The Life and Times of Chip Douglas
Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. ~David Frost
I grew up with three caregivers – a mother, father and a black and white Admiral 21″ surrogate baby sitter. My electronic aupair was a warm, friendly spirit whose tubes and wires glowed piping images of perfect nuclear families, communities where morality always triumphed over self-interest and colorful paragons of law and order who went by names like Mannix, Rockford, Kojak and McGarret.
Many a generation Joneser grew up as the seventh child of the Brady Bunch, the fourth kid in My Three Sons and the sixth kid, second row percussion in the Partridge family. While later generations would be Saved By The Bell or snared by Family Ties, I learned about the give and take of life in a large depression era family from The Waltons. I registered everything that I saw on television and tried to bring these core values into our home. At night, I would stare into the dark at bedtime and envy how the Waltons all said “good-night” to one another. The simple act of wishing one another a safe slumber seemed to consummate that deep bond that any family should feel toward one another. I recall screwing up my courage to introduce a new fraternal bond among my brothers. I sat silent as the final bedside lights dimmed straining my eyes into the darkness of my older brother’s bedroom, watching for any sign of movement.
“ Night, Tom!” I whispered. No response. In a slightly louder voice, “ Good-night, Tom” Still no reply. “ Good…” A high top sneaker flew through the door and hit me in the face. “ Shut-up, you goon. What do think you’re on, the Waltons?“
I was Chip Douglas, the disturbed vidiot cableman in The Cable Guy, emulating much of what I saw in movies and on television. I had great empathy for single parents after watching Bill Bixby in “ The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” It seemed in the 70’s people who were divorced wore a sort of scarlet letter on their foreheads. We would listen undetected as parents gossiped on the phone about the nature of marital break ups and “divorcees”. Kids often got labeled as “bad” because they had the misfortune of growing up in a broken home. I wondered if these same gossipy paragons of virtue had watched Brian Keith struggle as a single dad in “Family Affair” or Dihann Carroll in “Julia”, whether they might realize that most single parents sacrificed more for the sake of raising their children.
We were introduced to Archie Bunker who revealed the comical shortcomings of provincial bigotry. “M*A*S*H” reminded us of the futility of war. The teenagers of “Room 222” at Walt Whitman High School were bright, driven kids navigating the treacherous shoals of life’s personal, social and political shores. Each week, a small boat would brush against a difficult issue such as tolerance, drugs and gulp, sex. These students were guided by a progressive American History teacher, Pete Dixon, who steered them through difficults straits toward adulthood and commanded his crew with velvet understanding.
And then there was my favorite show, “The Mod Squad”. This hippie detective drama offered up the three ultra-cool undercover officers: Julie Barnes played by gorgeous Peggy Lipton, Pete Cochran played by Michael Cole and the fly guy of all-time – Linc Hayes played by Clarence Williams III. I idolized Linc and his teflon indifference to the injustice of society. Linc had it all going on. His signature line was a celebration of urban simplicity, “ solid, man.”
I waited endlessly for the day that I could say “ Solid man.“ I finally laid this multicultural affirmation on my father after he told me to sweep out the garage. Expecting a fight, he was confused by my response. He hesitated and squinted at me as if I had uttered some disrespectful epithet. We stared at one another. I could see his wheels turning wanting to reprimand his son for calling him “man” but clearly he was in the deep end of the generational pool. He shook his head and walked away. I swaggered to the garage having known that on this day, I stuck it to The Man.
Television shows of the late 60s and 70s offered you families and lives that you wanted to emulate. Characters were kind, comical, sympathetic and predictable. These were the kind of people with whom you’d vacation, invite to your BBQ and ask to watch your children while you took a vacation to the Poconos. TV tied America up in a neat little bow and gently walked you through the difficult social and cultural issues that tore at the fabric of its family values in the newspapers, on college campuses and across a great green ocean in Vietnam.
In 1973, the top shows according to Nielsen were: All in the Family, The Waltons, Sanford and Son ,M*A*S*H, Hawaii Five-0, Maude, Kojak (tie), The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (tie), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (tie), Cannon (tie), The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bob Newhart Show (tie), The Wonderful World of Disney (tie) ,Gunsmoke and Happy Days.
In the 70’s, kids played outside because there was no cable TV. Programming was spread across 11 channels offering a narrow adolescent primetime on cartoon Saturday mornings and early evening sitcoms. Mornings were filled with game shows, soap operas and Jack Lalanne exercise classes. 70’s afternoon television was filled with talk shows, news and boredom. Friday and Sunday nights were primetime slots as 80% of all families were assembled to share an evening meal together and then watch their favorite show. TV was an acceptable companion. While futurists like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov portended the intellectual downfall of mankind from the boob tube, we watched a Sunday evening double header of Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Wonderful World of Disney. We did not feel stupid. We felt entertained and informed.
I confess to still carrying on my affair with my television although I am overwhelmed by my cable selections and offended by our lowest common denominator preoccupation with all things forbidden. Each night, out of habit, I turn on the tube. My spouse turns off the TV when I leave the room. This annoys me. I turn it back on. She turns it off. She hates television. Being the son of an advertising man and having a sardonic preoccupation with the decline of society, I watch dark things and cable sitcoms. When no one is watching I turn on “Lock Up – Behind Bars in America”. I am beyond schadenfruede. I am now actively seeking to consort with all of life’s undesirables – its blemishes, warts and shame
The Center for Media Literacy has tried to reach out to me. The CML recently published a five point manifesto attempting to help Americans realize that television is not a magic lens to the world. Reality TV – it seems – is not so real. News is more entertainment than objective reporting. To those couch potato adults and their chubby pre- diabetic progeny who now have over 400 hundred channels from which to choose 24/7 television, the CML laid out a simple set of truths:
1) You are smarter than your TV
2) TV world is not the real world
3) TV teaches us that some people are supposedly more important than others
4) TV does the same things over and over
5) People use the TV to make money
I know this is a shocker but over 100M Americans do not understand these basic concepts or know that Belgium is in Europe.
The Waltons have been replaced by the Gosselins. TV detectives are no longer all male, fat, bald or based in Hawaii. Mary Tyler Moore and Newhart have moved on or out of therapy. The Western is dead and Disney is an entire channel. Sonny died in a ski crash and Cher is still dating 20 year olds. We long for Happy Days but now realize the Six Million Dollar Man is a golden parachuted CEO of a failed bank. Along the way, we are now warned of enlarged prostates, restless legs, sleeping problems and situational anger. All of this could result in vomiting, severe bone pain, abdominal bleeding, chest palpitations, or suicidal thoughts – – and if all fails, go out and buy a snuggie.
Goodnight and sweet dreams. “Buenos Noches, Tia Tequilla.” “Buonanotte, Snookie.” “Bonne nuit, Housewives of Beverly Hills.”
Where the hell is John Boy?