November 26, 1998
The Idiot Box
By Charles Marowitz
One of the most common complaints against television journalism is that it has deteriorated into entertainment. The cause, as always, is attributed to the rating wars -- the need to capture the greatest number of viewers by the most dramatic and theatrical means possible.
Entertainment is also the rabid preoccupation of the afternoon talk shows. Here, the source of entertainment is the real or contrived conflicts of husbands, wives, families, gays, whores, strippers, cross-dressers et al. A never-ending procession of victims or aggressors who parade their aberrations before us every day.
Conversation on television also obeys the rules of entertainment. Radio phone-in shows may suffer fools gladly, but television insists that "talk" be amusing, unpredictable, extreme, raunchy, outrageous and, wherever possible, accompanied by lively pantomime. Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" on ABC is perhaps the most glaring example of just how low standards for public discourse have sunk in America.
This is the show on which a smarmy, eye-popping Maher introduces some serious subject for discussion and then, tosses it out to a handful of presumably literate guests. The "serious topic" is clearly a ruse to enable Maher's panel to invent one-liners and comic conceits. Anyone presuming to deal seriously with an issue is immediately construed as a "party pooper," both by the audience and the panel, and relegated to the background. If you can't be funny or outrageous, the audience seems to be saying, Don't interfere with those who can!
Rigidly observing this lame format, chat never rises to the level of controversy and the danger of climbing into a ring where combatants actually butt heads on a real issue is successfully avoided.
Maher, as Master of the Revels, grins and smirks and gives the appearance of a chicken just about to lay an egg. Being arid and cerebral rather than fanciful and inspired, he lacks the essential qualities of the comedian, but, then, it is clear from his demeanor that he sees himself not so much as a comic but as a droll pundit -- a more mischievous version of Will Rogers who, instead of twirling a lasso, manipulates the low expectations of his undiscriminating public.
In a recent outing, Arianna Huffington, that walking monument to naked careerism, dealt with the issue, "How is conservatism reconcilable with the Moslem-like morality of the Republican Party," by simply reiterating her leitmotif that Clinton should be forced to resign. Since no one had alluded to Susan MacDougal and Huffington had her quip ("Everyone is treating her like Joan of Arkansas") already prepared, she arbitrarily inserted it into the discussion. A gay journalist and a confused Mark Hamill crossed swords with the right-wing opposition (a Bible-thumping Rev. Louis Sheldon in consort with Huffington) and, the topic was successfully drowned in banter and horseplay, even to the point of irritating emcee Maher who tried in vain to resuscitate it. Within the space of about 20 minutes, weighty subjects such as conservatism, impeachment and same-sex marriages were blithely dispatched without one new insight penetrating the collective fog.
Watching the show over a period of weeks, listening to bathos disguised as profundity and levity aspiring to wit, one cannot fail to reach the conclusion that everyone on this talk show, whether they be actors, writers, singers, journalists or politicians, suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. Cliché is embraced as a life-jacket might be passionately clutched to the bosom of a drowning man.
Many moons ago, when the British Broadcasting Corporation was not quite the offspring of commercial television that it has now become, there was a program called "That Was the Week that Was," hosted by David Frost; this is when Frost was merely an insolent commoner and not yet a pinstriped Knight of the Realm who conversed only with heads-of-state. For all its unevenness, the show was a genuine attempt to tackle relevant social and political issues, and guests were encouraged to discuss those issues with gravity where appropriate, or gravity leavened with wit where that was called for. Entertainment was derived from the fact that selected first-class minds were spontaneously grappling with pertinent issues, and the collision of divergent views expressed by articulate and educated men and women was sufficient either to divert or compel the attention of the viewing public.
Sparkling conversation by intellectually agile minds is one of the most entertaining things I know. But fudged conversation by celebrities who use issues merely to score comic points or ingratiate themselves with a studio audience is equivalent to a dinner party where, instead of exchanging ideas, people dwindle into telling jokes to one another. Those are the kind of dinner parties where conversation turns even the best cuisine rancid.
Programs such as "Politically Incorrect," anchored by smart-alecky stand-ups who equate being well-informed with being intellectually resourceful, are part of the unremitting plague that has blighted American culture. They go hand-in-hand with the general shrinkage of educational standards, which pollsters announce with such depressing regularity, and language's nose dive into illiteracy. So long as we find ourselves "entertained" by mindlessness and regaled by bathos, the idiot box will be an accurate euphemism for our electronic pastime.
Charles Marowitz is theater critic for The Jewish Journal