TV’s Denizens Having Too Much Fun

Jun 9, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Will someone please tell me what the blank all the bleeping cheerfulness is about? We’re living in rotten times, let’s face it. The country, the continent, the hemisphere, the world, the solar system, the universe, the whatever’s bigger than the universe-they’ve all seen much better days.
And yet turn on the TV set, that trusty if rusty happiness machine, and everybody’s walking around with big grins on their pusses. They’re all delighted to bits about something, and some of them go all the way to being hysterically happy. One looks at these smiling, cheerful, clueless jesters and thinks, “Did I miss something?” Were Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein blown up by one of their own [elusive] weapons of mass destruction? Or did Joan Rivers retire? Or Michael Powell resign? Or NBC rethink that Jay Leno decision and lure Dave back after all these years? Wait, don’t tell me-has “Fear Factor” been canceled?!?
No, it’s just the same old television; people are happy to be on it and they know that they have to act happy to be on it or they won’t be on it long. Among my many somewhat mangy theories about television is this: People at home expect the people on TV to be grateful for the privilege and therefore to radiate a certain degree of satisfaction-hence, happiness. But wait a minute. We’ve gone way beyond that kind of simple, thankful civility. People are bubbling over with enthusiasm. They’re bursting with it and not just at the seams. And the more they burst and bubble, the more suspicious it all looks. That is-the happier they pretend to be, the more it seems this must be some fastidiously maintained mass illusion-of course, The Matrix!
Couldn’t there be, just once, a talk-show guest who is in a really lousy mood, who just finished a movie that inarguably sucks-sucks so emphatically that no amount of sang-froid or faked frivolity can hide the fact, and so you just come right out and take the nation’s breath away by admitting it? It would be so gratifying to see one of those effervescent young cuties just completely drained of effervescence and ready to chuck the whole career and move back to Wyandotte or Chillicothe.
Showbiz “professionals” have mastered the trick of repressing completely even the teeniest trace of opprobrium. But they are by no means the only tele-beings striking absurdly happy poses round the clock these days.
Studio audiences, as we all know, can reach heights of cacophonous ecstasy over the mildest of meager stimuli-there hardly need be any stimuli at all. They’re trained now, they know what’s expected of them, and in these dark hours and grim times they overcompensate to an excess that might perversely be considered heroic. The first glimpse of the saddest excuse for a movie star-Ben Affleck, say, or Matthew McConaughaugheyahgyey (whatever)-and they’re beside themselves.
More troubling than the studio audiences are the shrieking riots staged each morning outside Rockefeller Center for NBC’s “Today” show and at Times Square for ABC’s “Good Morning America.” My good friend Mr. B, a connoisseur of kitsch, says he just can’t stand it anymore, the deafening sound of those crowds screaming their lungs and brains out at that delicate moment near dawn.
Why do they scream? Why must they scream? Why did whoever was running “GMA” at the time take a look at the bizarre mass fit going on over at “Today” and say, “That’s just what we need over here-a mob of deranged maniacs drowning out the weatherman”?
It’s as if nobody even considers what’s by any sensible standard appropriate anymore. I can comprehend a compulsion to stand and cheer and scream when Regis and Kelly come out from backstage at 9 a.m. Well, sure. Come on, who wouldn’t lose it? But 9 a.m. Eastern should be the dividing line.
How truly refreshing it would be if tomorrow morning Al Roker or Tony Perkins turned around to face those bleating boobs and huddled hicks and told them just to put a damn sock in it already. Come on, Al! Do it for the sake of decency, Tony. Just a quick turn and an earnest, “What is WRONG with you people? Are you completely insane?” They could borrow a few lines from Judge Joseph Welch when he put down Joe McCarthy: “Have you, at long last, no sense of decency?”
Not all the irrational happiness on TV is delivered en masse. There are two obscenely cheerful guys running around right now who should be sent to the showers-the cold showers-pronto. One is the big dumb jerk who lowered his cholesterol and, in a commercial for whatever product helped him do it, stops strangers on the street to tell them the news and then is miffed that they couldn’t care less. The other is an even bigger jerk, the smugly smirking dolt who parades around the office with a big stupid grin on his face while people pelt him with queries designed to elicit a reason for his cheer: Did he win the lottery? Is it his birthday?
No, he’s smiling because-he’s been taking Viagra! And, presumably, having sex every night, perhaps three or four or five times. And maybe the reason we don’t see him below the waist is because he’s-oh please, let it not be so.
There are many reasons to look back fondly on the old great Jack Paar shows-too many reasons to list-but one that seems pertinent right now is that a frequent Paar guest was the brilliant pianist and monumentally acerbic wit Oscar Levant. Whether he was a hypochondriac or truly sick or both, Levant had the guts to come on television and look utterly miserable about the whole experience. He would grimace, he would scowl, he would double over in agony. He was magnificent.
If somebody like that were to pop up on a talk show now, it would be cheering beyond words; it would be an enthralling revelation. “No pain, no gain” isn’t just true in bodybuilding. It’s true in life as well. Constant, mindless, largely unmotivated happiness is a dangerous as well as idiotic thing.
It’s not a lot to ask. Just that the next time Matt chirps his little “Good morning, Katie,” Katie gives him a withering frown and barks, “What the hell is good about it, Pretty Boy?”