Thursday, July 06, 2006

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Foster Brooks, Foster Brooks

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(This is satire.)

It’s good to see that Springfield’s own Pinky is back in town after a stint in rehabilitation following the March tornadoes. The beloved pink elephant, of which Pinky is one, has delighted us for almost a century by parodying the whimsical side of chronic alcoholism and is an important icon in our post-temperate society. Yet it was somewhat sad to see the old whiskey-induced apparition on the frontpage of the newspaper, because it served as a bittersweet reminder on how society no longer celebrates the hallucinatory effects of the delirium tremens as heartily as it once did.

Sure, people are still getting drunk. Really drunk. But it is no longer politically correct to look to the seriously soused as a source of entertainment. Where once the town drunk was the court jester to the common man, now they are only there to be pitied or reformed. One need only study the evolving mores as portrayed on television sitcoms over the decades to see this transformation.

The 1960s were a golden age for sot-based entertainment. The Rat Pack were riding high and Dean Martin was spilling drinks in some of the country’s finest venues. Far away from the Las Vegas glitz, in a make-believe North Carolina town, Americans were falling in love with Otis Campbell from the Andy Griffith Show.

Otis was an unapologetic drunk and the folks in Mayberry, and the television audience, took great delight in his antics. We weren’t forced to see the inner demons that drove him to drink, only the hilarious spectacle of his dangerously impaired faculties. There were half-hearted attempts to redeem his soul from the evils of drink, but we all knew that he would soon be stumbling back into his homey jail cell to sleep off another bender.

In the 1970s, the homemade still that kept Otis liquored-up in the North Carolina hills made its way over to Korea to tickle the funny bones of the doctors’ of the 4077. While M*A*S*H did regularly feature many scenes of unabashed drunkenness played strictly for laughs, the social consciousness that arose in the post-Viet Nam era almost made it incumbent upon the show’s creators to show us how Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Henry were using the gin to self-medicate in order to quell the horrors of war. Throughout the show’s long run, as Hawkeye became more sensitive and introspective and less of a souse, the entertainment value greatly declined.

The 1970s also introduced us to Carlton Your Doorman from the spin-off sensation, Rhoda. Carlton was a pothead in every sense of the word but I seem to recall that the show’s writers made references to his alcohol use in order to protect impressionable viewers against the dangers of drugs. Still, we were able to laugh at Carlton’s brain cell-depleted ramblings without having to concern ourselves about whatever psychological scars led him to such a comical and chemically-dependent state.

Onto the 1980s, where we were invited into a bar in Beantown, one where everybody knows your name. What better setting to celebrate the inherent hilarity of intense inebriation. But Cheers unrealistically “protected” the viewer against scenes that might glorify the over consumption of alcohol.

Norm, a character who valued his next beer more than his wife, was almost never depicted in a state of delightful drunkenness. His dry wit never turned lushy, no matter if he was shown entering the bar for his first beer of the day (NORM!!), or closing it down after soaking on a stool for hours. Despite his prodigious beer consumption, he was immune to its mirthful effects.

In fact, the only time Cheers played intoxication for laughs, during Sam’s fall off the wagon, they were also beating us over the head with a moralistic tale involving the perils of drowning our sorrows. The sober Sam was a carefree libertine with an eye for the ladies – the drunk Sam was pretty much the same way, except that he had Diane haranguing him about his self-destructive behavior. Although Diane was a strong comic foil for Sam, there is no reason that he couldn’t have combated her more regularly while half in the bag rather than giving in to her incessant do-goodism.

The tradition of the pie-eyed jokester isn’t completely lost in modern times. The Simpson’s Barney Gumble has picked up the torch from Otis Campbell as he belches his way into the annals of television. Bill from King of the Hill lets us chuckle at his beer-stoked sentimentality over a life spent pining over his best friend’s wife.. But these are two-dimensional characters who lack the human element that makes public displays of drunkenness some damn funny.

The only place that the seriously inebriated receive any publicity at all these days is in Police Beat, and only then if they stoop to some showy display such as chasing a roommate around with a weed whacker or attempting that tired old gag of mistaking the neighbor’s house as their own. This is just another example of how the media glorifies violence while ignoring life’s simple joys. Gone are the days when the town drunk could entertain young and old alike by stumbling through the town square while warbling “How Dry I Am” at the top of his Glutathione deficient lungs. Now he has to blow his hand off with an M-80 or we don’t even notice.

It’s the kids who really stand to lose here. They see a picture of a pink elephant and immediately think “Dumbo”, completely missing out on the significance of that cocktail he dependently has his snout wrapped around. Pinky may have recovered from the tornado, but he may never recover its rightful place in our hearts.

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