Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Context for Kathy: Lightbulb

My friend Kathy has a post up at Taki's on Sandra Tsing Loh's heartfelt cry from the hot tub, a piece in The Atlantic that paints a picture of women - strong, empowered women, my friend - spelling out just how close men are to getting pink slipped out of history. On her way to tearing Loh and her editors a convenient new one, she drops some cultural references that, for the sake of anyone born after 1980 or raised outside the Greater Toronto Area (that would be billions of people, right?) might need a bit of explaining.

After recapping the scene Loh set in her piece, with a group of mostly divorced middle-aged women sitting around getting snapped while complaining about their husbands, ex- and current, Kathy has a little moment of generational pop culture recall, writing that she "was reminded of SCTV’s 'Bill Needle' and his description of the feminist play 'I’m Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, And No Guy’s Gonna Tell Me It Ain’t.' To wit: It’s about how 'women who don’t have any problems sit around talking about their problems.'”

Helpfully, the link to the piece on her blog embeds the original skit:

If you were, say, 17 years old at the time this episode of SCTV aired, you might have found it a bit excruciating to watch. The satire might not have been so obvious, since as far as you can tell a lot of what adults called "theatre" in those days looked about this bad. What you did know was that there had recently been a musical called I'm Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road, and that a local production had a respectable run recently in your hometown of Toronto, playing at the dinner theatre in the same restaurant and banqueting complex where your sister had her wedding reception.

The musical's writer and original star was Gretchen Cryer, who opened the show in the summer of 1978. According to the Wikipedia entry on the show, the plot wasn't wildly different from the satire performed by SCTV's Andrea Martin, Catherine O'Hara and Joe Flaherty:
Manager Joe Epstein returns from a trip and finds his star Heather Jones on stage at a nightclub, singing her own songs about the emancipation of women, together with the two singers Alice and Cheryl and the band. She told Joe Epstein that this would be her new show. Joe, who had been Heather's friend for a long time, reacted angrily to Heather's change, but he was not able to persuade Heather to go back to her usual role. Almost 40 years old, she feels that the time has come for a change. The songs she is singing now are touching Joe in an unpleasant way, because they remind him of the way he treats his own wife. Heather is determined to support women's liberation; she splits up with her manager and goes on to perform her own show.
I'm Getting My Act Together... was produced by Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival, and went on to play Chicago, Los Angeles and London's Drury Lane Theatre. The Toronto production I remember being advertised so relentlessly ran in a swanky licensed venue midway between Rosedale and Forest Hill, the city's most expensive neighbourhoods, so it's not like it was some sort of Living Theatre, avant-garde bourgeouis provocation. Numbers in the show have titles like "Natural High," "Miss America," "Strong Woman Number" and "Lonely Lady." Here's "Natural High," from the cast album:

It's worth remembering that mainstream feminism in the '70s was set to a soundtrack of treacly, earnest, middle-of-the-road hotel lounge act showstoppers, which the SCTV folks pretty much nailed with their parody. For anyone who lived through it, two words should suffice: Helen Reddy.

(If you young folks think I'm being a bit pedantic about all this stuff, you have to understand that you can be a bit stupid sometimes, and we old folks feel we need to talk slow and draw a picture of life as it was lived so very, very long ago.)

The SCTV episode with I'm Taking My Own Head... aired in October of 1981, so Martin and O'Hara had plenty of time to study their subject, and perhaps even take in a performance of Cryer's show at the Ports Dinner Theatre, or perhaps even in Chicago or New York. What anyone growing up in Southern Ontario at the time would know was the inspiration for I'm Taking My Own Head author Libby Wolfson - local daytime TV "women's shows" starring people like Joyce Davidson and Dini Petty, and especially Micki Moore's You're Beautiful, which aired on CityTV, the local channel that SCTV mined relentlessly for material.

Moore's show took its title from the Carole King song that it used as a theme, and oozed an estrogen-thick fog of self-affirmation that could repel men for a block-wide radius. It aired from 1977 to 1989, and mere glimpses of it convinced young boys off sick from school that the girls they knew stood a pretty good chance of turning into the neurotic, needy, resentful creatures who filled Moore's overstuffed couches. There's no helpful archived video of You're Beautiful on YouTube, but here's one of SCTV's Libby Wolfson satires:

The lesson is that you can make fun of things all you want, but it doesn't mean that the object of your humourous scorn will go away, or that it won't actually get stronger, and even thrive under the apparently fertile glare of your derision. Also, a single generation can turn anything from parody to reality.

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