Culture Friday: The power of television

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Culture Friday.

AUDIO: OK, now, let’s see, ‘pull your tooth out.’ Boy, this is gonna hurt.

Doctor, if it’s gonna hurt, please give me something to kill the pain.

Yeah. K. Novacaine. Here we are. Novacaine. ‘Take a firm hold of the hypodermic needle.’ Right. [laughter] ‘There’ll be a little bit of pain, and then numbness will set in.’ [laughter]

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that skit and it still makes me laugh. Tim Conway as the bumbling rookie dentist. He’s constantly having to consult the medical books. He ends up sticking himself with the needle and shooting Novacaine into his hand. And he’s keeping a straight face, while his partner Harvey Korman just can’t.

Tim Conway died this week. Age 85. He won Emmy Awards, he had a long career in television and film, he lent his talents to Christian-themed content for children.

He was known as a clean comedian before that was its own genre of comedy.

I say, Tim Conway was a comedian when comedy was funny.

Well, it is Culture Friday and I’ll welcome now John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, good morning.

JOHN STONESTREET, HOST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: I want to explore comedy as culture with you a little bit, John. Tim Conway stood for something and to lose him is to start to lose touch with an ideal.

I was reading an email newsletter from a new friend, Nick Pitts. He runs the Institute for Global Engagement at Dallas Baptist University. And in marking Conway’s death this week, Pitts quoted an insight from a new book by David Brooks, saying that “only 15 percent of laughter occurs due to something being funny. Laughter is ‘the reward of shared understanding.’ It is ‘the language people use to bond.’

“We connected with Tim Conway,” Pitts wrote, “because of his humor but he connected us with his jokes.”

So John, interact with that, because it strikes me that—with the exception of the clean comedians and I think of people like Brian Regan or Nate Bargatze—but so much humor is meant to divide and not to connect. What do you say?

STONESTREET: I think it’s such an interesting conversation when you think about culture as leisure or comedy or things that we don’t often put into kind of this category. We’re tempted to talk about things like politics or we’re tempted to talk about things like business and, of course, all of that is part of culture as well. But there’s something about how we spend our down time and how we reflect lightheartedly on the world that reveals something about what we truly and deeply believe. And I think that humor can connect if there is such a thing as a shared vision, a shared set of categories. What we have right now is humor that some people laugh at and other people find offensive for the sake of being offended. And, on the flipside, we have things that people laugh at and another group of people find offensive. And what it reveals is that we don’t have a shared worldview in our culture. We don’t have a shared vision of life and the world.

I oftentimes will talk about the difference in the comedy of The Cosby Show, which I know Bill Cosby’s a loaded cultural reference in and of himself, and what we saw in this distinct turn in the 90s to the comedy of Seinfeld. And shows prior to Seinfeld tended to look more like The Cosby Show. Humor was shared, there was kind of a vision of the sort of thing that holds life together, how one moves forward and makes moral progess in their live has something to do with family and so on. And then shows since then tend to look more like Seinfeld, it’s not so much that you’re laughing, it’s that you’re snarking at everything ,where everything is something to roll your eyes at. This was something that Thomas Hibbs wrote about, a Baylor prof, years ago called, “Shows About Nothing.” Of course, Seinfeld was famously a show about nothing. And so much humor today is not a humor finding lightheartedness in the world, it’s rolling our eyes and scoffing at things that we want to gain superiority over. Either a group of people or a reality in the world or kind of the way things are. There’s a smacking of chronological snobbery, that everything old is bad and dumb and everything new is necessarily better. There’s kind of this avante garde sort of edginess equals better. And so basically humor points us to that. If we can find a shared lightheartedness over just what is the challenges of life or the things we’ve all been through, that’s one thing. But when our humor is so dominated by kind of a cynicism, really, it’s what Thomas Hibbs called a “pop nihilism.” This kind of undergirding belief in our culture that life is dumb and that people are stupid and that nothing has meaning. And so it’s more rolling our eyes and snarking than it is humor and I think that is clearly something that we’ve lost in pop culture but even kind of more broadly in our day-to-day lives.

EICHER: Alright, staying on entertainment news. When my kids were little, and they’re all pretty much grown up now, but they enjoyed Arthur the Aardvark on public television.

What they never encountered, though, was the same-sex marriage scene involving Arthur’s teacher, a tall rat named Mr. Ratburn.

AUDIO: But if Patty’s his sister, then—

Who is Mr. Ratburn marrying?

Mr. Ratburn is marrying a male aardvark by the name of Patrick. This is from Season 22. Just came out on Monday.

AUDIO: Mmm. This is the best cake I’ve ever had!

Mr. Ratburn is married! I still can’t believe it!

Yep! It’s a brand-new world!

I’m a tad surprised it took this long, and I’m further surprised they couldn’t find a Christian aardvark baker to create the cake.

But John, you’re the one with the younger kids. In all seriousness, this was meant to provoke discussion, so how do you explain Mr. Ratburn and Patrick to them if they should encounter this?

STONESTREET: Yeah, you know, I’m old enough to remember, Nick, when everyone just rolled their eyes at how silly it was to think that kids shows could be used to indoctrinate little kids. I remember when we all rolled our eyes at Jerry Falwell and the gay Teletubbies and everyone just basically snarked at it. And now not only do we have this story of Mr. Ratburn but the number of LGBT groups that lauded this as a revolutionary moment in television history and how positive it is. And then one thinks, oh, so you do think that kids shows actually change the way kids think and are a method of indoctrination. So that was my first response.

Look, your kids are going to encounter it. And I don’t think they have to encounter it with Arthur. I don’t think they have to encounter it in such an agenda. But here’s the thing, the mistake I think parents make is that when kids do encounter it, this sort of thing, whether it’s in a movie like Beauty and the Beast with its famous gay moment or something like Arthur or whatever, I’m not saying you always have to open up the exposure so that they see it. But too many parents, I think, when they do see it, they don’t want to mention it. They want to downplay it. They want to hope that their kid doesn’t notice. And I think that that’s actually dangerous because the power of culture is not what it shouts at us but what it whispers at us. The power of culture is not what it preaches at us, it’s what it makes seem just normal. This one is a little bit of an oversell. “It’s a brand new world?” I mean, that’s a little bit much.

EICHER: Yeah, that’s something kids say all the time, right?

STONESTREET: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, especially when they encounter two guys getting married. I mean, my kids just looked confused the first time we talked about it, not like it’s a brand new world. But something here doesn’t work.

But, anyway, I think there is a real problem when your kids encounter it over and over and you don’t point out that it’s abnormal, they’ll get the distinct impression that it’s normal. And just because for us this marks a radical shift in what television programming for children is willing to do and the sort of agenda it has, so and so on and so on, and not a radical kind of shift but kind of a new chapter, our kids don’t see it that way. Our kids have never known TV before it started to indoctrinate on liberal values.

And so I think a lot of times one of the roles parents need to play is to point it out even if it goes “over their heads” because if it goes over their heads, then it’s just going to seem normal that a man talks this way or that a woman dresses this way. And you know what? We were just watching the other night, I think I was watching actually the NBA playoffs and there’s a commercial with a lesbian couple and it just flashes in and out with a whole bunch of others. And so what do you do? Do you point it out, do you not point it out? I kind of think if we want our kids to notice that this isn’t normal, we’ve got to point out when culture portrays it as normal otherwise that’s really the power of television and the power of media.

EICHER: Yeah, they don’t put those kinds of commercials on during the National Hockey League playoffs, so there’s that.


EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, we’ll talk again soon. Have a great one.

STONESTREET: Thank you, Nick.

(AP Photo/WF, File) A Feb. 15, 1983 file photo shows comedian Tim Conway.

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