What I Learned From 70s TV

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(Pictured: Buddy Ebsen, star of Barnaby Jones, 1976.)

We learn a lot about life based on the media we consume, and it’s been true for almost 100 years. When Paul Henried put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, and handed one to Bette Davis in the 1942 movie Now Voyager, a whole generation of men took notice. Television brought role models into every home: teenagers learned how to dress and talk and move from other teens on TV; millions of aspiring rock musicians were born the night the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. Suburban kids who have never met a Black person adopt the look and speech patterns of rappers. Young athletes spike the ball and flip the bat like the pros do. Grown-ass adults internalize what they see on TV as the “right” way to behave, until they’re acting like reality show divas, or electing one president.

I am a child of the 1970s, and like everyone else, I was shaped by what I saw on TV growing up. I was less overt about it than many; apart from briefly wishing I could be cool like Keith Partridge, I didn’t set out to imitate anyone specifically. But I did learn some life lessons, especially from watching cop shows. The trouble is that now, decades later, when I rewatch those same shows, like Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, and Barnaby Jones, I find that many of the lessons I learned from them are untrue.

For example, there’s a lot less diabolical laughter than I was taught to expect. Real-life villains don’t waste time laughing about their plans; they just go off and be bad. Related: in real life, people tend to laugh at jokes, or things that are clearly funny. On 70s TV, it was common for people to react to disappointment or surprise by laughing uncontrollably, which you just don’t see on your average day.

There is also a lot less slow-acting poison being administered on the average day. Your boss never comes to you at 10AM (laughing diabolically) and says he poisoned your coffee, and that if you want the antidote, you’ll have to finish your project by the end of the day. Related: 70s TV cop shows taught us that it is very easy to put poison in somebody’s beverage, and that they will drink it without noticing anything and fall over stone dead within a couple of minutes. Sadly, this is not true in real life, however convenient it might be.

There is also a lot less truth serum and hypnosis being used in real life than I expected. Practically nobody is faking his or her own death, and real-life plastic surgeons aren’t nearly as skillful as the ones on TV.

I expected a lot more people to have hidden caches of diamonds, and/or to be sucked into quicksand.

In my adult life I have learned, contrary to what I saw on cop shows, that if you punch a guy in the face once, you probably won’t kill him. Also, a person who is knocked out cold or diagnosed with a concussion will not be able to return to normal activities within minutes or hours. Joe Mannix could do it—repeatedly—but not you or me.

In the real world, as opposed to the world of 70s TV cop shows, a car that goes off the road and down into a ditch or ravine will not automatically explode like Hiroshima.

One other thing I have learned from watching 70s TV cop shows in the new millennium that I didn’t know back then: apparently, none of these shows had anybody on staff whose job it was to say, “this script sucks and we shouldn’t do it.”

In Memoriam: Any Major Dude With Half a Heart does a regular “In Memoriam” post, recapping the names and biographies of those we lose each month. It’s how I learned about the recent death at age 91 of Rusty Warren, who released seven straight certified-gold comedy albums between 1959 and 1967, and became the top female nightclub comic in America, but with no radio airplay and without a single appearance on network TV. That’s because her material was too hot for broadcast media in the 60s, as you might expect from somebody whose most famous albums are called Songs for Sinners, Knockers Up, and Banned in Boston, and whose most famous bit is called “Bounce Your Boobies.” In 2010, comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff told her story here, and it’s wild.

7 thoughts on “What I Learned From 70s TV

  1. TN

    One thing that has really started to drive me crazy is people on TV and movies who laugh uncontrollably at the misfortunes of others. As you say, the bad guys on “Barnaby Jones” or “Cannon” used to do this al the time, although I suppose it probably started with the evil geniuses in the James Bond movies. This is one of those 1970s TV tropes that has persevered to the present day; I really turned against the show “Breaking Bad” when a DEA informant has his head cut off, and all the DEA agents – the purported good guys! – could do was laugh uncontrollably.

    People don’t do that in real life.

  2. Two things:

    1) In real life, bad guys don’t all drive late-model dark colored big Chryslers.

    2) It’s going to f— with me all day that in the picture you chose, Buddy Ebsen is only three years older than I am now.

    Dammit, Jim!

  3. Wesley

    Amazing how so many of those 70s detectives, with the notable exception of Columbo, often ended each episode incongruously by the regulars having a good laugh while celebrating the capture or sometimes death of the guest villains just a few seconds earlier. Loved how they mocked this convention along with the freeze frame at the finale of each show of the 1982 cult classic Police Squad!, which later became a hit movie trilogy starring Leslie Nielsen.

  4. Tim M

    In the early 90’s there was an incident at Madison Memorial High where some kid shot at another several times (missing each time, as I recall). I remember our reporter coming back to the newsroom saying both kids and teachers had told him that at first, they didn’t think it was gunshots, because it didn’t sound anything like the gunshots you hear on TV. Police later said it was a .22 pistol. As I’m sure you’re aware, a .22, even a .22 long rifle cartridge, makes more of a bark than bang. The gunshots we hear on TV and in movies seldom sound like an actual gunshot. They all seem to sound like Dirty Harry firing his .44 magnum.

  5. mikehagerty

    “Firecrackers. Why do they always sound like firecrackers?”

    That’s a quote from some incident I read about and it’s stayed with me all these years. I’ve been on scene for a few as a journalist and yep—that’s it. Even a .44 doesn’t sound like what we grew up hearing.

    Also, tires don’t squeal on dirt.

    1. rdfranciswriter

      HAHAHAHA! “Tires don’t squeal on dirt.” So true.

      I now recall an article from years back that spoke of how often those chase effects from Bullet were reused in films and TV shows — to less and lesser realism.

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