Pretty in Pink

VH 1 enlists Kato Kaelin, among others, to recall cultural minutia

Last week, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report stating that the “non-reading segment” of the American public increased by more than 17 million between 1992 and 2002. In fact, two years ago only 57 percent of Americans read any book at all, despite the literacy efforts of First Lady Laura Bush.

No doubt, this is the sort of trend Woody Allen had in mind when he said, “A country gets the celebrities it deserves.” That judgment apparently also applies to presidents and television shows. No wonder critic Robert Brustein entitled a collection of his social essays “Dumbocracy in America.”

That concept, turned into an adjective, could be used in connection with VH1’s recurring series of specials on selected decades, such as “I Love the 70’s,” including this week’s debuting “I Love the 90’s.” As the press kit screams, it was “a time of peace. A time of Hope. A time to Macarena.”

Like video crack, this series is addictive. My remote control immediately gets stuck whenever the screen flashes a snippet from a given decade, each episode of which is an hour long, containing literally hundreds of clips that purportedly chronicle that frantic moment in American history.

Take 1991. Please take it. This hour examines: “90210,” Boys ‘N the Hood, Justice Clarence Thomas, Bugle Boy Jeans, the Grunge Movement, Urklemania, Gerardo and his “Rico Suave,” Pee Wee Herman, “Thelma and Louise,” C&C Music Factory, rollerblading, “Silence of the Lambs,” and much, much more cultural ephemera.

At a breakneck pace, viewers are bombarded with fads, celebrities, and scandals all commentated on, often viciously, by the likes of Hal Sparks, Kato Kaelin, Liz Guzman, M.C. Hammer, and an additional gaggle of human footnotes, including one unidentifiable, semi-famous chap who comments on the “The Nanny,” a sitcom: “Fran Drescher put anti-Semitism on the map. Hey, if you didn’t hate Jews before…”

Homosexuality fares a little better. While “gayness” doesn’t earn its own segment, it does constantly get mentioned and always in a pretty favorable light. Take the 1996 episode. The late John Ritter is shown in his gay role in “Sling Blade,” Dennis Rodman appears in a wedding dress and someone asks, “Is he straight or is he bisexual?” and “The Nanny” is described as “both extraordinarily abrasive and gay.” I guess lesbians were all traveling through Europe that year.

To find out more about the show that I truly cannot turn off, I chatted with an executive producer of the series, the vivacious Meredith Ross.

“Do you know,” she informed me, “that ‘The 90’s’ took about five months and 45 people to complete, but we actually started researching after the first ‘The 80’s’ premiered. After the first ten hours was such a huge success for the channel, viewers sort of started bombarding us with ‘we want more.’ That’s when we just said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ The answer was, The 90s’.”

Ross explained what topics get included. “We have a lot of different sort of sets of criteria to pick something, but ultimately it needs to have a sense of tongue-in-cheekness to it. Things that are sort of classically perfect just don’t really work in the series. Sometimes every once in awhile, there’s just a movie that people can’t really say more than ‘I loved it. It was great.’ That’s not for us. We’re not trying to really historically take a look back at the decade. We’re just saying this is what we did. This is what we wore. Can you believe we listened to this music? Can you believe our hair looked liked that? Can you believe we loved those movies? The more that we can laugh at ourselves and with ourselves, that’s the kind of the stuff that makes it into an our ‘Love The dot dot series.’”

So no AIDS? No Matthew Shepherd?

“Right,” Ross admitted. “They do not make it. We’re sort of a comedy take on pop culture. Again we never claim to be historical.”

As for the show being gay-friendly?

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely,” Ross insisted. “We have been so since the beginning. That’s been a big part of who we are from whom we interview and the perspective of the time. We’ve always felt that way.”

Kato Kaelin, with whom I chatted after Ross hung up, feels the same way. Kaelin is one of the guest commentators who says on the episode that includes the TV show “Twin Peaks,” “Who killed Laura Palmer? I always thought O.J. did.”

Kaelin, by the way, has recently developed a series for the FOX channel called “House Guest” in which he lives with people across the country. He’s also making movies for the National Lampoon Company and hosting “Dumb Sports” which includes ostrich racing. Since his debut during the Simpson murder trial, Kaelin hasn’t seemed to have aged at all.

“Well, that’s good news,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s because I have drunk aloe vera juice for the last 15 years. I believe in that.

Is he still being stopped in the street?

“Only because I’m jaywalking,” Kaelin said. “I’m kidding, Brandon. People do come up to me pretty much all the time. I think it’s because Kato is very easy to say, plus I’ve got the blond hair going. Otherwise they think I’m a Kato look-alike.”

I asked him what it was like to look back at the 90s.

“I look at life as such a gift. I remember on Christmas opening presents. It was always happy. But life is a gift and the 90s was fantastic, and I’m glad to be alive, and it’s a great gift to be able to have fun in my life every day.

What about being on the cover of Playgirl?

“I didn’t pose naked, though, because they said it would have to be a major August issue.”

Kaelin also spoke about his gay following, closeted as they are. “I’m not so much aware of it but I’m proud of course. Are you kidding? I think it’s fantastic. Why my CEO’s wife has three gay men staying with her from Atlanta and they said the same thing: ‘You have a gay following.’ I thought how could you not like that? It’s great to have to fans. You know I’m now getting my 16th minute of fame.”

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