Strangely intriguing yet slightly cringe-worthy nicknames. Controversial pastimes and hobbies. Bizarre animal tricks. Over-the-top bathroom humor. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the sensationalized families of reality TV (for example, that of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo in rural Georgia) and one’s own regular upbringing on, say, the ritzy shores of Lake Washington.
Over on the other side of the tracks/bridge from the liberal, just-gritty-enough Seattle is the tiny city/alternate universe of Medina, where I grew up. Population 2,969, this is where you’ll find some of the highest per-capita incomes in the U.S. It’s also where Bill Gates currently keeps his company (and his compound). If you live on the water in Medina, you can have a luxury car farm out back (near the front entrance) and plenty of room for several boats parked on your dock out front.
You might think that nothing of the reality-TV sort ever happens in a place like this.
You’d be wrong.
But before I bring you in on some of the fondest storylines of my upbringing (featuring sisters/cast members “Beaner” and “Thomas B. Long,” my dad, “Dirty Dog Lips,” and the pageant dog, Margaret), I have a confession:
I haven’t been watching enough TV. It took a three-hour TLC marathon the night before Thanksgiving to get me to finally tune in to the family that’s apparently become a national finger-pointing phenomenon.
I was ironing napkins, waiting for the home-baked bread to rise, and squinting at BonAppetit.com in preparation for the “perfect” meal the following day, basically seeking a distraction from the worn-out, over-taxed, expectations-set-too high mode I’ve been recently caught up in. And lo and behold! Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to the rescue.
Even though I’d never seen a full episode before, I’d heard enough buzz to know that:
1. This is a show about a backwater, hillbilly, trash-talking family run by a “bad mother,” and
2. Viewers’ (2.4 million, according to the latest count) reactions have been generally smug, as in: I feel so much better about my life/parenting/eating habits now that the Thompson family has set the bar to a whole new low.
I guess I had the opposite reaction. Watching the HBB family on TV was akin to facing myself in the mirror, and I couldn’t look away. Sure, I laughed and guffawed and chuckled at their antics. But for every “shocking” scene, I found myself unable to pass judgment, because for every misstep they took, I was reminded of a similar childhood memory.
Here are just a few.
Boo-Boo style: Chubbs, Chickadee, Pumpkin, and Honey Boo Boo are the sisters. Sugar Bear is the dad. “Mama” is their mom. They speak in curse words and subtitles.
Medina Style: We had cringe-worthy nicknames too. I won’t get into the full etymology, but somehow Allison turned into “Willis,” Lisa became “Beaner,” and Emilie became “Thomas B. Long.” So embarrassing when you’re at Bellevue Square and your mom starts scolding you in a loud voice using your pet name! We retaliated by giving dad, a.k.a. Leland R. Ellis, MD (a urologist and self-described “pecker checker”) the name “Dirty Dog Lips” because he let our dog, Margaret, kiss him on the mouth. He retaliated by getting vanity plates on his BMW that read “2 P C Lee.” Get it? (He died in 1989 and no joke, these are some of my favorite childhood memories.)
Boo-Boo style: The HBB family works together to dress up 6-year old Alana like a Vegas starlet and put her on stage.
Medina style: The Ellis family spends years dressing up Margaret the Welsh Terrier into equally inappropriate outfits and teaching the dog to “sing.” Thomas B. Long, Beaner and I would get up on stage with her (Medina Elementary talent show; the state fair in Enumclaw; many, many others) and howl/sing. Sometimes we won and bought curling irons with our prize money; mostly we lost and boo-hooed in the backseat of mom’s Mercedes, before taking out our aggressions by hurling McDonald’s pickles at each other.
Boo-Boo style: “Sketti” is a family favorite served at the HBB house. How do you know when the pasta is done? Throw a noodle or two onto the kitchen cabinets, and see if it sticks! Don’t tell nobody, but the secret recipe to sketti sauce is basically ketchup and butter.
Medina style: The Ellis family ate “purdy good” most times, but when Mama was at a meetin’ doin’ her charity work or somethin’, Dirty Dog Lips would come home late after operatin’ all day at Overlake Hospital and announce that Hawaiian style potato chips and clam dip was what’s for dinner. My parents kept some nice soaps in the guest bathroom that resembled oversized Hershey’s kisses. When friends came over, we’d offer them “chocolates,” and then watch them gag.
Boo-Boo style: The HBB fam farts a lot. Every episode is basically a big fart fest.
Medina style: Sister Thomas B. Long knew how to fart on command; friends and neighbors would arrive from miles away just to hear her rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” And then there was that evening when Dirty Dog Lips, bragging about his scientific knowledge, casually mentions that if you light a match to a fart, it’ll launch an amazing blue flame. Yours truly volunteers her own butt, downs a couple of high-calorie sodas in preparation for the event, and blows the flame out.
There’s more, but I’m saving the stories for my upcoming tell-all memoir and/or pitch to TLC for a new reality show.
In all seriousness, what I realized two hours into Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is that this is show about a hilarious — and normal — family living in rural Georgia. I’m not saying that the Thompsons are a model family. But why all the vitriol? They’re real.
And even though I can’t assume what happens when the cameras are off, what I’ve seen so far is that this is a family that knows how to have fun. There’s a tremendous amount of unconditional love there. They laugh, they play games, they do some silly-ass stuff, but it’s all good-natured and well intentioned. Who am I to judge that their way is any worse than my way?
And besides, not to put too fine of a point on it, all of the childhood memories above are among my all-time favorites. Not enrichment activities, not sports, not "stuff," but rather the time we spent together as a family, laughing, giggling, going on crazy adventures, and embracing our quirks and foibles.
I learned some important lessons, too: Don't take not-so-serious things so seriously, and always look for humor in unexpected places. As my 10-year-old daughter likes to say, "It makes life a lot more fun." Which is why I'm embracing many of these same traditions with my own family, fart jokes and all.
In our current world run amok by the media frenzy of extreme parents and finger-pointing moms, I find June Shannon’s attitude (“this is my crazy family and if y’all don’t like it, you can $#%$* off”) pretty refreshing (and um, no, I’m not sure I’d use those exact words if given the chance to be on a hit TV show, but in all fairness, I haven’t yet been offered the opportunity).
Look. TLC’s job is to showcase the most entertaining, thought-provoking real-life stories they can put on air. My job as a writer is to call BS when I see it, and to occasionally take the reader out of her comfort zone in order to make a point. Heck, I’m happy to “exploit” my own family experiences as an example.
How about you? When I pitched this blog, a certain ParentMap editor replied “well, this got me thinking about my tiny mother butchering enormous bull elk on our kitchen table every fall ... now that was reality TV way ahead of its time!”
Your turn. What does your family do that’s reality-TV worthy?
Allison Ellis is a mother of two, freelance writer and brand strategy consultant who lives and writes in Seattle. Read more of her work at www.allisonellis.com