Why, hello. It’s been too long, blogworld. I’ve missed you. I’ve been busy working on an essay for my writing class, which now meets on the Zoom platform instead of in person because of, well — you know why. We had our last class of this session on Wednesday night, arrayed like D List celebrities on our Hollywood Squares screen.
For those of you not branded “elderly” in our COVID-19 nightmare world, Hollywood Squares was a daytime TV show popular among housewives and retirees from 1966 to 2004. Arranged three across and three down to simulate a tic tac toe board, each square held a rotating cast of characters like Rose Marie, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charlie Weaver and a long list of other more or less washed up movie and television personalities.
Think Dancing With the Stars without the costumes or the sexy music (but those ’70s outfits … phew). Contestants guessed whether the answer offered by the celebrity/square of their choice to a fatuous question was correct. If they guessed right, they were rewarded with an X or an O, on the way to tic tac toe and a prize.
The perennial center square — Paul Lynde — was a constant. Reliably sardonic, he was an utterly over-the-top gay man in an era when that was actually quite remarkable for network TV. I loved him. Alas, my Zoommate roster does not include such a snarky, funny character, unless you count the only male of the group, Charlie, who can be quite wry, but without the delectable bitchiness that only Paul Lynde could deliver. Some samples of his usually off-color humor can be found here.
Instead, we writing class nerds gaze into our computer cameras, emerging from our poorly lit squares to opine on the thematic flow, authenticity of voice, grammatical correctness and overall interest of the piece(s) of the week. It feels a little ridiculous. If I didn’t have a glass of wine to sip on throughout the two hour marathon I would feign technical difficulties and mysteriously disappear.
Why is Zooming so much less satisfying than meeting in person? Is it just because the medium makes each of us look even longer in the tooth than we already are?
As “serious people,” we don’t put on the layers of makeup that would be necessary to keep us from looking like death warmed over onscreen. And now that no one can get a haircut or have our roots done, any hope of looking “anchor chair ready” is a pipe dream. The only saving grace is that the square only shows us from the shoulders up, hiding the reality, in my case, that I haven’t worn a bra or anything other than sweat pants for six weeks.
I’m not the only one who has reservations about Zoom. It’s hackable, a phenomenon called zoombombing, which when our pets do it is adorable, but not so much when your dissertation defense is interrupted by racist, pornographic doodles. It is, for all it’s “at home with fill-in-the-blank” alleged coziness, impersonal, awkward and inauthentic. Worst of all, I feel like I am being breathed on by a halitosis riddled close talking colleague. Get outta my face!!!
Recent articles in The New Yorker by a professor and in theYale Review by a student point out that humanities courses are meant to encourage discussion, empathetic listening, give and take. That is virtually impossible (every pun intended) within this platform. All of the body language that makes in-person discussion so fruitful is lost. People interrupt more and listen less as they fiddle with their keypads or shoo off interloping partners, pets or phone calls. And it all feels pretty humorless as well.
Which brings me back to the Hollywood Squares. It was silly. It was funny. It was pure camp. Paul Lynde died at sixty in 1982, but the show didn’t go off the air until 2004, the same year that the first season of Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice, debuted. I never really got into The Apprentice; I thought the premise was manipulative, materialistic, championing the value of winning at all costs. And now we are captives in our own homes due not just to the coronavirus, but to Trump’s need to make everything a game of survival in which he decides who advances to the next episode and who doesn’t.
Even though I really don’t like meeting with my fellow writers by laptop, at least on Zoom, I can pretend to be on the Hollywood Squares set instead of in the fake boardroom of The Apprentice, which morphed into the Situation Room in season 16. The host, the contestants and the celebrities on the Hollywood Squares are just out to have a little fun and sell some detergent or toothpaste instead of encouraging us from the press room podium to drink bleach to kill the virus. So, maybe I’ll channel my inner Paul Lynde and try to inject some saltiness into the Zoom format to relieve us all from feeling as if we are about to be not just fired, but left to die by Trump, the country’s demonic CEO. Or maybe next time I’ll just put on makeup and a bra and call it a success.