May is here, bringing with it bouts of summer weather that have us eager to shed the stress the spring semester. While the library often represents serious intellectual pursuits, at Hornbake Library we have plenty of materials documenting the lighter sides of history. May I present Crabs, an irreverent sketch comedy show produced by Maryland Public Television (MPT) in the 1980s. Crabs serves up clever commentary on culture and politics both local and national. The pilot episode, “Nature’s Way” premiered September 5, 1984 and invited the Mid-Atlantic to taste Baltimore comedy.
Each 30-minute episode was taped before a live studio audience and cast members served as both actors and crew. Our featured episode consists of nine hilarious skits, ranging from spoofs to musical numbers. While the entire show has plenty to discuss, today we’ll be focusing on three comedic gems that make light of the dynamic between Baltimore and Washington, DC.
The show opens with an exterior shot of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, the original home of the Orioles. Voice-over informs the audience about a concerted effort to encourage more D.C. baseball fans to come see the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing a “Where’s the beef?” t-shirt that is three sizes too small, the Baltimore fan in the stands is a ballpark classic: heckling the players, waving his arms and spilling his beer. Sliding in to take the seat beside Where’s the Beef (despite the fact that the section is otherwise totally empty), our man from D.C. comes complete with a picnic basket, a quiche, and a cravat to boot. The two new companions are both thrown off by the other, with Where’s the Beef asking Cravat “Are you from a foreign country?”, to which he disdainfully replies “I’m from Washington.” The juxtaposition and back-and-forth between the two pays irreverent homage to the dynamic between the two cities, a theme that runs throughout the episode.
An impressive musical number follows, starring a young James Woods singing his heart out in a three-piece suit. He saunters around a D.C. cocktail party with a huge cordless phone, schmoozing and bragging about his $60 perm . A piano player cleverly comments, “If your ego knows no limit, just live in Washington, D.C.” and “If you want to look important, live in Washington, D.C.” The contrast between Woods’ slimy persona and the self-aware, disinterested musician presents a hilarious and insightful contrast. MPT really let them have at this one and it paid off.
Moving away from the age-old battle between stereotypes of Baltimore’s kitschy authenticity and D.C.’s self-absorption, we have a refreshing chat with a character named Lurleen, a woman with a look straight out of a John Waters film. Another Baltimore native, Waters’ had, by this point, made primarily low-budget underground films, with the more mainstream Hairspray released in 1988, four years after the debut of Crabs. Lurleen’s character, banter and outfit are both specific to Baltimore and comprehensible to a wider audience.
It is the specificity of Crabs that makes it so special – the show is essentially a video time capsule of Baltimore culture in the mid-1980s. Its irreverent attitude is refreshing, articulately summed up by producer Dick George who noted “There are a lot of self-pompous, ridiculous people on this earth who justly deserve our ridicule.” As the opening credits clarify, Crabs does not educate and does not enlighten. What it does do is provide some comic relief, which is something that everyone, from Baltimore or D.C., can get on board with.
For more of MPT’s Crabs and other shows, head to the University of Maryland Libraries Digital Collections!
Emily Moore is a second year MLIS student with a background in art and theory. In addition to her role as a student assistant at Special Collections and University Archives, she works as the Archival Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.