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Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Grinning From Eyeball to Ear: The Psychic Timebomb of Steampipe Alley

The "classic" kids show of the days of early television have a curious amount of nostalgic pull, considering they did not flourish for long. I blame Baby Boomers, who consider all of their cultural touchstones vastly superior to what followed. Whatever the reason, the children's programming of the 1950s — Howdy Doody, Bozo the Clown, Captain Video, and the like — is still what many people think of when they think "kids show." A puppeteered or costumed ringleader, a series of corny recurring characters, a few cartoons, and a studio audience of cheering preteens. Think Krusty the Klown without the Percodan-addicted host.

In the late 1980s, decades after most stations had abandoned such programming, a local station in the nation's largest media market unilaterally decided to revive it. Secaucus, New Jersey's WWOR — a channel with TBS-like superstation aspirations, and the point of origin for such diverse programming as Romper Room, Joe Franklin, and Morton Downey Jr. — launched a kids' show curiously entitled Steampipe Alley, which ran on Sunday afternoons from 1988 to 1993.

With its Our Gang meets Super Mario Brothers set and studio audience of squealing tweeners, Steampipe Alley was clearly intended to evoke the memory of Howdy Doody and similar kids shows of yesteryear. The reality was much, much weirder. Watching Steampipe Alley now, the show does not come across as a throwback to days gone by. It doesn't seem ahead of its time, either. If anything, Steampipe Alley appears to originate from some parallel dimension where our simple rules of decorum and physics mean nothing. It’s hard to imagine that any of it was allowed on the air at any hour, let alone aimed at kids. But it was.

Mention Steampipe Alley to someone of a certain age who grew up in the tri-state area, and chances are they will be taken aback with an almost Proustian flood of memories. Author Rachel Shukert called it "the television equivalent of Narnia; it was there eternally, but only able to be reached by the children who really needed it."

The main reason for this is Steampipe Alley's host, comedian Mario Cantone. Readers may be familiar with him from his recurring role on Sex and the City, or his standup specials, or his appearances on Comedy Central roasts. If so, you are well aware of his high energy, flamboyant mannerisms, and excessively campy references. You might expect him to tone these features down for a kids show. You'd expect wrong.

The clip above is from the first three minutes of an episode. 24 wishes it could have been this intense.

A typical episode of Steampipe Alley would begin much like this: the Terry-Gilliam-on-a-budget of the opening, followed by Cantone delivering manic, Robin Williams-esque riffs to his audience and roping one of them into some game. In the case above, it was Three Sewer Monte, one of many sewer-themed contests that employed the set's plumbing motif. A kid would pick one of three pipes to stand under and hope it contained a fabulous prize when opened. If not, they would be drenched in old spaghetti. (Hard hats provided for safety, of course.)

Cantone also loved to shoehorn one of his many celebrity impressions into the act, as in this next clip, where he imitates Sammy Davis Jr. and invites a young lady to find the eye in the stuffing. (Normally this bit was called Eye in the Pie; this just happened to be a special Thanksgiving episode.) You can not imagine any kids show nowadays making light of someone's infirmity like this, or allowing their host to delve so deep into references that were sure to go over every kid's head. I remember thinking this bit was funny, but also having to ask my mom exactly why it was funny, as I was not familiar with Rat Pack-related humor at age 10.

Cantone would perform a few sketches, occasionally employing his young audience in bit roles, as in this lengthy parody of Bye Bye Birdie. But he also did plenty of skits on his own, such as this Julia Child spoof that "teaches" kids to make their own snacks. These days, a TV show host who dared tell kids to make stuff like this would be taken off the air, and possibly imprisoned.

In this clip, Cantone ventures out of the studio and tries to switch the spaghetti usually served at his station's commissary with his own concoction, spiders primavera (a gross-out dish often seen on the show). Of all the times I've seen someone try to feed worms to Morton Downey Jr., this is easily my favorite.

After an hour of this insanity (broken up by the occasional old cartoon and whatever “special mystery guest” could be roped into making the trip to Secaucus), the show would conclude with Brain Drain, a low octane trivia contest. The winner was then invited to plow through an obstacle course that made little effort to hide the debt it owed to Double Dare, all while Cantone screeched direction at the lucky participant.

Looking back on Steampipe Alley with adult eyes, what I find most fascinating is how few concessions Cantone made to his young audience. All his material is perfectly G-rated, but it is also aggressively campy and relies on references that some adults would've had trouble placing, let alone kids. Mommie Dearest and Sunset Boulevard quotes were par for the course. It's doubtful most kids knew he was riffing on such personalities as Joan Rivers or Rex Reed, but that didn't prevent him doing it anyway.

He also pushed the envelope with sketches like this one, "Raging Bullwinkle," in which Rocky and Bullwinkle do their own safe-for-network-TV version of the DeNiro-Pesci "Did you fuck my wife?" scene. It is intensely bizarre and makes zero sense unless you have seen Raging Bull. How many kids watching this had seen Raging Bull? Zero, I hope.

The other thing that I enjoy about Steampipe Alley is its resolute regionalism. There is no question that this show was made in New Jersey, and I do not intend that as a putdown. It is simply stamped with a time and place in a way that has been leeched out of modern TV, except on reality shows, where the parochial is either held up for mockery or as a museum piece.

The biggest question I have is how this show was greenlit in the first place, let alone lasted for five years. Sadly, there is a dearth of verifiable information about Steampipe Alley out there. Archives of local newspapers show that it received almost zero coverage when it aired. Whenever Cantone is profiled somewhere, there is a brief mention of this line item on his résumé, but little else.

On the few occasions he has addressed Steampipe Alley, Cantone has been less than charitable; his standup act makes somewhat bitter references to it. When he appeared on The Jimmy Fallon Show right around the time Sex and the City 2 came out, The Roots actually played him out to the Steampipe Alley theme song, thus forcing him to broach the subject. By Cantone's telling, he was basically given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted (even if one of his producers complained he was creating "a Fire Island cabaret"). In so doing, he gained a much older audience than he anticipated, along with some colorful pen pals.

I’m not all that surprised to hear that Cantone barely knew what he was doing, didn't even like kids, and basically did the show to amuse himself. It is precisely this kind of self-indulgent non-pandering that makes it such an odd artifact, such a psychic timebomb in the minds of all the former kids who saw it. That is why Steampipe Alley now belongs to the ages. The very weird, very campy ages.

Matthew Callan gripes about the Mets at AmazinAvenue.com and about everything else at Scratchbomb.com. You may have seen his writing in McSweeneys, the New York Press, and Best American Non-Required Reading. If so, please return it to him.

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  • Andy Bradford@facebook

    This is amazing. I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and watch this show all the time. I have asked other people i know over the years about it, and no one ever knew what i was talking about. It was definately unlike anything else I ever saw before at the time. I think thats why i enjoyed it so much…

  • Mike Jones

    this is awesome. I realize that I'm about two years late on this article, but I was tryin' to find Steampipe Alley footage and this popped up.

    I was on the show as a kid and I was actually selected outta the crowd to be in Three Sewer Monte (I still have it on VHS at home). I can remember that day like it was yesterday. Tina Yothers was the guest. Before the show, they get you all amped up on free ice cream. I'll never forget, they asked us if we had any questions and my best friend Jon (RIP) asked if Mario was on cocaine. The lady just looked at us crazy. Shit was hilarious.

    Thanks for the article. It's on point, especially with regards to it's regionality and it's 'over-the-audience's-head humor.

    • Britt

      I was doing the same thing – looking for Steampipe Alley footage, stumbling across this article. I was on the show, too! The guest was WWF (or WWE, as it's known now) wrestler Hacksaw Jim Duggan. No one nearly as famous as Tina Yothers! Mario Cantone had the world's roughest hands, like he'd worked decades in construction. There used to be a talk show on this same channel called "People are Talking" hosted by "that icky Matt Lauer", as my mom used to call him (same Matt Lauer). Anyway, yeah, I totally didn't get this show when I was a kid, but still watched it.