Monday, September 22, 2014

The Facts of Life

On September 15, 2014, in Beverly Hills, California, The Paley Center for Media held a 35th-anniversary Facts of Life reunion, which featured a screening of a classic episode of the series followed by a panel discussion with Charlotte Rae, Nancy McKeon, Mindy Cohn, Geri Jewell and, of course, Lisa Whelchel. (To be sure, Lisa would probably be jealous of all the commas in that sentence.) Two friends and I attended. In fact, we purchased the last three tickets available approximately 20 minutes after they went on sale to the public. It was clearly a major (gay-jor) event.

Because of the lingering (minuscule) infamy of this blog, several of my friends wondered if I was going to finally introduce myself to Miss Whelchel. I thought why not, but the more wise consensus was that she would probably murder me on the spot or at least have me escorted from the premises if she knew that the author of the blog that for a short period of time ridiculed her every word, photo, trip, comma, was in the audience. Better to remain anonymous. Better to just enjoy.

Briefly, Blair was never even my favorite Facts of Life girl. Jo was. (Of course! We are both snippy and gay!) Nor was I a superfan of the show—I was too young to have watched it from its debut. My introduction to it was probably the third or fourth season. But I stayed with it lovingly till the end when Cloris Leachman and Over Our Heads took the place of Charlotte Rae and Edna’s Edibles. My involvement with Lisa Whelchel and the creation of this site happened more because she was a born-again Christian who kept an honest (sometimes painfully so) online journal called Coffee Talk that greatly detailed her and her family’s very southern, very un-cosmopolitan adventures. I found it naively and inadvertently hilarious, and I thought I would, you know, spread the gospel.

Unfortunately, for Lisa, she kept this journal during the mid-2000s, the height of snark. Gawker and Defamer were dealing, respectively, East- and West-Coast bitchery in daily doses, and sites like Perez Hilton, Just Jared and D-Listed were reaching the peak of their celebrity-trashing. During this time, I kept a blog called Nervous Breakdown that aimed to be something comparable. (It was a delight to produce, and I am still impressed that I kept it going on a daily basis for three years since I now have the attention span of a hummingbird.) From Nervous Breakdown came the Blair Necessities, on which I formalized and serialized the Coffee Talk Companion—a feature commenting on, paragraph by paragraph, Lisa Whelchel's own online journal entries. In a few weeks, the Blair Necessities garnered more attention than Nervous Breakdown had in its several years of publication, and since we all want attention, I went full-force. As long as Lisa blogged, I commented. It got to the point that if you searched "Lisa Whelchel" on Google, the Blair Necessities was the top result, even above It was a hit. It also most likely was the cause of Lisa Whelchel password-protecting her personal entries on her site and then, with the advent of Twitter, ceasing to blog altogether. The Blair Necessities was both a success and failure for me: I was more popular than my beautiful subject, and because of that, my subject stopped feeding me.

If you’ve never been to this site before, you can read some old entries. My writing is fine. It’s occasionally funny, I guess. I don't know—it was eight years ago. We were younger. I do think that I avoided being blatantly mean to or about Lisa. (You may disagree, and I may agree with your disagreement, but I did shut off the comment feature when people began getting truly angry and nasty.) This site was my attempt at cashing in on snark, and its success was due to the fact that I found a niche. And, lucky for me, the niche was an impossibly beautiful girl everyone my age either had at one point envied or fell in love with and who had gone from gorgeous celeb to everyday wife and mother of three. And this wife and mother journaled publicly and without irony about her domestic, hyper-religious, non-glamorous life.

To me, the real overall point (or perhaps the justification of my snarkiness, which I needed because of my ever-present Jewish guilt) of the Blair Necessities was to point out something that has only gotten more egregious: If you voluntarily post information online, people are going to look at it, and you really can’t be surprised when they react to it. However, to most people, I was simply being an entertaining bitch. It probably bothered me a little then, though the attention I was getting because of it made it difficult to admit. It definitely bothers me now.

The truth is, I adore Lisa Whelchel and deep down always have. Seriously. There’s plenty about her way of life that I don’t agree with, but she has turned out to be a happy, funny, charming, kind, warm woman who, most impressive of all, survived child-stardom. I do not deny that her Coffee Talk entries were manna from comedy heaven. (Especially that mother-daughter bike trip in Vermont. Oh, that glorious, glorious bike trip.) But she made it through a machine that now, more than ever before, is both a figurative and literal killer. And she raised three kids who love her. And she almost won Survivor. And she still looks great. Like, fucking great.

And this is what was so apparent at the Paley Center reunion. All the women there (and Kim Fields via a taped segment) were, by their admission, taken care of by Charlotte Rae and many other people on the set. They were nurtured and protected by responsible adults who made sure that in 2014, they would be sitting in front of me looking better than ever and finding it nearly impossible to say anything bad or negative or…snarky about each other. They had long since departed the Facts of Life but somehow were still teaching 150 of us the facts of life. We had all grown, and suddenly a fun night with some former TV stars became, unexpectedly, something more. 

Is this an apology to Lisa Whelchel for my year of mostly toothless haranguing at her expense? If I offended her and her family or, worse, made them feel unsafe, then absolutely it is. Nothing like that was ever my intention, nor did it occur to me that it could be. I do still think that if you willingly put your life online (and that includes photos of your meals and braids and vaginas on Facebook and Instagram), then you have to, sorry, take the good and take the bad. Unfortunately, most people are terrible. And worse than that, they can’t spell or form a sentence. But they all have opinions and iPhones. And they’re anonymous. So, it’s easy for them to ridicule and judge without any ramification. The good news is that snark is out of style. The bad news is that so is style. Flat-out heckling is now what we do, and there's nothing stylish about heckling.

But I think that most of all, this late entry is a celebration of how a group of girls that I grew up with, including Lisa Whelchel, whom I later publicly shamed for a year, maintained their integrity, beauty and intelligence and came out on top. I was excited about going to the Paley Center reunion, but I didn’t think it would have such an enlightening effect on me. That may sound very “MARY!”, and I would not fault you for thinking that. But it was invigorating and reassuring seeing my childhood TV friends as functional, emotional, inspirational adults. Especially Lisa. 

At one point during the discussion, the moderator asked if a show like the Facts of Life could be made now. Lisa said absolutely not unless everyone was naked. (She was full of zingers the entire evening. Her comic timing was always pretty special, and it still is.) Charlotte Rae, on the other hand, admitted that apart from Modern Family, she doesn’t watch sitcoms because “they’re all crap" (applause). She thought that a show as wholesome and funny as the Facts of Life not only could be made now, but is desperately wanted. Realistically, she’s probably wrong. But sitting there in that room with a bunch of girls I only knew from TV and one I was a dick to for no reason except to be en vogue, I hoped that she was absolutely, positively right.

Seven years after the previous post, this is the Blair Necessities’ last entry. Take care of each other. Be funny. Be smart. Be a bitch and then know when to admit that you were a bitch. The facts of life? They’re all about you.


Matt Cohen 9/17/14