Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Infamous “What’s Happening!!” Bootlegging Two-Parter!

The legendary “special episode” that taught us to NEVER, ever sneak a tape recorder into a Doobie Brothers concert

By: Jimbo X

Well, it’s February, which means it’s officially Black History Month. And ever the proponents of racial harmony and understanding, we here at The Internet Is In America have taken it upon ourselves to celebrate BHM by reflecting on the many and myriad Afro-American contributions to junk culture over the decades. And really, what better place to begin our month-long celebration of commercialized black kitsch than revisiting one of the greatest TV two-parters of all-time — and one that truly shines a spotlight on the woes of the contemporary black American, to boot?

In the grand pantheon of Afro-centric sitcoms, What’s Happening!! is generally considered a B-tier program at best. And while the show certainly didn’t have the overall charm, appeal or cultural import that, say, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Diff’rent Strokes or Family Matters had, it was still a mostly entertaining program, complete with one of the most beloved black archetypes in network TV history, one Fred “Rerun” Berry, who pretty much gave Hollywood the mold for any and all subsequent characters in film and television who are fat, black and at least partially retarded.

The show was very, very straightforward. For the most part, it revolved around the misadventures of bespectacled high school beta geek Raj, who was always getting his balls busted by little sister Dee, who is probably the most annoying character ever in the history of anything. Alongside Rerun, his best pal is this random weirdo named Dwayne, who was pretty much Waldo Faldo from Family Matters, only 10 years earlier and with slightly better social skills. And while the show ran for three seasons and more than 60 episodes, pretty much the only thing anybody remembers about the program is its infamous “Doobie or Not Doobie” two-parter, which is easily one of the cringiest things ever put on television. I mean, it’s so unhip that it makes the notorious “Bike Shop” episode of Diff’rent Strokes seem like a fuckin’ laugh-a-minut riot.

But you see, that’s kind of the beauty of nostalgia. Even something gloriously lame from 40 years ago can have a weird appeal almost half a century later, and while the two-parter definitely has its moments of cringe, by and large it’s still a really, really entertaining duplex-of-an-episode that’ll kinda’ make you miss the late 1970s, but not really that much.

Let this be a lesson kids: never trust black people, for any reason. I mean, that's the point they were trying to get across, right?

The first episode begins, fittingly enough, with Raj, Dwayne and the rest of the gang grooving to the Doobie Brothers on a jukebox at Rob’s Place restaurant, which rotund waitress Shirley jocularly attributes to the after-effects of the in-house chili. Apparently, The Doobsters will be playing at their own high school, and Rerun is waiting in line to get tickets. These scalpers offer to give him three front-row tickets for free, just as long as he, gasps, records the concert with a pocket tape recorder! Oh, and he’s also getting paid $4 for the bootlegging gig, which I guess was a decent amount of money to violate international copyright law back in the 1970s.

Then Raj’s annoying ass little sister Dee won’t let him use the telephone until she’s finished, then she makes him give her a quarter to call up his pals. Raj then asks to speak to any “Doobie who do be in,” requesting a press pass for the concert under some cockamamie scheme. While Raj is afforded an interview with the band, he’s still mighty miffed about not getting to actually go to the concert. Then Rerun shows up and Dwayne feeds him cheese so he’ll divulge how he got the free tickets to the show. Then Raj’s mama (surprise, there’s no father figure in the picture) makes him take Dee with him to the interview, and what the hell, he decides to drag Dwayne and Rerun along, just ‘cause.

After the obvious commercial break spot, we cut to the Doobies lip-synching during a stage rehearsal. Not gonna’ lie, it’s kinda’ weird to see a bunch of black teenagers actually look up to a buncha’ middle aged white men instead of blaming them for all of their problems, but hey, this was a different time in American culture, you have to remember. Then their manager tires to shoo ‘em off, then Dee starts sassing off to the drummer, but she does manage to convince the band to do one more song for them before granting Raj that interview for the high school paper.

So the Doobs (who have at least one black member, the bass player) do another song while Raj, Dwayne and Rerun dance like special needs children and Dee can’t even pretend to be impressed by this boring ass old white person music. By the way, don’t ask me to name any of these songs — if it ain’t “Black Water,” I just plain don’t give a shit. 

The face you make when the music is so shitty, you can't even PRETEND to enjoy it.

Then the guitar player makes a crack about how good it is to see Rerun again, apparently unaware that his retarded ass still hasn’t graduated. Then Dee makes a joke about the one black dude in the band being a “half Doobie brother,” than she says her favorite group is the Jackson Four, because there’s one unspecified member of the group she doesn’t like. And no, she never reveals who it is, either. 

Then Raj asks the band what their biggest pet peeve is, and — FORESHADOWING ALERT — the all state “bootlegging.” Naturally, Dee don’t know what is, so the lone brother in the Brothers explains how people recording and selling their music deprives record companies of their just compensation. Oh, and the public “gets a pretty bad recording,” to boot, according to the one guy in the group with a mountain man beard who looks like he could be a serial murderer in just about any redneck revenge movie from the Carter years. Then Raj asks the guy with the goofy sunglasses and Dr. Robotnik mustache how they do it, and he says something about con artists suckering gullible patsies into sneaking a tape recorder into the show, while Rerun tries to play it all cool. This leads to the one guy with the dumb mustache and REALLY long hair saying if they catch anybody illegally recording their concerts, “they’re going to jail for a loooooong time.” Because nothing says “rock and roll,” I suppose, like enthusiastic endorsement of mass incarceration. To which Rerun replies, “can’t you guys just yell at him?”

Well, it doesn’t take long for the rest of the gang to put two and two together and figure our Rerun got his tickets from a remorseless bootlegger, then he tries to back out of it but said bootlegger ain’t gonna’ let him do it, calling him a “fathead” in the process. Raj tries to tell the bootlegger he’ll do a tell-all expose about his operations, but then this other, beefier bootlegger guy shows up and intimidates the fuck out of them by pulling a bolted bar stool out of the floor. Which, of course, is our cue for the “to be continued” interstitial.

So episode two starts with Raj and Dwayne, reluctantly, helping Rerun tie the tape recorder to his big fat belly. And you have to remember, these tape recorders were like a foot-long and weighed about 10 pounds, so concealing that shit WAS NOT going to be easy. Then the kids start singing “Fly Me To The Moon” and Rerun asks Dwayne to help him sneak some popcorn and soda in his trench coat, too. You know, because he’s fat. 

Nope, nothing funny going on here — just three teenagers in the bathroom at the same time, singing into a fat kid's crotch.

So Shirley shows up at the concert and she’s aghast at how great the kids’ seats are and then Dee makes a crack about Rerun looking like the titular “Wheel of Fortune,” then the Doobies come out and sing “Blackwater” — ironically, in a crowd comprised primarily of black people. I guess my favorite part of the performance is the fact that the guy operating the Dobro is wearing a Bugs Bunny jersey. Like, complete with rainbow armbands and shit. 

Then the Doobs do another song — sorry, but I don’t the name of the ditty — but I can tell you the guy with the mushroom haircut and mountain man beard is the one handling the primary vocal duties. Then the guy in the Looney Tunes jersey starts shredding his guitar, looking like he’s having an epileptic seizure the entire time. 

But oh, just you wait, the Doobie Brothers ain’t done yet. They’re gonna’ play yet ANOTHER song for the audience, which means at least half of the episode is just footage of them playing. Again, I can’t tell you the name of the song proper, but it’s the one that involves a guy smacking a giant gong with a flaming torch. You know, whatever that one’s called. Even better, the theatrics are superimposed over Dwayne’s head, making him look like he was the Silver Surfer or something. Then they show Dee fake dancing with her tongue hanging out and it’s LITERALLY the funniest damn thing I’ve ever seen in my life, even funnier than that one part in “Blood Freak” where the guy starts coughing at the end during the movie’s concluding spiel. And say what you will about the Doobie Brothers music, one thing is for sure — those assholes knew how to use dry ice, and they knew how to use it right.

This was literally the 9/11 of its time.

Then the lead singer of the group talks about how he used his physics education at the school to wrestle a girl into his backseat, because rape wasn’t actually a real crime until 1987. Then the guy in the Looney Tunes jersey tells everybody this is the last song of the night for sure and encourages everybody in the crowd to dance.

Of course, all of that soulful singing about “taking it to the streets” causes Rerun to cut a festive jig, which — naturally — causes the tape recorder to flop out right there in front of the band. After the show, the Doobie Brothers give Rerun and pals a stern talking to, with the guy in the Looney Tunes jersey asking them if the name of the guy who forced them to record the show as “Al Dunbar.” And sure enough, that’s him indeed, ‘cause he apparently he’s the scumbag that tried to record their concert in St. Louis and Los Angeles, too. Then the band asks the kids to deliver the tape to Al at the soda shop from earlier, and Dee asks the band to arrive there early, because Rerun is liable to eat everything in stock prior to their meals.

Then Al sass-mouths Shirley at Rob’s Place, and then she asks him if he wants baked potatoes, pecan pie and shrimp cocktail, and he says “yes” to all of it then she tells him to go to grocery store down the street and buy all of it. Then the kids show up and Al tries to get Rerun to cough up the tape and Raj stalls them and Rerun starts doing the Funky Chicken and then the Doobies show up to get REVENGE on those devious bootleggers. Then the police play the tape just for the guffaws, and the entire soundtrack is just the sound of Rerun eating popcorn. Now THAT is all ironic and shit, right there. Then the Doobies slap hand with the kids and they dance a little bit, and yeah, that’s the end of the episode. 

Join us for next week's episode, when Raj and the gang learns the ills of ticket scalping from special guest stars The Oak Ridge Boys!

Well, I guess that kinda’ speaks for itself, don’t it? Over the course of about 40 minutes of TV time, I’d venture to guess at least half of it was dedicated to glorified Doobie Brothers concert footage, which I guess really isn’t that raw of a deal if you’re a hardcore Doobie Brothers fan. That said, I have a REALLY hard time believing that the overlap between hardcore Doobie Brothers fans and the core constituency of the What’s Happening!! audience was that great. In modern day terms, it would be like Insecure dedicating two episodes to a performance by Coldplay, or Blackish dedicating two episodes to a performance by Vampire Weekend — it just doesn’t seem like the key demographics are aligning here.

Yes, four decades later, this episode is STILL the sticking point of any interview with Doobie Brothers members. For the love of all that is holy, you can even go on Amazon and buy a shirt depicting Raj asking “Which Doobie you be?” for the low, low price of $21.95, proving once and for all that our fiat-based financial system is broken beyond repair. 

Of course, the two-parter is pretty much impossible to make nowadays. Thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones and mobile internet technology, literally everybody can record any concert they go to and stream it live to the entire world whenever they want, and there ain’t shit the Doobie Brothers or anybody else can do about it, either. Which makes it so weird to see something as (contemporarily) low-tier as recording music posited as a grave social menace punishable by years of jail time. But you know what the absolute weirdest thing about the entire episode is? The fact that it’s an entire two-parter revolving around a buncha’ black kids’ mutual reverence and appreciation of music made by white people. Needless to say, in our divisive, identity-politics-driven modern milieu, if this episode was made today it would probably consist of Raj and the gang protesting the Doobie Brothers concert for appropriating black music or something. Oh, and nobody would be allowed to make fun of Rerun for being fat, and Dwayne would probably be trans — not that we’re trying to give Netflix any more ideas here, of course.

Ultimately, it’s a weird, hokey, uneven episode that feels about as genuine as a dreidel made by lifetime Stormfront members, but at the same time, it feels so distant from modern existence that you can’t help but be captivated by its incongruence with the world you and I know today. It ain’t great television by any stretch, but it’s certainly fascinating fare, no matter how you look at it — and if nothing else, it certainly beats the shit out of that one episode of Square Pegs guest starring Devo. I mean, goddamn. 


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