Through A Tube, Darkly

Fashions for under $250, model
CBS/The Early Show
This week, CBS News Sunday Morning's John Leonard takes another point of view on the mundane activity of watching television. This segment originally was broadcast on May 20, 2001.

Besides being a circus, a wishing well, a night light and a waste basket, television is also, of course, a laugh track.

I have to admit that I haven't laughed since they cancelled "Sports Night."

I don't need more "Friends," I only like Raymond, I'd rather not bowl with Ed or dance with Drew or dawdle with Dharma or fidget with Frasier or anguish with Ally, and I am still waiting, stuck in Malcolm's middle, for Will and Grace to team up with Faith, Hope or Charity.

I used to think that everything was funny: Standup, sitcom, runaround, freakout... Monologue, slapstick, wisecrack, malaprop, and the sound of one prat falling. I even laughed once at a ventriloquist, although I draw the line at mimes.

But after 50 years of sitting in a dark room, grinning like a player piano, while little people in a blue box punch each other's lines, I've started to worry about all of us.

The Leonard File
Read past reviews by John Leonard.
Have you ever noticed that on sitcoms, the living room couch is always directly in front of the camera and that, instead of watching television, they watch us?

Before television started making fun of itself, comedy and variety shows like Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" and Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theatre" made fun of Broadway, movies and the opera.

For a very long time, the only black comedian with his own show, Flip Wilson, had to wear a dress, even when he was among friends like Bill Cosby. Who could have predicted Eddie Murphy?

We all loved Lucy, especially after she had her baby, but it was certainly nice at last to learn from Mary Tyler Moore that single women could have sex unless it was with Lou.

The Smothers Brothers got into trouble because of Vietnam. And "MASH" was all about Vietnam, even though they pretended it was Korea. But we had to get past the late-night local news to hear politicians made savage fun of - at least 'til Murphy Brown.

But the trouble with talking about humor on television or anywhere else, is that eventually we have to be serious. We have to mention that comcs are dangerous.

That jokes are hand grenades.

That comedy can be cruel, filthy, political and even subversive.

That after decades of ethnic, racist and homophobic jokes, we could reap black, Hispanic, Asian and gay comedians talking back.

That while Carol Burnett would never hurt us, Groucho Marx might have and Don Rickles wanted to.

That Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor were in a lot of pain.

That Rosanne said out loud what a lot of women were whispering into their pillows and pills.

That Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams had been abducted by aliens.

And that Whoopi Goldberg was mad at us.

Giggle wince, guffaw, cringe. Who are we, laughing in the dark, as seen from the othe side of the hole in the wall?

When we look at Robin Williams, a brilliant mind unmade of equal parts of politics, paranoia, a garbage disposal of pop culture and pop therapies, a scrambled egghead and a Jack-in-a-Pandora's Box, beeping like a microwave, he seems to be picking up coded transmissions from some parallel universe through the fillings in his teeth.

But what he's really picking up is us, in all our weirdness. No wonder he's nervous.

He seems to be telling us, in other words, the same thing Brett Butler told her sitcom child on "Grace Under Fire": "Every time you hurt a small animal, a clown dies."

We are the animals, and the clowns, and laughing hurts.

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