rene villanueva – before batibot, there was sesame
i met rene villanueva in march 1983 under not very easy circumstances for either of us. he was already a two-time palanca awardee and (if memory serves) teaching literature in u.p. while i, i was a u.p. psych-major drop-out writing a showbiz column notes of a tv junkie for a weekly magazine. yet i ended up headwriter of the philippine sesame street project, and rene was just one of my writers.
ang totoo niyan, january pa lang nabalitaan ko na that imee marcos was negotiating for a philippine version of sesame street. i had been looking forward to reviewing the show, not writing for it, so i almost fell of my seat when june keithley and then her friend project director lyca benitez-brown called, asking me to take on the job. i hardly felt qualified. my only experience writing for tv was for keithley’s late-night talkshow for adults, and my only experience writing in tagalog was a couple of adaptations of broadway hits staged by leo martinez and susan calo-medina, also for adults. besides, i told lyca, i wasn’t hot to be part of a marcos project. why not tap tv gagwriters instead or creativewriters from academe?
lyca begged me not to think of it as a marcos project, rather as one heaven-sent for filipino children, then gave me a sob-story about how professional gagwriters had too many bad habits, like resorting to slapstick and put-downs and other no-no’s to get a laugh, while the academics who went all the way to new york for orientation still had to get the hang of writing for tv in a tagalog that was light and simple. besides i was a mom with two kids and grounded in psychology, so she was convinced I could do it, learn the ropes and teach it to six new writers.
i still didn’t want to do it, i wasn’t sure i was up to the task, and i didn’t want a full-time job, no matter how great it paid. but my kids, ages 9 and 6 then, were so disappointed I changed my mind, dropped my column, and plunged in.
as it turned out i had to play catch-up with my pool of writers who had been through workshops and chosen on the basis of scripts they turned out after. rene was easily the best of them, the best of us.
as headwriter i was expected to produce scripts for a season’s 90 shows, to start airing in october, just six months away (akala nila ganoong kadali). each show required scripts for 10 segments of varying duration – from 15 seconds to 3 minutes – at least 3 segments to be written for two puppets, pong pagong (as huge as big bird) and kiko matsing (as grouchy as oscar) and the 6 adult characters they lived with in a sesame-like street; the other 7 segments to be written for other formats, such as light-action film, limbo, and animation. given the notoriously short attention-span of 3- to 5-year olds, every single script had to be funny, complete with a “tag” or punchline (!), and it had to be visually appealing and constantly moving on in surprising ways (like cartoons and tv commercials) even if we couldn’t count on help from special effects (pinoy tv was so low-tech then). writers also had to hew to a set of values that did not allow props or toys or accessories that would “raise material needs” or slapstick routines that would show disrespect of others. the 10 scripts per show were each pre-assigned a specific “goal” by the research team so that in every show, the whole person of the child was addressed—the physical, the intellectual, the emotional, the social, and the child’s relationship to home, neighborhood, and environment.
i lived and breathed sesame, no time for anything else. scripts went through rigorous review and comment by the executive producer (vivian recio), the research team (of psychologists and educators headed by feny de los angeles-bautista), the art department (headed by rodel cruz), the studio directors (kokoy jimenez & bernardo bernardo), the laf directors (noel anonuevo & herky del mundo), and last but certainly not the least, the ctw co-producer tippi fortune, a big egay who didn’t speak a word of tagalog. i learned (with great difficulty and humility) to take criticism without batting an eyelash (!!!) and to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite until everyone (as in every one) was happy.
i was just getting the hang of it when exile ninoy aquino came home in august to lead the opposition against marcos. i was heartbroken when he was assassinated at the tarmac in broad daylight. and when my car with its yellow ribbon was refused entry in sesame‘s studio grounds in imelda’s university of life, i knew it was time to go. contracts were being extended/renewed all around. i asked only for another month, time enough to finish writing 45 of the 90 shows, put together a guidebook for the writers, and prime rene to take over when my time was up.
it was painful, tearing myself away, not so much from the job and responsibility, but from the friends i had made, people i had worked and struggled and created with for seven months. maybe i would even have stayed if not for rene, if i weren’t convinced that i was leaving the writing in good hands. a year later when sesame morphed into batibot, i knew i had done the right thing. ang galing talaga ni rene.