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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

All The Guys And Gals Are 'Patches Pals'

It seems appropriate that today, April Fool's day would be the "official" birthday of one of the Upper Left-hand's most celebrated personages, one Julius Pierpoint "J.P." Patches" (AKA Chris Wedes), a beloved Northwest Icon for the past 50 years.

Having grown up in Portland and environs, J.P. was not a fawcet of my childhood, in the way of say, KPTV's "Ramblin' Rod" Anders, or his mid-day colleague, Rusty Nails. In fact, I never actually saw the - dare one say, "psychedelically surreal" - "J.P. Patches" morning show until probably 1973 or so, when my step-cousins up the street got cable TV. And of course, by that time I was pretty well past being much interested in "kiddie shows". But, even with this late exposure to J.P., his "girlfriend" Gertrude, and all the other denizens of the City Dump, it was obvious there was something more going on here than met the eye - or ear.

Unlike typical shows of the genre, J.P. and Company weren't merely glorified baby sitters, corralling a studio full of 30 or 40 sugar-hyped youngsters through a half-hour of old cartoons and birthday announcements: this was an entire world, filled with an amazing and eclectic assortment of eccentric characters (most performed by the incredibly versatile Bob Newman), not to mention the "4th wall" breaking antics of "Mr. Announcer Man" and the behind-the-camera crew, who were as much a part of the show as the on-screen characters.

And as I grew a bit older, it became increasingly clear that, not only were these guys completely making up each day's show on-the-fly, in what must surely rate as the world's longest-running completely improvised TV program, but, they were having the time of their lives doing it. And I also began to take notice that they were interacting on more than just one level in the course of their performances. There would be the occasional joke that would fly over your head, but would get the camera operator laughing so hard the screen image would begin to wobble; non-sequitor comments that didn't seem to make any sense, and which would be left hanging in the air, as if waiting for a response you never heard; strange, incongruouos appearances by guests you'd seen on other TV shows (among them, Jacques Cousteau, Steve Allen, Danny Thomas - even Colonel Harlan Sanders!), things like that which clued you in to the fact there was something else going on here, some level of humor that you, the 13 or 14 year-old, simply couldn't grasp.

Later, when I started college and began interacting with other classmates who'd grown up in Seattle, J.P. became a regular part of our morning ritual; these other kids had literally grown up with the show, and the notion of tuning in at 7:00 a.m. before going to class was as natural to them as waking up. And of course, given our relative "maturity" at the "ripe old age" of 18, we began to recognize that these other levels of humor, which previously had seemed so incomprehensible to us: the sly double-entendres, sophisticated visual gags, jokes with multiple punchlines - were being aimed directly and deliberately at adults! Hence, there was no guilt involved in watching a "kiddie show", because it became readily apparent that kids weren't the only ones the show was trying to entertain.

Which, given a little thought makes perfect sense. After all, two full generations had grown up with "The J.P. Patches Show", and many of the earlier generation had continued watching, even as their own children were being introduced to it for the first time. Wedes, Newman, and their behind-the-scenes collaborators knew their audience - regardless of age - and had mastered the art of effortlessly playing to both, without condescending to either, while at the same time managing to maintain a seemingly non-stop barrage of jokes, puns, sight-gags, pratfalls, and grimaces, all barely contained in an atmosphere of near-total chaos and anarchy. It was this sophisticated brand of multi-leveled, sharply-honed humor that would prove highly influential on "Patches Pals" like comedian and former "Almost Live!" host John Keister, cartoonist Gary Larson, and even "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening (it is rumored that Springfield's own kiddie show host, Krusty The Clown, was loosely based on Wedes.)

On a complete side-note, I am also proud to say that both Wedes and Newman were members of the union I represent, AFTRA throughout their 23-year stint on the longest-running locally-produced children's program in TV history. And in a fortuitous bit of synchronicity, Wedes joined the Seattle local on this date back in 1958, the same day J.P. and friends first went on the air to entertain two generations of Puget Sounders.

To this day Wedes and Newman are still out there, despite age and debilitation, putting on the white paint, rubber noses and funny wigs, raising money for local charities, meeting with their fans, and reminding us that, just because we've grown up, it doesn't mean we have to grow old.

If you're interested, there's a fundraising effort underway to erect a statue in their honor; it'll go up in Fremont later this year, and will be most appropriately titled "Late For The Interurban", a final, fitting pun-parody-and-sight-gag-rolled-into-one tribute to a couple of true Northwest Treasures.

So, for once we get to turn the "ICU2-TV" backwards on its proud and feisty owners, and wish them "Happy 50th Birthday!" The present is in the hall closet, underneath the pile of memorabilia.

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Posted byCOMTE on 12:08 PM

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