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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All-Television Issue

Was there (is there) a Golden Age for the Tube?

March 1st, 2006

BY TERRY ROSS

A few months ago, in late autumn, when I passed along to the Black Lamb contributors the subjects for the special themed issues of 2006, I received not a few queries, from both writers and subscribers, as to how these themes are chosen. The universal supposition seemed to be that I, as editor, selected the topics based entirely on my own interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.

television.jpgIn fact, the process of choosing the subject of, for example, this All-Television Issue, as well as all the other themed issues, is complex and communal. With a long list compiled from the suggestions of Black Lamb staff members and readers, a group of us sit around a table in the conference room at Black Lamb Towers, fortified by snacks and strong beverages, and thrash out the annual schedule of six subject-oriented issues. My own preferences play a small part in the decision-making, as do those of our Managing Editor, Owen Alexander, whose suggestions are often dismissed outright, for inscrutable reasons. Otherwise, Black Lamb readers could look forward to an All-Mineral Issue, an All-Insurance Issue, an All-Real Estate Issue, and an All-Socialism Issue. Similarly rejected, for several years running, although strongly espoused by contributors Greg Roberts and Bud Gardner, has been an All-Fly Fishing Issue. Interior Decorating, Vegetarianism, Social Work, The Stock Market, and Rock Music have met the same fate, despite their adherents. In the end, we come up with subjects that a majority of Black Lamb’s contributors might reasonably be expected to have something to say about.

Television, being a ubiquitous feature of modern life, perhaps the most ubiquitous feature, along with weather, death, and taxes, seemed a natural. And in fact the writers rallied ‘round and furnished this issue with a typical smorgasbord of viewpoints, recollections, and stories, as you will see from the following pages. Still, to a certain extent, the subject of Television seems to have arranged itself along the lines of the dichotomy Gillian Wilce identifies in her article on p. 3: “Television, doncha love it?!!” versus “Television, doncha hate it?!!”

Dan Peterson (p. 3), William Bogert (p. 9),Toby Tompkins (p. 9), and Claire McLaughlin (p. 10) largely avoid this question by responding anecdotally: Dan with his harrowing experience as a participant in Italian reality television, Bill with a rueful and bemused look at the rewards of acting in television dramas, Toby with a tale of television homicide, and Claire with a lament for pleasures denied. The rest, from Gillian’s ambivalent confessions to Joel Hess’s indignant accusations, tackle the subject more or less directly.

To sort out my own feelings about television, I decided to have a look at the subject from an historical perspective. My wife Cervine Kauffman and I accordingly rented some tapes and DVDs of shows from the Fifties and Sixties to see how the so-called classics of the early days of television are holding up. Ed Goldberg (p. 4) covers some of the same ground, but from the vantage point of memory. Cervine and I sat down and watched.

For me, it was a trip down memory lane, but for Cervine, because she was born after all these shows aired, it was new material. Still, our impressions were not dissimilar. The question on our minds was: has television made progress over the years?

Is, say, Seinfeld an improvement over The Honeymooners? The regular comedian/characters on Seinfeld seem pretty pale — in talent and vivacity — compared to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, Art Carney’s Ed Norton, and Audrey Meadows’ Alice. The stories, on the other hand — well, The Honeymooners had stories, damned corny stories, while Seinfeld had situations. The writing? Score one for Seinfeld, if verisimilitude is what you’re looking for.

But what if it’s not? What if you’re seeking in television an escape from reality, a stylization of real life, rather than an exaggeration of it? Then rack one up for The Honeymooners.

Ditto for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. The art of parody, alive and well in the Fifties and Sixties, whether in film, pop music, or television, is constantly on display, and brilliantly so. With a writing team headed by Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen, Caesar packed each show with a series of sketches, many of them elaborately staged, featuring him and his hilarious group of comedians: Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howie Morris, and many guest stars. TV westerns, Hollywood movies, corporations, military protocol — you name it, the satiric targets are endless. This was, after all, the period that gave us Stan Freberg’s ingenious takeoffs. Rich stuff. Cervine and I were particularly taken by a parody pre-talkie movie, beautifully done in every respect, that went on for a full twenty minutes. The more recent send-ups of talk shows and other formats can’t hold a candle.

As for Ernie Kovacs, it’s not so much his inventive visuals that surprise, as the persistent surrealism. If you go to the Fifties expecting nothing but Ozzie and Harriet and the like, watching Kovacs — and Caesar, and even over-the-top dragster Milton Berle — is a reminder that in the early days of television the motto was “Anything goes.”

What about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle? While Hanna and Barbera debased the brilliant animation tradition of Tex Avery and Walt Disney with their cartoons (including The Flintstones, based directly on The Honeymooners), Jay Ward in 1959 created a brilliant kid-show-not-for-kids, with the familiar voices of Edward Everett Horton and Hans Conreid, backed by a host of the famous or soon-to-be-famous, including Carl Reiner, Jonathan Winters, Randy Quaid, and, in continuing roles, Rene Russo as Natasha Fatale, Jason Alexander as Akim Tamiroff playing Boris Badenov, and Robert De Niro (!) as the arch-villian, Fearless Leader. The animation is deliberately childlike, but a hell of lot more interesting than Yogi Bear. And the manic pace is hilarious.

Based on our tiny survey, Cervine and I had to conclude that the Fifties/Sixties were a golden age. To reward ourselves for our research, we then jumped ahead a few decades to what may be the greatest program ever produced for television, Dennis Potter’s six-episode The Singing Detective. Multi-layered, visually entrancing, spectacularly acted by Michael Gambon and everyone else, Detective is an eloquent argument for what television can be in the right hands.

But as for whether television is currently in “the right hands,” you’ll have to read the rest of this issue. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Television Issue, Ross | Link to this Entry

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