September 21, 2009

Easily Tubed: From Screen To Shining Screen

I was born into a televised world in March of 1973. In my lower middle class home, television was the ultimate vehicle by which one could be entertained and informed (though mostly entertained). Like many children of the "Me" Decade, I was often left in front of the tube by babysitters and relatives while my parents struggled to make ends meet and sometimes squabbled about the ends not meeting. Until I entered elementary school, I rarely interacted with other children, but I saw plenty of them hawking cereal and toys on Saturday mornings.
I wanted to leave my dysfunctional family and take up residence with The Brady Bunch. Surely one more kid would not be too much of a burden to a household that was already overflowing. Mr. Brady had a great job and a fine home and he did not drink too much. Mrs. Brady had a softness that my own mother, perhaps embittered by life's sometimes harsh turns, mostly lacked. The Brady Kids always wore nice clothes when they played in their astroturfed backyard. No one bothered to explain that this was not real life, just an idealized simulacrum. Escapism became my salvation.
Before TV Guide took off nationwide, there were regional editions, such as these examples from the New York City Area, circa 1949. Twenty four years before I was born, television was already usurping the dominance of the prior mass communication engine, radio.
At first, television was just radio with pictures. It would take time for creative people to harness the added dimension of picture. I can only fondly imagine what it must have been like to listen to radio shows as part of a family. Radio encouraged imagination. The listener used his or her mind to embellish the stories by supplying the small but important details the medium could not convey.
All my knowledge of this era is secondhand, and thus subject to error. The post-WWII years would seem to be a time of prosperity and pleasantness, but many people who lived through those years remember a mind-numbing conformity. This is not even to mention the undeniable hardships faced by people of color. It was the heyday of White America, a time when Pat Boone crooned Little Richard tunes because Little Richard was the wrong color of genius.

The first national edition of TV Guide rolled off the presses 20 years before I was born. Everyone loved Lucy, Ricky, and their new bambino. In this year, 1953, 50% of Americans (in over 25 million homes) owned a television set. I sometimes think of my own parents, entering their teen-age years, experiencing this marvel of modern technology for the first time. My father once told me that his family was among the first to acquire a set in his rural community, and that folks would meet up at his house weekly to watch the antics of Milton Berle and sometimes boxing matches. How exciting all this must have beamed through the very air! The magic of science. As someone who has witnessed firsthand The Computer Revolution from Pong to Pentiums, I think I can relate.

It gives me such a warm feeling to think of a dozen kids jumping in front of the tube to watch the latest adventure of Superman that I realize that America has lost that sense of community. This is bad. Very bad. When George Reeves met a tragic end, Americans mourned together. For some children, that was their first brush with the shocking reality of mortality. But they had each other. Friends and relatives, finding strength through solidarity, in each other's very presence.
If TV was a big "Wow!", the advent of color must have been truly mind-blowing. But even at this early stage, serious issues about the ramifications of this new technology were being raised. What were the changes taking place in people's lifestyle habits that prompted TV Guide to ask "What has tv done to men?"
Obviously, television viewing is a sedentary escapist exercise, to use the word "exercise" loosely. It is different than reading a book or listening to a radio drama because there is so much less effort involved.
Still, there were serious men helming this vessel, men who felt a sense of responsibility for the content they were delivering. Edward R. Murrow was a journalist of uncompromising integrity. He repeatedly ran into troubles with his boss, CBS chairman William Paley, because he disliked the fact that CBS would give equal time to people who felt wronged by Murrow's "call it as he sees it" reporting style. Today, reporters have forgotten that it is their sworn (and patriotic) duty to report and stand by facts as opposed to the presentation of diametrically opposed opinions. It's all hogwash, a sea of confusing rhetoric, noise. Facts are facts. If something can be proven, it is not open to speculation. Right? Today's journalists should find and view a copy of "Harvest Of Shame", Edward Murrow's documentary on the plight of migrant farm workers in the USA.
Ah, Uncle Walt. How many smiles has he brought to children all around the world? More like him, please. He showed generations of children not only how to dream, but how dreams can be made into realities, through hard work and perserverance. The Disney Empire, like so many great American institutions, has been rendered virtually impotent by spoiled inheritors of the throne, who care mainly for their own comfort and opulence. It takes a special kind of narcissist to turn a Magic Kingdom into a cheap giant Piggy Bank. Kids do not really appreciate the difference in quality, but most parents today do not either. More's the pity.
What happened to America? Some great things, but some terrible things too. Patriotism is a wonderful thing. Pride in one's culture. It is so much sweeter though, when one appreciates and respects other cultures. In America, appreciation (or at the very least tolerance) of other cultures is a necessity, because we are a melting pot of all cultures. Most Americans do realize this, but the ones that rage on and on make the entire society look ignorant, and in some cases, positively crazy. They also have a knack for getting more than their share of tv airtime. But I digress.
In the 50's and 60's, White Culture dominated. Just look at all these TV Guide covers. Even if a Caucasian was progressive enough to resist the dark urges of racism, in the Christian spirit of brotherhood, it still must have been very comforting to be in the majority, awash in majority popular culture.

Everyone knows of the civil unrest that began to heat up in the 50's and 60's. It was inevitable and quite wonderful, in a way. It really says a lot about this great country that change is possible, change that ends inequality. It is, of course, unbearably tragic that great leaders like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King are assassinated by extremists who are afraid of progressive ideas. TV newscasts of the era reported the highlights of America's Great Identity Crisis. For the most part, however, TV was still a Caucasian Fantasy Box. Not that I don't enjoy the programming of this era. A cadre of highly imaginative people produced sitcoms and dramas that I will enjoy for as long as I live. I am proud of my culture. I love Lucy, Ernie Kovacs, Andy Griffith, and Herman Munster!
Johnny Carson? I'm a huge fan. Elizabeth Montgomery is quite bewitching. "The Twilight Zone". "Star Trek". "The Monkees". Super groovy, baby! All appeared before I was born.
It is a curious thing about generations, how they thoughtlessly discard each prior generations wonders like so much rubbish. It is not uncommon at all to find 20 year olds today who dismiss all 60's, 70's, and 80's programming as crap. They do not know the joys they deny themselves. To paraphrase a "Hogan's Heroes" character, the bumbling Schultz, "They know nothink!"
Actually, many Generation X-ers like myself have a healthy appreciation of the classics. TV played an integral role in that phenomenon. How? I'll tell you in a minute, after I'm born.

Five years before my debut, things were getting really nasty in America. Vietnam wasn't going well. Americans were becoming polarized like never before. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both felled. TV programming became more socially aware. "Julia," with the lovely Diahann Carroll, was the first sitcom to feature an African-American in a non-stereotypical role. How come TVLand doesn't ever show this wonderful program?
Americans needed to laugh and "Laugh-In" was the ticket. Henry Gibson, pictured left of Goldie Hawn, recently passed away.
The Smothers Brothers, like Edward R. Murrow, were not afraid to speak truth to power. Their show ultimately got axed by CBS, but left quite a potent legacy.

Believe it or not, I was only introduced to the surreal and sublime charms of "Green Acres" this very year. This is a very funny show! CBS infamously cancelled all their "rural" comedies in 1971.
Ah, here we are at last...1973! Really not a bad time to be born, especially for a future pop culture nut. Think about it.
In the 70's , there were a lot less options channel-wise. In Down East North Carolina there were about 5 VHF channels we could receive with our "rabbit ears." Then, there were a few other UHF channels that one could pick up, with a little extra effort (and tin foil). However, there was SO MUCH diversity and quality packed into those channels.
During the 70's and into the 80's, there were lots of future classics just debuting. There were also lots of 50's and 60's shows being syndicated. There were ALSO four decades of Hollywood movies being shown.
My absolute earliest tv memory is of watching the old "Tarzan" and " The Lone Ranger" movies on Sunday mornings with my father. I only remember this because my brother Herbie pulled a practical joke on my father.
For some reason, we had an old fridge on the porch of our little country house. Dad kept his beer in it. I was 2 or 3, and my brother was 8. One Sunday morning, Dad sat down with his Sunday Paper and told my brother to go get him a beer. My brother, sneaky kid that he was, took the liberty of shaking the can up vigorously before he brought it in. The result was quite explosive and funny ( except to Dad), and every detail is preserved in my mind, including the fact that Johnny Weismuller was swinging through the jungle on our little set.
I didn't have a ton of toys. I liked to draw pictures, read comics, and watch tv. I even had my own special day: Saturday Morning. Siiiiiigh. Oh, I know, animation purists love to decry all that 70's stuff as being cheap and inferior crap compared to the Golden Age Of Animation. Of course, I had access to the Golden Age stuff too. Looney Tunes, Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Fleischer Popeyes, it was all there, mixed with "crap" I loved like Fat Albert and The Super Friends. I remember asking my brother to read the title cards of Looney Tunes and to tell me what was on the signs that Wile E. Coyote was always holding up as he fell off cliffs.
I watched everything. The Three Stooges. Godzilla movies. War movies. 50's Sci-Fi. Yellow Submarine. Charlie Chan.
I watched tv with my dad and brother quite a bit. He wasn't a huge sports fan, but was instead partial to movies with tough guys like Robert Mitchum or Charles Bronson. He liked action shows like "The Rockford Files" and "Kung-Fu." He always watched the 6 O'Clock Local News and the 6:30 National News. I wasn't too keen to watch Mom's soap operas, so weekday afternoons from 12:30 to 4:00 was her "escape time", time I spent playing and drawing and climbing trees and stuff like that.
I remember ruining the big family Bible by doodling in it. What did I draw? My depiction of "The Match Game" set. My mom was really "blanked"off.

As a family, we watched the newest prime-time shows like "Happy Days","The Jeffersons", and "Alice." This was also a time for variety shows, like the superb "Carol Burnett Show" and the corny "Hee-Haw", a weekly tradition.

When I was 5 I accidentally clobbered my brother when I attempted to imitate the famous "Wonder Woman" transformation twirl. His revenge was to put me in a boxing match with a neighborhood kid without first teaching me how to box. It's funny now.
Christmas always offered a wealth of TV treasures, from Charlie Brown to Rudolph.
In the theme song for "Three's Company", the line is "down at our rendezvous." For years I thought it was " dinahwanaravoo." Hey, how was I supposed to know what a rendezvous was? Gimme a break!
In all honesty, TV Guide was THE book around the Taylor household. I think I learned how to read just so I could see what was coming on TV. I really shocked my parents when I was reading the newspaper want ads verbatim at the tender age of 3, although to be frank, I DID pronounce "miscellaneous" as "misKellaneous."

The Fonz was one of my early heroes. I drove my Mom crazy saying "AAAAAYYY!" all the time.
The Hulk creeped me out. I loved it!

Ah, The Fall Preview Issue. A yearly tradition. I really miss these!
Of course I got a great deal of PBS growing up. Sesame Streeet. Mr. Rogers. The Electric Company. 3-2-1 Contact. My Grandma Lois made sure I got a nice dose of educational tv. She also made me sit through numerous hours of "Lawrence Welk." Blecch. Somebody stop da bubble machine! She got cable before we did, so I was occasionally able to watch "The Bozo Show" from WGN in Chicago. They showed old Filmation superhero toons like Superboy and Batman. And that bucket game was pretty cool too.
Mom and Dad could often be heard laughing at Johnny Carson in the wee hours. Sometimes it woke me up and I would listen from my bedroom. Sometimes I would sneak out of bed and peek in to see the comedic chaos, but I was invariably caught and sent back to bed. Johnny was awesome!!!!
By age 9, I already had developed some sophisticated/eccenctric tastes. SCTV blew me away, and still does! If you've never seen Eugene Levy's "post stroke" Floyd The Barber, you have missed out, my friend.

Television was my escape from a mediocre, sometimes troubling dysfunctional family life. I learned a lot. I laughed a lot. As with comics and other books, TV allowed me to slip into other worlds that I liked better. No regrets here, except perhaps a desire for stronger social skills.

Richard Amsel painted some wonderful covers for TV Guide. Norman Rockwell would have been proud.
I think a lot of people have tuned out of reality because their fantasy lives are much more appealing. We all wanna ride that "Love Boat" to "Fantasy Island." This is also the appeal of vices like drugs.

Sometimes however, we all have to face and focus on real issues that affect our lives and the lives of people we love. It's important. More important than fantasies.
" Network News Today: Which Counts More? Journalism Or Profits?" If we are properly engaged in the Democratic Process, journalism must count more, or we will all suffer dire consequences, sooner or later.
TV movies used to spotlight true examples of heroism by ordinary people with strong ideals and courage.
Over time, television programs have become more salacious and sensationalized. Americans have lost their collective identity and the schizophrenia is evident on the cable grid. Bruce Springsteen once sang about "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)." Wouldja believe, 200 channels? 250?

What happened to Family TV? Family Values were great until they became just a right-wing talking point. The right doesn't own "family values." Remember that, you tree-hugging hippies! I reject labels myself. I'm a person, thank you very much.
Good memories of time well-spent for the most part. I should have done more sit-ups though.
Even the godawful shows can bring a grin when I'm in the right frame of mind. "Pink Lady And Jeff?" BWaha!
By the time the last digest-sized edition of TV Guide appeared, TV had already become a wasteland of reality shows. You were right, Andy. 15 minutes of fame. ZZZZZZZ. On the other hand, occasionally some newer shows are sensational in the right way. I'm catching up with all the episodes of "Lost" I missed while I was in the middle of my 19th nervous breakdown.
The world has changed a lot. Barriers have fallen. New challenges have arisen. The internet will inevitably affect the course that television will take. One thing is for sure though. The new TV Guide is awful. Maybe the format change made sense from a marketing perspective, but one shouldn't tamper with the "classics."

Overall, I think the world is due for a cultural "Renaissance" in all areas, including TV.In fact, I believe it's already happening. I'm still proud to be an American and I'm excited about the future. When all factions of our society can come together for the good of all, we will make the society stronger than it has ever been. That's not socialism. It's social justice. And that's the way it is.

1 comment:

Karl La Fong said...

Right On, John!