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“Back in Jersey, Halloween was my favorite holiday.  When else can a non-adult wear a disguise and roam around after dark forcing people to give you candy for no good reason, and then trash their house if they don’t?  But here in Eerie things are different.  There’s no telling who or what you’ll bump into around these parts.  Simon and I had to be prepared for anything.”
–Marshall Teller, the newest resident of Eerie, Indiana

It’s Halloween weekend, and time to look back at a show that typifies that spirit.  Not just the strange and somewhat paranormal, but also the kids’ trick-or-treat fun of the experience.  Eerie, Indiana was both at the same time.

"There's the signpost up ahead..."

Premiering on NBC in the Fall of 1991, Eerie, Indiana was sold to the network as the “family” version of the previous season’s big hit, the mysteriously odd Twin Peaks.  Airing on Sunday nights in the “family hour”, the show really was a kid’s Twilight Zone, with a continuing cast instead of an anthology format.  The show took place in the quirky, off-kilter town of Eerie, Indiana (which we find out, from the air, is shaped like the Bermuda Triangle).  The plots ranged from scary to sweet to heartbreaking, just like the original Twilight Zone.  But it seemed that the only people in the town who were aware of the strange goings-on were best friends and neighbors Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) and Simon Holmes (Justin Shenkarow).

Whatever sense of normalcy exists is provided by Marshall’s family.  But even their lives are occasionally touched by the strangeness of the town, whether it’s father Edgar (Francis Guinan) developing a computer “personality” program for an ATM that decides to give all the town’s money to Simon, or mom Marylin (Mary-Margaret Humes) being “adopted” forcefully by someone trying to create the perfect family for themselves.  And although sister Syndi (Julie Condra) can sometimes be the bane of Marshall’s existence (as most sister/brother relationships can be in the teen-age years), she hopes to someday be a reporter, edits the school newspaper, and occasionally helps Marshall with information, even though she is unaware of its connection to the fantastic things Marshall and Simon encounter.

“Ever since moving here, I’ve been convinced that something is very wrong with Eerie, Indiana.  I tried telling myself there was a logical explanation for everything, but logic doesn’t apply here.  That’s my family; they’re all too busy to see what’s going on.  Mom just started her own party planning service down at the Eerie Mall.  My sister Syndi’s practicing for her driver’s test.  Personally, I don’t think anybody who spells Syndi S-Y-N-D-I should be allowed to operate a motor vehicle.  Dad works for Things Incorporated, a product testing company.  Dad’s job is one of the reasons we moved here, because, statistically speaking, Eerie’s the most normal place in the entire country.”

“Statistics lie.”

–Marshall Teller, in the pilot episode of Eerie, Indiana

Eerie's Simon and Marshall face the weird.

Marshall and Simon’s adventures included everything from a trip through a time warp to encountering a storm-chaser obsessed with a “recurring” tornado, a la Captain Ahab.  They fought off werewolves and a mummy that had been transported out of a horror movie.  They helped long-lost loves to reunite, even beyond death.  Although they tried to convince the rest of Marshall’s family that something wasn’t quite right, the boys remained the only ones who were aware of the wild, wonderful, and weird occurrences going on in their town.

I mean, Tupperware is good for preserving food, but will ForeverWare actually keep your entire family from aging a single day?  Just make sure you burp the lid when you say good-night to your kids and tuck them in their giant plastic containers at bedtime… yes, this was definitely Eerie….

The real Mr. Radford

And then there was this strange store in town called “World O’ Things”, that carried the oddest stuff you ever saw… and seemed to have everything you’d ever need, even if you didn’t know you needed it.  The proprietor was a Mr. Radford… although halfway through the series, it turned out that the real Mr. Radford had been tied up in the basement all this time, and a “serial impersonator”  was pretending to be him, running his store during the first half of the season’s episodes.  (As an aside, this has to be one of the best solutions ever for “writing an actor out of a series” and replacing him with another actor/character, especially when the replacement was played by the wonderfully odd John Astin of The Addams Family, Brisco County, and Night Court.  This show didn’t even replace characters normally….)

The mysterious Dash X

Also in the second half of the season, another character was introduced named Dash X (Jason Marsden).  This “grey-haired kid” also seemed to be aware of the strangeness going on in town, and probably rightfully so.  His odd name was taken from the unusual marks on his hands, and it was hinted that he might actually be, at least in part, of alien origin.  Dash brought even more unpredictability to an already unpredictable presentation, and served as a continuing storyline tying together the series mythology.

“This town doesn’t exactly take kindly to strangers.  And, in case you haven’t noticed, anyone who is even remotely normal qualifies as a stranger around here.”
–Dash X, introducing himself to Marshall

One of the formative creative minds behind the show was Joe Dante.  Known for his quirky body of work, Dante has directed the Gremlins movies, Innerspace, TV episodes of The Twilight Zone (1985 revival), and a rather unusual episode of  CSI:NY.  As a creative consultant from the beginning of the series, his whimsical style and unique take on storytelling was vital in the development of Eerie, Indiana.  He even took part in the final aired episode, not only directing, but appearing in it.  The episode, entitled Reality Takes a Holiday, turned the series on its ear by putting Marshall into one of the strangest worlds possible:  Hollywood.  Dante played the director of a show that was similar to Eerie, and Marshall had to literally “rewrite the script” in order to return to his “home”, stop Dash X from becoming the star, and being completely replaced in every reality.

“I don’t have a dog named Toto.  But, if I did, right about now I’d be telling him — ‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Indiana anymore.'”
–Marshall in Reality Takes a Holiday

Other actors loved the idea of working with Dante and the wonderfully creative atmosphere of the show, and the guest list included then-current and future stars like Tobey Maguire (playing a ghost seeking his long-lost love), the wonderful Matt Frewer (as the tornado obsessed scientist), and Ray Walston (whose My Favorite Martian series was comedic inspiration to a young Dante).  The show’s inventiveness and anything-can-happen feeling allowed actors, directors, and writers to stretch their creativity beyond anything on a normal television show, and although occasionally limited by budgets, Eerie, Indiana had no scarcity of storytelling imagination.

Simon:  “Flashlight?”
Marshall:  “Check.”
Simon:  “Moist towelettes?”
Marshall:  “In case we get egged.”
Simon:  “Bug spray?”
Marshall:  “In case we get bugged.”
Simon:  “Clean underwear?”
Marshall:  “In case we get scared….”
–Simon and Marshall checking supplies for their Mummy hunt on Halloween

The show had, unfortunately, a scarcity of viewers, ranking 94th in the ratings, ahead of only four shows on the entire TV landscape that fall.  It aired in the impossible time slot of Sunday nights at 7:30/6:30 Central and it was up against the #1 show on television at the time, 60 Minutes.  It also had a habit of being delayed by NFL Football broadcasts, and its lead-in was the eminently forgettable The Adventures of Mark and Brian, about two LA disc-jockeys and their supposedly wild and wacky adventures (which were neither wild nor wacky, and not even particularly interesting).  The show may as well have been in a Twilight Zone of its own, with these challenges to face in attracting an audience.

If Eerie, Indiana had aired a year later, it might have developed a true following, instead of becoming just a cult favorite.  The first books in the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine appeared a few months after the cancellation of the series, and jump-started the “youth-horror” genre, leading to shows like Nickelodeon’s successful Are You Afraid of the Dark? The original series was soon repeated on the Disney Channel (including the single unaired episode), and a short-lived sequel called Eerie, Indiana:  The Other Dimension was broadcast for a season on the FoxKids network in 1998.  Seventeen “young-adult” books were also published to coincide with the sequel, but strangely, they featured the characters of the original show, and not those of the new series.  Dimension was really Eerie in name only (although there’s a brief bit in the sequel pilot episode, called Switching Channels, which indirectly links it with the original).  There was more emphasis on gentle frights and less on invention, and with both budget and creativity lacking, Dimension died a quick and deserved death.  But the original Eerie, Indiana is still remembered as a fun, strange, and family-friendly approach to telling Twilight Zone-type stories from a young teen’s point of view.

OMRI KATZ (Marshall Teller) started acting at the age of 3 in television commercials.  He’s best known (besides Eerie) for playing J.R. Ewing’s son, John Ross, on Dallas, and being chased by comical witches in the Disney movie Hocus Pocus.  He’s now retired from acting and has moved to Israel, where his parents were born and where he’d spent a year of his youth.

JUSTIN SHENKAROW (Simon Holmes) spent four seasons as a regular on Picket Fences as middle child Matthew Brock, and has had an extensive career doing voice-over work for animated series such as Life with Louie, Recess, and Hey, Arnold! Justin was also elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild, and most recently was featured as himself in the reality series Millionaire Matchmaker.

FRANCIS GUINAN (Edgar Teller) has acted in television, movies and on Broadway.  His television appearances include guest roles in two different Star Trek series (Voyager and Enterprise) and two different CSI series (Miami and NY), among many other shows.  On Broadway, he appeared in a featured role in the 2008 Pulitzer and Tony Award winning August:  Osage County, and was most recently seen on the movie screen as Master Pakku in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.

MARY-MARGARET HUMES (Marilyn Teller) had her highest profile role as another mom, this time of the title character on the WB hit Dawson’s Creek.  A former beauty queen and runner-up in the Miss USA pageant, she got her first significant acting job by advertising on a Hollywood billboard seen by Mel Brooks, who cast her in History of the World, Part I.  Numerous guest TV appearances followed, most recently in Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, and Saving Grace.

JULIE CONDRA (Syndi Teller) went to Hollywood after a short modeling career, landing roles in The Wonder Years, the soap opera Santa Barbara, and Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (ironically leaving a regular role in that series for Eerie, which was then scheduled directly opposite Parker).  She appeared in the movie Crying Freedom, where she met her husband Mark Dacascos, actor, martial arts champion, and host of Iron Chef:  America.  They have three children.

JOHN ASTIN (Mr. Radford) is a hero to fans of quirky and strange everywhere, and has been featured on this blog previously for his role in Brisco County Jr. While best known for his roles in The Addams Family and Night Court, his early cult comedy I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster will be coming out on DVD early in 2011, and therefore he will probably make yet another appearance here soon thereafter.

JASON MARSDEN (Dash X) got his start on the soap General Hospital, and had his first brush with weird playing Eddie Munster in the 1988 series The Munsters Today.  After Eerie, he landed recurring roles on many of ABC’s T.G.I.F. series, including Full House, Step by Step, and Boy Meets World.  He’s had a huge career in voice-over acting, in roughly 50 different animated movies and series.  Also a director and a producer, his many activities are featured on his website, That Guy From That Show.

The complete series of Eerie, Indiana is available on DVD, but be aware that there are also 3-episode sets out there, if you want just a particular episode or representative sample.  Although the books based on the show are out of print, titles can still be found through secondary agents such as the many online used bookstores, sometimes for as little as a dollar per book.  The entire series (including the unaired episode The Broken Record) is available for streaming at Hulu.  There’s also a wonderful in-depth examination of the series-twisting episode Reality Takes a Holiday online, for those desiring more behind-the-scenes information (just ignore the comments there, as there are some very rude people who wish to make more complaints about the ads on the site than discuss the story).  If you have youngsters at home, I highly recommend that you expose them to this wonderful series as a lighter way to celebrate the traditions of Halloween without the macabre or occult aspects.  And then, later, they can segue into the wonder of Eerie‘s obvious inspiration, Rod Serling’s legendary Twilight Zone.

“The most fun?  Writing scripts for the series Eerie, Indiana television series.  Not only did I get to work with people like John Astin and Ray Walston (heroes of my early TV watching days), but with directors like Joe Dante, Ken Kwapis, and Bob Balaban.  The tone of Eerie was perfectly suited to my twisted small-town sensibilities.”
–series writer Michael Cassutt, who’s also written for The Twilight Zone (1985), Strange Luck, Stargate SG-1, and Farscape, among many others.

I think humor is one thing that people forget about in some of the original Twilight Zone episodes, and it is one of the elements that made Eerie, Indiana not just family-friendly, but gave it a spirit that wasn’t just about frights and strangeness.  It gave it heart, and wonder, and whimsy as well.  And although much of Halloween portrayed in movies and TV now focuses on horror and fear, there’s still the magic of kids playing pretend, of gentle bumps-in-the-night, and the celebration of weird instead of just running from the monster.  Eerie, Indiana definitely captured that spirit of the season, and although you can’t find it on any road map these days, it still has a place on the map of imagination.  There’s the signpost up ahead… Eerie, Indiana, just a normal little suburb somewhere near The Twilight Zone.

Oh, and if you happen to stop by someday, say hi to Elvis for me…. he’s on Marshall’s paper route.

Vital Stats

18 aired episodes — 1 unaired (later aired on the Disney Channel, FoxKids, and other outlets)
NBC Network
First aired episode:  September 15, 1992
Final aired episode:  April 12, 1993
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  That might have been a blessing, instead of being sentenced to the Sunday 7:30/6:30 slot it aired in.  For once, the “death slot” on Friday may have helped it find an audience that would have appreciated it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

It’s time to celebrate Halloween, with a show that wasn’t full of horror, but instead full of what the holiday should be for kids:  A little scary, a little fun, and a little wonder at what might go bump in the night….

Five quotes:

“When else can a non-adult wear a disguise and roam around after dark forcing people to give you candy for no good reason…”

(which we find out, from the air, is shaped like the Bermuda Triangle)

“I tried telling myself there was a logical explanation for everything, but logic doesn’t apply here.”

…this has to be one of the best solutions ever for “writing a actor out of a series”…

…although occasionally limited by budgets, it had no scarcity of storytelling imagination.

Come back this week and re-visit a wonderfully quirky show, Friday at 8/7 Central!!

–Tim R.

“Being something entirely different than anything in the primetime landscape is a tremendous advantage, in a way.  But it also means putting a square peg in a round hole.  In the end, the concept has to stand on its own.”
–Megan Lynn, production assistant, Creature Comforts

Documentaries on network television are rare enough, documentary series even more so.  A documentary series that is also a half-hour comedy produced by the entertainment division isn’t just rare, it’s an endangered species.  Creature Comforts was probably one of the most different concepts ever to make it onto a network schedule.  It had no stars, no drama, no actual plot or storyline… and no humans seen anywhere.  And yet, it was a show that was about every one of us.

Oh, yeah… and it was made of clay.

Cat got your tongue... literally

Creature Comforts aired on CBS in the summer of 2007.  It didn’t have any recognizable stars, or really even any actors.  Instead,  it featured the recorded voices of normal, everyday Americans from all across the country.  Throughout the previous year, a massive project was undertaken, and over 40 interviewers were sent out to record a variety of conversations from a diverse cross-section of people, of every age, social standing, and walk of life.  These recordings were then gathered together, edited, and assembled into documentary form.   Various quotes were split up by category and reorganized by the creators and producers of the show into seven- to ten-minute sections by topic (on “art”, or “flying”, or “honesty”, to name a few).  There were over FIVE HUNDRED HOURS worth of recordings taken over that year, which were edited down to 7 half-hour episodes dedicated to the various topics.

Most documentaries would just cut together the film at this point, in interesting ways.  But this was all audio, and this was no ordinary documentary.  These were just random recordings, with no timeline or event or pre-determined focus point.  Just the everyday observations of everyday people about everyday life.  And most, if not all, of the interview subjects had no idea at the time that their words were going to become part of a network TV show.

They also didn’t know their words were about to spoken by sheep, horses, and fish.  This is where the hard work and creativity on the show all started, and where Creature Comforts was born.

A young couple that loved to "horse" around....

That’s not quite true.  Although the series aired on CBS in the summer of 2007, the actual birth of the concept was a 5-minute British film made in 1989.  Also called Creature Comforts, it was the brainchild of filmmaker Nick Park and the production company Aardman Animations.  It used interviews with ordinary British citizens, juxtaposed with wry and occasionally ironic clay stop-motion animation of talking animals, whose voices were provided by the recordings.  That movie went on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1990, and led to a series of commercials in Great Britain using the same concept.  Those television ads were noted as among “The Best of the Century” in both a Sunday Times article series, and an ITV television special.  They were so popular with the British public that a series of television shorts soon followed there in 2003, featuring 10-minute films on various topics.

Much British television is structured without commercials during programs, and start times are not like American television where shows begin normally on the hour or half-hour.  Therefore, in order to make the transition to American television, the idea of roughly 10-minute segments was kept, but the new pieces were grouped in sets of two (or occasionally three shorter segments) and designed as half-hour episodes, with commercials in-between.  This was very different from typical American television, and proved to be one of the reasons that the show didn’t really catch on; there was absolutely no reason for any viewer to stay over the commercial, as there was no continuing plot or cliff-hanger ending to resolve after the break.

(over a blank screen, we hear glasses clinking, and the pop of a cork… and then we see two animated dogs begin talking…)

“It smells… pretty ripe.  I’m getting… {sniff} medium to dark notes.  I’m getting a bit of, like,  a cassis kind of smell.  {another sniff}  Also kind of like a dried fruit character to it as well.  Not, I wouldn’t say, raisin, but more like a dried cranberry kind of thing going on there.  {another sniff}  Grape?  Yes.”
–The two dogs, who have been sniffing at the back end of a third.

Taken on its own merits, the segments themselves are witty, ironic, and fun.  Interviews with nursing home residents are turned into quotes from animals talking about their life at the zoo, and the change in context makes the comments both humorous and rather pointed.  A stunt-flying pilot talks about how “any flight you can walk away from is a good one”, but he’s animated as a cardinal with a broken wing in a sling, standing with a crutch… and he falls off his perch at the end of the segment.  And you wouldn’t think a woman talking about her mild health problems would be funny, especially when she says “I’ve got dry skin.  Would you believe it?”  That is, until you see her animated as a fish swimming in a bowl.

the Lovebirds

Many of the interviews were rather wide-ranging and not limited to specific topics, so some of the “voices” and characters appeared in multiple segments.  An older married couple were animated as “lovebirds” in a cage, although their comments were a bit less than loving while arguing on various topics; and a rather embarrassed young couple talking about sex and romance were shown as… rabbits.

This type of contextual irony was what made ordinary conversation funny, and the show, while not consisting of actual jokes, was still rather hilarious if you watched what the animators did with the comments.  That’s where the real laughter of the series was, and of course, that meant (like I mentioned in last week’s article on Police Squad!) that Creature Comforts was a show you really had to watch to get the humor.  Which also meant that it was almost immediately on the endangered series list.

The company behind the show was the award-winning Aardman Animation, and the creators of the Wallace and Gromit series and the movie Chicken Run.  They were the leading producers in the world of the almost lost art of stop-motion animation, and it took them almost nine months of work AFTER the interviews were done and edited to actually create the animated footage for Creature Comforts.

Stop-motion animation is long and arduous work, but when it’s done well, the results are amazing, and at times better than anything that could be done in live-action.  (I swear, there’s one scene in Chicken Run that should win an award for the “acting”, it really can be that good.)  But given the hours of audio recordings, the real brilliance of the show was the way that the animators created animal characters that truly felt like they could say these things, if they could talk.  Facial expressions, offhand looks, occasional sight gags, and all those little things that are part of a great acting performance are here, done amazingly with pieces of clay brought to life, and the production people on the show did it all one frame at a time, moving each arm or leg or mouth just a bit between frames to give the impression of talking, or laughing, or whatever emotion was required.

Just tryin' to survive the city....

Just tryin' to get a second of film

And the sets and scenes are very different to work on during stop-motion animation.  Here are two pictures, the above being the finished product of two cockroaches complaining about how difficult it is to live in New York (okay, it’s two people voicing their complaints, but they’re animated as two cockroaches…).  And beside this paragraph there is the “behind the scenes” shot, of the human animators and the actual set of the New York City background.. a far cry from “location shooting” or even a typical soundstage.  Of course, the practical advantage is that you don’t have to deal with temperamental actors or troublesome locations… but you do have to deal with the fact that, if you’re lucky, a good animator can get one to five seconds of film done per DAY.  As I said, long and arduous work, but when it’s done well, the results can be terrific, and Creature Comforts was terrific indeed.

“We are extremely grateful to all the people who have shown their support since the show was pulled.  We always knew it would be a show that would grow in popularity through word of mouth, the trouble was that it wasn’t given enough time to grow.”
–Gareth Owen, producer of Creature Comforts

The show aired on Monday nights at 8/7 Central time, as a summer replacement series, but due to the lengthy nature of the creative process, the producers didn’t know originally even what month they were going to air.  So, the “Winter” segment in the third episode probably felt a bit out-of-place in the summer months, since they’d guessed they’d be airing in January or February.  But at least the third episode got to air… as the final episode of the American version, even though there were actually seven made.  And the first promo for the show actually was scheduled to air as a commercial during the Super Bowl in January of that year (ironically, the game itself featured the Bears vs. the Colts)… then the show wasn’t aired until June.  Way to use that million dollar ad time, CBS!

See? Horsing around.

The entire series was aired the following year on the cable channel Animal Planet (where else would it air?)  Of course, the animals got some measure of revenge, as Creature Comforts was nominated for an Emmy for “Best Animated Program” later that year, but lost out to The Simpsons (which has been almost a prohibitive favorite in that category for years).  The complete series is also available on DVD, as is the original British version, and the series DVD contains numerous “extra” scenes of some of the more popular characters, including the “horse and mule” shown as the second picture in this article.  And just as a bonus, here is a picture that has not only “horse and mule”, but the real life couple of Hanna Badalova and Jared Fischer, whose interviews made them one of the favorites on the show.

There are also some terrific websites out there, including the official Aardman Animation site which talks about all their projects, including both the American and British versions of Creature Comforts, the Wallace and Gromit adventures, and their most recent offerings.  For those wanting more information on the series and how it was made, I recommend eyeballs and fishlips, the blog of the production team for the show which talks about the process of its creation.  And the original CBS site for the series is still available, with pictures and more information from the creators of the show.

“If we had to do it all again, I don’t think there’s a lot we would change.  The main problem appears to be sustaining interest over a half hour show.  All the UK shows apart from one Christmas episode were under 10 minutes, which seems to be an ideal length for a ‘talking heads’ show.  However, writing plots, scripts, or storylines goes against the rules of Creature Comforts and is not something that we would ever do.”
–Gareth Owen

Creature Comforts is a great show, but it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, usual American television fare, and that fact likely doomed its network run.  But a show with this much creativity, using ordinary Americans as its source, should really be seen and appreciated.  It really is that rare animal that finds itself on an endangered species list:  the kind of show that should be protected, nurtured, and allowed to grow… and appreciated for its contribution to all.

Vital Stats

3 aired episodes – 4 unaired (later aired on Animal Planet, and all are available on DVD)
CBS Network
First aired episode:  June 4, 2007
Last aired episode:  June 18, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  It aired (very briefly) on Mondays at 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

One of the shortest, most unique, and truly different shows ever on a major network … and that’s saying a lot, considering some of the rare birds that have been featured in this column before.  But you might have to have the memory of an elephant to remember this one, even though it’s less than a decade old.  That says a lot too.  In fact, this show was all talk and little action.  Although I did have the luxury of not doing any bios this week… because there were none to do.  Have I outfoxed you with this one yet?  Five quotes:

“Being something entirely different than anything in the primetime landscape is a tremendous advantage, in a way.”

Just the everyday observations of everyday people about everyday life.

…there was absolutely no reason for the viewer to stay over the commercial…

Of course, the practical advantage is that you don’t have to deal with temperamental actors or troublesome locations…

“The main problem seems to be sustaining interest over a half-hour show.”

Careful on this one… remember, curiosity killed the cat.  But with dogged determination, you might just figure out what this week’s show is, on Friday 8/7 Central!!

–Tim R.

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