Billy Ingram’s TVParty.com has a fix for even the biggest TV junkie
Like it or not, television is important.
Though it began as a bastard offshoot of radio and film, it grew and matured as an industry over the last 50 or so years and now commands a wider audience on a more regular basis than either of its predecessors. Do you know any people who don’t have television sets? Odds are that their number is smaller than the people you know who watched ‘“American Idol’” last night. Television is everywhere ‘— it’s penetrated our society like no other medium and its influence can be seen everywhere: in the clothes we wear, the things we talk about, the catch phrases we use over and over again.
Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?
It’s easy (and quite popular in elitist and pseudo-intellectual circles) to dismiss pop culture as irrelevant, but its pervasiveness in the common culture cannot be denied.
The early 1950s was considered the ‘Golden Age’ of television, when variety shows gave airtime to younger vaudevillians and rising personalities, making Milton Berle, Sid Cesar, Art Linkletter and Jack Benny household names.
By the ’60s, television had become what Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC in 1961, called ‘a vast wasteland,’ its creativity seemingly sapped (anyone remember ‘“Bachelor Father’” or ‘“My Mother the Car?’” This last featured Jerry Van Dyke, Dick’s younger brother and onetime co-star of the series ‘“Coach,’” as a family man who discovers that his deceased mother has come back from the grave as a 1928 Porter convertible. She speaks to him through the car radio.)
But it was the absurdist television of the ’60s and early ’70s that captivated a young Billy Ingram when he was growing up in Greensboro.
‘“’Lost in Space,”” he remembers, ‘“’Sonny and Cher,’ ‘Sanford and Son.’ The sillier the better. I like ‘Here’s Lucy.’ It was taking place in like an alternate reality.’”
Ingram turned his love of ridiculous television into a website more than 10 years ago: TVParty.com, a near-encyclopedic compilation of television shows from the ’50s through 1988, the year, as Billy says, ‘“when cable became more important than network [television].
‘“I wanted it to be irreverent and out of time so when you go, you’re immersed in the past.’”
In 1978 Billy Ingram left Greensboro ‘— he was 20 years old ‘— and drove straight to Los Angeles.
‘“Boy, that was a thrill,’” he remembers. ‘“The biggest rush I ever got was crossing the North Carolina state line.’”
It was an exciting time to be in LA, and Ingram immersed himself in the burgeoning modern rock scene, penning stories about bands like Missing Persons, the Go Gos, Black Flag and the Smog Marines. He also found work as an artist, creating posters and ad campaigns for movies.
Ingram’s true brainchild didn’t come about until 1994, when he moved back to Greensboro after more than a decade out west.
‘“I wanted to be a writer,’” he recalls, ‘“and I figured that LA was not the place to do it.’”
The internet was young in those days, and it lured Ingram in much the same way television had when he was still a boy.
‘“The internet fascinated me as soon as I saw it,’” he says. Back in those days it seemed new websites launched hourly. The mid-’90s saw the birth of eBay, amazon.com, AOL and Yahoo. Out of this primordial stew also came TVParty.com.
‘“I was a big TV junkie when I was a kid,’” Ingram says, ‘“but I stopped watching when I got to LA. I bet I watched 50 hours of television in 15 years.’”
By 1994, television had gotten more serious ‘— the ‘“Arsenio Hall Show,’” perhaps the last bastion of absurdity on the air, was cancelled that year and ‘“ER’” and ‘“Touched by an Angel’” made their debuts. Ingram saw a need to revisit television’s more innocent, and goofier, past.
‘“It was the smartest thing I ever did,’” he says.
The site, TVParty.com, now provides Ingram with his living ‘— a vast collection of essays and histories about television’s not-so-innocent past along with archived clips from all of the shows and commercials he covers. For the television fan, to log on is to lose oneself in arcane trivia and inside dirt on these forgotten gems of the screen.
‘“Wonder Woman,’” the hit show starring Lynda Carter in a sequined bathing suit, was undone in 1979 by Gary Coleman’s ‘“Diff’rent Strokes.’”
Jimmie Walker didn’t use his signature catch phrase ‘— ‘“Dy-no-mite!’” ‘— until the second episode of ‘“Good Times.’”
Cher’s costumes on the old ‘“Sonny and Cher’” show were designed by Bob Mackie.
Groucho Marx was once slated for a guest appearance on ‘“Welcome Back Kotter,’” but was too frail to perform,
KISS made their television debut on the ‘“Mike Douglas Show.’” Comedian Robert Klein, another guest that day, refused to shake Gene Simmons’ hand.
Paul Lynde, onetime center square from ‘“Hollywood Squares,’” was found dead in his bed in 1982 with a bottle of amyl nitrate poppers in his hand. He was also gay, if you can believe that.
Ingram’s site has, somewhat ironically, turned him into something of a television personality himself. His appearance on VH-1’s ‘“Super Secret TV Formulas’” turned into a regular commentating gig when the special was reworked into a series, and his expertise was also enlisted for a show on Bravo, ‘“The Christmas Special Christmas Special.’”
‘“I don’t really want to be on TV,’” he says. ‘“I don’t want to be a celebrity. There’s no upside. There’s rich and famous, and then there’s rich and there’s famous. I’ll take rich ‘— that’s about right.’”
And though he still writes occasionally about the old shows he used to love, he says much of his time these days is spent decoding video and dealing with the music rights for the clips he runs on the site. He doesn’t watch much television at all.
‘“I see television as the ruination of our society,’” he says. ‘“There’s no better example than the [Terry] Schiavo case ‘— you got people who watch too much TV going out there and telling everybody what they think.
‘“I don’t even have cable,’” he says.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.