“. . . and a small herd of morons”: Fred Allen on Jerrybuilt Entertainment

This morning, The Springer Show had its UK debut on ITV1.  It is the beginning of a limited run of talkshows (if you can call them that) hosted by super-smug US schlockmeister Jerry Springer.  Even though it is recorded at the Granada studios in Manchester, one wonders in what ways this Mancunian version could possibly differ from the Chicago-based original—accents, hairstyles, and chav wear excepting.  Will locals recognize each other and compete over who is going to be trashiest? Sounds like John Waters’s Baltimore.  At least, it would be community service.

Springer recently derided UK television for being “ten years behind” stateside entertainment.  Might that be a compliment? Is it even an accurate assessment, given that many of the post-Springer reality formats—shows that make Jerry seem quaint—were developed in the UK?

No doubt the UK Springer season was greenlighted in response to the highly controversial but hugely successful London production of Jerry Springer—The Opera, which aired earlier this year on BBC1 to a storm of protests. Given the reawakening of the religious right in the West, Springer might still be able to push some holier-than-thou buttons, sanctimonious as his own curtain call commentaries are. Still, it all seems so old hat.

Some fifty years ago, US radio comedian and satirist Fred Allen (1894-1956) had this to say about so-called reality shows, which “became popular with the sponsors long before the listeners at home were conditioned to them,” programs that

appealed to the businessman because they were cheap. Reduced to essentials, a quiz show required one master of ceremonies, preferably with prominent teeth, two underpaid girls to do the research and supply the quiz questions and a small herd of morons, stampeded in the studio audience and rounded up at the microphone to compete for prizes. The prizes generally [. . .] were donated by their makers in return for a mention of their merchandise on the program.

The audience-participation show varied slightly. This pseudo-entertainment consisted of a covey of frowsy housewives, flushed at a neighborhood supermarket, and an assortment of tottering male extroverts gathered from park benches. The purpose of the program was to establish the senility of the participants in the process of playing an antiquated parlor game. These shows not only were inexpensive—some of them became very popular, which justified their existence in advertising and corporate circles.

The commercials have gotten longer, the attention span shorter, and the vocabulary smaller—but the “herd of morons” is forever flocking to the trough.  By the way, just how long do the commercial breaks have to get until we all refuse to chomp? Meanwhile, Fred Allen’s wit is alive and well worth our time.   Just listen to recordings of his popular comedy-variety series to discover how he, along with a small herd of writers that at one time included novelist Herman Wouk, tickled and uplifted the multitude with a verbal virtuosity rarely attempted, let alone achieved, by today’s television entertainers.

Castles in the Air; or, No, No, Nostalgia

I am moving in.  At last I am beginning to feel more at home sharing my thoughts in this way. It seems somewhat daunting, at first.  If not altogether arcane, the internet as a communal space, an event in which to partake rather than a means for the taking or the taking in is still unexplored territory to me.  How can I file my claim in a land whose boundaries I do not yet grasp?

I am not calling this journal broadcastellan for nothing.  The past to me is not a dungeon cluttered with artifacts, nor a fortress to be taken.  It is a castle I am building with materials I gather while listening.  Tuning in, belatedly, to live broadcasts of the 1930s or ‘40s, I seem to be living on recycled air; but what I come across can still feel like a fresh current, not an atmosphere that is stagnant or miasmic.  Catching a reverberation of the past, I am breathing it in and breathe in it.  This stronghold is well ventilated.

I have always been suspicious of both history and nostalgia as motivations for looking (or listening) back.  History is the effort to make sense of the past, a figuring out—rather than a figuring forth—of it; nostalgia, by comparison, strikes me as an act of self-absorbed pillaging, a heedless appropriation.  If the former lacks creative freedom, the latter means taking liberties rather too freely.  In a review of a friend’s book I once called “nostalgia” the “fruitful reverie of a past whose text is a history of longing.”  Now, even I don’t quite know anymore what that might mean—but I can still feel it ringing true.

Nostalgia is a longing for an elusive and largely undefined bygone, while history is a longing for knowledge of what has truly been going on all along; but neither approach enables us to achieve a sense of belonging as we behold or hold on to the past.  Listening to historic broadcasts, I dwell on air; I do not linger in a vacuum.  I might be the creator of this castle, but its stuff—the found matter that is its foundation—has to be weighed, handled and shaped with care and understanding.

What is my place in this castle I am constructing? What is the responsibility of a broadcastellan—the present keeper of a home for live records of the past?

Unpopular Culture; or, the Return of the Magnificent Montague

Popular culture is generally understood to be the mass-market consumer culture of the present.  As the culture of the everyday it is especially vulnerable to obliteration.  What happens to the popular of the past, to the dime novels, movies, television programs or radio entertainment no longer of interest to a larger public, no longer deemed marketable or relevant? Does it become fodder for historians? Is it fuel for nostalgia? I am going to investigate this heap of discarded objects, review products of a by now “unpopular culture,” and relate them to my here and now.

This attempt at a blog is an unacademic continuation of my doctoral study Etherized Victorians. It will chiefly concern movies, television and radio programs that may have fallen out of favor or are favored by the few only but are still available to anyone using contemporary media (TV, radio, and the internet; as DVDs, mp3s or in plain old print).

Unlike my academic writing, this journal will allow me to broadcast my findings immediately upon discovery and to share my impressions with others who, like me, are passionate about presumably stale pop, whatever their cultural or educational background.  It also permits a more personal approach than did my dissertation, in which I never referred to myself in the first person singular.

My [initial] signature, “The Magnificent Montague,” [was] appropriated from a US radio sitcom (1950-51) of the same name. In it, a hapless and proud thespian (portrayed by Monty Woolley) finds himself stooping to radio work to make ends meet. This obscure reference [was] meant to express the confrontation of cultures high and low, of trends and traditions, of personal predilections and public personae—confrontations broadcastellan will bring about in the months to come.

[As I became more confident writing about myself and saw the need to lay claim to my own words, the “Montague” cloak became cumbersome and worthless.  It was retired on 24 October 2005].