Can TV Teach People a Sense of Humor?
Cartoon Network's amazing unique selling proposition
Sept. 22, 2005, Vol. 1, Issue #33
IN THE NEWS
Don't touch that dial! Not unless you want your children to grow up to be clueless, sad-sack 40-year-old virgins. That's pretty much the message Cartoon Network is sending parents as it launches its new block of programming, "Tickle U," as in University: two hours of cartoons on weekday mornings that will ostensibly help preschoolers develop a sense of humor, without which they will lead a sad and lonely life.
"TV telling kids what's funny? It's laughable."
New York Daily News, Aug. 24, 2005
Yet another tussle about proper parenting has bubbled up.
In one corner is Time Warner's Cartoon Network. In the other corner are parents' groups and educational organizations.
Caught in the middle--not knowing right from wrong--are parents of toddlers.
Cartoon Network would love nothing better than to steal kids away from the wholesome PBS kids shows--"Sesame Street," "Arthur," "Clifford the Big Red Dog," "Caillou," the "Berenstein Bears" and all the other favorites. These are seen as more educational and wholesome than old-fashioned cartoons.
Time Warner's pitch: Instead of a steady diet of ABCs and 1-2-3s, the Tickle U ("U" as in "University") producers claim that they have put together really funny cartoons that will make preschoolers laugh and teach them to have a sense of humor.
To an old geezer like myself, this is preposterous.
I believe that because of TV millions of Americans do not know what is funny and what is not.
What is funny
In the 1930s, my uncle, Eric Hatch, wrote the great screwball comedy, "My Man Godfrey," and went to Hollywood to write the screenplay. His brother, my father, went out to visit him, and at a party at Ginger Rogers's house met Ruth Brown, a wildly attractive little Texan who later became his wife and my mother.
Ruth got a job as an extra in "Horse Feathers," the 1932 comedy starring the Marx Brothers. The irrepressible Groucho played Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who was hired as the new president of a university. Harpo and Chico were students.
The Marx Brothers were manic comics who played off each other on the vaudeville stage and then duplicated their outrageous antics on the sound stages of Hollywood.
One day my father visited the "Horse Feathers" set and was greeted by actor Chester Morris who had a handkerchief stuffed in his mouth, tears streaming down his cheeks, his face bright red and gagging with silent laughter.
It turns out that when the Marx Brothers were filmed, they were always perfect. Only one take was ever really needed--except for one small problem. They were so damned funny that somebody on the set--a gaffer or key grip or another actor--would burst out laughing at their nuttiness and ruin the take.
Director Norman McLeod would yell, "Lights, camera, action!" for another take, and Harpo, Chico and Groucho would do something completely different--just as funny or funnier--whereupon some grizzled old electrician way up in the lights gallery would guffaw, and another take would be ruined.
For example, at one point in "Horse Feathers," Groucho was teaching a class. Harpo and Chico were sitting in the front row. (If you look hard you can see my mother as one of the students in the back.)
Groucho made a point in his zany lecture and added, "I'm sure my students will bear me out."
Suddenly Harpo and Chico stood up, walked up to Groucho and carted him out of the classroom, saying, "We bear you out!"
This was not in the script.
In another scene, the Marx Brothers and the other students got into a book-throwing fight, and a hardcover textbook beaned Groucho and knocked him out cold for five minutes. That take was the wrap.
My father told me that Groucho at the bridge table--sans his painted mustache--was every bit as funny as he was on "You Bet Your Life." One zinger of a line followed another.
A sampling of Groucho's rapier wit was when a contestant on "You Bet Your Life" mentioned that she had 22 children. When Groucho asked why, she said, "I love my husband."
"I love cigars," Groucho retorted, "but I take them out of my mouth once in a while."
This was funny stuff.
When I was an NBC page in New York in the 1950s, my job was to squeeze fat people into thin seats or guard the stage door. In those days, all shows with audiences were live.
I remember during a rehearsal of "The Perry Como Show," Jerry Lewis popped in off the street and proceeded to do his wild shtick, laying everyone out. Perry Como, writer Goodman Ace, the orchestra, crew and we pages were weeping with laughter.
When Jonathan Winters rehearsed, the cameramen were laughing so hard, their cameras shook. The top one-third of Winters' humor was blue and totally unsuited for television. He used this material in rehearsals, but had to rein it in on air, which screwed up his timing, so in my opinion he was never at his best on television.
And there were Sid Caesar ... Ernie Kovaks ... Jack Paar (I was a page on his very first "Tonight Show") ... Steve Allen--don't get me started.
The point is, these people were hilarious. They were funny to anyone--from three to 93--even someone with no sense of humor.
Do toddlers need to be taught this is funny?
How Television Wrecked America's Sense of Humor
I flat out do not watch situation comedies. Never have, never will.
In a 1950 sitcom, Hank McCune played a television host and got into all kinds of madcap situations. The show wasn't getting any laughs, and ratings were lousy, so the producer turned to a sound engineer named Charley Douglass, who had invented a machine that replicated audience laughter.
Known as the Laff Box, final models stood slightly over 2 feet high with four vertical keys and 10 horizontal ones together with a foot pedal that determined the length of the laugh.
The Laff Box could generate every kind of audience reaction from sheer hysteria or a titter to one or two people laughing out loud. Later, Laff Boxes added spontaneous applause.
The Hank McCune show disappeared, but it was the first to employ the Douglass Laff Box. Producers glommed onto the technology and virtually every sitcom in the '50s and '60s used it--"Topper," "Car 54, Where Are You?," "The Munsters," "The Love Boat," "Eight is Enough," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" (that used only occasional laughter), and "The Abbott and Costello Show" (that used continuous laughter).
The Laff Box was also used to "sweeten" reactions of those shows "filmed before a live audience," such as "I Love Lucy."
The point is that laughter was plugged into the show for punctuation and pacing.
Thus when something that wasn't funny happened that generated an uproarious, seemingly spontaneous audience reaction, it merely confused the hell out of everybody with a sense of humor--myself included.
It was surreal.
Above all, it was totally dishonest--a scam perpetrated on viewers in an attempt to artificially jack up ratings.
In the words of Ben Glenn II on on www.tvparty.com:
As the 1960s approached, most sitcoms increasingly relied on the laugh track. More and more motion picture studios (particularly Columbia) began producing television shows, and their soundstages simply were not equipped with studio-audience facilities. Also, the sitcom trend began to border on "fantasy" subjects whose special effects could not be achieved before a studio audience. Thus, the "golden age" of the laugh track entered full swing.
Charley Douglass, who died two years ago and won an Emmy in 1992 for engineering, founded Northridge Electronics to manufacture Laff Boxes. His son, Bob, now runs the company. The current iteration of the Laff Box is described as about the size of a laptop with nearly infinite varieties of crowd reactions.
So Much for Tickle U
I believe the indiscriminate use of the Laff Box in sitcoms totally ruined millions of Americans' sense of humor, and that the TV industry claiming to be able to teach toddlers what's funny and what isn't is preposterous.
But what a great unique selling proposition!
Children's advocacy groups have objected strenuously to the idea of Tickle U. Harvard psychologist Susan Linn called it "the latest attempt to get young children in front of screens, which is exactly where marketers want them."
Linn's group, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, quotes Prof. Diane Levin, author of "Remote Control Childhood":
Children don't need TV to develop a sense of humor. It comes from play and their natural interactions with the world around them. This is a classic case of marketers trying to create a need where none exists and to dupe parents into thinking that watching more TV is good for their children.
Cartoon Network's vice president of development and programming, Alice Cahn, was quoted on AdAge.com as saying children who learn humor skills do better in school and social situations and are less likely to lash out when an obstacle comes their way.
This fight will not be going away soon.
But next time you watch a sitcom, count the number of laughs and audience reactions to material you don't think is funny.
Chances are you'll feel as I do: too much sit and not enough com.
Takeaway Points to Consider
- No matter what side of the Tickle U debate you are on, one thing is for sure: A very brilliant marketing mind came up with a dazzling unique selling proposition.
- This is classic marketing strategy--to take existing products, in this case cartoons, and ascribe to them a new set of benefits to attract a whole new universe of users.
- What product(s) or service(s) do you have that could be repositioned to bring in business from people you never before considered targeting?
- One of the best short, short courses on how to create a unique selling proposition is by California marketing wizard, Jay Abraham: http://www.abraham.com/articles/How_To_Create_A_Unique_Selling_Proposition.html
Letters to the Editor
These letters are in response to "The Inevitable World War With China," which was published Sept. 20, 2005:
My goodness, I do enjoy reading "Business Common Sense." I hope that I am not alone in believing that your e-newsletter stirs the cerebral juices of your readership.
My fear is that many of your readers may take your very cogent and perceptive views as amusing interludes from deleting their spam-jammed inboxes. That would be a tragedy. This week's epistle is a classic and should cause an outcry, as the original Superman series used to proclaim, for "… truth, justice and the American way."
Sadly, over the past decade the "American way" has deteriorated to a rotting scrap heap of ineffectual, empty and self-serving balderdash as a result of an effete leadership in our government, a "feather the nest" attitude by many of our nation's business CEOs and our citizens' myopic view of the reality of world politics and diplomacy.
As one of my favorite observers of the human spirit and world events (that's you, Denny), I am motivated to put pen to paper and respond to your logical, albeit a bit tainted with the spirit of yellow journalism, article on "The Inevitable World War With China."
The "war" is not inevitable; it has been raging for over a century!
Throughout the 19th century, and after several major armed conflicts, Japan and the major European powers of the time, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, occupied China by force. They divided that country into "spheres of influence" where they had exclusive trading rights. During the late 1890s the United States proposed an "open-door policy" where all nations would share China. The humiliation at the hands of Japan and those Western countries formed the basis of a lasting animosity that has continued to this day.
Chairman Mao Tse-tung has some interesting observations about China and the approach that it should take in creating its own destiny: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." "Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan" (March 1927), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 28.
"Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure … Our system of accounting must be guided by the principle of saving every copper for the war effort, for the revolutionary cause and for our economic construction." "Our Economic Policy" (January 23, 1934), Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 145.
"The enemy will not perish of himself. Neither the Chinese reactionaries nor the aggressive forces of U.S. imperialism in China will step down from the stage of history of their own accord." "Carry the Revolution Through to the End" (December 30, 1948), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 301.
"After the enemies with guns have been wiped out, there will still be enemies without guns; they are bound to struggle desperately against us, and we must never regard these enemies lightly. If we do not now raise and understand the problem in this way, we shall commit the gravest mistakes." "Report to the Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China" (March 5, 1949), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 364.
In the words of one of America's great philosophers, Al Capone, "Keep you friends close and your enemies closer." That is exactly what the Chinese have done and done well.
They have saved their resources and used the power of their masses to overcome technological and productivity shortcomings; focused their efforts on "emulating" Western business practices and innovation; created policies and laws that selectively recognize human, intellectual and property rights; invested in building a powerful business infrastructure around their most prevalent resource ... people; and, sent their brightest men and women to become educated at the best institutions of higher learning in the United States and Europe. They have learned well.
In response, Western politicians, diplomats and certain captains of industry have ordered another bottle of Tsingtao with their Dim Sum. The result is the "troubling" economic conditions that we have today.
China is starved for the physical resources to continue to upgrade their manufacturing facilities from petroleum to cement to basic and strategic metals. Their enormous export of goods, legitimate and pirated, has tilted the balance of trade in all Western countries to a point where they can virtually buy any company in any country in the world, if they wish, without straining their economic well being. The balance of trade in the U.S. alone has grown from a negative $68.7 billion in 1999 to a negative $161.9 billion in 2004. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division, Data Dissemination Branch, as of July 2005, the deficit balance of trade is over $107 billion.
Denny, your article was thought-provoking ... that's a good thing. But, like many Chinese meals, an hour later I was hungry. I believe that you need to provide your readership with advice.
Again, quoting from Mr. Capone's cronies, "You can get a lot farther with a kind word and a gun than a kind word alone." The "gun" I am referring to is our country's multibillion dollar checkbook ... our financial howitzer, so to speak. Grab a country by their balance of payments ... cash flow ... and their hearts and minds will follow.
From my perspective, there needs to be a planned approach to managing our country's checkbook in a manner that reduces our economic risk in a world where trade deficits and balance of trade is out of control.
What should corporate America's CEOs do? Smart procurement procedures dictate that companies should have multiple suppliers in the event of a natural or business disaster. Captains of industry and their lieutenants should find a way to share their purchasing wealth by taking the products that they currently outsource and give those contracts to other Third World countries that are aligned with the interests of our country.
As opposed to sending foreign aid to countries that only resent our money or have corrupt foreign politicians and diplomats who take their "vig," we need to invest in the people and economies of those aligned countries that need financial investment, not charity. Teach them to fish, as the saying goes.
What should consumers do? Cut back on purchases from Wal-Mart. There are many other retailers who have comparable pricing, good customer service and source their products from countries other than China.
What should big-box retailers do? It is not necessary to eliminate China as a supplier. However, for the sake of this country and the world economy, big-box retailers should seek countries other than China to supply their products and merchandise. Again, spread the wealth. Let your customers know that you support America, countries that are aligned with America and, where practical, products from American manufacturers.
What should our politicians do? Change our foreign-aid policies to ones that support countries that have interests aligned with ours. Evict the United Nations from our country. Send the UN to France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia or any other country that wants a leader like Kofi Annan and his son, Kojo.
What should U.S. diplomats do? Move to China and get a day job in a production facility to learn how it feels to work in an oppressive society.
Denny, keep up the great, thought-provoking work!
1421, The Year China Discovered America
China's America Problem
Soaring high-tech and other imports from China, sharply higher oil prices drive trade deficit to new record
--Fred Lederman, with Tourbillon Ventures LLC
I think today's newsletter might be better titled "Denny Hatch's Fearful Imagination Runs Wild" rather than "Business Common Sense."
I agree with you that doing business with China presents some serious moral issues but I think (hope?) that in the long run opening China up to the West will result in internal pressure on their government to adapt more democratic policies than it would if we had an economic embargo against it. Personally, I think that North Korea is more of a concern for that very reason. Obviously you disagree. But the scenario you play out of Chinese men becoming so dissatisfied with their lives because there aren't enough women around that the government sends them to war against us, which they win, is just bizarre in my opinion.
Having said all that, I do usually enjoy your newsletter and your column in Target Marketing; however, I really think today's entry was "way out there."
--David Juhl, director of circulation with American Nurseryman Pub. Co.
Two interesting books by Michael Klare worth reading re: "800-pound Gorilla": "Blood and Oil" and "Resource Wars." The war will result from the competition for energy, not markets. Most likely flash points: Caspian Sea basin and South China Sea, with a half-dozen determined nations, including U.S., already there and well-armed. Bush has more on his plate than he can handle already, and there's another course or two headed his (our) way.
I'm inclined to agree with most of what you say. But I understand that China is currently the leading international lender to the USA. So they won't have to invade... merely call their note.
--John Friesen, Blue Giant Media
Web Sites Related to Today's Edition
About Tickle U
Tickle U, A Cynical Ploy?
Selling to your 2-Year Old?
Tickle U-A Review
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