This week’s question comes from A.V. Club staffers Erik Adams and Becca James: What entertainment did you consume in secret while you were growing up?
My parents never actually forbid me from watching anything, but I was so afraid of their disapproval for whatever reason that I avoided any shows or movies that they might have cast a sideways glance at. For instance, once one of my parents walked in on me watching a discussion about sex on Beverly Hills, 90210, and that was enough to put me off that show for the rest of my life. I did manage to keep up with Studs, though. The incredibly misogynistic ’90s dating show was de rigueur at my middle school, and I’d sneakily watch the episodes on my tiny bedroom TV late at night with the volume very, very low. In hindsight, I was probably less into keeping up with the seventh-grade Joneses and more into getting an inside look at what “adult” dating would be like, but, ugh. Watching it now makes me absolutely cringe in horror. I wouldn’t let my future kids watch it, either.
I specifically remember retreating to the basement of my house every summer evening when it was “too hot to sleep upstairs,” regardless of the actual temperature in Northern Wisconsin. You see, the basement had not only a big-screen television, but also our home computer. With access to cable and the Internet, for three months I would actively consume anything that I was too terrified to discuss with my mom or dad. Sometimes it was silly things that I had no reason to keep secret. But something I’m sure my father would have shuddered to know is that the summer before my junior year, I watched every episode of Sex And The City after borrowing the DVDs from my much older sister without her knowing. Looking back, I’m not even sure if I cared about the more salacious scenes in the show (though I did have to scramble for the remote to turn down the volume every time Samantha found another lover) as I hadn’t even had a first kiss yet and wouldn’t for two more years. If anything, I think I was naïvely fascinated with the idea of Carrie—that New York columnist, famous for somehow living well beyond her means.
I was also never strictly forbidden to watch anything, but obviously there are things you’re pretty sure your parents don’t want you to see. When I was 12 or 13—you know, that special age—my older sister worked for Time Warner Cable. Part of her benefits package was that we had cable in several rooms, including every premium channel, for free. This was before cable’s current porno free-for-all (I sometimes blush just reading the titles in the cable guide!), but still, there existed The Playboy Channel. There was a way to lock channels—there was an actual KEY on the box, I shit you not—and that was the one that somebody decided my siblings and I shouldn’t be able to watch. But we figured out a way to unlock every channel with some weird combination of buttons, and The Playboy Channel was freed again. My memory is as fuzzy as a scrambled cable channel, but I don’t think the channel was actually that crazy—hardly worse than what was on Cinemax late at night, anyway. Still, when my sister quit that job, we all suffered a great loss (of free boobs).
My mom cast a wary eye on pretty much everything I liked once I became a teenager and started favoring non-mainstream stuff. Conservative and over-protective, she once called the forgotten Howie Mandel/Ted Danson comedy A Fine Mess I was watching “pornography,” because it had a scene in a strip club with a (clothed) dancer in the background. When I asked for records for my birthday, I recorded videos off 120 Minutes to try to prove these bands weren’t druggie devil-worshippers (or whatever she was worried about), with mixed success. For a while, I had to be sneaky about listening to Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails, because some jackass who worked at a chain store told my mom its members were Satanists. (Trent Reznor took the name from the spikes used to nail Jesus to the cross! Or so the story went.) It didn’t take her long to mellow; within a couple years, she was going to record stores trying to find a Skinny Puppy subway poster for me. She was the best.
When I was 14 I borrowed a copy of Memoirs Of A Geisha from my best friend, because she was allowed to read whatever she wanted, and the book was totally something people talked about on Oprah. The only reason I was explicitly not allowed to read it is because after I read it, my mom heard about it through Oprah, read it, loved it, and then said it was too adult for me. It almost definitely was, but it’s a beautiful book. About two weeks later, my mom relented and let me read it, saying that even if it was about a high-class prostitute, its themes were more broadly about being a woman in a patriarchal world. So I got out of disobedience on a technicality. Obviously, I was a weird 14-year-old.
Without the basement TV that came into my life during middle school, I wouldn’t have a career. My family took in a lot of TV together—Nick At Nite, sitcoms of the TGIF persuasion, various Star Trek spinoffs—but anything I viewed on my own was subject to the one dreaded inquiry: “What are you watching?” (The emphasis on the last word is important: It mixes curiosity, surprise, and a parental disappointment that will haunt me to the end of my days.) That boxy Philco, located just far enough from the basement landing, freed me from that question—so long as I kept the remote close by and either Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon one push of “Previous Channel” away. And thus I sacrificed multiple summer vacations to the mid-to-late-’90s programming of Comedy Central, a glorious daytime slate of sketch-show reruns, animated fare, and The Daily Show repeats. I’m not sure if any of those shows were truly “banned” in our house—mom and dad make a yearly visit to Toronto’s branch of The Second City, so we’d seen plenty of vintage Saturday Night Live as a family—but at least one show that I had to make special arrangements to watch was. And so I’d like to finally come clean, though I’m sure I didn’t hide it nearly as well as I thought I did: Mom, Dad—South Park was the reason I asked to sleep in the basement every Wednesday night for, like, three summers.
The content restrictions in my house growing up were so strict that all pop culture I consumed ultimately became like this weird battle of wills between my parents and myself. I’ve written before (perhaps too much) about my fundamentalist Christian upbringing, but one of the things it instilled in me was paranoia about my parents discovering I was watching or reading pretty much anything. I hid Star Wars novelizations from the school library way at the bottom of my backpack (having not been allowed to watch the movies, I figured I’d at least figure out what was up by reading the books), and I snuck in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie at a friend’s birthday party. This lasted well after they gave me license to consume what I wanted, trusting my taste and morals. When I wanted to attend a Smashing Pumpkins concert at 16, they were wary, but my father said perhaps he and I could sit down and read over the group’s lyrics together, and if they weren’t too objectionable, I could go. I suspect I would have gotten the green light, particularly if I cherry-picked the group’s non-“Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” songs, straying toward the “1979” and “Today” side of the spectrum, but the thought of doing so with my dad was so mortifying, I never brought it up again. That was likely his intention from the first.
My parents were pretty strict, so there was a lot of secret pop-culture consumption around my house, and I figured out the old “switching dust covers on books” trick pretty early. But when I was 12 or 13, I happened upon Def Comedy Jam during some stealth late-night HBO-watching. Although many punchlines went over my sheltered head, even I knew most of these jokes were absolutely filthy. In an odd bit of self-policing, I remember there was always a point where some joke was officially over… the… line, and that would be my cue to would turn the TV off and go to bed. It took another year or so for me to give up on the Jam entirely, but it did plant a seed of interest in comedy albums beyond Bill Cosby Himself. Pretty soon, I was swiping my parents’ copy of Richard Pryor’s …Is It Something I Said? and trying to figure out what the hell Mudbone was talking about. “Our Text For Today” still makes me giggle, so I suppose it was one of the few solid pop-culture taste-making decisions I made as a seventh grader.
I got to see movies above my age range relatively early thanks to my parents recognizing I wanted to see the R-rated films that offered more than just violence and nudity. And considering my music tastes didn’t gravitate into explicit rap music, I didn’t have to worry about Parental Advisory stickers on albums I wanted to purchase very often. But video games were the strictly limited entertainment medium in my household. My brother and I both had Game Boys, but we weren’t allowed to own a home console until after I turned 10. So that created the weird circumstance where I could track down a copy of the latest Rage Against The Machine album or watch a Quentin Tarantino movie, but had to go to a friend’s house to play Twisted Metal 2 and Mortal Kombat Trilogy on PlayStation. Gradually my mother got on board with the idea of video games as valuable entertainment—we got an N64 one Christmas with the strict caveat that we couldn’t buy or borrow “shooter games”—but most of my early experiences with console games came from sleepovers after soccer or baseball games, which in turn led to a subscription to Nintendo Power, which my parents should have seen as the sign that limiting my video game interests were a fool’s errand.
As a kid who was left alone a lot with HBO, and raised by a journalist mom who saw nothing wrong with taking me to see, say, Young Guns if she was going to a press screening, my TV and movie viewing was mostly unrestricted. But music was a different matter. My mom and dad were relatively young when they had me (22 and 21, respectively), and they considered themselves fairly hip, what with their growing up on Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, while also making room for contemporary artists like Tears For Fears and Bon Jovi. Still, their actually being aware of modern bands was kind of a drawback for me when, say, Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction was all over the news for its “robot rape” cover art. When I asked my parents for it for my 10th birthday, my dad acquiesced, but decided he’d better pre-screen it first, only to solemnly inform me after listening, “It’s too hardcore for me. And if it’s too hardcore for me, it’s too hardcore for you.” Of course, that only made me want it more. So every day after school, I would slip the cassette from the back of his tape library—where it was hidden behind some of my dad’s most “hardcore” albums, like Molly Hatchet’s No Guts…No Glory—and listen to it in secret, then return it before he got home. Eventually, I got the bright idea to dub it, but while the audio quality was the same, the album never sounded as good as it did during those illicit listening sessions, when I was both terrified and thrilled at the idea of getting caught. And it still doesn’t.
My content restrictions as a child fill me with rebellious pride now. We were avid Ellen viewers, but I wasn’t allowed to watch “The Puppy Episode” even though everybody and their gay kid knew what that was all about. Guess who had the last laugh. I didn’t have a TV in my room until college, so it took adolescence for me to summon the wherewithal to sneak TV. But when I would break for the living room after everyone had gone to sleep, I was always eager to find MTV’s Undressed, an anthology about libidinous youth. I came for the promiscuity, but I stayed for the gay normalization. There were episodes when all three storylines had positive Kinsey scores helpfully illustrated with same-sex kissing. To a gay teenager who had never known a real, live gay person and rarely seen one on television, Undressed wasn’t just a fantasy of openness and shirtlessness. It was an Ellen-sized landmark.
When I was 11, my dad read the original published version of The Stand by Stephen King, and I decided I wanted to read it. I’m not sure why; I think the cover (blue fading into night, with a ghost face floating over mountains) was cool, and it seemed scary, and I was big on scary. I was also incredibly easy to frighten at that age, so Dad came up with a rule: He’d read the King novels before me, and if he thought I could handle it, he’d let me read them next. This worked fine at first, but eventually we started getting to books that I wanted to read, but that he didn’t think I was ready for. First he told me to go with Pet Sematary instead of The Shining (which, in retrospect, is hilarious—“Oh hey, don’t play with that butcher knife! Try this chainsaw.”), and then he flat-out refused to let me look at IT. This was very sensible of him, because IT is fucking terrifying, and when I ignored the rule and decided to read it anyway, I was maybe more scared than I’d ever been in my entire life. But I felt weirdly grown-up about the whole thing, because it was the first time I’d ever openly disobeyed either of my parents. When Dad found out, he sighed, and then bought me a copy of the paperback. You know, the one with Tim Curry as Pennywise on the cover. I thought he was being kind, but maybe not.
My father outlawed The X-Files in our house (not that this stopped him from watching the first few seasons when they aired on Fox). His reasoning was pretty sound: I was six or seven, and earnest as I was about my ability to handle adult subjects, aside from being creepy, the episodes mentioned rape and murder a fair bit. Still, my sister and I would watch it when we could, though eventually my mother found out and banned my already-limited TV watching privileges. Thinking back, it seems even stranger since she let me watch The Shining with friends for my 11th birthday party. Guess she didn’t think The X-Files qualified as art, or something.
I had to really wrack my brain for this one, since I honestly didn’t think there was anything that my parents actively came right out and said, “Don’t watch, read, or listen to this,” unless it was a case of punishment, as was the case for a brief period when I wasn’t allowed to set the VCR to record Late Night With David Letterman until I got my grades up. (It was a fair cop. My grades kind of sucked at the time.) But then I remembered that, among my parents’ small but enjoyable collection of albums, there was one record which my father told me that he didn’t want me listening to: Doug Clark & The Hot Nuts. I honestly don’t remember which album it was, although looking at the band’s discography, I’d bet it was probably its debut release, Nuts To You, and given that the band’s stock-in-trade was double entendres, I suspect the only reason it was added to the “do not play” list was because I was a curious lad and would’ve asked for an explanation of the lyrics that my father was simply not prepared to provide. As a father myself now, I totally get that.
As a kid, my house had no cable and my parents enforced a strict “no television Monday through Thursday” rule up until high school, which meant that I had almost no concept of what was on TV beyond TGIF and the mix of children’s shows and syndicated reruns that aired on Saturdays. This essentially kept me in arrested TV development until I was about 14, holding onto childish entertainment that I never abandoned, because I wasn’t getting exposed to anything else. It was no secret that I loved Power Rangers (Mighty Morphin, Zeo, and Turbo, specifically) growing up, but there came a point when it was definitely uncool to watch the show, a time that arrived at the peak of my obsession. In junior high, I began to keep my love of Power Rangers from my friends, and I was jonesing for episodes so bad that I found ways to watch it secretly during the weekdays. I would break into my cousin’s house through the basement and sneak into his toy room to watch, or I would offer to help a neighbor with her dog so I could use her upstairs television. In those pre-Internet days, I would get the gist of episodes I missed by walking to a nearby gas station and reading the one-sentence summaries that accompanied the listings. Eventually superhero comic books and Joss Whedon TV shows would lead me away from the Rangers, but there were a good three years when this very shitty action-adventure series was my secret shame.