Category Archives: TV

Today’s Top 5: A 1970s Potpourri

Some things just take me back – the opening to Room 222, for instance. I’m immediately transported to one summer in the early 1970s when we visited my grandparents on my dad’s side. I remember sitting on the living-room floor in their one-bedroom apartment, eyes glued to their color TV, in awe of the big kids walking across their big campus. I couldn’t wait to grow up.

Those were the years, I should mention, that color TV was a big deal to me. As I wrote a few years ago, we moved to Saudi Arabia in August 1970, when I was 5, and lived there until late May 1975, a month and change before my 10th birthday. While we owned a portable black-and-white TV, and Jeddah’s lone TV station carried some English-language fare, there wasn’t much to watch – Mighty Mouse, The Brady Bunch, The Invaders and UFO are four shows that I recall seeing over there, but never on a regular basis. Often, you’d turn on the TV to find old men playing traditional Middle Eastern music on traditional Middle Eastern instruments – or a test pattern. There either wasn’t a set schedule or I was too young to decipher it; and, even if there was, there were so many other things to do that watching TV was a second- or third-tier activity.

In other respects, however, life – from my perspective, I hasten to add – wasn’t that different than if we’d remained in the States: We lived in a community with other American families, took a bus to an American school, and watched American movies – the compound had an outdoor movie theater, which is where I first saw one of my all-time favorite films, Billy Jack. (Oh, I know: It’s far from a five-star classic. Yet I enjoy it. Like Room 222, it takes me back.)

And, just like other families, we took summer vacations – not to the shore, but Beirut, Ethiopia and Disney World, plus back to Philadelphia to see the grand folks.

Music had yet to become an omnipresent force in my life at that stage, but Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits received a lot of play on my portable record player, especially the novelty historical songs. Another novelty song that my friends and I enjoyed – Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting.”

My parents, on the other hand, weren’t into novelties. They preferred Neil Diamond, including “Holly Holy” –

– and the second side of Tap Root Manuscript. Of course, if we’d remained in the States, we’d have been treated to more of everything – and when TV and music combined, it wouldn’t have (always) been old men playing old music. Check out this cool clip of Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell and Linda Ronstadt from 1971:

Returning to the top: TV themes. This is another one that takes me back – though not to the early ‘70s, but 1977 or ’78, or thereabouts, when I started watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show in reruns. Like Room 222, it made me want to grow up faster.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

IMG_4889For quite a few years in the 2000s, Diane and I stayed up late during the week to watch The Daily Show and, once it premiered, The Colbert Report. It was the funniest hour on TV. So I was thrilled to write about Stewart’s satirical shindig (and mention Colbert) for a TV GUIDE project about “100 essential shows” that came to be known as I Heart TV, published by Sasquatch Books in 2007. (I also contributed essays on three of my other favorites, My So-Called Life, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Wonder Years.)

I did, eventually, tune out – but not because of Stewart or Colbert, or a decline in quality in their shows. The routine lack of sleep finally caught up with me. Of course, for the longest time, Comedy Central repeated the topical block the next day at 7pm, but…day-old satire is somewhat akin to day-out bread. It’s never quite as tasty. (Plus, on a more practical level, I often don’t arrive home until after 7pm.) Anyway, given that the tome is out of print, and that tonight is Stewart’s last behind the Daily Show anchor desk, I thought I’d share what I wrote about it here:

IMG_4891When it comes down to it, the few news anchors that have broken from the pack of teleprompter-reading wannabes and established their names in the cultural ethos of our time, past and present, can be summed up in two syllables. That is to say, their last names possess not one, not three or four, but two distinct speech sounds. Think about it: Murrow. Cronkite. Rather. Jennings. Brokaw. Stewart. Stewart? Jon Stewart?! Yes.

Since signing on as Daily Show anchor in January 1999, replacing Craig Kilborn (OK, OK, so his two syllables didn’t exactly add up to much), the venerable Jon Stewart has, like his esteemed counterparts, offered a succinct summary of the day’s news, spicing the fair-and-balanced recitations with reports from a select group of grizzled correspondents. He’s grilled presidential candidates (John Kerry, John Edwards), former presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton), a current president (Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf), and an almost-president (Al Gore); talked policy with heavyweight politicos (Sens. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, John McCain and Barack Obama, among others); and elicited insights from a long list of former administration officials, commentators and authors. In short, when the news matters most, and even when it doesn’t, the nation’s eyes turn to him.

In the words of President Bush (as channeled by Stewart): “Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!”

The multi-Emmy-winning Daily Show is—as we all know by now and Stewart readily admits—“fake news.” The concept itself is essentially Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” juiced up on steroids. It satirizes the issues of the day, mocks our elected and unelected leaders, and skewers a news media that too often acts like movie critics delivering thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews (that is to say, dumbing down most stories). I hesitate to use the word “gravitas,” yet in an emotional monologue following 9/11, Stewart revealed a deeper understanding of America’s greatness than most in the public sphere. “The show in general, we feel, is a privilege. Even the idea that we can sit in the back of the country and make wisecracks, which is really what we do—we sit in the back and we throw spitballs—but never forgetting the fact that it is a luxury in this country that allows us to do that. That is, a country that allows for open satire … that’s really what this whole situation is about. It’s the difference between closed and open, it’s the difference between free and burdened.”

In addition to Stewart, the show features a ready supply of “correspondents” and “experts” guaranteed to raise smirks, if not smiles and out-and-out laughs. For example, when the Bush administration readjusted the formula for dispersing antiterrorism funds in 2006, decreasing New York City’s budget by 40 percent while upping the amounts given to places like Indiana (which improbably claimed the most terrorist targets in the nation at 8,591), the always dry Dan Bakkedahl visited the state to investigate; and ended up skating the day away in one of the alleged targets, a roller rink. Likewise, correspondent Jason Jones, who has yet to meet a story he can’t regurgitate as a guffaw, offered a provocative piece on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. While an expelled homosexual military linguist translated Arabic text, Jones stripped down to his skivvies in order to gauge if, as the theory goes, the man’s gayness interfered with his job. And, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, Samantha Bee ventured to Pennsylvania to learn why some voters remained undecided. After bringing together a focus group of unfocused citizens, she harangued them in hilarious fashion. “What the [bleep] are you waiting for?! Why can you not decide?! [Bleep] or get off the pot!”

In fact, from longtime cranky commentator Lewis Black (who reminds me, in a good way, of John Belushi’s “but, nooooo!” character on the original “Update”), to former reporter Mo Rocca, who’s since found a home on many VH1 I Love Whatever retrospectives, the supporting cast is almost, but not quite, as important as Stewart. A few have actually become, if not stars, then comets zooming through the fractured universe that is today’s pop culture—Steve Carell (NBC’s The Office), Stephen Colbert (Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report) and Rob Corddry (Fox’s The Winner). Colbert is arguably the most notable of that bunch, forever rocking the free world with his fact-free zone. There aren’t many Americans who can claim victory in a contest to have a Hungarian bridge named after him—with more votes (17,231,724 votes) than Hungary has citizens (10,076,581), no less. While he didn’t receive quite that much love as a mere Daily Show correspondent, he did engender plenty of hysterics. On a set reminiscent of the old Joker’s Wild game show, for instance, his regular “This Week in God” spot lampooned every sacred cow and elephant—and not just in India.

The Daily Show also pokes fun at celebrities and, as “This Week in God” suggests, the so-called “culture wars,” including the Left’s annual “attack” on Christmas. However, it does not, as clueless Geraldo Rivera once claimed to Bill O’Reilly, feature “videos of old ladies slipping on ice.” (Maybe Bakkedahl and Jones, but never old ladies—unless Geraldo knows something about those two the rest of us don’t. Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.) It is liberal with a lowercase “l,” not Democratic but democratic, filled with bleeped curses and ribald jokes, gleefully taking potshots at anyone and everyone who wanders into the public eye. It’s satire—what a grand two-syllable word—of and for the people.

A Stroll Down VHS Lane

IMG_2501I came to The Wonder Years a little late, having missed the first two seasons for reasons I won’t bother with here. It was at Diane’s urging, not long after we moved in together in late 1990, that I tuned in; and I’ve been thankful ever since, as it fast became (and remains) one of my favorite TV series. Not every episode was great, mind you, but when it hit on all cylinders few shows could match it – in my opinion, at any rate. Seven years later, at the behest of my boss at the time, I tuned in Homicide: Life on the Street at the start of its sixth season. It became yet another must-watch show in our household.

Catching up and keeping up with both proved to be a chore, however – Wonder Years didn’t hit syndication until the fall of 1992; and Lifetime ran Homicide repeats at 1am during the week. Those were the years, too, when we were out and about more often than now, especially on Friday nights when the first-run Homicide aired. A VCR was a necessity.

Of late, I’ve been reminded of the work, and space, once required of TV fans. For the past two weeks I’ve been sorting through hundreds of VHS tapes, some of which date to the early 1980s, transferring bits here and there to my computer and tossing the rest. The tapes took up more than shelf space: an entire corner of our bedroom was devoted to them (notice the past tense there!). My closet holds even more. In any event, it’s a time-consuming project made possible by a simple gadget that connects the VCR to my computer; recording is in real time. The goal isn’t to save episodes of Wonder YearsHomicide or any of the many programs or movies we taped, however, as most of those are available elsewhere, but appearances of our favorite musical acts on Late Night With David LettermanThe Tonight ShowArsenio Hall, TNN, VH1 and MTV, among other shows and channels.

One thing I’ve learned: while commercials were as annoying then as now, at least then there weren’t as many per hour. Another: the local news hypes the weather a little less these days, and is more accurate. During one run of Oprah Winfrey shows (my wife used to record them) in December 1997, for instance, the teaser for the 5 o’clock news warned of an approaching winter storm. Doomsday was nigh! Until the actual day it arrived, that is, when lo’ and behold the snow turned out to be a dusting that only impacted parts of the region. And yet another: we once recorded an episode of Falcon Crest. I likely set the VCR to the wrong channel that night.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, however, is what a mess the analog world could be. For every tape filled with just Homicide episodes, there are five packed with a mishmash of our interests: The Wonder YearsThe Simpsons and NYPD Blue share space with 10,000 Maniacs on Letterman.

To watch a marathon of a specific show back then required forethought and effort, in other words. We once threw a “My So-Called Party” in honor of My So-Called Life; friends/fellow fans came over and we screened four episodes that were on three different cassettes. That meant swapping them out, fast-forwarding through squealing yards of tape to find the episodes we wanted and then fast-forwarding again through the commercial breaks.

Like others, no doubt, we became infatuated with DVDs once they hit the stores and rental markets. But though we still purchase DVDs on occasion, we’ve come to prefer the no-space-required world that is OnDemand, Netflix and Amazon Prime. There’s no rewinding, fast-forwarding or guesstimating the length of a movie just to get to what the tape’s label claims follows.

In fact, these days our “My So-Called Party” would simply require us to navigate to Streampix on Comcast OnDemand, and then click on the episodes we wanted. No muss, no fuss, just fun!

Except for those nights when you can’t find anything to watch. That, in fact, is my main gripe: quality content, or lack thereof. Every program should be available at the push of the button – a video Spotify, if you will – not just some. But that’s a post for another day.