TV Eye

Laughter Through Tears

Stealing Laughter

I was walking into a grocery store earlier this month when I noticed two small children peering into a newspaper dispenser near the door. The girl was about 5; the boy was much younger. The girl was holding his hand the way big sisters do before little brothers become pests.

Because I write about TV, the resemblance of the newspaper dispenser to a television set was obvious to me. I wondered if they thought they'd come upon a TV monitor as they were sucked deeply into the image on the paper, the way I've seen children watching movies on those muted TV screens in the video/DVD section of certain bookstores. When I got closer to the dispenser, I saw a large photo of Osama bin Laden stamped on the newspaper they were looking at. As I walked past the children and into the store, the girl said to the boy, "I think he's the bad guy."

There was something heartbreaking about seeing those two small children, stoically staring at that fixed image and knowing, at a fundamental level, that the world is a much more frightening place. How I would have liked to change what they were looking at to Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, or Little Bill, cartoons I find to be sweet, funny, and comforting.

Where did this unfamiliar maternal instinct come from, I wondered? It turns out it wasn't maternal at all, but a longing to see and hear laughter. And children laughing is one of the most healing tonics I know of. I have to say that my appetite for SpongeBob in particular has increased since Sept. 11, not because of its high comedy, but because that square-bodied sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea makes me laugh, plain and simple. It feels good. It also feels necessary.

The climate following Sept. 11 has been so thick with grief, Hollywood was quick to postpone TV and movie premieres with storylines considered too close to real life events, to edit footage to remove images of the Twin Towers, and to revise scripts in order to banish direct references to bin Laden. But it seems that the recent success of the special episode of The West Wing proves that television viewers, at least, are ready to hear more interpretations of Sept. 11 than those offered in news programs.

Apparently, CBS president Les Moonves agrees. According to a Oct. 12 E! Online article by Josh Grossberg (,1,8964,00.html), CBS is considering a romantic comedy about two people who fall in love after their spouses are killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

"Is it exploitative to do something like that?" Moonves was quoted as saying. "Not if it's handled properly."

While I suspect that the knee-jerk response to the idea is indignation, after some consideration I thought, isn't it time? Just to be clear: I'm not suggesting that the events of Sept. 11 are a source of great comedy, but perhaps some elements of the human condition are. The Mexican Day of the Dead ceremony is a great example. While there is a day of mourning and remembrance, there is also a day of poking fun at death and our fears of it. The ability to laugh, it seems to me, is the last thing to steal from a soul before it dies. Maybe it's time to realize that mourning is more than tears and anger. There's also the time to reassess lives and rebuild from the rubble. Humor, if "handled properly," can help in this process.

Commercials on PBS?

Public broadcasting stations gained FCC approval to sell commercial time on their new digital TV channels, according to the Oct. 12 issue of Studio Briefing, an online newsletter published by the Internet Movie Database ( Public broadcasters making the request said they needed the revenue to pay for the mandatory conversion to digital technology by the May 2003 deadline. Media watch groups, including the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project, were quick to criticize the action.

"By definition, public broadcasting is supposed to be free from market forces," said Andy Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which is a nonprofit, public interest law firm. "The plain language of the law does not permit it, and we intend to challenge this in court."

How and if this affects local public broadcasting stations in Austin will be reviewed in a future "TV Eye."


There were errors in two recent "TV Eye" columns. In the column that ran Sept. 21 ("The Pulse of Pain") the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was mistakenly called the Edward R. Murrah Building. In last week's "TV Eye" ("Terrorism 101"), it was stated that Belo, one of the largest media companies in the U.S., owns Time Warner Cable. Belo owns (among other enterprises) 18 television stations across the nation including Austin's ABC affiliate KVUE, KENS in San Antonio, WFAA-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth, and KHOU-TV in Houston. Time Warner Cable is not among its holdings. My regrets for the errors.

I Get Letters

I don't usually reply to letters sent to "Postmarks," but given what was said by Dr. Zelda Austen in her response to my Sept. 21 column ("Postmarks: Chron Not Showing NY Respect," Sept. 28), and a follow-up letter last week by Lynn Hereford ("Postmarks: 'TV Eye's Folly," Oct. 12), I feel an obligation to respond.

I cannot fathom how anyone would interpret my criticism of television news coverage of Sept. 11, as saying, "a lot of what happened is our fault anyway for being so oppressive." What I have said and continue to say is that, as citizens, we need to expect more from television news sources that until recently (and I say that provisionally) provided thin coverage of world politics and U.S. behavior in world politics. It is the responsibility of the fourth estate to critique and interrogate the government (among other institutions), not to be stenographers for it. This is the role of the press in a free society. The fact that most U.S. citizens have no idea where Afghanistan is is partially to blame on the news media. The larger share of the blame -- or responsibility, to use more positive language -- comes from each of us as citizens.

Call me a damn fool or a lame brain for factual errors. Call me a liberal, a feminist, or a Latina. I am all those things. But to misinterpret what I said to mean that the victims of Sept. 11 in New York or Washington, D.C., deserved to die is as horrifying to me as the incident itself.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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Sept. 11, Les Moonves, CBS, PBS, SpongeBob, Media Access Project, Andy Schwartzman

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