Friday, 4 May 2012

The Entertainer as Hero—Part II

First published in The Clearing House, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Nov., 1960)

This morning’s mail brought a most curious document: a press release from the largest teachers’ organization in the country announcing with pride that television actress Donna Reed will “serve as consultant to the National Education Association in the formation of a Television Committee for American Education Week, November 6-12.” N.E.A. President Dr. W.W. Eshelman explained his delight at Miss Reed’s acceptance: “Her weekly program on the ABC Television Network has repeatedly indicated her awareness of the needs of children and teachers, who are presented to the public in an intelligent and sympathetic light.” The slogan for the 1960 observance, “Strengthen Schools for the 60’s.”

Now there may be a certain poetic justice in educators’ having to turn to entertainers to wean a public away from pap to a serious interest in education, especially since education gets into intellectual trouble so often precisely because it tries to make education entertaining. What bothers me about making heroes out of entertainers is that their professional virtues—affability, a mindless, heady hedonism, a facile equation of mass popularity with importance—begin to seem the chief virtue in life.

Not that I’m against fun; it’s heartening to watch Ernie Kovacs, Art Carney, Mort Sahl, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May—performers for whom satire and irony are weapons. But TV is plagued by old-line entertains like Bob Hope, whose one-line gags pretend to controversy (in the way Jack Paar’s 1:00 A.M. statesmanship on Cuba is fake muckraking) and whose amiable feuds with Bing Crosby show how contrived and predictable these “feuds” have become. When a hundred reporters brave a blizzard to transcribe for tomorrow the lucubrations of Elvis Presley as he leaves the Army, and when the Washington Post gives three columns at the top of the page to a photo of Ethel Merman mugging at Dick Nixon, then our communications system may be said to be enthralled by entertainers. We even need them to raise money for research to cure diseases: George Gobel complains: “By the time I got there they had run out of all the good diseases.” Someone may have beaten him to cerebral palsy, but there is another disease endemic in America—entertaineritis, characterized by dilation of the eyes and a certain listlessness of the mind when confronted with difficult thought.

Paar is a good example. He has taken to crusades of varying scope and depth, most of which embody the vices they presume to bait. All right—so Winchell and Kilgallen are gossip mongers, but Paar’s vindictive sneers add nothing. And is Elsa Maxwell’s calculated vulgarity Paar’s idea of the significant?

Paar has his best argument in having presented Bob Kennedy on Hoffa; Kennedy himself says the Paar show had more effect on Congress than any other single item of publicity, and Paar considers Kennedy’s appearances on his late night program as the high point of his TV career. But note that when Kennedy reappeared and pointed out to Paar that Hoffa’s labor corruption was possible only because of the connivance of big business, and then went on to be very specific (A & P, Food Fair) Paar’s phony let’s-have-another-libel-suit-look dissolved in a look of real horror. Until Paar calls Kennedy back and lets him examine sweetheart contracts and other kinds of business corruption, it is difficult to give him a much higher grade than Winchell or Kilgallen as a champion of the public interest.

Paar’s simple-minded equation of contentiousness with controversy is not even convincing to his staff, notably Hugh Downs. Downs is one of the Chicago school, intellectual without being stuffy. He started out there on the delightful “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” show. His next appearance in the big time was for another lamented victim of TV ratings, Arlene Francis’ “Home”—a kind of TV combination Ladies Home Journal and Life that NBC’s Pat Weaver started to prove that twenty years of soap opera had not completely killed the intelligence of the housewife. As the announcer of the Paar show, Downs has much less scope for the intelligence his displayed in feature material for Arlene Francis. Indeed, given the emotional anti-intellectualism of Paar, Downs has been fighting a holding action as far as his career goes.

Increasingly, Paar’s transitions to Down’s commercials have a perceptibly patronizing air. Downs, however, is not easily conned, and it is a pleasure to see him deny the master to his face. (In answer to a rhetorical question, an unexpectedly negative reply: “Yes, you are cruel to people sometimes, Jack.”) More and more, painfully and consciously hollow laughs come from Downs when Paar’s humor misfires. The marvel here, of course, is that we are surprised on TV to see a man insisting on his dignity.

Downs is a new kind of star. At a recent Westinghouse Broadcasting Company press party, Downs was asked over a transcontinental phone hookup of five Westinghouse stations whether he thought his doing educational shows would give him an egghead tag that would hurt his career as an entertainer. Maybe in a hundred and twelve years, Downs allowed, he’d qualify if he worked as hard at it as he now does. Further, he didn’t see how it could hurt him since the anti-intellectual days of egghead baiting, he was happy to observe, were over. Another interviewer asked which gave him more satisfaction—his M.C.’ing of “Concentration,” a worthless bit of five times-a-week piffle on N.B.C.-TV, or his new role as M.C. of intellectual programs like the Westinghouse “Lab 30” series and two films he has just finished on the problems of the schools. Downs unhesitatingly condemned the game show as fluff, and said he had a sense of having really achieved something worthwhile in the ten problems on the frontiers of science “starring” the Westinghouse research team.

But ironically, when Downs tried to explain how much this series of difficult scientific experiments on TV had taught him, he revealed something about an entertainer culture. The main thing he had learned working with the scientists was that they were really people. Since it is the entertainer’s natures to be “on” all the time, rapport with an audience is a highly prized virtue. But it couldn’t matter less whether or not a scientist is warm or friendly. What matters is his ability to describe natural phenomena for the purposes of prediction and control.

The N.E.A. may be right in believing that the way to attract the serious attention of the public is through the entertainers. The troubling thing about the N.E.A. press release, however, is its tone of happy acquiescence in and even humble gratitude for the fact that the TV wag dogs the tale of our public affairs.

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