Election Night in America 2008

Having grown up in Toronto, Canada when I did, back in the days when there were only a handful of television channels, most of which made their way feebly across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, I will always feel at least in part like a native son of Erie County and the Empire State — and by extention, the entire USA.

America was for us the neighbor’s backyard, and, as would be true in the case with the good-hearted next door neighbor you always wished you had, we Canadians have been accustomed to playing next door our entire lives. It has always been, if not technically home, then a comfortable part of the neighborhood where you feel welcome and come to believe that it’s also a place where you very much belong. It’s the house next door.

It has been my experience that the neighbors keep their doors unlocked, and are quick to provide a cheese sandwich after school, or an invitation to spend the night in the guest room during the holidays, or even offer you some kind caution when you play too rough with an unfamiliar terrier. They’re good people, they’re fun to be around, and you love them for their virtues and overlook their foibles — just as you’d want your own household’s lesser moments ignored.

In short, the USA has never been foreign to me and my cohort, and I’ve never once felt like a foreigner on the occasions when study or work led me to take up residence in New York and Oregon.

I’ve set foot in 46 states over the years, and, as the Bob Dylan song goes, the only thing I did wrong was stay in Mississippi a day too long.

Actually, that’s a lie. I even like Mississippi. It’s just the takeout chicken from that Popeye’s in Meridian that I object to.

In any case, watching the election process unfold during the last two years has been a strange experience for many of us non-American nordamericanos. In fact, elements of the campaign have seemed unsettlingly foreign, and at times distinctly not-quite-American. Watching the candidates, that broad-mouthed woman with her rusticated vocabulary, in her store-bought duds with the Nordstrom price tags still hanging from the sleeves, and observing the funny old dude with his comic facial expressions, there’s something oddly out of place here, and yet also oddly familiar. You wait for the woman to shout “How-deee!” and for the old man to chuckle his way through a homespun yarn told from a rocking chair. You’ve seen this before: It’s Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones, and you’re watching the race to see who becomes the President of a parallel-universe America: the United States of Hee-Haw.

Hee-Haw, of course, was the RFD alternative version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, staffed with a cast of Grand Ole Opry favorites, including Junior Samples, the toothless, overalled man-hawg who’d draw guffaws just from eating a tomato. (An inspiration behind the creation of the current “Joe The Plumber” everyman?) The Buffalo network affiliate dropped the program at the earliest available opportunity, as did most of the stations in the sophisticated urban north. But audiences throughout the south continued to howl at Hee-Haw in syndication for many a decade — and surely still do in this age of non-stop lowbrow entertainment. Things being what they are, likely they’re howling at Hee-Haw in Beijing and Bangalore at this very moment.

In many respects, of course, Hee-Haw was never what it seemed. The show’s producers were as canny a group of executives as you’d find anywhere, and much of the program’s on-air and behind-the-scenes talent — including Burlington, Ont.’s very own Gordie Tapp — were Canadian, with experience working on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s antecedent, the long-running cornpone-palooza known as “Country Hoedown.”

My point would be there is always more to these salt-of-the-earth vaudeville romps than you see on the telebishion machine. Gaylord Entertainment was able to parlay the Grand Ole Opry franchise, personified by Minnie and Grandpa into a multi-faceted hillbilly amusement empire, with the cornerstone being the Opryland theme park. The post-Rove architects of the Mac and Sarah show seem to be aiming this proven material at the same audience.  

I’ll watch the election returns tonight to see how it all plays out. But I’ve tapped my toe to these tinny banjo tunes a couple of times too often, and laughed too many times at the same bad jokes. Put me down as one more member of the viewing audience hoping to see some newer old material.

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