Chapter 1: Due to Institutional Circumstances

I’ve got a draft of the first chapter, and I’ll share the introduction to it here. The key word there is “draft.” It’s early days and everything could change significantly, but I wanted to start the book out with the institutional entities that were in place before Beyond Our Control even started and identify how they helped support and shape what BOC became. So here’s the opening tease for it.

“There’s a rumor going around that during the ‘80s and ‘90s a frequently asked question in Hollywood film circles was ‘Where’s South Bend, Indiana, and why are so many young filmmakers coming out of that place?’ If the answer to the first part of the question was easy to figure out, the second part wasn’t. There were no great film schools in South Bend — no renowned theater groups or actor’s workshops and no plausible explanation for the plethora of talent pouring out of the little town in middle-America. There was only the implausible, the impossible, the absurd explanation that a group of kids had somehow captured the keys to a local television station and clung to them for the next 18 years.” — Lou Pierce, South Bend Tribune, 2001[1]

A pro-business non-profit organization’s support of a commercial television program on a station owned by Catholic university in which teenagers mocked corporations, advertising, and authority figures seems nearly as implausible as kids holding station keys hostage for nearly two decades. Yet that formula is essentially the answer to the second part of Lou Pierce’s question. What made these unprecedented circumstances possible in South Bend? This chapter focuses on the institutional conditions that enabled Beyond Our Control to flourish, from the city itself to the national educational association that sponsored it and the local television station that housed it.

A starting point is the apparent vacuity of South Bend that Pierce describes. A region that offered more for young people to do likely wouldn’t have been able to funnel so many creative kids into a television project. But also, South Bend wasn’t just any old struggling Rust Best town. The unique components that defined the city’s collapsing environment actually helped to fuel the satire that drove BOC forward. The show’s young participants were able to see on their very streets the material conditions of their deteriorating town and draw connections between that and how television typically glossed over economic deficiencies.

Beyond Our Control’s sponsoring organization, Junior Achievement, would also be inclined to gloss over any struggles under capitalism because it was founded to convince children that free enterprise and industrialism were the bedrocks of the United States and its democratic ideals. According to JA ideology, the dangerous lure of socialism had to be combatted by teaching the future voters of America about its wrongheaded ways, and the most productive route to that would be to give young people real-world experiences in entrepreneurship so they could see first-hand how individualism trumped collectivism. Ironically, while JA’s template did provide the stable structure for a successful, long-running television production, it also laid bare the ways in which BOC itself and the wider South Bend community benefited from a collective effort over any individualistic motivations, including in how it earned money for its young participants at a time and place in which jobs for teens could be hard to come by. That plus BOC’s fundamental mockery of one of America’s most thriving postwar businesses produced occasional strains within the JA and BOC relationship, but that in turn taught the company members how to navigate multifaceted professional structures.

Such lessons were more than the founders of BOC’s television station may have originally intended, but WNDU-TV and its owner, the University of Notre Dame, provided the space for Beyond Our Control’s production because of their commitment to an educational mission. WNDU also had a financial imperative, which the commercial ad sales that JA’s structure enabled helped to contribute to, but BOC never could have afforded the cost of studio time they used without some station altruism. As with JA, that relationship could have been endangered due to the occasional disharmony between the young producers and the station’s staffers, but navigating those professional relationships to ensure that the show could go on taught BOCers more than any textbook could.           

Overall, the unique character of each of these institutional spaces was fundamental not just to Beyond Our Control’s mere existence but just as much to its ability to thrive for nearly two decades. Yet the relationships BOC forged with them were never simple nor without challenge. Within and between each of these entities, there were tensions and cracks. But from that variegated foundation grew knowledge, insight, and critical thinking – as well as humor — that would not have existed otherwise.

[1] Lou Pierce, South Bend Tribune, August 22, 2001,

Sketch of the Moment: The 1959 Studefaker!

I’ve begun writing the first chapter of the book, which will focus on the institutional contexts that fostered Beyond Our Control, specifically the city of South Bend, Junior Achievement, and WNDU. About South Bend in the 1970s, as you might already know, things weren’t great! But contrary to the conventional wisdom, it wasn’t solely the Studebaker car company’s fault. Please go read all of Joseph Molnar’s fascinating “More People” series to better understand how population declines and White Flight were at the heart of South Bend’s problems during BOC’s lifespan. But regardless of the confirmable fallout from Studebaker’s collapse on the city’s civic health, and despite wider deindustrialization affecting not just South Bend but the entire industrial Midwest, Studebaker would carry almost singular blame for the city’s struggles within South Bend’s collective psyche for decades to come. Such lingering resentment of Studebaker is clear in BOC’s “1959 Studefaker!” sketch, which aired in 1970, seven years after the company’s closure.

The disparity between the car’s decrepit state and the voiceover’s bright focus on the future comes across as a combined rebuke to Studebaker’s 1950s arrogance and an elegy for any hopes that an actual young couple would be able to enjoy the surviving tokens of South Bend’s famed past.

Incidentally, this sketch was reportedly the only one in the show’s history that stirred up the threat of legal action toward WNDU. The owners of the Dew Drop Inn objected to the editing’s juxataposition of their restaurant with the Pink Pussycat, which locals would have recognized as a strip club, claiming that the sketch defamed their legitimate establishment. Sales advisor Joe Dundon described being called to the station manager’s office, genuinely nervous about what WNDU’s lawyer would report about the potential legal consequences of the kids’ mockery. He and Dave Williams cued up the tape; 15 seconds in, the lawyer started to snicker, then emitted a full belly laugh as the car hit the streets. At the end of the sketch, he exclaimed, “Let them sue!” Joe and Dave were prepared to issue an apology on next week’s show if the Dew Drop Inn demanded it, but they never heard back from the owners again.

More importantly, this sketch indicates that Beyond Our Control offered a lifeline for the area’s most creative youth, not simply in offering something to do on a regular basis but more broadly providing a place for them to convey their frustrations through an originative outlet. 1974-75 company member Charles Mueller described the BOC comedy ethos as “the release of tension of kids knowing bullshit when they see it and not having any outlet. Because you know, South Bend, Indiana, was pretty straight-laced in the 70s. And I think Beyond Our Control gave us the latitude to release that tension.” The BOCers recognized that the city was being torn down around them seemingly without concern for the impact on their futures, but they tried to build something of value upon its rubble.

About Joe Dundon

Photo source: Elizabeth Loring. Foegley Plaza at the South Bend Civic Theatre

The primary adult advisors for BOC were Dave Williams, whose day job at WNDU was promotions director, and in terms of BOC, today we would call him a showrunner or head writer; Denny Laughlin, who was an art director for WNDU and served in that capacity for BOC; and Joe Dundon, an account executive for the station who advised the students on ad sales. Dave died in 1977, Denny died in 2000, and Joe died last week.

Because his biggest impact was behind the scenes in equipping kids with the skills needed to sell ad time, you wouldn’t necessarily see the fruits of Joe Dundon’s BOC labor on screen (outside of random bits like the clip below). Yet Beyond Our Control itself would not be on that screen without him. After all, in commercial television, the product for sale is advertising time, not the program itself, and if you don’t have advertisers on board, your show doesn’t air. However, while Joe assisted students by providing contact info and conversation templates, he left the most important stage of sales — closing — to them. As BOCer Diane Werts described it to me: “You’d call and you’d say, you know, Joe Dundon at WNDU gave me your number. I’m working on the WNDU TV show, blah blah blah, I’d like to come in and talk to you about what our show can do for you. So, yes, it gave you that level of entrée in various ways, I think. Because there was a professional organization behind all these crazy kids.”

For a show overflowing with unique aspects, its commercial foundation might be the most striking to me. There were many teen-produced media projects driven by an educational mission throughout the 20th Century in the U.S., but they were typically on non-profit and public media platforms, not a commercial network affiliate. Within the epic tussle between art and commerce that is American entertainment history, BOC is thus a lesson that the goal to earn a profit doesn’t have to override the achievement of a public good, but it does take altrustic people in positions of power to tip the balance toward the public good. Joe Dundon was one of those people.

Working with Joe, the kids learned the practical skill of selling ads, but the deeper underlying lessons were about professionalism, how to graciously represent yourself and those invested in you, how to communicate with adults, including active listening, and the value of aspiring for something beyond yourself. Joe Dundon supplied the necessary wisdom, encouragement, trust, generosity, empathy, and savvy to hundreds of teenagers to make all of that possible and thereby funneled each of those qualities back out into the public sphere through them.

It’s also fair to say that this book project wouldn’t be happening without Joe. Many BOCers have conveyed that in their post-2000 reunion era, he was the connective tissue, providing space for them to gather together during migrations back to South Bend and helping to foster a sense of community that united company members from years apart as if they had worked closely together. Joe knew everyone’s name no matter what year they were in BOC, and while that’s the mark of a good salesman, it’s also the sign of a great teacher in showing each and every student you care enough about them to remember that simple but essential detail about you. Without the now-interconnected matrix of BOCers that he helped to foster, I’d struggle to put all the necessary pieces together to tell the story of the show’s entire run, so I’ll be forever grateful to Joe for providing that glue.

Last year, I had the privilege of interviewing Joe for the project, and he told me “The only reason I did BOC was because I felt like one of them. […] I really enjoyed it. It was a creative outlet that I really enjoyed being a part of.” For my Sketch of the Moment (new name to cover for my sporadic posting, ha), here he is in an introductory opening for the 1971 season, wherein BOCers climb out of the TV set and swarm Joe and his beloved wife Viki.

Read Joe Dundon’s obituary here.

And read an essay about Joe’s life in his own words, which includes this great photo and caption:

Sketch of the Week #3

Screenshot from Dick Van Dyke Show parody

I might have to retitle this feature “Sketch of the Fortnight” for now as I’m in the midst of a very busy stretch of non-research-related life. But hopefully this one will hold you for a little while, at least.

I’ve been interviewing former members of BOC and recently had the pleasure of chatting with Traci Paige Johnson and Bob Mowen. They met at BOC in the 1980s, later got married, and then both forged careers in the entertainment industry, with Johnson famously creating Blue’s Clues and Mowen becoming a prolific director, cinematographer, and visual effects creator. (Check out their children’s media company website.) Both were active behind the scenes on BOC, with Johnson mostly in the art department and Mowen often directing, but they did appear on-camera together in this sketch presenting an alternate version of the Dick Van Dyke Show title sequence which (usually) featured Van Dyke tripping over an ottoman. If you don’t know the original, I’d recommend you first read about it briefly here and watch the different versions of it here. Then take a look and see what Bob Mowen as Dick Van Dyke, Traci Paige Johnson as Laura Petri, and a cast and crew of fellow teenagers did with it in 1984.

Note that there are three separate segments to this connected here by dissolves. In the original airing, the segments would have been interspersed across the episode, which was a common BOC technique to keep the show feeling rapidly paced and enticing the audience to wonder what could come next after any given segment ended. Segments were connected by a “channel switching” motif, about which I’ll have much more to say in a future post. Also, make sure to watch this one a few times, especially so you don’t miss the great performances in the background.

BOC Sketch of the Week #2

Local news blunders are an easy mark, but it’s not easy to make a local news parody quite this funny. The late Don Ehninger was just that good in this sketch from 1968, BOC’s very first season. The expert comedic timing of the editing here also indicates that BOC would come to deliver not only funny performances but also aesthetic dynamism and technical savvy, even as it was making fun of the lack of it in local production.

BOC: WNDU’s Chalkboard and Textbook

Photo of David Sarnoff receiving an honorary degree from Notre Dame president Rev. Ted Hesburgh while being hooded by Executive VP Rev. Edmund Joyce.

Image source: Radio Age, October 1955, page 4.

Part of why I’m so excited about this project is because it’s about so much more than just one TV series; it’s also a portal into a history of local television, production technologies, and styles of comedy and evolutions in youth culture, education, and public service.

Highlighting just one small thread of the BOC tapestry in this post, nearly as unique as Beyond Our Control itself was the pedigree of the station that aired it. NBC-affiliated WNDU was owned by the University of Notre Dame from the station’s founding in 1955 until it was sold to Gray Television six decades later, and the studio was located on campus grounds until 1982. (To see where, check out the map within this post about the station’s construction and dedication.) The university’s launch of a commercial network station was so notable that WNDU’s dedication was attended by none other than David Sarnoff, head of RCA, founder of NBC, and the most powerful person in U.S. broadcasting in the 1950s. During a special academic convocation at Notre Dame on September 30, 1955, Sarnoff told the 3,000 people assembled, “Television on the campus is the modern counterpart of the blackboard and textbook. In your Convocation Program, I note Father Hesburgh’s statement that ‘a university can no more ignore television today than universities of the past could have ignored the discovery of printing.'”

WNDU would indeed help foster broadcast education in taking on Notre Dame students as interns, but nothing made more of an educational mark within those studio walls than Beyond Our Control. Creator Dave Williams and the other advisors made it the “chalkboard and textbook” that Sarnoff foretold while fostering wisdom about a lot more than just television production. Given the station’s location, it’s additionally worth noting that, due to Notre Dame admitting only men up until 1972, the teen girls who were part of BOC in its first four years would have been among the only women receiving an education on Notre Dame’s campus at that time. (Read more about the more than 4,5000 women who did actually graduate from Notre Dame before 1972 here).

Bonus material: Click the ‘Play’ icon here to listen to Father Hesburgh’s first address to WNDU audiences as the station went live on July 15, 1955.

“It is our finest hope that through the medium of television, we will be able to bring to this whole community the many fine things that Notre Dame stands for here in South Bend. We would like you to feel that this is your station, that through this station, you are brought all of the fine elements that Notre Dame does stand for, that through your cooperation, we can make this station a fine and vital influence in this community for everything that is good.” — Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, July 15, 1955

And if you’re more interested in broadcast personalities than broadcast presidents, check out WNDU’s article on another prominent pair of guests invited to campus for the festivities: Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. (This dedication was a big deal, folks!)

BOC Sketch of the Week #1

I’m going to post a Sketch of the Week here each Monday (or maybe Tuesday or Thursday or whenever I remember to post one). It might be something that I found particularly intriguing that week, or sometimes I’ll try to tie them in with current events.

The most important current event in the entertainment business is the SAG-AFTRA and WGA labor strikes. As a reminder that entertainment execs have always seemed myopic and don’t truly know what people want to see, check out this 1979 sketch in which Larry Karaszewski plays BOC’s real network boss, NBC president (and previous CBS and ABC programming chief) Fred Silverman.

Silverman got on the cover of Time magazine in 1977 with a profile headlined “The Man With the Golden Gut,” but his gut apparently soured by the time he got to NBC in 1978, where he had a number of high-profile failures (including a few with McLean Stevenson). Even kids know TV execs are full of it!

Fun facts: Karaszewski previously played a spinoff-obsessed Silverman at the end of Son of Jed”, a future Sketch of the Week candidate. Also, let it be noted that BOC took on Silverman well before Saturday Night Live did in this blistering Weekend Update bit from Al Franken.

Segment info: “The NBC Programming Game,” aired in 1979, starring Mark Wilson (host), Larry Karaszewski (Fred Silverman), Juliet Davis (Alice Thorndike from Scranton, Pennsylvania).

What Am I Doing Here?

Photo caption: Members of the 1968-69 crew of Beyond Our Control in the WNDU-TV studio.

My name is Christine Becker, I’m an associate professor in the Dept. of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame, and I’ve started this site to chronicle my process of researching and writing a book about the 1968-1986 sketch comedy TV series Beyond Our Control, which was produced in South Bend, Indiana, almost entirely by high school kids. If you don’t know what this show is, the Wikipedia page is a good place to catch up quickly, or you can check out the BOC Alumni Association’s website and its history post, or watch sketches on YouTube here, here, and here. I plan to showcase materials from all of these sources as I go, which will hopefully engage fans of the show and also help me work through ideas along the way. I encourage anyone who has thoughts or memories to share (or – the ultimate dream – intact pre-1978 episodes) to get in touch with me or add comments to a post. I want to know everything, so no comment or query is too small!

For now, I’ve pasted below the opening paragraph for a short (6000-word) essay I’ve already written about the show, which will be published in 2024 by UGA Press in a collection titled Local Television: Histories, Communities, and Aesthetics. The book version will be about a lot more than just the “intricate balance of multiple intertwined forces” that made the series possible, as it says here. The show is nothing less than a portal into the history of local TV, youth culture, comedy, education, and public service, in addition to a fascinating personal story. But hopefully this is at least an engaging tease to start.

“Imagine for a moment you’re 17 again. You’ve grown up with television as your babysitter, your educator, your entertainer. But now much of what television is doing somehow fails to interest you. You’re turning it off — simply because most of the time it’s turning you off. And then someone asks, ‘What would you do if you were given a half-hour of television time to fill each week?’ For 25 teenagers in South Bend, Indiana, that question is being asked. I’m one of those doing the asking — and we’re expecting not only a good theoretical answer, but an actual half-hour program.” — Dave Williams (1971)

Williams, Dave. 1971. “Beyond Our Control — a Junior Achievement Television Program.” Educational Television, April: 11-14.

         That actual half-hour program was Beyond Our Control, a sketch comedy series that aired on WNDU-TV, an NBC affiliate in in northwest Indiana, for thirteen weekends in the first quarter of each year from 1968 through 1986. The series was a product of a nonprofit youth initiative called Junior Achievement, which aimed to teach high school students principles of economics and free enterprise. Under this mission and the guidance of creator Dave Williams and a handful of other adult advisers, South Bend-area students between the ages of 14 and 18 undertook nearly every job required to put a commercial TV series on the air, from writing scripts to operating studio cameras and switchers to selling commercial time. Beyond Our Control was billed as “A TV show about TV,” featuring parodies of local and network news, prime-time dramas, sitcoms and variety shows, daytime game shows and soap operas, B movies and art cinema, and nature documentaries and commercials, as well as the occasional epic serial, experiemental film, or animated bit. As such, the series is a remarkable document of American televisual culture across two decades, as well as a gauge of how teenagers in the Midwest assessed the entertainment in which they were steeped. Nineteen years is a very long stretch for any TV series to survive, let alone one made by teenagers with annual labor attrition enforced by high school graduation. A “good theoretical answer” is thus required to explain how the actual half-hour program worked for as long as it did, in the particular city in which it did, and in the format that it did even starting well before its famous national counterparts like Saturday Night Live were conceived. That answer is neither simple nor singular, and it demands understanding of an intricate balance of multiple intertwined forces.