Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

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The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Happy birthday Barbara Eden

Today is the birthday of one of the most beautiful and charming actresses ever to appear on television. Barbara Eden is 87 years old today, and even at 87 she remains both beautiful and charming.

She is best remembered as the title character in I Dream of Jeannie. The show told the story of an astronaut (played by Larry Hagman) who was stranded on a beach after an unsuccessful mission. A finds a bottle and rubs the dirt off it, and a genii magically appears. A language barrier exists until he wishes that she could speak English. Afterward, she is able to draw rescuers to him. He sets her free, but she has already set her heart upon him. So she smuggles herself and her bottle into his equipment and travels with him to Florida.

All this is but the first part of the first episode. The rest of the five seasons depict the various ways in which she tries to serve him and protect him by her magical power. Generally her misunderstanding of American culture and technology cause trouble rather than service and protection. The scriptwriters struggled to find situations in which her power would be somehow limited or otherwise hindered. Larry Hagman was scornful of the show; he once claimed that they had only three scripts that they kept reusing with only the details changed. But the show had a huge following, which indicates the scripts could not have been that bad.

Barbara Eden starred in other shows, including Harper Valley PTA. Like most of her friends, though, I remember her best as Jeannie. I vividly remember one episode which I saw when I was very young. Jeannie and her bottle were trapped inside a safe, and the safe was in danger of being destroyed at a garbage dump. The show depicted the safe being carried down a conveyor toward certain destruction… and then of course they broke for a string of commercials.

I Dream of Jeannie aired during the same years as the Apollo space program. I was a fan of real astronauts as well as of those depicted on the show. The makers of the show cooperated with NASA to make the show as realistic as possible. There were, however, goofs. Real astronauts lived and trained in Houston, Texas—not Cocoa Beach, Florida. Both Houston and south Florida are very flat, but mountains were sometimes seen in the background of the neighborhood where Tony and Jeannie lived.

Most famously, Barbara Eden’s navel was not to be seen on network TV, although on two or three occasions her costume did slip, and her navel did appear briefly. But in more than one episode other women were seen in two-piece bathing suits, exposing their navels and much more flesh. That double standard did not make much sense.

Wherever she is and however she is celebrating, I hope that Barbara Eden has a very happy birthday. J.

Basil Fawlty and anxiety attacks

I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.

For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.

Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.

Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.

Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.

Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.

I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.

J.

(originally published June 5, 2015)

One character in search of a plot

The painting that changed Carl’s life was not even an original piece of art. It was a reproduction or imitation of a certain artist’s work. This painting hung on the wall outside the hospital’s family waiting room. During the week that followed his grandfather’s stroke, Carl walked past the painting several times a day. Its eyes followed him, challenged him, and invited his curiosity. For the rest of his life, Carl never forgot that face.

The artist in question was born in Hungary. He learned to paint in France, but then lived and worked in Sweden. His favorite and most popular subject was a gypsy girl he had known in France. Her image adorned homes and businesses all over Sweden and northern Germany, as well as in Carl’s home state of Wisconsin. Wearing a peasant smock and a colorful skirt, the gypsy girl sat in front of a background of swirling colors. Her black hair cascaded over her shoulders; her gaze always addressed the viewer. Lutherans in Europe and in North America could not even hear the word “gypsy” without thinking of these paintings.

Her image undoubtedly influenced Hollywood’s several portrayals of Esmeralda in productions of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. People who have grown up seeing her portrait remember her while listening to Bizet’s opera Carmen. Even Stanley Kubrick knew her face: in A Clockwork Orange, when Alex—the main character—has been released from prison and returns to his parents’ apartment, several paintings resembling her appearance hang on the living room walls. [Edit: Those paintings are actually by J H Lynch, a slightly later artist who also painted young women with long dark hair. I suspect that Lynch was influenced by the earlier artist’s work, as the main difference between their paintings is that Lynch has natural backgrounds. The painting Carl saw at the hospital may or may not have been by Lynch.]

Influenced by this painting, Carl preferred Jacqueline Smith to Farrah Fawcett in the caste of Charlie’s Angels. When television stations showed movie musicals, Carl favored Natalie Wood’s Maria over Julie Andrews’ Maria or Judy Garland’s Dorothy. Years later, when the musical Les Miserables was made into a movie, Carl was puzzled by Marius’ pursuit of Cosette while he remained blind to the affection and the beauty of Eponine. Many of the cheerleaders and popular girls in his high school were blonde, but Carl’s eyes were always captured by the dark-haired girls. A case in point was the girl who sat in front of him in his algebra class. Too shy to ask for a date, Carl sent her a carnation on Valentine’s Day. He was crushed to learn of her disappointment that the flower came from him and not from the boy she secretly admired.

In college Carl summoned the courage to invite young women on dates. He dated more than a dozen students during those four years, but he was most drawn to the most exotic ladies on campus. One was from Venezuela, and the other was from Korea. Both of them were more interested in receiving an education than in romance. At graduation, Carl remained unattached.

Now it is time for Carl to meet the young lady who looks just like the gypsy in the painting. But what shall be the barrier between them? Will Carl’s shyness return? Will the difference in their ages be too great? Is she already married? Let’s bring this tale into the twenty-first century: is she married, but to another woman?

I am open to suggestions. J.

World Series memories, part one

Over the course of a month, the Chicago Cubs earned a championship by winning eleven games over three opponents—the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cleveland Indians. To achieve those eleven victories, they played seventeen games, and I was able to see parts of all seventeen on television—in most cases I saw the entire games from beginning to end. I missed the beginning of some games because of the classes that I teach, and I left one game early because the Cubs were playing poorly. For seventeen evenings I welcomed Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Joe Maddon and the rest into my home. I should spend more such quality time with my own family!

Along with the baseball players and their manager and coaches, I also brought a few more people into the house those evenings. One of them repeatedly bought a cell phone from an attractive sales clerk. When she said “Enjoy your phone” at the end of the sale, he responded, “You too,” and then enhanced his awkwardness by walking into a glass door, to her consternation. He did so Every. Single. Time.

Then there was the complacent man who drove a Mercury when he wasn’t busy gazing into his own eyes in the mirror or falling backward into a pool of water.

There was also a gentle man with a well-groomed beard who posed as a customer research specialist as he tricked groups of people (Real people! Not actors!) into saying nice things about Chevrolet vehicles.

There was an actor who was fond of reminding me that he used to do commercials for Verizon but was now representing Sprint. One of his frequently-aired spots was set in a barber shop. An elderly barber stood behind the main actor, stirring a pot of shaving cream with a brush through the entire commercial. What was that supposed to represent? Was their some subliminal message involving that barber that I kept missing?

A pair of commercials for an insurance company cleverly portrayed situations in which different people said the exact same words in different contexts. In one commercial, a girl is given a new car by her father while a man is discovering that his car has been stripped by thieves. In the other, a girl is showing off her new suede couch to her friend, and later two thieves are admiring the same couch before they carry it away.

There were repeated advertisements for Live Facebook, none of which depicted anything I would bother to watch on Facebook.

Another car commercial showed clever split screen scenes accompanied by Cat Stevens’ catchy song, “If you want to sing out.”

I also recall a talking llama, a talking gecko, and a talking hockey puck named Alexa.

All of these commercials were part of my play-off and World Series experiences this fall. Even Taco Bell almost managed to make their meals look appetizing, not to mention a monstrously unhealthy sandwich from Burger King that I saw over and over.

Had the Cubs lost at any stage of the play-offs, I would have passionately hated every one of these products and the people responsible for promoting them. Aside from the Mercury guy, I’m not hostile toward any of them, thanks to the Cubs’ victory. However, had the Cubs lost, I would have been annoyed even by the AT&T actress (who happens to be from Uzbekistan, by the way). Granted, I’m not running out to buy a new car or a cell phone, or to change insurance companies, or even to get a sandwich at Burger King. I appreciate the fact that these companies spent millions of dollars to broadcast these commercials along with the baseball game, and that those millions of dollars made the players’ salaries possible. And I’m not one of those people who starts watching a game an hour late so I can fast-forward through the commercials. The commercials are part of the pace of the game to me, and after seeing the same set of commercials dozens of times over a month, they too are almost like family. J.

The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

Singin’ them Olympic blues

My family celebrates the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics every time they happen. Not only do we have the television broadcasts playing whenever we are home and they are on; we have other ways of marking the occasion as well. I have a large paper Olympic torch that I hang on the wall of the living room from the time the Olympic torch is lit during the opening ceremonies until it is extinguished during the closing ceremonies. The Olympic rings are my wallpaper on my home computer and on my work computer. Sometimes, during the Olympics, I set my alarm to wake me with the Olympic theme.

For some reason, this year I have not been watching many Olympic competitions. The television is on and most of the family is watching, but I find that I prefer to be at the other end of the house curled up with a book. The fact that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are more interesting to me than gymnastics and races and volleyball surprises many people, including me.

I have noticed how odd the Olympic broadcasts sound from across the house. Hearing the voices of the announcers without being able to distinguish their words is peculiar—it’s nothing like hearing a movie or music or video game at the same distance.

I have tried not to analyze why I take no interest in this summer’s Olympics… but I’m not very successful at avoiding analysis of myself. I have found several possible explanations for this noninvolvement on my part.

  • I’ve seen the Olympics many times in my lifetime, and they don’t change much from one time to the next. My Olympic memories satisfy me; I don’t have to add new experiences to appreciate the Olympics.
  • It’s been a busy and stressful summer, and I have a lot on my mind. Already this month I have taken a test to become certified in my current occupation, and I am awaiting the results around the end of the month. At the same time, I’ve updated paperwork which could lead to changing careers, returning to full-time church work. There’s no telling when (or if) I might receive a response to that.
  • Every Olympiad, I find the broadcasters increasingly annoying. This reminds me of the fact that I used to love watching the parades on television Thanksgiving morning and New Year’s Day morning. The way the networks interrupt the parade broadcasts with inanity and commercialism ended my parade-viewing inclination. I think the NBC commentators may be doing the same thing to my Olympic-viewing inclination.
  • It’s rare that the Chicago Cubs are doing well this late into the summer. The last time they were playing meaningful games during the Summer Olympics was in 1984, so my sports loyalties are divided.
  • As a parent, I am increasingly sensitive about the time and energy young athletes must invest in their chosen competitions. It seems as if, in many cases, these athletes have lost their childhood to training and preparing for these performances. In many cases, they are also unprepared for a normal life after their days of competing have ended. I don’t sit and think about that topic all the time while the Olympics are happening, but I do feel sorry for these performers who have sacrificed much of their lives for our brief entertainment.
  • Other years I have become emotionally involved while watching these competitions. The last thing I need right now is for some Kassidy Cook to be added to my list of Olympic sweethearts, even if a short story or two could come out of the emotional investment.

Perhaps later this year I will regret not taking the time to watch the Olympics while they were happening. I doubt it. I’ve been through the room enough times, and have even sat down to watch an event or two, so it’s not as if I have been boycotting the Olympics from start to finish. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are keeping my interest. J.

Six Christmas specials

When I was a boy (walking in the snow, uphill, to school), television was a lot simpler. We could not buy copies of our favorite shows to watch at our convenience. We could not even record our shows to watch them later. The newspaper printed schedules of what was showing on which channel at what time; if there was something we wanted to see, we had to make sure to be at home in front of the television to catch that broadcast (interrupted every few minutes by a string of commercials).

Christmas specials were particularly important. Each one could be seen only once a year, at a certain time on a certain channel. We checked the schedule to find our favorites, and sometimes we changed our personal schedules so we would not have to miss an important show that year.

Some Christmas specials were variety shows—humorous skits and song-and-dance numbers, linked only by the presence of the host. I tried never to miss the Bob Hope Christmas specials where he entertained the troops. Others were also meaningful: some designed only for Christmas, but others appearing as a Christmas special in a regular variety show, such as Carol Burnett.

Other Christmas specials were short movies made for television. Some were cartoons and others were Claymation, but they were part of the holiday season. Again, they could be seen at one time on one station, and if you missed it that year, you had to wait an entire year for a chance to see it again. All of these were made in the 1960s and continued to be shown on television year after year until they became holiday classics.

My number-one top favorite Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. Of all the Peanuts holiday specials that were created, this and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are the only two that rank as classics. A Charlie Brown Christmas not only features Linus quoting from Luke’s gospel to explain the real meaning of Christmas; it also addresses holiday depression and the emptiness that some people feel while everyone around them appears joyful and festive. Key to the story is a little Christmas tree. On the tree lot it has only three branches. Once Charlie Brown chooses the tree and makes it his, the size of the tree doubles to six branches. At the end of the special, when all the children care for the tree, it becomes a full tree. What seems at first to be a lack on continuity is instead a depiction of the need for love and of the results of being accepted and loved.

A second special that I love is How the Grinch Stole Christmas. This special does not quote the Bible—it even creates its own nonsense Christmas songs to avoid any mention of Christ other than in the word Christmas. The Grinch lives on Mount Crumpet and hates Christmas for many reasons, chiefly because of the loud noise of Christmas celebrations. (I can relate.) He tries to keep Christmas from coming by stealing the decorations and presents and holiday food, but even with all those missing, Christmas comes all the same. Enlightened by that discovery, the Grinch returns the presents and decorations and food and celebrates Christmas with the Whos. Had I been the Grinch, I would have held back the loud musical instruments and other noise-making devices; with that compromise, I would gladly carve the roast beast.

Frosty the Snowman is also high on my list of favorites. A magic snow on Christmas Eve and a magician’s hat creates a talking walking snowman. The magician becomes a villain who wants his hat back, even at the cost of Frosty’s life. Accompanied by the adorable Karen, one of my first childhood TV sweethearts, Frosty sets off for the North Pole to be protected by Santa Claus. Frosty is one of several Christmas specials based on a song, but its message of faithfulness and of the victory of good over selfishness makes it a holiday favorite.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is also based on a song. This television special becomes a bit heavy-handed with its message of accepting oneself and also accepting others in spite of their differences. Even Santa joins the dark side, criticizing Rudolph’s nose until it suddenly becomes useful to him. The Abominable Snowman who threatens Rudolph and his friends scared me just as much when I was young as did the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

A nicer Santa Claus is shown in Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Here we see Santa grow up as a baby, raised by the toy-making Kringles, until as a young man he resolves to deliver toys to the children of a nearby town. One villain, the Winter Warlock, is easily defeated by the gift of a toy; the Burgomeister Meisterburger is a far greater threat to Santa and his career. Along the way, Santa meets Jessica, a schoolteacher who is to become Mrs. Santa Claus. More than the other Christmas specials, this cartoon reflects the psychedelic cartoons of the 1960s, along with the spirit that love and generosity will always overcome greed and the abuse of power.

The Little Drummer Boy builds its plot around the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the travels of the wise men to bring him gifts. The narration attempts to imitate the sound of Shakespearean English to make it seem that the Drummer Boy’s story is found in the King James translation of the Bible along with the shepherds and the wise men. The title character comes from a background of extreme bleakness and cruelty, which has made him bitter, but his encounter with Baby Jesus makes everything better. Although I watched this special most years, it never meant as much to me as Charlie Brown or the Grinch or Frosty.

These, then, are the Christmas specials I remember. These are those I bought to show to my family. These are the Christmas shows I can now watch, without commercials, any day at any time. The world is different today, but many of the Christmas messages of the 1960s remain meaningful because they are timeless. J.

Broken people among us

They drive the same roads, walk the same sidewalks, and shop the same stores as the rest of us. Some of them work with us. Many of them communicate with us on the internet. Yet they are not like the rest of us: they are missing something that most of us take for granted.

I am not describing all people who struggle daily with anxiety and depression, for anxiety and depression have many different causes in different people, and they bring about a variety of reactions. Many of the people I am describing would not consider themselves depressed and anxious, and they have not been diagnosed as such. Yet they live their lives without hope, without meaning, without compassion or concern for others, and without healthy relationships with other people.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States experimented with various forms of mind control, hoping to use the results of their experiments to defeat the communist forces aligned against the United States. These experiments included powerful drugs, food and sleep deprivation, and various forms of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. Some of these horrific experiments were based on Nazi practices from their concentration camps during World War II. The secret program, code-named MKULTRA, came to light during Congressional investigations of the executive branch of American government in the mid-1970s. CIA leaders promised to discontinue the program immediately.

Some people believe that the program has not been discontinued. They state that the CIA, in conjunction with Illuminati or the Masonic lodge or some other nefarious group, has enslaved a large number of American citizens by these same procedures, using them to accomplish secret goals, which are known only to the central group. Of course any massive conspiracy is going to be clumsy, ineffective, and vulnerable to the human self-interest and incompetence of its members. Strange to say, though, the victims of mind control experiments appear to be real, even if no conspiracy is guiding their training.

Mind control was intended to remove the moral and compassionate restraints that most people possess so they would be willing to do the bidding of their masters. Various forms of abuse were used to achieve this effect. I cannot say whether child abuse of various kinds has increased in the last seventy years or if society is more aware of child abuse than before; the latter may be the case, but I see the former as more likely. Society has changed greatly in seventy years. Gone are the extended families living close to one another, in which grandparents and uncles and aunts could assist in watching and caring for children. Gone are the small towns and the city neighborhoods in which everyone knew everyone else and people watched out for each other. Rapid communication and rapid transportation have created a world in which workers and their families are moved from place to place and in which families choose to relocate regularly for other reasons. Single-parent families and two-income families require paid strangers to care for their children. Children are more vulnerable to various kinds of danger these days, not all of which would be considered abuse, but all of which can disable their moral and compassionate restraints.

In addition, modern families bring into their homes the very kind of sexual and violent materials that were used years ago to desensitize mind-control subjects. Now these things are considered entertainment. Through television, the internet, and video games, children are exposed to sexual behaviors—often inappropriate behaviors—and violence in far larger and more persistent doses than ever before. This is not the result of a conspiracy trying to control people. The entertainment industry only wants to make money. It distributes the products it creates because they sell. Yet the net result of this influence is a larger number of people who are without hope, without a sense of meaning for their lives, without compassion for others, and without healthy relationships with other people.

Not every victim of child abuse remains scarred and miserable for life. Many do find hope and purpose, they do have compassion for others, and they do develop healthy relationships with others. Not every child who plays violent video games or watches violent movies becomes a violent person. Many of them can distinguish between reality and entertainment, and they also have meaningful and hopeful lives and healthy relationships with other people. Not all the broken people around us are victims of abuse or have been swayed by inappropriate entertainment. Some of them are broken for different reasons. Yet it seems that society as a whole has been following the pattern of mind-control techniques, and yet no mastermind is controlling the process. The train is roaring down the tracks, but no one is minding the engine.

Christian truths are the best help for people broken by abuse, by neglect, and by a world that seems out of control. Christian truths teach compassion and help to create healthy relationships. Christian truths offer hope and a meaning for life. Christian truths offer forgiveness to those who have done wrong, and they offer victory to those who have been victims of evil. The victory of Christ’s sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection overpower evil in all its forms and restore human life to dignity and hope.

Yet the broken people, without hope and without compassion, are largely turned against religion in general and Christianity in particular. They reject God and all his teachings. They sneer at commandments to love one another, or they redefine love to remove the meaning of those commandments. They have no desire to repent and be forgiven. They call religion a set of fairy tales, a crutch for weak people, and the source of violence and abuse in the world. It seems as if these broken people have been programmed to turn against the one power in the world that could fix their lives and make them complete human beings.

Is there no hope for the broken people in the world? The Word of God is still powerful and active. Such people can find hope and meaning in the good news of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, Christians can model hopeful and compassionate lives. They can care for their own children and prevent them from being desensitized to morality and compassion. And Christians can pray for the broken people, asking God to reach into their lives and fix what is broken. Where there is Christ, there is hope. And Christ has already defeated evil at its source. J.