Pointless Nostalgia: Steampipe Alley

Steampipe Alley 2.jpgWhile searching through the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives, looking for something I hope to digitize and post to the site very soon (shh! it’s a secret!), I ran across not one, not two, but three full episodes of Steampipe Alley. They’re like the Dead Sea Scrolls of kids’ show camp!

Once I made this discovery, I did a quick tour of the interwebs and discovered–TO MY HORROR–that there is virtually no online record of Steampipe Alley‘s existence. THIS ENDS HERE!

If you didn’t grow up in the Tri-State Area and/or you aren’t of a certain age, you may have never heard of Steampipe Alley. It aired on WWOR, channel 9. Nowadays, it’s a “My” station whatever the hell that means, but back then, it was an independent station with Superstation aspirations that broadcast out of Seacaucus, NJ.

Once upon a time, every local TV channel had its own self-produced kids’ show with a goofy host, contests, sketches, and cartoons. By the 1980s, almost none of them did. In fact, by that time, there were very few independent stations left at all. Channel 9 was a rare outpost for ultra-local programming (and a budget to match), wedged in between Cosby Show reruns, old movies, and other syndicated fare.

In 1988, for some anachronistic reason, WWOR decided to produce its own kids’ show called Steampipe Alley. Info on the interwebs about the program’s origins (or anything else about it) is spotty at best. Here’s all you really need to know: it was hosted by Mario Cantone.

You may know Mr. Cantone from Sex and the City, or you may have seen him on a Comedy Central Roast or two, or you may have seen him do his standup act. But if you’ve seen him in any form, you know that he’s high energy, to say the least. And he loves campy, old timey references that he’s way too young to namecheck. He’s equal parts Robin Williams, Rip Taylor, and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Did he tone it down a bit when he hosted a kids’ show? I think you know the answer to that question already.

And that was just the opening–the opening!–of this show. What are the chances the children in the audience–studio or at home–understood everything they just saw? Somewhere between slim and none.

And yet, the show ran for several seasons and is still much beloved from the ex-kids who watched it in their formative years. Mention Steampipe Alley to a kid who grew up in NY/NJ in the 80s, and chances are their eyes will light up with glee.

Seeing this show again as an adult is almost exhausting; Mario’s pace is insane. But I admire his aggressive goofiness and willingness to watch jokes sail way over kids’ heads. The kids don’t laugh half the time, and when they do it’s not always at stuff that was meant to be funny, but he clearly doesn’t care.

I like the cheapness of the sets, even though I’m sure it was borne more out of necessity than an aesthetic choice. Because cheapness is funny.

Above all, I enjoy the Jersey-ness of the show. There’s no mistaking when/where this show was taped, from the paint-peeling brashness of the kids’ accents to the freestyle music played during the bumpers. You don’t see anything like this on TV anymore. All regionalism has been sapped from the media (and America in general, really), and all shows are taped in a Skinner box, free from all oustide influence and stimuli.

The show also had a vague air of naughtiness about it. Many of the sketches/contests capitalized in some way on kids’ hatred of homework, chores, and all other forms of responsibility. Not to mention the show’s love of toilet humor. As the intro above attests, the name of the show lent itself to many “sewer” jokes. There was also a frequent contest called Pass the Gas, a variation on musical chairs in which each seat came with a whoopie cushion.

When I was a kid myself, I remember liking the sketches he did, even though I didn’t always have much of an understanding of what was being spoofed. As in this edition of “Steampipe Theatre”, wherein Mario and his young charges take on “Bye Bye Birdie”.

Or in this segment featuring “Julia Children”, who teaches kids how to make their own snacks, all of which look horrifying. There’s no effin’ way this sketch would make it on air nowadays on any show intended for children. Every parents group in the country would have their panties in a knot about how irresponsible it was. God, I hate parents. Oh wait, I am a parent…

Or in this somewhat insensitive contest, where a kid has to find The Eye in the Stuffing (the contest was usually called The Eye in the Pie, but this clip comes from a Thanksgiving Day special), with Mario playing the part of a certain one-eyed Rat Pack member.

Each episode had a segment called Cream the Teach, wherein students from a local school brought in their teacher and pelted him/her with cream pies. Something else I simply can not imagine happening on a kids’ show today.

Most shows concluded with Brain Drain, a trivia/general knowledge contest. The winner then moved on to an obstacle course that made no attempt to hide the fact that it was a (very) cheap knockoff of the Double Dare obstacle course. And if you won, you got the finest prizes 1988 could offer. But even if you didn’t get picked for the obstacle course, you were plied with plenty of Lipton Cup o’Noodle Soup, Laffy Taffy, and Good Humor ice cream.

If you didn’t dig any of this, surely you can appreciate Mario feeding worms to Morton Downey Jr. In this clip, Mario switches out the pasta salad at the WWOR commissary with his own concoction, spiders primavera, and gives it to unsuspecting studio mates, including the late talk show host.

Yes, Mario was quite the persuasive figure. So much so, he propagated the dreaded disease known as Mario-itis. In this clip, Mario doppelgangers have adopted his many other personas, and in the end, threaten to consume him.

Although I’m sure he’s been asked about Steampipe Alley more than once,
I could only find one Mario Cantone interview online where he broached
the subject: a Q&A for the movie Surf’s Up.

[T]he thing with Steampipe Alley too was that it was on WWOR,
which was like a superstation and did go all over the nation, but it
was on an independently owned TV station, so we didn’t have the crazy suits and censorship that we would have had had it been on network. So we got away with a lot. And I look back at that now and I can’t believe I got away with that. I can’t believe I did that….
I was proud of it. It was a fun show. And if I look back at it, it was one of the most creatively freeing things I ever got to
do. And I actually had a lot of creative control on it too. That’s
something that doesn’t come along too often.

And you should be proud of it, Mr. Cantone. Steampipe Alley was better than a good 80% of kids’ shows these days–trust me, I’ve seen them all. Or maybe better isn’t the right word. Perhaps more real. It actually looked like humans made it and cared for it. The educational content was negligible, but seriously, who cares? Even kids need to veg.

The shows my (almost) three-year-old watches is technically more educational. But are Dora and Yo Gabba Gabba going to teach her about Joan Crawford and All About Eve? Are they going to allow her to wail on her teacher with a cream pie? I think not.