What I Learned From Boomer TV

Some kids dream of owning a pony, a motorcycle, a Swiss Army knife with lots of shiny blades. I wanted an identical cousin. The idea came from my favorite TV show, "The Patty Duke Show." I discovered the series by mistake one night, flipping channels. I don't really remember the episode, but surely it must've involved some massive catastrophe that required Patty Lane to be at two places at the same time. Fortunately, she had an identical cousin. With a flip of the hair and a change of accents, the two girls (both played by Duke) were off impersonating each other. It was like watching "The Parent Trap" five nights a week, but better; compared to Haley Mills, Patty Duke was a major babe.

"The Patty Duke Show" made its debut in 1963, airing through 1966, and though I came to love the show, I didn't catch the series in its original run. How could I? I wasn't born yet. But by 1988, when I was 6, "Patty Duke" was airing on the home of classic TV, Nick at Nite, the nocturnal twin of kids' channel Nickelodeon that would become the prime-time destination for me and my friends who got to stay up past dinner. After 9 p.m. the channel that broadcast "Double Dare" and "You Can't Do That on Television" would captivate me with black-and-white episodes of "My Three Sons," "Mister Ed," "The Donna Reed Show" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." By the '90s, color was added to the palette, with "Mork and Mindy," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Taxi." Though these shows were at least three times older than me, I was hooked. Like a wise parent, they acted as storytellers, doling out wisdom about how the world should be.

I wasn't the only grade schooler listening to what these TV programs had to say. In 1993, 46 percent of the people watching "Get Smart" on Nick at Nite were 17 or younger. "Nick at Nite was a safe haven," explains Larry W. Jones, the channel's president. "If a kid woke up in the middle of the night and saw this"—or in my case, didn't go to bed until much later anyway—"we wanted to make sure the programming was going to be OK." By comparison, the major network's prime-time lineup was packed with grown-up series, which were often hard to follow, sexually suggestive, political and totally boring. Seriously, I can't remember and sitting through more than five minutes of "Murphy Brown" or "Night Court." You could dance in your pajamas to "Patty Duke"'s opening credits. If you can't have your own identical cousin, I guess that's the next best thing.

Most of the lessons were pretty simple: work hard and persevere, honor thy family and it's not right to skip school, even after Cathy Lane volunteers to switch places with you. But in a way, for me, boomer TV went beyond just entertainment value. As the only son of two immigrants from Iran, the shows were also schooling in how American families operated. While my parents happily made Iranian stews and let us sit on the living room sofa, dipping bread in yogurt and sipping our soup from trays, I imagined my friends setting the table like the Bradys or Stones, collecting allowances and playing football in the backyard with their dog. At least my mom, following the best TV examples, prepared sack lunches for us, evidence that we were learning the art of integration.

Today, memories of my own childhood are a swirl of colors—the green and red of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" mixed in with the black and white of "Bewitched." Christmases were spent with Mary and Rhoda, Rob Petrie and Maxwell Smart, thanks to the channel's holiday marathons. During the summer, a "block party" of episodes was reason enough to stay up after midnight. With our parents snoring in the background, my sister and I had years of "I Love Lucy" to catch up on. Once, during a "Donna Reed" marathon in the second grade, I stayed up so late, my mom had to unplug the TV. I was really upset: Jeff Stone had found a winning raffle ticket and was searching the neighborhood for its true owner, as hordes of women lined up at his front door to claim the prize, a new car. To be honest, I still don't know what happened. Do you?