It took me 35 years to figure this out, but I finally understand why parents have always worried about their kids watching too much television. It's not the violence or the sex or even the fear that they'll try to comb their hair like Ted Koppel. No, it's something much scarier than that.
Parents are afraid that their kids will start comparing them to the parents on TV. Particularly, the fathers. Go on, admit it. Wouldn't you rather have been raised by a TV dad?
For one thing, TV dads never went to work, at least not in the '50s and early '60s. And I'm not just talking about Ozzie Nelson here.
Robert Young, Jim Anderson on "Father Knows Best," was supposed to be an insurance salesman, but he was home every night before supper. And Carl Betz, from "The Donna Reed Show," was Dr. Alex Stone, a pediatrician whose phone never rang after sunset. What, babies never had ear infections in Hilldale?
And what about Fred MacMurray on "My Three Sons"? Steve Douglas was an aviation engineer who spent all his time smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper while Bub or Uncle Charley did the dishes and scrubbed the floors.
Because they had plenty of free time, TV dads were always good at giving advice, solving problems and explaining the meaning of life.
TV dads hardly ever yelled, even when their kids did something really stupid like putting the dog in the washing machine. You never once heard Ward Cleaver say to the Beaver, "Stay right there, you little punk. I'm going to get my belt!"
Instead he said things like (and this is an actual piece of "Leave It to Beaver" dialogue): "I don't care what kind of trouble you may get into in life, you don't ever need to be afraid to come to your parents and tell them."
Man, real-life fathers never said stuff like that! But TV dads did all the time. Remember on "The Andy Griffith Show" when Opie killed a bird with his slingshot? His father, Sheriff Andy Taylor, didn't chase him or beat him or lock him up in jail. Andy Taylor, the quintessential TV dad, had a heart-to-heart talk with his son.
"I'm not going to give you a whipping," Andy said, opening the bedroom window. "Do you hear that? That's them young birds chirping for their mama that's not coming back. You just listen to that awhile."
There used to be plenty of other ways to tell TV dads from the real ones. Real dads wore short-sleeved dress shirts with sweat stains under the arms. TV dads--everyone from Rob Petrie to Clifford Huxtable--wore sweaters. Certainly, there were exceptions. Jed Clampett and Herman Munster, fashion daredevils that they were, went with jackets, regardless of the occasion.
But that's beside the point, which is that shows about fatherhood always have been an integral part of television programming, turning up even more frequently than professional wrestling. You don't believe me? Look at these titles from network shows:
"Father Knows Best." "Professional Father." "Bachelor Father." "Make Room for Daddy." "Father of the Bride." "The Feather and Father Gang." "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." "Wait Till Your Father Gets Home." "My Two Dads." "Major Dad." "The Father Dowling Mysteries." (No, wait. Forget about that last one.)
And I haven't even mentioned, "Zorro and Son," or for that matter, the most influential TV dad of them all.
He called people names. He hated his job. He yelled at his wife and didn't understand his only child. He had gas. You could look at Archie Bunker and, theoretically, decide that your own old man might not be so bad after all.
These days, there are plenty of TV dads that you'd just as soon avoid. Al Bundy and Homer Simpson leap immediately to mind. And look at Tony Danza's daughter on "Who's the Boss?" Her dad is a maid. How must that be?
Let's not even start with all these mutant makeshift families springing up, orphans being raised by millionaires, single guys stuck with a daughter that one of them might have fathered. Ward Cleaver wouldn't know where to begin.
But not everyone went off the deep end. The '80s did give us some stable TV dads. There was Steven Keaton of "Family Ties" and, of course, there's "The Cosby Show." But, sweater or not, "Cosby's" Cliff Huxtable is a long way from Ozzie Nelson. Ozzie never would have said to Ricky what Cliff once said to his son, Theo: "I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it."
So take heart, real-life dads. Maybe you've still got a chance.