Many years before I became an ink-stained wretch, I toiled in another branch of local media. It was way back in the last century, the 1980s, to be precise, when I produced and directed Wakefield’s first regularly-scheduled TV comedy/talk show.
Cable TV was new and all the rage. Cable companies vied for lucrative contracts in every city and town. They would promise the world in order to secure the right to provide cable services to a municipality.
And that’s where the competition ended. The successful cable provider had a monopoly in that community for the next 15-20 years. None of this “choice” between Comcast, Verizon and RCN like we have now.
One of the carrots that cable companies dangled in order to win those contracts was local programming – television that would originate in your very own community. The companies would make grandiose promises of a “state-of-the-art” television studio in your town where professionals would train local people in how to produce television programs “by and for the community.”
Keep in mind that in the early 1980s, hardly anyone had a camcorder. Nobody had a cell phone, much less a smartphone with the ability to create video. There was no internet and no YouTube. The closest TV studio was in Boston, and they weren’t much interested in your kid’s hockey game or school Christmas concert. So, offering people the ability to not only create and edit video, but also a place to show it to a wider audience was a very big deal.
In 1983, Warner-Amex was awarded the contract to provide cable television in Wakefield. They built the Wakefield TV studio at 37 Water St. When I showed up in late 1984, I was a member of only the second class of people to go through the training and get certified to produce local shows.
At first, I shied away from doing anything more in the studio than running a camera. Producing and directing studio shows looked hard and terrifying, so I concentrated on lugging the portable equipment around town to videotape local events.
A set of portable equipment in 1985 consisted of a Sony 1800 camera, which was roughly the same weight as a Volkswagen. There was also a separate and almost as heavy Betamax videorecorder (or “deck” as we called them in showbusiness). The camera and deck were each powered by separate batteries approximately the size and weight of a quart of milk. If you were lucky, you might get two-and-a-half, maybe three minutes of recording time from a fully charged battery.
One day in 1985, a bald-headed guy from Boston walked into the Wakefield studio and announced that he wanted to host a TV show. Charlie Golub was a 54-year-old office manager who lived on Beacon Hill, chain-smoked Pall Malls and had dreams of making it in show biz as a stand-up comedian. Since he wasn’t a Wakefield resident, he had to be paired with a local producer with studio privileges. I drew the short straw.
That meant I had to learn how to direct studio shows in a hurry. Long story short, every Monday night for over a year, we put out a live, one-hour local television show called Wakefield Tonight. We had no budget for the show other than our own pockets, but Charlie saw a ready-made source of free talent in the pool of would-be comedians who worked the open mike nights at the Boston comedy clubs.
Charlie hung out at these clubs during the early 1980s comedy boom, performing at open mike nights and otherwise shooting the bull with anyone who would talk to him, including the professional comedians. Back then, Boston was considered a flashpoint for the national standup comedy explosion. Comedy clubs replaced discos, and standup was all the rage. Everybody wanted to be a comedian.
Charlie had way more ego than talent, and he imagined Wakefield Tonight as his stepping stone to the big time. Sensing that he was on the cusp of fame, he even took a stage name: Charlie Brooks.
I’m not sure how many of the Boston comics realized that the show only went out to Wakefield. All Charlie had to say was “cable TV,” and these hungry comedians would show up like moths to a flame. It was television, after all.
The open-mikers represented a wide range of comedic talent, but some would go on to find a measure of success, however modest. This group of regular Wakefield Tonight guests included Jon Rubin, Stu Wiley, Linda Franklin, Steve Faria, Gary Stuart, Carl Yarde, Elaine Gold, Tony Morewood and too many more to list here.
Once word of our cable show got around to the Boston open mike comedians, they started showing up in groups at the Water Street studio every week, often unannounced, asking to be on the show that night. Like Charlie, they imagined that any television appearance could be their big break.
We got some established comedians, too. Charlie had a way of annoying people until they agreed to come on the show. Professional Boston comedians like Tony V, Chance Langton, Bob Lazarus, Rich Ceisler and Bob Seibel all appeared on Wakefield Tonight, as did Boston Comedy Connection co-founder and owner Bill Downes.
Bob Lazarus and Bob Seibel have since passed on. But Tony V and Chance Langton are still working as professional comedians. A couple of years ago, I went to see Tony V perform at Giggles in Saugus. After the show, I asked him if he remembered coming to Wakefield in the 1980s to do a cable TV show.
“Sure I do,” he replied. I know he wasn’t just humoring me because he remembered the host’s name.
More than a decade ago, one of the many volunteers who helped me with Wakefield Tonight casually mentioned to a woman he had just met that he was originally from Wakefield. She told him that the only time she was ever in Wakefield was in the ‘80s when she was trying to make it as a comedian. She recalled that she and Janeane Garofalo drove from Boston to Wakefield one night to appear on a cable TV show.
I don’t know for sure if Garofalo ever appeared on Wakefield Tonight. I can’t say that I remember her. I’m sure I’ve forgotten all but a few of the amateur comics who showed up at the studio in the chaos of those days in 1985-1986. But why would someone make up such a story and tell it to someone they’d just met?
The timing was certainly right. Garofalo was an open mike fixture at the Boston comedy clubs in 1985-86 – the same time as Wakefield Tonight was on the air. She would grab at any chance that might possibly advance her career. An online biography of Garofalo says that in 1985, while still a college undergraduate, she began appearing at open mike nights at comedy clubs in Boston.
“If I wasn’t doing it, I was watching it,” Garofalo admitted in a documentary film about the Boston comedy scene in the 1980s. “I would be at standup comedy clubs every single night, eating it, sleeping it, drinking it, dreaming it. Everything – my whole life was geared toward being a successful standup comedian.”
After college graduation, according to another online bio, Garofolo “spent her evenings at any microphone she could find.” It appears that, like dozens of other Boston comedy hopefuls in the mid-1980s, she found a microphone in Wakefield one Monday night.
About a year into Wakefield Tonight’s run, Charlie’s act began to wear thin, at least with me, so I told him that I was pulling the plug on the show. He didn’t take it well. I think he was still convinced that if we stuck with it just a little longer, his talent would be discovered and he’d be the next Johnny Carson.
I never saw or spoke to Charlie again after that crazy year. But he never gave up on the dream. A few years after our show ended, he moved to Las Vegas, no doubt schmoozing entertainers, agents and promoters until he died in 1997 at age 65.
In 1990, the cable company surrendered local programming operations in Wakefield to the local nonprofit Wakefield Community Access Television. WCAT General Manager Ryan Boyd was recently kind enough to allow me to search through the archive of old videotapes. We found nothing older than 1990, the year WCAT took over. It appears that anything earlier was long ago discarded.
Except that when I decided to hang up my cable TV hat for good a few decades ago, I grabbed one Betamax tape on my way out the door. “The Best of Wakefield Tonight” (“best” being a relative term), a one-hour compilation from the haze of that chaotic year.
The tape survived three moves, sitting in a storage box for 30 years, taunting me periodically. So, just before the holidays, I sent the tape out to a service be digitally converted. The digital file I got back is by turns surprising, funny, revealing and horrifying.
To have a look, go to https://youtu.be/SAFg6wEIMUE.
I can’t promise that you won’t regret it.