Ain’t Nothin’ But a House Party

I was surprised to read yesterday that Art Linkletter has died—because I thought he’d been dead for years. He was just a few weeks shy of his 98th birthday. He shouldn’t be forgotten, however, because he’s a godfather of two familiar program formats that are everywhere on American television today, both of which began on radio.

First, there’s the general-interest daytime talk show. Art Linkletter’s House Party ran on radio from 1945 to 1967, and on TV from 1952 to 1970. House Party opened each day with a monologue, then featured everything from celebrity guests to game segments involving the studio audience to Linkletter’s famous interviews with children. (The latter resulted in a series of books called Kids Say the Darndest Things.) Linkletter can also be credited with one of the earliest competition/reality shows, People Are Funny, which ran on radio from 1942 to 1960 and on TV from 1954 to 1961. Contestants were given odd stunts to perform in public, such as giving money away to strangers on the street, while listeners and viewers eavesdropped on the action. Any show where people have to accomplish something under pressure while the cameras are rolling (and where viewers learn something about human nature along the way), from Fear Factor to The Celebrity Apprentice, owes a modest debt to People Are Funny.

Linkletter also had a brief recording career, which is the sort of thing that interests us around here. In 1969, he and his daughter Diane cut a spoken-word recording, “We Love You, Call Collect,” in which a father attempts to reach out to a runaway daughter while she tries to explain her reasons for leaving. Before the record was released, 20-year-old Diane committed suicide by jumping out of a sixth-floor window. The Linkletter family blamed LSD for her death, and there’s a widely told urban legend that Diane died because she was high on LSD and believed she could fly. (The toxicology reports didn’t back up the family’s contention that LSD was to blame for her death.) “We Love You, Call Collect” was released in November 1969, and climbed to Number 42 on the Hot 100 in a six-week chart run. A few months later, it won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. You can hear it here, preceded by nearly a minute of silence you can cue past.

Since we have a TV category and we’re not afraid to use it, there’s more along that line after the jump.

—The Mrs. and I gave up on 24 earlier this spring, finally getting our fill of gratuitous violence in the service of a lame, suspense-free storyline. We also missed the final episode Monday night because I forgot to DVR it. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that future historians will look to 24 as a significant artifact of post-9/11 American culture. During its middle seasons, it was the darkest program ever to be seen on a major American network, suffused with a sense of looming horror that could only have been more dire if they’d started killing random viewers at home. As a reflection of how geopolitical realities messed with the American psyche in the Bush II years, you can scarcely do better.

As liberals, The Mrs. and I weren’t supposed to like 24, but we learned to live with the cognitive dissonance because more than anything else, 24 was a thrill ride. Whatever it was accused of normalizing—torture, for example, or the idea that due process and human rights are luxuries we can’t afford in times of national emergency—was secondary to the adrenaline rush it was intended to generate. I don’t mean to excuse the people who hold up Jack Bauer as an archetype for how America should look at the scary new-millennium world; I mean only to say that to think too hard about 24 was to miss the point of the show at its most basic level. Better you should suspend your disbelief and buckle up.

—We rented the first season of Lost on DVD a couple of years ago, watched two or three episodes, and gave up on it. It wasn’t that we didn’t like it, necessarily. We knew by that time that it had long since ceased to be a fictionalized Survivor and become a wildly inventive mystery that no one saw coming, but we weren’t willing to do all the viewing work needed to get us to that point in the story. Someday, however, we may be tempted to try again. Certainly the number of people who were enthralled and enchanted by it indicates it might be worth the time.

—Of course, a large number of enthralled and enchanted fans doesn’t always represent a recommendation to me. I still don’t give a damn about American Idol.

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