At the All-Night Children’s TV Station

          Boston’s public television station will create a 24-hour channel dedicated entirely to children’s programming.

The Boston Globe

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It’s 2:55 a.m. and I’m about to go on the air for the 1,339th edition–not that I’m counting or anything–of my late-night kids’ show “Are You Going to Eat That?”, a freewheeling, no-holds-barred look at the things kids will put in their mouths.  My ratings are down, and the station manager says I’m going to have to do something, anything, to goose them up.  He didn’t say exactly what would happen if I didn’t, but I figure I’ll be busted down to an off-camera position; cue-card holder, crowd-warmer for the station’s live phonics show, maybe the guy who gives the loser on Math Challenge! a home version of the game.

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It’s hard to believe how far I’ve fallen since I burst on the scene as a fresh-faced seven-year-old late-night host wannabe five years ago.  I won a Pediatric Emmy for my hard-hitting expose of the lack of sugar in certain over-the-counter candy products, forcing the Snack-Industrial Complex to enter into a nationwide settlement, issuing coupons worth fifteen cents to underage consumers across the country, and paying the class action lawyers $25 billion.  They asked for $30 billion, but the judge told them not to be greedy.

Now, the station says they’re looking at younger faces to appeal to a more free-spending kids; the all-important four-to-six year-old demographic, who drive parental choices in the stuffed animal, DVD and crayon markets.  It’s enough to make a twelve-year-old bitter, and some TV critics says my personality has gone from a ray of sunshine to the scary thing under your bed.

I take the clipboard from my producer, Cindy Felchner, the gal who keeps “Are You Going to Eat That?” going even when I’m in a foul mood like today and the other days in the week that have the word “day” in the them.

“Who do we have on tonight?” I ask.

“There’s a kid who eats grass . . .”

“Haven’t we done that before?”

“He does it in the winter–when it’s brown.”

“That’s it?”

“We have a girl who ate her mother’s lipstick.”

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“Did we get pictures of the vomit?”

Cindy gives me a look that could thaw a Creamsicle.  “Does Oscar Mayer make hot dogs?” she says with the withering smart-aleckiness that makes me hope she’ll be my Valentine come February.

“I should have known.  So that means I’m going to have to take calls to fill the time?”

“You’re the King of All Kids Media,” she says matter-of-factly as she turns and walks off the set.

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Dream wedding.

The camera boy starts his countdown: “Are You Going to Eat That in five–four–three–two–one,” he says, then pans in as our theme music begins to play.

I wouldn’t eat that, if I were you–
It looks like something they’d serve in a zoo.
You’ll probably get sick and you may get fat,
And that’s why we ask “Are you going to eat that?”

The studio audience applauds wildly–I’ve hyped them up with unlimited free Lik-M-Aid before the show–and I bound onto the stage with my best poop-eating grin to greet the gang.

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“Thank you, thank you everybody–thank you,” I say, motioning for the audience to quiet down even though they’re not really that loud.  These are good kids from Public Television Homes.  They’ve probably never ridden in an American car, and the closest they’ve ever come to deprivation in their sheltered little lives was having to settle for a vacation on Nantucket one summer when daddy got laid off by his hedge fund for failure to meet his “hurdle rate.”

“How’s everybody doing?” I ask of all and sundry.

“Okay!”  The kids have been prompted by my sidekick Ronnie Blasberg, a rising 8-year-old comic with an air of menace about him that recalls the early Bob Goldthwait.  He told them if they weren’t sufficiently enthusiastic, they wouldn’t get a Barney stuffed animal as a promotional consideration.  Then he told them he’d come to their houses and eat their pet turtles.

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“Who’s going to stay up past their bed-time tonight?” I ask with affected curiosity.

“WE ARE!” the kids shout, punching the volume meters in the control room “into the red,” as the sound engineers say.

“Great!  Let’s bring out our first contestant!”

I turn it over to my sidekick who introduces Timmy Nobles, a third-grade spelling champ from Framingham.  “He’s distinguished himself on the playground and in the classroom, where on a dare he ate a guppy from the class fish tank, so let’s say a big hello to–Timmy Nobles!”

Timmy’s a personable little kid with a big smile, which makes my life easier.  I’ve studied film of Art Linkletter from the 50s doing his “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” schtick and I have to say, I don’t know how he did it.  He was a genius, a master at drawing out his little guests, some of whom obviously were IRS Revenue Officers in the making.

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We palaver back and forth a bit–how many siblings he has, what’s his least favorite subject in school, etc.–and then it’s time for the game.

“Okay, are you ready to play?” I ask, and Timmy nods yes, so we head over to the Challenge Bar, where there are three progressively-tougher items to consume, with increasingly more valuable prizes to win if he can keep them down.

“Pile #1–250 points!” I proclaim loudly, as my assistant Darlene sweeps her lovely lithe arm over a greyish mound of . . . something.  “It could be edible, or it could . . . something else.”

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                    Darlene

Timmy looks the stuff over, correctly guesses that it’s non-toxic, and pulls the trigger.

“I’ll eat it for 250!” he says and, after sticking his finger in and scooping out the minimum requirement, he eats it, makes a face–and then breaks into a two-dimpled smile that must have the girls back at Mosi Tatupu Elementary School begging to go into the cloak room with him.

“It’s liver pate,” I say.  “A disgusting food that adults eat, but it won’t kill you.”

The crowd applauds, but the stakes rise as we move on to Pile #2.  “It’s another mystery substance, worth five hundred points.” says Ronnie Blasberg in a portentous voice over the studio’s p.a. system.

“I’ll give you two hints,” I say, “but they’ll cost you fifty points apiece.”

“Don’t do it,” comes a call from the audience, countered by an immediate “It’s worth it!”

Timmy hesitates, then hesitantly says “I’ll buy one clue.”  The audience applauds, and I hand him an envelope, which he promptly tears open to read “It’s something your hippie big sister eats in natural food restaurants.”

“What say you, Timmy?”

“If it’s good enough for Claudia, it’s almost good enough for me.”

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Grrr!

He takes a scoop and, after eating it, I let him know that it’s nothing more than lentil stew, a high-protein entrée that keeps New Age types flatulent.

“We’ve got just one more to go, the grand prize, worth a thousand points that you can redeem for swell prizes including a Tickle-Me-Elmo, a Barney and Friends pup tent, or a physically-correct doll approved by the Boy Scouts of America for Female Anatomy Merit Badge training.”

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A hush falls over the audience now that the stakes have risen.  I see Timmy glancing over at the toys stacked up from a card table–this is public broadcasting–almost to the ceiling.  Darlene wheels out Pile #3, and does a yeoman’s–or is it yeowoman’s?–job of disguising whether the stuff stinks.

“This is for all the marbles, Timmy,” I say, trying to impress upon him the seriousness of the decision he’s about to make.  “You’ve got 700 points.  If you eat just one spoonful of that, you’ll have 1,700, and you’ll be the richest kid in the third grade.  If you gamble and lose, you’ll go home with a consolation prize and probably end up sleeping on a heating grate outside the Boston Public Library.”

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Timmy mulls it over, and I can almost see the synapses snapping underneath his scalp.  He could have a bike, a fishing rod, a baseball glove autographed by some steroid-swilling slugger, or he could go home with–a lot less.  An aquarium, one of those Bolo-Bat things I can never get to work, maybe a jump rope.  In other words, as one of life’s cautious losers.

He thinks about it a little more while the audience screams their encouragement.

“Do it!”

“Go for it!”

“Don’t be a chicken!:

Finally, and with a look that says that he needs to go to the bathroom soon, he says “I’m gonna pass.”

A collective groan goes up from the crowd, as the dreamers, the risk-takers–or those who just like to watch other people go first–register their disappointment.

“Is that your final decision?” I say, trying to squeeze the last little drop of drama out of the situation.

“Um, yes,” Timmy says finally.

“Okay,” I say.  “It’s your funeral–or not.  Darlene–let’s tell him what he’s missing out on!”

My comely assistant glides downstage, picks up a card lying face down on the Challenge Bar, and hands it to me.

“Ooooo, Timmy,” I say, my voice freighted with sadness.  “It looks like you passed up a chance to eat . . . dog doody!”

The audience erupts in cheers, Darlene kisses Timmy and I clap the kid on the back in congratulations.

“That’s all for tonight!” I shout over the roar of the crowd.  “Tune in tomorrow night to meet a boy who picks his nose . . . and eats it!”

 

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