I actually have a surprising amount of memories from when I was a toddler. None of them are in the best of focus of course (sleeping issues and alcohol tend to lead to…I forget where I was going with this) but the amount that are still rattling around in my weathered and aging brain are remarkable.
My earliest memory is of standing in a playpen in the living room with Fraggle Rock on in the background, a joyous reminder of the brief window in which my parents agreed to pay for HBO. Shortly thereafter I have other snippets; my brother’s 1986 high school graduation, mornings spent on the living room floor’s shag carpet playing with Duplos, and a bizarrely specific habit my mother and I had stumbled upon once or twice a week. We’d go to McDonald’s (happy meal for me and chicken salad for her) and afterwards, we’d race home so I could watch Pinwheel. Pinwheel was a shoddy Canadian knockoff of Seasame Street (complete with generic Bert and Ernie figures known as Plus and Minus), and like Sesame Street, had various sketches and cartoons. But my favorite was always Picture Pages, phallic title sequences and all.
Picture Pages, for those unaware, was how I presume Bill Cosby spent his 6-9am on Sundays as in 1986-87 he was presumably completely booked every other hour of every day. It was a particularly odd segment in which Dr. Cosby used a literally magic marker to teach basic math and drawing through animation and the sound effects of then-affordable analog synthesis. Talk of Jell-o Pudding Pops was light (during the show anyway; the commercial breaks were filled with Cosby’s plugs) as the man stuck to the edutainment of children with a variety of adult characters dropping by to help out, and frighteningly, often learn basic math skills along with the children.
Perhaps more frightening than the ineptitude of adults who held civil service positions in the Picture Pages universe was Cosby’s magical pen/costar himself, Mortimer Ichabod Marker. Mortimer was normally a pen with the image of a strange looking anthropomorphic insect atop its oddly shaped back. Periodically, Mortimer would come to life via the ol’ “guy in a suit” shenanigan as a pen-sized man-insect to interact with Cosby. It was as if we were watching a Cronenbergesque scientific accident kept in check via the technology Rick Moranis discovered in the documentary Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. It was incredible and terrifying, yet I never saw this angle as a kid.
In hindsight, that aspect is very strange to me. At that age I had to look away from the screen during the Scooby Doo “Cat Creature” episode (I’m yet to watch as an adult, but I would guess the deep instincts would set in again..I must be such a disappointment to my nine year old niece who loves the episode). Yet I was not only unfrightened of a pen sized abomination of nature, but was actually a FAN of said abomination. I actually persuaded my parents to order me the official Mortimer pen, which was very much like Cosby’s except it actually made the analog synthesizer beeps, boops, and chirps as you wrote through the magic of batteries. It was actually pretty awesome. I’ve seen them since fetching hundreds of dollars on eBay.
And that, to me, is sort of the interesting thing about Picture Pages now. It was a segment of a third-rate Sesame Street ripoff shown on the then-fledgling Nickelodeon, yet it inspired the current crop of successful Gen Xers to seek out such wastes of money and bid competitively for them. It inspired this awesome photo series of someone dressed as Mortimer Ichabod Marker at their office. And truthfully, at the time it inspired me to draw and think. I can’t remember exactly what about in either case, but I do recall using my Mortimer pen all the time. If it takes a toy of a horrific monster derived from a strange low budget Bill Cosby segment on a forgotten to get a kid to think and be creative, then I think we can call the whole endeavor worthwhile.