So what are we going to make of television anyway? I think the most interesting idea you hear about television right now is this idea that right now-- all of us-- we are living through the golden age of television, that this is the kind of golden age that people are going to look back on years from now, the way we look back on the '20s and '30s as the heyday of jazz, or the '70s as the heyday for a certain kind of movie.
What's exciting is that the conventions of TV seemed to be changing all the time and expanding.
That's J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost, and Alias, and Felicity. And he says the same thing that lots of people in TV say, that because network television audiences go down every year-- because of the Internet, because of video games, because of competition from cable-- what we have is a situation where the big networks are scrambling to keep audiences. And then there are dozens of cable channels that are competing for those audiences, which has led to this period of incredible experimentation.
Networks realize in the increasing, desperate need to grab an audience, that they need to do things that stand out, that are unique, that are different, stories and series that will generate discussion.
And so there is this climate where people are just trying different stuff. And as a result, in any given week there are probably at least two great shows on the air. And then another bunch of shows that are just kind of interesting. So you've got The Daily Show, and The Office, and Friday Night Lights, and South Park, and Intervention, and Project Runway and 30 Rock-- just a lot of interesting stuff out there.
Though of course, not everybody feels that TV is so great. When the television version of our radio show first premiered in 2007, we took our show on a six-city tour-- to Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. And when I would mention to the crowd that we, ourselves, had just finished shooting a television show, it sometimes got a little chilly. In Minneapolis, a guy actually yelled, "Judas."
There are a lot of people who think that television is terrible, that it's bad for kids, it's bad for American politics, it's the cause of all kinds of problems in this country. And so, with this disagreement all around us, we decided to tackle the subject head on. Television is at the center of our culture. It's hard to avoid. What does it do to us anyway?
Well, from WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show today-- on this weekend when we begin the second season of our television show-- What We Learned from Television. Our show was recorded in front of live audiences on the six-city tour in 2007. Our show in four acts-- Act One, 29. David Rackoff-- like a wild child raised in the woods, a foreigner to our people-- tries TV for the first time since he was a child. Act Two, Turkeys in Pilgrim Clothing, Sarah Vowell examines what happens when TV takes on a project it really has no business taking on at all. Act Three, Radio on the TV. In that act, a few words about what I've personally learned about television during the first year in which I worked on a television show myself. Act Four, My Other Dog's a German Shepherd. In that act, Dan Savage-- a syndicated sex-columnist and podcaster who is not put off by dirty content-- finds something so filthy, so weird, and perverted on television that he doesn't want his son to watch it. And it's a kid's show made for children. On our six-city tour, we were lucky enough to travel with a band that we love, the Mates of State-- Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel. So you'll be hearing from them too. Stay with us.
Act One: 29
Act One, 29. We were curious how somebody who hasn't seen TV in a while would react to the cornucopia of stuff that is on today. And so we turned to David Rakoff. David Rakoff pretty much stopped watching television when he got out of college 20 years ago. We asked him to watch 29 hours-- any channels, any shows-- and tell us his impressions. We chose 29 hours because that is the amount the average American watches in one week. [AUDIENCE GASP]
Do you guys not live in the United States of America? [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] You literally gasped. David has this report.
Television and I broke up a long time ago. Before this assignment, it would have taken me at least four months to watch 29 hours of TV. I know how that sounds-- smarmy, superior, like one of those people who looks down on others for watching television and says things like, "Well, I enjoy Nova."
It's not that I'm above the medium. It's that I can't be trusted around television. Watching television was forbidden when I was a child, a tactic which anyone knows only results in raising an addict. When my parents weren't around, I secretly watched it all. I had no standards, no filter. I loved everything. These days my set lives in the closet. Yeah, the cheap metaphor of that isn't lost on me. Television is my secret shame. And that was fine with me until Alex Blumberg-- my producer from This American Life-- called and offered to set me up with cable for this story.
My friends were a little too excited about the news. When I tell Jodi that I'm getting cable, she is as thrilled as if I'd told her I'd just fallen in love. "Thank God," she says, "Now we'll have something to talk about."
Had I really been such terrible company? I know, of course I was. I am terrible company. I can be a joyless, little rain cloud of a thing. But was I terrible company because I didn't have cable? Does that explain everything that is wrong with me? All the therapy, the brief experimentation with serotonin reuptake inhibitors, all that money thrown away, when all the while help lay on the other end of an 800 number at Time Warner Cable.
The installation guy arrives and sets me up. And I gingerly settle into my new life as a Nielsen family of one. Things don't begin well. I go looking for Project Runway and find instead that the channel has been taken over by a show called The Real Housewives of Orange County. It's an all-day marathon. And yet, nothing happens. It is like watching paint dry-- stupid, shallow, fake-breasted, Republican paint.
It seems that in the intervening years of TV-lessness I've gotten the monkey off of my back a little bit too well. I can't keep the housewives on for longer than eight minutes before I have to turn it off. And for the next few days, I do anything but watch television. That's right. I procrastinate from watching television. I bake bread-- three loaves. I clean my apartment. I make meals and take them to sick people. I even write. I am procrastinating from TV by doing my job.
Alex, my producer, calls about a week later to see how it's all going. He can hear the suspicious lack of television in the background. "Aren't you supposed to be working?" he asks.
I tell him, "I don't want to be that curmudgeonly guy inveighing against the kids with their rock and roll music, but I'm appalled by what I've seen so far. He listens patiently to my Rip Van Winkle just-up-from-his-nap jeremiad explaining how I've missed the reality TV moment, how my muscles of appreciation for the form aren't developed. He talks me down. And even as he is doing so, I know how ridiculous I am being. Who needs to be talked down from watching TV? I get over myself, and I wade back in and actually watch entire programs.
I even enjoy some of the things I see, enjoy them immensely. Kyra Sedgwick is amazing on The Closer, and Lisa Kudrow's almost unendurable humiliation in The Comeback-- to name just two. I would drink Jon Stewart's bath water. And Channel 93-- New York City public access-- is nothing but a mesmerizing, silent traffic camera at the corner of Canal Street and the West Side Highway. It is as pretty as waves. I would happily fill out the rest of my quota watching just this. Do I sound like Bambi sniffing a flower? Well, my TV forest is suddenly new and filled with wonder and discovery.
I stumble upon an Evangelical channel called, Pray. And hallelujah, they are showing All About Eve, a movie I love and know virtually by heart. It seems an odd choice for an Evangelical channel. The characters all swill gin, sleep around, and work in the theater. And I feel safe in saying that of all the prayers out there in the ether that the Pray channel most hopes to answer, those of an aging, Jewish, homosexual movie buff in New York City trolling around for something to watch on TV aren't really high on that list.
It also doesn't sit very well with Alex, who calls the next week. When I proudly tell him that I've upped my tally to eight hours, he seems unimpressed, pointing out that I am two weeks and 21 hours behind schedule. And in fact, he docks me two hours, saying that a movie I've seen over 30 times doesn't count. Homophobe.
The purpose of the exercise, it seems, is to watch television. Well, I can't do that. Clearly I need a guide through this underworld, someone who truly loves the medium. I call up Jodi and I invite her over. I will cook her supper in exchange for some patient instruction. Jodi has been one of my closest friends for 12 years. But suddenly, I am as awkward as a schoolboy.
OK, so should we eat supper at the table? Or should we eat supper in front of the television set? Is there good TV on now? Because it's only about 6:40.
I feel like we're about to have sex. It's not that complicated. We're just watching TV.
Things begin pleasantly enough. We bop around the dial happily for a while, eventually landing on an MTV program called My Super Sweet 16. I get into the spirit at first. But for a reality virgin like myself, I'm in over my head in short order-- the callow, young sailor on shore leave looking for some tenderness who suddenly finds himself handcuffed to the bed. This particular episode of My Super Sweet 16 stars a bumptious blond from Tennessee. They might as well call the show, My Last Birthday Before Rehab.
She seems an improbable 16, certainly not 16 earth-years because she looks, frankly, 35. A hard 35. A two ex-husbands, pack a day of Merits, trying her hand at real estate, sun-damaged kind of opening-your-robe-for-the-grocery-delivery-boys 35. Do you get the picture? When we meet her, she is behind the wheel of a stretch Humvee, which costs upwards of $100,000. She'd like it for her very own, and indicates this desire to her thuggish, hairy-knuckled father, just the first in what will surely be a series of men during her lifetime she will refer to as "Daddy."
I looked over at Jodi , and she's having a great time, whereas I want to tear my eyes from my head and soak them in lye.
"Why do you always add this weird layer to things?" she asks me. "Doesn't it just remind you of when you were 16?" I am going to the bad place, as is my wont. Jodi reaches for the remote and dials it down a bit. We end up watching the TV equivalent of the vanilla, missionary position-- America's Funniest Home Videos.
Why do they both have sunglasses? Oh. Disaster.
What was she thinking?
I am completely embarrassed to admit how incapacitated I am by the home movies of beloved grandmothers falling out of chairs or toddler after toddler bringing entire Christmas trees down upon themselves. Oh and look at the kitty cat open a cereal box. I am on my sofa laughing like an idiot.
See? Oh, look at the excitement you have on your face. You love America's Funniest Home Videos. You should have been introduced to this a week ago.
This is the worst night of my life.
Why? You're laughing and you're enjoying yourself.
Don't you feel--
Look, there are tears coming out of your eyes. Embrace it. Don't be afraid. You're trying to act like you weren't just having fun. There are tears on your face. I've never seen you laugh so hard.
Don't you feel like taking a shower after all of this?
See? It goes back to me feeling like we're going to have sex. No. This is fine. What's wrong with enjoying that?
She's right. Why can't I just let myself enjoy it? Part of it is that denying pleasure is my middle name. But Jodi feels that I'm trying to be above it all, that I'm judging her. After all, she spends time at home in front of the television, sometimes with a glass of wine even, just as we're doing. But there is a seminal difference between Jodi and myself. When she watches TV at home, alone with a drink, she has a husband in the next room. When I watch television, I am by myself. Watching TV, for me, is a referendum on my loneliness. Having the television on just seems like some desperate simulacrum of company, stuffing the other side of the bed with clothes. It is a chilly reality, brought home to me-- with all the force of a frying pan to the face-- by a small item in the New York Times on Sunday the 18th of February.
The article was about how a man, a 70-year-old widower named Vincenzo Ricardo was found in his home, dead. Officials believed that Mr. Ricardo-- discovered sitting in his chair-- had been dead for more than a year. He was very well preserved, mummified, by the hot dry air in his home. Air, no doubt made even hotter and drier by the fact that for the entire year plus that Mr. Vincenzo sat stiff and expired in his recliner, his television was on.
There was apparently a study recently that showed that people who watch episodic television-- following a set of characters on an ongoing basis-- experienced many of the same positive effects that people derive from having friends, actual friends. TV is a friend, one might conclude. Well, call me old-fashioned, but the minimum of true friendship strikes me as being-- at the very least-- the capacity for one friend to look over at another and be able to say, hey buddy, how are you doing? Do you want me to call 911 or something? Because you're looking a little-- oh, I don't know-- dead.
I suppose I would just rather be authentically alone than wait around in vain for Jennifer Garner to come over and give me the Heimlich maneuver. My producer, Alex, thought that was too negative a note on which to end this story, that there needed to be some moment of uplift, some edifying public radio insight. Alex suggested that what I've learned from this experience is that it is not TV that I hate so much as the fellow watching it, that I won't truly love television until I love myself. Perhaps he is right. I canceled the cable.
David Rakoff. His latest book, Don't Get Too Comfortable.
[MUSIC- "LIKE U CRAZY" BY MATES OF STATE]
Mates of State.
Act Two: Turkeys In Pilgrim Clothing
Act Two, Turkey's in Pilgrim Clothing. I think, actually, some really interesting moments of television come when a show attempts something that it never normally does, and especially, I think, when a comedy show decides it's going to get serious. Do you know what I mean? Like think about when Letterman talked to his own audience about September 11, or when he talked about his own heart attack, or, going back a ways, MASH killing off one of its own characters. When shows like that do that, it's moving and it's powerful. And it reminds you of what is great about those shows.
But when a comedy show decides to get serious, it can also lead to Gary Coleman sitting on Nancy Reagan's knee and saying no to drugs. It's embarrassing. And it reminds you what is incredibly dumb about the shows. So what happens when comedies decide to take on the rather serious history of the United States of America? How do they do? Well, for insight into that, we turn to an expert, Sarah Vowell, who's in the middle of researching and writing a history of the pilgrims and puritans in America and who has reviewed the key TV episodes that handle this same material. Please welcome Sarah Vowell.
I was in third grade when I saw the Happy Days Thanksgiving episode, and I loved it. The whole cast was in pilgrim costumes. So that was great. And Joanie Cunningham complains that, "Being a pilgrim sure is a drageth." And the Fonz says things like, "Greetethamundo." Not to brag, but by third grade I was a veteran of four Thanksgiving pageants and considered myself to be something of a Mayflower expert.
Or so I thought, up until the moment Joanie leaves the room and her goody-goody brother, Richie, asks, "Father, are you letting her go out like that? Have you seen her skirt? It's up to her ankles." I remember sitting there and watching that and realizing for the first of many times, oh, maybe the people who founded this country were kind of crazy.
There are actually a surprising number of sitcoms that have done episodes set in 17th century New England, even though 17th century New England is all situation and no comedy.
Here's how Mayflower passenger William Bradford described the pilgrims' first few months after arriving in Plymouth in 1620.
"Being ye depth of winter and wanting houses and other comforts, being infected with ye scurvie and other diseases which this long voyage had brought upon them, there died sometimes two or three a day."
Half of them died in the first year. Half. Starvation, lack of shelter, and-- this is appalling when you really think about it-- these were people with the farming skills of Mr. Magoo. And if that weren't enough, they were religious zealots. So they believed they deserved every misfortune visited upon them, because their beloved God apparently decided their lives should suck just a little bit more.
Yet the Puritan episode is a sitcom staple, maybe because TV networks have to broadcast something on Thanksgiving. But even when a sitcom is trying to be about something bigger-- like history, or teen pregnancy, or underage drinking-- sitcoms are like people, they're self-absorbed. What they're most interested in is themselves. And when they do history, they always put their own characters at the center of the story.
Mr. Ed, the talking horse, tells the tale of the pilgrim horse who saved the first Thanksgiving. And if you were under the impression that the Salem witch trials ended because rich and powerful people started getting accused of witchcraft, think again. It was Samantha on Bewitched. Or take that Happy Days Thanksgiving episode in which it's revealed that the person who gave us Thanksgiving was not Squanto or William Bradford but the Fonz. That's right, the Fonz.
Here's how it went down. All the pilgrims were afraid of the Indians except pilgrim Fonzie, who was their friend. Then Joanie gets her foot caught in one of Potsie's stupid beaver traps. That Potsie. But you know that thing Fonzie does with the jukebox? Where he whacks it with his fist and the music plays? Turns out that works on beaver traps too. They open right up. But he won't free Joanie until everyone renounces their racism, and acts nice to the Indians, and invites them to dinner. Fonzie, he's the Martin Luther King of candied yams.
Mostly sitcom Puritans are rendered in the tone I like to call the boy, people used to be so stupid school of history. Bewitched produced not one but two time travel witch trial episodes, one for each Darrin. They're both diatribes about tolerance straight out of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, only crappier and with magical nose crinkles.
Samantha brings a ballpoint pen with her to 17th century Salem, and the townspeople think it's an instrument of black magic. So they try her for witchcraft and want to hang her. I mean, can you believe those barbarian idiots with their cockamamie farce of a legal system, locking people up for fishy reasons and putting their criminals to death? Good thing Americans put an end to all that nonsense long ago.
The biggest thing sitcoms gloss over about Plymouth is the most important fact of life there, the suffering. But in 1999, there was one sitcom that tried something daring. It included all the normal sitcom characters-- the wacky neighbor, the hard to please mother-in-law, the bumbling dad-- but it also reveled in and dwelled on the grim brutality of life in colonial New England. It was set entirely in 1621 Plymouth. It was called, Thanks-- as in Thanksgiving, as in thanks a lot.
I know you never saw it, which is probably why it was canceled after six weeks. But I loved it. Thanks involved two of my favorite, but usually separate, things-- TV and American history-- coming together. Imagine if you were an avid stamp collector, and you found out that CBS was about to debut its new series, CSI: Philately. You'd be psyched.
Even the most idealistic and cheerful character on Thanks-- the dad, James Winthrop-- welcomes in the spring saying, "What a beautiful day it is. The snow is melting, everyone out and about airing out their clothes, lugging out their dead." James Winthrop is surely modeled on John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts and author of the famous hopeful sermon about how he and his fellow Englishmen are to be as a city upon a hill.
On Thanks that sort of idealism is literally a joke. Says Winthrop, "We're not the kind of people who are easily discouraged by a few snow flurries, a couple of head colds, the 50% mortality rate. No, we're pilgrims, strong-willed people who never give up. He's wrong. The only thing his fellow residents of New England want is to get the hell back to old England.
The genius of Thanks was that it was a kind of meta-sitcom, making jokes out of standard sitcom ingredients. The funniest ongoing gag involved Abigail-- your typical, sitcom, teenage, bombshell daughter. After a disagreement with her parents about boys, she lets loose the sort of routine, girl outburst that's been seen on prime time since the dawn of Gidget.
"I hate my life," she yells. But where a modern TV teenager would run upstairs and slam the door to her room, the 17th century teenager lives in a tiny, one-room cabin. So she can only run about a foot and a half before she throws herself face first onto a bed, right next to the table where everyone would eat if there was any food.
Thanks was so refreshing because of its frankness, especially compared to earlier sitcoms. In one scene, Mrs. Winthrop meets Squanto, the famous English-speaking Indian. She asks him, "What are you doing in our neck of the woods?"
Squanto answers, "Actually, we like to think of it as our neck of the woods." That's pretty much the whole story right there. It's so quick and clean and concise. Plymouth was actually built on the site of Squanto's hometown, Patuxet. All his friends and family, his whole village, died from the diseases that arrived with earlier European visitors. Squanto is hanging around because it's the only home he knows. That's why he's there to help the incompetent white people grow corn, using the seeds they'd stolen from some other Indians on Cape Cod.
'We like to think of it as our neck of the woods." There's so much meaning in that one little wise crack. It shows you history doesn't have to be trampled by the sitcom format.
Here's another example. There's a crackerjack Thanksgiving dinner scene in the pilgrim episode of The Simpsons. Ned Flanders-- playing the purest of all the Puritans-- is talking to Indian Chief Wiggum. Get it? And Flanders says, "Chief Wiggum, we could never have survived our first year in the New World without you. I almost regret what we Europeans are going to do to you."
Chief Wiggum, "What are you going to do?"
Flanders, "Oh, give you the biggest slice of pumpkin pie. Also, we're going to take your land and wipe you out. Who wants whipped topping?"
Flanders isn't embarrassed about the harsh story of America. If anything, he's cheerful. And there's something sort of profound about that combination. In fact, the greatest sitcom characters-- which is to say, the funniest and the most riveting to watch-- are cheerful at the same time that they're self-absorbed, and galling, and oblivious to the destruction left in their wake. Think Homer Simpson, Michael Scott on The Office, Ted Baxter from Mary Tyler Moore, Larry David, the entire cast of Seinfeld.
And you know what else is like that? The United States of America. I don't know why you would applaud that.
That's why it doesn't really matter if these pilgrim episodes are factually accurate, because sitcoms tell the true story of our nation every time the Michaels, and Homers, and Larrys open their mouths. We're well-meaning, lovable, unintentionally destructive, believing we're more important than we are, like we're some kind of city upon a hill. Thank you.
Sarah Vowell is the author of Assassination Vacation and other books with surprisingly funny histories of America in them. Her upcoming book about the Puritans is called, The Wordy Shipmates. Coming up, which is more powerful, television or family? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
[MUSIC- "GOODS (INSTRUMENTAL)" BY MATES OF STATE]
Act Three: Radio On The Tv
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, What I Learned From Television. And by that, I mean what we all learned from television. We've arrived at Act Three. Act Three, Radio on the TV.
OK, so we just finished shooting and editing this weekly television show. And the main thing I want to say to you is, the radio show is not going off the air. So the strangest experience I had during this period-- the strangest thing I actually learned from TV-- came while we were putting together our television show. But it didn't actually come from anything that we worked on.
One Thursday night, I was watching The O.C. with my wife, Anaheed. I don't know if you're watching The O.C., or were watching it before it got taken off. I loved that show. It's kind of a great, funny, interesting show. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, go to season one, rent the Chrismukkah episode, OK? And it was a teen soap opera on the FOX network. And the main couple was Seth and Summer, not Marissa and Ryan. They could have killed off Marissa back in season one, as far as I was concerned.
And so there's the scene-- this particular Thursday night-- where Seth is in his room talking to his girlfriend, Summer, on the phone. And a girl is in his room. It's Taylor, who is basically the same character as Paris on The Gilmore Girls, but that's a whole other thing. And so there's this girl in his room. And Summer hears this girl's voice in her boyfriend's room. And she asks him about it. And this moment happens.
-That sounded like a girl.
-Did it? Yeah. Well, sure. Because I'm listening to the radio. And This American Life is on. And so there's a girl talking.
[END AUDIO PLAYBACK]
OK, and then Summer makes this reply, which, I have to say, just totally--
-Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ekhh. God.
Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are? Ekhh. I have to say, I had this experience where I was just like-- it was like having fictional characters on the FOX network, like, they said my name. And I literally stood up and went like-- like did that just happen? And it just totally was like, was this on everybody's TiVo? Or is this just like--
And you know, radio is so different from television. And as we've been making our television show, people keep asking me which is better?
You know what I mean? People ask me this all the time now. So which is it going to be? Is it going to be radio or TV? Which is better? Like we're all going to have to choose sides between radio and TV because there's going to be a big war. You know.
And in fact, actually, there was a war. And radio kind of lost that war.
And the fact is, radio and TV-- they're just good for different things. Radio is so intimate and personal. And TV can be so weirdly grand in what it does. And just thinking about The O. C. and the other shows I love-- I have to say-- thinking about this moment, I realize that my feelings about my favorite shows on television, they are exactly the same as my feelings about the shows that I love on the radio. The things I love, I love completely. And it's totally personal, my feelings about these shows. It's personal in the deepest possible way.
And I'm a kind of dorky fan when it comes to stuff. My wife is here in the room. So maybe this is bad to be telling this story. Every week, The O.C. comes on, and my wife, Anaheed, and I, we sit on the couch. And when the theme comes on, "California," we sing along with it in full voice. Do you know what I mean?
Think about what that takes. I'm 47 years old. I'm a grown ass man, you know? We're a married couple. Sober. We are sober, singing the theme to a FOX show.
And I have got to say, every single week it makes me love my wife, and love TV, and love everything in the world all at once. And last week, when The O.C. went off TV, I cried. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.
[MUSIC - "CALIFORNIA" MATES OF STATE]
Mates of State. A married couple singing that song.
Act Four: My Other Dog's A German Shepherd
Act Four, My Other Dog's a German Shepherd. Well, Dan Savage has this story of what a person can and can not learn from television, a story drawing from his own experience. A quick warning to listeners. There's nothing explicit in Dan's story at all. But he does use a slang word to refer to gay people. A word that is actually perfectly OK for him to use, but not necessarily something you will want your six-year-old child to repeat. So take that under advisement. Here's Dan Savage.
My dad liked to watch cop shows. He was a cop, a homicide detective assigned to Chicago's seedy, gay neighborhood in the '70s. And like all cops, what he most enjoyed about watching cop shows was pointing out where they got it wrong. There was just one show on TV that got police work even slightly right-- according to my dad-- Barney Miller, which ran on ABC from 1975-- when I was eleven-- to 1982-- when I was 17. The officers on Barney Miller weren't beat cops. They were detectives, like my dad. Their jobs were tedious, like my dad's-- all paperwork and bad coffee, no car chases, no shootouts. And the detectives were middle aged and out of shape, like my dad. And like my dad, the detectives on Barney Miller policed a seedy, gay neighborhood, New York City's Greenwich Village.
There was a recurring gay character on Barney Miller, one of the first on television. Very swishy, total stereotype, carried a purse, owned a poodle. My dad liked cop movies too. And I remember watching one in particular with my dad-- The Choirboys, a 1977 movie-- in our living room some time after it came out on video. And how's this for a coincidence? The cops in Choirboys policed Los Angeles' seedy, gay neighborhood. And in one scene, a guy-- one of the cops-- is handcuffed to a tree in a cruisy park and left there with his pants around his ankles.
And who should come upon this helpless, bare-assed cop first? A swish carrying a purse, walking a poodle. He takes one look at the cop and says, "I can't believe it. A naked man chained to a tree. That's a crazy, mad, salacious dream." They speak briefly-- the swish and the naked cop.
The cop threatens him, "I'll kill you if you touch me, you fag son of a bitch." This is played for laughs. "I'll rip your damn kidneys. I'll punch your spleen."
The swish replies, "You'd do that for me?" The swish leaves with his poodle, which is dyed pink.
Watching that with my dad when I was a teenager made me want to die because I knew I would be some kind of fag when I grew up and so did he. I wasn't ready to talk about it with him. And he certainly wasn't going to go anywhere near the subject. So when gays popped up on TV-- something that, inconveniently enough, began to happen with greater and greater frequency just as I hit puberty-- things got awkward.
I'm sure we both sat there during The Choirboys in silence. Here was this subject we were avoiding at all costs. And all of the sudden, we were ambushed by the television set. I found out years later that he was fine with me being gay, and that the reason he didn't laugh or react to scenes with gay characters on TV was that he didn't want to make me feel bad. At the time, I interpreted his silence as a quietly simmering anger and disgust.
And sitting in front of the TV, I made a resolution. I was going to be some kind of fag when I grow up, but I wasn't going to be that kind of fag. I wouldn't carry a purse. And I would never come upon a half-naked cop, chained to a tree in a cruisy park, late at night, because I wasn't going to be walking any poodles around cruisy parks late at night, because I wasn't going to own a poodle. That's what I learned from television. Don't own a poodle.
I made up my mind to be a different sort of homo, not like the gay people you saw on TV, which were the only gay people I ever saw.
And straight people, I figured-- my dad, Jerry Falwell, Anita Bryant-- they were going to like me. That's when I stopped giving a damn about how gays were portrayed on TV. And for years, whenever a friend would complain about gays on television, I would grant them that, yes, most of the gay people on television were stereotypes. But was the portrayal of heterosexuals on television any better? Do real straight people act anything like those crazy ass breeders on Desperate Housewives? Do real straight people act like the fake straight people on Lost? Does anyone act like the people on Lost? Do real straight people act like Tom Cruise on Oprah?
Only an idiot-- I would tell my friends-- would look to television to form a picture of what straight people are really like. An idiot. Or a child. Perhaps a child with gay parents. As soon as our adopted son D.J.-- who's eight now-- was old enough to use the TV remote, I felt like I was regressing to my early teenage years, suddenly worried again about how sexuality is portrayed on television. But not my sexuality. His. Heterosexuality.
Now before we go any further, a word about why I say with such confidence that my son is straight. The first time he picked up a football he tossed a perfect spiral. He's into trucks not dolls. If it can't be used as a gun, it's not a toy he's interested in owning. I know D.J.'s straight the same way my parents knew I was gay. And I know D.J. is now learning about his sexuality watching television, just as I once learned about mine watching television. And the treatment of heterosexuality, on just one show in particular, offends me so terribly that I've tried to stop him from watching it. And I'm not talking about Nip/Tuck, or The Sopranos, or I Love New York. We wouldn't let him watch those shows if he wanted to. And he doesn't want to. Those shows, to him, are just grown-ups shouting at each other. And he doesn't have to watch TV for that.
No, this is a show for kids on the Disney channel, one of the most popular shows on TV. It's already two video games. And it's a show D.J. adores. The Suite Life of Zack and Cody is about twin brothers who live in a hotel in Boston, the Tipton, where their divorced mom works as a cabaret singer. So it's Suite Life-- S-U-I-T-E, not S-W-E-E-T.
The boys are always getting into crazy scrapes and hatching hair-brained schemes. They're preteens-- 10 or 11. Now in some ways, this show defies stereotypes. There's a character named London-- spoiled rich girl played by an Asian actress-- but get this, she's Asian but she's dumb. And then there's Maddie, a teenaged girl who works at the hotel candy shop, played by a blond actress, but she's smart. And then there's Mr. Moseby, the hotel manager, played by a black actor. But he's fussy. Some might go so far as to say clean and articulate.
But what offends me-- what worries me-- is how horny one of the twins always seems to be. Zack is sexually precocious in a deeply creepy way. Can a pre-pubescent boy be sexually precocious in a way that isn't deeply creepy?
Zack is also the more charismatic twin. Zack is Lucy to Cody's Ethel-- more athletic, more of a risk-taker. And Zack wants, aches for, pines for, goes for Maddie, the smart blond that works in the candy counter in the lobby. Maddie is 16 or 17, which is to say, Zack is in elementary school, Maddie is in high school.
I don't let D.J. watch TV alone much. So I'll plop down on the couch with a book and sit with him, which is how I caught episodes of Suite Life where Zack worries about Maddie hooking up with other guys, and episodes where Zack instructs other little boys on the art of talking to babes. His advice, you lie to babes. In one particular episode, "A Prom Story," Zack walks up to Maddie and-- well let's just read the dialogue.
Zack-- looking Maddie up and down-- "Hey, sweet thing. What's the special today? I hope it's tall, blond and curvy."
I'm not sure how a teenager would react to being hit on by a 10-year-old boy in real life because it never happens. But somehow, fictional Zack escapes the humiliation or the punch in the chest that a real life Zack would be subjected to. Instead, Zack emerges from this encounter with the impression that Maddie has just asked him to go with her to her prom. Zack runs up to Cody.
Zack, excited-- "Did you hear that? Maddie wants to dance with me at her prom. I'd better practice my kissing." Cody, nauseated-- "Don't look at me."
That is a threefer right there. You've got your horny, pre-pubescent boy, and an incest joke, and a cliche homophobic reaction to the idea of two boys kissing, brothers or not. Good stuff. Thanks, Disney.
And here's why this show worries me so much. D.J. watches Suite Life of Zack and Cody with a look of concentration on his face, a look he doesn't get watching any other shows, a look we certainly don't get when we're talking to him. He looks like he's filing things away for future reference. For a boy without older brothers, a boy without straight male uncles or cousins living nearby, we worry that the way Zack treats women could be a problem every bit as damaging to a young straight boy as those images of gay men with poodles were to me.
I cling to one hope. Despite my exposure to all those swishy gay men walking poodles on TV during my formative years, I grew up to be a different kind of gay. And despite the girl-crazy little boys D.J. Sees on the Disney channel, he may grow up to be a different kind of straight. Maybe we'll both defy the stereotypes. The only problem with that is fate. You can defy a stereotype. You can work against it. But sometimes stereotypes are patient. They'll wait you out, wear you down, lull you into a false sense of security. And then bam, you own a poodle.
D.J. asked for a poodle a few years ago. And I know how awful that sounds. The son of two gay men begins to adopt the homosexual lifestyle, poodles and all. Purses are next. And he didn't want any poodle, he wanted a toy poodle. A poodle he planned to name Pierre.
I tried to stop it-- selfishly, for my own sake-- but framing every argument in concern for D.J. We can't do this to him, I told my boyfriend. He's already got gay parents and I'm one of them. Isn't that a big enough pink cross to bear? Did we really intend to nail a poodle to it too?
But D.J. was adamant. He had a friend, a little boy with opposite sex parents-- that's what we call those mixed gender couples. And his friend with the opposite sex parents had a toy poodle. These people recruited my son. These opposite sex poodle parent people. That's what poodle people do. They lure people into their poodle lifestyle.
We did manage to talk D.J. into a less gay name for his toy poodle. Stinker has just one eye, is completely deaf, doesn't come when you call him, and runs into walls and chairs and trees. And D.J. loves him.
I know all about Stinker's habit of running into trees because I'm the one that gets stuck walking the dog. We live on Capitol Hill in Seattle, which is Seattle's gay neighborhood. And there's a big park near our house, Seattle's crusiest, Volunteer Park. You can find the volunteers under every bush. And you can often find me there, late at night, walking the poodle.
I want to scream whenever someone passes me, "It's not my poodle. It's my straight son's poodle. I swear." Somehow, my straight son managed to get me out on the streets with a poodle. So I have to believe that we-- as a family-- exert a more powerful influence than television ultimately, and that we can help D.J. gracefully adjust to girl-crazy, when his time comes, the same way he helped me adjust to Stinker.
And if I can walk a poodle and not feel like a total fag, D.J. can go girl crazy one day and not be a total Zack. Or that's what I tell myself anyway when I'm walking D.J.'s poodle in the cruisy park late at night. I'm sure it's only a matter of time now before Stinker runs head first into a tree that has a bare-assed cop handcuffed to it. Thank you.
Dan Savage. He's the author of several books including The Commitment, including The Kid, What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant. He also writes the syndicated sex advice column, "Savage Love."
Our show is produced today by Jane Feltes and our senior producer, Julie Snyder, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Jeff [? Tober ?] runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Tommy Andres. Other help from Jorge Just.
Our show today, recorded in part in a live performance at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, and in part in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Seattle. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Torey Malatia, who describes our staff this way.
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I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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