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What I've Learned
The first television show I ever saw was a live-action comedy about a troop of clowns, all adult males, all continually in their clown makeup. The television was a small, flickering, black and white model. I was 5-years old.
There was one clown who was particularly annoying. I don't remember what the problem was, only that he drove the other clowns nuts.
One evening as the troop sat down for supper, the annoying clown was missing.
"He was being such a pest, I tied him to the railroad tracks," a clown said.
At that moment, the sound of a train whistle was heard.
Young as I was, the implications of someone being tied to a railroad track and then a train whistle blowing were horrifyingly clear. My stomach tightened with anxiety, a sensation I had never experienced before.
The sound of the whistle had an equally disconcerting effect on the clowns. They looked at each other, jumped up, and rushed for the door. When they opened it, in walked the annoying clown. His head was missing.
As the headless clown blundered about, arms out-stretched, bumping into things, it dawned on me that this was meant to be funny. Filled with a sudden involuntary delight, I laughed.
It took a while to understand that television wasn't real. When people were hurt, I thought they were really hurt; when they died, I thought they really died. How confusing it was to see a person killed in one show, then appear alive and healthy in another. Eventually, the concept of adult make-believe, of actors playing parts, sank in, and I felt silly for my childish (child-like, actually) misunderstanding.
Television has been around since the 1920s and was refined to the point of practical use in the 1930s. A pause in its development happened during World War II, so it wasn't until 1948 that regular commercial network programming began.
I was born in 1949. By 1954 when I was five, television was still in its commercial infancy. In a way, television and I grew up together.
There was a time when TV shows were delightfully and genuinely funny. Bits of crudeness and rudeness began to creep in, but because it was handled intelligently, this only enhanced the humor.
Eventually, producers became more interested in "pushing the envelope" then in creating good shows, and crudeness itself began to be substituted for humor.
Let me use Saturday Night Live as an example.
A funny, though slightly crude skit from 1981 involved an unlikely bathroom product.
Lauren Hutton, looking sultry, talks about a brand of toilet paper called Macho Wipe. It's available, she says, "in medium, course, and super abrasive."
She looks at the camera and says in a sexy voice, "All my men use Macho Wipe. Or they use nothing at all."
It looses its punch in the telling, but trust me, the actual faux commercial was exceedingly funny.
Crude? A bit. But, oh my, funny.
Some years later, I tuned in to SNL and saw a skit in which a man and his wife sit down at a table in a restaurant. The waiter arrives and begins to lick the woman's face. He then lifts her up, throws her on the table, climbs on top of her, and simulates having sex.
Crude? Yes. Funny? Not really.
The audience was laughing, but it was not a happy laugh. Not a joyous laugh. It was an embarrassed sort of laugh in response to crudeness masquerading as humor.
I didn't watch the rest of the show.
Eventually, my wife and I gave up television altogether. We canceled cable and stopped watching the few local channels we could get.
Whenever we travel and stay in a hotel, channel surfing only confirms our decision to live TV-free.
That's not to say we don't watch stuff. We have a DVD player, a Roku box, and both a streaming and a disc subscription to Netflix.
In addition to movies, we like The Closer, NCIS, Castle, and The Mentalist. We watched every single episode of Monk. We watched all episodes of the British police series, A Touch of Frost, and of Foyle's War. We're working our way through the new Doctor Who. And as quickly as Netflix makes each season available, my wife faithfully watches Downton Abby
We introduced our grandchildren to archived reruns of Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and the Andy Griffith Show. They watch them and laugh out loud. Laugh the way people used to.