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Matt Browning, Class of 2004

Matt Browning, WVSU Class of 2004While many were at home binge-watching “Tiger King,” “Cheer” or “The Mandalorian” during the COVID-induced stay-at-home era of 2020, West Virginia State University (WVSU) alumnus Matt Browning was binging a TV show from a different era.
A lifelong fan of the popular 1980’s sitcom “The Golden Girls,” Browning had just learned that Lyons Press, a division of The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Inc., had accepted his book proposal for what would become “The Definitive Golden Girls Cultural Reference Guide.”
“If you watch ‘The Golden Girls,’ in a lot of ways it’s timeless,” Browning said. “It’s like ‘I Love Lucy’ – it’ll be around forever. But, if you pay attention to the humor, a lot of it consists of dated references to things that were current in the 1980s. They were constantly mentioning entertainers, TV shows and movies, politics, and just current events from that era. Even brand names of companies that may not exist anymore.”
As newer generations discover the show, or even older generations, some questions of ‘who are they talking about?’ and ‘why is the audience laughing at that reference?’ may come up.
Rather than having to Google the references, Browning said he thought a book containing them all would be nice. Enter: “The Definitive Golden Girls Cultural Reference Guide.”
“Very shortly after I signed the book contract, the world shut down. COVID happened,” he said. “Not that there is a silver lining to a world-wide pandemic, but it did put me in the house for an extended period of time where I could just watch ‘Golden Girls.’”
 The Definitive Golden Girls Cultural Reference Guide
Browning would joke with his friends that he had managed to turn watching “Golden Girls” into a job. He sat down with a legal pad and pen, turned on Hulu and started with the Pilot. He would watch the show and write down every pop culture reference he heard, with a timestamp for the frame it’s mentioned. 
Seven seasons, 180 episodes, and two full legal pads later, he was ready to do more research and begin writing that book. Just to be sure he didn’t miss anything, he re-watched the entire seven season run of the show.
“I knew there would be a lot of references, but I did not know how many there would be and I did not know every episode would have multiple things I needed to research,” he said. “I wanted to be very thorough.”
People, events, politics, companies and brand names are all included in the book as references. Though many may know what VISA card, AT&T and Coca-Cola is referring to, Browning provides more background in the book.
“With Coca-Cola, the reference in the show was to New Coke, which was something that came out in the mid-80s and was a gigantic flop,” Browning said. “They changed the recipe of Coca-Cola and called it New Coke and it was a disaster, so that was the joke the show referenced and that’s why Coca-Cola started using ‘Classic’ after its name to let people know it’s the original formula.”
Structured by episode, the book is a mere 400 pages and includes an index for the references and an index for episode titles. Each reference offers dialogue from the episode for context.
While the references add humor to the show, the writing, the chemistry among the cast, and the issues dealt with on the small screen make it entertaining even nearly 40 years after it aired, Browning said.
“They dealt with racism, gay rights, AIDS, divorce and health concerns that women in their 50s and 60s are facing. These are things that are still relevant, despite all of the references,” he said.
The appeal of “The Golden Girls” characters of Blanche, Dorothy, Sophia, and Rose’s universe will not soon go away. Many consider it classic television.
“I was 5 when it debuted and I watched those shows with my mom and my grandma, which I think a lot of people of my generation who are still fans of it now did,” he said.
Browning’s book was released in September 2021, but he had to wait until spring 2022 to launch an in-person book tour, due to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 becoming a threat. One leg of the tour was the inaugural Golden-Con fan convention in April in Chicago. Browning received an invitation to sell his book at the convention.
“The event snowballed into an avalanche where it became this three-day fan convention at a convention center at Navy Pier with 3,000 people attending and several writers, producers, actors from the show, fans in costumes, vendors. It was a Comic-Con specifically for Golden Girls,” Browning said.
He ended up being a speaker on a panel of authors at Golden-Con and had the opportunity to interview Dinah Manoff, who played Carol Weston on the spinoff series “Empty Nest.”
“Being involved in the event allowed me ‘VIP treatment,’” Browning said. “There I was standing backstage with the actors who played Mr. Ha Ha and Barbara Thorndyke. It was one of the coolest experiences I ever had.”
While at Golden-Con, Browning would hear stories from fans of how the show helped them with certain seasons of their lives or how it brought the family together.
“It shows that a sitcom, or any form of entertainment, can sort of become part of the fabric of our lives and mean more to us than just simply entertainment,” he said.
Long before his book hit bookstore shelves nationwide, Browning began his career at WVSU where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Communications in 2004. When he started his classes at State, he discovered a job opening for an office assistant within the Extension Service. He applied, interviewed, and got the job.  
“I did that during the day and took night classes,” he said.
In 2006, the Extension Service created its own Communications Department and he was hired as a Communications Specialist. In 2009, he obtained a master’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from West Virginia University. In 2012, he was promoted to Director of Communications for Research and Public Service. He left his job at the university in 2021 when he accepted a new role as Senior Public Affairs Specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Book writing had always been an interest of Browning’s, but publishing didn’t come easy. He was an avid reader since he was old enough to read and he explored creative writing through short-stories, poems, and song lyrics when he was 14.
In his late-20s, Browning wrote a Young Adult (YA) manuscript that he attempted to get published. He got an agent and over the years wrote two additional YA novels, none of which sold.
In 2019, Browning self-published a book about independent bookstores in West Virginia called “Bookstore Explorer: West Virginia.”
“I took my passion of visiting independent bookstores when I travel and turned it into a book about West Virginia’s book shops,” he said. “I went to every one of them and got their story and then I had other writers and booksellers give me essays about book shops and I put it together in a book.”
In 2020, Browning worked with a regional publisher in West Virginia to publish a children’s picture book called “Chicks and the City” which was themed around urban farming.
It wasn’t until Browning got the idea to write “The Definitive Golden Girls Reference Guide” that things started to take shape for his publishing career.
As a writer, an established audience is always encouraged before publishing a book. These days that might look like having a large social media following. But, Browning was ahead of his time in the 1990s when he created a fan website for “Empty Nest.”
“‘The Golden Girls’ was already going crazy online but there was nothing I could find for the ‘Empty Nest’ companion show, so I made a page for it,” he said. “I thought ‘well, this will be a fun little waste of time for a 17-year-old. But it found an audience and grew and grew and grew, so I never took it down.”
Browning said his fan website led to interviews with some of the cast and crew members of the show and published articles. An audience had been established.
Now, he is connecting with the wider audience who appreciates all things “Golden Girls” through his reference guide and subsequent book tour to promote it.
After several appearances in North Carolina earlier in the summer of 2022, Browning will head to Maryland and Delaware on Saturday, July 9 for the stops on his book tour. This summer and fall will bring more stops across West Virginia, culminating at the West Virginia Book Festival in October.
His next project is a potential TV pilot and more books related to his “Bookstore Explorer” brand. The first episode is already on his YouTube page.
To keep up with Browning and his book tour, visit mattbrowningbooks.com.
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