You may not know this, but January 2nd is, to some online hipsters that I do not count myself among, sometimes called “Fake Jan” Day. Jan 2. Get it? The whole thing involves the Brady Bunch Variety Hour in some lame retro-cool kind of way. And though such things out to be ignored out of hand as the flotsam of a tossaway culture, perhaps we ought to give Fake Jan a bit of a think on this, her evident feast day.
So, a long time ago, in the in the late 70’s/early 80’s, some friends of mine in the very Irish Catholic West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston had a band (with a genuine record deal) called the Visigoths. I saw them play live once (at the Penalty Box, the dive bar across from the street from the Boston Garden, I think?) but maybe not. Their music wasn’t really to my taste, being of the deafening punk-rock garage variety, the sort I imagine blaring out of some band-member’s mother’s basement while she consoled herself with the thought, “Well, at least they’re not out drinking in the woods.” Anyway, what I do remember after all these years, is that they had a song–it turns out to be the opening number on their album, Pining by the Grave of Stardust, which I astoundingly discovered online–called Fake Jan. This consists of a very loud guitar and drum track over which the singer shouts, now and again, “Fake Jan!”
The first time I heard this song, the first time anybody I knew heard it, we all knew precisely what it was the Visigoths were yelling about. We had all grown up watching The Brady Bunch–it was a staple of our TV watching, and every kid in the neighborhood had as intimate a knowledge of the Brady family’s triumphs and travails as they did of their own family’s. The members of the Brady family were real to us, but they never seemed like real people because they were more than real because they were the Brady Bunch.
As my friends and I reached our middle teenage years, television culture began to change–the age of the variety show had descended upon us, with all of its manufactured razzmatazz through which we would sit stoic and stony-faced. Some of this genre was not terrible (e.g., Sonny and Cher, or at least Cher) but mostly it was shitty, and the Brady Bunch were not immune to the pervasive shittiness. In late 1976, the Brady Bunch Variety Hour aired while millions mourned. Watching your TV family sing and dance was awful, and surely as much of a trauma as it might have been to watch your own parents and siblings forced to sing and dance on national TV. The crowning insult of the whole BBVS thing, however, was that Eve Plumb had been replaced by Geri Reischl as Jan. Geri was a lovely and talented young woman, and of course, everybody hated her right away.
The whole Geri Reischl Fake Jan story has been told before– how Eve Plumb had other career irons in the fire (Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway), how Geri auditioned and beat out thousands of others for the role of a lifetime, and how she really was a very fine singer and actress who never got a fair shake– but none of that mattered to us watching the show in the 70s. The replacement of Eve Plumb by this, this impostor was an insult as great to our collective self as has been the whole Dick York-Dick Sargent debacle of a decade before. It reminds me of the line from the great Boston band J. Geils’ hit song Centerfold, “My blood runs cold/ My memory has just been sold.” Yes, our memory had been SOLD, without so much as asking permission. Who did these people think they were to do this?! Well within their rights were the Visigoths to call it out. “Fake Jan!” they screamed over blaring guitars on behalf of a betrayed generation. “Fake Jan!”
And yet, what was it that our outrage was really all about? I sometimes have thought about this issue in the intervening years.
There is, on the most superficial level, the snarkiness of pop culture itself, the relentlessly judgmental way by which it determines What’s In and What’s Out, never more apparent than at the end of the year, when relentless judging is at its height. It is, of course, the entertainment world’s last shot at entertaining us– to roll out its less successful ventures and then join in with its disappointed customers in the public stoning. In this black-and-white way of thinking, we’re asked to decide between Eve Plumb, whom we’ve grown up with, or this Geri girl whom we’ve just met. Jan or Fake Jan? How can Geri not lose that contest every time?
But I think there’s more to “Fake Jan” than this. What really stuck in our universal craw about Fake Jan was not the false choice between the two pretty young women who played the part of the middle daughter, but something far more elemental.
I suppose you could call the situation a form of “gaslighting,” but honestly that strikes me as too harsh–I think most of us understood that Sid and Marty Kroft, the BBVS producers were doing their best with the casting situation they had on their hands and would have far preferred to have Eve in the role than somebody else. What bothered us, I think, was that Geri had been brought in as Jan, and nobody said a word about the fact that she was not Eve Plumb. We were all supposed to just accept the idea that this person, who had not ever been Jan, was now supposed to be Jan and had always been Jan. This is your sister. Don’t you recognize your sister?
As I said, the Brady Bunch was everybody’s family, and we knew their lives as well as we knew our own. They had their problems, but every week seemed to work them out. And they all seemed to like each other– even though their architect father had designed a cavernous living room, the kids shared bedrooms and seemed more or less OK with it. Given that I would grab my baby brother by the ankles and flip him upside down in order to bump his head on the floor as I ushered him out if he dared to enter my room, the Brady’s essential harmony was a marvel to me.
But in fact, the Bradys were not an ideal nuclear unit–they had always been a blended family, in which Mike’s children were Carol’s step-children, and vice versa. We would be reminded of this fact at the start of every episode, and then miraculously forget it. What was the name of the mother of Greg, Peter, and Bobby? What did the father of Marcia, Jan, and Cindy look like? Do we ever see a portrait of them? Is the anniversary of either one’s death ever commemorated? Aren’t there grandparents from the previous marriages to visit? Do the children get any counseling to deal with their loss? Do the children ever make invidious comparisons (“Mike is nice, but our real Dad was way funnier/nicer/richer/etc., etc.”), unfair as they might be but as human as they inevitably are for children?
Questions like this never arise on the Brady Bunch, because ultimately, the premise is a phony one. Their family as it appears in every episode is precisely as their family is supposed to always have been, without any other possibility ever actually arising or existing. The counter-factual questions, about what might have been and why, never get asked. They “must somehow form a family,” we are told in the theme song, but what compromises and conditions are contained in that somehow never get an airing.
For those of us watching the show in West Roxbury in the 60’s and 70’s, questions of the same sort about our own families were also in the air. Weren’t all our own families necessarily a product of a similar sort of contingency? Weren’t our own identities within those families likewise without any sort of inevitability? Ours was a heavily Irish-Catholic neighborhood, and the idea of what a family was, of maternal and paternal roles, and of relations between family members were very much set in stone by the Church. Families were supposed to look a certain way, and there was an end on it. But in almost every household in the parish there were exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions, that nobody talked about.
When I think back on it, it is painful to realize how many divorces, how many remarriages, how many adoptions, how many “situations” were taking place all around us. So many people trying to work out acceptable lives for themselves in the teeth of an Irish Catholic culture that turned a voluntary blind eye to their problems. The Church of Rome has had to own up to the great misery it has caused, but in the 70’s, all of this was in the future.
It has been many years now, as I say, that I have thought about the Visigoths, that band named for the migratory tribe that set about destroying Rome. I will not be tracking down their album on eBay, nor will I be trying to reach out to any of the band-members on social media. The music, as I recall it, was not worth listening to, and the conversations could not be anything but awkward, I’m sure. But it occurs to me that, perhaps in their juvenile way, the Visigoths were doing their part to pierce the awkward silence that surrounded us in our repressive Catholic neighborhood. Fake Jan was not just about an unsuccessful alternative actress on a forgettable TV show; it was really all those family problems we never had a chance to talk about but would only yell out loud with a beer over the loud music in places like the Penalty Box.