The ’50s and early ’60s were a pretty standardized time. There were three TV networks, and they offered similar programming: morning news shows, soap operas and game shows during the day, the evening news, and variety shows, westerns, crime shows, and silly sitcoms at night. There were good shows, and bad shows — but mostly, the shows seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Late at night, however, some differences emerged. In Cleveland, in the early ’60s, the most significant of those differences was Ghoulardi.
Ghoulardi was a TV character invented by Ernie Anderson. He was the coolest, weirdest TV host we’d ever seen. He was supposed to be the host of a show that showed movies, but the movies sucked and Ghoulardi made fun of them. Nobody cared about the movies, anyway, because Ghoulardi really was the show. He wore a fake moustache and goatee, fake glasses that usually were missing a lens, a white lab coat, and a cheap wig. His show looked dark and creepy. He played great music that you didn’t hear on the radio. He blew up car models on the air. He showed weird drawings. He had bizarre skits and in jokes, he regularly made fun of Parma, and he created catch phrases. You weren’t sure you got all of Ghoulardi’s jokes — in fact, you were pretty sure that you didn’t — but you also thought that the powers that be probably weren’t getting all the jokes, either, which just made Ghoulardi cooler. (The “poker” joke in the YouTube clip below is an example, I think.)
Ghoulardi wasn’t for everyone. I’m sure the Greater Cleveland Decency League or the Daughters of the American Revolution or some other “pro-decency” organization regularly protested his show. But, if you were a kid who lived in the Cleveland area you just had to watch him and then talk about him with your friends the next day.
Why should anyone care about a local TV personality who was on the air a few years more than four decades ago? Because Ghoulardi, and similarly unique local TV personalities from other areas, helped to light the way for the current state of TV in modern America. Ghoulardi showed that bold and strange TV shows could develop a devoted following, even if the show didn’t broadly appeal to the masses like the standardized pablum that was broadcast on the networks. Ghoulardi was a niche show before there were niche shows or niche networks. In that sense, shows like Man vs. Food, Robot Chicken, and Space Ghost Coast To Coast, among many others, owe a debt to Ernie Anderson and his curious, non-conformist character. He helped to blaze a trail that the entertainment industry is still following, 45 years later.