Greenwich, Connecticut. -- For me, the good news/bad news ambivalence is running high these days. It all has to do with parental confusion, an Ivy League school and one of the most troubling programs ever to come on the tube.
Newsweek has a lot to do with this, specifically the magazine's October 11 edition with the cover that shows David Letterman beside a headline "Stupid TV Tricks/The Billion-Dollar Battle to Insult Your Intelligence." Dave shares the cover with two cartoon characters who star in an MTV show named after them, "Beavis and Butt-head." When it comes to being insulting, this show's got it down pat.
The premise behind "Beavis and Butt-head" is simple. The cartoon action consists of these two boys, about 14, living out an adult's worst fears of what adolescents would be like without any parental influence. Filled with violence, arson, cruelty to animals, sexual innuendo, "Beavis and Butt-head" is a parent's nightmare of how his or her little boy might turn out. Not surprisingly, it also is fabulously popular among youngsters, I suspect in part because parents get upset watching the show.
Which brings me to my own hyperkinetic son, who discovered "Beavis and Butt-head" over the summer. Immersing himself in this disturbing nonsense was a sort of epiphany for him. He taped a few shows and replays them on the VCR, laughing at the dumb antics of young America's new anti-heroes.
For parents like me, the show is an example of the kind of unredeeming trash that is the worst television can offer. But Newsweek has put a spin on it. The magazine has exposed some secrets behind this and other of today's popular comedy shows, most notably that the people who are writing the scripts, including those that delight pre-teens and disturb their parents, are graduates of -- gasp! -- Harvard University.
Yep, turns out that this proud institution, the school that over the years has shaped presidents, Supreme Court justices, diplomats, industrialists, ministers and literary luminaries, now is the intellectual spawning ground for people who write not only "Beavis and Butt-head," but also "The Simpsons," "Saturday Night Live," "Seinfeld" and even jokes for Mr. Letterman.
Of course, the campus humor journal, The Harvard Lampoon, years ago also was the genesis for the now-defunct National Lampoon magazine and a handful of sophomoric films. But compared to "Beavis and Butt-head," those efforts were near-Shakespearean. Besides, the Harvard ties back then weren't spelled out quite so clearly as Newsweek has done with the latest crop of sitcom writers.
And here's where my ambivalence comes in. You see, the good news is that my son, having looked at Newsweek, now has a goal: He wants to go to Harvard, too. He even has taken in stride the parental warning that it will take lots of hard work at his studies to do it. It's scary, but he seems to be working harder on his schoolwork. And what parent wouldn't feel good at the news that one's child's sights are set on such a revered university?
The bad news, as you've probably guessed, is that to my boy, a Harvard degree is a springboard to writing the likes of "Beavis and Butt-head." That's enough to give a sinking feeling to any mom or dad.
I guess I shouldn't be upset. These days, for too many people, America is a place of diminished expectations. The Harvard-to-TV-sitcom-writer track parallels the current economic trend, which causes young people to despair they'll ever match their parents' achievements.
Once upon a time, a young person with a Harvard degree epitomized the best our culture had to offer. Now, he heads off to Hollywood to write about teen-agers blowing up cats with firecrackers. Who says the world hasn't changed?
I'm hoping there could be a silver lining in all this, though. Maybe, if I'm lucky, by the time my fifth-grader graduates from Harvard (if, indeed, he is able to realize his new goal and get in), perhaps the pendulum will have swung back. It's possible that in a dozen years, a diploma from Harvard will again be the ticket to a successful career that would make any parent proud.
If so, as Beavis and Butt-head might say, "Heh-heh, heh-heh. That'd be cool."
Mike Sweeney is editorial-page editor of the Greenwich Time.