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 news, cheesy commercials, TV station holiday greeting promos, network morning news shows, prime-time dramatic shows, American Bandstand, Sunday afternoon family movies, the late movie, game shows, quasi-intellectual talk shows, B 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.”