I hate them."
"I couldn't live without mine."
Those comments, responses to a random, unscientific survey, aren't about children or in-laws. They're about telephone-answering machines, devices that provoke unusually strong emotions. Why? Nobody seems to have such passionate feelings about microwave ovens or Shop-Vacs. I've never met anybody who pontificated about toaster ovens and snarled, "I wish they'd never been invented!" -- something I've frequently heard about answering machines.
Perhaps answering machines (Americans bought 4.9 million of them in 1986, up from 850,000 sold in 1982) elicit a love-mostly-hate response because they're so different from other utilitarian appliances -- electrified drones that do their jobs without talking back. Nobody, for example, has personality clashes with electric coffee makers, passive little beasts content to squat on kitchen counters mindlessly brewing java.
But answering machines, like computers, are communication devices that talk to us and require a response. I suspect it's their uncompromising demand -- that we identify ourselves and leave a message -- that bullyrags us.
There's no sympathetic ear for our entreaties, no warmth or understanding. The recorded voice -- that silicon Cerberus that bars us from real people -- only speaks, never listens. And when these machines rudely beep at us or cut us off in mid-message (making us feel moronic), we loathe them even more because we're hip to their nasty little secret: Answering machines may sound like humans but they have the souls of Shop-Vacs. They are the petite bourgeoisie of consumer electronics.
The outgoing messages left on many devices reinforce this image. A lot of answering-machine owners seem to think theirs is the only gizmo of its kind in the world and that all callers require a painfully slow, carefully detailed explanation of precisely how to proceed. So they record their message as though they're addressing someone who has just come out of a coma, explaining that I'm not here right now (an interesting existential observation) but if you'll leave your name, phone number, the time and date you called and a brief message (you can send the urine specimen later), I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Please wait for the beep. (My God, by now doesn't everyone in the civilized world, including small dogs, know to wait for the beep?)
Fortunately, there's a movement away from mundane communications -- the emergence of what might be called performance answering machines. And why not? People should be encouraged to use the machines as an artistic medium, instead of leaving them to spew out dull workaday directives. An acquaintance of mine regularly invents a variety of entertaining outgoing messages for his machine. The most popular had his gentle imitation of a befuddled old English butler who requested that callers "leave a message when you hear that nasty little sound you Americans call a beep."
Another friend, the owner of a recording studio, pulled together some singers and produced a 30-second doo-wop message that ended with a falsetto plea: "Sorry I ain't home, don't break my heart when you hear that tone."
Those without the skill to create original productions can contact Phonies (P.O. Box 2110, Cherry Hill, N.J. 08003; 609-424-6787), now in its 10th year of selling prerecorded funny answering- machine messages. It offers 18 cassettes, each with 12 different messages, for $9.95 apiece. Some of the best feature impressionists Rich Little and Julie Dees doing virtually everybody, including Bogart ("Of all the answering machines in the world, you had to call this one"), Hepburn ("So leave a message, you old poop") and Reagan ("Leave your number and I'll send you my re'sume'").
Turning answering machines into electronic theaters is a great idea. It humanizes them, softens our annoyance at dealing with machines and -- if the messages are well done and changed regularly (they get old fast) -- gives people a giggle. Which is more than you can say about your coffee maker. ::