Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

A Tasty History of Edible Underwear

Liia Galimzianova/iStock via Getty Images
Liia Galimzianova/iStock via Getty Images

One night in the early 1970s, while consuming wine and smoking marijuana, David Sanderson came up with an idea. He remembered that his older brother had an expression for when David was annoying him: “Eat my shorts.”

What if, Sanderson wondered, people really could eat their own shorts?

He related the idea to his partner, Lee Brady. As a possible result of that same marijuana consumption, Brady believed it was a fantastic idea. And while many people would have been content to let it rest once sobriety settled in, Sanderson and Brady were convinced that an edible undergarment was a concept worth pursuing. They even had the perfect name for their invention: Candypants.

The novelty gift item briefly took the country by storm. Bowled over by the concept of edible underwear, consumers bought Candypants with such fervor that the factory had trouble keeping up with demand. The business grossed $150,000 a month. Sanderson and Brady appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Everyone, it seemed, had a cheeky comment to make about Candypants.

While its inventors profited from the craze, they had to navigate some popular misconceptions. Originally, edible underwear was never intended to be sold in adult novelty stores. They really weren’t meant to be worn, either. Nor were they supposed to be eaten. Candypants were a risqué gag item that cracked a conservative market by presenting as an innocuous novelty. But some powerful figures involved in the darker corners of the adult entertainment industry had other plans for Sanderson and Brady's novel invention.

 

Sanderson and Brady were a couple in their early 20s living in Chicago when the idea for Candypants blossomed. The two had an entrepreneurial bent, importing Tibetan artwork and even organizing a theater troop, the Puck Players, to perform in Chicago-area elementary schools. These earnest performances were met with some measure of revolt, as Sanderson recalled in a 2015 interview with KCRW. The students, he said, were fond of replacing the P on their truck with an F.

The Candypants venture began with the men inviting friends over to their apartment and using garbage bags to take measurements for underwear sizes. (Presumably, it was easier to cut a pattern into the bags than it would have been a bolt of fabric.) Once they had sizing for both men's and women's options, the two pondered how to make the product something that could actually be consumed. While visiting a baking factory on a scouting trip, they noticed that the company had a bag of yeast that could be thrown in a vat. The bag was biodegradable and edible. Maybe, they thought, this was the answer.

An ad for Candypants edible underwear depicts two models wearing the novelty item
An original advertisement for Candypants circa the 1970s.

To find the right kind of edible material, Sanderson and Brady teamed up with Derek McManus, an analytical chemist originally from England. Over a period of months, the three settled on a recipe that consisted of modified food starch, glycerin, inverted sugar, mannitol, lecithin, artificial color, and artificial flavor. All of the ingredients were approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The brief itself would be processed in a sheet, then cut to garment specifications. To bind the sides, they used licorice strips. The partners named their company Cosmorotics, Inc.

Cosmorotics had one immediate problem: When they applied for a patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, their design was rejected because the words candy and pants were mutually exclusive. The office had no idea how to conceive of an edible article of clothing. This was successfully appealed, but it paled in comparison to a bigger problem. How could they let people know that Candypants existed?

Fortunately, the pair had a friend who ran a bath and boutique shop and agreed to put Candypants on display. Because the store was close to the University of Indiana, several students picked up a pair on a whim. One of those students happened to be a reporter for the school newspaper who decided to write a story about this peculiar retail item, and the story got picked up by the Associated Press. Virtually overnight, word spread about Candypants.

When the orders began piling up, Cosmorotics opened a factory in Chicago, where a giant machine squeezed out the edible material in two different flavors: wild cherry and banana split. (A third option, hot chocolate, had a foul taste and was said to be brown in color, an unfortunate choice for simulation underwear. It was quickly discontinued.) The underwear, which retailed for $4.95, was packaged in cellophane with a written caution to unwrap it only when it was ready for use. “Candypants may dry out,” the warning read.

 

By early 1976, Cosmorotics was having trouble keeping up with the demand. With Valentine’s Day looming, lingerie shops, pharmacies, and even motorcycle shops were selling through their inventory. Curiously, Candypants could also be found in major retail chains like Bloomingdale’s and Montgomery Ward—a fact that Sanderson attributed to their conscious attempts to keep Candypants firmly in the territory of a novelty gift item and not presented as a kinky sex accessory in adult bookstores.

“We’re trying for a universal market,” Sanderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1976.

The package to a pair of Candypants edible underwear is pictured
The packaging for Candypants.
Amazon

By 1976, Sanderson, Brady, and McManus were selling $150,000 in Candypants every month. Store owners would get calls for high-volume orders. Nunneries bought them in bulk to give away at bingo games. They went to nursing homes and bridal showers.

But as the volume of orders increased, Sanderson and Brady began having trouble sourcing some of the edible ingredients. They would order 9000 pounds of flavoring, and receive just nine pounds.

As it turned out, people in the business of adult novelties had taken notice of Candypants. And they wanted to take a bite out of them.

Sanderson and Brady discovered that the people behind adult bookstores—which, in the 1970s, was a business often connected with organized crime—were irate that Candypants were not being stocked on their shelves. They intended to produce knock-off versions that would compete with Candypants for material and satisfy the demand at sex shops.

 

Struggling to keep up with orders in the face of competition, Cosmorotics turned to an unlikely ally: Iva Toguri D’Aquino, also known as “Tokyo Rose,” a woman who had once been convicted of treason for broadcasting Japanese propaganda during World War II. (She was pardoned by Gerald Ford after serving three years of a 10-year sentence.)

D’Aquino owned a mercantile exchange in Chicago. She told Sanderson and Brady to connect with a factory in Japan that made rice paper wrappers for candy and medication. The rice paper was edible—and better yet, it was not under the thumb of the mafia. With a new source, Cosmorotics was able to continue churning out Candypants for hungry consumers around the country.

Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino; originally a mug shot, taken at Sugamo Prison on March 7, 1946
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sanderson and Brady enjoyed their modest fame and literal fortune, buying a mansion in Chicago and installing a disco that played host to parties. They befriended David Bowie, who knew the photographer who had shot ads for Candypants. They expanded the line to include mint and passion fruit flavors, as well as an edible bra they dubbed Teacups. They also released Notables, a stationery package consisting of edible notepad paper and a pen that was caramel-flavored. (The envelopes were not meant for consumption.)

Eventually, the knock-offs began to overshadow the brand identity of Candypants. In the 1980s, the men accepted an offer to purchase the company—made, they said, by a man who paid them in a briefcase full of cash. Sanderson and Brady moved to Florida and eventually married in 2015. They currently have no affiliation with Candypants, which are still being sold on Amazon (in even more flavors).

From one simple night of accidental brainstorming, the men had cultivated an empire. It wasn’t a bad outcome for a product that seemed ill-suited for either of its intended purposes. A 1976 test taste declared Candypants tasted like a rain slicker. Wearing them was not practical, either.

But Sanderson knew it was the package, not the contents, that was the real attraction. In a survey, Cosmorotics found that 85 percent of Candypants buyers never even opened the box.

The One Where Jennifer Aniston's 'Rachel' Haircut on Friends Became a Phenomenon

NBC Television/Getty Images
NBC Television/Getty Images

The legacy of NBC's Friends isn't one of ratings records or piles of awards—it's about the way the show managed to impact popular culture by showing life at its most mundane. This is a series that turned sipping coffee into an art form, still prompts philosophical debates over the morality of being "on a break," and made it impossible not to shout pivot! when moving furniture. But Friends reached its cultural zenith when it managed to transform a simple hairstyle into a global talking point, as untold millions of women in the ‘90s flocked to salons all wanting one thing: “The Rachel.”

“The Rachel” hairstyle, which was the creation of stylist Chris McMillan, was first worn by Jennifer Aniston’s Friends character Rachel Green in the April 1995 episode “The One With the Evil Orthodontist." It has its roots as a shag cut, layered and highlighted to TV perfection. It may have been a bit too Hollywood-looking for a twenty-something working for tips, but it fit in the world of Friends, where spacious Manhattan apartments could easily be afforded by waitresses and struggling actors.

The Birth of "The Rachel"


Aniston in 1996, during the height of the style.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

The style itself wasn’t designed to grab headlines; McMillan simply gave Aniston this new look to be “a bit different,” as he later told The Telegraph. In hindsight, the ingredients for a style trend were all there: The cut was seen on the show’s breakout star as the series hit its ratings peak; an average of more than 25 million viewers tuned in each week during Friends's first three seasons. You can’t have that many eyeballs on you without fans wanting to get closer to you, and the easiest way to do that is to copy your style.

During the show’s second and third seasons in the mid-1990s, stories began to appear in newspapers and magazines about salons from Los Angeles to New York City and (literally) everywhere in-between being inundated with requests for Aniston's haircut. Some women would come in with their copy of TV Guide in hand for reference; others would record an episode of the show and play it at the salon to ensure accuracy. For these stylists, a good hair day for Rachel on a Thursday night meant big business over the weekend.

"That show has made us a bunch of money," Lisa Pressley, an Alabama hairstylist, said back in 1996. Pressley was giving around four "Rachels" per week to women ages 13 to 30, and she was touching up even more than that. Another hairdresser estimated that, during that time, 40 percent of her business from female clients came from the "Rachel." During the early days of the trend, McMillan even had people flying to his Los Angeles salon to get the hairdo from the man himself—a service that he charged a modest $60 for at the time.

A Finicky 'Do

What many clients learned, though, was that unless you had a trained stylist at your side, “The Rachel” required some real maintenance.

"People don't realize the style is set by her hairdresser," stylist Trevor Tobin told The Kansas City Star in 1995. “She doesn't just wake up, blow it dry, and it just turns out like that."

That was a warning Aniston knew all too well. In recent years, she has expressed her frustration at not being able to do the style on her own; to get it just right, she needed McMillan on hand to go through painstaking styling before shoots. In addition to being impossible to maintain, in a 2011 Allure interview, Aniston called it the “ugliest haircut I've ever seen." In 2015, the actress told Glamour that she found the look itself “cringey."

Though Aniston had grown to loathe the look, it was soon the 1990s' go-to style for other stars like Meg Ryan and Tyra Banks and later adopted by actresses and musicians like Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Alba. Debra Messing had an ill-fated run-in with it when she was told to mimic the style for her role on Will & Grace. They soon realized that trying it without McMillan was a fool’s errand.

“[It] was a whole debacle when we tried to do it on the show,” Messing recalled. “They literally tried for three hours to straighten my hair like [Aniston's]. It was so full and poofy that it looked like a mushroom.”

A Style That Sticks Around

A picture of Jennifer Aniston from 1999.
Aniston sporting her post-"Rachel" hair during the show's sixth season.
NBC Universal/Getty Images

Aniston’s personal preference for longer hair soon made its way on-screen, replacing the shorter, choppier “Rachel” by season 4. The once-iconic look was officially ditched, the last remnants of which were washed away in a flowing sea of ever-growing locks doused in blonde, pin-straight highlights. And once a haircut’s namesake turns their back on the style, it’s likely only a matter of time before the rest of the world moves on, too, right?

Wrong. “The Rachel” endured.

Unlike Farrah Fawcett’s showstopping feathered hair from the ‘70s, celebrities, news anchors, and the average salon-goer were still wearing the hairstyle well into the 2000s. Even now, fashion websites will run the occasional “Is ‘The Rachel’ Making a Comeback?” article, complete with the latest Hollywood star to sport the familiar shag.

It’s a testament to McMillan’s skill, Aniston’s charm, and Friends’s cultural sway over audiences that people are still discussing, and donning, the hairstyle some 25 years later. And in a lot of ways, the haircut's success mimicked the show's: it spawned plenty of imitators, but no one could outdo the original.

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