Film/Show: The Best of Times
Demeanor: Surfer jock x 1000
Hair Quality: Surfer jock circa 1981 x 10,000,000,000
Performance Quality: Not Applicable
We’re now more than a quarter of the way through Year of the Cage. I said to myself initially that I’d be lucky to make it a month, but here I am, and here you are. As a small thank you to those who actually bother to read these essays, I’m going to do a few Bonus Cage entries on slightly more specific, off-kilter aspects of Our Greatest Living Actor’s career.
Through this point in the series, we’ve learned much about Cage’s early career. We know his breakthrough role was in Valley Girl, and we know his first real film role came in a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But one thing we haven’t covered at all is Cage’s first appearance in anything filmed. In fact, Cage’s first real acting job came a couple of years before either of those films, in a little-seen, barely remembered failed TV pilot called The Best of Times.
The Best of Times, as you’ll gauge from the embedded video above, is a Laugh-In style, teen-focused sketch comedy show. The idea, according to whatever accountings happen to exist on the Internet, is that the idea was to turn The Best of Times into a weekly prime time series. It seems an odd choice, given the kid-oriented comedy. The pilot feels more appropriate—assuming an appropriate outlet for this thing ever truly existed—to Saturday or Sunday morning programming. Evidently networks agreed, as the pilot was supposedly never picked up properly.
Instead, the makers of the show released the hour-long pilot episode as a TV movie, of sorts. It only aired once on ABC, and was never released to home video in any official capacity. It is by the grace of God or the Internet or whatever that someone found a copy and uploaded it to YouTube, so that we may all bask in its incredibly hackneyed glory.
The first thing that strikes about this show is obviously the presence of an extremely young, eminently punchable Crispin Glover. Both he and Cage made their official acting debuts in this show. Glover is ostensibly the show’s star, the sort-of-narrator of this bizarre collection of shitty one-liners, surprisingly dark monologues, and soul-searing musical numbers.
If you thought Glover was the picture of awkward in Back to the Future, you should see him before his voice changed.
Cage, on the other hand, is more of a supporting player. His character, “Nicholas,” is an odd combination of surfer dudeness, jockish bruteness, and a pair of cut-off jean shorts that made me ask a few questions about myself. Most of Cage’s sketches involve him out on some Los Angeles muscle beach with his best bud Kevin (Kevin Cortes), a nerd of the utmost pedigree who Cage has to try to help become more socially comfortable. He attempts to instruct this poor boy in everything from acting more confidently, to the art of talking to women. Hilarity was then presumably intended to ensue.
The funniest thing about The Best of Times is what a wonderful time capsule it is into the daftly mediocre entertainments of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Jokes are paced out in seconds-long chunks, with scenes immediately cutting away almost as soon as they began, with a synthesized guitar “wah-wah,” or tasty “squibbeldy-flabbedy-doo” (to use Patton Oswalt’s guitar solo parlance) transitioning each scene. You couldn’t make a parody of the era’s terrible comedy better than what The Best of Times already is.
And of course there are the myriad fashion choices, slang terms, and other antiquated things (the inexplicable presence of Jackie Mason, for instance) to pick through, like the contents of an unopened storage locker from 1981. But above all those other things, the really striking thing about The Best of Times is how bizarrely dark it gets. Toward the end of the show, there’s a particularly insane monologue delivered by Cage, in which he expresses his paranoia about the United States Army Draft being reinstated because of the conflict in El Salvador.
It’s a shockingly earnest statement of teenage fear that becomes all the more bewildering when you juxtapose that against a sketch earlier in the same show that features Cage shirtless in overalls singing a choral rendition of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” while wackily washing cars. Seriously, try to put those images together in your mind, and do your best not to have a fatal aneurysm.
So, yes, The Best of Times is terrible. For me, hilariously so. It’s that kind of earnest, yet utterly manufactured entertainment of the time that looks so patently ridiculous in retrospect that you can’t help but kind of love it. The Best of Times should be kept in a museum alongside shows like Pink Lady and Jeff, and The Ropers under a banner that just reads “WHERE IT ALL WENT WRONG.” These are shows that should be preserved, studied, and learned from. After all, without a lasting record, I’d have never, ever seen this.
Hope you enjoyed that. Look for another one of these roundabout the halfway point in the series. And don’t miss Monday’s piece on Deadfall. Oh sweet, sweet Deadfall.