I grew up watching a lot of television. Many of the shows I watched religiously were
already in reruns when I was a kid, so they were on every day. (The gang at BeautiControl can attest to my skill at identifying any 1970s or ’80s tv show theme song in three seconds or less.)
As an adult, I can look back at a lot of these shows and see things that weren’t apparent to me at the time. Shows like I Love Lucy, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie helped to shape my impression of a woman’s role in the world and in the home, and my aspirations as a child.
It didn’t matter that I grew up in the era of Women’s Lib. Gloria Steinem wasn’t in my house. Barbara Eden was.
My absolute favorite show, though, was The Brady Bunch. Yes, it was dorky and cliché, but it was also fun. Come on — what little girl didn’t want to be Marcia? She had gorgeous long hair, cute clothes, and boys fighting over her. And yeah, I did have a crush on Peter at one point (pre-perm, of course).
Little did I know that, one day, I’d realize there was a glimmer of depth hidden in that formulaic sitcom. That I would identify with one of its characters. And that it wouldn’t be Marcia.
I was lucky that, when it came time for me to spin my job into a career, I was working for one of the top three direct marketing agencies in the world (and even luckier that my boss, Nora Reed, saw abilities in me that I couldn’t yet see myself, and cared enough to make me look at them). So,when I was first promoted to copywriter, I worked on a pretty sizable account — a gigantic telecommunications company that spent money without batting an eye. I was brand-spanking-new to corporate America, but even I was puzzled by that company’s spending habits.
(Years later, after this company burned through its entire employee pension fund, it was acquired by another telecom. Not long after that, both of them vanished in a cloud of IOUs.)
When we had new concepts for a direct-mail package ready to present to their marketing team, four or five of them would fly in from D.C. to review them in person. That alone made me question how financially savvy the company was. I mean, fly in for a tv shoot, maybe. But a statement and insert in a #10 envelope? Who was approving these expense reports?
And every trip, the whole gang stayed at the Four Seasons. I wanted to yell, “Yo, Robin Leach — there’s a Courtyard by Marriott right behind our office. You could cut your hotel bill by 2/3 and forego the rental car.” (If I’d been their CEO, the company would still exist.)
With most of the details a blur, I have just two distinct memories of what it was like to work on this account. The first is that these people were so disorganized, so schizophrenic about what they wanted, and so shockingly rude, that even after I’d moved on to another job, when their telemarketers called me one evening to “get me to switch” and refused to take “No, thank you” for an answer, all the old frustration returned, and I erupted like Peter’s volcano. I told them I had worked with their company, found them to be rude and irresponsible, and that I refused to ever do business with them.
They hung up. And they never called again, so, mission accomplished.
(Key takeaway: Never forget that everyone
is a potential customer. Even the person
who writes your marketing collateral.)
The other memory is one I’ll never forget, because it was a life lesson I’ve carried with me ever since, and it was pretty hilarious, to boot.
One day, not long after I began to understand the depth of their craziness, it struck me that I was Mike Brady, and this client was . . . Beebe Gallini!
The Brady episode titled “Mike’s Horror-Scope” was about architect Mike Brady’s (Robert Reed) struggle to please an un-pleasable client. Beebe Gallini (Abbe Lane), a very Zha-Zha-esque cosmetics mogul, hires Mike’s firm to design her new factory. He shows her sketch after sketch, and she dislikes every one.
Mike tries to be practical and employ good design principles, keeping in mind the function of the building. But Beebe, who has no knowledge of factory design, architecture, or application of rationale, simply wants something fun and dazzling.
At one point, she tells Mike she wants her factory to have a flip-top roof that opens like a compact. Or maybe fluffy, she muses, like a powder puff. Then she decides that no, maybe it should be tall, “like a lipstick.”
She runs Mike ragged with her conflicting direction and makes him feel like a failure. If memory serves, I think the episode ends with her crying and storming out, yelling at a very relieved Mike that she will find a different architect.
That episode of The Brady Bunch mirrored reality in a way that no other episode ever did. In 22 minutes, the show painted a perfect portrait of a service-provider/client relationship in which the client thinks he/she knows everything, but is missing crucial information, and the service provider is being driven to the brink of suicide by the client’s nonsensical requests and insults. It foretold the future of hundreds of thousands of Mike Bradys who would one day face their own Beebe Gallinis.
(I suspect the story was inspired by someone’s gut-wrenching encounter with their own Beebe. I would love to know the back story.)
Most lessons taught by The Brady Bunch were pretty standard and obvious: Always tell the truth; wear your glasses when riding a bike; custom engraving is priced by the character; etc. Things you’d be an idiot not to know. But this one stands out as remarkable in both its wisdom and timeless practicality. What it tells us it that, sometimes, it’s best to let the insane rabbit go down the hole alone, and for us to remain above ground with our own sanity intact.
When I realized all this, it made me feel better about the crazy situation I was in, because I understood that it wasn’t an anomaly. Rather, it was part of the order of the universe (and had been since at least the late ’60s, or whenever the real Beebe tormented someone so badly they would carry the experience in their soul like a demon, until they could exorcise it by incorporating her horrid behavior into the world’s most saccharin family sitcom).
Since that experience, it’s become easier for me to work with the perpetually difficult. I’ve become adept at recognizing Beebe, which has proved to be a solid coping strategy when I’m nearing the point of frustration.
On the rare occasion that it doesn’t help, I put my head in my hands and quietly recite the calming words of the great Oliver Wendell Douglas: “Oh, for the love of. . . . ”