Monday, November 18, 2013

SpongeBob versus Soupy Sales

There is a lot said and written about how schools are today compared to when we were kids, much less about how the TV shows that kids watch have changed in the same period and what impact that may have had on their development.  Here is a little bit on my sense of this.

I'm sure all my contemporaries who grew up in the NYC area know who Soupy Sales was.  But for the rest, he hosted a local kids program on TV that I watched when I was in elementary school.  There were other such local shows hosted by Sandy Becker in a show named after him, Wonderama with Sonny Fox, and Let's Have Fun with Chuck McCann.  Among these, my recollection is that Soupy Sales was the most subversive in his presentation, kind of like Mad Magazine but targeted at younger kids.  Further, Soupy Sales seemed to value improvisation over a pre-formulated script.

“Our shows were not actually written, but they were precisely thought out,” he explained in his memoir. “But the greatest thing about the show, and I think the reason for its success, was that it seemed undisciplined. The more you can make a performance seem spontaneous, the better an entertainer you are.”

I don't know whether any of the above shows had a national syndication.  In New York they were either on Channel 5, WNEW, or Channel 11, WPIX, or Channel 9, WOR, and not on the local affiliate of the Big Three networks.  It may be that what I'm going to say here applies only to kids who grew up in the NYC viewing area.

Soupy Sales did schtick, so we learned to appreciate that, but it was schtick mildly disrespectful of authority.  It's worth noting that the style emerged pre-Vietnam and in some sense paralleled comics who spoke to adult audiences, notably Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce.  Counter culture was an idea that had its place at the time and it was something we all grew up with and became part of us.  It planted the seed for us to be more aware and much less accepting of authority. 

In originally considering my title I had Barney as the latter day contrast to Soupy Sales, probably an unfair comparison in retrospect.  Barney is so goody goody and the show is entirely anesthetized.  It is also targeted at pre-school kids.   SpongeBob has a bit of an edge and its audience, at least as applied to my family, was kids after they started first grade.

SpongeBob's edge notwithstanding, his character is viewed as an embrace of the American Dream:

Contained in this nine-minute skit is the complete DNA of SpongeBob’s rise to power. His industrial ardor, his outrageous spatula skills, the terrible, idiotic brightness of his eyes. The atmosphere at the Krusty Krab has the monochrome tint of a Gen X workplace satire, a Clerks or an Office Space; Mr. Krabs cackles over his money, while Squidward, the tentacled sourpuss at the register, droops with ennui. But SpongeBob’s professional life is rainbow-colored. More than an adventure, it is a romance. “What is taking you so long?!” complains Squidward, head through the hatch, in an episode called “The Original Fry Cook.” “I’m adding the love!” says SpongeBob happily, squirting a little valentine of ketchup onto his latest Krabby Patty. Take that, Karl Marx!  

Yet this is a peculiar form of the American Dream.  When we were kids the American Dream found its emblem in the expression, a Horatio Alger story, meaning that the protagonist went from rags to riches.  SpongeBob is on no such trajectory.  He is a short order cook and content with his lot in life, finding creativity and satisfaction in that work, which is not a stepping stone but an endpoint.

Prior to SpongeBob becoming the premiere show for my younger son, that position was held by Pokemon.  I viewed that show a conspiracy because of its tagline, "gotta catch em all."  I considered this as a not so subtle reference to encourage kids (really their parents) to buy the trading cards of the characters on the show and for a while we got caught up in that. But compared to SpongeBob, this is all small potatoes.  If you take SpongeBob as propaganda aimed at kids, you see it as the American Dream being rewritten and kids becoming acculturated to a new norm - accept your lot in life and be happy with it. 

The kids could use a healthy dose of subversion.  Where will they get that? 

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