Los Angeles -- The principal at the middle school was standing beside the new metal detector as students lined up to go through the device on their way to classes. "What have you got in that pocket?" he said to a boy wearing the baggy clothes and paraphernalia associated with gangs around here.
"Gun," said the kid.
"What?" the principal said. "Did you say GUM?"
"No! I said GUN!"
"Oh, OK, go on in," the principal said. "Hope you brought enough for everyone."
It's a joke -- on a television show called "Roundhouse" on the Nickelodeon cable channel. My 9-year-old told me it was pretty good. Otherwise, I doubt if I would ever have heard of it.
I thought it was pretty good, too. Like Mad magazine a generation ago, it gives parents a peek at what children of a certain age actually know and how they talk about it to each other. It is keyed to the nightly news, like most of life in electronic America. The next kid through the detector was carrying an automatic weapon. Why? "I brought it for career day. I want to be a postal worker."
The principal laughed and said: "I see you brought along your appointed rounds. . . . Heh, heh. Just a little weaponry humor there."
It's absurd, but what isn't these days. I assume you've been following the latest on Paula Jones or O.J. Simpson. I could argue that we're all going nuts, but one of our children, raised pre-cable on Mad, said he found the Simpson case and coverage "affirming."
What do you mean by that, I asked. "It makes me think this country's as weird as I think it is."
It's pretty hard to argue with that. "Roundhouse," which has been playing on Saturdays and Sundays on Nickelodeon for the past two years, is aimed at pre-teens. It can be pretty gross (like 9-year-olds), with a fascination for such bodily functions as the one parents call "passing gas." But, of course, there is a great deal less violence than the nightly news and infinitely less perversion than the daytime television kids find when we think they're doing homework.
In fact, the episode I saw opened with a wacky version of TV news, a pinned-down correspondent reporting in to anchor Bernard Shotz of VNN (Violence News Network): "We are getting a lot of automatic-weapons fire from our left. There has been a lot of shelling to the right of us, and in the distance you can hear the ominous sound of mortar fire."
"We came to your report late," says the anchor. "Are you speaking from Bosnia, Somalia, Beirut? Where are you?"
no, just a typical day here at Anytown Middle School, Bernie."
Well, maybe it's not exactly typical, but it is sobering to see a 9-year-old, your own, laughing along. She seemed to get every line about gangs called the Cruds and the Gimps, and take-offs on "The Dating Game" and "Super Scario Brothers, the exciting new game where you try to make it from school to your house without being mugged or beaten."
On the show, a kid tells his father he wants to talk about the violence at school.
"Man," says the father, in front of a television, "I don't know what's with these kids today. Where do they get these ideas? Whup! Conversation on hold. Here comes the programming."
"Tonight on the Home Shooting Network," comes the voice from the set, promo-ing ".357 Magnum P.I.," "The A-Bomb Team" and "The Cartridge Family," plus the sports -- baseball, basketball and hockey brawls in living color.
When the kid goes to his mother, she says: "I don't know, son. I'm just a TV mom. That's a real problem in the real world. If you had a big zit on your nose, I could make some cookies and talk to you about how beautiful you are on the inside, but this . . . I don't know."
I don't either. But I was impressed by "Roundhouse" and the cleverness of its producers and writers, headed by Buddy and Rita Sheffield. In the real world after I saw it, a friend told me she was taking her son out of a local middle school because of threats and violence. When she had gone to the principal to complain, he said it was her son's own fault, that she should get someone to teach the kid how to fight the people who were knocking him down and stealing whatever he was carrying.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.