Les Nessman Redux|
By Kent Southard
Right at the top of my short list of significant achievements in
American pop culture, along with Calvin and Hobbes, The Rockford Files, Joni Mitchell and The Doors, is that charming and gently eccentric comedy WKRP in Cincinnati. The show had crackerjack writing and a perfect cast playing an ensemble of characters that, despite the show's seeming off-the-wall quality, seemed to more closely resemble real people rather than television's usual stale roster of clichéés. The result was a show that made other comedies seem like they were swimming underwater, staged in slow motion for the humor impaired.
Perhaps the most unforgettable character was WKRP's newsman, Les Nessman, who never missed an opportunity to turn his hog reports into a editorial on the creeping communist conspiracy. Played to mousy perfection by Richard Sanders, Les Nessman was the archetypal ever-single, ever-dateless, ever-bandaged, passive-aggressive twit conservative. As the shows run spanned the era between late-Carter and early-Reagan, the hard-right fringe represented by Nessman seemed at its nadir, and a safe target for some spoofing. Though Nessman was defined by the combination of megalomania and emotional fragility, the show's writers always let him retain his humanity somehow, largely because he was so obviously harmless.
Inexplicably, twenty years on, the hard-right fringe has somehow come to be running the country; and accordingly, everywhere you look in the media is some permutation of Les Nessman -- some more souped up than others, but all just as wide-eyed when it comes to his or her paranoia. What is Rush Limbaugh after all, but Les Nessman with a bombastic middle-management voice implant and oh so stage-managed that we're shown only the aggressive side of his passive aggressive precursor? (Has Limbaugh ever recanted his position on the 'Gorbasm,' that Gorbachev's dismantling of the Soviet Union was a dirty communist trick? Not that I'm aware.) Radio eases that task but on television Bill O'Reilly always seems to be so sweat-soaked with fear as to be on the verge of nervous collapse.
Cable used to be where the anchors were chosen for their interchangeable, and cheap, anonymity - MSNBC's afternoon slot has a guy that seemed to fit this perfectly; he looked every bit the inoffensive, can't-get-a-date copy clerk. But lately, there's been a transformation: his chest is so pushed out he looks like someone has a foot in his back. He no longer simply reads the news; every delivered word is angrily spat out like a Perris Island Drill Instructor. And his new graphics would do justice to a cop show. I mean the whole thing just couldn't be sillier...which was pretty much the point of WKRP's Les Nessman.
But it's not funny the same way these days as it was with good ole Les. It's my suspicion that a great many people are so stunned by developments that their minds haven't quite wrapped themselves around the new reality. The resident of the White House resembles Howdy Doody yet is trying to act like John Wayne and every thin-shouldered twit on TV news acting like he's a veteran of Guadalcanal. And ever so often, Dick Cheney emerges from his undisclosed location in the shadow government to promise global war without end. The moment is surreal, and we don't know how to get a handle on it. It's entirely unimaginable, yet entirely real. Once George W. Bush stole the presidency, it's as if the whole country followed him down the rabbit hole and now up is down, good is evil, and our most emblematic nature found its clearest expression in a twenty year old sitcom character.