucy, who was the brains behind so much of that success.
After Lucy, there was the Carol Burnette show. (I know… with all of this, I’m dating myself.) I liked Carol, and some of the skits. I really mostly enjoyed when they ended up cracking each other up and couldn’t hardly continue with the scene. (The show was live, I believe, at least in the beginning.)
What I didn’t realize was that I was learning a lot about comedy as a kid when I watched these shows. I became the smart ass teenager and learned to out-think the bullies around me. These shows taught me about comedic timing and pacing and it was obvious when a skit (or a scene) went on too long, when they tried for one funny too many. It was one of the best educations regarding scene writing (classic conflict vs. goals).
The 80s were and odd time for me. I went from being a teenager to being a college student to suddenly being a married woman who had a kid. Bang, just like that, I was suddenly supposed to be all grown up and aware of the world, and I was barely aware of my own neighborhood, so suddenly confined to that life of young (broke) stay-at-home mom. There were almost no other young people on my block, and we lived in a house that was sooooooo desperate for remodeling, it looked like Boo Radley’s house. Actually, it was probably worse than Boo Radley’s house. At any rate, there were rare moments when I got to watch TV–pre VCR recorders and DVRs–and one of my favorite shows was Designing Women. For one thing, they were (mostly) smart women, who were funny, who cared about each other and the issues of the world. They talked about things you’d love to sit and talk about with your friends, and they fought and made up and got cranky and fed up and eat up with the stupids and filled with forgiveness and I loved that show.
But the stand-out for me was Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter. As written by Linda Bloodworth-Thompson, Julia was one of those iconic characters which was made to be remembered. As played by Dixie Carter, she was etched into our culture with a smile and charm and an absolute steely nerve and delivery of lines that made you want to be her. Dixie’s own class and comedic timing, grace and razor sharp delivery were all impeccable, and she became one of my heroes. She was proof that you could be Southern and smart, classy yet with rapier wit, liberal in some things, conservative in others. She wasn’t a mouthpiece for feminism, and yet, she was one of the strongest feminist on TV at the time.
I became aware, then, of just how much of an impact a fictional character could have in my life. There were conflicts I faced better because of her, arguments I won because of her, choices I made because of her influence, and I felt like she helped me grow up into the womanhood I had been thrust into. I have three aunts, all of whom lived far enough away that I wasn’t close to any one of them, and Julia Sugarbaker sort of stood in for that figure, that wise, funny, smart ass aunt who gave you the answers you didn’t always want to hear, but did it in such a way that you didn’t mind.
She was the forerunner of the kind of characters I would fall in love with, the ones I’d want to write. The Bobbie Fayes and now, in the new one, Avery.
The nice thing was, she seemed to have found happiness, with a loving husband and two daughters. She was thriving in her career, still, and just as sharp as ever at age 70. My only hope is that I one day write a character who has as much an affect on someone as Julia Sugarbaker had on me.
So how about you — what fictional characters did you grow to love, or fall in love with? Who had an impact on your life?
(p.s. — I will be checking in between flights, as I am on my way to Phoenix, for the Desert Rose Conference. I’ll be teaching two workshops there: (1) Voice — what it is, isn’t, and how to hone your own and (2) Sex Scenes — the when, what, how, where, and why of them. Plus pop quizzes and prizes. I’ll comment here throughout the day as I can!)