WELL, LET'S TAKE a little trip, out old L.A. way. Let's sit indoors and watch tee-vee on the sunniest day.
It's something to do whenever you find yourself getting too optimistic about the human race, the state of the nation or the next 25 years. Watch a little local television in Los Angeles.That'll cure you.
L.A. TV is so terrible, it's wonderful.
Los Angeles is the second largest TV market in the country. TV here is what much TV secretly or overtly wants to be - junky, slick, relentless, mindless. It's 24-hours-a-day on several stations, so you can get a fix any time. L.A. and TV were made for each other; television in other cities looks quaint by comparison. Yet what happens in television in L.A. is likely to happen to television elsewhere sooner or later. It's a trend-setting town.
The commercials are just great. They reflect the Southern California fetish for personal appearance and self-gratification at any cost, and they constantly congratulate their audience for having moved to SOuthern California and thus become the envy of everyone else in the universe. In a Western cult sci-fi book called "Ecotopia," soon to be a mass-market paperback, California and some other Western states simply secede from the Union because they don't want to go down in a cloud of pollution and blubber with the rest of us.
It would be naive to pretend there's nothing infectious about this spirit of El-Ay Lucky Us-ism. It bespeaks faith in one's environment and one's future. You won't find much of that in New York.
Dodge Cars and Trucks have a special line of "Adult Toys" that were "created especially for Southern California," gabs a lean male skindiver-type surrounded by bkini-clad cuties. "Start your own collection of Adult Toys," he winks, the idea being that people in Southern California don't just have fun; they have funnnnnn. And this sun-saturated playground in which they play with their adult toys must be preserved in all its pretty perfectness. Hence a toilet paper commercial for ecology-minded "Aurora - the paper products that care about The West."
Perhaps only in L.A. would you see commercials for a "School for Bartenders," for "Home of Mobile World" and dozens of other "RV" (Recreational Vehicle) dealers, for "Spa-Arama," who'll help turn your house into a playpen, and for all manner of self-improvement emporiums. They'll make you stop smoking, stop drinking, stop eating, and, of course, build a beautiful You that everyone will want to play with. "Feel better about yourself," says an ad for an alcoholics' hospital.
"Ever since I started at Jack LaLanne, I get great compliments on my body," boasts a buxom blonde. "People really tell me I look good." And that's what counts, right?
The morning exercise show on one station is called "Body Buddies." It's presided over by a husband-and-wife fitness team so screamingly healthy and robust as to shame Adonis. "Dr. Bernie Ernst," identified as a "chiropractor-nutritionist," and his wife, identified as his wife, do the exercises and do commercials for such body-boosting products as raw certified milk and an exerciser called the "Trim With Win Trim-Ex." During that spot, he kneels in all his sun-tanned, Caesarian-blonde healthiness while she lies on the floor in fetching leotards, trimming like mad with this big sling-shot and bubbling, "Turn yourself on to a trimmer, firmer, shaplier you!"
A regular feature of the show is "Gyrate and Lose Weight." Mrs. Ernst jiggles and wiggles rhythmically to rock records. Dr. Bernie says, "Now let's disco dance with my wife, Jeannie!" It's a real waker-upper.
The news here is a circus, sometimes of horrors. One of the most popular personalities in town is KNBC's Kelly Lange, who'll be graduating to network soon enough. Lange once ended a series of interviews at the homes of stars with a "mystery guest." Guess who Kelly Lange, the news star! She interviewed herself in her own home.
Much more recently she returned from vacation after the helicopter crash that killed traffic reporter and former U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Lange paused for a moment and made a Very Serious Expression. "While in New York, I joined your great sorrow over our Telecopter tragedy," she told her news buddies, without mentioning the pilot's name.
For the sleazy side of the news you turn to Metromedia's KTLA, which has a comedy news show called "MetroNews, MetroNews" but whose actual newscasts tend more to the ghoulish than the amusing. "We'll SHOW YOU THE VIOLENCE that broke out when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland," promised a station "newsman" a few minutes before a nightly newscast. This was accompanied with newsreel footage of a soldier being kicked in the head.What more would they show at news time?
At the top of the newscast itself, the head-kicking footage was repeated as another lure to viewers. "By satellite we'll SHOW YOU THE VIOLENT demonstration . . ." began another newscaster. Finally the time came for the news itself. The head-kicking footage was repeated yet again, the third time it had been aired within less than 20 minutes. You can imagine the jolly time they had with the Son of Sam story.
But if you want uplift, you can get uplift. KLXA in nearby Orange County broadcasts 24 hours a day of gospel music, religious talks shows and pop religion. The message is unceasingly jubilant. "It's just so beautiful being a part of the family of God!" says a sun-tanned woman with glistening lips. "My goodness!"
A program originally called "Let's Just Praise the Lord," later retitled. "Praise the Lord" and referred to on the air as "PTL," is seen several times daily. A husband-and-wife fun religion team - Faith Buddies - reads letters from viewers, describes the growth of their industry and requests donations.
On another recent show, another couple was making their daily "Prayer Reports."
"Little Evie's here with me, my lovely wife," said a burly man. "We're going to be going to the Lord with our prayer requests in a moment, but right now, honey, what have you got for us?"
Little Evie, wearing a big yellow flower on her dress, had several reports of answered prayers. One was from a woman who was sure she would not have survived "16 hours of surgery" without prayer. Another was from a couple, Evie said, "who sold their home" after praying they would. "They not only sold it, but they sold it to some Christians! And they're just so grateful for the way the Lord handled it."
There are also reports from people who were "financially healed" after praying for fiscal repairs.
For me, though, the perfect crystal moment of L.A. TV occurred one evening in April 1975 on the ABC affiliate's tons-of-fun Eyewitness News show. A woman reporter was interviewing a stewardess who had just returned from a three-month trip to war-wracked Laos. "We have a real nice California person tonight," the reporter promised.
Her big question to the stewardess was phrased like this: "What did you learn about the Laotian people or - more important I support - what did you learn about yourself?"
The woman said she had learned about herself that she can get along without "hamburgers and ice cream," at least for three months.
"Thank you," said the reporter. "I guess we can see that idealism is alive and flourishing among young California people."
Let's go back to L.A. soon.