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Friday, September 30, 2011

TGIF - Gimme A Break!

It's hard to believe that we are at the end of September already, isn't it? Only a few weeks ago, the hot sun was shining down and people were at the beach sucking back ice cold sodas and walking around in bathing suits. Now as I look outside my window, the leaves on the trees are changing colour, and the temperature is dropping one degree at a time. It's funny how time flies.

I think that is mainly why I started up this blog, and why I chose to make the main subject on pop culture. Pop culture trends are always constantly changing and it's hard to keep up with what is in and what is out. By talking about the trends of the past, present, and future, I want to open this blog up to a wider audience, and I hope that most of you can see that I'm trying to open this blog up more to talk about shows, movies, and songs from all eras. As we approach October and Halloween, I have some spooky entries coming up from all different eras, and it is my hope that you will all take something from at least one of the October entries.

But before we get into October, we have to wrap up September.

Have you ever had days where you feel as though everybody and everyone is on your case at every turn? Days where you feel as though you have a hundred and twenty different things to do and only twenty-four hours a day to get them all done? Days where you are so stressed out that you aren't sure of what to do next?

Days where you just want to cry out 'GIMME A BREAK!!!'

I'm sure we all have had those days. I know there are instances in which I have had lots of days where I wish that people would have given me a well-deserved break. We all have them.

Certainly in the NBC sitcom Gimme A Break (which ran from 1981-1987), Nellie Ruth Harper (played by the late Nell Carter) definitely had moments in which she wanted a break. With good reason too. If you had to move into the Kanisky household as the housekeeper to a police chief and his three teenage daughters, it would probably make you a little bit crazy as well. I know it certainly would me if I were in that situation.

The thing is that Nell genuinely enjoyed taking care of the chief and his girls. And the reason Nell took on the job as housekeeper was as a favour to the chief's late wife, Margaret. Margaret and Nell were friends during the time that she was alive, and before she died, she made Nell promise to look after her husband and their children. Nell said that she would, and when Margaret passed away, Nell moved into the family household in Glenlawn, California.

Gimme A Break managed to attract a few celebrity guests during its six season run. Notable celebrities that appeared on the program included Pat Sajak, Whitney Houston, Ray Parker Jr, Andy Gibb, and Sammy Davis Jr, amongst others. And while the show never managed to get past the top thirty in the Neilsen ratings, the show still garnered enough interest from viewers to stay on the air.

Over the years, more cast members would come and go, and by the end of the series, Nell Carter was the only cast member to last the entire run of the series. Other cast members over the years included Telma Hopkins, Rosetta LeNoire, John Hoyt, Rosie O'Donnell, Jonathan Silverman, and Joey and Matthew Lawrence. So, as you can see, Gimme A Break really ended up being the big breakout show for many of these stars, in particular with O'Donnell, Silverman, and the Lawrence brothers.

Gimme A Break also had some behind the scenes drama associated with it as well. It was widely reported that upon Rosie O'Donnell joining the cast of the show in its final season that O'Donnell and Carter did not get along. According to O'Donnell, Nell wasn't overly friendly with her, and rather than call her by her real name, called her 'Maggie', which was the name of the character she played on the show. In Carter's defense, she claimed to have had done this with all the actors who were on the show as a way to help Joey and Matthew Lawrence (who at the time were ten and six) focus on their lines and give better performances. O'Donnell later told an interviewer that while initially excited to be a part of a big named show like Gimme A Break, she soon grew disappointed, as she felt snubbed by most of the cast that was there.

There was also some controversy at the beginning of the show's run when reports of the stormy, friction-filled relationship between Nell Carter and the original producers of the show came to light. The show's original producers (Coleman Mitchell and Geoffrey Neigher) clashed with Carter over creative differences and personality conflicts. Things had gotten so strained that by the beginning of the third season, Mitchell and Neigher were dismissed from the show as a result of this. For the next few months, Mort Lachman (who had co-created the sitcom) served as co-producer until the team of Rod Parker and Hal Cooper were brought in to serve as producers for the rest of the show's run. This was a team that Carter firmly stood behind, and because she and the team of Parker and Cooper saw eye to eye more often than she had with the previous team, it helped Nell reach the decision to stay on with the series.

Now that you know a little bit about the history of the program, let's meet the characters of Gimme A Break (or at least the ones that were heavily featured).

Clearly, Nell Carter was the star of the show, having been the only character to stay on the show's full six season run. Her character Nell Harper was an interesting sort of character in itself. Born in the state of Alabama, Nell had aspirations of becoming a singer. She ran away from home at eighteen to pursue her dream, and it is on that pursuit that she meets Margaret Kanisky. In the episode 'Flashback', it is shown that Nell meets Margaret in 1974, after Margaret catches her act. It is explained that Nell ends up quitting a job because her boss tries to hit on her, and feeling sympathy for the woman, Margaret takes her into her home to meet the family. Of course, once Nell meets Margaret's husband, Carl, there is an immediate dislike between Carl and Nell, and after a few days, grows sick of Nell being there, as she doesn't have a job. Eventually, Nell ends up getting a job in Bakersfield, California but before she can go, Margaret reveals to Nell that she is dying of cancer, and asks Nell if she would stay behind to look after Carl and the girls. Margaret feels terrible for even asking Nell of this request, but knows that Nell would take good care of her family. Nell eventually honours Margaret's last request, and the rest is history.

Nell is best described as being a sassy, sarcastic, sharp-tongued woman when the need arises, and usually saves some of her best comebacks and barbs towards Carl. She is also a kind, gentle, loving woman though who would do anything to help Carl and Margaret's daughters get through boy troubles, school troubles, medical emergencies, and much more. In 1983, Nell became a foster mother to Joey Donovan, and in 1986, Joey's brother Matthew would become Nell's second foster child. So clearly, Nell's maternal instincts kicked in, even though Nell herself never had children of her own.

One of the running gags of Gimme A Break was Nell's attempts to lose weight. A heavier woman, Carl would often make jokes about Nell's size at Nell's expense, but to Nell's credit, she often gave it as good as he could give it. In some early episodes, Nell became a member of a weight-loss group called PORKO'S, and while she had some success and some failures along the way, Nell never let what other people said about her get to her. She actually had one of the best self-images and self-perception out of all the cast members of the show, which was pretty cool to see upon retrospect.

It is here that we meet our next cast member. Carl Kanisky, portrayed by Dolph Sweet. One thing you could say about Carl Kanisky is that he had a tough, no-nonsense exterior. This worked fine for the police station, where he was employed as a police chief. It didn't exactly work well for the home, especially one with three teenage daughters. One might say that Carl Kanisky was a little bit too rough with his daughters when it came to disciplining them. When his daughter Katie was caught shoplifting in the pilot episode and she sassed him back, he slapped her in the face. When Julie took up smoking and Carl found out, he slapped her. As for Samantha, I don't think he ever slapped her, but he certainly threatened to spank his girls a few times, such as in this clip from the first season of the show.

The only thing I can say was that it was the early 1980s and back in those days, television programs could get away with airing things that they probably couldn't get away with now thanks to political correctness.

But even though Carl had a tough exterior, he was often soft on the inside. He immediately felt terrible after punishing his daughters, and although he never really showed much affection towards Nell, he really did appreciate having her there deep down. Although it takes him some time to accept, he welcomes Joey into the Kanisky family with open arms.

Sadly, Dolph Sweet was diagnosed with cancer during the fourth season of Gimme A Break. Despite the fact that the cancer was wreaking havoc on his body, Dolph wanted to work as much as possible to get his mind off of the treatments that he was experiencing. He passed away on May 8, 1985, just three days before his final Gimme A Break episode aired. At the beginning of season five, the first episode addressed Dolph's death by killing off the character of Carl Kanisky, setting the stage for the revamping of the whole series just one year later.

The Kanisky kids were all different in personalities and character traits, but they all loved Nell, and in many ways were all the apples of their father's eyes. All three of them were mostly gone by the show's final season, but they made an impression on the seasons they were on.

We'll start with Kathleen Kanisky (Kari Michaelsen), who went by Katie. Katie's first appearance on the show wasn't all that great, as she had been caught shoplifting. Katie was the eldest of the three Kanisky girls, but she wasn't exactly the brightest penny in the fountain. She did enough work at school to get by, and she seemed more concerned with how she looked, rather than making a difference in the world. She opted not to go to college and opened up a boutique called 'Katie's Korner'. When the boutique closed up shop, Katie took a job in San Francisco and left the series in 1986.

Next comes Julie Kanisky (Lauri Hendler), who could be considered the polar opposite of Katie. Where Katie took great time and effort in making herself look beautful, Julie was content with her plain Jane bookish appearance. Where Katie wasn't all that interested in schoolwork, Julie was very intelligent and got really good grades. Where Katie was a hit with the boys, Julie sometimes struggled to get a date, and well, you get the idea. Therefore, it's interesting to note that Julie was the first of the Kanisky girls to get married, and have a child (whom she named Nell). Julie also left the series in 1986.

The youngest Kanisky daughter was Samantha (who liked to be called Sam). Sam (Lara Jill Miller) started off on the series as a tomboy type who loved playing sports and doing all the things that boys liked to do. As she matured, she grew into becoming a boy-crazy teenager. She was the only Kanisky daughter to stay on during season six, albeit in a recurring role rather than contract.

Samantha was involved in some of the most controversial storylines that Gimme A Break had ever done. One particular episode that starred Samantha dealt with the subject of race. It was an episode that was so shocking that it ranked #38 on TV Land's 100 Most Unexpected Moments list. The episode in question was one titled 'Baby Of The Family' which aired in December 1984. In the episode, Samantha is incredibly angry with Nell because she wouldn't let her go on an unchaperoned camping trip where boys would be present, and also because she feels that Nell favours Joey more than her. So when Joey is asked by Nell's church to sing in front of the congregation, Samantha decides to get even by tricking Joey into painting his face black for the concert. When Joey performs for the church with the face paint on, everyone is offended, and when Nell finds out the reason, the showdown between Nell and Samantha is not to be missed. In fact, you can view the episode by clicking here and here to see what I mean.

I should warn you though...the episode does contain a rather direct racial slur.  The only reason I posted the video is because the word is uttered to prove a point in the episode, but I figure that you should know that it is present before you click on the links in question.  You have been warned.  Again, let's just say that television (especially sitcoms) could get away with more back in the 1980s than it can nowadays.

Finally, we can't really end this note off without talking about the foster children that Nell took on responsibility for. Joey Donovan (Joey Lawrence) initially came onto the show as a seven year old boy con artist (who was raising money to see his uncle in Chicago). Nell decided to take Joey on as a foster child, and Joey ends up becoming an honorary member of the Kanisky family. There are some moments in which Nell is forced to say goodbye to Joey (especially when his father comes by with his little brother Matthew to take him back). But when Joey and Matthew's father admits that he cannot handle taking care of the two boys, Nell becomes their legal guardian, and the two boys stay with Nell when Nell relocates to New York during season six.

There are several life lessons that we can learn from Gimme A Break.

We have learned that sometimes keeping a promise to a friend can be quite rewarding in the long run.

We have learned that sometimes if your heart is big enough, you can really become a good influence to someone you never thought you would (as in the case with Nell being there for Matthew and Joey).

We have learned that sometimes the brainy girls CAN get everything they want.

Most importantly, I think the one lesson that Gimme A Break can teach us is that it doesn't matter what colour your skin is, or what size you are, or what economic background you have, or whether you have two different coloured eyes. Nell Harper showed that she had love for everybody. She may not have always shown it in the most gentle or appropriate ways (which could also be said for Chief Kanisky), but it was there. And, really, as long as you have love, isn't that the most important thing?

And so ends September. Stay tuned for October!

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