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From 1968 through 1972, Harlan Ellison penned a series of weekly columns, sharing his uncompromising thoughts about contemporary television programming for the Los Angeles Free Press, a.k.a. “The Freep,” a countercultural, underground newspaper. Sitcoms and variety shows, westerns and cop dramas, newscasts and commercials, Ellison left no pixilated stone unturned, expounding on the insipidness, hypocrisy, and malaise found in the glowing images projected into the faces of American audiences.
The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on the Subject of Television collects fifty-two of Ellison’s columns—including his 2011 introduction “Welcome to the Gulag,” his unapologetic commentary about how cellphones and the internet have extended television’s reach, eroding intelligence and freedom and creating a legion of bloodshot eyed zombies unable to communicate beyond their screens or think for themselves.
Provocative and prescient, irreverent and insightful, Ellison’s critical analyses of the glowing box that became the center of American life are even more relevant in the twenty-first century.
Also available: The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on the Subject of Television
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About the Author
Date of Birth:May 27, 1934
Date of Death:June 28, 2018
Place of Birth:Cleveland, OH
Place of Death:Los Angeles, CA
Read an Excerpt
The Glass Teat
The Harlan Ellison Collection
By Harlan Ellison
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 The Kilimanjaro Corporation
All rights reserved.
4 OCTOBER 68
Hello. You ought to be frightened. You ought to be scared witless. You think you're safe, all snuggled down in front of your picture tube, don't you? They've got you believing all you're seeing is shadow play, phosphordot lunacies sprinkled out of a clever scenarist's imagination. Clever of them. They've lulled you. McLuhan was right: give me your young every Saturday morning from eight till noon, and they're mine till I send them off to die in a new war (don't ask me which one, Mommy and Daddy, I haven't checked my schedule for this week; but I'll consult TV Guide and see what prime-time they have open next year and that's where I'll send your bouncing baby boy).
They've taken the most incredibly potent medium of imparting information the world has ever known, and they've turned it against you. To burn out your brains. To lull you with pretty pictures. To convince you nothing's going on out there, nothing really important. To convince you throwing garbage in the river after your picnic is okay, as long as the factories can do it, too. To convince you all those bearded, longhair freaks are murderers and dumb Communist dupes. To convince you that Viet Nam is more a "struggle for Democracy" than a necessity for selling American goods. To convince you that certain things should not be said because it will warp the minds of the young. To convince you that this country is still locked into a 1901-Midwestern stasis, and anyone who tries to propel us beyond that chauvinism and bigotry is a criminal.
I want to start gently, with this first column, to ease you into the world-as-it-is with some questions and some observations. For instance: I want to talk for a few seconds about the war on dissent, as manifested on that big momma mammary we call The Tube. (Marvel, gentle readers, at the cultural shorthand: The Pill, The Man, The Tube. You can only use that kind of shorthand when you've got one, only one of each, and everyone knows it. Yeah: The Establishment.)
I want to ask the right questions, because every time I leap into learned discussion with my straight-shooting, clear-thinking contemporaries or adversaries, they whip it on me that there is no concerted war against dissent in this country, and sure as hell not on television. (That most public of possessions given into the trust of the networks. And god knows no one named General Sarnoff would use that public trust to back up The Establishment! Men of honor, all!)
I'd like to ask why Mayor Daley, the Butcher to the Hog Butcher of the World (as Sandburg called Chicago), expended all those dollars preparing a clever cop-out tv show of 60 solid minutes of socko entertainment, to prove that his cossacks didn't really bust any heads in the streets of the Windy City? I want to ask why nobody offered the Yippies a bundle of loot to prepare their side of it? Where were the Guggenheim or Rockefeller grants? There were certainly enough filmmakers in that monster crowd who could have done something equally as artful as Daley's Lady Macbeth routine. ("My hands are clean!" she wept, wiping away the blood.)
I want to ask, most humble and scuff-kicking, if that all-American Channel 5 would have scheduled such a documentary as quickly? And showed it as often? But why bother asking rhetorical questions. Mark Twain it was, when once asked why such awful things went on in the world, who confided with sincerity to the woman who had inquired, that it was because the Universe is run by god and god (so saith Clemens) "Is a malign thug."
So let me ask a much simpler one. If there is no war on dissent, no illiterate conspiracy to discredit anyone and everyone who speaks out against The System, why did the following happen last Sunday, September 29th at approximately 5:15 on our esteemed NBC outlet here in LA, the equal-time Channel 4?:
Robert Abernathy was chairing a show called News Conference. The guest at whom the panel was firing questions was Dr. Benjamin Spock, well-known aging gut-fighter, baby doctor and peacenik/jailbird (as he is known in Orange County). The first half of the show dealt with the fact that (obviously) because Spock's baby book had advised parents to be permissive with their kids, we were now reaping the harvest of that submissive attitude by harboring a generation of cranky, rebellious kids who didn't know what was good for them or the country. Spock fielded it all with great dignity and articulation. Spock is an impressive dude. He isn't one of them redolent, longhaired, cross-eyed hippie freaks. He is a gentle man of prepossessing demeanor, international reputation and obvious common sense. Hard to discredit a man like that.
Yet NBC managed. With Machiavellian ease.
At the half-time commercial break, we were treated to a "public service announcement." It was ostensibly on buying savings bonds. It was headlined: "Buy Bonds Where You Work ... They Do" and of course the workman shown was a 24-year army vet, sweating in Viet Nam. He did his little number about how he'd bought a bond a month for eighteen dollars and change, every month for 24 years, and one of these days he was going to get R&R'd out of VC-territory, start cashing in some of that twenty-five grand he had stashed away, and blow it in Bangkok having—in his words—"a ball." Then the vet vanished, and the screen went black, and the headline appeared again. Now in the usual run-of-the-commercial style, the headline would have held, without sound, to let the message sink in. But this time there was a soundtrack overdubbed (obviously cut at a later date than the video segment) in which he added, "Oh, and by the way, I just extended my tour over here in Viet Nam for another six months, because all of us guys believe in what we're fighting for over here."
Then Spock came back and they popped their first question at him: "Why do you feel we should be out of Viet Nam?"
Pow! That man was dead. With his mouth he dug his grave. Into a pre-recorded interview had been inserted that one special "public service announcement" out of the millions every network runs—concerned with multiple sclerosis, drunkenness, help the blind, drive carefully and help save our water birds— that could invalidate everything Spock said.
So I want to ask: no war on dissent?
And having asked so many questions, I herewith promise that as long as I am allowed to continue writing this column, I will continue to ask questions, and report some personal answers arrived-at from seeing what they set before us on the screen every day.
(I say allowed, for unbidden, the dead eyes of Martin Luther King and Lenny Bruce and Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X swim before me. And behind them Peter Zenger and Galileo and Thomas More and poor Jesus Christ, all of whom were too stupid to know the only way the assassins overlook you is if you keep your head down and your mouth shut. This all smacks of melodrama, for which I have an unnatural love, and yet I feel the stormy stirrings of madness in the land, and even though I don't seek the role of spokesman, any more than Lenny did, the time has come to speak out, to hold back the Visigoths, and that sure as hell makes the spokesman ripe for a bullet in the brain. So while you can enjoy me, gentle readers, I urge you do so, and ask the questions along with me.)
Who knows: we may even locate a few correct answers. And don't be so scared. The worst they can do is kill us.CHAPTER 2
11 OCTOBER 68
Each new television season is marked by a trend which the general run-of-the-extrapolation critics choose to examine in terms of what is most prevalent: twenty-three new westerns or ten new private eye shticks or two series about gynecological gropers. (Mr. Amory, of TV Guide, did a brief turn on the abominable Joey Bishop bash a week or so ago, and he characterized this season as the Year of the Widow—citing Hope Lange in The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Diahann Carroll in Julia and Doris Day in Doris Day. Tune in, Cleveland baby, and I'll lay a few alternative titles on you.)
What with idiot shows like Blondie and The Good Guys rearing their microcephalic heads, we could call it The Year of the Asshole. Or that disaster called The Ugliest Girl In Town might make this season eligible as The Year Of The Closet Queen. Or the unseemly spate of pro-John Law shows— Hawaii Five-O, Adam-12, Mod Squad, N.Y.P.D., The F.B.I., Dragnet 1969 and Ironside—might easily tag this The Year Of The Cuddly Cop.
But those are merely staples in a diet guaranteed to cause scurvy of the mind. The two shows that really tell us where it's at are The Outcasts and Mod Squad. These are the shows that dare to take the enormous risk of utilizing black folk as heroes. These are the shows that win the title hands-down for this being The Year Of The Shuck.
The year the mickeymice inherited the public airwaves.
The year they used Nat Turner as the mouthpiece of the honky. Stuff him and stand him up and pull his ringstring, and the do-it-yourself Mattel Nat Turner doll will gibber about equality.
Oh, it is seamy stuff to watch.
In the event you have been busy in the streets doing what it is these shows talk about, but don't understand, let me hip you to what's coming down on Channel 7, Monday nights at 9:00 and Tuesday nights at 7:30 in living black and white.
On Monday, The Outcasts ride. Don Murray, who is so white he makes Ultra-Brite dull by comparison, and Otis Young, an Afro-American of uncommon surliness, are bounty hunters. One is an ex-Virginia Confederate soldier, the other is an escaped plantation slave. Through one of the great syntactical gymnastics in the history of plot-cramming, they wind up being trail buddies. They mooch around together, preying on their fellow man and snarling at one another for sixty minutes of self-conscious ethnic drama. There are half a dozen obligatory interchanges each show, in which Young calls Murray "boss" and Murray responds with a churlish "boy." They do it over and over till you feel the urge to tell them to kiss and make up. (But the networks aren't ready for interracial faggotry yet; that's next year.)
In the September 30th segment, viewers were treated to a scene in which Young and Murray—trail-weary after god knows how long—break jail and stop off after much eating of dust and pounding of ponies at a run-down way-station for express riders. The wife of the owner is a bit horny; and comes out in the moonlight to grab a little air, and anything else the boys have to offer. Now pay close attention: Murray and Young see this broad by the well, doing a lot of heavy breathing. They exchange a few bon mots about the state of their not-getting-any, and Murray sashays off to give the little lady a fiesta in the tackle and harness shed. Young watches.
Now I'll even grant the producers of The Outcasts the benefit of historical verisimilitude. In them days a black man knew better than to try cozening up to a white chick. The question does present itself, however, why didn't Young drop a gentle hand on Murray's shoulder and say something like, "Hey, hold up a minute, boss. Y'know, we both been on the trail eight weeks, and I seen the rushes of the next sixteen shows, and uh er, y'know not once in any of them sixteen shows do I get a piece, so why not let me go on out and further the plot a wee bit with that there fine little fox?" Granted, we couldn't let Young do anything like that, I mean, actually get down with a white woman—but how much more like real men they would seem than the posturing prototypes they now play! Murray gets uptight when they won't let Young sleep in the house—it's the barn for the black boy, natcherly—but I wonder how tough he'd get if they refused Young service in a whore house? The point is, will Otis Young be given any more natural manifestation of manhood in this series than the wielding of phallic substitutes like horse and six-gun? Or will all the boy/girl jive be confined to the "acceptable" (i.e., white) Murray? Until separate but equal sack-time is established, this remains just another example of the shuck: the great American TV Boondoggle that seeing a black man make it sexually is too steamy and sordid for the fine-tuned sensitivities of the Great Unwashed.
Which brings us, with gorge rising, to Mod Squad. It has to be seen and heard to be believed. Take last Tuesday's offering, a script I have it on good authority was rewritten by the Executive Producer. Now get this, because we travel fast and tricky:
These three overage Now Generation types, once free spirits but now straight-arrow types working as undercover narks for the L.A.P.D. (how they justify their gig is never really dealt with; one assumes that even the most militant Strip type would be converted to Reddin's Folly were he only to be exposed to the logic of the billy club and mace can), return under aliases to high school, to break the back of a car-boosting syndicate. Through incredible stupidity and ineptitude, the three Mod Squadders get their one witness shot through the gut. After 56 minutes of idiot plot the case is cracked, and in the final scene one of the three undercover cops, Clarence Williams III, goes to try and explain to the girl friend of the slain boy why he's sorry she lost her man. The chick is busy cleaning out her school locker. Despite being an "A" student, the chick is going to drop out and "get a gig somewhere."
Then follows one of the most incredible banalities ever concocted on network tv.
Mr. Williams III first demeans the dead boy friend (who was trying to avenge his murdered teacher) by telling his bird that "Doc blew his chance." (He sure did; he should have stayed clear of the fuzz as he had done all through the first half of the show; at least he was alive.) Then he tells her the school is where it's at. It's where it's happening, baby. And then he starts to cry, for no damn reason save possibly to demonstrate an aptitude for Glycerine Bawling 102. And then he tosses her the clincher: he quotes from Ted Kennedy's eulogy of RFK and says (approximately), "Some men look at the way things are, and ask why ... I dream of things that could be and ask why not?" Then he asks the broken-up chick if she knows who said that. She, being no dud, knows this is a test that will count for 2/3 of her grade, and she replies, "A very great man."
With the two of them thus bound together in banality, the mod cop splits, leaving the chick—we can only presume—to the tender mercies of higher education.
Did I mention that Mr. Williams and Judy Pace, the actress who played the girl friend, were black? I didn't? Perhaps it was because they didn't sound like any blacks I ever heard. They sounded like The System, and The System is white, so there must have been something wrong with my set's color control.
What does all of this say? It says that those series are bastardizations. They relegate the black community once again to proselytizing the party line. They are a shuck.
They are ostensibly intended to show the black man and woman as normal, functioning members of the society, yet in actuality they are warped views of what's going on by the aging mickeymice who put these shadow plays together. The producers in their Italian silk kerchiefs and wide belts need more than groovy gear from deVoss to get them into the heart of truth in the streets today. Or even the streets of Laredo, 1883.
In one series the black man is allowed to vent his frustration and loneliness and hostility only through the use of the gun. We know what jingo propaganda that parallels. In the other series a black man speaks in such an uncool, unhip, untruthful manner that even the dumbest white chick would laugh in his face and call him a sellout.
The mickeymice rule. They don't know what the burning gut of the problem is all about, and so they try to shuck us by taking a palm-feel of a high temperature.
If this is integration on tv, it makes the days of Stepin Fetchit look almost cerebral by contrast.CHAPTER 3
18 OCTOBER 68
Nothing pleases me more than that the major networks had a few of their newsmen dribbled around the streets of Chicago like basketballs. Nothing delights me more than that a few of those arrogant swine with their creepie-peepies got their heads and Arriflexes busted by Daley's kulaks. The only thing that would have pleasured me more would have been Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley being beaten to guava jelly in full view of the cameras, in the gutter right outside the International Amphitheatre. There is a Yiddish word—quite untranslateable into English—kvell; it means, like, to feel as if the sun were glowing in your tummy; you rock back and forth with contained happiness. I would have kvelled to see "Good night, Chet," and "Good night, David" said through puffy lips, around Band-Aid Sheer Strips.
Excerpted from The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 2003 The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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