The Life and Times of Chip Douglas

Tige Andrews with Mod Squad co-stars, Michael ...
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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?

I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Logo of the Global Reality Channel
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I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..

Over the years, I developed a taste for the German language. My admiration is not from its palate cleansing syntax but its highly logical nouns.   An example of simple words combining to make a more complex word might be Hundehütte (eng. doghouse) or Baumhaus (eng. tree house). German allows for highly complex compound nouns such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenskajuetenschluesselloch, which means “the lock in the cabin door of the captain of the company running steamers up and down the Danube”.  My favorite German word is scheudenfreud.  Translated, it means the fascination with another person’s misfortune.  The word describes an all too common unhealthy appetite in our human nature and captures the bubblegum essence of American media programming – – reality television.

We all, it seems, have a flawed predisposition to become consumed with other people’s failings and to live other’s lives vicariously.  Reality TV feeds this inate longing baking it into a range of menus from personal competitions to law enforcement.  Last week, 31.2m people devoured American Idol while 16m slowly savoured Survivor: Fiji.  While my family was gathered in the family room drinking in the acerbic sarcasm of Simon Cowell,  I was secretly taking in  the TV show, “Cops”.  I always feel guilty when landing on channel 58 – – just in time to watch a methamphetamine addict trying to outrace the entire Miami police force in his mother’s 1972 AMC Gremlin or a woman who has been on a binge for three straight weeks trying to convince the authorities she is Tsarist Princess Anastasia.  If I hear anyone coming towards my den, I quickly flip to ESPN.  How ‘bout those Yankees ?

And then there is “Jackass”, a show where faux stuntmen Johnny Knoxville, Weeman, Steve-O and Chris Pontius perform outrageously dangerous and insipid stunts.  I close the door to my office and laugh that deep, from the groin, painful laugh that only comes when you witness someone being injured doing something incredibly dumb.  “Jackass” gave rise to a follow on show called “ Wild Boys”.  The first episode of “Wild Boys” featured a sequence where Steve-O and Chris ate a variety of bizarre Asian foods culimnating in snorting wasabi mustard where they promptly, threw up.  Steve-O and Chris were then off to Africa where, donning only athletic supporters, they ran through a pride of lions dragging hams behind them on long hemp ropes.  This is about the point where being an arm chair historian, I wonder if the majority of Rome was watching a show called “ When Praetorian Guards Go Bad “ when the Barbarians  charged into the city limits and brought the great empire to its knees.  Or perhaps, everyone was wearing ipods and just did not hear them coming.

America is hooked on the empty carbohydrates of reality TV.  However, we cannot take credit for creating these cultural moon pies.   While it is true, like fast food and greenhouse gases, we are producing a disproportionate amount of reality TV,  Asia and Europe actually got the whole thing started.  It was Japanese and the Dutch who built on the theme and created game shows based on humiliation, survival and co-habitation. ( For those with stupid sense of humors like me, watch the YouTube episode of the Japanese reality show, Gaki No Tsukai – Silent Library, entitled: The Old Man Who Bites Tenderly, to illustrate just how “evolved” reality programming has become.)

TV pundits estimate literally thousands of new reality shows will be released in the next year.  I worry.  What does my fascination with other people’s misfortunes say about me ?  Why can I not skip to a channel that does not seek to demean, exploit, marginalize or ridicule ?  These shows are lugubriously seductive speakeasys.  Is one genetically predisposed to scheudenfreud ?  Was the Roman Colleseum a massive reality TV for the masses of the Empire so they might for a moment, be liberated from bad news of foreign wars, threat of plague, the increasing Roman deficit and the rising cost of chariots ?  Why can I not seem to resist this nightly dose of toxic cinema verite ?

The experts have divined that as many as half of American TV programs are now some variation of Reality TV.  I figure the other half must be some variation of ER or CSI and infomercials.  I was distraught to learn that as many as 82% of these shows are, in some way, shape or form, “scripted”.  What ?  You mean “Dog, The Bountyhunter” is really a security guard at a Chucky Cheese ?  Don’t tell me those uber babes of  “The Hills” are really Universal Studios tour guides.  Those long green spongey things on “ Fear factor” are not actually baboon adnoids?  The “Ghost Hunters” are not making contact with a thumping spirit but really just filming in a room over a night club in Soho with a big woofer? Flava Flav does not really don viking horns and a massive alarm clock around his neck when he goes out on dates ?  I feel like we need a new word for our salacious interest in other people’s false misfortunes, scheudenfreudfalshe.

I have a few ideas for shows.  There could be “Dancing With the Infidels” where Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton compete for a chance to run for an empty Senate seat.  No contestant is allowed to actually touch their partners or they will be eliminated.  “Rap and Cheese” could appeal to Francophiles by teaming up defrocked French politicians with hip hop artists in a race from Newark to Avignon.  There is so much potential material.

Another crack addict is being wrestled to the ground on “Cops”.  I realize that I am living in a time where the media is all too willing to enter my home to fuel my paranoia that the world is not full of possibilities, but instead choked with meth heads, terrorists and hookers.  I have become a nightly regular at the Fear and Consumption café where I get a healthy plate of “ Reality” TV, news and talk shows that fuels my concerns that my country is on the downward slope of its moral, spiritual, and economic preeminence.  It’s crowded in the F&C café and sometimes I have to wait for a seat.   While I realize that scheudenfreud is a natural human frailty, it is also a warning sign.  It’s a subtle hardening of the arteries in the chest of a pampered soul.  It can be mitigated by simply remembering that the real world is going on outside while reality TV flickers inside our homes.