Shales on TV Live: The gate crashers and what people will do to get on TV

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV columnist
Tuesday, December 1, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, Dec. 1, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: Let's take the fame out of reality-TV infamy

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.


Tom Shales: Hello again. Good noon. I may be doing a monologue today -- it looks like folks are exhausted from - what? - Cyber Monday maybe? Meanwhile -- Dubai is Dubroke! That really scares me. These days, though, everything does. Maybe everyone is tired of the gatecrasher story but the Today show gave it new life this morning by snaring the kooky couple for an interview, albeit a wan one. So anyway - I have my pretzels and Diet Coke -- let's CHAT !!!


Deep inside the Beltway: Mr. Shales -- Bravo for mentioning one of the greatest movies of all time -- The King of Comedy. Not so much bravo for referring to its protagonist, Rupert Pupkin, as a "feckless dolt." Rupert was a good soul, earnest about his ambition to become a stand-up comic (albeit starting at the top -- on the movie's version of The Tonight Show, which even in real life, isn't quite the gold ring it used to be), naive enough to believe that Jerry Lewis's instruction to "call me" was anything less than a sincere invitation to do just that, and on top of everything, a hopeless, if slightly delusional, romantic. Of course, one of the ironies of the movie is that Rupert turned out to be a decent stand-up -- not Richard Pryor, but not quite a mere dolt either. I can't say the same for the gate crashers or balloon dad or the don't-tase-me-bro guy. Solutions -- I don't see any. But maybe it's time to update the "vast wasteland" description -- how about "vast wasteland with a bunch of psychopaths who did stupid stuff."

Tom Shales: Thanks! I had/have little sympathy for Pupkin. I have known too many self-deluded souls like him. And perpetrating a felony does not seem quite the way to go about securing stardom, however desperate one is. The movie may have been ahead of its time. Anyway very glad to hear what you have to say........


Austin, Tex.: I agree with your column. It is time for TV networks to stop being lazy and make some interesting dramas and comedies instead of putting on this cheap drivel of reality TV. I know it is a profit-making venture for the networks but it is simply bastardizing the medium and encouraging people to draw unwanted and unneeded attention to themselves. If network execs cannot come up with new ideas, put back on some of the old TV series from the past. Or here is a novel idea, try reading and interacting POSITIVELY with your own family.

Tom Shales: Great suggestions -- perhaps futile, but well put. Thanks for your comments. And now a brief interlude of me singing holiday songs, including my own, "I'm Going Bankrupt for Christmas." uh-one, uh-two, uh-three.........


Alexandria, Va.: Tom,

With the passing of Monk, is the clean, well-acted, feel-good, one-hour detective show (think Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I.) now completely dead on TV? If not, what should I be watching that would give me a similar feel?

Tom Shales: A reprieve! another caller! I mean chatter! (Chatter-er?) I saw Part One of Monk's series finale but can't remember if part two has aired yet -- they had a good cliffhanger going there. Monk was a great character and so well-played. Like Columbo, of course. Is this genre "now completely dead on TV"? Well it's harder to do one of these things well than just to slap together another dumb-dumb "reality" show, so we are probably going to go through a long drought before we see another really crackerjack one-hour detective show. Or -- not! You really never know. I mean, One really never knows.


Tom Shales: And now while we unlock a question that yours truly foolishly locked -- another from my big fat bag of holiday songs -- "All I want for Christmas Is my Stomach Stapled."

More To Come. (not lame song titles, comments & questions)


Cumberland, Md.: They are purely a media creation like the Heenes. If these people went to jail for a long time maybe it would serve as an object lesson to others hungry for publicity. What can be done to stop the media from creating these kind of people?

Tom Shales: Ah! here's the question that got away, or seemed to. Forgive me but who are (were) the Heenees? Hine-ees? Oh, Heenes. Sorry, my media-memory is short. I hope you saw the notorious ALLEGED crashers on the Today show. Boy is that blondie ever determined. Hubby seemed on the dim side. Several times she seemed to be feeding him words to say. What a pair of losers, and to think we are all consumed with "news" about them. How to stop such people from shanghai'ing media? I don't know - except for media to try harder to ignore them. It's not easy to do. No one could say this wasn't a bona fide story -- merely the angle of potential loonies getting next to the President of the United States made it big news. Any ideas greatly welcomed


Comcast buys NBC: Good or bad? NBC can't sink much lower at this point.

Tom Shales: Good! And it looks like it's going ahead, what with the dispensing of (or was it by) Vivendi that was announced today. This apparently clears the way for the deal --

maybe. I think Comcast will be a much more conscientious owner than General Electric, which bottom-lined everybody to the point of exasperated shrieking, or so insiders have told me. Comcast is a lot closer to being in the entertainment business, The Show Business, than GE ever was. Good riddance to the toaster folks......


New York: What's Bravo saying about these two wackos? And if they're not telling their story and citing the investigation, why is Matt Lauer wasting his time and ours? Thanks.

Tom Shales: Good point, good question. Lauer and the couple made a big point of their not having received any money for their appearance -- but -- Bravo is owned by NBC, and Bravo is the cable network that sent a crew with the alleged crashers to the White House. Bravo airs the reality show that the couple apparently want to be a big part of. It is SUCH a discouraging story from so many angles. I don't know why this couple is being handled so delicately by law enforcement - but we can hope the case will be closed soon and the stage vacated - so that more media manipulators can come along, I suppose, with another hoax........


Annapolis, Md.: I totally agree with you in today's article. I also find people like Bradley Lockhart so deeply offensive to my senses. I suffered through Nancy Grace for the first time on my DVR to listen to him say he wants to be a children's advocate! Where does he get off? Where are the people who've dedicated their low-waged lives to this cause? I find it offensive when people use their notoriety for self-serving reasons.

Tom Shales: Thank you Annapolis. Not familiar with this case but I pass this along for those who are.


Baltimore, Md.: A Baby Boomer reminiscence: A colleague in his early 40s told me yesterday that he had spent part of Thanksgiving watching the TV movie A Dog Called Christmas. He said it was on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. I allowed as he was too young to remember that once that brand name stood for bringing high culture to the masses, such as live productions of Macbeth starring the likes of Maurice Evans. My colleague seemed a little shocked. I didn't have the heart to tell him about the Bell Telephone Hour, or Omnibus with Alastair Cooke or how Ed Sullivan would have an opera star on in between a comic and an Italian puppet. Man, that seems like it was in another universe now.

Tom Shales: How true, how true. I wrote a column 75 years ago bemoaning the decline of Hallmark Hall of Fame -- but I think its bounced back with the wholesome shows -- not the classics but they are trying to create modern classics of their own.

I reminisce so often about the great shows of the Golden Era that I am reluctant to start in again now -- I'll get a brickbat from SOMEBODY !


I know this is old news, but: Remember when Bravo was the channel that stood out with high quality arts and entertainment? How far they've sunk.

Tom Shales: Yeah, you see cable TV is like radio, even AM radio. If a format doesn't work, they may junk it over a weekend and "re-invent" themselves. And loyal viewers? They couldn't care less about them. AMC really used to be a Movie Classics Channel. It was quaint, maybe, and a little fusty, but it showed movies uncut and had interesting features about the movies they showed. That's why I have a hard time getting thrilled over Mad Men or The Prisoner. They could be on ANY channel - why on a channel called "american Movie classics"? Oh right, they're trying to make modern classics of their own, too. And failing. Remember when TLC stood for The Learning Channel? Now TLC stands for TLC. Cable is a festering mess of false promises and lowered expectations.


Southern Maryland: Tom, your "Nether News from Nether Land" idea is excellent. If "Glass Teat" writer Harlan Ellison is right, the idea may even provide a public service. Ellison suggested that Oswald and Sirhan and Bremer may have never harmed anyone if they had received five minutes of air time -- apparently they would have lived off of that exposure for many years.

Tom Shales: Hmmm. First forgive me for think Harlan Ellison had left us. I obviously had him confused with Ray Bradbury or somebody. That's a provocative idea -- let the dangerous ones have their media moments as a way of preventing tragedy in the Real World. Probably too sci-fi (or Syfy?) an idea..... but intriguing..... Thanks.


Lancaster, Pa.: A Dog Named Christmas was adorable. Predictable but adorable.

Tom Shales: I think the question on these things is how shamelessly do they assault the heart strings, and how skillfully, for that matter? Ever see the old MGM picture "On Borrowed Time," based on the play? I suppose it could be dismissed as a "tearjerker" but wow, how expertly it goes about its business. So imaginative and heartfelt - with Lionel Barrymoore as an old gramps and Cedric Hardwicke as Death, trapped up a tree. There are good and bad examples of nearly everything.


Annapolis, Md.: Tom, great column ... but then you're only making sense! From my very old days as a very low-level newspaper reporter I was stunned at how quickly a low-key nothing event took on a life of its own when the TV cameras showed up. And it convinced me that there is simply no such thing as "reality TV" ... because as soon as the cameras are rolling (or digitizing or shooting or whatever they do these days) all reality goes out the window. Do people who watch this stuff not understand that a camera in your face affects your behavior? And that "Reality TV" stars know that action, intrigue, sex and confrontation are what is expected?

Sigh. Give me Seinfeld reruns. And Letterman. Let's take the fame out of reality-TV infamy (Post, Dec. 1)

Tom Shales: Thanks. It's a shame the forces of drivel were able to commandeer the word "reality" when the trend began. Talk about misnomers. Or malaprops. Or whatever. We now have a whole class of reality "performers" -- the people in the White House scandal are obviously members -- who, I think, go from reality show to reality show, having mastered the game and knowing all too well what the producers want.


Comcast buying NBC: My only concern with this is that nothing happens to Morning Joe on MSNBC and I'm curious with how 30 Rock spins it. Alec Baldwin's character is a GE suit, they'll have to come up with a clever way for him to go to work for Comcast. And before 2012, when Baldwin runs for NY State Senator or whatever.

Tom Shales: Right. I think the deal will be to the public's benefit, despite your very valid misgivings.


Lancaster, Pa.: Re: Blondie

Have you seen her Facebook page (I couldn't help myself)? Somehow she manages to get her picture taken with celebrities and politicians -- she even managed to get on Dancing with the Stars. And, she makes herself sound like Miss Philanthropy of D.C. And, according to their Web site, their winery is rated one of the 10 Best in the World -- doesn't say who designated as such! Oh, and they're looking for investors in case someone's interested.

Tom Shales: I know. And I saw a news piece about the salon where she has her "work done" -- she and hubby apparently owe them money, so they were happy to talk about how narcisstic these people are. It's pathological, a love of the spotlight that's so utterly obsessive. Al Jolson had it, David Letterman has it, most performers have it-- but they bring something to the show!


I'm Comcast: So if you're Comcast and you just bought NBC, what would you do and what types of shows would you embrace to turn things around? I'd much rather have you running NBC than those boobs that are now.

Tom Shales: Thanks but I don't think I could run a lemonade stand successfully. If I were Mr Comcast, though, i would first cancel Leno at Teno (even though it was my idea - but that's a long story). Bring back serious quality drama. Make Dick Wolf a happy camper again. Fire Jeff Zucker who as much as said that the network was giving up on 8 oclock and would only schedule cheap junk there. No more excuses.


Cable is a festering mess of false promises and lowered expectations. : Let's not forget to add Arts and Entertainment network to the list --- now known as 'A and E.' It's one reality show after another.

Tom Shales: Right. What could the A and the E be said to stand for now? Hard to answer that without being obscene. Seems there are a good many cable networks that came to the party in one outfit and then quickly sneaked into a bedroom and slipped into something "a little more comfortable" -- and a lot more trashy.


Good riddance to the toaster folks...... : ...but what of Jack Donaghy, Sheinhardt Wigs, and the Division of Microwave and Television Programming on "30 Rock"? Jack Donaghy is the perfect embodiment of GE's up-or-out conglomo-culture. He just won't fit into the Comcast culture of customer service indifference quite as well.

Tom Shales: But then we'd have to thank Hitler for the Lubitsch comedy "To Be or Not to Be" and that sort of thing.

Better not to have the impetus for the satire even if

it means losing the satire. Besides, television will

probably always be the most satirical-able (??) business

on earth. How about "the most easily satirized." Sorry

about that.


St. Louis, Mo.: Prediction: What great show from the 1960s, '70s or '80s will show up "remade" on broadcast television next? I'm so sick and tired of classic shows being redone and/or turned into bad movies that it hurts.

Tom Shales: I know, I know. It's sadder when they massacre a good show -- like "Get Smart," which was especially abominable (even Don Adams tried to remake the series -- for TV in the 90s -- but flopped at it) -- and not so sad when they remake a merely okay show, like "Car 54 Where Are You?" (if it's your favorite show EVER, please accept my apology. It was funny but not quite "Seinfeld"). Have they had their way with "My Favorite Martian"? Probably. "Mr Ed"? At least they could do the talking-horse illusion more believably with CGI technology. Didn't they tie wires to the poor houses mouth or something? NOT humane......


Arlington, Va.: The type of program that Monk is continues to thrive, not only on USA but on the networks. Mentalist and Lie to Me and Castle and Chuck are all part of the genre where the main protagonist is more important than any particular crime they solve. House MD too, I think.

Tom Shales: Yes of course -- but are all those of "Monk" caliber? CBS has those so-called procedurals, but aren't a couple of them at least partly character-driven? Oh, Mentalist, isn't that a CBS show? (I know, I should be answering such questions instead of asking them - well I'm sorry, I guess after reviewing about 40,000 shows I do start to get them mixed up and forget titles).


Woodbridge, Va.: I don't understand the outrage over reality programming. The fact is, as long as people watch it, it will be on TV. The fact that some wedding episode of the Kardashians got higher rating than this season's Mad Men finale just shows me there are a lot of lowbrow TV watchers out there.

Tom Shales: True, true, true. What IS the attraction with the Karashians? Just that they shout a lot and embarrass

themselves? There was way too much praise for The

Osbornes when it aired a few years back (I think I

was guilty, too) and that really got a bad ball



Speaking of Matt Lauer: All the morning shows seem to have guests that represent the interests of the parent company. (Vertical integration?) So, instead of really interesting people, we get each morning show touting the artificially interesting because those guests appear on or sing for or are somehow affiliated with that network's (parent) label/brand. It's just advertising. Can you please make it stop.

Is there anything redeeming about morning shows? I would so love to be able to watch something interesting and thought-provoking in the wasteland that is my A.M.

Tom Shales: If I could "stop" even 1/10th of the annoying or horrible things on or about television - well I think I should be up for a Nobel. How powerless critics are! Although we can affect TV sometimes in good ways, like getting "Cheers" renewed way back in the 20th century somewhere. I am no fan of Matt Lauer though I do love Meredith Vieira, but regardless I must say, that was a solid Today show this morning, with several very hot guests and more "news" than usual. One thing I'd like to make stop: the people SCREAMING like Fay Wray when Today goes outside to Rockefeller Plaza and uses people on the street as a backdrop. What is WRONG with these folks - that their response to seeing a TV camera is to SCREAM and SHRIEK so loudly that it could curdle Cheerios? There was so much screaming this morning, i had to hit the mute button.


D.C.: Actually cutting off their TV exposure would end these stunts pronto if only the network/cable outlets could agree. I distinctly remember the epidemic of folks running onto baseball fields in the early sixties until an edict came down (presumably from Major League Baseball) not to show them on camera - then poof, it suddenly stopped. Personally I'd love to see the reality show featuring these gate crashing kooks from their respective jail cells.

Tom Shales: But it isn't as simple as people running onto a baseball field. Crashing a party is one thing; doing it to become "famous" via television is another thing. One might be a crime punishable in severe ways - but the other? How do you control or regulate that? The networks cannot enter into an agreement to refrain from showing camera-hogs who would all but kill to get themselves on TV. That would be a restraint of trade and problematical in terms of the beloved if abused First Ammendment.


Princeton, N.J.: When will Aaron Sorkin ever return to television? NBC I'm sure would love to have a "West Wing" or "Sports Night" type show that does well in the ratings anchoring their lineup somewhere.

Tom Shales: Sometimes they get bitter after years of dealing with lunkheaded network executives. Maybe Sorkin is off somewhere pouting and counting his money. The comedy producer who years ago made "Brooklyn Bridge" announced more than once that he was stomping away from TV and never coming back -- and yet did. Oh, Gary David Goldberg, for once I remembered a name!


Re: Mister Ed and his "talking" technique: From (where else) Wikipedia:

"(Alan) Young, in an interview 7 April 2007 on radio station 3AW, Melbourne, Australia, claimed that a loose piece of Nylon was inserted under Mr. Ed's lip which the horse attempted to remove on his trainer's cue. Mr. Ed was so well trained, it was said, that the insert would be ignored until the required cue.

Others argued that examination of Mister Ed footage shows Ed's handler pulling strings to make him talk, and that this was method was at work at least some of the time. Young later said during an interview for the Archive of American Television that a nylon string was tied to the bridle and the loose end inserted under his lip to make Ed talk, saying that he had used the peanut butter fable for years in radio interviews instead of telling the truth. The loose thread can be seen tied to the bridle, and it is clearly not taut as it would be if it were being pulled.

Young also states in the AAT interview that after the first season, Ed didn't need the nylon -- Alan and trainer Les were out riding one day and Les started laughing, telling Alan to look at Ed, who was moving his lips every time they stopped talking, as if attempting to join in the conversation. The difference is visible when comparing first season episodes to later ones, as it is clear that early on he's working the irritating string out, sometimes working his tongue in the attempt too, and later on he tends to only move his upper lip, and appears to watch Alan Young closely, waiting for him to finish his lines before twitching his lip."

Tom Shales: Thank you! What can I possibly ad to this?!?


Philadelphia, Pa. : I have to think the Comcast/NBC deal will give 30 Rock a much-needed jolt. It's on the verge of staleness this year. And how many GE jokes are really necessary? Providing new ammunition (and, oh, they have new ammunition) should help.

Tom Shales: Very good point. I don't mean to be a grouch, but 30 Rock has been the recipient of some over-the-top and not thoroughly deserved hyper-praise. It's been over-lauded, I think, because people so desperately want a good sitcom or to, and this one suffices - without being a candidate for All Time Classic.


To Be Or Not To Be: Benny at his best and who can resist Lombard. Every time I'm at a theater production and see someone leaving their seat mid-performance, I get a grin. For the young 'uns out there, rent this classic! From a time when comedies were "zany."

Tom Shales: I got to interview Jack Benny once, and I asked him if he thought "The Horn Blows at Midnight" was really as "lousy" a movie as he always joked it was. He said Yes, it was. But then he quickly brought up "To Be or Not To Be" and said because of Ernst Lubitsch (he was too modest to say also because of Jack Benny -- and of course Carole Lombard was incredible) it was a classic. Of course 2B was remade TOO several years back -by the very unsubtle, inelegant Mel Brooks. Awful.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Great to hear you "lunch" on Diet Coke and pretzels, as do I. Let us not forget, no matter what you eat, as long as you wash it down with Diet Coke, the calories don't count!

Tom Shales: But of course! That's a given!


1900s House: the only reality show I have ever watched was the 1900s House on PBS a few years back. They renovated a Victorian home in London and a family lived there for a few months. It was more history than anything else. Fascinating to watch the family cope with early 20th century social mores vs. their late 20th century reality. Lots of cameras, lots of entertainment and nothing embarrassing. For viewer or the famly!

Tom Shales: Right. The form is not in itself corrupt or corrupting. Arguably the first of the genre, An American Family, was worth doing also. Maybe it helps when the motive isn't just to sell soap and erectile-dysfunction cures (and speaking of things I wish I could stop -- how do you block those awful ED Spam things from clogging your email lists?)


Not a network programmer, honest: Okay, I have this idea for a new reality show. We get two people to crash parties. What do you think?

Tom Shales: Never work. Who'd believe it? Actually Howard Stern used to do this kind of thing -- sending out a flunky and a camera crew to insult celebrities at big affairs. But it was done really with too much malice, I thought.


Monk replacement: Try the Mentalist or Castle. They are gentle police dramss, slightly campy, and seem to be homages to Columbo and Murder She Wrote.

Tom Shales: Thanks. Good suggestion. The Monk character really was one of a kind though, don't you think? I mean it took real cleverness and wit to make such a potentially irritating charcter someone you loved to watch and care about.


Olney, Md.: Tom, why can't these networks (A and E, Bravo, PBS) broadcast more concerts, ballet, operas, Shakespeare, etc? That's what they used to do. I'd love to see some of the old classic performances (Roberta Peters as Gilda in Rigoletto, e.g.) as well as live ones. And I would rather have seen the classic Prisoner with Patrick McGoohan than the new one -- although Ian McKellen would have made a great Number Two in an episode or two of the original!

Tom Shales: William S. Paley, the founder and longtime chairman of CBS, tried to do a high-class cultural cable channel, CBS Cable, back in the early days of the cable revolution. People didn't watch it. The audience seems to gravitate to the lowliest crud -- not always of course, but often. I used to say "Bad television drives out good." An original concept, when copied by the untalented, becomes just another exploitive gimmick.


Everything old is...: Tom, you have enough, erm, experience to answer this question. Aren't there similarities between the Salahis and the Balloon Boy family to some of the characters who surfaced in the first decade of network TV? I'm thinking of the women who appeared on "Queen for a Day" or the quiz show contestants? Many of these people who were not as "real" as first thought, were they?

Tom Shales: Yes and I MENTIONED THIS IN MY COLUMN. No, I'm not at all offended you didn't read it. Furious yes. Offended no. Really, seriously, honestly -- I swear! -- I think there was a difference. Women who wept on Queen for a Day did it to win a washer-dryer, not just to get themselves on TV (sure maybe some did, but probably not most). Frankly, I like being on TV too - it's fun, and fairly easy. But I wouldn't -- I hope -- break any laws to make it happen.


Washington, D.C.: Bad remakes of classic series: Okay, it was remade as a movie, not a TV show, but the most execrable example was the Sergeant Bilko film in which Steve Martin tried to take on the mantle of Phil Silvers. Yikes!

Tom Shales: Yes -- how absurd. What effrontery. What gall. I asked Steve Martin about it when interviewing him. He pleaded not guilty, said that each generation is entitled to make its own versions of these things, but I don't agree at all. And the number of truly terrible even worthless remakes far exceeds the number of worthwhile ones. THANKS SO MUCH to all who participated; you were Grrrrrrrrrrr-reat!


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