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I love television. I always have. The television is always on in my house or my hotel room, even if it’s background noise. That’s how I was brought up. When I was a kid, my mom and dad always had it on (apple, tree). It was the modern hearth. I like today’s flat-screen TVs for the picture quality, but I miss that old reassuring whine of a cathode ray tube. Inaudible in the living room, but you could hear it everywhere else in the house. It was comforting; you felt connected to the world.
As a child, dinner time was usually around 5:30, and the family would gather in the “dining room” (the left side of the kitchen). Dad would turn Walter Cronkite up to ear-splitting volume in the living room to hear it when he was in the other room eating his country ham and fried potatoes. After dinner, he’d go back to his cream-colored recliner in the living room and watch whatever he decided we all would watch. It didn’t matter that much. He was in a trance — a potted plant, to be frank. And you didn’t get between him and that television if the house was on fire.
Television was so much better than real life. We all gathered in the living room and became potted plants along with Dad, savoring the superior world that was blazed into our home every night.
In our house, there would be Dad in his recliner with a cigarette and a glass of iced tea, farting at will with no sense of decorum nor embarrassment. Then he’d push against his uppers with his tongue and stick those dentures out of his mouth so as to look Neanderthal for a moment, and then he’d pick his nose like he left a goddam nickel up there. And then he’d fart again.
Meanwhile, on the The Brady Bunch, Mike Brady, played by a gay guy named Bobby, would be giving fatherly advice to Bobby Brady, played by a boy named Mike, and that was better than real life.
The laugh track wasn’t weird to us. Nor to anyone else, apparently. The audience on M*A*S*H or The Andy Griffith Show was fake — or “canned,” as they called it — but it was just the accepted way of doing things, and the entire world didn’t appear to think a thing about it. (My favorite is the laugh tack on The Flintstones: imaginary people laughing at ink-drawn imaginary people.)
Strange things happen on television that don’t happen in the real world. People never say goodbye before they hang up the phone. Nobody says, “You’re welcome.” after being thanked for something. No cop ever kicks a door in and says, “Oh FUCK, that hurt!” Kojak always found a parking space right in front of where he wanted to go. Some criminal gets charged, and the trial starts immediately after the commercial break.
A few things about TV back then were better than they are now. For instance, there were only four channels to choose from: NBC, CBS, ABC, and the educational channel nobody watched. With our modern banquet of 150 channels, there is no next-day water cooler discussion of what was on the tube last night. Every Monday in high school, everybody discussed the musical act on Saturday Night Live. “Did you see that? What was their name, Devo? That was some fucked up shit, man!”
And back then, we had Johnny Carson, a man who, with one facial expression, could beat the shit out of all late-night talk show majordomos working today. The audience for The Tonight Show WAS real, and they acted real. Johnny would tell a joke, and they would laugh if it was funny. And they WOULDN’T applaud. Have you ever noticed how the host will tell a joke during today’s late-night comics’ monologues, and the audience always applauds? Not just laughs? Why? And then you have supremely obnoxious shows like James Corden’s where the audience cheers like mad over anything — AAAAAHHHHHHH! WOOO WOOO!!! — from the first millisecond of the show to the very end, like it’s a soccer game. Like bridesmaids on a Lower Broad pedal tavern. WOOO WOOO WOOH! (I want to flog those bitties in the town square, but that’s a story for another time.)
And so that’s how television is and was. A critic once called television “a vast wasteland.” I suppose that’s true. For every M*A*S*H, there was an Alice.
“Mel! Kiss my grits!”
Oh, how my Mom would laugh at that line every time she heard the waitress, Flo, say it. Like it was the first time she heard it. Maybe, in her television- narcotized state, she thought it was.
Tommy Womack is a singer-songwriter and member of Government Cheese, whose new album, LOVE, is available now. His column appears in each issue of this magazine. He’s 5’ 10’, a Scorpio, and picks his nose just like Dad.