On ‘Reply All’, Jonathan Goldstein Solved the Fascinating, Tear-Jerking Pop-Culture Mystery of Mason Reese

masonreese
YouTube is such a big part of our lives these days that it can be easy to forget what a miracle the website represents. As Jonathan Goldstein, beloved cult humorist behind CBC sensation Wiretap and longtime This American Life producer and novelist, acknowledges early in the internet-themed podcast Reply All, YouTube really is nothing short of magical.

YouTube has the power to reconnect us with bits of our own past, and our cultural past, that otherwise would be permanently lost to the ages. YouTube is a memory machine as much as it is a website that hosts streaming videos. In this capacity as a memory machine, Goldstein used it extensively, and tipsily, and would always come back to the same strange obsession: Mason Reese.

Mason Reese, as I suspect none of you might remember, was a strange-looking child actor in the early 1970s whose shocking red hair, weird old man facial features, curious voice, and precocious air made him utterly distinctive and paved the way for a brief but prolific and lucrative career as a television pitchman.

But Reese didn’t just sell one product: he sold just about everything, and he was able to leverage his popularity as a commercial pitchman into appearances on The Mike Douglas Show, a TV pilot, and even a quickie book. Goldstein was surprised and astonished to discover that the work of Mason Reese had made its way to YouTube but he was particularly fascinated to discover what nostalgia buff was uploading this pop culture ephemera to the site: Reese himself.

This was particularly remarkable considering that one of the videos now available online shows Reese weeping so hard when musical guest Harry Chapin played “Cat’s In The Cradle” during a Mike Douglas episode that Reese was co-hosting, that the precious star was inconsolable and Reese had to leave the show with a half hour left. Goldstein’s imagination was ignited.

Who would upload a video of themselves crying publicly on YouTube? And why was Reese crying? As a nostalgia detective, Goldstein gravitated to the easiest and most obvious explanation for the outburst. Clearly, something about this preeminent male tear-jerker clearly resonated with a little boy who spent much of his life working instead of enjoying being a child.

Was Reese crying because the song echoed his own relationship with his father? Or was the reverse true, and Reese realized that in this case he was the one who was presumably always working too hard to be able to really honor the father-son bond? In his quest to uncover the truth behind this fascinating enigma, Goldstein managed to track down Reese so he could ask him personally about his breakdown.

We are conditioned to expect the worst of former child stars. The conventional wisdom holds that they fall apart once fame proves fleeting, so perhaps the most shocking element of Reese’s life today is how inexplicably well-adjusted and normal he seems. Oh sure, his appearance is still striking and dramatic, and not necessarily in a good way.

But for a child who grew up being notorious for his bizarre appearance and wept openly during a Mike Douglas Show taping, Reese seems shockingly well-adjusted, even normal. He has successfully operated a few small businesses and seems to have come to terms with the surreal nature of his childhood fame, at least to the point where he does not mind having it live again on YouTube, where, of course, people say horrible things, because people are the worst, whether you’re a funny-looking child star or a grown man reflecting back on his preposterous childhood fame.

Goldstein drills Reese on the “Cat’s In The Cradle” meltdown, clearly expecting some manner of Oedipal drama to emerge if he keeps asking Reese about his relationship with his father. But Reese states repeatedly that he was very close to his father, to the point where after his parents divorced, Reese lived with his dad.

The explanation Reese offers is at once oddly anticlimactic and fascinating. Reese, an old pro at show business as a prepubescent, but also, you know, an actual child, asked Chapin if he was going to play “Cat’s in the Cradle” before the show was taped and Chapin told the youngster that he was actually going to play one of his newer songs instead.

So when Reese temporarily let his air of professionalism slip, it was partially because “Cat’s In The Cradle” is an intense, tear-jerking song regardless of your relationship with your father. But he was also overwhelmed with emotion because in Reese’s uncomprehending child’s brain, Chapin lied to him when he told him that he wasn’t going to perform “Cat’s In The Cradle.” If Reese were older, he might understand that Chapin meant nothing malicious by it, and that the decision for Chapin to perform his signature hit was probably made by a producer rather than Chapin himself.

That’s how an adult might understand the situation. But to Reese, it felt like a lie. I wonder if part of the reason this consummate little pro freaked out was because it stood in for every lie he’d ever been told by adults who were supposed to have his best interests in mind, but often put their own needs and desires first. The grown-up Reese ends up crying when he thinks about a childhood that fills him with both pride and more than a little regret, just as his tiny, younger self did.

Goldstein argues that we cry as children because the world is unfair and we don’t understand it, and that we cry as adults between the world is unfair and we do understand it. The “Why Is Mason Reese Crying?” episode of Reply All is less funny than haunting and tragicomic and bittersweet. It only lasts about a half hour, but it resurrects a time and place otherwise lost to time and is mesmerizing and insightful in its empathetic exploration of childhood fame and its endless shadow.

I recommend seeking it out on Soundcloud, since iTunes charges for it. Ironically or not, unlike a lot of podcast episodes, The “Why Is Mason Reese Crying?” episode of Reply All is not on YouTube (or at least it isn’t when I write this), but considering how utterly fascinating it is, maybe Goldstein, or Reese should finally put it where the rest of our childhoods are available to us, and forever just a click away.

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