Just as I walk into the living room a young woman, who will be back immediately following the commercial, is telling Maury Povich she had sex with an alien.
"What was his name?" I ask. "Juan? Andre?"
Daytime talk shows are a bad habit my wife picked up in recent years. "TV babble," she calls it. Half the time she isn't really listening.
"They have a psychologist," she tells me. "He says all these people describe the same thing, green skin, big eyes . . . "
I settle into a chair that faces slightly away from the set. Should we watch this thing together, or should we talk about the important things of life? For instance, what has the cat been using since she stopped using the litter box?
My problem with TV is I can't just let the damn thing babble. No matter what they're showing, I keep getting drawn into it. Even the commercials. The other day I woke up from a nap to hear someone say, "One out of every five Americans can't even read a story to their child." I know, I know, that's how people talk today, but I can't help thinking it's television that taught them to do it. Then, as if to mock me further, the announcer asks, "Won't you help us fight illiteracy?"
As soon as Povich comes back, I check out this psychologist fellow--he's from Harvard, or Yale, or another of those ivy-covered schools. I'm hoping to hear him say that these people--Povich has assembled a whole panel of them--are just a little soft in the head, using, of course, six-dollar eastern-seaboard words. But instead, as near as I can figure it out, he starts talking about the commonality of their experiences, exactly as if they really have had them.
My wife, who's hardly been listening anyway, puts down her needlework and starts talking about various important things that have no bearing whatever on creatures from outer space. You know how it goes when you're listening to television with a loved one. You know perfectly well you'd better keep tabs on what she's saying, or at least look like you're keeping tabs, but in the background there is this very normal-looking young woman talking about her weekly sexual encounters with aliens, and there is this psychologist with a fancy PhD more or less nodding in agreement, and there is Maury Povich--wasn't he once a newsman?--trying to coax the audience into admitting that this really could be so and saying how he hopes this show will open people's minds. In other words we're supposed to believe there really are flying saucers out there picking up earthlings and examining them and poking them and even having sex with them, and just to prove it an artist with a sketch pad is sitting off to the side, drawing the aliens' pictures. Skull-like faces, great big eyes.
This whole flying saucer thing has been bugging me for years since it's such an obvious pack of shit. I've lost track of how many books, magazine articles, and television "documentaries" I've been subjected to, not one of which seems to have found anything unusual in having some creature travel 60 million light-years just so it can circle the earth and never once settle down to talk to anybody except the kind of people who stand around in K mart waiting for a blue-light special or, cough, cough, writers. Frankly, my dear, the only thing more amazing than that story is that anyone would believe it in the first place.
What's even more amazing is that nobody ever produces a television show debunking the whole thing. This disturbs me--almost as much as a sentence like "One out of every five Americans can't even read a story to their child." Not only have Americans forgotten how to speak their own language, they've given up one of their most priceless cultural legacies. Debunking. I never thought I'd live to admit it, but this country finally has reached the point where it really needs my father.
A little too late. He's gone to a place even flying saucers can't reach. But I know what he would tell me if I started in with the girl who had sex with aliens.
He would say, "Vas you dere, Charlie?"
So you see where I get my cynical ways.
My father understood media even before they were called media. He knew that newspapers could and would lie even faster than the government itself. Not for a minute did he believe those stories about German soldiers cutting the hands off Belgian children during World War I. Not for a minute did he believe those silly Sunday-supplement stories about dogs that walked clear across the continent, or the Loch Ness monster, which always got photographed out of focus, or saints who suddenly appeared on a hillside--but only to one person. He was a churchgoing Catholic, but had the statue of the Virgin wept directly upon him, he would have looked for the faucets.
From Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken to the forgotten vaudeville comedian who gave my father the line "Vas you dere, Charlie?"--there once was a real tradition of debunking in America. Smart people took care that no one mixed them up with the rubes and the hicks. No one wanted to be the chump who fell for the tall tale.
Which brings me to the movies. Don't worry, I'll connect this up. First, it has to be said that there is no sin against the truth a moviemaker will not commit--and get away with. Birth of a Nation. Gone With the Wind. Gunga Din. Who needs the truth, let alone historical accuracy? "We're just making movies!"
After a few years, everybody calls them classics.
So now Robert Redford has come out with Quiz Show, the "true" story of those TV scandals of the 50s, a period when Americans were supposedly still innocent. As opposed to today, when we're smart and sophisticated and believe that alien beings are balling young American women.
I plan on seeing this movie. Any movie that is not about explosions will certainly get my support. But I hardly expect it to tell the truth--about the quiz show scandals, or about the 50s themselves. The first because it's a movie, the second because we seem to have developed a certain media-driven mythology about the 50s. Something to do with "innocence."
Much of this stuff seems to be written by baby boomers, and, yeah, I guess that may be how it looked to them. But the parents of the 50s were people who grew up during the great Depression and lived through the most destructive and unspeakably evil war of all time. Take my word for it, they knew that people lied and cheated and stole and that very often even the good guys took no prisoners.
So how did they really feel about those quiz shows? The $64,000 Question? Twenty-One? Obviously they went for them in a big way. How could anyone who grew up during the Depression not want to see someone grab at the big-money question--and get it wrong! The only thing better than that was finding out the whole thing was a fake.
Which is not to say that at first most people didn't believe the shows were on the level. Life's no fun if you refuse to believe anything. That's what I kept telling my father. Hey, today we believe Wheel of Fortune is on the level, don't we? Don't we?
But I had my doubts about those early quiz shows right from the beginning. And it wasn't because of my cynical heritage. You see, I'd actually been on one.
Not one of those high-ticket TV jobs. No such luck. Some little radio station brought its act to our high school auditorium one afternoon in the dim prehistory of my life, and I was chosen as a contestant. Maybe the teachers thought I was smart enough to bring credit to their school. Maybe they just wanted to see me embarrass myself.
At any rate, there I was, standing before the microphone with the announcer's arm wrapped around my shoulder. He was real chummy, this announcer. "Now, Paul. You have ten seconds to answer. Which of the following was the shortest war: the Civil War, the Spanish American War, or World War I?"
Who wouldn't know that? But I took an extra second before answering, just to make sure, and during that pause he repeated the question, this time giving my shoulder a little squeeze when he got to the Spanish American part. But it wasn't until I'd stepped down with the prize in my hand that I realized what he had done, and why.
That was when I began to understand my father, and even think a little like him. And it made me mad, yes it did, that this silly announcer would go through life thinking he had helped me win five dollars in war stamps.
Not that I gave them back. Five dollars was five dollars, and war stamps could be turned in for cash or, if you were patriotic, allowed to accumulate until you had enough for a war bond. Unfortunately, I was patriotic and put my war stamps away in my stamp album, along with my priceless collection of Guatemalas and Bulgarias, and the whole thing got thrown out by my mother on one of her housecleaning sprees. It's kind of hard to forgive a mother for something like that. Every now and then I think about it, and always with the hope that someday those stamps will materialize. Unless I'm mistaken, those five dollars have been drawing interest for 50 years now, and according to my computer program, that means I should have at least $57.50 coming.
The first time I saw The $64,000 Question, I thought of those stamps. By then I'd already come to the conclusion that this new medium, television, was not something I was going to like. Watching The 64,000, I was reminded that, like rock and roll, television was not going to go away. Like rock and roll, it was only going to get worse. The one inescapable truth about popular culture is that, to succeed, it must be directed to the most elemental of its audience's desires--greed, lust, and a steady four-four beat. Since The 64,000 lacked only the four-four beat, I knew it would not merely persist but inspire an entire genre.
At that time I was working in a local print shop as a kind of low-grade nonunion pressman, and one of my bosses--there were three, all brothers--was a prime example of a certain type of reverse snob, the kind of person who would not only defend Disneyland, Kate Smith, and Wonder bread but seriously question the patriotism, morality, and common sense of anyone who might disagree. This boss, of course, bought into the big 64 and Twenty-One without a question, and responded to my skepticism with the kind of outrage Cotton Mather would have felt had a freethinker raised his or her head in old Salem. I always did have a knack for making bosses mad.
"Of course they cheat," I told him. "Not only that, but they're rehearsed." I went on from there to suggest that professional wrestling wasn't really on the up-and-up either. When the scandal crashed, I had the satisfaction of being right. He had the satisfaction of being the boss.
But we did not discuss the flying saucer situation. Here I would have been unable to prove him wrong or right, for such is the nature of the saucer business. In fact, there was a time when I believed in saucers myself. It seemed like a small thing to hope for, that these creatures from space would come down and prove all the pompous know-it-alls wrong. But the damn things simply wouldn't land or stand still long enough for someone to take a decent picture, and the guys writing about them kept getting further and further out, until finally they were asking me to park my brains behind the door--something I simply could not afford to do given my limited physical, mechanical, and social abilities.
How, I asked myself, could anyone expect me to believe that a humongous flying saucer complete with alien crew had crashed in Arizona only to be scooped up by the government, carried off to Washington, D.C., or wherever they carry these things off to, and hidden forever? This from the same government that could not keep the U2 spy plane a secret?
The things some people want us to believe. Spacemen built the pyramids, since of course the humans who lived at the time weren't smart enough to do it. Angels walk the earth, making new-age authors rich. Demonic spirits still possess people and can be exorcised only by Catholic priests. A psychic saw the airplane crash three days before it did. Meanwhile, we laugh at those people from the islands who sacrifice goats.
There's an article in a recent New Yorker about the quiz show scandals and Robert Redford. He concedes that in directing this "docudrama" he himself may have rearranged a fact or two in order to "make a point." Naturally. It's a movie. Then, without any apology, he goes on to say, "The danger with all of this is that the truth gets futzed around so much that people will accept fiction for fact."
I go along with that. In fact, I'll take it a step further. If the truth gets futzed up enough, people won't just confuse fiction with fact, they'll also confuse fact with fiction. You know--the astronauts never landed on the moon, somebody made up the Holocaust, that kind of thing. It's scary to think what this might lead to.
But maybe, and let's hope I'm right, there's no danger at all. Maybe there are just smart people and dumb people and people who don't give a damn about the truth just so long as the bottom line comes out the way they want it. So here's what you do. Next time you flick on the tube and the "experts" start up about the saucers, ask yourself a few simple questions.
"Should I believe that somewhere on the other side of the galaxy a supersmart race of alien creatures has invented machines capable of defying the laws of physics and, having nothing better to do, is flying these things to earth where the occupants quite naturally take pains not to reveal themselves except to certain selected people, none of whom is me? (In the event you claim to be one of these people, read no further.) And should I go on to believe that these creatures do not need physical voices to communicate, that they simply project themselves into somebody's mind and that lucky person knows exactly what the aliens are saying? And believing this to be true, instead of what it sounds like, should I go on to believe that these curious creatures actually pick people up by means of some kind of magnetism and, well, do things with them, and when they find this no longer entertaining, they drop down and mow perfect circles in some farmer's field? And that our government knows all about this (never mind all the other governments in the world), and for no good reason has somehow managed to do something no government has ever done before, keep a secret?"
Or "Should I believe that there are people in this world who are sometimes mistaken, confused, misled, mad, or dishonest?"
The choice, I say, is clear. Otherwise we might as well go for the whole ball of wax, the Loch Ness monster, the poltergeists, the weeping Madonnas, the clairvoyants, the ancient astronauts, Elvis alive in Michigan City, Mary Worth, the Green Man, and the $64,000 question.
Meanwhile, my wife and I are still trying to figure out where the cat has been putting it. It can't stay secret forever, can it?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.