Readers of “The Quiet Corner” should put aside for one evening their reading of Will Durant’s “History of Civilization” and watch a couple of half-hour situation comedies on network television.
The so-called comedies, many of them broadcast at 8 p.m., are dreadful. They abound, in fact, they consist entirely of bathroom humor and sexual innuendo.
“Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met your Mother,” judging from the commercials, are simply prolonged dirty jokes. Last week, I deliberately watched a new show (on at 8 p.m. — the old family hour) entitled “Carpoolers.” The narrative centered on four men who drive to work together every day. The theme of the week was sperm count. That’s right. Mom, Dad and the kids were entertained by four grown men arguing over the relative potency of their sperm.
One protracted scene had one gentleman trying to find a condom in his nightstand. Since he had already removed his contact lenses, he could discover only small packets of aspirin, cough drops and handi-wipes.
Another scene had the four men remark that securing the sperm was quite a refreshing practice on their mid-afternoon visit to the clinic. These were not sleazy men one might see entering a porn store behind a turned-down soft hat. These were all regular guys who probably serve up tasty burgers and icy Heinekens on a summer Saturday. The message is that recreational sex (alone or with others) is just as much a part of life as football or weekend camping in New Hampshire.
My family got our first television set on December 8, 1951. Since it was a holy day, there was no school, so I spent the day watching the appliance man install the TV and erect the antenna. The very first picture I saw on that TV was a brief advertisement for “Your Show of Shows,” with Sid Cesar and Imogene Coca. The appliance man remarked that they were very funny and that I would enjoy them. And indeed I did. No doubt most people reading this column also did. The memory of Sid Cesar, Imogene Coca, Jackie Gleason, Eve Arden, William Bendicks, Joan Davis, is one of laughing so hard tears came to the eyes. No one was funnier than Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth and no one was wittier than Groucho Marx using his quiz contestants as foils. Alas, American television has gone from the hilarity of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance to the vulgarity of David Spade and Charlie Sheen.
Humor in the Golden Age of network television was based on the situation, the dilemma, the predicament, in which the comedians found themselves. Lucy trying to cope with a speeding assembly line was funny no matter where it was acted out. A fruitless search for condoms or an argument over sperm’s vigor is funny only because it is enacted on television. It is the surprise value, the shock value, that elicits astonished laughter. Pardon the reference, but it is like passing gas in church. The act itself is not funny but the incongruity of the circumstances is.
America has lost its sense of humor and replaced it with a sense of impropriety. The coarser the dialogue, the more boorish the scenes, the more unsuitable the subject matter, the more the networks serve them up. Talent has been replaced with titillation and humorous quips with suggestive remarks. Clearly writers have become tired and audiences have become tainted.
The Scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent speak eloquently of the world-weariness that characterizes much of American public life. The cynicism of American network television, the attraction of internet pornography, the scantily-dressed celebrities that catch the eye, the gay agenda, the mockery of family life, the demeaning of the male gender, and the ridiculing of traditional institutions are the stuff of popular culture. St. Paul did not spare the Roman society of his own day in denouncing their excesses: Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. St. Luke has milder but still cautious words as well: In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. Frankly, the flood is already here and much of American society is being carried away — some unwittingly. It is indeed time to put on the armor of light — the armor of civility, the armor of decency, the armor of self-respect.