• Was this the most awesomely bad TV show ever?
• Does anyone remember actually watching it?
• Why has it been scrubbed from history?
I’m about to dish out the whole enchilada about the Whole Enchilada, a recipe for hard-to-swallow TV.
In 1989, right around the end of my ABC News years and just before my CNN tenure, I was casting about, looking for work of any kind, in any medium. The euphemism “between jobs” applied. I briefly filed gossipy radio reports about music celebrities for a Fleet Street startup called World Entertainment News Network (quitting after its founder, who was later diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, unloaded on me with a vicious, vile transatlantic screed). I wrote a couple of articles for Musician magazine and some trade publications. Then I landed a spot on a TV show being launched by VH1, Viacom’s spinoff from MTV.
Meet our hosts, Gary and Kathryn. He’s an actor. She – in addition to archetypal ‘80s hair and clothing – has a resumé as a television personality. In real life, they were a real married couple. The setting of the Whole Enchilada was ostensibly their living room. It was actually a soundstage on Manhattan’s West Side. Fake exposed brick wall, houseplants in the fake window. There were snacks on the coffee table, but it would have been difficult for me to snarf up any because I had drawn the short straw and was sitting on the throw rug-covered beanbag chair. I could just see me, beanbag boy, trying to stand up, lurching forward into the guacamole.
The premise: a group of thirtysomethings (The ABC drama Thirtysomething was a hit that very moment) would watch pre-taped features on the living room Trinitron and then discuss the trend, fad or mild controversy the piece had outlined. Think yuppie salon. In television high-concept terms it was “if a magazine show (a la 60 Minutes) and a talk show had a baby . . ” Contraception was an afterthought, and not a moment too soon.
Here’s a 31-second taste of TWE returning from a commercial break. The audio tech apparently didn’t expect me to respond to Paul Shaffer; he didn’t have my mic turned up.
This particular episode featured, as “contributors,” Lisa Birnbach, author of The Preppy Handbook; Kim Coles, a comedian and comic actress; Charles Koppleman, a record industry heavyweight (and, at the time, more of a fiftysomething); Letterman bandleader Shaffer; and yours truly (sporting leftover ‘70’s hair.)
Fun fact: The term “the whole enchilada” was in the spotlight in the Seventies, when Richard Nixon’s lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, used it in a tape-recorded phone conversation with Nixon aide John Ehrlichman in the midst of the Watergate coverup in 1973. They were discussing John Dean’s decision to “flip.”
EHRLICHMAN: Well, Dean has, uh, totally cooperated with the U.S. Attorney in the hopes of getting immunity.
KALMBACH: Um hum.
EHRLICHMAN: Now what he says, or how he says it, nobody seems to be able to divine.
EHRLICHMAN: But he’s…
KALMBACH: The whole enchilada?
EHRLICHMAN: He’s throwing off on Bob and me heavily. – Wyzant.com
Ehrlichman and Kalmbach eventually went to jail. No one involved with VH1’s Whole Enchilada went to jail, as far as I know. Fortunately, committing lame television isn’t a crime.
Back to Gary and Kathryn’s living room. The taped piece we first watched and discussed on this episode was about charity benefits like Live Aid and Farm Aid and a business that had sprung up to match celebrities with causes. In other words, an agency or brokerage had been created that would find a celebrity spokesperson for a charity organization…for a fee. It was a mildly interesting topic (and you can watch part of our discussion, if you dare, in the longer clip at the end of this article).
The problem with The Whole Enchilada wasn’t the format so much. (Imagine CBS Sunday Morning with its magazine-like content of feature stories – if each were followed by a panel discussion.) Its weakness became evident several episodes into a season that only lasted 4 or 5. One of the “trend pieces” we were asked to comment on was the growing popularity of reptiles as house pets. When it came time to weigh in on this topic, I just sat there, mute. I tried to think of a “position” to take. “I’m against it, and so are the reptiles, probably!” “I’m all for this, except – what if they get out of their cages?” “This is a better fad than avocado toast, man-buns and kale…which we’ll be talking about on ‘Whole Enchilada 2019.’“
Shortly after that, The Whole Enchilada wound up in the compost heap. I’m sorry to report that Gary and Kathryn’s marriage didn’t last, either. According to his Facebook page, Gary is happily remarried and doing theater in the suburbs; according to her LinkedIn entry, Kathryn’s still active in television, off-screen. But a funny thing happened when I tried to search for more information about TWE. Virtually nothing about the show comes up when you Google it. Especially odd is that several years ago, when I was digitizing a VHS tape of the show – before I even thought of blogging – I did find a brief description of TWE on Wikipedia. It is gone now. I’m sure you, loyal reader, will let me know if you have better luck Googling The Whole Enchilada. Frankly, I’m a little alarmed. Someone has scrubbed history clean. Or is trying to. My VHS copy may be the only evidence the embarrassing show ever existed….and I’m worried somebody may be coming after it. Maybe some ex-CIA White House “plumbers” squad or something. Stranger things have happened.
In 2004, VH1 premiered a show titled “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs…Ever”. If they ever do one on awesomely bad TV shows, they won’t have far to look.