Slow-Motion Punches Slow-Motion Punches by Ryan Peterson Illustration by Shaun Mullins
Obsessed with his favorite television programming, Jimmy sits in front of the set...
Do you remember that poem by
Shel Silverstein, “Jimmy Jet and His TV Set”?
He watched all day, he watched all night
Till he grew pale and lean, From
“The Early Show” to “The Late Late Show”
And all the shows between.
Obsessed with his favorite television programming, Jimmy sits in front of the set for so long that he morphs into the very thing he is so attracted to. From the bunny ear antennae to a “plug that looked like a tail,” Jimmy evolves into a fully-functional television set—so much so, that his family turns its attention from the old TV to sit around and watch him instead.
When I was a kid, watching too many “Masters of the Universe” cartoons and re-runs of “The Three Stooges,” following “Three's Company,” my uncle sent me a copy of this poem. I was fascinated by the poem's story, in a creepy “Twilight Zone” sort of way, and I sympathized intensely for the boy who turned into a household appliance. But I got it. I was familiar with a few of Aesop’s lessons on life, and knew how to pinpoint a moral before I even knew the meaning of the word. The point was, stop watching so much television.
Years later, my family got cable and I forgot about Jimmy Jet. I watched as many popular shows as I could to keep up with the slang and fashion of the month. TV became the life I led whether I was watching it or not. No matter what happened, or how long I was away from it, I always gravitated back to the set—I based my life on it. I even broke up with a girl in 4th grade on the perfectly legit grounds that she “used me.” Don't ask me, it must have been something I heard on TV.
But it wasn't just me that was watching too much TV. It was everyone. In every minute of prime time lay a nugget of conversation for the following day’s homeroom talk show. In every half-hour unit of entertainment, the perceptive grade-school student could decode a wealth of hints at what might be cool next Monday. Sure, we imitated our parents and older siblings as well, but they were guided by the same stars and foggy light that flashed from the corner of the family room.
On the playground, we were all actors in a drawn-out soap opera running dry on fresh material. We gathered in circles and re-gathered in smaller circles, whispering about each other. Who kissed Karin? Andy is cheating on Jill. Jenny is secretly going out with Andy. Sure, “going out” with someone in elementary school was just a verbal agreement, but our relationships were every bit as complex as those you saw on daytime television when you stayed home from school. I swear, had we known what a tumor was, we might have tried to use it to write ourselves out of the main plot now and then, maybe call home with a sudden case of malignant, metastasizing drama.
In 5th grade, we recreated the scenes from our mothers’ soaps on notes passed in class. And hanging from the monkey bars, we weren't monkeys, but actors hanging from the ceiling of the U.S.S. Poseidon. Our GI Joes were more than mere heroes. They were drama queens, reenacting war scenes we caught on TNT as we channel-surfed down to the after-school cartoon stations. “Go on without me. Save yourselves!” And when we pretended to fight each other, we threw slow-motion punches in the air, reacting to the feigned pain with the slow-mo whiplash we saw in the Rocky movies.
The boob tube taught us how to act in relationships, how to imagine ourselves, how to wear our hair and which way to wear our hats. It taught us how to squint just right and act unconcerned about everything to prove how deep and mysterious you are. It taught us that when you are sad, you can go out into a field or on a beach by yourself, finish your booze, throw the bottle into the dark and look up at the sky. Not to worry. All your life's problems will be solved in an hour or so. Sometimes it taught us to sing a song to make everything better. “Tomorrow, tomorrow.”
And then came “The Real World.”
I was never a huge fan of music videos, and when MTV started reality television, I wasn’t suddenly pulled in any more than I had been. After all, why would I want to watch real life? What kind of escape from reality would it be if I turned on the TV to see reality? If I wanted to see reality, I'd look around me instead of turning on the TV, right? And there's the rub–we have made our lives so dramatic, so TV-like, that they have become suitable for television programming! No scripts need be drawn up, for we were raised on the stuff. We are second-generation movie climaxes. The aesthetic and comic formulas of dramas and sit-coms are so securely hard-wired to our grey matter that all any network has to do is point a camera at us and we instinctively play the roles needed for satisfactory, B-drama.
And what has become of the actors who still provide us with recognizably fictitious entertainment? We’ve grown impatient with their talents. We now tune in to “E! True Hollywood Story,” “Celebrities Uncensored,” and mainstream news programs to learn about their dramatic personal lives. Show us their politics, their heartaches, and their scandals. Show us how they turn life from something mundane to something extraordinary, so that we may evaluate ourselves and get back into character. Turn to any “Life” section of a magazine or news website and you will find pictures of the celebs with their latest hairdos and significant others. Ah, yes. This is life.
As we continue to imitate Hollywood and mistake our lives for the pilot for some unoriginal TV series, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are all children of Jimmy Jet, are all ourselves, Jimmy Jet. And we all sit, entranced, watching Jimmy Jet do his thing on “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” and fill-in-the-blank.
Art once imitated life, and I think I grew up in a time when life imitated media arts. But now it seems to me that art has all but left the picture in exchange for cheaper programming. Now, Jimmy Jet sits by himself in the dark, a 32-inch widescreen, vaguely entertaining himself with melodramatic masturbation.