Watch and Wait
Does Dionne Warwick really care if I find love?
By John Bridges
OCTOBER 19, 1998: I used to know what a TV commercial looked like. I could smell one coming a mile off. Just when David Janssen was teetering on a window ledge in an episode of The Fugitive; just when Lucy was getting that look in her eye that said, "Mmm. Maybe I could be a showgirl at the Copacabana"; just when Ann B. Davis was walking into the kitchen to discover that a blond Brady child had just rolled a puppy in chocolate and tried to rinse it in the dishwasher; just when Hoss was beginning to tear up because Little Joe was actually going to start dating women after allthat was the time for a commercial.
It did not disguise itself as anything it was not. Instead, the screen would go gray for a second, and a voice would say, "The Fugitive will return in a moment," or "Stay tuned for more of The Lucy Show," or "After these announcements, there's lots of fun in store with The Brady Bunch." And, sure enough, before you knew it, somebody would be opening the door of an Oldsmobile or lighting up a Salem or squirting Cheez-Whiz on a Ritz cracker.
Families all across America were grateful for their television commercials. If there had been no commercials, they knew, the supper dishes would never have been washed, children would never have done their homework, no one would ever have gone to the bathroom.
They accepted the commercials in the same way they accepted the Saturday afternoon tests of the Civil Defense early-warning system. Without them, they knew, Communists would take over the nation, and parents would be forced to work six months in order to pay for a pair of shoes. Without them, factories would shut down in Detroit and Toledo. Without them, nobody would ever see Lucy get her skirt caught in a conveyer belt again.
That is what it was supposed to be like to watch a commercial. It was not supposed to take 15 minutes. It was not supposed to teach you how to make perfectly round hamburgers. It was not supposed to help you figure out how to get a hair weave. It was not supposed to help you find love. It was not supposed to have anything to do with Suzanne Somers, Morgan Fairchild, or anyone who had ever had a recurring role on The Dukes of Hazzard. It was not supposed to have anything to do with anybody who claimed to be a licensed dermatologist. And, most especially, it was not supposed to have anything to do with making it possible for the women of America to look like Cher.
Because I was brought up in that kind of world, I am not fooled for a second by Dionne Warwick and her psychic friends. I am not fooled by the plump little lady who makes hearty-meal pocket sandwiches by forcing white bread and sloppy-Joe mix through a steam press. I am not fooled by the 27-year-old in gym shorts who tells me that my abs can look just like his if I will just buy $575 worth of black steel tubing and sit on it at regular intervals.
When I see a woman putting white bread through a steam press at 1 o'clock in the morning, I do not have to be told that I am watching "a promotional service of Squeezy-Love Bread Press Inc., Omaha, Neb." When I see an audience of 125 sweatshirt-clad adults shaking their heads in disbelieving wonder at the sight of a car-shine mitt, I do not have to be informed that "some participants have been paid for their endorsements."
An announcer can tell me that I am watching "this week's segment of Wax Me, Willy," but I know I am watching the only segment there is. I know that, at 1 a.m. next Wednesday, the same woman from Poughkeepsie will be shrieking at the same joyous discovery that a car mitt can be used to shine the tank of her toilet. I know that, no matter what anybody does to prevent it, Dick Van Patten will still be the guest star next week.
For many people, however, 1 o'clock in the morning can be a very lonely hour. They are fascinated by a half-hour commercial that is broken up by its own commercials about itself. They are anxious to see what will happen when the grandmother from Eau Claire has her epidermis peeled off just before the closing titles. They are comforted, somehow, to think that Dionne Warwick wants them to find meaning and purpose in their lives. Surely, they think, Dionne Warwick made millions of dollars singing that song about San Jose. She could not possibly be in this for the money. Surely, they think, if Dionne Warwick was broke, Burt Bacharach or somebody would send her a check.
They are people who were brought up having their lives interrupted every eight-and-a-half minutes by an ad for Playtex panty girdles. They need a good deal more fresh air in their lives. They figure that, if a show has its own commercials, obviously it cannot be a commercial itself. If it were a commercial, it would not have a producer and a director and its own theme song. If it were a commercial, it would not involve Dionne Warwick sitting on a couch or Suzanne Somers letting people look at the insides of her thighs or a 57-year-old advertising executive permitting a close-up of the bald spot on the back of his head.
The people who are up at 1 o'clock watching infomercials are people who know their television. Surely, they ought to know better. They are people who understand that they could be watching Montel or Jerry Springer at that very moment. Somewhere out there on the dial, they know, a Starsky and Hutch rerun is getting under way at that very second. Somewhere, they know, if they searched long enough, they would find a female preacher ready to explain to them why Madeleine Albright is the Antichrist.
But they have chosen to stick with the car mitt and the sandwich presser and the thigh squeezer that they will never buy. They have chosen to stay awake to watch again, just to see if it is possible that any half hour in life could be so uninterrupted, so placidly predictable, so unchanging. They feel the same sort of contentment they felt every time they saw the Pillsbury Doughboy get all giggly when a red-painted fingernail poked him in the tum-tum. They remember the sedentary thrill of watching the Marlboro Man ride off into the West. They remember Aunt Bluebell. They remember Mr. Whipple. They remember lots and lots of paper towels. They remember toilet paper. They remember the little man in the Tidy Bowl.
Then it dawns on them: Propped up in their Barcaloungers, they squirm a little to the left and start getting sort of nostalgic for the old times. They anxiously raise and lower their Barcalounger footrests; getting a trifle fidgety, they toy with the mute button on the remote control. Waiting for the sloppy-Joe sandwich to come out of the steam-presser once again, they think, "Man, I wish this thing had a commercial in it. I sure could use a trip to the bathroom."
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