Day Thirty-Four: "Cable TV" from Dare To Be Stupid

When I was a kid television wasn’t just a status symbol. No, for my TV-obsessed brain, television wasn’t just a status symbol. Television was the status symbol. To me, rich people were not people with massive trust funds or nest eggs or complicated but valuable investment portfolios. No, to me, rich people were people who could afford a massive television and the most expensive, deluxe cable package imaginable. 

As a child, I imagined that behind closed doors the ruling class watched hundreds upon hundreds of amazing television channels the ignorant masses didn’t even know about. What was the use of being rich if you didn’t have all the cable channels? As a child, TV was comfort. It was status. It was pleasure. It was everything. Unfortunately for me, “everything” also meant a ten-inch black and white television that only carried, appropriately enough, the UHF channels and not all the big networks and cable channels. 

I saw our tiny little television, which I had to watch from several inches away because I was nearly blind but refused to wear glasses, as damning and conclusive proof that my family was not worth anything, that we were poor scum who couldn’t even afford a decent TV, let alone purchase all of the products on it that were guaranteed to make our lives perfect forever. 

Television was like that in the 1980s. Cable wasn’t just part of the white noise of everyday life the way it is now: it was something closer to magic, a whole new way of watching television that radically expanded upon the limited options of network television in exciting and revelatory ways. 

A lot of collateral damage from Al angrily blowing up all those televisions

A lot of collateral damage from Al angrily blowing up all those televisions

Whether it was George Carlin philosophizing on HBO or cutting edge music videos from Duran Duran (or “Weird Al” Yankovic) on MTV, cable television had a certain hip cachet. Now the essence of so much of Al’s comedy comes down to comic exaggeration. His songs are filled with people driven to delirious heights of ecstasy about the most trivial and ridiculous things, whether it’s Ed McMahon’s existence as a professional sycophant or the existence of aluminum foil or the wonder gizmos of Ron Popeil and family. 

To my nine-year-old brain, there was nothing particularly unusual or excessive about the life of the singer of “Cable TV” being transformed by the introduction of cable television into his humdrum existence. Of course cable TV was going to change an existence so empty he was ready to “curl up and die” before he came face to face with the ever-giving glory of television stations beyond the boring old networks, uptight PBS and those desperate, disreputable UHF channels. Cable was the best! How could it not change lives? 

The glory of cable TV in the 1980s lie in the seemingly unlimited number of options it gave bored viewers, but as “Cable TV” impishly chronicles, those “83 channels of ecstasy” include such dubious and random propositions as “Siamese Faith Healer's Network” and “Midget wrestling on channel three.” The singer’s cable package is generous enough to include lots and lots of shows no one could conceivably want to watch. In fact, it seems to exclusively feature shows no one would ever want to watch. 

Over a big, rollicking, piano-driven groove, the singer exults of the wonders stored within that magical cable box in a way that once again hit my nostalgic sweet spot as the singer lovingly resurrects fuzzy memories from my childhood, like Mr. Wizard (he was like Bill Nye, but with less swag) and watching cartoons on a superstation like TBS, which broadcast all over the country, through the magic of cable, from its home base in Atlanta.

The cartoon excess of “Cable TV” has become the magical yet somehow disappointing reality of today. The HBO-crazed narrator brags about sticking a satellite dish on his car so he can watch MTV while he drives. He never could have foreseen a time when people watching music videos while they drive would be both a banal reality and a serious public safety nuisance. 

The singer’s pals think he’s losing his mind to the idiot box, but he theorizes that they’re just jealous because he’s seen “Porky’s twenty seven times this week.” This reminded me of a moment during the taping of my poorly-rated, mildly disreputable basic cable movie-review panel show Movie Club With John Ridley where the host, the aforementioned John Ridley, ended an episode by saying that we’d done such a good job that AMC had promised not to run Missing In Action III more than four times that month. The ad-lib was cut out, perhaps because AMC didn’t want anyone limiting the number of times they can show Chuck Norris vehicles, even in jest. Thirteen years later John Ridley is an acclaimed and prolific Academy Award winner and AMC is the classiest network in Cable. And ol’ Nate Dogg? Well, let’s just say that I continue to not be homeless. That’s something, right? You’re not going to see old Nathan Rabin digging through a garbage can for spoiled food or sleeping in a cardboard box any time soon, but I really don’t want to jinx myself. 

Astonishingly, I actually used to be on cable TV, and nothing took the magic and wonder out of television quite like actually being inside that weird box, inside that weird world. 

Listening to “Cable TV” I found myself wishing that Al was willing to deviate from his successful formula more for the sake of funkier, more offbeat projects. So while Scotti Brothers churned out a compilation called The TV Album in a transparent attempt to eke as much money out of its cash cow as possible, I wish that Al had made a concept album about television. Dare To Be Stupid and In 3-D have elements of that project. The reverent cover of the George Of The Jungle theme song would make a lot more sense in a concept album that tried to replicate an afternoon of channel-surfing in musical form than it does on an album with the usual mix of parodies, originals and polka medleys. 

Of course, Al spent the 1980s building his career to a place where he could co-write and star in his very own major motion picture, and I most assuredly do not need to remind you that even when the intensely cinematic Al made the big leap to the big screen the subject matter was, of course, a small screen that has obsessed a country full of people who self-identify as consumers, eaters and television viewers as much as they do as Americans.

Support Nathan Rabin's Happy Place at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace