Friday, December 20, 2013

The Carpenters at Christmas: Brought to you by 1977

Hey, Kids! If you're bored with your iPads, Wii, Xbox or phone, you might want to check out what TV used to be like when I was a kid. There were these things called "TV Specials" which took the form of a "Variety Show" where a celebrity starred in a series of hyper-scripted skits interspersed with "musical numbers" on sets with poor lighting. The entire "show" lasted an hour, and usually followed a premise of some sort that delivered a loose narrative. Sponsors advertised during the commercial breaks. 

"What did the people at home do while they watched a "TV Special?" you ask. Well, they sat on their sofas and drank tumblers full of whiskey and chain smoked cigarettes, which they disposed of in "ashtrays." 

"That doesn't sound like fun," I hear you say. Well, you're right. It was an excrutiating ritual engaged in by desperate people with nowhere else to turn for entertainment. They drank because it's impossible to watch sober, and they smoked because they had nothing else to do with their hands. During the breaks, they would visit the bathroom and down handfuls of pills — valium, mostly, but also quaaludes and aspirins — even antacids and antihistimines if they were very bored. By the end of the show (or the "closing number"), either the folks at home would have fallen into a deep stupor or destroyed the house in a drug-fuelled frenzy. 

"If these shows were so awful, why did they exist?" you ask. Good question. They existed solely to serve the satin and polystyrene industries. Most costumes consisted of yard upon yard of colored shiny fabric and fake fur, and the sets were cheap and highly flammable. 

Usually, singers were pegged to show off their acting skills by pretending to be themselves. Here, for example, Richard and Karen Carpenter play a musical pair of siblings called "The Carpenters" who live in California and entertain people with their wacky hijinks. Richard mopes about wearing suits with outrageously large shoulders, a pageboy haircut, and frilly shirts with giant bow ties. Every now and then he plays the piano in the contemporary style of Van Cliburn or Liberace, which is to say, theatrically. He can also be heard lisping through lines of dialogue. Karen is rarely seen out of a tight satin suit, looking ghoulish while feigning interest in a make-believe party she's throwing for her back-up dancers. Meanwhile, she lip-synchs her way through a selection of seasonal classics with a modern twist. 

Occasionally, "traditional" forms of vaudeville entertainments found their way into such shows, often as a nod to the very elderly viewers or the very young, neither of whom can be counted on to have developed a sense of horror when presented with puppets and talking mannequins. 

If you can make it through this entire Christmas Special, you win. But if you can't, just keep leaping ahead to watch snippets, for an idea of what life was like in 1977. 


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