Lessons From TV

Mass media impacts lives, and each generation adopts current technology for the sharing of information, communication and entertainment.  Five years ago, during my last round of college, I realized how differently my younger colleagues in class were experiencing media than I had.  I use the Internet, but I’m a different animal.  I was part of the first television generation.  During my formative years, it was only available in black and white, and there were no remote controls.

Sometimes I read opinions written by columnists and bloggers who state unequivocally that television can have no positive influence, especially on children who watch.  I don’t care what the studies say.  I am living proof that TV could influence in meaningful, positive ways.  You may prefer to believe I was just lucky, but I learned many important things from watching TV.  Here are three:

The Joke’s On You.  Learn to Enjoy It.

When I was a boy in Iowa, Duane Ellett and his dog puppet, Floppy, hosted one local show.  Duane and Floppy showed cartoons and performed before a live audience of children.  Throughout the show, the kids were invited to come up and tell jokes to them.  Predictably pleasant, right?  Something unexpected and wonderful happened.  The kids would tell the SAME EXACT JOKES over and over.  Floppy would laugh and toss his ears around every time, while Duane (the straight man) would look more and more miserable.  Floppy would stop and look back at Duane like “Why aren’t you laughing, man?  This is great!”  Duane would be rolling his eyes and growing visibly older by the second.  This is the yin-yang of comedy, and in many ways, of life itself.  Sometimes you are Floppy.  Sometimes you are Duane.  And life will keep playing the same jokes on you.  Because I had watched The Floppy Show, I understood Waiting for Godot when I read it many years later.

Big and Small are Defined by Context.

Half my life has been lived in big cities and half in small towns.  Small towns are more entertaining.  That’s because every small town pretends that it’s a big, important place.  There’s a recent movie called Cedar Rapids, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a man from a very small town trying to adjust to opportunities in the “big city” of the title.  The in-joke is that Cedar Rapids isn’t big.  It’s just bigger than where he was from.  I lived in Cedar Rapids for years and found it hilarious that Cedar Rapidians took their town so seriously.  I knew they weren’t all that.  After all, I was from (ahem) Des Moines!

By the time I moved to Cedar Rapids at age 14, I had been fully prepared for small town pretense by watching TV.  I was a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction and Green Acres – shows that exploited the inflated pride people have about their small towns for comedic effect, but that also portrayed the virtues of living more simply.  Now, in the autumn of my years, I love Last of the Summer Wine, the world’s longest-running situation comedy.  It was a British show about pensioners with attitude, and it echoed the themes of those American shows that came before.

Everyone is Still a Child.

I was a very angry teenager.  The Vietnam War was going on, college students were being gassed and beaten at peaceful demonstrations, my parents were heading for divorce and life was grim in general.  My inner child was dying from neglect.  An honest embrace emerged from TV in the afternoons, in the form of a show for very young children that I needed as much as they did.  Fred Rogers understood that children of all ages need reassurance in uneasy times.  He showed us an improved world in miniature, one we could live in if we treated each other better.  It was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

The show was on Public Television.  Back then, just like now, there were those in government who wanted to cut funding for non-commercial TV, because they thought it was “too liberal”.  Mister Rogers didn’t believe in war.  He suggested more money should be spent on the education of children, including through television, instead of spending it on weapons.  I know this is a long clip, but it’s an example of how powerful authentic gentleness can be.  In this excerpt, you can see Mister Rogers melt the hard heart of a real U.S. Senator, just by talking to the child inside him.  I can’t watch this without crying.

Mister Rogers died in 2003, a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq.  His show began during one war based on lies.  His life ended as another war based on lies began.  I remember telling Mary at the time that I felt as if the world wasn’t good enough to have someone as kind as Fred Rogers living in it.  I’m sorry he’s gone, but I’m glad his TV show helped me to change.  I’m not an angry adult.


Filed under Communications, Television

27 responses to “Lessons From TV

  1. Mr. Rogers was a significant influence in my childhood, as he undoubtedly was in those of others. Even looking back on him today I can’t see him as “liberal.” He never acted out against anything as people from both sides do today; he just spoke what his heart felt was best for children and humanity as a whole.

    I think it’s kind of funny you were writing about Cedar Rapids at the same time I was writing about Grand Rapids. I’ve finally updated my own blog. It’s somewhat important, too, and I would greatly appreciate receiving advice from an experienced human being such as yourself.

    • I like to believe that all things intersect and interconnect, and you and I share that smaller to bigger town transition experience, Tim. (I’ll pop right over for a read.)

  2. You have chosen some moving and powerful examples. I grew up watching TV but I never really thought about what I learned from it. The lessons are more subtle than my son’s learning sign language from Sesame Street, but perhaps more profound. I will give this further thought. In the meantime, I will enjoy the clips you included in your post. Merci.

    • It’s a different world than it was when we grew up watching TV, so I understand why many people want to get information and entertainment through their cell phones, computers and Netflix. I guess I just felt like talking about why I loved TV. Since I can now completely control content by programming recordings, and view them at my convenience, I probably always will.

  3. I don’t think we had TV until I was about 12, maybe 13. I do not remember. Where we lived theer was no TV reception at all. Heavens, we didn’t even have electricity for many years (we did have a generator).

    I remember the first TV we had: it had little doors that my father would close at dinner time.

    After my parents died and I was sharing a house with other young people, I do not remember any of us having a TV. Then I came to Australia and I must have acquired a TV at some point, but to be honest I don’t remember when.

    Even now, my TV can go for days without ever being switched on.

    • Yes, I expect the ubiquitous experience of being surrounded by TV programming from 1950-on was a phenomenon primarily limited to North America and Western Europe. (I’m just beginning to study early British programming.)

      However, there’s nothing wrong with not having TV, just like there’s nothing wrong with having it. It’s all in how the tool is used.

      • I wasn’t implying there is anything wrong with learning from TV – in fact I agree with you. I was just sharing a totally different “growing up” experience, given we are of the same smooth vintage!

        • Yes, I knew you weren’t. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in the era of ancient Greece or Rome, when soothsayers and oracles were ordinary and all entertainment was live?

  4. I just watched the two Mr. Rogers clips. In the spirit of a recent post on my blog, my reaction was , “That man might be Jesus!”

    • Surely Jesus would have had no objection to spreading his message via whatever technology was available, and during his life that was the power of spoken word in Temple, in homes, on the road and from the sides of hills.

      I wish they were both here. I have enough for two sandwiches.

  5. I did not really watch Mr. Rogers much. After viewing the clips, I feel like I really missed out. Guess I was too busy watching Gilligan’s Island. Remember that? I guess there is some learning in that too if you really look. Group dynamics on a desert island.

    I surely think he had the right idea even way back then. Let’s use all these technological advancements to spread good and to better us as a society. Seems so simple.

    We had our own version of Duane and Floppy called Captain Kangaroo. It was a big deal to be on the local show in his audience! I made my debut at 6 years old!

    • Captain Kangaroo? Wow! I already like your showbiz career more than mine. The version of that show that aired when I was small had an enchanting Dancing Bear and a rural Will Rogers-type named Mr. Greenjeans.

      As to the castaways on Gilligan’s Isle, they obviously understood how to survive better than contestants on “Survivor”. The idea is not to compete, but to help each other! I would have liked to be able to make a radio out of coconuts, like the Professor did. And like most men of my generation, I lusted after Ginger, but I married Mary Ann. The music on that show was written by a young guy named “Johnny” Williams, who went on to write the music for Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s movies, and Harry Potter too.

  6. Oh and I forgot. There is a real Mayberry, North Carolina about 45 minutes from me!

    • I didn’t know that, however it’s interesting to contemplate whether that’s the real Mayberry, or whether the “Mayberry of the Mind” is the real one. (Like with everything else, there’s a “woo-woo” side to TV.) I do like the way you think, Debbie.

  7. Great post. It’s easy to generally dismiss television, but there are many positive cultural benefits that are often overlooked.
    I still miss Mister Rogers.

  8. Dan

    Nice! This got me thinking about something we were studying in class and I ended up blogging about it. It’s a bit more interesting that that political mumbo-jumbo. haha.

  9. Very good points I see, Im only 26 and I remember television shows being very informative and helpful. I even remember Mr. Rogers. Growing in both big city and small city I have come to appreciate a variety of shows that are big city based and country shows, I guess I can relate to both. What are your thoughts on tv shows today?

    • Hi, Arti, and thanks for visiting.
      My current favorites are Doctor Who on BBC America, and House (Fox). I also loved The Office, but I fear it won’t last after Michael Scott. Game of Thrones has held my interest so far. Camelot didn’t. Those are all the series I have watched lately. Mostly I program films to be recorded, and 3/4 of those are on Turner Classic Movies. I channel-surf the other movie channels and record a few of those I miss in theaters. I liked Up and Toy Story 3. My wife is a Writer’s Guild member, so we receive screener DVDs of films that are nominated for awards.

      Overall I would say that TV shows today are not made for old guys like me with a lot of education and life experience, so I don’t watch much. However, when I was younger and less experienced it was a valuable influence and I learned many useful things. Maybe it’s always been that way. Thanks for commenting.

  10. You’re right, it’s all in how the tool is used. My youngest son has a keen interest in physics and chemistry. He got it from watching Pokemon. Seriously.

    Game of Thrones has me as well.

    • I like Game of Thrones because it’s well-acted and directed, extremely attractive photographically, and I like the music. The scripts are kind of trashy, and the sex and violence are filmed in different ways than everything else, which bothers me a bit, but overall it’s a guilty pleasure.

      It’s so odd that Camelot, with such a wealth of great mythology to draw from, could shoot for all the same things that Thrones does, and miss. But it doesn’t look as good, the acting’s atrocious, the music is “meh” and the castle sets look stagy and unreal.

  11. The sex I could do without, but it is HBO afterall, and they are expressing and exploiting the current broadcast freedoms, much like they did with the Tudors and others. The script is a bit trashy, yes, but the story sticks close to the books, which I like. And I think it is well cast. I’m a sucker for medieval fantasy, so I’m hooked.

  12. My life wouldn’t be the same without television. Do I watch too much at times? Yes. But that’s OK, I’ve also learned so much from it as well.
    It also reminds me of a young child, a couple years ago, who saved his friend from drowning because of something he saw on SpongeBob. I always knew that show was more than just silly entertainment!

    • I’m glad you understood my view. When TV was new, nobody did much self-examination about whether it was good or bad for you. It was generally assumed that free entertainment (with commercials) was a good deal all round. Now it is possible to tailor your viewing to whatever programming you prefer, and on your schedule, thanks to DVRs (like TiVo). I think it’s easier to make TV a useful tool than it used to be.
      Thanks for dropping by to share your thoughts.

  13. Judy Ellett

    I enjoyed your comments on Duane (and Floppy). I grew up in the 40’s and 50’s, and wasn’t influenced by television much at all. In raising our children and grandchildren, I became acquainted with Duane’s show, and Mr. Rogers. I agree that they had a positive influence on our youngsters. I am a lifelong resident of Iowa and Duane was a relative of my husband. Thank you.

    • Duane’s show also introduced me to older B+W theatrical cartoons like the Fleischer Bros. versions of Popeye and Betty Boop. That later lead to historical-cultural studies, because I wanted to understand the Depression era references and music in those cartoons. You never know what stimulating young minds through entertainment will lead to! Having seen what passed for kids’ shows in other places, I particularly appreciated Duane’s drier sense of humor, and the clear contrast he was able to create between his stage persona and Floppy’s. Thanks for commenting, Judy. I’m flattered to get a response from someone in the family.

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