Josna Rege

144. The Blab-Off

In 1970s, Family, Media, Stories, United States, women & gender on April 8, 2012 at 1:30 am

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Not having grown up with television, my family was unaccustomed to sitting passively in front of the Goggle Box. So when we moved to America and acquired our first TV set, my parents treated it like an opinionated and rather exasperating guest: they listened politely for a while, then began to argue with it. Not for us the hushed murmurs of a silent family gathered as if in worship in front of a blaring telescreen. Mum and Dad would frequently talk back to it, and so, inevitably, did we.

As we turned on the TV on a Saturday night to wait impatiently for Sherlock Holmes (“Warlock,” my sister called it, with Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson), my Dad would make comments throughout the last few minutes of The Lawrence Welk Show that preceded it, referring to its geriatric audience as “the Geritol set,” after the ads for the product that sponsored the show. Mum and Dad regularly told prevaricating politicians and tiresome talk show hosts to stuff it and in so doing, taught us to treat it with a healthy irreverence. The only exception was when a James Bond film was playing.

Will, Penny, and the Robot (fanpop.com)

In the 1970s I was newly sensitized to the rampant sexism in the mass media, first exemplified for me by the infuriating regularity with which Penny, my favorite character in Lost in Space, was overshadowed by her kid brother Will. When I realized that Pennie never starred in an episode, but always seemed to get lost or abducted by aliens so that cocky little Will could rescue her, I was outraged, and told the television so, along with everyone else in the room. My father usually tolerated my tirades (or tuned them out, more likely), but as he settled down to enjoy the super-cool Bond, who he knew would provoke an predictable stream of criticism from me, he would warn me pre-emptively that he wanted not a word of running commentary, and that if I couldn’t oblige I had better leave the room. I would do so, ungraciously, no doubt, muttering that I didn’t want to see that male chauvinist pig anyway.

One of the first things we learned about American TV was that the advertisements were longer and more frequent than the adverts in Britain, and that they were aired at a significantly higher volume than the regular programming. No remote control devices in those days, not until the late 1970s/early 1980s; as soon as the ads came on, one of us had to dart over to the television set and turn down the volume knob, another task that kept us active as viewers. But in my last year of college a technological breakthrough changed all that, thanks to Andrew’s younger brother Dan.

Dan was a tech wizard; there was nothing he couldn’t put together, from engines to electronics, hardware and software alike. As a teen, he had already set the house on fire with his homemade fireworks and made a pair of windscreen-wiper sunglasses for rainy days. But the master stroke of genius was his new invention: the Blab-Off.

Amazingly simple but brilliantly effective, the Blab-Off was a little box that attached to the television set with a cable and allowed us to mute the sound with a simple on-off switch. Dan had already made one for his own set, to our deep admiration, and when it was our turn to contribute a home improvement project to the college co-op house we lived in, he gave us the parts and the simple instructions to make our own. With what triumph we shut off the volume, and watched gleefully as the salesman on the screen opened and shut his mouth helplessly, like a fish gasping for air.

Although we now have a remote control device (or three), I still scramble to press Mute, not only because my reflexes are slower (although they are) or because there is such a proliferation of remotes for the various machines that I can’t remember which knob to press, but because I am conditioned to react like a Pavlovian dog when I hear the tell-tale tones of a TV ad: my blood pressure rises and I reach for the Blab-Off. Blissful silence, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief.

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  1. Well done, Jo!
    My own family TV culture had its own kind of Blab-Off, more in line with a wicked contest of who could make the best wise-acre response to the inane drivel on the tube. We went on and on, ultimately ignoring the talking heads altogether. That’s what I thought you were going to describe. But this is genius! So much more to the point. Ah, the amazing Dan!

    • Ann, I love the way families find ways to resist the onslaught of the dominant culture while nurturing alternate forms of community. I think talking over the drivel is a terrific tactic. Andrew’s cousin used to keep the TV on with the sound off and just laugh at it all. And yes, Dan the Man!

  2. Your post triggered so many, hilarious and memorable, incidents related to television of my childhood! I remember waking up early in the morning religiously to watch the L.A Olympics, and then Boris Becker being crowned the youngest winner at Wimbledon. I and my siblings got so hooked to the BBC comedies (Who’s Being Served, Mind Your Language etc.) that Doordarshan used to air, that our love affair with quirky English shows is still going strong after decades :). Thanks for bringing all these memories to the fore….

    • Thank you for your comment, Hema. Although we didn’t have television when I was growing up in India in the 60s, I remember watching I Love Lucy and Yes, Minister with my uncles in the 80s and Wimbledon with my son and his cousins in the 90s. I remember the anticipation with which people waited for the next episodes of both Mahabharat and Bible on Doordarshan every week, and the emotional roller coaster of the Chinese serial Oshin. Oh, and Tandoori Nights, that British series about the rival Indian restaurants. I have a couple of stories that include some discussion of TV-watching in India: Personal Space, Indian Style, and Party Pieces; and British TV, Fall of 1963, a piece about my first exposure to TV in Britain in the early 60s. Of course with satellite TV and economic liberalization, everything changed. . .

  3. The mute button is one of the greatest inventions of the age! I have to admit, though, that the older I get, the more tolerant I’ve become of James Bond. I think when I was younger, I didn’t get it that there was much over-the-top spoof in the Bond movies — although I think a lot of enthusiastic fans didn’t get that, either!

    This is making me think of the shows that were on when we lived in England: Are You Being Served? (which I loved, despite every reason not to), Coronation Street, King’s Lynn . . . my memory fails me now. I vaguely remember somebody named Hugh Downs (is that it?), who completely confounded my American belief that English wit was subtler and cleverer than the American. You’ve got me intrigued now about Indian tv.

    • Sarah, I’ll have to check out some of the classic Bond movies again sometime. No doubt there are layers of delicious irony to be enjoyed! In my teens and twenties I boycotted all Bond and later on I boycotted the Pierce Brosnan era as well, because I couldn’t stand his self-satisfied smugness! Kingsley Amis, who was a great fan, has written a book about what Bond meant to Britain tn the postwar era, when it has lost its power to the United States. Bond gets the job done, but dressed perfectly and without breaking a sweat.

      Of course, you would have watched British TV as well! I never got into watching Coronation Street, though much later I caught the Eastenders occasionally, and could definitely get addicted to that. Not sure who Hugh Downs was–maybe Hugh Laurie, who did the show with Stephen Fry? I don’t know King’s Lynn, but would love to check it out–my cousin lives there. In the late Sixties we watched The Avengers religiously, and Top of the Pops, and Opportunity Knocks (decades before Idol), with its super-sleazy host, Hughie Green.

      Indian TV–a huge subject, but one I don’t know a lot about, since we didn’t have TV in India in the sixties, and I watch it only periodically when I return on visits.

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