TV Alter-Egos for a Middle-Aged Dad

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March 14, 1999

Another sweeps period has passed and, I’m ashamed to say, I consider myself swept. I don’t watch much TV, but the TV I do watch has me in couch potato position, cooked and buttered. But though Nielsen (if they ever asked me — in 40-plus years of watching, they’ve never asked) could discover which shows I watch, they would never know why I watch them.

I never knew myself until the other day when my son hit me with a tough question: “I’m Wakko, Dad. Who are you?” We were watching the “Animaniacs” cartoon show, and I had to hesitate before answering. “Oh, I’m, uh, Yakko,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t call me on the obvious lie. For I knew if I was anybody, I was Dr. Scratchandsniff, the dim, clueless father figure who tries to restrain the three stand-ins for wild kids, Wakko, Yakko and Dot.

Since then, I’ve asked myself that same question about other shows, and I’ve spotted plenty of other hapless father figures. Like Dr. Scratchandsniff, these guys aren’t literal “fathers,” and they have no actual “children,” but I don’t let this fact get in the way.

“The X-Files”: I’m assistant director Skinner. I’d like to be Agent Fox Mulder — the terminally cool, handsome and fashion-conscious hero — but I can’t help being who I am. Skinner and I have the same ultrareceding hairstyle, we wear the same glasses, we get mad in the same way. When we talk to our children, we get the same results. Skinner will put on his Mr. Serious Face, stare knowingly into the eyes of his teenagelike agents, Mulder and Scully, and explain the rules to them. Mulder and Scully will nod, walk out of his office and snicker in the hall about the old guy.

“The Today Show”: I used to be Willard Scott. Willard has my hair impairment and, like me, feels ambivalent about it. Some days he stood there, head shining in the sun, as if to say, “I’m such a manly guy I don’t care what anybody thinks.” Other days he hid under a fedora or a baseball cap or a cowboy hat and tried to brazen it out with style. My own collection of hats would collapse a closet shelf if they weren’t scattered all over the house.

His children, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer, are like my own kids — way ahead of him. But this doesn’t stop Willard. He has heart, he has intelligence, he has sort of a sense of humor. Katie and Matt appreciate all this well enough and love him well enough, but there is always an edge of “There goes the old boy again!”

Nowadays, unfortunately, the wacky Dad part is usually played by the amiable but saner Al Roker. I try to be flexible and realistic and fit into this shifting family, but I look forward to the nuttier, edgier mornings when Willard visits.

“The Late Show with David Letterman”: I’m Dave minus the talent, fame and $14 million a year. Not the early Dave, of course. The early Dave was a breezy, independent guy who couldn’t help being hip. He exuded an “I don’t care” attitude inappropriate for a family man. He had plenty of hair and wore sneakers, baggy chinos and sweaters. He grinned like a man with no responsibilities. I used to watch him for escapist entertainment because he was so unlike me.

All that has changed. Now he’s like a dad, burdened with a Big Show and worried that it might not be funny every single minute. He cares deeply and looks deeply anxious. He wears spectacular suits and talks about losing his hair. He needles the kids — Paul, Norm, Biff — like in the old days, but there’s no bite and they seem to see through him. He still puts on a good show, but there’s an air of family dysfunction to the whole thing.

“ER”: This is my finest hour, alter-ego-wise, for I’m Dr. Mark Greene, the young head of the emergency room. Sure, he has certain Hapless Dad features. He has the receding hairline and the wire-rimmed glasses. He makes mistakes and is sometimes misunderstood and overwhelmed. His hospital children, the nurses and doctors, don’t always respond well to his leadership, and women don’t clutch the walls to keep their balance when he walks by, like they do for Dr. Doug Ross, the now-departed George Clooney character. But he’s smart he has dignity, even intermittent sex appeal. And, best of all, he has the respect and affection of his family.

When my home gets into its semiemergency room mode and the nurses and doctors confront me with challenging situations, I think of “ER” and tell myself that, in a television sort of way, I’m doing just fine.

These days I’m flat on my back staring at the tube trying to puzzle out my secret identity on the Weather Channel.

This could take some time.

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