The Night People

"Night People-ism," says Jean Shepherd,
"is like creeping meatball-ism; it's a state of mind rather than a time of day."

Jazz it Up, Charlie

by Jean Shepherd

The Village Voice - September 5, 1956

JEAN SHEPHERD, radio's controversial conversationalist
and a man increasingly seen in high places,
surveying the Village for Night People yesterday
from the offices of the Village Voice.

"You got a pretty fair script, Charlie, but you got to jazz it up and make it tighter. Pull it together. Make it sing. It's got to move, man, if you really want a decent rating." Poor Charlie. His rating is down. But it isn't hopeless yet. A few more visits to the Life-Programming Clinic and a couple more profiles by the Life Creative Idea Department, and Charlie's rating is bound to go up. The year is 1974 and Charlie is worried. His Life-Trendex Rating has been dropping slowly for some time now. At first he ignored it. Then he began to explain it away with the usual drivel about "normal summer-audience drop-off," but he couldn't fool himself for long. Damn those ratings!! Charlie remembered a story or two his father was always telling about how there was a time when nobody had a rating except TV shows, but Charlie didn't see how people could live that way. How could you know what people were thinking about you if there was no rating system? You can't just go on bumbling along without some sort of guide. Sure, everyone knows that the Life-Trendex Rating are full of holes, but after all, they are some indication, and that's better than nothing. Anyway, the Personnel boys use the damn things to sell a guy, so we have to go along with it. Charlie, alone with his thoughts, swung aboard the Perso-Conveyor and headed home carrying in his briefcase the latest Life-Programming ideas from the Creative Head at the Life Institute. It was expensive but necessary.

TRENDEXISM is with us now and will be here for some time. Anyone who spent much time watching the recent political conventions is very much aware of the constant fumbling efforts that were made by both parties to boost the ratings among the TV watchers. There was a headline in one of the trade papers to the effect that the nets were getting together for a series of meetings in order to do something about boosting the appeal of the conventions for the TV audience. This is only a very small straw in the wind as regards Trendexism. Wait till it spreads to all activities and areas of life. Take the Charlies of today, for instance. All of us. We fumble. Hope for the best. Figure it will all turn out OK in the end. But fear that it damn well won't. The sale of "How-To-Live"-type books is good evidence that a lot of people are looking for some kind of blueprint. What an opportunity for some guy with a plausible-sounding rating system that can be applied to the life of every Charlie everywhere!

Under this system, every subscriber would have a rating, just as the radio and TV shows do today. Life would then be Show Biz. Acquaintances both friendly and business would become The Audience, and Charlie could tell by a glance at his latest rating sheet just how he was doing. And then, as a natural extension of the rating system, a series of Life Clinics would be set up to help Charlie program his life so that he could hold the attention of his audience and even build up a larger one.

Ratings would become the criteria for job applicants. Creative-Life program-directors would supplant the analyst and the clergy. They would use all the techniques of modern advertising as well as the services of the finest scripts that could be turned out by ex-soap-opera-writers, to add Zest and Action, not to mention Pathos, to the life of every subcriber.

I HAD THE UNCOMFORTABLE FEELING that just such a system of Life-Programming was actually in operation the day the celebrated Joe Smith incident was staged in San Francisco. It was as though someone in an ad-agency smoke-filled room had decided that what was needed to jazz up the rating on TV as well as stir up the press a bit was a spot of good old-fashioned Conflict. Conflict is a necessary element in every good theatrical effort, so let's have some, boys. The script as it had been played up to that point was as smooth and sweet as a can of Karo Syrup. And as dull. The ratings were falling. Sponsors were growing restive. The agency boys were muttering. Viewers were yawning. Let's have some Conflict, boys, but make it harmless--because we're really playing for laughs, not fist-fights here. So up came Joe Smith. It could have been legit, but from the standpoint of a good stage director, Joe was good Conflict and harmless at that. Just the thing to jazz up a falling rating and bad notices. Joe could have been born in an ad agency. And quite possibly was.

Now that Trendexism is with us, how are you going to treat Conflict in your life, O Charlie? Throw in a marimba band, a couple of quick one-liners, some homely philosophy (nothing deep, but good grass-roots stuff, Charlie), some nice lighting and a decent list of credits, and your rating will be in fine shape. Life is Show Biz, Charlie, and there's no biz like Show Biz.

© 1956, The Village Voice, Inc.

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