By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur "living the dream in the Pacific Northwest."
This week I’m reflecting on what Newton N. Minow called a “vast wasteland.”
Who was Newton Minow? No he was not a type of fish. He is (he’s still with us at age 93!) a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Minow made this profound statement 50 years ago reflecting on what total drivel television was (and still is).
I guess one could criticize Mr. Minow for complaining about television when it was his responsibility as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the medium.
A valid analogy would be if a man killed his parents, then begged the court at his trial for mercy because he is an orphan!
I guess you could say that at least he tried, in his wildly unsuccessful way, by speaking up. Too bad no one was listening.
Okay, let’s take a brief look at TV.
The Worst Show there ever was and will be (IMHO) was My Mother the Car. This wretched excuse for a sit-com ran for one season (thankfully!) in the mid-60s. The premise is a lawyer purchases an old car. The car turns out to be the reincarnation of his deceased mother, Gladys, who speaks only to him through the car’s radio.
While I never watched this show, I did catch small snippets of it being played on several TV talk shows. I could actually feel my IQ going down by the minute for each snippet I watched.
Funny, Alan Burns, one of the co-producers of My Mother the Car, also co-created a number of great shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Lou Grant (the second two were both spin-offs from the first).
Some think this show is surpassed in the Worst Show category by The Jerry Springer Show. I think it’s a toss-up.
Reruns of the Jerry Springer show are, unfortunately, broadcast during the day. Imagine the dumbest most ill-behaved totally without any redeeming social quality cretins showing up to be interviewed by Springer (a former politician!).
The depravity displayed on this show should make the host blush. Instead, he encourages the fights (as does his studio audience – with chants of “Jerry Jerry” whenever the inevitable fight breaks out on stage between quarreling parties).
A typical subject might be: “My boyfriend impregnated my mother, grandmother, daughter, and my social studies teacher and I’m upset.”
I don’t know if these people are real (I have the same question about the letters to the editor in both Playboy and Penthouse Forums). If they are, this is a strong case for forced sterilization.
Springer appears to interview these misfits with what looks like compassion. In fact, he asks the most insulting questions, which are designed to cause fisticuffs to break out.
I am convinced that if a case is to be made for the decline of western civilization, this show should be used as evidence.
Now there is quality TV to be found. Even in the dumbest category, sitcoms. Here are some of my favorites:
Here are just two examples of this show’s brilliance:
- Why can't Mormons send flowers? (a reboot of Abbot and Costello's Whose on First), and
- Dr. Freud at work.
Now my all-time favorite sit-com is Seinfeld. Again, brilliant writing.
In one of the nine seasons in which the show ran there was an episode about how Jerry Seinfeld sold the concept of TV show to NBC. The character George Costanza (a very thinly veiled characterization of co-creator Larry David) pitches a “show about nothing” to the head of NBC.
Over the nine seasons the show ran, the typical episode was written about the little bothersome things that occur to all of us every day.
The brilliance of the writing was how David, Seinfeld, and the other writers could make one laugh about intimate inter-personal topics including sex, race, money, politics and religion. All the key “no-no” topics of conversation one is taught to avoid at all costs at cocktail parties.
Here are a couple of segments of the show. Note each is about eight minutes long, but worth watching.
If I had to pick one current show that is both funny and topical, I’d choose Saturday Night Live. Again, brilliant writing over a long time.
One of my favorite characters is Gilda Radner’s Rosanna Rosanna Danna (from New Jersey!).
Lorne Michaels, inventor/producer of Saturday Night Live, has a reported net worth of $500 million.
Jerry Seinfeld’s net worth is reportedly about $800 million – almost all from royalties of his TV show.
You know, perhaps there is something to writing good TV and it’s not being dumb. And H.L. Mencken’s quote: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” does thumb its nose at Mr. Minow.
Editor's note: This June 11, 2015, article was republished on June 6, 2019.