Pop Culture

Captain, my captain

There’s something about the death of those we remember only from childhood. Even if we rarely take those recollections out of the box in the attic where they remain with letters home from camp, old report cards and baby pictures, it seems incongruous for them to die.

I felt this acutely last year when Fred Rogers died, and again on Friday at the news of the death of Bob Keeshan at age 76. Just as Theodore Geisel was really Dr. Seuss, and just as Carroll Spinney is really Big Bird, everybody knows that Bob Keeshan was really Captain Kangaroo.

“Captain Kangaroo” was always focused first and foremost on the Captain himself, chatting with friends like Mr. Green Jeans and interacting with oddballs like the bespectacled and silent Bunny Rabbit and the mischievous Mr. Moose. It also shipped in extra goodies like the “Tom Terrific” cartoons and the “Simon” segments (“Well you know my name is Simon; and the things I draw come true”) that hold their own places of honor in a lot of musty Saturday morning memories.

The show ran on CBS in one form or another for a resilient 30 years, from 1955 to 1984. That means that Keeshan and his trademark red coat premiered in the same year as “This Is Your Life,” and packed it in a year after “M*A*S*H.” That’s a long run. That’s a guy who kept a lot of kids company.

This quality, simple companionship, may be one of the most distinctive aspects of “Captain Kangaroo.” Sure, the show believed passionately in learning, and so did Keeshan — there were always strong words of encouragement about reading, and the Captain often read aloud himself. Notorious education fiend Bill Cosby even came aboard late in the game to do “Picture Pages.” But more than that, “Captain Kangaroo” was about a good, trustworthy adult who told jokes, brought friends over, and didn’t think you were boring just because you were too little to tie your shoes.

Sometimes, cheap laughs are just fineThe Captain was never quite as widely canonized as Mr. Rogers, and his show was never quite as interested in—or as proficient at—winking at adults as “Sesame Street” or especially “The Electric Company.” But for lack of a more elegant phrase, the Captain had more freewheeling goofiness than almost any show I can remember from my youth. It makes sense — f you talk to a six-year-old, you’ll find that her capacity for witty repartee is still developing, but she probably already knows how to go for the cheap laugh.

The Captain knew the cheap laugh very well, in the very best way. Over and over, he would tangle with Mr. Moose, and over and over, it would end with a load of ping-pong balls being dumped on the poor Captain’s head. And into his pockets. And down his coat. And he always made that face—that “Well, yes, I should have known” face.

Much like Charlie Brown having the football yanked away by Lucy, the Captain never learned that when Mr. Moose offered him a joke, it would be better not to get into it. The Captain was more a playmate than an instructor. If you were awkward, or felt silly, or were constantly on the losing end of the joke? Hey, Captain Kangaroo was, too.

There are advantages, I think, to shows that don’t have the luxury of sensory overload. I cringe a bit at commercials showing how kids can watch DVDs in the minivan, in part because I remember playing animal-spotting games with my family on long car rides, where a chicken was one point and a sheep was two points and if you happened to get a good farm on your side of the car, you could pretty much sit back and count your bragging rights.

As much as I admire the thought that goes into shows like “Blue’s Clues,” when I see kids’ shows now, I miss Keeshan’s light touch. I miss the utter absence of pretense and condescension — and that’s in the good shows. That’s aside from the irritating, vapid cartoons that aren’t even trying.

I miss the joyful idleness and effortlessness, too. The guy had shaggy hair and a funny mustache, and for lack of a more fully PhD-vetted phrase, he hung out. Sure, he read books, but sometimes, he was just there to play with you. There’s a time for learning, after all, and there’s a time to have ping-pong balls dropped on your head.

That’s not to say that watching “Captain Kangaroo” didn’t teach. You still learned, not just because he told you to, but because people who are themselves confidently clever make you want to be clever, too.

Keeshan presented the world of adults as a place where people have jobs, and maybe know a little more than you do, but still want a lot of the same things you want. They want to have fun with knock-knock jokes, and they want to have friends like Mr. Green Jeans. And ultimately, they care about you.

The relationship between children and television has a complicated history and something of a rotten reputation. Certainly, kids’ shows deserve the beating they take when they become the promotional arm of a swag empire — a way to sell lunchboxes and video games and officially sanctioned flame-retardant shrink-wrapped pajamas.

But there’s no reason you couldn’t still make a good show to keep kids company. A show with a house, and a guy, and his friends, and some puppets. Some jokes, some reading, some drawing. And the occasional outbreak of slapstick, while not a necessity, is recommended. The Captain would approve.

Linda Holmes is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Minn.

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