Getting Out of Control
Out of Control is probably one of the more obscure programs from Nick’s golden era, even though it enjoys the honor of having been the first major series to be produced on American soil by the network. Originally airing in 1984, the show gave us Dave “Cut It Out” Coulier as “himself” hosting an outrageous news program (of sorts) that took on a metacognitive approach much in the same way You Can’t Do That on Television had with a kids show.
In layman’s terms, Out of Control was more about the “news” show being made than it was about the news being presented by its quirky cast of characters. There was Waldo the Technician, Scoop the Intrepid Reporter, Coulier as host, and, of course, the inimitable Production Manager Diz Asster (real name Diz McNally, and yes, “Diz” is her real name) who, as a poster child of the 80s (still to this day, in fact!) can be seen in the same vein as your erstwhile Cyndi Lauper or Julie Brown (with whom she was featured in the uber-80s film Earth Girls Are Easy).
Offering everything from shaky-hand, cut-out animation to corollary mini-features like “Let’s Eat” and “How Not To Do Things,” along with the ever-popular stunt spectacle “Fast Told Fairy Tales” (probably one of the most memorable elements of the show in which Diz would, in one take, speedily run through an entire “fairy tale” in under a minute), the show would go on to last only one season.
It would be continually re-run “to death” (in the words of creator Bob Hughes) thereafter, though to this day is still one of the only Nick shows you can’t get on DVD or even VHS (!).
Despite the show’s being frantically fun and chocked-full of exactly the kind of kid-friendly vim and vigor that Nick programs would become known for throughout the subsequent decade, Hughes told me that the production was pretty much in trouble after Day One.
“Nickelodeon was still very much finding itself when we were making Out of Control,” he said in a phone interview with me. “Biggest hit they’d had was You Can’t Do That on Television. They were real happy with that. They held that up as a model. Thing is about that show: It was a bunch of young actors. We were doing a show that didn’t have kids. That was automatically different from the model we were being presented.”
Hughes had always been a big film kid, handing in 8mm films in lieu of papers in school and, according to the show creator, “they were always ‘A’s.” After receiving his MFA in cinema studies from the University of Southern California — from whose “mafia” he would collect many of the crewmembers and cast of Out of Control — Hughes went on to work for a company called Klein& based out of Los Angeles.
“I got hooked up with Nickelodeon because I was working with a company that did broadcast promotion — music, animation, live action components of broadcast identity,” Hughes continued.
Fast Told Fairy Tale version of what happened next:
Klein& president Bob Klein (“who literally wrote the book on broadcast promotion,” Media Promotion & Marketing for Broadcasting, Cable & the Internet) was old friends with a man named Cy Schneider who ran Nickelodeon before Gerry Laybourne got onboard (Schneider too, by the way, wrote a book, this one on children’s television, aptly entitled, Children’s Television: The Art, the Business, and How it Works).
After establishing Nick’s original branding identity — including a silver pinball bouncing around the screen — Hughes and Klein& began pitching programming ideas to Schneider.
Their first attempt involved a series of shorts in 1982 that would be, according to Hughes, “music videos on rollercoasters” called Wild Rides that starred a young Matt Dillon as host.
Schneider thought that was “cool, let’s do something else together,” and the team came up with the idea of a doing “a news magazine show for kids that parodied what magazine shows were.” The series was initially going to be called The Out of Control Room in reference to the “control room” of a news broadcast.
“We dropped ‘the Room,’” Hughes concluded the story, “and were commissioned to do 26 episodes [which at that time was one season].”
But, who would host?
Coulier’s entry would have a most unexpected trajectory. Turns out Hughes had gotten the idea for Out of Control’s “Hurry Up” segments (comically sped-up videos of things kids wouldn’t want to do like throwing out the trash) from a short made by an NYU film named student Bob Saget.
(Though Hughes went on to tell me that the film, which he recalled as being titled “Morning Becomes Electric,” won the Student Academy Award, I found no information about this online and in fact Saget’s only Student Academy Award win seems to have been for a facial reconstruction documentary called “Through Adam’s Eyes,” so go figure).
Saget was brought in to see if he could host the show; Hughes didn’t feel he was quite right, but the future Full House star did have a good friend in Coulier whom he thought would be perfect for the part of Out of Control’s host. He was right, Hughes loved the guy (PS: Saget would similarly help Coulier out on Full House when the original “Joey” ended up not working out) and Coulier became “Dave” on Out of Control.
Before Nickelodeon, Coulier wrote me in an email correspondence, he was “touring the country, playing nightclubs and having a blast. I started at the Comedy Castle in Detroit when I was 18 years old.” He had met Saget at an open mic at a club in Detroit called the Delta Lady and the two become fast friends, remaining close to this day.
“I wish I had a friend like Bob Saget,” Hughes told me.
“At the time,” Coulier said in his email, “I had never heard of Nickelodeon. But, I was a grownup child, so I had no reservations about being on a ‘children’s’ network. Cable TV was really the open frontier for television back then. They left us alone, so we had a lot of creative freedom.”
Creative freedom being something particularly important for the 25-year-old comic on the rise, whom Hughes reminds, “For all the bad identity he has as an actor on Full House, which is kind of a sappy show, in the world of comics, in that day, Coulier was a demigod.”
“On a bad night for him, it was him doing his act. On a good night, he had a drunk heckling him he would pick apart. Somebody arrived late, he took them to task. Somebody got up to go to the bathroom, somebody spilled a drink? He would get an interaction going with the audience that was improv and was hysterical. There were few comics who riffed on the audience the way Coulier did.”
This was significant to Hughes who told me that most of the “actors” they auditioned for host of the show were wrong because what Out of Control needed was a “reactor,” someone who could “riff” on whatever was going on around him, specifically in the field segments shot on the road such as the “Let’s Eat” pieces (in which Coulier would report on a “best chili dog” restaurant and the like).
Not surprisingly, Hughes explained, “One of the things Coulier could do really well was character voices — a perfect Popeye and sound effects like a trumpet that sounded exactly like a muted coronet. In fact, when he finished our series, he moved directly into Muppet Babies, where he did all [well, most of] the characters [after Howie Mandel left].”
“Because of his kind of cartoony qualities, he was ideal for this show.”
Aside from Saget, other potentials for host of Out of Control included comedian Thomas Wilson (“Biff” in the Back to the Future franchise) and Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame. (An entire episode of Out of Control would later center around Hodgson as an inept magician.)
Along with Coulier, the show would be a springboard (sure, why not?) for the careers of other recognizable names today. Dennis Miller starred in two show segments, and one of the field producers was none other than Robert Yeoman, who went on to become a world-class director of photography, shooting Drugstore Cowboy and every single live-action Wes Anderson film to date. Heck, even classic TV mainstay Bill Bixby made an appearance on Out of Control, which Hughes found to be hilarious when we discussed it.
It was at USC, though, that the show creator would discover a young undergraduate theater major with the unlikely name of Diz (“My parents were kind of hippies,” she told me, joking that her middle name was “E”) who took her roles in school performances quite seriously… especially when she performed her eye-catching one-woman show of the entire Wizard of Oz film… done in ten minutes. (Her license plate still reads “Diz of Oz.”)
Originally from the small town of Franklin, Massachusetts, Diz told me she moved to LA in order to go to USC where she “majored in theater and minored in waitressing.”
“Bob had seen me in a lot of plays and he thought I’d be good for this show he was developing,” Diz said. “It just sounded like a blast. ‘Count me in, G!’”
“What really impressed Bob was I wrote it myself — the Diz version of The Wizard of Oz — and he thought that was pretty funny, and he had me in mind to do my ‘Fast Told Fairy Tales’ on the show.”
“I had to audition for the head people over there at Bob’s office and for Bob Klein, the producer and everything like that. I basically did a couple of ‘Fast Told Fairy Tales’ as an audition piece [Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood, ‘the Diz versions, of course.’]”
“I didn’t think anything of it: You audition a lot out here in California. I didn’t know it was a definitely go, I didn’t know I was going to get the part, but I was definitely ready.”
One of the keys to the persona of Diz Asster was her maniacally indelible “eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee” shriek she would make from time to time. The “Diz Call,” as the actress refers to it, was simply something her whole family (even her grandparents) would employ in communicating with each other from far away distances or as friendly salutations.
“After you’d finish supper, you’d go out and stand on the porch and go ‘eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee!’ Now I’ve got everybody in Hollywood doing it. Even the UPS drivers and the post office guys when they go by at the newsstand [where Diz works today in one of her many “pretend jobs,” as she calls them, since her days at Out of Control]. They do the ‘Diz Call.’”
And never fear, despite her uncannily rapid speaking ability, her loud and exuberant style, and her going balls-to-the-wall in everything she did on the show (and, from what it seems from our amazingly outrageous conversation over the phone just two weeks ago), Diz told me she never once lost her voice while doing her act and can in fact do the “Diz Call” even with her mouth closed (which she did for me over the phone and is something you’ll have to experience for yourself some time).
“It doesn’t hurt your throat because it automatically happens,” Diz said.
According to Hughes, not everyone had quite as easy of a time acclimating to the show. Coulier’s being brought on board as a “reactor” did sometimes cause some consternation when he was needed to actually, well, act.
“The problem for Dave was he wasn’t an actor,” Hughes said. “We had to work really hard with him to get him into the script. Then we’d let improv happen when he had to know his material… and he wasn’t very disciplined.”
Said Coulier: “I just tried to be in the moment and make whatever sketch we were doing work. Sometimes sticking to the script seemed to make things less funny. I was always trying to get the crew and cast to laugh at something. It sounds like it may have frustrated Bob. Sorry, Bob.”
Regardless of any kind of difficulties in his “acting” discipline on the show, Coulier was undoubtedly one of the most entertaining aspects of the program in the memories of those who worked on it.
As the show was incredibly collaborative — “We didn’t have the budget to mess around, and it was very ‘Go into your closet and get whatever clothes you have for a costume’”, Hughes said — Coulier not only hosted but also worked closely with animator Cliff Johnson (from Hughes’ alma mater, of course) to voice each of Out of Control’s animated sketches.
“They would show me a character and I would come up with a voice,” Coulier said. “One of my favorite characters was named ‘The Critic.’ I looked at that character and the first voice that I came up with made us laugh. It was a very simple process, really.”
Coulier went on to tell me that because of the intimate working relations on the show, “I really bonded with Marty Schiff [Hern Burferd]. He is so funny and was always open to trying new things. He was such a fun, comedic actor to play off of. He would dive in, head-first to any comedy situation.”
“Diz was a real sweetheart. Despite her crazy wardrobe and makeup, she was this caring, sweet and thoughtful person underneath. She added this weird, pre-Cyndi Lauper style to the show that kids loved.”
Writer Larry Sulkis remembers Coulier as a prime asset of the show and his ability to work so closely with the others as essential to Out of Control’s unique comedy approach: “Dave’s a very creative guy and did a lot of improv on set and on location. He would just take it and run. The in-studio things, it was a combination of all of us. That was part of the overarching theme of our writing: What would happen between him and Scoop and Hern and Waldo?”
“I can remember one time shooting in a miniature museum with Coulier and he was shooting a tour of a doll house with his fingers walking around,” Hughes said. “It was so funny we couldn’t breathe, we were laughing so hard. And it was all improv.”
Hughes also remembered a “Let’s Eat” segment at a fried chicken restaurant in which Coulier began using a full chicken as a puppet, making it dance and do exercises. Coulier had a fond recollection of this bit, as well.
“Again, it was a lot of improvising,” Coulier said. “And I can still hear Bob and Larry laughing when we were playing around. A lot of times, we didn’t have a planned sketch. It was like: ‘Let’s come up with something funny/Okay, hand me that chicken.’”
“That was so funny we were laughing and ruining takes,” Hughes said. “My hat is off to Dave. I think he’s sorely slighted in his reputation in being in a goofy juvenile sitcom. But in the world of comics, he was a comic’s comic. Very highly regarded. He would blow big names off the stage. He would do his bit and nobody wanted to follow him. He would make us laugh so hard.”
Even Diz told me that she couldn’t help but love Coulier as much as her character had on the show: “At the time, it broke my heart: I knew Dave had a girlfriend during Out of Control.”
Which, for good or ill, leads us to that resounding rumor about Out of Control we’ve all heard and read about. Did Dave Coulier really date Alanis Morissette while she was on You Can’t Do That on Television and he was on Out of Control?
Said Diz: “I always heard that story, but I don’t know how they would have been able to do that. Her show was filmed in Canada and we were down here in Van Nuys, California. She never came on the set. She never appeared ‘out of nowhere.’ There was never any talk around the set. We just knew he had a girlfriend.”
Merle Kessler was part of the comedy troupe Duck’s Breath Mystery Theatre that helped to write and performed in some of Out of Control’s skits. When I asked him if he had any thoughts on Alanis’ Jagged Little Pill being about Coulier: “I did the math in my head and if that’s true, when he met her… he must have been on Out of Control.”
Hughes told me that though he and Coulier had talked in the past about “the legend,” it would be best for me to ask the man about it himself. Which, I did. Coulier was gracious enough to clear up any confusion on the matter:
“Alanis and I didn’t start dating until 1992. We saw each other a couple years after Jagged Little Pill. She was a really sweet person. The two Nickelodeon shows that we appeared on were merely coincidence. It’s kind of weird that this story has become such fodder for an urban legend.”
Now, granted, Jagged Little Pill (in particular the song that got this rumor buzzing for its rather lascivious lyrics, “You Oughta Know”) came out in 1995, and there has been a lot of bandying back-and-forth in various interviews in the past with both Morissette and Coulier (apparently, other possibilities are Matt LeBlanc and even Bob Saget) so who knows what the truth of the matter could be viz. whom she was singing about?
According to Sulkis, the notion of the two having dated when they were on their respective Nick shows wouldn’t have made much sense for more than the obvious reason of distance (not to mention Dave’s being 25 to her 10): “I don’t think Dave’s girlfriend Lynne would have put up with that. At least not at that time.”
And, if you’re ready for this, Coulier delved further into the revelations with the story of how he “came up with” his signature “Cut… it… out” routine that followed him from this show to Full House and beyond…
“I stole ‘Cut it out’ from my childhood friend, Mark Cendrowski. I told him that one day I would use that for something. Mark and I used to shoot 8mm movies when we were growing up in Detroit. He’s now one of the most successful directors in television and directs The Big Bang Theory [as well as past work on such shows as Hannah Montana, The King of Queens, and, surprise, Full House].”
“Whenever ‘Cut it out’ comes up, he reminds me that I stole it from him. So, if you can’t steal ‘Cut it out’ from a friend and make it a famous catch phrase, what good are they?”
Now, if any of this Alanis-dating, “Cut it out”-stealing, “Diz Call”-shrieking business might seem a bit… much for a children’s show, you’re not alone. Even Coulier felt some of what they did on the show might have gone too far, even though it seems he and the rest of the folks I talked to were more than happy to present kids with ideals of insubordination and subversion on Out of Control.
“We have no regrets about misleading children,” laughed Hughes (who would go on after Out of Control to direct such children’s fare as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and VR Troopers).
“We all grew up in the 60s and the 70s, and we were all completely antiauthoritarian. That was an iconoclastic era, and all of us were still reverberating from that. It was just built into our DNA. We had suddenly been given this megaphone and we could now turn on the authority and say what we wanted to say and say that what you’re saying isn’t always right.”
“Bear in mind, this was not a mean-spirited show. This was a fun show. But, we were always trying to encourage people to look their own way and be their own man.”
“The show was tremendous fun to do because there were very few regulators on what we could do with our imagination,” said Sulkis who would go on from Out of Control to become a successful screenwriter, working with such talents as John Carpenter (you owe those sardonic television commercials from They Live to Sulkis).
“Our motto was that we were ‘scientifically stupid.’ We were definitely engineering stupidity and stupid situations. It was fairly anti-authoritarian. Now as a father of a nine-year-old and a ten-year-old, I’m not sure I would really want them to watch the show. But, at the time, it was meant to be fun and it was fun.”
“Our humor was our humor. And that goes directly back to Bob and Duck’s Breath and my own odd sensibilities. That’s just who we were and what we thought was funny. Our goal was to create these situations and these contrasts that were odd because they were out of context or funny because they were awkward.”
Sulkis then put it best (and perhaps had the most incisive screed about Nickelodeon in general during this era of anyone I’ve talked to about any show thus far):
In a sense, we were mirroring what was happening in rock-and-roll. The large corporate gloss — heavy production value — content of rock-and-roll had become so uninteresting that anybody who was alive and not just marching to the robot drone was looking for something new and edgy and homegrown, and that was where the whole punk movement came out of the garages on that.
I’m not saying Nickelodeon was punk or Out of Control was a punk show, but it was definitely grass roots.
All in all, every day you walked into that office and started working, it was a fine balance between chaotic catastrophe because there were no budgets and immense fun because you were with a group trying to be scientifically stupid, trying to push the boundaries of kid humor at that point.
“That’s the reason Bob Hughes came to us — smart guys doing really stupid stuff,” said Kessler. “There’s a disconnect when you watch it: ‘Why is that guy in a suit putting a seltzer bottle in his face?’ If someone is doing something silly who looks silly, it’s not as funny as someone who looks dignified and doing something silly.”
“I thought it was a pretty good show. Obviously, it’s for, like, seven-year-old kids, pretty much.”
Which again, may have been true in some ways, but according to Hughes, not-so-much:
“We were writing these shows for ourselves. We weren’t dumbing it down for the kids. We just took subject matter that we knew that kids would like and did what we wanted with it.”
In truth, after only one privately organized focus group with a class of students from a school in Hollywood, Hughes and his team would never again bother with such market analysis, doing what they wanted and what they thought was funny.
“Stupid is good,” he said. “You’re taking people down a notch. These are people with some authority, but they’re dumb. It’s a kind of comic device to play with contradiction. That’s where this stupid-smart thing with the Ducks and our characters sort of work. Some of these shows, they take themselves so seriously, and we wanted to bring them down a peg.”
In working this way, sure, “There were concerns sometimes that we were being too mature, but never a concern that we could be too silly. We could never be silly enough as far as we were concerned. So that was never a problem. We knew we were in that Mad Magazine vein, dealing with parody and satire a lot.”
“Whether it would be completely lost on the kids was a concern. As long as we felt there was enough juvenile appeal, however, we felt we’d be okay.”
Hughes did go on to reveal that despite having bits on the show that parodied such arcana (for kids, at least) as Margaret Mead and a segment in which someone was throwing pennies off of the Empire State Building to see if doing so could actually kill somebody, the only time something was a might bit too mature for even him was when an exec at Nickelodeon “nicely” persuaded the group to use a sketch produced by a “lady friend” in New York City… with some rather incendiary results:
“It was about a little girl who wanted to be an adult, and this producer dressed this girl up kind of like Madonna. She looked like a child prostitute, and this was really inappropriate.”
“So when it got turned in, we sent it to the network immediately and said we didn’t think it was such a good idea. They immediately agreed, withdrew, and left us to our own devices.”
“That was a rare situation, though. We had a lot of good people and there was a lot of trust involved.”
That trust would, unfortunately, be put to the test (and fail) when Laybourne — who Hughes praised highly in our conversation (as has everyone else in the Nick world I’ve spoken to) — took over the network from Schneider… halfway through Out of Control’s first season.
For whatever reason, Hughes told me, Laybourne didn’t much care for the “meta” aspect of the show, criticizing Hughes for allowing Coulier to speak to the camera a la Groucho Marx. Of course, Hughes chuckled to me, that’s what the whole show was about, and from there he knew they were not going to be around much longer.
And he was right. A show about a bunch of kooky adults just would no longer fly on what was becoming the First Kids Network, and off everyone went in their own disparate directions, though many cast and crew members are still friendly with one another today.
As America’s first Nickelodeon-produced show, Out of Control may have lamentably faded away into the pixilated oubliette of 80s nostalgia. But its legacy in the view of creator Hughes may have laid the seeds for what the network and children’s television in general would become as it continued to grow over the years that followed:
“Those were early days for me as director and producer. I had never made a television series before. Nobody on the staff had ever made a television series before. We were figuring it out as we went along. Breaking every rule because we didn’t know any better.”
“And a lot of times, that helped us because we did things that were unexpected or different. Other times, it hurt us because we were so naïve.”
“I don’t think we influenced a lot of people… but maybe twisted a few brains of the kids who watched it.”
[I would like to extend my gratitude to Dave Coulier and his publicist Sabrina Propper for their cooperation in the writing of this article under difficult circumstances.]
Mathew Klickstein is the author of SLIMED! An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age, which is in stores everywhere and will tell you more about Nickelodeon than you probably should know.