I’d like to change speeds this time out, and cast an eye towards the idiotbox instead of the silver screen. Our location will be New York, where a cast of characters featured a wealthy widower named Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), who lived in a luxurious penthouse with his nubile teenage daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato). As the story went, Drummond’s black housekeeper grew sick, and upon her deathbed bequeathed to her affluent white boss her two sons, Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges).
This was the ground broken on episode one of DIFF’RENT STROKES entitled “Movin’ in” — when it first aired on November 3rd 1978, and it was the pilot episode of one of my all time favorite sick-coms. Right from the start, critics heaped shit all over it, while viewers ignored the critics and ate it up.
The show, which was originally to be named 45 MINUTES FROM HARLEM, was immensely popular, and at its peak, had a staggering 41 million viewers who would tune in to hear pudgy-faced Arnold spout his catch phrase: “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout Willis?”. (Wacky Trivia: When in syndication on Japanese TV, the line is translated for viewers as “Joke only about your face!”)
The last episode aired on Aug. 30th 1986, but not before some seriously fucked-up poop went down on this series. Much has been made of all the tragic tabloid-worthy going-on’s with the former child star cast after the series wrapped, but little was said either then — or now — about what a driving force for savagery and perversion this situation comedy could occasionally be was while it was in the process of entertaining — and even purporting to teach — America’s youth.
First off, keep in mind that this was the late ’70s and early ’80s, and children’s TV programming like DIFF’RENT STROKES certainly wasn’t the first place you would look for the messed-up topics the middle aged white writers were dropping onto viewers in the latter years of its 8 season run. I’m hoping they meant well, but some of the freaky story lines that aired on D.S. were downright exploitation sleaze ripped from the pages of pulp novels and X-rated grindhouse films. That’s not to say that poor morals and debauchery were on display in every episode. Most of the time the Drummond clan was immersed in the usual boring lessons about honesty, good manners, and all that horse shit. You know — stuff like:
Arnold and Dudly framing Kareem Abdul Jabar as a child-beater (episode 103) — “By tomorrow, he’ll just be a tall black memory.”
Kimberly getting Bulimia (episode 181) — “I want the perfect body, and I’ll do anything to get it! Anything!!!“
Willis joining a gang called the Scorpions and getting put in jail (episode 50) — “I’m very, very disappointed in you, Willis.”
In recent years, I’ve noticed an odd trickle down effect on the public’s psyche caused by the show. I’ve read internet discussion board postings where people speak of pseudo-traumatic memories involving things they viewed on the show as youngsters, and simply can’t believe the things they saw weren’t imagined or all part of some surreal childhood nightmare.
Keep calm my babies. These things really happened, and on your sacred TV even. But if we talk about it, we can learn to heal. Let’s look back at the most harrowing of these televised sitcom nightmares, which was a two-part yarn called “The Bicycle Man” that aired in February 1983 during season five. In it, Gordon Jump plays a child molester/bike shop owner named Horton who entices Arnold and his pal Dudley to make private visits to his home so that he can try to get the boys naked and mack on them.
First off — and this should go without saying: the late Gordon Jump was the fuckin’ maytag repair man — one of the most sexless characters in television history! What’s the most outspoken Mormon in show biz doing on TV showing a couple of underage boys his shoe box full of naked-boy Polaroids? Isn’t that like being gang-raped by the cast of Sesame Street or something?
Anyway, after the precocious tykes are lured into his bikeshop-bachelor pad under the pretext of eating pizza and chocolate sundaes, Horton pulls out a porn magazine called “Cutie” for the boys to oogle causing Dudley to yell, “These ladies are NEKKID!“, to which Arnold breathlessly exclaims “Except for the leather boots!” I know, that was my favorite line of the episode too.
After the crash course in the wonders of pussy, Horton gets the lads boozed up on wine and convinces Dudly to take off his shirt and climb his back so they play “King of the Jungle.” Arnold puts on a safari hat and snaps pictures. Before long they move on to a rousing game of “Trampoline”. Most little kids don’t remove their shirts and jump up and down on a stinky old fat man’s bed after downing a bottle of wine — but I suppose no one can accuse Gary Coleman, or the character he played on DIFF’RENT STROKES of being average.
During another visit, Horton (who now wants the boys to call him “Curly”), trots out some X-rated cartoons and a shoebox of naked photos of himself and other kids(!). Now before I describe any more, I should stop the car and point something out. There are just too many valid reasons why naive Arnold should have been tipped off to Horton’s little-boy-craving horndoggery. The two overt ones being:
1. The boy’s characters were 13. Maybe an 8 year old wouldn’t pick up on a creepy bald fat man trying to get into his pants as a warning sign to get the fuck outta dodge, but these two shoulda had alarm bells goin’ off when the cartoon mouse porn got trotted out.
2. The Dudley Factor. Arnold knew damn well that he was the only being on earth that could stand Dudley for more than 5 minutes. It was totally a pity friendship, and Arnold was throwing him a bone. He should have known something was rotten when Horton was desperate to not only have Dudley hang around, but to do so sans clothing.
Finally, Arnold gets bored and leaves his poor friend to the advances of the deranged Maytag pervert, only to arrive at home and casually tell the homestead what was up. Ol’ Conrad Bain flips and gets on the horn to the pigs double-quick, and when Dudley’s dad and the cops bust in, Horton is caught red-handed with Duds in the bathroom getting all pedophilic on his ass.
“He gave me a pill. He said it would make me feel good,” a drunk and stoned Dudley tells his dad.
And holy shit. To add insult to sitcom injury, Dudley’s dad is just about the worst fucking professional actor in the history of TV! His face is an emotionless blank slate as he confronts his son about his ordeal. “It’s not your fault, son,” he blandly intones. Dude may as well have been reading his fucking grocery list.
As usual, there are (probably untrue) fandom rumors that a scene was left on the cutting room floor where Mr. Horton was sniffing the bike seats of his little bicycle display models. Apparently Conrad Bain was very upset that the scene was cut, because without it, the molester was less creepy and easier for the audience to pity.
If that was the only out-of-control episode to speak of, then perhaps one could overlook it as a deranged anomaly and give DIFF’RENT STROKES a free pass. But what about episode 179 (“Speak No Evil”), in which a white supremacy group comes to Arnold’s school to talk about the master race to students? He and Dudley make plans to throw rotten fruit, only to be stopped by Mr. Drummond — who explains to Arnold that since they live in America and live by the rules of free speech, racists have the right to preach hate in Junior High schools (??).
Or better still, how about episodes 138 and 139 from Jan. 1984 (“The Hitch-Hikers”), when Arnold and Kimberly thumbed a ride with a weird graphic designer/ photographer for NASA who promised to show the short black youngster his “secret rocket footage.” After hog-tying and locking a horrified Arnold in a side room, the nebbish psycho put the moves on Kimberly — who was clearly appalled by his advances. Some sort of all-time-creepy-sitcom-moment award should be given out for the following scene where the middle-aged rapist does a slow dance to “Strangers in the Night” with a softly sobbing Kimberly, while a hogtied Arnold howls his disapproval through his electrical-tape gag.
Gary Colman’s character deftly escapes with his life by smashing a window, but is so “traumatized” by his abusive experience that he has to be put under hypnosis to remember how to find the pervert’s apartment where Kimberly is still trapped. The surreal rears its ugly head as Arnold cracks laugh track-addled jokes about eating pop-corn and barking like a dog even while his youthful yuppie sister is in a red-lit dark room making disturbing little sexy moans and whimpers while the deranged “rocket man” tightly grasps her wrists and pushes his weight upon her.
Arnold takes a break from being an ass-hat and cracking wise only long enough to remember the man’s license plate number. Minutes later the cops arrive on the scene just in time to save the hysterical Drummond heiress’s virginity. During the shows obligatory wrap up, Kimberly and Arnold, showing zero negative psychological effects, celebrate the fun they’ve had with a party! WEEEEEEEEEE!!!! What a festive jest it is to be kidnapped and molested!
THE FACTS OF LIFE (a D.S. spin-off series also starring a cast of children) must have employed a few of the same sadistic writers. In one episode, underage Tootie dreams of becoming a model, and tries her darndest to follow that dream, but house-mom Mrs. Garret butts in after she’s made privy to how “provocative” the photo shoot will be. (i.e: Will Tootie end up baring it all on the cover of YOUNG BLACK PUSSY?) Or how about another episode where poor Tootie is almost lured into a life of prostitution while on a simple trip to the city? Woop! Tootie be a damn sex magnet!
They just don’t make sitcoms like they used to. It’s a good thing too, I got rid of my cable TV a few years back. I’d hate to think I was missing family entertainment as insane and sleazy as DIFF’RENT STROKES.