I was doing a small bit of public speaking a couple of weeks ago, which is not my usual thing, and, needing to quicken the pace, I found myself blurting out a reference to “talking like the K-Tel Guy,” which earned some blank stares. The K-Tel Guy, as everyone must know, was Phil Kives, the Winnipeg entrepreneur who gained enduring fame by speed-yapping his way through TV pitches for wacky products.
Okay, the commercials haven’t aired for, let’s see, must be about three decades, if you’re counting, but Hair Wiz and Kitchen Magician — “It slices; it dices!” — must live on in our collective memory, right?
The expressionless faces in my audience answered the question. I made a note to myself, to examine my aging stockpile of cultural references, which are likely to be increasingly obscure to the current demographic.
Confirming my decision this morning is Ralph Keyes, who writes for the newspaper industry’s trade publication, Editor & Publisher. Mr. Keyes cautions journalists against their predilection for what he calls ‘retrotalk‘: phrases and references that are unlikely to be understood by those not of the Baby Boom generation.
Many of the examples Mr. Keyes provides refer to TV programs of the 1960s, such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” He cites numerous instances where discussions of current public affairs lead serious commentators to invoke mentions of Eddie Haskell or Mayberry. He also explains what is meant by dropping those two names (Haskell, a synonym for insincerity; Mayberry, a locus of rubes), which probably shouldn’t be necessary when dealing with a halfway-informed reader of any age or origin.
The problem, it strikes me, may not be as Mr. Keyes suggests, that this habit of mentioning antique texts poses too much of a challenge or an irritation to some nitwits. I was born well after the Golden Age of Radio, but understand exactly what is meant by Fibber McGee’s closet, and find Mel Blanc’s 60-year-old transcribed invocations of Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga to be unfailingly side-splitting. The erudite newspapermen of the past, say, Mencken or Liebling, were no less a delight because you couldn’t directly relate to their evocation of names and events of their childhoods.
If Mr. Keyes is proposing that yuppie reporters and commentators are lazy and rely overly on the convenience of using TV imagery to make their points, I won’t argue. If his point is that newspapers have thinned the ranks of the kind of experienced desk staff who once might have noticed and corrected the overuse of cheap metaphors (such as “thinned the ranks”), he’s smack on.
If, however, he’s proposing that today’s young ‘uns aren’t reading newspapers because they don’t know who Eddie Haskell is, I’d respond, in the style of Old-Time Radio, “Puh–leeze, Mr. Keyes.”
Newspaper readership is sinking for a bunch of reasons, some relating to a generational change, but that trend won’t be reversed by requiring reporters to quit talking about Bob Dylan and begin to cite the wisdom of P. Diddy and cohort. I’d say the problem comes down to contemporary newspapers containing little but crap, and readers who have moved on to rituals other than reading newspapers.
Marshall McLuhan — and I’m sorry about referring to another Ancien Régime figure — said newspapers would endure because they’re like a warm bath. What he meant by that, I think, was that print is meant to be tactile, reassuring and comforting, something into which you’d always wish to immerse yourself.
He was wrong. Stayed in a post-modern Hotel Indigo, or one of those funky new Hilton properties? No bathtubs; just showers. And to drive the message home, yesterday the Marriott chain, the lodging industry leader, announced they plan to stop the practice of plopping newspapers in front of the doorway of every guestroom. Somehow I don’t think they’ll revisit their decision if Rupert Murdoch promises to start wearing hip-hop gear and drinking smoothies.
Newspapers are your grandfather’s Oldsmobile, or perhaps Hupmobile.
Mr. Keyes is certain not to like this, but I’ll offer one concluding bit of retrotalk in response to the plaintive question asked hourly by newspaper publishers of ex-readers, “What do you want us to do?” At the risk of alienating some, let’s quote Goldfinger, a character in a 1960s movie, the name of which you probably won`t remember: “I want you to die, Mr. Bond!”