November 2, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

Filling Space and Time

Television has proved that people will look at anything rather than each other.

Ann Landers

Before the days of movies, radio and television, a writer would write a play. Someone, often the writer himself, would decide to produce it. They would rent a theater, hire actors and all of the many people who are necessary to mount a play. There were, of course, theaters that were open all year long in the big cities. They relied on older plays; standards by playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare. Actors were members of stock companies, which had a set repertoire of plays. Roughly the same situation existed with regard to musical productions, except that there were many amateur musicians who played at family occasions and other celebrations. Depending on your age, those were referred to as "the good olde days." For sure they were old; but how good they were remains a question.

With the advent of movies, theaters opened up all over the country. Theater owners were obliged to show movies; first on weekends and then almost every day. They had to in order to pay for the theater and make a living.

Then came radio, which at first had to fill the evening hours, and eventually to broadcast 24 hours a day. By then there were recordings and the first of that strange breed called "disk jockeys."

By now you probably see where I am leading. We now have TV and radio time slots that have to be filled, not with repeatable recordings, but with something that has to appear different every time. It is inevitable that much of the content of TV has to be repetition. But it mustn't seem like it; it has to seem new. We have the same plots with a different cast of characters with different names. They are now called situation comedies, or sitcoms for short. There are writers who can toss off an episode in the time that it takes to type it, and actors with eidetic memories who can memorize their part in one reading and can call forth bitter tears, anger or joy on demand.

One of the first radio comedians, Jack Benny, did it by using the same plot over and over again with a slightly different twist each time. He and his characters were predictable. They were funny to many people because Benny and his coworkers had a knack of turning a phrase, and Benny had a sense of comedy timing that has never been surpassed. People liked the characters and laughed time and time again at the same jokes. Comedians like Jack Benny and George Burns didn't strive for originality. It was enough that they were getting fabulous salaries for doing the same shtick(Yiddish or German for piece) over and over again. If some people tired of them, there were always new audiences to whom the gags were brand new. There were, of course, a few innovative comedians, but even they had to rely on some stock situation because it is impossible, even for a comedic genius, to come up with a new situation every week. The same principle applies, dear readers, to writers of newspaper columns.

The news people rely on events that happen daily, and if nothing happens, they can always come up with a story about Mr. McGregor, who has a talking dog:

McGregor: Fido, tell these nice people how your life is going.

Dog: Ruff!

Well, things aren't much different now, except that there are ever so many more time slots to fill. As for the viewer, he doesn't have to ever worry about missing a bit of news. It will be around for days or weeks and if you miss it on Channel 7, it will reappear on Channel 4 and in the newspapers. It will also repeat on the news programs that are repeated every 3 or 4 hours.

As for the movies, every now and then some writer will come up with a truly original story. One of those hack producers may accidentally recognize its value and produce it. Then everyone will jump on the band wagon and it will be worked, reworked and eventually overworked. Nowadays a new idea can become a cliché in a year.

Movie reviewers have been carefully selected because they will almost always have something good to say about at least 90% of the crap that is produced.

There is also an immense audience that really doesn't care what is shown. They go to the movies to go to the movies and watch TV to watch TV.

As a consequence of this, money flows, people earn a living in much the same way as the factory worker does, by producing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over..............................

Next column

Return to the Unclassified Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page