Friday, October 26, 2018

Variety Shows

     Do any of my Gentle Readers miss the old variety shows? The Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante panoplies of comedians, singers, magicians, jugglers, contortionists, ventriloquists, puppeteers, balloon artists, and so on, each of which got about five minutes to divert us before it was nudged aside to make room for the next act? I found myself thinking about them just a little while ago: wistfully, and with more than a trace of regret for their passing.

     But strangely enough, that span of reminiscence was interrupted by another memory:

At precisely eight-o-five
Doctor Frederick von Meier
Will attempt his famous dive
Through a solid sheet of luminescent fire.

In the center of the ring
They are torturing a bear
And although he cannot sing
They can make him whistle Londonderry Air

And the price is right,
The cost of one admission is your mind

We shall shortly institute
A syncopation of fear
While it's painful, it will suit
Many customers whose appetites are queer

Or for those who wish to pay
There are children you can bleed
In a most peculiar way
We can give you all the instruments you'll need

And the price is right,
The cost of one admission is your mind

If you're harder yet to serve
We have most delightful dreams;
Our recorders will preserve
The intensity and passion of your screams.

For we only aim to please;
It's our customers who gain
As their appetites increase
They must come to us for pleasure and for pain.

And the price is right,
The cost of one admission is your mind.

[Joseph Byrd, “The American Metaphysical Circus”]

     The above was recorded in 1967, by an experimental / electronic group that styled itself The United States of America. Its leader, Joseph Byrd, was a Communist: an actual, open, card-carrying member of the Communist Party. The song above, a nightmarish reimagining of American leisure pursuits at that time, was representative of his views of this country. Other tracks on the group’s one and only album reinforced that image.

     Contrast that vision with the happy, relaxed image of America that emanated from the variety shows.

     The rise of grievance politics began just as the variety shows were being removed from our televisions. First came the racial grievance groups. Shortly thereafter we confronted feminism. The homosexuals were next. The fractionation of American society into groups clamoring for attention and political privileges took off as if jet-propelled.

     The musical currents of the time were part of that, of course. But you wouldn’t be exposed to much of that by the variety shows. They were family-oriented, never worse than mildly PG. Even the most risque of them stayed on the right side of the lines.

     The innocent, diverting, generally harmless variety shows departed the stage; the radical themes and musicians who proclaimed them remained. Why?

     How did Americans suddenly acquire an appetite for entertainment that departed so completely from their previous way of life? Or did we in reality? Is the horrid, life-denying and perversion-promoting Grand Guignol “variety show” of our time something we chose, or is it something that was foisted upon us?

(Agnus dei
Qui tollis peccata mundi
Miserere eis.

Agnus dei
Qui tollis peccata mundi
Donna eis requiem.)

Do you remember what you said and did a thousand years ago?
Where is yesterday?
Do you remember what you said and did a thousand weeks ago?
Where is yesterday?

Yesterday in crannies or in nooks you will not find;
Yesterday in chronicles or books you will not find;
All you see of yesterday is shadows in your mind;
Shadows on the pavement but no bodies do you find.

Do you believe that snows of winters long ago return again?
Where is yesterday?
A voice you knew a thousand years ago you can't remember when?
Where is yesterday?

Here is only waiting for a day that went before;
Here is only waiting for an answer at the door;
Here is only living without knowing why for sure.
Here is something gone you cannot find it anymore.

[Gordon Marron and Ed Bogas, “Where Is Yesterday?”]

     The fifty years immediately behind us have cost us heavily. But to recognize the losses, one must be able to remember the time before: the milieu of America the Good, when it was in truth what de Tocqueville said:

     I sought for the greatness of the United States in her commodious harbors, her ample rivers, her fertile fields, and boundless forests--and it was not there. I sought for it in her rich mines, her vast world commerce, her public school system, and in her institutions of higher learning--and it was not there. I looked for it in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution--and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.

     Radio and television stations unabashedly told us that “The family that prays together stays together.” They exhorted us to “go to the church of your choice.” Of course at that time, “the family that prays together” was likely to eat dinner as a unit, and “the church of your choice” was overwhelmingly likely to be a Christian church. Married couples were largely faithful to one another; divorce had not yet become trendy. Parents expected the schools to teach their children rather than indoctrinate them. Children mostly loved, honored, and obeyed their parents. We expected to have to work for a living. We believed in our political system and, when we sought a change in the laws, strove to work within it. There was a sense that America was “doing it right.” That sense was reinforced by pre-Sixties cultural products: the sort that filled the agendas of the variety shows.

     The correlation of the cultural shift with the sociopolitical shift is too strong to ignore.

     Going backward is barred to us. We cannot restore faith in generations that have never known it and have been taught to deride it. We cannot instill patriotism in young people who’ve been taught that patriotism is inherently wrong – worse, that the United States is the fountainhead of every evil extant in the world today. And we cannot inculcate a work ethic in young people who believe they’re owed whatever they happen to demand.

     But maybe we could bring back the variety shows. Television is getting so bad that I’ve taken to watching the grass grow in preference. For my cable subscription, I get over two hundred channels – but for the past month not one of them has offered me anything I’ve cared to watch except Yankees baseball and Rangers ice hockey.

     Where’s Ed “really big show” Sullivan when we need him?

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