Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Reality Of Breaking Up

I recently said goodbye to a longtime companion. After spending countless nights over several decades in this affair, I’d had enough, and decided to call it quits. Sure, this long-term relationship was often very entertaining, but it reached a point where it frequently seemed like a waste of time, so I pulled the plug…on Cable TV.

This is a major break up! It is the equivalent to Lance Armstrong dumping bicycles; because Cable has been more than just a diversion for me, it has often been my employer. In fact, with the paychecks I’ve received over the years for performing, then writing, and eventually producing, I’m one of the few people that can say Cable has paid more for me than I have paid for Cable.

So our split was not about money, which is the number one problem sited for most break ups. The number two most reported cause is sex, and I certainly don’t have a problem with Cable in that department either and don’t understand the folks who do. (Before the invention of flat-screen televisions I used to tell a joke about a woman complaining to me she hated all the sex on the TV and me telling her she should buy a couch.) In truth sex is one of the things I am beginning to miss most about Cable.

I’m now going on three months without it, the longest I’ve gone since I was a very young child (without Cable, not without sex). You see, my parents did not approve of Cable at first; Mom spent her free time reading and Dad spent his playing the piano, so that left me with limited TV options: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. To me, they were my four best friends; to my parents, they were my babysitters. When I finally did see Cable, it was love at first sight. I spent so much of my childhood sitting in front of the television that I can still clearly remember the pattern of the carpet in our TV room. I also recall the arms of our sofa that I used to ride as my imaginary horse when watching westerns.

If you are a college student reading this, you are probably thinking “There used to be westerns on television?” That’s understandable, since the last western on a non-premium network was Peacemakers in 2003, and it lasted only nine episodes before it was sent to Boot Hill. But during the final years of the Baby Boomer generation through the early years of Gen-X, westerns ruled the airwaves. At the peak in 1959, there were twenty-six westerns on in primetime, including eight of the top ten shows. In fact, for eight out of ten years, the number one show was Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, or Bonanza. By the time I came into existence there were still one or two westerns on most networks, but the costs were becoming prohibitive (horses rented for $100 per day).

Back then, people loved to imagine life in a different era to escape the reality of present day. But now, it seems that using your imagination is just too much work and we are content to invite modern reality into our living rooms in increasingly uglier forms. In short we have gone from being entertained by people we aspire to be (Marshall Dillon) to people we are thankful we are not (Snooki).

I first noticed this transition when the afternoon talk shows that featured successful performers (Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, etc.) were replaced by those that displayed the dregs of society (Jerry Springer, Geraldo, etc.). I believe viewers were attracted to this new “Trash TV” because their problems paled by comparison to those of the dreadful guests on their screen; much of what we call “Reality TV” should more accurately be called “At Least My Life Is Better Than That Guy’s!” To combat the frustrations of our ordinary lives we take comfort that we have not sunk to being a transgender Nazi or incestuous clergy (most of us never even had to sweat out a DNA test to determine if we really are the baby-daddy).

From the afternoon talk shows, this trend migrated to primetime. The show COPS debuted in 1989 (currently in its 23rd season, making it one of the longest running shows on the air). Reality TV got a better foothold a few years later with MTV’s Real World, and finally exploded in 2002 with Survivor.  The reason for the success was explained to me while I was pitching a scripted show to an ABC executive; he shook his head and said, “This is a good concept with a great script, but for the money it would cost me to produce a half-hour of this show I can produce eight hours of reality programming.” Simple economics; cutting out expensive elements like writers and stars shrinks the production costs, and a hit show at half the cost is twice the hit.

Of course, Cable TV lowered the bar on what constitutes a hit. Before Cable a hit show could draw over two-thirds of the television viewers, now audiences are so spread over the dial a show is considered a huge success if it can garner even a fourth. And if any show does attract those numbers, then you can expect the following season for other networks to trot out their version; Jersey Shore begat Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jersey Couture, Jerseylicious, ad infinitum. (The common message being the term “Jersey culture” is an oxymoron.) The latest adaptation is “Celebreality TV” featuring minor celebrities that are desperate to bolster their careers: The Osbournes begat The Anna Nicole Smith Show, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Dancing with the Stars, Celebrity Fit Club, Celebrity Apprentice, Celebrity Rehab, ad infinitum denuo. This practice of replication is nothing new in broadcasting, as noted a half-century ago by Fred Allen when he observed, “Imitation is the sincerest form of television.”

Naturally this derivative programming is not limited to Cable, so I’m also giving the heave-ho to my four best friends of old, dumping all broadcast television. Other than the sheer redundancy, there are other grounds for this divorce. One, after many years of paying my dues as a performer I am disgusted by the recent concept of unearned stardom; I get disturbed seeing William Huang’s cd in the stores competing against legitimate singers that have devoted their lives to their craft. Two, I’m worried about the children. A kid can instinctively distinguish reality from fantasy, they may see a cartoon character walk off a cliff but they know they shouldn’t do the same, but “real” people become real role models. And when children start to emulate the bad habits of say, Paris Hilton, reality star of The Simple Life, or any cast member of Growing Up Gotti, then society will pay a price (and incarceration isn’t cheap).

Yet another reason for breaking up: TV is a big fat liar! There is no reality in Reality TV if for no other reason than being in a room with a TV camera is an unreal situation. Most shows are a mix of so called “real” moments and fake ones. For example, the judge’s “live” comments on American Idol may be prepared in advance while the judges watch dress rehearsals. And in Celebreality TV, the semi-stars often write into their contracts the ability to veto any scene they don’t want shown. Wouldn’t “real life” be great if you had time to think about what you were going to say long before you had to say it, or if you said something you were ashamed of, you could have it edited out? Reality my ass.

Speaking of American Idol, before I am bombarded by emails from outraged fans, I should mention I do not consider it to be true Reality TV.  I believe talent contests and game shows belong to a different genre altogether, because they require two elements true Reality TV does not: talent and writing. Plus both are very time-tested forms of entertainment. While American Idol has been the top rated show for the past six seasons, it is not that far removed from Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the top rated show in 1951. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the top rated show in 2000, is very similar to The $64,000 Question, the top rated show in 1955. Maybe television, like fashion, runs in cycles?

I hope so.

How ironic: I like my coffee with real sugar, my songs with real drums, and my women with real breasts, but when it comes to TV, well, I’ve had all the reality I can take. Hopefully this form of television will soon run its course, and network executives might look to the past to find programming for the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll live long enough to see the return of the variety show? And if they ever bring back the western, well, I might even consider getting back together with Cable. (Although, I’m going to need a sofa with much stronger arms.)

EPILOGUE: I’m happy to report I rebounded quickly and jumped into a new affair. I am now head over heels…for Netflix!

“The Laff Guru” has taken his message of LAUGHTER=NIRVANA to all 50 states and 23 countries. His awards include: “Comic of the Year,” “Campus Performer of the Year,” and a “Cable Ace Award.” His credits include over fifty TV appearances, including: Showtime and The Late Show. He is represented by GP Entertainment. To find out more about his award-winning comedy act please visit: laffguru.com

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