J. P. Patches died today. Whether he knew it or not, he symbolises what’s wrong with television today. And maybe something greater.
J.P. was really a guy named Chris Wedes. For years, he hosted what was supposed to be a children’s show on Seattle television. The smart kids got what was going on. A guy in a ratty clown outfit ad-libbed ridiculous routines and dialogue with the other member of the cast, who was in either bad drag, an animal trainer’s outfit or as a black-hatted bad guy. J.P. would talk to the announcer. J.P. would talk straight into the camera (which went up-and-down or side-to-side, depending on whether the camera was nodding or shaking its head). J.P. would refer to inanimate objects as if they were living characters (a reference to a rubber chicken named Tikey Turkey would result in the sound guy playing the same gobble noise every time).
There was no slow, condescending talk to the young audience. The pies-in-the-face, deliberately bad puns and guffaws from the camera crew at inside or suggestive lines could have been for adults, too. At least ones that were smart enough to figure out the show was about a couple of guys in goofy costumes winging a bunch of business.
And it was all live.
This was in Seattle. Other cities across the U.S. had similar kids’ shows featuring extremely creative people doing incredibly silly and funny things, and not talking to viewers like they’re brain-dead. Some went on to fame outside their own region. Soupy Sales comes to mind. Thanks to the internet, we can learn about Chuck McCann in New York City and similar shows in Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and so on.
This was all during a time when there were three networks and a few independent TV stations. We have countless more channels today, more than anyone can possibly watch, with a place for every conceivable programming niche. But on no channel will you find anything like the live kids’ shows that one generation grew up with.
What do people laugh at on television today? I shudder to think. Kids can watch modern-day freak shows under the Reality TV banner, where the idea is to laugh at ignorant people inflicting insults on other ignorant people. There are cartoons where the idea is to laugh at rudeness that prides itself in its obviousness.
Where’s the innocent fun?
It could be that audiences today don’t want it. They want gaucheness and cruel ridicule instead. If that’s the case, the problem is far greater than the messenger, television.
Here’s part of a special on J.P. You can watch some bits of it if you want to get a flavour of the show.