Is all it took for my success.
(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)
Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum. Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute). I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.” One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!). It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.
For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson. He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show. He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.” And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument! In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.
Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out. His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.” In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product. In my opinion, his voice carries weight. Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period. That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.
Politically, Allen was a Democrat. And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity). He didn’t believe in censorship. But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness. Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council. The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen. Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.
In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation. But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment. Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity. And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.