Sept 3-7, 2001
Welcome to the new Tough Pigs reality show, My Week with Tomie dePaola. This week, we're going to watch every episode of the new Hallmark Channel show, Jim Henson's Telling Stories with Tomie dePaola. The last one left standing wins.
Monday, Sept 3:
This week gets off to something of a slow start because the Hallmark Channel is commemorating the Labor Day holiday with a "Comedy Kick Back" marathon of My Three Sons and Bewitched. You gotta hand it to the Hallmark Channel; they certainly have their finger on the pulse of American entertainment. I hope you can all pause in your My Three Sons viewing today long enough to pay your respects to the working men and women of our great nation. Then, it's back to My Three Sons.
Actually, in the Tomie dePaola slot this morning, we get three minutes into a My Three Sons episode – about my three-tenths of a son, really – and then suddenly the picture breaks, and a Bewitched episode starts. Apparently they're kicking back a little too much at the Hallmark control room this morning. Won't it be nice when the Hallmark Channel grows up and becomes a real cable channel?
Although I have to admit that things have changed since the Odyssey days – for starters, they have actual ads during the commercial breaks, rather than endless station promos. Unfortunately, the ads are all for Zantac heartburn pills, Dr. Scholl's insoles, Efferdent denture cleaners, and the Physicians Life Insurance Company. Are they sure they want to run a puppet show on this channel? Maybe the elderly don't like puppet shows. Who's in charge here? Hello? Is this thing on?
Tuesday, Sept 4:
Just have FUN!
"I've got a great idea," chirps an optimistic Tomie dePaola. "C'mon, let's get started!" What follows is possibly the worst Henson-show theme song ever recorded, a Lifetime-commercial girl-group get-down whose chorus, I swear to you, goes like this: "Our story starts with a beat in the heart. Find your own voice, it's what sets you apart." Oh, this is just gonna get ugly.
"Hi! I'm Tomie dePaola," says Tomie dePaola. Tomie dePaola is an old chubby guy with glasses and a hat. "Want to tell some stories? C'mon in!" He invites us into his house, and instantly starts acting like he's using binoculars, even though he isn't. "Be very quiet! I don't want to wake up the invisible rhinoceros." Okay, either Tomie is delusional, or this is Compulsory Whimsy of the highest order. He's interrupted by his friend Gabe, the Muppet squirrel: "Oh! I get it! We're playing make-believe!" Gabe is not the brightest squirrel in the tree. "Ha ha! This is FUN!" Well, it was before you two came along. Now I may never have fun again.
Tomie introduces us to a story about Strega Nona, an old Italian woman of uncertain gender, who tricks her so-called "friends" Bambolona and Big Anthony into helping her dig up some potatos. They don't want to help with the potatos, and who can blame them? They're potatos. Go to the store. But Strega Nona pretends that they're actually searching for buried treasure! "I think you'll find that playing pretend makes the work go faster!" Okay, then I'm pretending that I'm watching Bear in the Big Blue House. Strega Nona's victims dig up potatos all day and don't even get near buried treasure. So what's the lesson here, that it's a good idea to dupe people into doing manual labor for no wages? Now I'm pretending that Bambolona is a union organizer.
Then: A Zantac heartburn-relief ad. An Efferdent denture-cleaner ad. A Hooked on Phonics ad.
Now, back to our show. Tomie tells Gabe about the five W's that help you make up stories: Who, What, When, Where and Why. Tomie grills Gabe with the 5 W's, and Gabe comes up with some dull malarkey about a flying whale named Spout who lives a hundred years in the future and helps fish and otters by flying and by being a whale. "Looks like you've got a story, Gabe!" Um, not really. Looks like Gabe has a future in retail.
Today's guest story-teller is Doug Chang, the design director for Star Wars: Episode 1. Doug stares unnervingly into the camera as he talks. He tells us all about his materials and where he gets his ideas, which is about as interesting as it always is when you hear someone ramble on about their job. Then we watch him draw a robotic dinosaur. Okay, now I'm pretending that the robotic dinosaur is real, and it bites Doug's head off. No, I'm still not having fun. Doug gives us a closing pep talk: "The main thing is, just have FUN!" I haven't had this many people tell me to "just have FUN" since summer camp.
Then there's a Mylanta heartburn-relief ad. Apparently, people watching this show get a lot of heartburn.
Gabe goes outside to explain make-believe to his woodland friends. A bunny says, "I'm going to pretend there's a joke here. Heh heh heh! Ha ha ha. Heh." I don't even know what to say about that. Is it okay for the script writer to do that, just to say: hey, here's where a joke should be? Isn't there a rule about that?
Is it almost over? No, there's like five minutes left. And for those five minutes, the old man sits down in his armchair and tells us a story about himself as a child. Noooo! This is like everything that's boring in the whole world packed into a half-hour. The story is about watching old home movies – and then he shows us the home movies! Noooo! The home movies are all about "ice-diving," some Forgotten Sport of the Past. I'm not really paying attention; I'm just sitting here making believe that David Boreanaz is coming over to take me to dinner.
"It was exciting!" Tomie says, and I guess we're just gonna have to take his word for it. What's that, David? Table for two? I'll be right there.
Wednesday, Sept 5:
Tomie Can You Hear Me?
Today's episode. Let's do the numbers.
The number of times something is described as:
"Great!" : 11
"Exciting!" : 5
"Interesting!" : 4
"Amazing!" : 2
"Fascinating!" : 1
"Fun!" : 1
"Pretty neat!" : 1
It strikes me that all of this verbiage is just Tomie's way of saying, "Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line, and you will be entertained by our next available program."
Thursday, Sept 6:
Here's a suggestion...
Y'know, I kid Tomie dePaola a lot. I say that his show is dull and useless and unwatchable. And I'm right about that. Very, very right. But even I have to admit that the show can be educational.
For example, today's episode is all about writing different versions of old stories. As Strega Nona reminds us, "There is no right and wrong in telling stories. Each version is different, and each version has its own beauty!" So I wrote my own version of today's episode, and I learned a lot from the experience.
In Tomie's version of today's episode, Gabe tells Tomie the story of Goldilocks, except Goldilocks is a bear who breaks into the bears' house to find something to gossip about.
In my version of today's episode, Gabe steals Tomie's credit cards and goes on a madcap shopping spree.
In Tomie's version, "Savage Steve" Holland teaches us how to be an animator: "Here's a suggestion. Carry a sketchbook around with you, and draw your family, and friends, and pets, and draw them funny. And if you have a particular picture that you like, put it up against a window with the sun in the background, and take a blank piece of paper and trace that drawing, but alter it just a little bit, and then take that second drawing, and alter that one a little bit. And then take a third and fourth one, and keep going, until you're animating it, and it changes. And pretty soon you're an animator."
In my version, "Savage Steve" says this instead: "Here's a suggestion. Raise some venture capital. Then hire people who can draw better than you can, and pay them minimum wage to draw some really funny cartoons. If they complain about their salary, tell them the profits are being eaten up by distributor costs. Artists don't have any business sense, so they won't understand what you're talking about. When your cartoons become popular, start farming out the animation work to Korea. And pretty soon you'll license your characters to Burger King."
In Tomie's version, a young boy tells us a story about his scarecrow doll: "A man made a scarecrow? And he put a lot of stuff in it? He put it in his backyard? And the scarecrow was alive? And he made a wand? And when there were, like, animals and creatures? He scared them off? Or turned them into other stuff?"
In my version, this boy stays on his medication.
Finally, in Tomie's version of today's episode, Tomie tells us the hilarious story of the time he went to see the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and noticed how different the movie version was from the book.
In my version, I learn to love again. My soul is not crushed into tiny black cinders. There is hope, and peace, and laughter. The sun comes up in the morning. It's a beautiful day.
Friday, Sept 6:
Every picture tells a story. Except this one.
As my week with Tomie dePaola draws to a graceful close, I'd have to say that the thing I find most puzzling about the whole affair is Tomie's extremely loose definition of the word "story." I mean, the whole show is about telling stories, but they don't seem to be making any effort to present a coherent model of what a story actually is.
Now, according to my sources - namely, Mrs. Helrich, my fourth-grade English teacher - a story has to have conflict. It can be conflicts between people, conflicts between people and nature, or internal conflicts within a person - but if there's no conflict, there's no story. The action should build to a climax, and end in a denouement; at the end, we should all learn something about ourselves and about the world.
Using this rough definition as a guide, let's take a look at some of the so-called "stories" presented by Tomie dePaola today.
Strega Nona tells a story about Big Anthony losing his hat, Bambolona finding that her flowers are gone, and Strega Nona noticing that her dancing potion is missing. They all blame each other for the thefts, until a goat dances by carrying flowers and wearing a hat.
The Judges Say: There is conflict here between people, and between people and animals. This is not an interesting story, but it is a story. The Score So Far: One out of one.
Tomie tells us that "every picture tells a story," and shows a photo of an unseen figure molding an animal out of clay.
The Judges Say: No conflict, no action, no climax. This is not a story. This is an illustration. Score: One out of two.
Tomie shows us a box-sculpture that he claims tells a story. Here is the entire, unedited transcript of his story: "This is the meeting of the great white marshmallow chickens - and every year when this occurence happens, the armadillos come to worship the big armadillo in the basket - not to be confused with the chicken in the basket!"
The Judges Say: This is not a story. I'm not exactly sure what this is. Score: One out of three.
Tomie shows us another box-sculpture that tells the story of the Starship Egg Carton, which lands on the Planet of the PingPongians. The astronauts are wary of the aliens, but they make friends when the astronauts teach the PingPongians how to make an omelet.
The Judges Say: There is some conflict and drama here. In fact, this is a Star Trek episode. Tomie will soon be licensing Egg Carton action figures. Score: Two out of four.
The guest storyteller is a percussionist, who claims: "The instruments are the story - because they are the power and the history of the people who created those things."
The Judges Say: These are not stories. These are artifacts. Score: Two of out five. It's not looking good for Tomie.
A little girl shows off her tiger mask, and tells a story about it: "I'm the three-eyed brown tiger with two missing teeth. In the morning, he'll eat some pears and pineapples. And then after he eats, he'll go sit down someplace, like under a shady tree, and read."
The Judges Say: This is not a story. This is a tiger's Day Planner. Final Score: Two out of six.
These representative samples prove what I've been saying all along - Tomie dePaola would not know a story if it stole his hat and made him an omelet. In fact, it seems like this entire program is just Tomie's way of dealing with the fact that he doesn't really know what constitutes a story - a kind of televised art therapy where he faces the horrible emptiness at the core of his life. I'm looking forward to Tomie making a breakthrough round about the middle of season three, where he suddenly snaps and realizes that he's been wasting his life boring people. This epiphany may lead him towards a richer and deeper understanding of himself. Who knows what might happen then? Maybe he'll become a secret agent. Maybe he'll train for the Olympics. Maybe he'll pose as a newspaper reporter and fight crime.
So how should I resolve this titanic struggle between me and Tomie dePaola? Should I steal his hat? Make him an omelet? Or worship the armadillo in the basket?
Maybe I'll just duck out while he's not looking. See ya, Tomie. Catch you later, Gabe. Keep on telling stories. Just not while I'm around.