Vintage Television

Vintage TV: Beyond Our Control

It was a TV show about TV, and there wasn’t a thing about the medium it didn’t lampoon and skewer. It was a sketch comedy before sketch comedies were cool – running an incredible 19 seasons starting in 1967, it beat Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Saturday Night Live to the air. It won awards; it got national press; it launched careers. But unless you lived in or near South Bend, Indiana, you never saw Beyond Our Control.

That’s because it aired only on South Bend’s WNDU-TV, where it was written, directed, filmed, produced, and acted by a company of high-school students. It was a partnership with Junior Achievement which taught high-schoolers about business. This JA company taught a select group of teens about the business of television.

It seems incredible to me that the show ever existed. It couldn’t possibly make it to the air today. Yet it was appointment television for my family and many others across northern Indiana and southern Michigan. It had its good years and its off years – and some of its off years were waaaaaaay off. But we watched every show because you just never knew when it would be brilliant. And when I became a teenager and some of my friends and classmates appeared in it, you never knew when you’d see one of them on the screen.

Each show went pretty much like this: someone unseen surfed the channels (complete with 1970s-style channel-change noises), sometimes stopping to watch one of the stations. That’s when the Beyond Our Control troupe came in to parody local newscheesy commercialsTV station holiday greeting promosnetwork morning news showsprime-time dramatic showsAmerican BandstandSunday afternoon family moviesthe late moviegame showsquasi-intellectual talk showsB movies at the drive-in, and even nature shows. Click any of those links to see an actual Beyond Our Control sketch. Or just watch this video, which gives you the program’s flavor in a nutshell.

I watched in wonder and sometimes awe every week, especially when the show really worked and I spent the entire half hour laughing. Especially as I grew up and people I knew began to work on the show, I wondered how these kids became so smart and savvy and, of course, funny. It certainly was nothing inherent to South Bend that produced this creativity. I knew some of these kids and they were just like anybody else I knew; to pass them by in the hallway at school, they seemed as average as you and me.

The kids had some help; WNDU provided some of their staff as advisers. And probably more importantly, within a few years the show’s format and premise were well developed and provided a solid framework for these teens’ creativity. But truly, creativity and talent lie all around us, and perhaps all it takes to realize it is an opportunity like Beyond Our Control.

Many alumni built careers in films and television on their Beyond Our Control experience. Some of them hit it big, including:

  • Daniel Waters, writer, whose credits include the films Heathers and Batman Returns
  • David Simkins, writer and producer, whose TV credits include Charmed and Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman
  • Dean Norris, actor, whom you probably know best as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad
  • Larry Karaszewski, writer, producer, and director, who wrote Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt
  • Traci Paige Johnson, co-creator and producer of the children’s show Blue’s Clues, and the voice of Blue to boot

It’s funny how time has faded my memories of the sketches themselves, yet I remember the close. I always watched to the end, especially in the later years when I hoped to see a friend’s name scroll by in the credits. It was set to Harry Nilsson’s Remember and used almost all of the song, as plenty of people worked on the show and the credits listed them all. The close showed bits and pieces artfully arranged from faded color prints of old sitcoms and dramas, with the old NBC Peacock unfolding its feathers somewhere in there for good measure. It created a wistful feeling for days that weren’t that far in the past, at least not then.

After the last name scrolled by, the Beyond Our Control logo scrolled in and stopped. Beneath it were the words, “A very nice TV show.”

It was.

For more about Beyond Our Control, see their Web site or their YouTube channel.

Vintage TV is an occasional series.
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34 thoughts on “Vintage TV: Beyond Our Control

      • ryoko861 says:

        It held my attention the whole time! I’m like you, I don’t watch much tv. I have three channels I watch out of what, 500+? If this was on every night, regardless whether it was an “off” year, I’d watch it. It was silly and I like silly!

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  1. Corrie Wynns says:

    I was part of this trailblazing project during my senior year in high school. It was responsible my zero-hour decision to go to college. I don’t know how my life might have turned out without this experience. Thanks, BOC.

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  2. KennKong says:

    As a BOC alum, I can tell you it was more important to me than high school, and far more useful. And immeasurably more fun. And the friendships I started then and there are still some of the closest and cherished relationships in my life. Thanks for posting this and for the kind words. It was A Very Nice TV Show.

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      • KennKong says:

        I doubt it. We were mostly a nuisance. By the time it rolled to an end, WNDU was doing everything in their power short of simply pulling the plug to shut us down. By my second year, they moved us off the premises when the new studio opened, and we moved to a makeshift studio, first to the JA Center, then to the YMCA. We always had the best support from the folks within the middle management and some of the staff, though. Folks like Jeff Jeffers and Mike Collins, and our mentors/advisors Joe Dundon, Patti Mail, Ann Ryman, Kevin Fye, and our Godfather, the late, great Denny Laughlin.

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    • Your work endures, if not on YouTube, at least in the minds of those of us within a certain broadcast radius at a certain time. Thanks for stopping by here!

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  3. Elizabeth Loring says:

    Jim, thank you so much for your lovely appreciation of “Beyond Our Control”! The alumni are passing it around on Facebook and everyone is quite touched by your tribute.

    You wondered how we all got to be “so smart and savvy and, of course, funny” (thanks for that, by the way). The answer is easy: the program’s founder, Dave Williams. I never knew Dave, who had tragically passed away before I got in the company, but he changed my life all the same.

    It was Dave who had the original vision and set the standards. He truly believed in the potential of the kids in his charge, and more than one of us were forever transformed by being plucked out of our high schools where we were the weirdos and misfits, and set down in a group where our creativity and individuality was rewarded.

    Also, he was really funny.

    I’m very glad you enjoyed the show, and thanks again for your post!

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    • Elizabeth, I’m delighted that this post is making the Facebook rounds among BOC alums. I know from my time working as a radio disk jockey in my 20s that you go in and do your bit and then wonder if anybody paid any attention, and then one day somebody says with a smile that they liked hearing you on the air the other day and it really helps make it worthwhile.

      Dave Williams sounds like a man ahead of his time. The 60s-80s were years of greater conformity, of following the preset rules of success; to encourage individualism was risky. But look how it paid off for so many of you who passed through BOC!

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  4. Jon Yazell says:

    I really thought something was wrong with our TV because the real shows were interrupted by kids and their homemade skits. Did they take over the station? YES! Very funny and I was lucky enough to join in during the late nineteen hundreds. The show was originated by David Williams who had been making his own comedy films as a teenager in South Bend years before. His insight into the minds of Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen and other television pioneers made a legacy into an armory for crews of kids year after year. It was so humorous it sometimes even smelled funny but that was only the fromage du homage.
    Through the miracle of postmarathon retrocollation nearly every bump and glitch is preserved for future generations to behold and ponder. Look back in the future and remember the foolishness! Curl up your chuckle and channel your inner flipper to find the TV show about TV, BEYOND our CONTROL. Look it up on the interweb. Pick a decade and dive in because you missed a spot back then.
    ….Many thanks for your blog, Jim. IN VINTAGE VERITAS!
    Aluminus Illuminous In Pancake Flattinum.
    Yours Truly, Jon Yazell at Niles Michigan.

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    • Jon, thanks for reporting from the Niles outpost! I remember my old friend Brian was in the crew in one post-new-WNDU-studio season and hearing that the situation was far less than optimal. It’s a shame that the tides turned so heavily against BOC in those later years.

      Interesting parallel to Ernie Kovacs. I wasn’t aware of Kovacs in my 70s-80s youth but am now. I hadn’t made the link before, but will consider BOC from that perspective from now on.

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  5. Heidi Moser says:

    Like Elizabeth, I came into BOC about a year after creator Dave Williams died. (Williams died in August 1977.) I was involved for three years, and though I only met Dave once in my life, I got to know him through the other advisers, members who knew him, and the body of witty and wise instructions he left behind. Dave had, in a short period of time, developed a brilliant working blueprint for Beyond Our Control. BOC was his dream, his family, and he gave countless hours to mentoring the kids involved in it. Without him, I can tell you it was a struggle to keep it going.

    Some of the behind-the-scenes hallmarks of the Dave Williams vision as it was translated to me:

    Writers Meetings: Where the ideas were generated by the kids. But an adult guide was necessary to take the ideas and generate a script, making sure that content wouldn’t get BOC or WNDU in (too) much trouble. After Dave died, a succession of BOC graduates (Bob Medich, Danny Lakin, Chris Webb, Steve Wyant) made that happen. I can’t imagine how many thankless hours went into scriptwriting!

    Hands-on All-Student Production: Dave somehow got permission from WNDU so that we were trained to run all the expensive studio equipment: cameras, audio board, projection, videotape, switcher. We had student directors and floor directors. High school kids were designing and building sets and props. We auditioned competitively for parts, and then did our own costumes and make-up. Whew, makes me tired remembering all the organization that went into it!

    Student Advertising Sales: All BOC members were supposed to get out there to sell commercial time, though most of us were more interested in appearing on camera than having to do sales calls. So there were incentive awards for 1st Sale, 1st 13-week Sale, Last Sale, and probably a few others I don’t recall.

    Bonus Points: Since we didn’t get paid, Dave devised a motivational system in which we earned points for extra behind-the-scenes work, and had points deducted if we failed to show up for mandatory meetings. I think it was a matter of pride, mainly, but particularly if you were interested in earning a spot as a production manager or production assistant, points were the way to accomplish that. I guess points were also supposed to translate into some share of the company profit, but I don’t recall there being much of that.

    Awards: In later years, Dave created the BOC equivalents of the Academy Awards. Our peers nominated and voted on Best Bit, Best Director, Best Technician, Best Actor and Actress and Best Supporting Performers, etc. Awards night was a huge thrill.

    Fun: BOC was serious work, but it was a tremendous amount of fun. For me, it was humor, friendship, responsibility, and the constant need to get “minutes in the can” for the next season or the next show! As I’ve said, I didn’t really know Dave, but I got to know him through his sense of humor that was carried on like a torch for years after he passed.

    To be in Beyond Our Control meant your creativity could run amok. As teenagers, we had greater access to all manner of studio equipment than most of us would later have in college or in a union media shop. I remember kids “experimenting” with the studio switcher in ways the adults never considered. “What happens if I do this?” We frequently pushed technology to the limit.

    Now, having access to all that cool stuff and being teens, we weren’t always careful as adults would be. I think most of us old BOCers can appreciate that WNDU put up with a lot of spills and broken or missing items because of us. (No wonder Dick Addis complained about the soda cans he found on the news set after we left.) They tolerated a certain amount of community outrage when we aired something “edgy.” WNDU DID support BOC, but there were times when that support wore thin. Our advisers, mostly Dave and later Denny Laughlin, were usually the buffer to smooth over “situations” that came up. WNDU might have been a little more tolerant of our messes if they’d known they would be getting publicity 30-40 years later because of this crazy project.

    Though Dave Williams was only 37 when he died, he had a huge impact on so many lives, including mine. Wouldn’t he laugh to see BOC clips on You Tube and his lifework remembered on internet discussion boards?

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  6. Phillip E. Banks says:

    Did you know that BOC featured an openly gay character in a sketch in 1972? It was a very edgy show in concept and execution. Very smart and sophisticated but basically run by kids! It would be great to see what creativity lies in this generation and it is sad that they won’t have a chance like this.

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  7. Jim, thanks for the very nice article about the Very Nice TV Show.

    I was in Boc in 1971 and 1972, knew Dave Williams and even lived in his house for a year when I was in Grad School at Notre Dame. Dave Williams was Beyond Our Control. More than that, he was the Mentor and Friend for literally hundreds of high school kids that passed through Beyond Our Control in its early years. He had the singular ability to be not only the role model but also to communicate as an adult with teens as an equal. He really was the type of educator our schools frequently lack. (Although he would not have considered himself an educator.)

    I don’t know how many misunderstood, highly talented kids would have otherwise failed to achieve this bit of self respect, confidence and self-esteem that they developed under his (and his successors Joe Dundon, Denny Laughlin, and the others mentioned above) guidance. These individuals gave of themselves to influence an entire generation of young people. Those of us who had the honor to know Dave, probably, like myself, never met another person more giving and dedicated. I suspect, in this day and age, if one could find such an individual, you could not get the institutional backing to organize a program such as BOC.

    So,it was really more than just a Very Nice TV Show, it was the creation of Dave Williams and the vision of those who believed in him that was able to influence and guide a generation of South Bend, Indiana teens into adulthood. A few have had successful careers in the entertainment arts, probably not possible without BOC, the rest of us experienced something unique and know we are better persons for having associated with such role models, not to mention the fond memories of stuff no other kids in high school were able to do.

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    • Dave, I’m grateful for your comment. Dave Williams certainly has a special star in heaven for the good he did for the many students who passed through his care on BOC.

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  8. Brian says:

    Oh my gosh…I loved that show. I still think about some of the sketches, like “The Time Machine” and “The Adventures of Flash Gerkin”. At a time when people were just beginning to discover SNL, Second City and Monty Python, this show – put on by Michiana JA students – was as funny and cutting edge as any of them. As a high school student in the area in late 70’s, it was must see TV. Over the years I’ve told friends all over the country about it. Thanks for this great article!

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  9. Diane Werts says:

    Hadn’t seen this until now. Thanks so much for the appreciation, Jim. And thanks to my fellow BOC alums for their heartfelt comments/history. Nice to know this post is still working its way around the interwebs.

    Like

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