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GUEST BLOG #10: P.J. Bednarski offers an 'American Idol'/Jimmy Durante mashup
April 21, 2009  | By P.J. Bednarski

[Bianculli here: Yesterday, guest columnist Tom Brinkmoeller came down on one side of a hot-button current journalistic issue, whether "vintage" references in stories were helpful or irritating to readers, especially those much-coveted younger ones. Today, another of our new TV WORTH WATCHING correspondents, P.J. Bednarski, takes the opposing view.

I'd make a "Jane, you ignorant slut" joke here -- but since that Dan Aykroyd retort to Jane Curtin on "Weekend Update" from Saturday Night Live is over 30 years old, that's sort of the point at hand. So read P.J. (and, if you missed yesterday's post, Tom), then weigh in yourself...]

Forget the Past: It's Like, History

By P.J.Bednarski

When J. Max Robins became the editor in chief of Broadcasting & Cable magazine in 2004, his role was to goose the place into the 21st century. He often told us that before he took over, he had read a lead in the magazine that referred to Jimmy Durante, and that was a cultural reach-back that bothered him a lot. B&C was just too damn old to appeal to younger readers. By making hipper references, B&C circulation briefly spiked past Maxim, before readers noticed that the stories were still about subjects like "cable must-carry" and "multicasting," and things went back to normal.

jimmy durante.jpg

The offending lead: "As Jimmy Durante was fond of saying, 'Everybody wants to get into the act!'" was written in 2003. Jimmy Durante, actor, vaudevillian, guy with a big nose, always signed off performances with "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are," and he died in 1980.

The fact is, Robins was right to at least make reporters make more contemporary references, and Editor & Publisher is on solid ground suggesting that newspapers could get a little more hep, daddy-o. After all, the Catholics quit performing the Mass in Latin more than 40 years ago, and Latin was a dead language for quite a long time before that. Talk about being the last network to go HD.

But we live in a time of throwaway information, with disposable stars, victims and even reputations, and now, through American Idol and You Tube, there are even shortcut pipelines to fame. It's also as fleeting as possible. Journalists should know history; so should regular old people. But it's out of fashion. Those who forget history are bound to repeat it. Those who remember history are bound to get bored stares.

Oh, we lucky, pitiful Baby Boomers; we grew up in two worlds between a great war and a great upheaval, mainly created by our parents, who spawned like rabbits. We knew Bob Hope. He wasn't the least bit funny, but we knew that at one time, he was. We knew, or knew about, Edward R. Murrow, Charles Lindbergh, Joe Auld_Lang_Syne_Guy_Lombardo_Album.JPGMcCarthy and Timothy Leary, Billy Graham, napalm, Elvis Presley and The Pill. And yet, well into my 20s, after the Rolling Stones, acid, the summer of love, Vietnam, Woodstock, the Manson Family and Kent State, new year's eve on TV still meant Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians. Though our world was certainly not at peace, generationally or otherwise, anomalies abounded. Which had bonuses. It's how I listened to Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, all on the same radio station, and there was a newscast every hour that actually reported news.

The Internet, and cable, changed all that. Once, networks and newspapers set the agenda. They were institutions. They're going away.

The speed of pop culture and its pure abundance has made less mean a lot more. On the other hand, it's over quicker; here today, gone by this afternoon. So, as E&P says, if you're going to make references, they'd better be fresh ones. The fame-making machine is a remarkable display of the speed of newsworthy shock followed quickly, very quickly, by inevitable blah.

Last week, a young, good friend sent me the video link to The Lonely Island's I'm on a Boat, with lyrics like these:

Fuck land, I'm on a boat, motherfucker (motherfucker)
Fuck trees, I climb buoys, motherfucker (motherfucker)
I'm on the deck with my boys, motherfucker (yeah)
This boat engine make noise, motherfucker

lonely island on a boat.jpg

And so on. The Lonely Island is a comedy group, also known for videos Dick in a Box and Jizz in My Pants, and helped along by Saturday Night Live. Fuck isn't very shocking anymore. I'm not even shocked by the banality. But I am amazed by the popularity of it. You can get I'm on a Boat as a ringtone, and as of Friday, the video has been viewed 18,215,531 times on YouTube. Assume for a second it's funny. Is it 18.2- fucking-million funny? No, it isn't.

And when a TV critic recalls that in 1990, the short-lived CBS sitcom Uncle Buck made headlines when one of its young characters exclaimed "You suck!" the how-times-change notation only makes a difference to those who remember when there was a mainstream culture, or corporate or moral gatekeepers. Now, who cares? History is over. Everybody's famous for five minutes, and forgotten three minutes later. Good night, Mr. Durante, whoever you are.



P.J. Bednarski is a veteran TV critic and former executive editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine.








Eileen said:

Bravo!! The current generation doesn't have a frame of reference. So sad... I'm also a Baby Boomer, and was caught in the proverbial "time warp" between the warm & fuzzy 50s and the turbulent 60s. But it's the older, not newer, that I still cling to. Maybe it's because it made us feel safer and more connected.

My son is about to graduate with a degree in English Lit/Film. Interestingly, each semester of film focused on a particular genre, i.e., film noir, Italian, French, Japanese. And these were "old" films, i.e., "La Dolce Vita". His first day in film class the professor decided to hone in on the "classics". "Casablanca", "Stage Coach", "The Maltese Falcon", et al.

For his birthday last year my son requested "The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection". It reinforced my belief that all is not lost.

Comment posted on April 21, 2009 9:16 AM

Miles said:

"The fact is, Robins was right to at least make reporters make more contemporary references, and Editor & Publisher is on solid ground suggesting that newspapers could get a little more hep, daddy-o."

Hep? Daddy-o?

PJ, you torpedo your own argument by using 70-year-old jazz slang.

And if you were being ironic in its use, that is, like, so nineties.

Comment posted on April 21, 2009 9:42 AM

I'm a board member of The Friends of Old Time Radio, which runs an annual convention in Newark each October (22-26 in 2009), so even though I'm only 42, I'm very familiar with those older references and because of that I notice them whenever they come up.

I still see references to Rube Goldberg contraptions, "Say Goodnight Gracie," references to "Jack Benny Basketball Leagues" that are for players 39 and older, and Fibber McGee's closet all over the place.

I always chuckle a little when I think about how few people think of Marlin Hurt when they see a reference to his catch phrase "Lov Dat Man," which is mainly remembered by people my age based on Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is a testament to the power radio had on our popular culture that those references survive.

Comment posted on April 22, 2009 1:14 PM
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