|Larry Hagman as Major Anthony Nelson|
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Larry Hagman and entertainment for the masses
"Jeannie" was part of a stable of meticulously constructed entertainment productions for when boomers were young. They seemed brainless on the surface. They seemed absurd and off in some child's dream world. But in fact they were carefully honed by people very dedicated to the entertainment craft. The brainlessness was an illusion. There was a method to the madness of those entertainers.
It's the same as with popular songs. "Tiny Bubbles" seems like the kind of song you could scribble on a cocktail napkin in an idle moment. It only seems that way. Guys like Hal David wrote songs like that after years of honing their craft.
The boomers grew up with entertainment so different from today. There was a fundamental problem: entertainment had to be constructed so as to appeal to a very wide audience. It was also the age of general interest magazines like Life and Look. Yes, I realize Life was resuscitated in later years and may even still exist in some form. But it's a boutique item now. It gets lost in the vast sea of what we call the media now. Life and Look were icons in a previous time. They coincided with television entertainment programs that were highly vapid.
Is this a slam? That's a good question.
You might argue those programs simply entertained. We had "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Gilligan's Island," "Petticoat Junction" and a whole lot of other shows that will bring smiles to boomers when mentioned. Hagman fit right in with his military officer role on "I Dream of Jeannie." TV then was like a world in which we might all be forced to eat the same breakfast cereal. It would sustain us but wouldn't be truly satisfying for a large number of people.
It's easy to just feel nostalgia about it all today. We can even see re-runs on retro-oriented TV channels. Those channels are of course just part of a sea of TV entertainment available to us today. I guess you can watch TV on your laptop too.
I haven't taken the step to get a laptop. I'm reminded of Jim Bouton being told by a friend that "you're really getting there" with some fashion tastes. Author/athlete Bouton responded: "Yes, but by the time I get there, everyone will be someplace else." That's me with tech stuff.
Young people today would experience culture shock if forced to live in a world with the minimal media/entertainment options my generation had. Why, what an analog, retrograde world. There was absolutely no empowerment for the individual in that old media world. Forget it. The vast masses of knaves consumed what the entertainment puppeteers in New York City and Los Angeles laid out for them. I remember when Johnny Carson moved his late-night show from New York City to L.A. What of the whole vast nation in between? We were just the consumers - the helpless, unempowered consumers.
Not that we didn't think we liked it. And none of this is to say there weren't hints of what was to come. For example, "The Monkees" was a highly edgy show for its time that touched the irreverence of hyperactive teens. The teens learned that their least desirable impulses might have some reinforcement from the performers on TV. The parameters of earlier sitcoms were breaking down. But "The Monkees" was ahead of its time. Its model broke down to where it seemed little more than silly. It met its end.
A better example of what I'm talking about might be "Star Trek." This was a cerebral and substantial type of show, definitely breaking through the limitations of that time. That was good and bad. It was good on the merits of what it was trying to do, but bad in the sense it got canceled prematurely. Like Life Magazine it would have later incarnations that capitalized on the established brand.
Today we don't question the power of "Star Trek." But when that show with the amazing William Shatner was in its original incarnation, surviving was hardly a given in the media landscape we had then. There were three major networks. In Minnesota we had the "independent" TV station of WTCN in Minneapolis. Gil Amundson read us the news in the evening on WTCN. Mel Jass hosted the movies. "Quaint" hardly describes all that.
I think the limited nature of the media universe was hard on the boomers. It might explain some of our psychological challenges. Had social media existed then, it would have been like a giant pacifier for the boomers. We consumed entertainment and heaven knows we were targeted doggedly by marketers.
We were the first young generation to be marketed to in such unrelenting fashion. Maybe that explains the psychological issues. And yet we weren't allowed to be collaborators with the kind of media that came at us. Media were created by cynical and distant puppeteers. "Flyoverland" became awash in the kind of entertainment they crafted. They were filling a need. But they were forced, tragically, to try to create a one size fits all product.
Kids today might be amused watching re-runs on a retro TV channel. But they'd have a hard time imagining a world in which such fare was our only choice. You could watch "Gunsmoke" or have a bowl of cereal and go to bed.
There were trendy shows like "Night Gallery" that kids would discuss in the school hallways the next morning. But again, we were merely consumers. The days of using media to establish your own identity were a long ways off in the future.
My old college advisor (now deceased) once said "you can watch the Tonight Show every night and never learn anything." Today the Tonight Show would be past my bedtime. Johnny came out from behind the curtain (at least on those nights when he didn't have a guest host like Joey Bishop) at 10:30 p.m. I can't believe I ever felt a need to watch it.
My college advisor had a role in a deposed government of Ethiopia. Years later when I learned of an area clergy family who had a background in that country, I thought (based on the details I'd read) there was a chance the minister would have known my advisor. I ran the name past him one day. He responded: "I don't know him but my father probably did."
Ah, a reminder of my age! Us boomers are getting that all the time.
Just as with the passing of Larry Hagman of "Dallas," I mean "I Dream of Jeannie."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org