A New York television producer has been conducting the kind of search that makes tracking down the abominable snowman seem like child's play. To quote the words from his very clipboard, he has been looking for "three women who haven't been influenced by the norms of TV."
Are there three six-month-old babies in the land who haven't been "influenced by the norms of TV"?
And when he finds them -- to participate in a regular talk show, it turns out -- what will he do with them? Tape the progrmas when nobody's looking, like "Candid Camera"?
The producer's famous last words are: We're hoping that they won't become mannered by being on TV."
The producer is a lovable dreamer. As far as we can see -- when we're looking at a TV set, that is -- everybody is to the TV manner born. Put your local fire chief on the local news to describe the latest blaze off Main Street. He will look and talk exactly like other fire chiefs you have seen TV. Why? Because, like you, he has seen all the other fire chiefs too.
The housewife being interviewed about the high costs at the supermarket, the union member explaining why he is on a picket line -- all seem to come from central casting. They are typed by the models they have seen, like the high school quarterback who, in his hour of glory, will play it in the mirror-image of Terry Bradshaw.
Mirror is the operative word. TV is the mirror in which we see our style reflected before we have even decided what our style should be.
The presence of a camera instantly produces a performance -- even when pointed at the chap who catches a foul ball at a baseball game. There follows the "Hi, ma!" smile and the side-to-side wave, as pat as a ritual.
In the television generation everybody is at least a semi-pro.
Yet, like that highly romantic New York producer, the world is suddenly looking for "real people" -- it is even the name of a television show.
We desperately want to meet somebody who hasn't been polled by Gallup on questions for which he or she was previously given a briefing by Phil Donahue, with appropriate shoulder shrugs taught by Johnny Carson.
Where is the authentic, uncoached vox populi?m "Speak up, America," we cry -- but that's only another television program too.
It is as if we are secretly convinced that somewhere, sometime people have been more "real" than we clones of TV, we electronic mirror-people. And so the camera crews beat farther and farther back in the bush to photograph people -- "real people" -- who have never seen camera crews.
Part of the current fascination of China, surely, is that the Chinese do not carry our pop culture around in their heads -- the programming that so often programs.
In his latest book, "American Dreams: Lost and Found," Studs Terkel remarks on the tendency of people to begin to deliver an opinion of their own and then, out of some profound uncertainty, to stop and fall back, say, on a joke by Bob Hope. Or almost anything said before a microphone and a camera by almost anybody. *TTerkel, with his own interviewer's microphone, has been searching for real people for years, paying out miles of tape from coast to coast to get below the surface of borrowed jokes, prevalent styles, and opinions received by satellite.
In the end, the search for "real people" leads not only to remote places but to remote times. Both Terkel and the people he interviews circle back to their childhood, and then to their parents and grandparents.
If the Chinese somehow seem more "real" to us, so do our ancestors, whom we threaten to worship like the Chinese. We keep trying to pull ourselves into reality by the roots -- and, of course, that makes for television programs too.
The minute we get anything "real," the first thing we do is take a picture of it.
Can the vicious cycle of mirror-to-image-to-mirror be broken? Terkel thinks that "in unexpected quarters those hitherto quiescent are finding their voice" and "it may be catching." He adds: "Unfortunately, it is not covered on the six o'clock news." But maybe, in the interests of breaking the electronic circuit, we should be just as glad.