I am a child of the first television generation. My birth and formative years coincided with the explosion of TV as a popular new medium in the United States. I can personally recall some of the earliest programs from that period: The Life of Riley, Captain Midnight, My Little Margie, Mr. and Mrs. North, Boston Blackie. Every day when I came home from kindergarten, I had to see The Lone Ranger.
I remember when my parents bought our first TV set in 1950—a massive Dumont console in dark walnut with brushed bronze fittings. Besides the TV, it included an AM/FM radio and a sophisticated phonograph. The thing was staggeringly heavy, and had enough calibrated dials to resemble the cockpit of a fighter jet. It was hooked up to a huge aerial antenna (pointed towards Manhattan) on the roof of our house in Woodside.
Occasionally I watch selections of some of those early TV shows posted at YouTube on the internet. Seeing them now only confirms that they were very thin fare, illustrative of the complaint raised by critics in those days that television was a “wasteland” of triviality. The only interest the shows hold for me at this point is that they sometimes will spark a childhood memory.
By the mid-1960s TV had ceased to keep my attention except for intrinsically interesting dramatic shows like The Twilight Zone, East Side/West Side, and Naked City. In any case, I was starting university studies and my passion became irreversibly fixated on books and language.
Just recently, however, I discovered that a cable channel here in New York was regularly rebroadcasting three early quiz shows: To Tell The Truth, What’s My Line, and I’ve Got A Secret. The programs are being aired along with their original commercials. Watching them has been a genuine pleasure, not merely a nostalgic glance backward.
There was no great intellectual substance to these quiz shows. They were mere entertainment, or “chewing gum for the mind,” as my mother would say. But seeing them again after half a century demonstrated something with striking clarity—the intellectual, verbal, and cultural debasement of our current era. My wife and I are amazed at the superior level of discourse, behavior, tone, and etiquette that prevailed in these early shows, in contrast to the apish buffoonery, the posturing pretension, the inarticulate blather, and the sheer classlessness of most contemporary television. These old quiz shows were nothing but fluff, but compared with the lowbrow garbage being produced now, they seem like Plato’s Symposium.
A lot of this has to do with the stellar character and intellect of the panelists who regularly appeared. There was Bennett Cerf, the director of Random House Press, at that time a top-flight New York publishing firm. Cerf was perceptive, witty, delightfully amusing, and sharp as a tack. With him was Dorothy Kilgallen, a nationally syndicated columnist whose lucidity and articulate language are gratifying to hear, especially when considering the slovenly and debased speech one encounters on “reality TV” today. There was the incomparable humorist Fred Allen, and the arch and sardonic Henry Morgan. The Miss America for 1945, Bess Meyerson, the socialite Kitty Carlisle, and the actress and radio personality Arlene Francis were not only stunning in their beauty, but also well-spoken, gracious, and incisive in their commentary.
The hosts of these quiz shows were also impressive. The magisterial and yet humorous John Charles Daly and the irrepressible Garry Moore directed the programs with perfect aplomb, and with a command of precise and articulate English that is rare even among college faculty today.
What the hell happened? How did we get from that point to this point? Why do so many of the persons who appear on TV these days remind you of semi-educated boors, cheap sluts, or freshmen with Attention Deficit Disorder? How did an Ovidian Golden Age turn into a Juvenalian Age of Lead?
Well, the very first thing that happened was the cultural and moral syphilis known as the 1960s, along with the attendant “revolutions” in manners, dress, and behavior. Truculent vulgarity and bumptiousness became socially acceptable, along with untutored speech. (This disaster has reached its absurdist apogee today, when a caterwauling pop-music buffoon wins the Nobel Prize for Literature). I am always amazed when a film director or an author is interviewed on TV now, and he shows up in a torn t-shirt, denims, sneakers, and with a three-day growth of beard. What in God’s name is wrong with him? I wonder. Everyone on these three old quiz shows was impeccably groomed and dressed, especially the women, who were frequently in elegant evening gowns. Henry Morgan still wore spats! No male was seen without a tie, or in short sleeves.
There’s another factor: these old quiz shows were completely unscripted. They therefore had a spontaneity, freshness, and unpredictability that are generally absent from today’s TV, which is overcontrolled, censored, and as choreographed as a Communist Party rally. The panelists on the old shows said what they liked, without having their words vetted beforehand by some stupid focus-group.
Above all else, you get the sense of freedom. Lively panelists like Tom Poston, Betsy Palmer, and Bill Cullen had genuine human reactions. The humor was real. The quips were unexpected. The laughter was unforced, and not subject to hesitation or restraint. You felt that everyone on the panel was a broadminded,humane conversationalist whom you’d gladly welcome into your home as a dinner guest. The people on TV today? You wouldn’t want them in the same room with your kids. There is a coarseness and a vulgarity in current mass entertainment that would have been unthinkable sixty years ago.
And here is the terrible irony of the 1960s. The “revolutions” were supposedly all about liberation: freeing our minds, freeing our bodies, freeing our speech and behavior from constricting social expectations that stifled creativity and possibility. But in fact all that we have now is the ever more choking restrictions that come with the triumph of barbarism. Our speech is strangled, our actions curbed, our very thoughts policed and censored—simply because a world given over to license always requires a more savage repression than a world of orderly cultural norms. We can’t tell the truth any longer. Social license doesn’t free—it constricts and strangles by allowing the freaks, misfits, and underclass to lord it over the rest of us.
Right now, in New York, there are three different cable channels that broadcast only old TV shows. I guess a growing number of people perceive the difference between the civilized freedom of the past, and the regimented barbarism of today.