Television is killing show business with show business. All the world is not a stage; it is a sit-com. Soon there will be no show business because everybody will be in it. There's no point in practicing medicine if everybody is a doctor.
Here in this great big greasy cheese-burger of a town, the movement's afoot to convert every marketable activity of life into show biz so it can be sold back to the American people. In the old show biz, ED Wynn came out from behind a curtain and, in a funny hat, made us laugh, thereby enriching, if only temporarily, our lives.
Or a brooding horde of les miserables in a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams play would shadow box and arm wrestle with the human condition for a couple of hours and thereby enrich, if only temporarily, our lives.
Many people in Hollywood today aren't interested in enriching anything but their holdings. One need spend only a few days here listening to their endless prattling about options and treatments and pilots and projects and Perrier and you can understand why Paul Mazursky ended his movie "Alex in Wonderland" with a slaughter on Sunset Boulevard as Doris Day sang "Hooray for Hollywood" on the soundtrack.
One irony of it all is that more and more TV shows take the form of moral lectures of sensitivity training sessions. Added pap like ABC's "Eight Is Enough" comes complete each week with instruction on how to handle domestic situations. The notion of millions of Americans getting poop on coping from Hollywood, hot-bed of hair transplants and car stereos, is way beyond preposterous; the bulletins might as well be handed down by little green men on the moon.
One way of measuring the chronic creative drought of Hollywood and its new excuse for entertainment is to add up the number of shows that are in some way about show biz. Writting abour show biz as if it were the real world is the first refuge of a hack; also, it confirms that the greatest source of fascination for the people who live in Hollywood is Themselves. That's why they go through primal scream and est and sensory deprivation and anything else that comes along. That's why they came here in the first place; they were in love with the idea of show biz success.
And so the newly revamped and artistically corrupt "Mary Tyler Moore Show" is all about show business and a character not much unlike Mary Tyler Moore. "WKRP in Cincinnati" is about a small-time radio station where everyone dreams of making it in big-time show biz. The lead character of the ravingly barren "Hello, Larry" is a radio talk-show host. Even on "Family," the show ABC always holds up as a virtual hemmorrhage on the bleeding-heart scale, sonny-boy has a job writting for television, and this character is so honorable and decent as to send angels into snits of envy.
"Alice" is always trying to break into show biz, Stockard Channing starred in a commercial in a recent "Just Friends" (she moved to Los Angeles in the pilot because, of course, it's the city of hope-or so Americans are tole every night of their lives) and on the other wise unimpeachable "Taxi" comedy, one character is a struggling young actor.
Tony Danza, one of that show's stars, recalled during an interview what Penny Marshall of "Laverne and Shirley" had told him: "After two or three seasons, the writers will come to you and beg you to tell them anything you can do so they can build a story about it-tap dance, sing, or whatever." This is about as far as the average imagination wanders out here.
Added to all the other programs are shrines like "The Tonight Show Staring Johnny Carson," and the Merv, Mike and Dinah shows, which further saturate American television with chit-chat about show biz. How well in formed we are on how much Sonny Funny and Coochi Poochi like to play Las Vegas. If we were as well informed on energy, ecology and the economy as we are on Sonny Funny and Coochi Poochi, we might all be living in a paradise and not under the tyranny of nuclear leaks, OPEC nations and venal, sadistic bureaucracies.
It's a particular hoot right now that Jack Valenti, chief of the Motion Picture Association of America, is in a lather over the fact that the Hollywood "creative community" isn't raking in more millions from the sale of its dry goods to cable TV. What the congressional nabobs rewriting broadcast legislation should be much more concerned with is protecting cable from domination by the same semiwits and open-shirted schlockmonters who control the airwaves.
It is true that two of the best television comedy series in the medium's history, "I Love Lucy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show8" had show-biz settings or elements, but the view of show business in these programs was usualy at least jaundiced and more often twinklingly satiric. There was no underlying subtext that siad every kid in America ought to want to grow up to sell out for as much as possible.
Meanwhile, in the interests of encompassing everthing conceivable within the same sterile spectrum of banality, television turns whatever it can into show biz espousing show-biz values. Thus are evangelists now entertainers or talk-show hosts or TV rock stars. Athletes are expected to join AFTRA or SAG if they expect to make it big. And of course, the anchormen on hundreds of local television stations all over the country are far more show biz than they are journalism; they are actors, masters of the concerned expression and the sincere eyebrow. Alos, of course they are clowns and not Pagliaccios either, but this is mainly unintentional.
You can see the Stanislavsky school of newwcasting on the network level as well. ABC's Frank Reynolds obviously thinks he's nothing less than a Barry more for the '70s; his highfalutin emotional poses and dramatized delivery have earned him the nickname "The Little King" at ABC news, which is something of a vaudeville palace anyway.
And whatever her talents as a reporter, NBC's Jessica Savitch is really never more effective than when she oh-so-dramatically looks into the camera's eye and says, "More news later on this NBC station." Don't broadcast journalists EVER balk at being turned into pitchpeople and promoters?
When Savitch comes along with an NBC News, "Update" that interrupts a drama show, it isn't all that easy to tell the difference; the tone is just as slickly mock-urgent. NBC could hire an announcer to say "More news later on this NBC station," but then why it gives Savitch practice on her dramatic delivery and saves a few bucks besides.
Not all prime-time TV misrepresents human experience of the realities of American life. There are programs like "The White Shadow" on CBS; though set in Los Angeles, it has the ambition to tackle tricky subjects without reducing them to talk-show cliches.
And then theer are the commercials, which may be, for all their manipulative wiles, more in the tune with the country than bilge from Sillywood. It helps that not all ad agencies are located in New York or L.A.; some of the biggest are in the Midwest. And big ad budgets permit commercials to be shot on location, so at least you might be seeing the New England versions of New England rather than the dumb-dumb Hollywood version you'd get from a program.
What is really rating about the new show biz is the arrogance with which it is practiced. Nothing is more dangerous than an insecure incompetent in a position of power. Hollywood does have tremendous power over the impresions Americans get of life and its mysteries, if not over the way in which they are actually received and translated; we have to trust the notion that many people can still spot a phony a mile off, much less one that is only a few feet away in their own living room.
But this constant, unrelenting, unquestioning ceremonial that show biz stages for show biz each night on television has to have some skew effecton a heavy viewer's perceptions; it must play havoc of a sort with our priorities and values. It cannot possibly be, in the long term anyway, benefitcial.
A couple of years ago, announcer Ed McMahon, a man of infinitesimal talent but a certain dumpy charm, was hosting the annual NBC telecast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York. And a bunch of kids in the stands, spotting a TV camera, tried, as naturally as plants leaning toward the light, to get their little faces on television. Ed looked at this and said something like, "My, everybody wants to get into our business."
And in that moment-"our business"-realized that Ed McMahon considers himself a blood brother to Olivier and Berle and Garbo and Gable and Bogart and Groucho and Hepburn and Garland and Cohan and Jolson and Crosby and Chaplin. Perhaps that was the morning that show business fell asleep and died, and was replaced silently and secretly by the TV pod version that reigns today. CAPTION: Picture 1 and 2, Mary Tyler Moore