They were the simpler days.
A few months after the Lopezes recovered ABS-CBN after years of Marcosian rule, the network was now ready for resurrection. Since decades passed since its last commercial telecast, reinvention was also needed. The landscape of television changed remarkably with the new generation of mid-80s stars replacing the stars of the 70s .
There was a need to reassess the kind of shows that would bring back the glory days of ABS-CBN. The station's opening salvo was marked by a tag line: “Watch us do it again.” But those manning the control switches knew it was a completely different game altogether. It was the height of the Regal Babies, and the unquestioned matriarch of Philippine entertainment was a movie fan turned mogul ironically called Mother Lily. The rules of the game had changed completely since the Marcos government took control of all commercial networks and put a lid on what could and could not be seen by the public.
More Philippine screen memories:
The resurgence of commercial television after years of suppression and minefield walking ushered in a burst of creative energy unduplicated even until today.
During those early days of revival, ABS-CBN’s studios were practically represented by a long corridor where you have the three barns serving as the venue to put up sets and broadcast or tape shows: Tonight with Dick and Carmi (with Roderick Paulate and Carmi Martin), Let’s Go Crazy (with Joey de Leon and Maricel Soriano), Ryan Ryan Musikahan (with future National Artist Ryan Cayabyab) and Tatak Pilipino (with Jim Paredes and Gel Santos Relos). Those were the years when each day of the week there was a menu of comedies and dramas served to the audiences, and not a diet of across-the-board telenovelas covering all of the weekends.
You know it's Monday when you're waiting for Abangan ang Susunod na Kabanata. You know it's Tuesday if it is Palibhasa Lalake. You know exactly when Okatokat was showing, or Oki Doki Doc or Home Along Da Riles. And you know that every late afternoon you are treated to pre-pubescent Jolina Magdangal, Kaye Abad, Victor Neri, Patrick Garcia, and John Pratts on Ang TV.
Those were the days. Those were my days in ABS-CBN.
On the right side of that long corridor, you will find the production offices of Charo Santos Concio, Cory Valenzuela (not yet Vidanes), Joanna Gomez, Linggit Tan, Cathy Ochoa, Laurenti Dyogi and then Sharon Cuneta Show executive producer Olivia Lamasan. You get to embrace the frenzy of shows being broadcast live or taped, on the three studios right across.
That was the ABS-CBN I remember—and the ABS-CBN I loved the most.
Every week I would visit the set of Palibhasa, which was produced by Mother Lily’s daughter Sherida Monteverde along with Douglas Quijano. On another day, I would be in the same studio to watch the taping of Abangan with the same creative team, but only with a different cast. I wrote for both shows while Johnny Manahan (or Mr. M as he is fondly called) directed them.
Before the Lopez network reopened, in the latter part of Martial Law, Mr. M and I, along with his most trusted assistant director, the late Boyong Baytion, were part of another hit show produced by Nini Ramos-Licaros for another network. It was entitled Eh, Kasi Babae! which starred Gloria Diaz, Janice Jurado, Boboy Garrovillo, and Bessie Badilla. The successful sitcom was running on its third year when EDSA took place. Mr. M was then invited to move to ABS-CBN where he would serve as the senior house director.
Mr. M invited me to come up with another show with Douglas Quijano, for two main reasons: find a vehicle for Dougs' prime talent Richard Gomez, as well as introduce basketball player Joey Marquez, who will find a long-term career as a comedian. A third cog into that troika of headliners was, originally, Miguel Rodriguez.
Since Mr. M and I were coming from a highly popular and matunog sitcom, we decided to do a spin-off only—but only as far as the title is concerned. We wanted a catchy name for a show that would reverberate machismo inasmuch as Eh Kasi Babae celebrated female follies. We ended up calling our new project Palibhasa Lalake.
Breaking the fourth wall
Everything else fell into place: for the sauce-addicted landlady, the unlikely choice of the prim and proper Gloria Romero as Minerva Chavez was a fait accompli. We needed a study of contrasts for her two daughters: the naïve ingénue Amy Perez was drafted together with the pre-politicized Cynthia Patag. Those were also the years when a pretty little girl appeared in a hamburger commercial that immediately caught the interest and fancy of Mr M. He wanted this angel-faced child to be the symbol of innocence amidst the rowdiness and insanity of the show. Her name? Carmina Villarroel.
We did not expect Palibhasa to be as successful as it had become.
True, it was riding on the wings of another show, but only in terms of title. I have a strange feeling that nobody really associated one with the other at that time. People were not going to research on who was the writer or the director of the shows. They were simply going to watch it. Their response was our most pleasant surprise.
Palibhasa ran for years. Miguel Rodriguez was eventually replaced for a while by a toothless theater actor turned comic sensation: Rene Requiestas. His success in comedy was due to his great timing, and not only because he co-starred in the first film of Cory Aquino’s youngest daughter. Rene pitched in as part of the trio for a while before a newer Quijano talent, John Estrada, stepped in.
Later, there were more changes that took place. The Gwapings—Mark Anthony Fernandez, Eric Fructuoso, and Jomari Yllana—became regulars. Jao Mapa also joined the junior talents, and Anjo Yllana became part of the show after Abangan ended.
Looking back on the years of Palibhasa reveals something so much more than the changing of the guards. Those were completely different years when it came to navigating one’s career in television. The definition of what was entertaining did not depend on statistics and focus groups.
As I said (and well-remember), life was simpler then. Productions were streamlined as you knew everybody involved with the shows—from Erning who picked up the scripts from my home to production assistant Malu Sevilla who is now a director. There were no management committees, no head writer, no writing pools or brainstormers (if that is what you call them). There were only my scripts written on my two trusty typewriters: an old Remington my father gave me when I was Grade 5, and a blue portable Olympia that I lug around to beat deadlines.
Those were the best and craziest years I had. I finished writing the scripts of episodes in one sitting, with a carbon copy in Groundwood (not even newsprint) paper submitted to the production two to three days before taping—for photocopying. I had the carbon copies of all the scripts bookbound per season, properly labeled and archived.
There are those who do not believe I wrote all those scripts, churning them out, as Mr. M described it, like a vendo machine. But, yes, in those salad years, I was doing this one-man show. If some still think I had a bunch of elves hiding under my bed as my pool of writers, let them feed on their own limitations.
Anyway, I would go to the set to see the team put together the material and make it come to life.
But what was so unique about that experience was that it was never “work.” It was all about a group of people who eventually became such close friends that the teleplay I wrote only became a guideline for the actors to have fun on the set. This fun—an assortment of adlibs and improvisations done by the boys and prodded by no less than Boyong Baytion—leapt from the screens to the viewers.
The boys started breaking the fourth wall by directly talking to the audience, or violating the suspension of disbelief by physically reacting to the camera. Developments in the personal lives of Richard, Joey and John became fodder for in-jokes which everyone on the set understood. For some reason, the audience caught on as well. Then there was the water-dousing final sequence that was always a riot as people ran off the set while pails of water were being hurled at cast members.
The audience bought all this. This was Pinoy humor before the templates of comedy bar entertainment where anything goes became the norm. This was better than structured punch lines and plot beats. The distinct line between reality and entertainment was recklessly violated and savored. But it was those behind-the-scene events that still provoke such hysterical memories decades after the show has finished its run.
Watching reruns on Jeepney TV trigger memories not of the taping itself, but of what happened between shooting the scenes in the studio.
One such memorable incident was when we were all on a dinner break, seated around a makeshift table in one corner of the studio.
We had a beautiful Fil-American actress as guest. She was sitting beside me, Amy, Tita Gloria and Patag. We were being served our meals by the utility boy when Cynthia called a little woman who approached the table and said, “’Day, kuha mo nga kami ng tubig!” We were all stunned when our Fil-American guest suddenly said, “Mama, you sit here beside me na lang.” There was such an embarrassed silence that we could have been inside an airtight bottle. Then Patag goes, “Nanay mo? Hindi nga?”
Each time I remember and recount that event, I would find myself rolling on the floor laughing my guts out. So when I saw that episode replayed on Jeepney TV, I had to take Melatonin to calm myself to sleep.
Watching Palibhasa Lalake on replays evoke memories from that amusing, exciting distant past. A past that also represents an age long gone and replaced by the more complex and systematic measure of sales and aesthetics of television. Back then, it was all gut feel. It was all about knowing your audience and becoming one with them. Yes, there were expectations and the reality of ratings. But in those simpler days, we enjoyed our work, and our naivete and sense of fulfilment infected our audience.
All that has changed now—as it should. Audiences today are not and can never be like those faithful followers of our once-a-week shows. They made life a little bit more tolerable and enjoyable and palatable… and challenging.
But, as I said, those were much simpler days— when television was about happiness and not work.
Palibhasa Lalake is on iWant, and also airs on Jeepney TV Mondays to Fridays. Full episodes are also available for watching on the Jeepney TV YouTube channel. For more information, visit their Facebook page.