The watcher is bedded down, as usual, in a clatter of plates and bottles, picking idly at the stray bits of toast and herb that lie scattered around him. Sprawled beneath the green eye of the tube, he nestles in the new refuge of the aesthete, for late-night television is no longer an insomniac's prerogative but the new frontier of American culture itself.
If it was once fashionable to condemn television out of hand, it is now becoming fashionable to praise it. MIT's David Thorburn leads a growing coterie of academics trained in literature who take television seriously and who find in its history the inevitable conventions and recurrent tropes that attend any aesthetic form. In a recent essay, "The Triumph of Melodrama," Thorburn examines television's participation in the wider generic traditions that inform all narrative, and shows how Medical Center is structured in a manner "entirely familiar to any serious reader of Dickens."
Another set of coordinates suggests that television scholarship begins where much rock criticism has only just arrived: at a concern with the form's early lexicons. It took till the '70s to realize that even psychedelic music was an interpretation of vintage Motown, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, and that these academies, in turn, interpret the rhythm and blues that came before.
Rock and roll is today like its criticism, since both have become radically self-conscious about the ground rules of the game. Meanwhile, genre films from the New Hollywood reflect a self-consciousness about that medium's conventional past.
Television has acceded to this same perception with Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a bold example of how explicitly self-referential the medium can be. To the extent that the show refers specifically to anything, it refers to television itself. Worldly names are always changed (stet for est), but television names are kept as they really are (Carol Burnett). The show even puts itself on TV at moments of maximum intensity - Loretta's anti-Semitic remark comes on The Dinah Shore Show; Mary concludes the season by breaking down on David Susskind.
But it is to the fundaments of television - shows like The Jack Benny Program or The Honeymooners, Burns & Allen or I Love Lucy - that we owe the homage of study. There is a remarkable lack of topicality to them; for they evoke the '50s far less than they clear an imaginative space of their own. The scripts and costumes lack specific references to any time (Jack Benny's lapels are narrow, but not too narrow), as though they were fashioned with an eye toward the gaze of the future. This may explain why no nostalgia attends their revival. And yet, our interest in these reruns as they look today has prompted many stations to program classic television into late-night slots.
The watcher finds that he prefers the recesses of the dial to the variety shows or late movies that follow the news. He is drawn to these denizens of his personal deep. Perhaps he hopes they will connect him to his childhood. Instead, they connect him to the recent past.
Jack Benny looks startlingly like Nixon. The motions are similar, as is the egotism and absurdist self-importance. He is a big baby, radiant with a hyperbolic sense of self, rendered puerile, adolescent, even girlish. Jack's chatter is constantly punctuated by the first person, especially the possessive - "my show," "my guest star," "my sponsor," "my announcer" - while the lilting, whining voice ("Oh, RAH-chester!") makes it all seem like a teenage girl getting ready for a dance. Monologues often begin with the exciting news that Jack plans to let us in on some little secret about the show or about himself, and he acts as though we're all as tickled as he is to dwell on the pathetic details of his thin, ridiculous existence.
But of course, this fatuous style of conceit is the predominant mode of Jack's humor. It is a style of comedy premised on self-humiliation and self-denigration, perhaps an even more radical expression than Lenny Bruce's of that long strain of Jewish humor in which the self is plundered for shames, shams, and secrets, all for the sake of a joke. In Jack's case, an entire personality becomes the butt of a total, but always unspoken, irony as this petty and conceited character turns his vanity into a gag of biographical proportions.
Jack's melancholy remains largely hidden by this complacent self-absorption at the surface of his persona, as though the struggle for assimilation has - to exploit Portnoy - squeezed the Oy out of the goy Jack wishes to be. The lonely comfort of his "lovely" Beverly Hills home aspires to the domestic luxuries of the George Burns household, though - because Gracie is a shiksa - George has succeeded where bachelor Jack has failed.
If Jack's submerged despair has a visible correlative anywhere in classic television, it is in The Honeymooners. Though Gleason is not Jewish, he is a New Yorker; and though he seems to have none of Jack's weltschmerz, he is still working-class. All that Jack and George Burns have repressed in their social ascent to stardom is relived in the Kramden's minimal apartment, the butt of as many jokes as Jack's stinginess or his violin. Ralph's ambitions and delusions are the show's constant refrain and the source of its most pungent humor. Its narrative rhythm is unusually consistent: Ralph devises a crackpot scheme to get rich quick or he inflates his personal authority to laughable proportions, only to end up exposed and humiliated. Norton hypes Ralph as a golfer to get him in good with a boss; Ralph dons a homburg to go rent a maid when Alice takes a job; Ralph and Norton try to market a new kind of hors d'oeuvre that turns out to be dog food.
This will to exposure and humiliation is reminiscent of Jack's and succeeds in identifying the sowish Gleason with the silken Benny. Both shows operate on principles of irony so pervasive that no situation is entirely what it appears to be. Notice, for example, how Norton is often present when Ralph and Alice stage major confrontations, even intimate ones like Ralph's deluded entrapment of an interior decorator he thinks is Alice's lover. More often than not, Norton is directly at Ralph's side, aping his every gesture like a mock double. The bondage of male friendship seems to have priority over male-female romantic love, a conclusion reinforced by those episodes in which Ralph and Norton are forced by the plot to sleep together (e.g., Norton's sleepwalking or the handcuffed train ride to a Racoon convention). Nor is this anything new in American narrative - Melville and Hawks come easiest to mind.
Jack makes this all rather explicit since he is a gay bachelor, bedding down, perhaps, with Rochester, like Huck and Jim on the raft ("Oh RAH-chester! Will you make up my bed?") This, of course, is Fiedler revisited, and it constitutes a motif that touches all the major characters on Jack's show. Don Wilson, Dennis Day, and even Jack himself, appear in drag more than once. Dennis even sings a love song to Jack in the course of one such program, while Rochester persists in fluffing the pillows.
But the ironies of exposure go further than this psychosocial account may suggest. The sign "Rehearsal" that prefaces many of Jack's shows signals a self-scrutiny on the part of the program as a whole that far outstrips its exposure of character. The script often calls for action "behind the scenes": Jack in his office working on his monologue; Jack and Don arguing about the way the show gets put together; hassles with guest stars or the sponsor; Dennis rehearsing his song. In these cases - and they are far from infrequent - the show literally watches itself.
And Benny frequently plays with the means of his own representation. How astonishingly ironic, for example, to see Jack rehearsing a monologue for his secretary - she tells him his jokes are terrible while the laugh track howls.
We normally expect this kind of self-reflection to be reserved for the novel or the cinema. To find The Jack Benny Program as self-referential as Woolf's To the Lighthouse or Godard's Contempt may come as a small shock. But such self-consciousness seems to be as uniform a component on television as it is in fiction or film. There is no more overriding image in all of TV than that of George Burns watching The Burns & Allen Show while the show is in progress.
Though it is grounded in the depiction of working-class life in Bensonhurst, The Honeymooners reflects on itself as thoroughly as Jack Benny or Burns & Allen. The program always terminates with a ritual ending that celebrates Ralph and Alice's love, no matter the strains to which their relationship has been exposed. Though these endings are without the explicit self-avowals of Rosalind's epilogue or Puck's, they rehearse the same kind of ritual terminations common to Shakespeare or Dickens. Alice's change of mind or Ralph's capitulation to her wishes often comes as a miraculous transformation at the close of an episode. Like Leontes in The Winter's Tale, Ralph is forgiven and embraced no matter the extent of his transgressions and embarrassments. He injures his back the night before a bus company physical despite Alice's warnings against bowling; he makes a fool of himself by thinking he has caught her with a lover; he tries to sneak out of the house with Norton at dawn to go fishing without the girls. But, despite all the stupid or unkind acts, the show invariably concludes with Ralph in Alice's arms, soothed and reconciled.
Though many literary critics still argue that the ritual terminations common to comedy or romance bode human truths, the ironies involved in The Honeymooners speak rather differently. Ritualization succeeds, after all, in defusing the reality of aches and pains which the show represents. The elevation of love and nuclearity is all the more preposterous because Ralph and Alice's marriage is childless. Without this certification, doubt clouds the conviction with which the show asserts its traditional values of humble home and longsuffering wife. Childlessness may account for the undertone of grief in Alice's character; it may also add a psychological dimension to Ralph's frustration, amplifying the source of his rage.
All this may seem rather far out for the '50s, especially if you share the bias that self-conscious modernism didn't explode in American culture till recently. But television seems to weave a pattern consistent enough through the years to make these claims of irony and self-reflection a direct product of its intent.
We have been taught by auteurists to look to the director as the source of that intent in films. In television, we can take a tentative step in the same direction, since both The Jack Benny Program and The Honeymooners had the same - let us use the word "auteur." His name is Frederick de Cordova, a new one for film cultists, and he now produces the Tonight show. Tonight is set in a neutrally furnished living room, as are many scenes in Cordova's comedies. This Jack is seated behind a desk, and he reviews his guests as though they were applying for his affection - which they certainly are. His narcissism is quieter, but apparent in the way he flexes his shoulders, fingers his tie, reacts to the information that his jokes are terrible (while the audience howls). Like Burns and Allen, and Benny too, this Jack plays the role of a successful comic; hence his narcissism is really the meditation of stardom upon itself.
Classic television, with its qualities of timeless repose, self-reflection, and irony, now poses as Variety - and even as News. I can think of no more telling moment than Walter Cronkite's replay of George Burns at the Republican National Convention of a few weeks ago. Cronkite summed up each night's events with a chat among his floor reporters by means of a monitor in his control booth. Like George watching Gracie or Harry Von Zell, Cronkite sat with his pawns before him.
So the techniques of Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, and the Honeymooners persist, even though the world of fiction has been transposed to a world bearing the signs of time, death, and history. The watcher, meanwhile, is still stretched out in front of the box when Jack comes out to thank his guest stars and do a few more jokes. Tonight he decides to play his theme song on the violin, but before he's half done a cloaked man rushes onstage and smashes the fiddle across his knee. Jack turns to the audience. "Good night, folks," he says. "I'll be seeing you soon."
Originally published in The Village Voice, September 20, 1976