|Pop culture’s not quite like this. Although, come to think of it, sometimes people in it don’t wear many clothes, either|
When I first switched from print journalism to broadcasting, it was explained to me that television, in particular, wasn’t a highbrow medium, and I shouldn’t expect it to be. “The tube’s” programming was sugar and spice, not fiber – filling but hardly nutritious and aimed at the “lowest common denominator” among us. Whatever generates the highest ratings, slips even just a whisker above the bar of good taste, and attracts the most advertiser dollars is fine with us. Interesting concept, that “lowest common denominator.” The term comes from mathematics, where the lowest common denominator is “the least common multiple of the denominators of a set of vulgar fractions.”
If vulgarisms are good enough for arithmetic, they’re good enough for the “Morning Zoo” on the radio and “comedy” shows on TV.
|Television was going to be a great educational tool. It’s teaching us things, all right|
Go ahead, say the producers and their financiers. Demean “trash TV.” But you’ll watch it.
|This was an early set of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Fun! Balloons! $100,000!|
|Juggler. Dog on head. Could be a winner!|
|Is it worth lighting the powder to get on TV?|
Lowest-common-denominator stuff, dumbing down both television and the “culture.” Not just ours. “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is now seen in more than 70 countries and produced in 15 international versions. Who says we have an export problem?
|The first of many Smithsonian Institution Buildings, called “the Castle,” once held the whole collection, from elephant tusks to everyday ephemera|
|Here are some of the items that will become part of the American History museum’s “Funniest Home Videos” collection|
|Believe it or not, the Smithsonian’s American History museum’s holdings include a small stretch of Old U.S. Route 66 - concrete, cracks, and all|
|Band member falls offstage. This could be big. Did anybody catch it on camcorder?|
“One of my thrusts has been to collect artifacts of comedy,” noted Dwight Blocker Bowers, the museum’s curator of music, sports, and entertainment. “We’re very interested that part of the American character is laughing at ourselves.”
Don’t get me started on the “American character.”
|Of late, Newton Minow, now 83, hangs out in Chicago, where he’s honorary consul general of Singapore|
“When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
“But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
|Ah! The substance of much TV fare, captured in one photograph!|
(1 and 2): The Tuesday and Wednesday airings of “American Idol,” in which thousands of unknowns sing, some get savagely ridiculed, and the winner gets a big recording contract. (3) “Dancing With the Stars,” in which celebrities – often sports notables – sashay around a ballroom with professional dancers. (4 and 8) “NCIS” and “CSI,” two shows involving scientific investigation of dastardly deeds (5) “The Mentalist,” in which a psychic helps the white-lab-coat crowd solve crimes (6) “ER,” a rather bloody emergency-room drama (7) a country-music awards show (9) “Two and a Half Men,” a comedy about a “freewheeling,” hedonistic bachelor, his divorced brother, and his “underachieving” nephew, and (10) a college basketball tournament game.
Some day, if he’s still at his post, curator Bowers can add artifacts from these shows to the nation’s Americana collection.
We Don’t Want No Knowledge
We Don’t Want No Knowledge
For about a year I’ve held onto a New York Times clipping whose content seems to fit perfectly here. Entitled, “Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?” it’s a story about Susan Jacoby, a scholar of American intellectual history, and her book, The Age of American Unreason.
|Magnificent Budapest, the capital of Europe!|
Then in the Times story, Jacoby described overhearing a conversation in a New York bar on September 11, 2001, the day that terrorist-piloted planes leveled the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” she heard one of the men say.
|The Pearl Harbor attack did occur in a harbor. But half an ocean away from Vietnam|
“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” came the reply.
Ignorance used to be bliss. Now it’s just ignorant.
Nattering Nabob of Negativism?
|Spiro Agnew, who needled the media with zippy putdown lines, once said, "If you've seen one city slum, you've seen them all."|
|De Tocqueville expected to find a backward country but came away from his trip stunned by Americans’ drive and grit|
Some of today’s rappers have demonstrated keen insight into the human condition, she pointed out. Television has hundreds of channels whose intellectual fare would impress a Rhodes Scholar, and the Internet has put us in contact with concepts and cultures that some of the smartest among us never knew existed.
Cultures like you find in that country over there. Europe.
We’re On Our Own
We’re On Our Own
Washington Post columnist John Kelly recently profiled what surely must be one of the last elevator operators in the area. Charlie Patterson was retiring after 44 years of manually closing the elevator door and yanking the control lever that directed the cab to various floors. Most Americans over 60 remember nattily attired elevator operators in big office buildings and department stores. They were virtual tour guides: “Six! Ladies’ apparel, sportswear, costume jewelry,” they would cry out.
|This elevator operator in Washington’s Barr Building was caught on film in 1941, the very year VOA’s elevator ops began their work across town|
And since the building was full of military types, people no doubt did what they were told.
What really caught my eye was Kelly’s aside that, in the years since Charlie Patterson first ran elevators in Washington’s Ring Building, “we’ve gotten used to doing things for ourselves – things that others once did for us.” Besides running our elevators way back when, he noted, someone pumped our gas, bagged our groceries, and “rang up” our purchases at the store.
Kelly’s list can be greatly expanded. While Americans think of ourselves as pampered, speed, convenience, and, especially, cost-saving have imposed self-reliance upon us. My Miami friend, Marc Kuhn, helped me compile some examples:
|Note the relaxed driver, foot on the rear bumper, watching as someone besides himself pumps his gas|
|Sometimes it took three or four switchboard operators to get your call from one part of the country to another|
• Most of us book our own airplane reservations and buy and print our tickets, rather than relying on airline or travel agents. Airlines, in fact, charge us extra if we ask them to do it. We scrounge for most of our own motel and rental-car reservations, maps and directions, and theatre and sports tickets online as well.
• We mostly pick out our own clothes, including shoes, on the Web or from piles on tables in stores, rather than enlisting the counsel of suave sales personnel and tailors. And if we find a grocery-store clerk who knows where to find the peas, or someone in a work apron in a home-improvement store who can navigate through 400 kinds of screws, we’re giddy with joy.
|Not only do scanners “ring you up” at the checkout counter, but now there are devices that customers carry down the aisles to record purchases as they go|
• Physicians – and TV repairmen – used to come to our houses! Now it takes an executive order, or two weeks’ notice, to get an appointment at the doctor’s office, there to wait another hour next to other sick people, beneath the scowls of the office staff, who must not be disturbed while they enter various billing codes for the “treatment” other patients have been privileged to receive. By the time you get in, you’re well! As for TV service, when a set breaks down we mostly junk it, go to a “big box” electronics store, buy a bigger one, somehow lift it into the trunk, tie it down with a piece of greasy rope we found under the tool kit we've never opened, and lug it home.
|Lemme tell you: This doesn’t look like the lunch places across from VOA. They're strictly pay-up-front and pick-up-your-food joints|
• And speaking of service, I’d like to know the last time anyone found a strolling cigarette girl, a nightclub photographer, or a shoeshine boy. (Never saw a shoeshine girl.) Now we bring own tobacco products, take our own photos – on our cell phones! – and polish our own shoes.
• Tellers took our money, or gave us some, at the bank. Now, “automated teller” machines do most of this, and different machines count and deposit our loose change. We don’t tote our paychecks to the bank. One computer at the office whisks our meager earnings via still more computers straight into our accounts.
• Not just top executives but also mid-level professionals used to employ the services of their own secretaries or, at a minimum, clerks in the “typing pool.” Now the word “secretary” is an epithet, beneath the dignity of the boss’s “executive assistant.” Call her – or him, he said, enlighteningly – a secretary, and you’ll be brought up on charges. We type our stuff, do our own research using computer search engines, and buzz our own way into buildings that long ago eliminated their “front desk” personnel. Usually, too, we open our own doors – “doorman” being another fast-disappearing occupation.
|Do this! Do that! And don’t expect me to do it for you, bud|
Vision of Things to Come?
Vision of Things to Come?
One of the recent “Bizarro” cartoons by the brilliant Dan Piraro showed a reasonable likeness of New York City’s central library, with its lofty set of stairs, regal columns, and sentinel lion.
Out front, Piraro drew an ornate stone tablet into which is chiseled:
MUSEUM OF THE INTERNET
Formerly the New York Public Library
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Cup of Joe. A cup of coffee. The term could relate to the average American – the “average Joe,” or perhaps it dates to World War I, when U.S. admiral Josephus Daniels broke with naval tradition by banning alcohol, including wine in the officers’ mess, aboard American ships. Thereafter coffee – deridingly called a ‘cup of Joe – was the strongest brew on board.
Guffaw. A boisterous laugh.
Highbrow. Having or demonstrating culture, refinement, and taste.
Nabob. Originally a Mogul high official, the term came to be associated with executives of the British East India Company and, later, of any highly placed – and perhaps a tad pompous – individuals.
Nattering. Chattering, usually about things of little importance.
Oeuvre. A work, or life’s work, of art, music, or film. This word is often used somewhat pretentiously, since “one’s oeuvre” sounds terribly cultured.
Pratfall. An often humiliating slip or fall, fast, onto one’s backside. “Prat” was an Old English term for one’s buttocks.
Schlep. From Yiddish: to tediously drag oneself someplace.
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