Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fordham Notes Amazing

So, since my last post offered A Jewish Take on Amusing and Amazing, in this post I would like to share, in an ecumenical spirit, a post on my book from Fordham Notes, the official blog of Fordham University, Fordham being a Catholic and Jesuit institution.

The blog post is entitled Strate on Postman: Resisting Telegraphic Discourse, and it was written by Tom Stoelker, based on an interview he conducted with me, and posted on May 2nd.

And here is how it went down:

Several people who have read Lance Strate’s new book have described it as a “love letter” to his late mentor, the media ecologist Neil Postman. In the just-released Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, (Peter Lang, 2014) Strate, professor of communication and media studies, riffs on more than just the title of Postman’s seminal book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which analyzed the way broadcast television, affects politics, journalism, education, and religion.

Strate’s book sets the stage for his academic peers to explore Postman’s theories in today’s new media. Postman explored television landscape in the mid-1980s before cable radically changed the nature of TV, whereas Strate’s book considers the same theories in light of the vast expansion of channel offerings and new networks via cable and satellite, and the addition of the Internet and world-wide web.

Regardless of the time period, Strate said electronic media are all interrelated. But how they have an effect on our democracy seems to have increased exponentially. He noted that the 18th-century leaders struck a healthy balance between the written and spoken word. They were great readers, which informed them to be great rhetoricians.

“Our country was founded by literate individuals and ours is a country that was argued into existence,” he said.

Postman wrote that the image-saturated electronic media eventually undermined reading-and-rhetoric, as electronic media’s emphasis on image elicits an emotional and irrational response. Strate broadens the focus to include the Internet’s speed and immediacy, which he said creates information overload.

“Speed, efficiency, and the overemphasis on technology—where only efficiency matters—puts us into what I call ‘hyper-irrationality,’” he said “Efficiency is a numbers game that takes us away from the balance of literate and oral.”

Postman and Strate argue that such a balance is the very basis of American culture.

When new media first arrived its emphasis on text spurred hope of a new generation of literacy. But now that the net has become increasingly visual, Strate says a “telegraphic discourse” has come to dominate.

“The Internet intrudes in so many ways that even at a church people don’t turn their phones off,” he said. “How do you get a sense of the sacred when we’re just a click away from something else?”

Not surprising, there is a certain commonality of interest between Fordham Notes and the Jewish Standard, and while only part of the book is about religion, as it addresses subjects such as news, politics, education, and American culture as a whole, it is gratifying to know the book has some value beyond secular scholarship.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Jewish Take on Amusing and Amazing

So, over in northern New Jersey and nearby Rockland County in New York State, there is a weekly periodical called the Jewish Standard. And as you may have gathered from its name, it serves the Jewish community in that neck of the woods. And it's actually the recipient of multiple awards from the prestigious Society of Professional Journalists.

So, as you may know, I am president of Congregation Adas Emuno, a Reform temple in Leonia, New Jersey, in Bergen County, in Northern New Jersey. And given that fact, along with the fact that I include some discussion of Neil Postman's Jewish background and sensibility in Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, it made perfect sense for the Jewish Standard to include an article about the publication, based on an interview with me, which was conducted by the paper's editor, Joanne Palmer.

The article is entitled From Amusing to Amazing, and you can click on the link to read it on the Jewish Standard's website, along with seeing the photos and comments that were posted there (and if you are so moved, add your own). Or read it here.

Here's how the article begins:
Was Neil Postman right nearly 30 years ago, when he said that television had trivialized nearly everything about our lives? That our ability to apply reason to make sense of the world had begun to atrophy in the overwhelmingly visual, no-delayed-gratification-necessary world we saw by its blue-flickering light?

And if he was right, what have the technological advances that make TV seem so very old-school done to us since then?

One of Dr. Postman’s disciples, Dr. Lance Strate of Palisades Park, has undertaken the challenge of examining both Dr. Postman’s life and worldview and the accuracy of his predictions.

In his new book, “Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman’s Brave New World Revisited,” Dr. Strate, who was Dr. Postman’s student at NYU and now is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, continues his teacher’s analysis. His book follows up on Dr. Postman’s best-known work, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” which first was published in 1985. (Dr. Postman died in 2003.)

I will interrupt at this point to provide you with the links for the two books being discussed:

And now to continue with the rest of the article:

Dr. Strate, who is president of his synagogue, Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia, thinks that both Dr. Postman and his arguments are profoundly influenced by the Jewish world in which he grew up.

Dr. Postman, who was born in 1931 to parents who grew up on the Lower East Side, spent his own formative years in Flatbush. “One of the things that we kind of have a leg up on when we grow up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York is that it is multicultural and multilingual,” Dr. Strate said. “When you go to Hebrew school, you learn a different alphabet. When you go to shul, you are exposed to a different kind of book—a scroll. You really learn to be sensitive to the differences between different media, different modes of communication.”

That sensitivity, Dr. Strate continued, is at the heart of a discipline called media ecology, which Dr. Postman pioneered and he now champions.

Dr. Strate knows about such sensitivities firsthand. The son of Holocaust survivors, he is from Kew Gardens in Queens, another heavily Jewish neighborhood.

“The idea is that different media or forms of communication influence the way we feel, we perceive the world, and we behave, and on a larger scale the ways in which we organize ourselves as a society and as a culture.

“Something very profound that Dr. Postman pointed out is that the second commandment doesn’t just say there should be images of God. It says no images.”

That, Dr. Strate said, is because “with words, we can think much more abstractly.” Images are emotional and evocative, but “you can’t make an argument with images.

“Reasoning by analogy is very much at the heart of Jewish learning, and it involves a balance between the spoken and the written word,” he continued. “You can look at ancient Israel as the first great culture to come out of the alphabet. The Semitic alphabet first was introduced in around 1850 B.C.E.

“We are not clear on the history, of course, but within a few centuries we have the Exodus and the law. You can’t have written or codified law without writing. Judaism was the first religion to be based on a sacred written text, the first to venerate the book.

“Monotheism itself—the idea of one God—requires an abstract kind of thinking. God is a God of words—d’varim—not of images, and images are what we see in other religions all the time.”

Once the Semitic inheritance of abstract thought met with Greek philosophy—which itself needed the Semitic alphabet it got through the Israelites’ cousins, the Phoenicians—“that trajectory takes us through Western civilization,” Dr. Strate said. “It was amplified by the printing press, which brought on the modern world.

“The American republic was very much printing, particularly on pamphlets and broadsides. It was the first nation ever to be argued into existence. And one of the places that the Founding Fathers turned to for inspiration was the Torah.”

So what does this have to do with his argument about television, the Internet, and beyond?

“Postman, like many New York Jews, came down on the liberal side of things,” Dr. Strate said. “He was a defender of the potential of American democracy, and he came to the conclusion that television was completely undermining it.

“Building on that, and looking at the expansion of television through cable and satellite, and with the addition of the Internet—we know that there are great benefits that these technologies bring, but the problem is that all we tend to talk about are those benefits.

“Nobody talks at all about what they are costing us, and it is foolish not to look at the price tag. That’s what Postman wanted us to do—to ask, ‘Well, what is all this going to cost?’”

In his own book, Dr. Strate looks at four areas that Dr. Postman tackled first—with the new technology, what happens to journalism? To politics? To religion? And to education? Those four pillars of our culture all were built on words. “All have been damaged by the electronic media,” he said.

Religion, for example, often is broadcast, but religious services need a sense of the sacred, and that sense is hard to come by when you watch it in the profane space of your own home. “When you have religion on television, it is the preacher who becomes the focal point, not God,” Dr. Strate said. “And most religious services look awful on television because they are designed for real spaces, so the most successful kinds of televised religious services use entertainment formats. And when you do that, you lose all sense of what religion is about, and it becomes entertainment.”

Similarly, “more television channels have not given us a more serious form of television. Instead, they have given us more outlets for entertainment.

“They used to argue that we couldn’t get news in depth because there was only 20 minutes for it each night. Today, we have 24-hour news channels—and they still don’t do extended stories. Instead, they concentrate on people yelling at each other, or on sensational stories, and there is a lot of repetition. So the format really hasn’t changed dramatically.

“Politics has not improved much with the electronic media, even with blogs, YouTube videos, and news aggregators. All they have given us is more verbiage.

“And there is a lot of attention paid now to online education, to massive open online courses, but I think the best way to understand what makes for a good education is to look at what rich people do.” People who can afford just about anything “opt for very low teacher/student ratios and real face-to-face contact,” he said.

He explained the subtitle of his book by talking about the difference between the two dystopias imagined by two British writers more or less midway through the last century—George Orwell’s “1984” in 1949 and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in 1931.

One more interruption, in case you would like to get a hold of copies of either of these novels, here are the Amazon links:

Oh, and let's not forget about Huxley's essays that follow up on his novel, from which I derived the subtitle of my book:

Okay, and now back to the article:

“Orwell was not as prescient as Huxley,” Dr. Strate said. “Orwell’s future was totalitarian. Huxley’s was about complete control by technology. We have allowed technology to be a kind of governing force. It is about doing things as efficiently as possible, so other human values get pushed away as a result.

“The reason for the decadence in ‘Brave New World’ is to keep everyone happy and functioning, so they will continue to be productive, and society will continue to roll on.

“That’s one side of the coin now. The other is that we are drowning in information. We don’t know how to say no to any new technology.” Not all new products catch on, he added, but the technologies behind them do.

“At the end, the question that the book raises is whether there is a future for us,” Dr. Strate said. “Is there a way for us to take control of things?”

Judaism had that idea long ago. Jews have known since the beginning that once a week, it is necessary to take a break. Some secular Jews have adopted the idea of “technology Shabbat” from more observant ones; it is a time for them to disconnect from all their devices and interact with the world directly.

Despite the many virtues of our electronics, that occasional and regular disconnection is necessary if we are to continue to advance, Dr. Strate suggests.

And this is where the article ends. But before I end this post, let me note that I have also had some positive responses to the book from Christian sources, and I'll share them here on Blog Time Passing another time.

Monday, June 23, 2014

On the Amazing Neil Postman

So, I just got back from the annual Media Ecology Association, and I'll do a post on that another time, but back in April I was in Providence, Rhode Island for this year's Eastern Communication Association's annual meeting—ECA's the oldest communication association in existence, I should add. 

Anyway, there was a special session on my new book, Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited (and need I remind you that you can order it directly from Amazon over on the right?).

The participants included Susan Jasko of the California University of Pennsylvania (yes it's in Pennsylvania, why it's named that way I don't know), who served as moderator and panelist. The other panelists were Susan Drucker of Hofstra University, Don Fishman of Boston College, and Renee Hobbs, the Director of the recently established School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island, and a leader in the media literacy movement. Deborah Borisoff, a former colleague of Postman's, was also supposed to be on the panel, but wasn't able to make it to the conference.

All four of the panelists provided a review and comments about the book, and then I responded. To be honest, I expected them to mostly say nice things about the book. After all, it was a friendly panel. But I was surprised, and touched, by the extent to which they picked up on the emotional side of the work, and what they said about the degree to which it captured a sense of Neil Postman as a human being. Susan Drucker described it as a love letter to my mentor.

I wish we had recorded the entire session, but fortunately Renee Hobbs did record her comments, and turned them into a YouTube video, which I'm pleased to share with you here. What she has to say is much more about Postman than about my book, which is fine with me, and indeed quite fitting, and makes the video all the more valuable as another addition to the many remembrances of Postman that have been preserved online. So anyway, here is the video, entitled Remembering Neil Postman:

The "About" section states, "Renee Hobbs remembers Neil Postman as a teacher, field builder, humanist and protectionist in this talk from the Eastern Communication Association conference, April 26, 2014." 

And this give me the opportunity to say, once more, thank you Renee!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Politics 2014: That's Entertainment!

The title of this blog post is taken from my old professor, Terry Moran's influential article published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics some thirty years ago, entitled "Politics 1984: That's Entertainment," which Neil Postman drew upon in his best known book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And as you know (or at least I hope you know), I've written a bit of a follow-up entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. And if you don't have your copy, you can order it right now through Amazon via that little box over on the right.

But a few weeks before the books was actually published, I received a request from Sarah Musooli, a producer for Bloomberg TV's Street Smart with Trish Regan and Adam Johnson program, asking if I'd come by the studio to talk about the blurred line between celebrities and politicians. This was in conjunction with comedian Jimmy Fallon taking over as host of the Tonight Show, and having First Lady Michelle Obama as one of his guests. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

The segment was supposed to be 7 minutes long, which I understand is an eternity in the television medium's peculiar relation to time (it's the kind of time I have referred to as quicktime in my essay "Cybertime" in my co-edited anthology, Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, first edition published in 1996, 2nd in 2003, the essay is in both, and the 2nd edition can be ordered from one of the boxes on the right). But, as should be apparent to any sane, let alone reasonable person, it's not very long at all to discuss a complex and significant issue. So, of course, the previous segment went long and ours got cut down to only a couple of minutes. But hey, that's show biz!

Before showing you my segment, let's take a look once again (or for the first time if you missed it) at Michelle Obama's appearance on The Tonight Show on Thursday night,  February 20th, which started with this skit:

Now here's the sit down portion, where they get serious, sort of:

So that was Thursday night, and my interview was scheduled for the next day, Friday February 21st, at 4:20 PM. This clip cuts off the very beginning and end of the segment, but for what it's worth, here it is:

As I noted, the clip cuts off the last little bit (you can also see the same clip here), during which we continued to talk, the anchors said they had to go to commercial and gave the impression that we would continue after the break, but during the break someone decided to move on to the next topic, and so it all ended rather abruptly. It was shades of And Now This! (and Postman's Daily Show interview by Rob Corddry). I heard from a few folks  who were watching the program live that they were surprised when they came back from the commercial break and immediately went on to some other story. But of course one of the characteristics of the television medium is its bias towards discontinuous content, in contrast to writing and print's bias towards linearity. And that is one of the main reasons why television is a poor medium for serious public discourse, but well-suited to entertainment and amusement.

If I had more time to talk, and think, in discussing the issue, I'd emphasize how this general trend of blurring the line between politics and celebrities has more than a little to do with the severe loss of respect for our political leaders, and the terrible lack of civility in politics today. We seem to have lost the idea of respecting the office, even if you disagree with the particular individual inhabiting it at the moment and the policies involved. Whatever other reasons there are for the political polarization that we've been experiencing in American political culture, the inability to engage in constructive debate, and especially negotiation, the inability to find any common ground whatsoever, is related, at least in part, to the lowering of political leaders down to the level of celebrity entertainers, individuals we feel entirely free to boo, disregard, and change the channel on.

In the case of the First Lady's appearance with Fallon, her justification for coming on the show is to talk about health and healthcare, so notice how that important and very serious message gets lost in all the focus on comedy and personality. 

I'd also note how, finally, how in this case, vital political discourse is reduced down to one word:  Eeewww!!!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

All in for All in the Family

In preparing my last post, A Sitcom to Remember, on the 70s TV situation comedy, Barney Miller, I wanted to make reference to an earlier interview I had on the groundbreaking sitcom, All in the Family, which actually served as a springboard for the piece on Barney Miller. And I was surprised to see that somehow I had neglected to post that other interview here on Blog Time Passing, which is, after all, my official blog of record. So of course you can understand how important it is for me to rectify that omission, which is what this post is all about.

So, let me take you back, back, back in time to May 21, 2013, when my interview with Palash Ghosh was first published in the International Business Times, and yes those were those days, a little over a year ago, thinking back about a series that redefined prime time television over 40 years ago, with a theme song, "Those Were the Days," that looked back nostalgically to the mid-20th century before all of the turmoil of the sixties set in. In fact, before we begin, let's take another listen, for old times' sake:

Ah, wasn't that refreshing. Now that I got you in the mood, how about I share with you the interview entitled, Those Were The Days: How Norman Lear And ‘All in the Family’ Permanently Changed US Television And Society, which you can read over there or read right here. Here's the opening:

“The Office,” NBC’s critically acclaimed sitcom, has just ended a highly successful run. The show about a group of office workers in Scranton, Pa., was based on a British comedy of the same name. But “The Office” was hardly the first – nor the most significant – American sitcom whose inspiration sprang from across the Atlantic.

In the early 1970s, writer-producer Norman Lear revolutionized American television by creating or co-creating popular, socially conscious comedies like “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “Maude” and many others. But it appears that, after more than 40 years, “All in the Family” remains Lear’s greatest and most enduring cultural legacy.

The show, based on a British sitcom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” told the bittersweet tale of Archie Bunker, an uneducated, working-class bigot in Queens, N.Y., his loving wife Edith (the "dingbat"), his liberal, hippie son-in-law Mike (the "meathead") and his beloved daughter Gloria.

“All in the Family” startled, delighted (and often outraged) audiences by its stark, realistic depiction of blue-collar life, as well as by Archie’s unrestrained, sometimes thoughtless prejudice. The show became a huge hit – perhaps the most popular program in U.S. television history – and is now accorded a lofty position in American culture shared by the likes of Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

But, at its core, the show was essentially about a loving family struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world – using such topics as race, war, sex, politics and women’s rights as a point of reference for an audience hungry for entertainment mixed with substance and innovation.

International Business Times spoke with a media expert to sort out the popularity and legacy of “All in the Family.”

Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University in New York.

And here we go with the actual interview:

IB TIMES: What do you attribute the enduring popularity of “All in the Family” to?

STRATE: “All in the Family” perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the early 1970s, a period that most people think of as still being part of "The Sixties."

As much as we go on about the polarized nature of contemporary U.S. politics and society, no other time was so very harshly defined by what was known as the "generation gap"-- the conflict between the Baby Boomers and what former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw [later] called the “Greatest Generation.”

Politics was part of the divide, as the civil rights movement built up steam over the course of the 1960s and the anti-war movement caught fire later in the decade, but it was the social and cultural chasm that really characterized this era.

The Baby Boomers grew up with affluence and looked for generosity, while their parents grew up with the Great Depression and a sense of insecurity. They clung to family and community for survival, which often meant depending on members of the same ethnic group, religion, and race, while excluding others, and this reinforced the natural human tendency towards bias and prejudice, while their children grew up without such constraints, fully embracing the ideals of freedom and equality.

The "Greatest Generation" were told that they were all heroes, but their children weren't buying it, and saw themselves as trying to save a world that was messed up by the older generation. Their parents had fought the good fight in the Second World War, and believed that they were doing the same in taking on communism, but their children saw them as a bunch of warmongers.

While their parents relied on traditional values and mores to get them through difficult times, the Baby Boomers had the luxury to be open and progressive.

And even small cultural differences were magnified, as the men of the Greatest Generation favored military crew-cuts, while their sons let their hair grow long in a manner their parents viewed as feminine. The Baby Boomers listened to rock music and wouldn't be caught dead with an album in their collections from one of the big bands or crooners like Frank Sinatra. And as Marshall McLuhan observed, the Baby Boomers said "cool" where their parents liked to say "hot."

My point is “All in the Family” captured this moment in our history perfectly, and all credit is due to Lear, the writers, and the actors, especially Carroll O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner.

IB TIMES: Was “All in the Family” an immediate hit, or did it take a while to find an audience?

STRATE: It caught on pretty quickly, and it certainly was well-promoted -- but that included prominent warnings about its content being offensive, which, of course, served to attract a big audience.

In those days, very little on television was offensive, and controversial content, such as the “Smothers Brothers Show” waded into, tended to get you canceled, not celebrated.

IB TIMES: Did “All in the Family” initially trigger a lot of criticism, protests, threats of boycotts, etc.? Or is this an exaggeration?

STRATE: It was controversial, yes, especially at first, but everyone quickly adjusted to it, as I think it was widely recognized for its honesty. O'Connor's brilliant and sensitive portrayal of Archie Bunker made the program more balanced than it otherwise would have been.

IB TIMES: Would “All in the Family” have worked as well as a drama series, given all the serious topics it dealt with?

STRATE: I don't think so. The program emphasized our ability to laugh at our own foibles, and comedy is, after all, about survival, about just getting by.

And it helped to balance the drama and tragedy that we all saw on the news and read in the papers day after day after day.

IB TIMES: Do you look at “The Honeymooners” as a kind of precursor to “All in the Family”? That is, even though “The Honeymooners” did not deal directly with social issues, Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in grim poverty and frequently argued (in contrast with the bright, middle-class lifestyles of many other 1950s shows)?

STRATE: I would agree that there are similarities, and that “All in the Family,” as innovative as it seems, in some ways retrieved aspects of “The Honeymooners” and similar shows of that era, such as “Amos’n Andy,” “The Goldbergs” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”

These programs were set in urban areas and depicted working-class lifestyles, which is why I wouldn't describe “The Honeymooners” lifestyle as "grim poverty" as it depicted an exaggerated version of blue-collar Brooklyn.

IB TIMES: Lear reportedly wanted the public to dislike Archie Bunker -- but the audience loved Archie, even if they disagreed with some of his views. In this respect, do you think Lear’s "experiment" backfired?

STRATE: A large segment of the audience was predisposed to sympathize with Archie Bunker's conservative views, and would have tuned out if he had been portrayed as a complete fool. So while the positive reception for that character came as a surprise to many, and an unintended consequence of Lear's experiment, I think on the whole it was beneficial.

The Baby Boomers faulted their parents for stereotyping others, but we were not immune from that tendency ourselves and stereotyped "the older generation" -- and the humanized portrayal of Archie Bunker broke free of that vicious cycle. In this, I think Lear's inspiration exceeded his intentions.

IB TIMES: Prior to Lear, in the 1960s, did U.S. TV shows generally shun dealing with real-world issues, like Vietnam, drugs, racism, civil rights. If so, why? What were they afraid of?

STRATE: Yes, for the most part they did, and their main fear was that advertisers would pull out. Television networks and stations make their money by selling advertising time, and if advertisers do not want to be associated with controversial views, or if controversy results in poor ratings, profits decline.

“All in the Family” was instrumental in demonstrating that dealing with real-world issues in an honest and open manner can also serve as an effective vehicle for commercial advertising.

IB TIMES: Why do you think CBS – already the most powerful and successful TV network – took a risk with such a daring, provocative and controversial offering like “All in the Family”?

STRATE: CBS had actually run into some trouble with advertisers, because while they were pulling in the largest audiences, advertisers shifted their focus to demographics, and CBS's popularity was not with the highly coveted young adult market.

Airing “All in the Family” was part of their strategy to shift their image away from being the rural, country, hick network, into something more hip and current.

IB TIMES: Archie Bunker used many racial and other types of epithets, like coon, spade, spook, jigaboo, jungle bunny, spic, fag, queer, Hebe, Mick, Polack, chink, Ay-rab, Jap, etc. Had U.S. television audiences ever heard such words on the air before? Did it shock the public?

STRATE: Of course they had heard those words before; they were part of the vernacular of the time. So in a sense, it was not all that shocking, except for the context, because the epithets were rarely if ever heard on television. So it was a little bit shocking, and a little bit titillating, but in the main it contributed to the program's aura of honesty and authenticity.

IB TIMES: But Archie, as best as I can recall, never used the N-word (although some black characters like George Jefferson and Sammy Davis Jr. did). Why did the writers forbid Archie from spewing that particular epithet, when he freely used so many others?

STRATE: Given Norman Lear's liberal orientation, the N-word was a bridge too far. There was simply too much hatred associated with that word. It wasn't until rap music arrived and became popular that the taboo about the N-word, which obviously still exists and is used, was loosened at all.

IB TIMES: Archie was also anti-Catholic, often making fun of the pope, nuns and the church. But was this realistic, given that white, working-class New York City – and especially Queens -- was overwhelmingly Catholic at that time? And that many of Archie’s friends, lodge-members, bar pals, etc., seemed to be Catholic?

STRATE: No, that was unrealistic and a major disconnect regarding “All in the Family.”

As you point out, especially in the context of New York City, the character of Archie Bunker was very much representative of white Catholic males of that generation, and the fact that O'Connor himself was of Irish Catholic descent contributed to that feeling.

It wasn't until the 1980 presidential election that that demographic became clearly identified as the "Reagan Democrats." But Lear was aiming at Middle America, the mainstream audience, and wanted to make Archie Bunker representative of the majority, and therefore Protestant.

He did accurately portray Bunker as not having a car, however, which is not at all unusual for a New Yorker, but interpreted as a sign of poverty by folks living elsewhere. As for the Catholic connection, it was also downplayed in regard to Rob Reiner's character, Bunker's son-in-law Michael Stivic, who was often subjected to derogatory remarks on account of his ethnicity, being Polish.

And there is also a sense in which the character, especially as brought to life by Reiner, came across as Jewish in many ways.

But creating a Catholic-Jewish dynamic would have made the characters much less mainstream, and entirely blunted the generational basis of the conflict, which was the whole point of the show.

IB TIMES: In 1972, almost two years after “All in the Family” began broadcasting, Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Does this suggest that Archie Bunker represented the majority view?

STRATE: The "Silent Majority" as Nixon put it, yes. But keep in mind that his landslide amounted to 60 percent of the popular vote, so the electorate was still quite split and Democratic challenger George McGovern's campaign had been a bit of a disaster for various reasons, some of which later resulted in Nixon's own downfall.

And, of course, Nixon was not all that popular among the youth, voters and non-voters alike. But for that silent majority, Archie Bunker represented their sense of discomfort and consternation with all the social, cultural, and political upheaval that the nation was experiencing. It was the sense that, as Bob Dylan put it, "something is happening here but you don't know what it is," and the feeling that someone needs to stop it or at least slow it down.

IB TIMES: After about five seasons, “All in the Family” seemed to run out of gas -- Nixon was out of office, the Vietnam War was over and U.S. society had drastically changed since the 1960s. Why did the show go on for another four seasons when it had little left to say?

STRATE: It was popular, it was profitable, and commerce trumps art for the most part on television, which is why such programs often get stretched out in this way. But in all fairness, along with the lure of success, I think Lear and his colleagues felt that with this platform, they had a responsibility to continue to express their progressive views.

IB TIMES: By the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan (a favorite of Archie Bunker) was president and it seemed TV shied away from political and provocative programming. Did this reflect a kind of backlash against Lear and “All in the Family”?

STRATE: I don't think it was so much a backlash as a change in the spirit of the times. During the sixties and into the seventies, relevance was emphasized. Reagan introduced what I believe film critic Pauline Kael called the “politics of bliss.”

Vietnam was over, struggles for equality continued but the basic principles were no longer in contention, and Watergate was a thing of the past. Social and political issues receded in importance as the economy took center stage.

IB TIMES: I have heard some people say that “All in the Family” was “left-wing propaganda for the masses.” Do you think this is a fair assessment?

STRATE: When people hear the word "propaganda," they attach all kinds of negative connotations to it, which is why we don't use the word to refer to the American Revolution, we just talk about "pamphlets" like Thomas Paine's “Common Sense” instead.

So in that extreme sense of political indoctrination and psychological manipulation, no it is not fair.

But in a more neutral sense, yes, Norman Lear was quite clear that the program was expressing a particular point of view, one that we would identify as “liberal” within the American political spectrum, but not “left-wing” in the sense of being extreme and out of the mainstream. Researchers and scholars have long established that all forms of television programming and popular culture in general, have an inherent point of view. They all communicate a set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and opinions, and in doing so promote either the “conservative” view that all is fine the way it is, or the “liberal” view that change is needed.

This happens whether the creators of the program intend it to or not. So Lear was just a bit more self-conscious about it, and a bit more above-board about what he was trying to do with the program.

But let's be clear that more than anything else, it had to be able to attract a mass audience, and you can't do that by attacking or contradicting what those people already think and believe to any great extent.

IB TIMES: “All in the Family” was based on a 1960s British sitcom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” which was far darker and grimmer than its American version. Do American audiences need its programming to be softer and more sugar-coated than the British public?

STRATE: Absolutely. We are sentimental. We sympathize with the underdog, having been the underdog as rebels fighting the “evil” British Empire once upon a time.

We believe that love conquers all. We believe in redemption, being a fundamentally religious people. You can call it sugar-coated, and British television has generally been of better quality than American, but I think British comedy can be somewhat mean-spirited, the different versions of “The Office” being a good example.

IB TIMES: Could “All in the Family” be made today? Would there be an audience for such a program now?

STRATE: I think the descendants of “All in the Family” can be seen on cable television, in programs like “The Newsroom,” “Shameless” and “The Sopranos.” That's where Norman Lear would be working today.

IB TIMES: Norman Lear produced many TV shows, but “All in the Family” is perhaps his greatest and most popular creation. What do you think Lear’s legacy is?

STRATE: Norman Lear's legacy will most certainly be “All in the Family,” with that alone he has earned his place in history for producing a series that was both culturally significant and an artistic achievement. And he will be remembered for pushing the craft of television production forward, from pure entertainment to a form that could be both enjoyable and socially relevant. His legacy is in the understanding that, just like literature and film, television fiction can be used to say something of immediate and lasting importance about our culture, and about the human condition.

And therein endeth the interview. But, astute reader that you are, you may have noticed that, when I introduced this piece, I said that the interview first appeared on May 21st of last year. And that's because the International Business Times ran it again just a few weeks later, on June 1, 2013, following the passing of the sitcom's co-star, Jean Stapleton. The item ran under a new headline, Jean Stapleton Dies: How ‘All in the Family’ Permanently Changed US Television And Society, and with a new introduction by Mr. Ghosh, which I'll share with you as well: 

Jean Stapleton, better known as Edith Bunker, one of the most popular and beloved characters in U.S. television history, died in New York Friday at the age of 90.

Stapleton, an accomplished stage actress, had no idea that the show she agreed to star in, “All in the Family,” would change the course of history.

In the early 1970s, writer-producer Norman Lear revolutionized American television by creating or co-creating popular, socially conscious situation comedies such as “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “Maude” and others. But it appears that, after more than 40 years, “All in the Family” remains Lear’s greatest and most enduring cultural legacy.

The show, based on a British sitcom called “Till Death Us Do Part,” told the bittersweet tale of Archie Bunker, an uneducated, working-class bigot in Queens, N.Y., his loving wife Edith (the so-called dingbat), his liberal, hippie son-in-law Mike (the so-called meathead) and his beloved daughter Gloria.

“All in the Family” startled, delighted and often outraged audiences with its stark, realistic depiction of blue-collar life, as well as by Archie’s unrestrained, sometimes thoughtless prejudice. The show became a huge hit -- perhaps the most popular program in U.S. television history -- and is now accorded a lofty position in American culture shared by the likes of Mark Twain, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

But, at its core, the show was essentially about a loving family struggling to survive in a rapidly changing world -- using such topics as race, war, sex, politics and women’s rights as a point of reference for an audience hungry for entertainment mixed with substance and innovation.

International Business Times spoke with a media expert to sort out the popularity and legacy of “All in the Family.” Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for graduate studies at Fordham University in New York.

And that brings us back to the interview, and the end of this post as well. Can you still remember the beginning of this post? Ah, those were the days...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Sitcom to Remember

So, this one kind of came out of left field for me, but back in February I was interviewed about the 70s sitcom Barney Miller, which was one of the television programs I watched back in those days, and of course I do know a thing or two about television and popular culture. So it was actually quite interesting to reflect on that show from long ago. The interview, conducted by Palash Ghosh, was published in the International Business Times on February 19, 2014, under the following heading:  Barney Miller: Forty Years Later, The Most Intelligent, Literate US Sitcom Ever. Click on the link to read it over there, or stick around to read it here.

Here's the intro:

Almost 40 years ago, the ABC television network debuted a new situation comedy called “Barney Miller,” about the lives of a group of police detectives and officers in a run-down precinct of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Hal Linden, playing Capt. Barney Miller, the handsome, reserved and incorruptible leader of the fictional 12th Precinct, dealt not only with his eccentric underlings and colleagues, but also an endless array of fascinating criminals parading in and out of the station. Never a huge ratings hit, "Barney Miller" became a much-admired and cherished piece of television history as one of the most intelligent and literate programs ever broadcast. The show lasted eight years (an eternity by television standards) and remains popular in syndication.

International Business Times spoke to an expert on U.S. media to discuss the impact of "Barney Miller." Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and associate chair for undergraduate studies at Fordham University in New York.

And now let's get to the interview proper. This one I'll present to you without commercial interruptions:

IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" was a brilliant, complex, highly literate, superbly written show with depth and high social significance – all done within the confines of a half-hour commercial sitcom! Has there ever been a show quite like it in U.S. television history?

STRATE: "Barney Miller" was an outstanding series, often overlooked or underrated. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was unique, however, or entirely groundbreaking, as it followed in the footsteps of three series that established a new direction in television comedy, combining quality writing and performance with social relevance: "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," and "M*A*S*H." [all of which debuted in 1971 or 1972].

"Mary Tyler Moore" and "M*A*S*H" in particular established the workplace sitcom as a new format, which "Barney Miller" followed.

IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" appeared on ABC-TV when the network otherwise had shows like "Love Boat," "Fantasy Island," "Charlie's Angels" and "Laverne and Shirley." How did a high-quality, well-written show like "Barney Miller" ever sneak through and get aired?

STRATE: "Barney Miller" represents an important transitional moment in American popular culture. CBS had enjoyed success in the early 1970s by emphasizing shows with social relevance, reflecting the turmoil and countercultural movements of the 1960s (which continued on into the first half of the 1970s), and "Barney Miller" followed that precedent. But with the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War, ABC found that the American audience preferred more escapist and nostalgic types of entertainment, and became the dominant network on the strength of those types of offerings. "Barney Miller" straddled the two periods, in that its episodes often ventured into the absurd, but more importantly, through the sympathetic, even hip portrayal of police officers. After all, within the counterculture, it had been commonplace to refer to cops as "pigs" and otherwise view them as hostile bullies, and the program ran counter to that view, reflecting a shift towards a more conservative political stance in the nation, one that would result in the election of first Jimmy Carter, and then Ronald Reagan to the presidency.

IB TIMES: The genius behind "Barney Miller" was writer-director-producer Danny Arnold. Why is he not a household name like Norman Lear or Rod Serling?

STRATE: Although Arnold’s "Bewitched" was a much-loved comedy series of the '60s, it was not the first "magical" sitcom it was preceded by "My Favorite Martian" and "Mister Ed," and almost immediately followed by "I Dream of Jeannie." And as popular, and even progressive, as Arnold’s "That Girl" was back in 1966, it was not groundbreaking and has pretty much faded from popular memory. I think Arnold deserves to be better known than he is, but very few television producers become well known along the lines of Norman Lear, Rod Serling or Gene Roddenberry, who created "Star Trek."

Arnold might be more comparable to Paul Henning, whose "Beverly Hillbillies" sitcom was enormously popular in the 1960s, along with "Petticoat Junction" and the brilliantly absurd "Green Acres." Both producers were characterized by a solid record of achievement, originality, popular appeal and an overall successful career, but not the kind of creative breakthrough and mass phenomenon that helped to define an era that we associate with Serling in the 1950s, Roddenberry in the 1960s, and Lear in the 1970s, or, for that matter, Garry Marshall, whose feel-good programming ("Happy Days," "Laverne and Shirley") dominated ABC over most of the 1970s, overshadowing Arnold's "Barney Miller."

IB TIMES: The laughs from "Barney Miller" were usually quite subtle and demanded close audience attention – that is, no slapstick humor, nor vulgarity, nor pratfalls. Where do you think this type of comedy originated? And does that kind of humor still exist in TV or films?

STRATE: As television programs go, you could say "Barney Miller" was a relatively literary series, and for that reason I think you could trace its comedic sensibility all the way back to Shakespeare, and you could also find it owes much to Mark Twain, and to much of the clever writing that went into Hollywood's comedic talkies of the 1930s and 1940s.

Again, the proximate starting point would be sitcoms like "All in the Family," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H."

And yes, that type of humor still exists, in programs like "Seinfeld," "The Office," "Arrested Development," "30 Rock" and "Community" on network TV, and on premium cable channels, with shows like "Episodes," "House of Lies," "Web Therapy," "Veep" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And although it often isn't subtle, I'd include the animated series "South Park" on that list.

As for films, whatever else we might say about him, Woody Allen still produces intellectual comedies, Kevin Smith deserves more credit than he gets. In my opinion, the Coen Brothers certainly do wonderfully inventive comedies, and as a director, Terry Gilliam has that brilliant sense of the absurd that made "Monty Python's Flying Circus" the greatest television comedy program of all time.

IB TIMES: In the early years of "Barney Miller,’’ the elderly cop Sgt. Phillip Fish (played by Abe Vigoda) emerged as the most popular character. But after Vigoda demanded top billing and more money, Arnold essentially got rid of him by giving him a mediocre spin-off show that failed. But even without Fish, the quality of "Barney Miller" actually improved. Was this an unprecedented event for TV – to lose a major star, but prosper anyway?

STRATE: I wouldn't say unprecedented. The most notorious example is when "Bewitched" switched male leads after the sixth season of the series (from Dick York to Dick Sargent), which occurred without any overt acknowledgement. Also, David Caruso abandoned his starring role on "NYPD Blue" for a film career after the program's first season, and if anything, the series improved.

And after all, Vigoda was not the main character, in contrast to "The Office," which was unable to recover from the loss of Steve Carell. As an ensemble series, "Barney Miller" did not have all that much trouble filling in the gap left behind by Vigoda's departure, but there certainly is a risk when a series loses a popular character. And it does speak to the strength of the program, the writing and the actors, that it was able to make the transition seamlessly, and thrive without him.

IB TIMES: NYPD officers I have known virtually all love "Barney Miller" – most of them grew up watching it. While they say some parts of the show (drab squad room, conflicts with top brass, etc.) were realistic, other aspects of the show were not. Specifically, they said that aside from maybe Inspector Frank Luger and Sgt. Wojohowicz, there really were no real-life cops like Sgt. Dietrich (ultra-intellectual renaissance man), Sgt. Harris (social-climbing, snobby fashionista) or Capt. Miller himself (sensitive, liberal, humanitarian who eschewed force and violence), etc. Do you think this is a fair criticism?

STRATE: Probably, although we also have to take into account the fact that the individuals today, whether police officers or civilians, are different from individuals during the 1970s. But the intent of the program was not to portray a real police precinct. As a comedy, it needed to create a cast of characters with humorous potential, and as a form of popular culture, it utilized social types that were immediately recognizable and relatable to the audience. There also was a desire to play against stereotypes, which is why we get the intellectual, almost academic Dietrich countering prejudice that police officers are unintelligent; while Harris was portrayed as upscale at a time when most African-American television characters were poor or working-class types. And Capt. Barney Miller himself played against the "pig" stereotype of the counterculture, as a sensitive male (a new form of masculinity made popular by Alan Alda in "M*A*S*H"). And while they rarely played it up, the fact that his character was also Jewish also served as a countertype.

What was most important is that the characters came across as realistic individuals to the audience, whether the setting had been a bar like "Cheers," or a TV newsroom like "Murphy Brown." What is most significant is that they conveyed an authentic sense of what a police precinct is actually like, and they made the police come across as genuine, likable people, which did wonders for the image of the police that had been tarnished quite a bit during the 1960s and early 1970s.

IB TIMES: The real cops also said the "criminals" on the show were generally unrealistic – among other things, they were mostly white, mostly charming eccentrics, and mostly "noble" victims of the system, not "criminals" per se. Is this also a fair critique?

STRATE: Absolutely. As a comedy, this was not a show about cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys, and depicting the criminals as victims allowed the main characters to treat them with sensitivity, kindness, even sympathy. It also reflected the liberal values coming out of the 1960s and early 1970s, in which criminality had come to be seen either as a form of mental illness in need of treatment rather than punishment, or as a product of a corrupt and unfair social system, for which the criminal is not to blame.

But to keep things light and humorous, the program did not venture into highly controversial territory regarding issues such as race and economic inequality, which is why criminal motivations tended to be highly idiosyncratic, silly rather than systemic.

IB TIMES: They (real cops) also complained that none of the regular characters on the show were Irish or Italian (two ethnic groups that have long dominated NYPD ranks). Why did they omit these two groups, while trying to maintain such a '"diverse" squad room?

STRATE: "Barney Miller" was very much working against the stereotypes regarding the police, even if the stereotypes were accurate, such as the tendency for NYPD to be Irish and Italian. Also, both ethnic groups are stereotypically associated with very traditional forms of masculinity, portrayed as "tough guys," and this was exactly the character type that the series sought to avoid.

IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" got decent ratings – but never great ratings. So, why did ABC keep it on the air for eight seasons, when network TV is all about maximizing profits?

STRATE: During the 1960s, overall ratings were all that mattered, but by 1970 the emphasis had shifted to demographics, and the particular audience segment that "Barney Miller" appealed to was an affluent, well-educated one, and therefore representing a group of consumers valued by advertisers.

IB TIMES: Aside from Steve Landesberg (Dietrich), Jack Soo (Sgt. Yemana) and Ron Carey (Officer Levitt), all the other principal actors on "Barney Miller" were serious dramatic actors. Why has this practice – of casting serious actors in comedic roles – appeared to have vanished?

STRATE: One major change that occurred over the course of the 1970s was the rise of stand-up comedy, with comedy clubs such as The Improv in New York and Second City in Chicago becoming very popular during the 1980s. Stand-up comics, as specialists in comedic performance, have all but forced out serious actors from television sitcoms.

IB TIMES: Sgt. Nick Yemana, the Japanese-American cop, was lazy, slovenly, unambitious and overly fond of gambling, but also warm and colorful. Do you think his character was explicitly designed to shatter the stereotype of the cold, efficient, hard-working, sober, disciplined, conscientious East Asian?

STRATE: Yes, that is another great example of how "Barney Miller" emphasized countertypes against standard stereotypes. And even though the countertypes are in their own way just as stereotypical, as the social type of the "lazy gambler" is quite common, still, by going against type in regard to race and ethnicity, the immediate effect is to generate a sense of realism, at least for the contemporary audience. Only later, with the passage of time, does it reveal itself to be just another stereotype, in the same way that "Roseanne" seemed revolutionarily realistic in its time in portraying a mother who was not nurturing or warm, but rather quick with a putdown and wisecrack and somewhat resentful of her role, a character type that is now commonplace in popular culture.

IB TIMES: Inspector Frank Luger was an old-fashioned, crotchety, absent-minded, annoying and somewhat bigoted and insensitive codger – but actor James Gregory gave him depth and made him lovable and interesting. Was Luger supposed to represent the "dying old guard" of the NYPD lost in the modern world? And, if so, was he also a stereotype?

STRATE: He was the "Archie Bunker" character of the series, giving the other characters someone to play off of, and provide contrast. He was a stereotype that helped to highlight the other characters as countertypes, but if his stereotype had been too flat, too blatantly bigoted, it would have undermined both the humor of the series and its sense of realism.

IB TIMES: The show frequently emphasized the Polish identity of Sgt. Wojohowicz ("Wojo"), who was hard-working, dedicated and gung-ho, but none too bright (for example, he failed his sergeants’ exam five times). What was the point of making Wojo conform to the "dumb Polack" stereotype?

STRATE: There was a certain resonance here, too, with "All in the Family," where Archie Bunker constantly put down his son-in-law Mike Stivic with insults about his Polish ethnicity, but in this instance the stereotype was not countered by having it expressed by a bigot, or contradicted by the Polish-American character's behavior. "Barney Miller" came before the era of political correctness in which any ethnic stereotype would be objectionable, and while the program worked against other racial and ethnic stereotypes, Polish ethnicity remained an easy target, as a Caucasian group that had not organized against defamation in the ways that Jews and Italians have.

Polish jokes had become commonplace during the mid-1960s in popular culture, they were a kind of modern folklore transmitted not by mass media but by word of mouth. "Barney Miller" took advantage of their popularity, in this time before labor union leader Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement restored the image of the Polish people as courageous and heroic, an image they were associated with during the Second World War.

While a source of easy laughs, Wojo was portrayed in a generally positive and sympathetic manner, so that there was much more to him than the ethnic stereotype and the simple character type of the fool, and this relatively well-rounded characterization was to this program's credit.

IB TIMES: "Barney Miller" came on at the perfect time in the 1970s when New York City was in a state of turmoil, decay and near social collapse (a backdrop that provided many rich story lines). Could "Barney Miller" work today when Manhattan is so peaceful, stable and relatively crime-free?

STRATE: Yes, because ultimately it was not about the setting, it was about the characters, and "Barney Miller" gave us a charming group of characters, played by a talented cast of actors, with scripts that were well-written and intelligent. In some ways, it was ahead of its time, and might play better today as there would be less of a contrast between the portrayal of criminality on the show and the reality of social conditions in the city. If it ran today, it would probably be one of the most popular series on the primetime schedule.

IB TIMES: What ultimately is the legacy of "Barney Miller?"

STRATE: The program humanized police officers and helped to restore their positive image after all of the negativity associated with countercultural conflicts of the 1960s and early 1970s. But the enduring legacy of the program has more to do with the quality and intelligence of the series, which has yet to achieve full recognition. It deserves to be acknowledged as one of the standout series of the 1970s, exemplifying what can be achieved creatively, even within the constraints imposed by an industry concerned with maximizing profits and avoiding controversy.

And there you have it, a bit of television history, submitted for your approval. I really like the way this interview on what would seem to be a very specific and limited subject turned out to be rather wide-ranging after all. Sometimes picking up on an unanticipated topic leads to very interesting results.  And of course, it can also be great fun, as befits a sitcom like Barney Miller.