New Jersey & TV: Perfect together

Quick!  How many television shows can you name that either a) take place in New Jersey or b) feature a New Jersey native?

Greetings from my hometown, New Jersey's Franklin Township (Somerset County), No. 5 on Money Magazine's 2008 Best Places to Live list!

These days, you only have to turn on your television and New Jersey is all up in your face. I can think of a whopping 26 shows off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are others. (Obviously, I am only including current shows, otherwise “The Sopranos” would be at the top of this list.)

In addition to this list, at least three more will join the ranks this year: the tentatively titled “Jersey Couture” (about a dress shop in Freehold/Monmouth County) from Oxygen, “Jerseylicious” (about a hair salon in Green Brook/Somerset County) from The Style Network, and Martin Scorsese’s “Boardwalk Empire” (a historical look back at Atlantic City/Atlantic County) from HBO.

And now, without further ado, is my list of the Top 26 Jersey-centric TV shows:

26. National Geographic Channel’s “The Dog Whisperer”

Pooch communicator Cesar Millan may be from Mexico, but his right-hand man, Daddy the pit bull, was Jersey born and bred.

That’s right: The lovable, gentle giant who’s helped Cesar reform countless pups was originally owned by rapper Redman from Newark (Essex County). When Redman’s tour schedule took him away from Daddy for long stretches of time, Cesar stepped in and offered to adopt him. Nowadays, the 16-year-old cancer survivor is retired from Cesar’s grueling TV schedule, but on any given day you can find repeats that include him.

*Sadly, Daddy died in February 2010.

25. CNBC’s “Mad Money”

“Mad Money” host Jim Cramer may be from Pennsylvania, but it’s Summit (Union County) he calls home. The author, former hedge fund manager and co-founder of TheStreet.com gained perhaps the most notoriety (and not in a good way) last year when he received a public smackdown courtesy of another Jersey boy, “The Daily Show’s” Jon Stewart.

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24. Fine Living Network’s “Closet Cases”

New Brunswick (Middlesex County) native Lloyd Boston puts his best fashion foot forward and helps the clueless sort out their wardrobe.

(Note: The above clip features Lloyd making over his mom, Lynell Kollar. I was present for part of this episode’s shoot, which took place in North Brunswick. You can read all about it on my website.)

23. TLC’s “Table for 12”

The Gosselins aren’t the only family of multiples with their own TV show. “Table for 12” focuses on the mostly harmonious day-to-day lives of the Hayes family – Eric and Betty and their 10 children (two sets of twins and sextuplets) – as they live out their lives in Marlboro (Monmouth County).

(Note: The above video features the Hayes’ trip to Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo.)

22. USA’s “White Collar”

Though he may be forever typecast as Carrie Bradshaw’s fashion-forward friend Stanford Blatch in HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Highland Park (Middlesex County) native Willie Garson continues to find work on both the large and small screen. His latest is the series “White Collar,” in which he plays a con man.

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21. Sundance Channel’s “Be Good Johnny Weir”

Outlandish, outspoken male figure skater Johnny Weir may originally be from Pennsylvania, but his personality is a chip off his adopted state’s block. Johnny’s Garden State roots run deep: He lives in Lyndhurst (Bergen County) and trains in Wayne (Passaic County). He loves nothing more than vacuuming his apartment and doing dead-on impressions of his Ukrainian coach. And, as his reality show confirms, he’s a complete and utter pleasure to watch, both on and off the ice.

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20. “The Wendy Williams Show” (syndicated)

“How you doin’?” The phrase may be synonymous with Joey from “Friends,” but radio-turned-TV talk show host Wendy Williams has made it all her own. The host of the daily gab-fest “The Wendy Williams Show” is a Jersey girl through and through: Raised in Ocean Township (Monmouth County), she now makes her home in North Jersey.

19. FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”

Born in Neptune, raised in Asbury Park (Monmouth County) and boarded at school in Summit (Union County), Danny DeVito has never forgotten his Jersey roots (even after sucking down numerous limoncellos). In addition to his saucy role as Frank Reynolds on “Philadelphia,” Danny owns two production companies – Jersey Films and Jersey Television – which together have produced a variety of impressive titles, including “Pulp Fiction,” “Reno 911!,” “Freedom Writers” and a little film starring another Jersey boy called “Garden State.”

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18. TLC’s “Cake Boss”

Buddy Valastro creates art in his family-owned Hoboken (Hudson County) bake shop.

17. Travel Channel’s “No Reservations”

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain is the epitome of a Jersey boy: sarcastic and wry, with a sharp wit.  Though the Leonia-born (Bergen County) Bourdain cops to wishing he’d lived his youth in “the city,” his love of the Garden State comes shining through in one of the first episodes of “No Reservations.” Take a peek:

16. HBO’s “The Life & Times of Tim”

This animated series – which finally returns for a second season Feb. 19 – is the brainchild of East Brunswick (Middlesex County) native son Steve Dildarian. In addition to thinking up all of the cringeworthy scenarios Tim finds himself in, Steve also voices the lead character.

15. Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker”

The outspoken, no-holds-barred owner of The Millionaire’s Club is Short Hills (Essex County) native Patti Stanger, a third-generation matchmaker. “The Millionaire Matchmaker” returns for a third season Jan. 19.

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14. The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries”

TV hunks may come and go, but the pair of cold-blooded brothers stalking Mystic Falls, Va., in “The Vampire Diaries” has definitely heated up primetime this season. Playing good boy opposite former “Lost” star Ian Somerhalder, Marlboro (Monmouth County)-raised (New Brunswick born and Rutgers dropout) Paul Wesley – as 162-year-old Stefan Salvatore – sports chiseled, movie-star looks and a sensitive soul. Right now, he’s clearly won the heart of fair Elena. But brother Damon shares a certain chemistry with Elena, too. Who will ultimately wind up with her?

13. Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”

Why is Southern-raised Stephen Colbert on this list? Because he’s a Jersey resident – Montclair (Essex County), to be exact.
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12. ABC’s “Scrubs”

You may already know that “Scrubs” star Zach Braff (who also put New Jersey on the movie map with “Garden State”) was raised in Maplewood (Essex County). But did you know that Zach’s co-star, John C. McGinley, grew up one town over in Millburn (Essex County)?
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11. “Regis and Kelly” (syndicated)

You know Kelly Ripa as the perky sidekick of the lovable curmudgeon Regis Philbin on “Regis and Kelly,” but years ago she was just another Jersey girl – albeit one (from Berlin in Camden County) who just happened to shake her groove-thing daily on a little local TV show called “Dancin’ On Air.” The show, filmed in Camden and aired on a Philly network, “Dancin’ On Air” (which morphed into “Dance Party USA” when the show went national), featured teased-out teens dancing to ’80s hits. Ms. Kelly a was a regular and her long, curly blond hair was the envy of many viewers (including me, who watched the show religiously in high school). Here she is (with Regis) poking fun at more Jersey girls on my list, “The Real Housewives of New Jersey”:

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10. HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”

Comedian Bill Maher -a River Vale (Bergen County) native – hosts this informative, entertaining look at current events, politics and popular culture.

(Note: The above clip features Princeton prof Cornel West.)

9. NBC’s “30 Rock”

Long Island may lay claim to funnyman Alec Baldwin, but it’s Parsippany (Morris County) that co-star Jane Krakowski calls home. This versatile actress – who met “Ally McBeal” co-star Calista Flockhart while they were students at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts – is as much at home on the stage (she won a Tony for her performance in “Nine”) as she is playing a goofball on critics’ darling “30 Rock.”

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8. NBC’s “Mercy”

This medical drama about three nurses takes place in a fictional Jersey City (Hudson County) hospital and features numerous Garden State references throughout its episodes. In a brilliant crossover move, “Real Housewives of New Jersey’s” Jacqueline and Teresa added an extra dose of “Joisey” realism to an episode in this, its first, season.

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7. Fox’s “Glee”

I bet New Jersey has never been more happy to claim a geek as one of its own than Lea Michele’s character Rachel Berry in “Glee.” Not only does Lea, who grew up in Tenafly (Bergen County), have killer pipes (at 23, she’s a Broadway veteran), she’s also proven herself to be an adept actress and fashion maven.

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6. E!’s “Chelsea Lately”

If you think Patti Stanger is outspoken, check out Chelsea Handler, host of this nightly comedy/talk show. Chelsea, who is also a stand-up comedian and three-time author (her latest, “Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang,” drops March 9), is nothing but an old-fashioned (translation: sarcastic and snarky) Jersey girl from Livingston (Essex County). Hmmm… maybe there’s something about the water in Essex County?

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(Note: The above clip contains Jennifer Aniston’s fashion diss on Jersey.)

5. Fox’s “House”

It may not feature any actors from the Garden State (former Monmouth resident Kal Penn’s character was killed off last year), but “House” officially put Princeton – and Plainsboro (Mercer and Middlesex counties, respectively)- on the nation’s radar. The hospital may not exist in reality, but the series is sprinkled with occasional Garden State references. And, in an ironic twist of life imitating art, construction on a new Princeton hospital – in Plainsboro – is underway.

4. Bravo’s “Real Housewives of New Jersey”

If there’s one thing we can count on with “The Real Housewives” franchise, it’s confirmation that the rich live well no matter what their zip code. But this Franklin Lakes (Bergen County) bunch brought a breath of fresh air – and more than a few expletives – to the series’ formula. Prostitution whore, indeed!

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3. ABC’s “Lost”

While his character is not one of the original “Lost” castaways, there is no doubt that former Old Bridge resident (Middlesex County) Ken Leung (ghost buster Miles Straume) is a star of the most mammoth TV series, like, ever. His delicious sarcasm rivals Sawyer’s and proves that he’s a Jersey boy at heart.

2. Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”

Comedian/highly successful mock-talk-show host Jon Stewart was raised in Lawrenceville (Mercer County).
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1. MTV’s “Jersey Shore”

Love it or hate it, MTV has a bonafied hit on its hands with this controversial *reality* show, which has introduced an entirely new vernacular into popular culture. I guarantee most New Jerseyans have never before heard most – if not all – of these phrases before: creeping (hitting on), GTL (gym, tan, laundry), grenade and grenade launcher (and that’s just from one episode!). “Jersey Shore” may in actuality star only one Garden State native (Hazlet’s Sammi “Sweetheart”), but it’s put Seaside Heights (Ocean County) on the nation’s radar, for good or bad.

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“As The World Turns”: Thanks for the memories

2009 has been a banner – oops, I mean bummer – of a year for me.

2009? See ya later!

First off, I turned 40.

Blech.

But the powers that be decided that scary number wasn’t enough of a reminder for me that I’m getting O-L-D. Oh, no.

A month before my big 4-0, Michael Jackson died. One of the biggest entertainers of all time – and perhaps the biggest symbol of my generation – gone. Poof.

And now, as 2009 draws to a close, comes the disturbing news that another fond memory of my teen-dom is biting the dust:

The daytime soap opera “As the World Turns” – which has been turning for a whopping 54 years – has been canceled by CBS.

Be still my beating heart.

Though I haven’t watched “ATWT” in probably about 20 years, this news still pains me. I have many fond memories of the residents of Oakdale, Ill.: Holden, Lily, Dusty, Craig, Lucinda, Iva and Josh/Rod, to name but a few. The show launched the successful careers of several actors, including Meg Ryan, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Parker Posey and William Fichtner, all of whom were on the show when I watched it.

And I’ll never forget my wonderful yet all-too-brief correspondence with one of its biggest stars of the ’80s: Frank Runyeon. Frank played Steve Andropoulos, a hot-to-trot Greek whose romance with Betsy Stewart drove fans wild. Betsy, by the way, was initially played by none other than the adorable Meg Ryan (from 1982-1984). Lindsay Frost took over the role from 1984 to 1988 (according to Wikipedia).

Frank sent me this autographed photo (note my name at the top- yay!) during our brief correspondence in 1986./Photo by Ava Gacser

But I digress. My correspondence with Frank began as an assignment for my journalism class at Franklin High School. I was a junior at the time and a staff writer for the school newspaper, The Beacon. I remember our teacher, Mrs. Fama, instructing us to write letters to celebrities requesting interviews. I was amazed when Frank actually wrote me back and suggested we be pen pals.

This is the final letter Frank wrote me, dated October 1986, in which he let me know he was leaving "As The World Turns."/Photo by Ava Gacser

I received six letters from Frank – all of them typed (I recall hearing somewhere he was a quick typist!) – beginning in March 1986 and ending in October. Even cooler, he composed each one on the back of “ATWT” scripts!  Check it out:

This page from an "As The World Turns" script includes scenes with Steve, Betsy, Lily, Lucinda and Sierra./Photo by Ava Gacser

By now you might be thinking that there’s actually no Jersey connection to this story. But that’s where you’d be wrong:  Frank is a Princeton University graduate!

And my Jersey love for “ATWT” doesn’t end there, no sirree. When Jon Hensley came along – playing the “buck naked” bad boy Holden Snyder opposite Martha Byrne’s sweet-as-pie Lily Walsh – I was head over heels. So imagine my teenage reaction when I discovered that Jon was going to appear at the opening of the Wick Plaza strip mall in Edison, N.J.!

"As The World Turns" star Jon Hensley signed autographs for fans at the grand opening of Wick Plaza in Edison, N.J., on April 30, 1988./Photo by Ava Gacser

In addition to meeting Jon (a Browns Mills native) and snapping some great pictures like the one above at the event, I also got this autographed photo of him.

Another personally autographed photo. Score!/Photo by Ava Gacser

In case you haven’t read between the lines yet, “ATWT” is responsible for awakening my teenage lust. And with these hot actors – and their relatively close proximity to me – how could it not?

Alas, as the ’80s turned into the ’90s, my interest in “ATWT’ waned. But even though 20+ years (good grief!) have passed since my obsession with the show, I still remember it fondly and am sorry to see it go.

(In fact, to this day, every time I drive down Route 1 in North Brunswick and pass the Oakdale Mobile Home Park, I think of the show.)

Fortunately, I have all of these great experiences and memories to hold on to. Thanks, “As The World Turns.”

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