The Magazine

Funeral for a Friend

J. Bottum, mourner

Jul 23, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 42 • By J. BOTTUM
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THOUGH I GRUDGINGLY ADMIT to doing many things that cause me some degree of embarrassment—cow-tipping, white slaving, parking in my church’s first-time-visitor’s space for 73 consecutive Sundays—I fly my freak flag high when disclosing that I watch lots of bad television. To some snobs, the admission that one watches bad TV is a tautology, since they believe there’s no such animal as good TV. But this isn’t so. There are plenty of strongly written, well-acted shows that subtly illuminate the human condition. Not that I watch any of them. I like my TV like Charlie Sheen likes his women: vulgar and slightly degraded.

I often state this with relish to my writerly friends, who, with their writerly affectations, pretend that they don’t watch TV. These are the same people, mind you, who would forsake their dying mothers on Christmas Eve for five minutes of face-time on MSNBC. Most people, it seems, tend to strictly observe Gore Vidal’s maxim to never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television (not to be confused with Pamela Anderson’s philosophy of never missing a chance to have sex while appearing on television). But I know my place in the TV universe. Some of us belong on it; I belong in front of it.

I acquired my bad TV habit in the mid 1970s. It was a simpler time, one in which my world was divided into good Sleestacks and bad Sleestacks—the sibilant, lizard people who wore sequined tunics on Land of the Lost. Back then, television was a big party, and all our friends were invited: comedy by Paul Lynde, cameos by Charo and the Van Patten family, celebrity judging by Jaye P. Morgan.

My drug of choice became the variety show—the more embarrassing, the better. Be it Bert Convy with his Bionic Chicken sidekick, or the robotic mime stylings of Shields and Yarnell, I was addicted to all the genre’s conventions: the cream-pie sight gags, the interruptions by oddly named dance troupes ("Please welcome, the Flaming Teapots!"), the omnipresent Krofft puppets. I liked the wholesome incestuousness of Donny and Marie, who despite their country/rock’n’roll differences, always managed to hold each other’s hand just a little too long. I admired the go-to-hell shamelessness of the The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, the set of which featured a swimming pool, prompting the show to advertise "sixty minutes of songs and swimming with America’s wettest family!"

Through the years, I picked bad shows, and stuck with them as they became worse shows. I stayed with The Love Boat—once "exciting and new"—when it became boring and old after the umpteenth Judy Landers guest shot. I stuck with boy band Menudo, who sang bilingual teenage paeans like "At the Shopping Mall" on their Saturday-morning show, when the 17-year-old lead singer would inevitably be replaced by his 12-year-old cousin Chuey back in Puerto Rico.

With the advent of MTV and reality television, I graduated from the abysmal shows of my youth (Hee Haw Honeys, Manimal, the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather) to watching horrible new shows like Cribs—where gangster rappers invite you into their homes to show you the latest in stereo equipment and ugly black-lacquered furniture. Not to boast, but I can name every type of insect that’s been eaten on Survivor, every replacement member on Making the Band and Popstars (two documentary shows where Svengali-producers make bands full of popstars). Likewise, I can catalog every black militant, wide-eyed hick, and transsexual from all ten seasons of The Real World. (Didn’t know The Real World featured a transsexual? It’s just a hunch—but look carefully at Beth from Season Two in Los Angeles.)

I’m uncertain why someone such as myself, who exhibits refinement whenever picking out a Thomas Kinkade print (amazing how he uses light) or a pair of parachute pants, has such pitiable taste in television. Maybe its simplicity is a tonic for life’s complexity. Maybe, as David Frost says, it "enables you to be entertained in your home by people you wouldn’t have in your home"—at least not without covering the furniture.

But I had a rude epiphany recently when I jogged many of the aforementioned memories by reading Craig Nelson’s Bad TV: The Very Best of the Very Worst. I have lost months, maybe even years, to the sinkhole of bad television. Enough is enough. Tonight, after I watch Fear Factor, where six contestants will try to win $50,000 by eating grasshoppers and not drowning, I’m going to turn off my television to engage in more edifying activities—like doing the TV Guide crossword puzzle.