I ran into this by accident when looking for something else. I had completely forgotten it. Well, it was 25 years ago. This was my first “union” job in Hollywood, after I had earned the SAG card. I got paid a few hundred dollars to shout “YAY!” in the background of the commercial. I’m turned away from camera. The bar is a set. The lead actor, Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), was a nice-looking but only average-sized man. Therefore, to make him look big and macho, the bar set and everything in it is just a little bit smaller than the real thing. I remembered the casting call. They chose a variety of “looks”, with only one requirement. You couldn’t be any taller than 5’7”. The guy on the stool next to Paul talking to him is Leslie Jordan. He’s just under 5 feet tall. It’s a good thing I never filmed anything embarrassing, aside from the fact that much of it was bad TV. This stuff sticks around forever!
Mass media impacts lives, and each generation adopts current technology for the sharing of information, communication and entertainment. Five years ago, during my last round of college, I realized how differently my younger colleagues in class were experiencing media than I had. I use the Internet, but I’m a different animal. I was part of the first television generation. During my formative years, it was only available in black and white, and there were no remote controls.
Sometimes I read opinions written by columnists and bloggers who state unequivocally that television can have no positive influence, especially on children who watch. I don’t care what the studies say. I am living proof that TV could influence in meaningful, positive ways. You may prefer to believe I was just lucky, but I learned many important things from watching TV. Here are three:
The Joke’s On You. Learn to Enjoy It.
When I was a boy in Iowa, Duane Ellett and his dog puppet, Floppy, hosted one local show. Duane and Floppy showed cartoons and performed before a live audience of children. Throughout the show, the kids were invited to come up and tell jokes to them. Predictably pleasant, right? Something unexpected and wonderful happened. The kids would tell the SAME EXACT JOKES over and over. Floppy would laugh and toss his ears around every time, while Duane (the straight man) would look more and more miserable. Floppy would stop and look back at Duane like “Why aren’t you laughing, man? This is great!” Duane would be rolling his eyes and growing visibly older by the second. This is the yin-yang of comedy, and in many ways, of life itself. Sometimes you are Floppy. Sometimes you are Duane. And life will keep playing the same jokes on you. Because I had watched The Floppy Show, I understood Waiting for Godot when I read it many years later.
Big and Small are Defined by Context.
Half my life has been lived in big cities and half in small towns. Small towns are more entertaining. That’s because every small town pretends that it’s a big, important place. There’s a recent movie called Cedar Rapids, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a man from a very small town trying to adjust to opportunities in the “big city” of the title. The in-joke is that Cedar Rapids isn’t big. It’s just bigger than where he was from. I lived in Cedar Rapids for years and found it hilarious that Cedar Rapidians took their town so seriously. I knew they weren’t all that. After all, I was from (ahem) Des Moines!
By the time I moved to Cedar Rapids at age 14, I had been fully prepared for small town pretense by watching TV. I was a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres – shows that exploited the inflated pride people have about their small towns for comedic effect, but that also portrayed the virtues of living more simply. Now, in the autumn of my years, I love Last of the Summer Wine, the world’s longest-running situation comedy. It was a British show about pensioners with attitude, and it echoed the themes of those American shows that came before.
Everyone is Still a Child.
I was a very angry teenager. The Vietnam War was going on, college students were being gassed and beaten at peaceful demonstrations, my parents were heading for divorce and life was grim in general. My inner child was dying from neglect. An honest embrace emerged from TV in the afternoons, in the form of a show for very young children that I needed as much as they did. Fred Rogers understood that children of all ages need reassurance in uneasy times. He showed us an improved world in miniature, one we could live in if we treated each other better. It was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The show was on Public Television. Back then, just like now, there were those in government who wanted to cut funding for non-commercial TV, because they thought it was “too liberal”. Mister Rogers didn’t believe in war. He suggested more money should be spent on the education of children, including through television, instead of spending it on weapons. I know this is a long clip, but it’s an example of how powerful authentic gentleness can be. In this excerpt, you can see Mister Rogers melt the hard heart of a real U.S. Senator, just by talking to the child inside him. I can’t watch this without crying.
Mister Rogers died in 2003, a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq. His show began during one war based on lies. His life ended as another war based on lies began. I remember telling Mary at the time that I felt as if the world wasn’t good enough to have someone as kind as Fred Rogers living in it. I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m glad his TV show helped me to change. I’m not an angry adult.