Direct from La Brea, Los Angeles, it’s that big headed man

Driving north along La Brea towards Wilshire the other day, I had a bit of a flashback. Up above the buildings on the left-hand side of the street was a huge billboard, pushing reruns of Malcolm in the Middle on some cable graveyard. ‘TV’s funniest show, five days in a row!’ it bellowed, below an extreme wide-angle shot of Frankie Muniz’s head, looking frazzled and bewildered, and his hilariously dysfunctional family surrounding. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the copy. Mostly I was struck by the construction ‘TV’s funniest show’, and the place I was struck was a chord. That, and the huge-head presentation, reminded me of something from long ago that feels like a linguistic gripe I never got to resolve. So bear with me; this might not make any sense.

One of many traditions associated with the Scarborough seaside holidays of my childhood was our annual troop along to whatever summer season variety show happened to be playing at the Royal Opera House (now, sadly, demolished) or the Floral Hall (also, sadly, now demolished). The Grumbleweeds, or John Inman, or Frank Ifield, or perhaps Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry — who was, as you might expect, quite wonderful. The shows were, even twenty years ago, stuck in a world of twenty years before that, all earnest greasepaint and mother-in-law gags. But they were always fantastic, in every sense of the word: all razzle-dazzle, dancing girls and torch singers and hyperactive second banana comics.

Now, since my mother would typically get tickets shortly after our arrival, for a show towards the end of the holiday, I’d have most of the week-or-two to be fully acquainted with the advertising posters that seemed to be plastered across every flat surface in town. The posters themselves obeyed a formal showbiz grammar, and followed the big-head construction that Frankie Muniz reminded me of on La Brea. The crudely-cropped heads — and just the heads — of the cast, carefully sized according to some arcane fame quotient, sat atop smaller sketched bodies, typically engaged in some hilarious lark. From a distance only the heads stood out, as if the show were a sensational circus for body-less huge-headed freaks.

The biggest heads would, of course, scarcely require any introduction at all, besides their name. Everyone would know who they were, and love them like an indulged sibling. Occasionally, though, smaller heads might need a little clarification, just to drive the point home. ‘TV Funnyman!’ the poster might say. Or, more to the point, ‘TV’s [Whoever]’. ‘TV’s Ken Goodwin’, maybe, or ‘TV’s Stu Francis’ — and boy did he need a little clarification.

Even at the time, there was something that concerned me about this TV genitive. What did it mean for the comedian (for it was typically he) to belong to the TV (for it was always ‘TV’s’, never ‘Television’s’) in this way? I couldn’t help but read into it — despite the ostensible use of TV as a gaudy come-on — a slightly derisive curl of the lip. He’s not one of us theatre types, you know; he’s on the tele-vis-ion. Echoes of the disdain for the new-fangled medium in radio circles at the beginning of the BBC’s ’30s television experiment at Alexandria Palace. The summer season might need the slumming TV types in order to bring in the crowds, and it might insist on using the TV genitive as a nudge to the holidaymaker slightly confused by the sun (‘You’ve seen him on the box; now you can see him in the flesh! He’s real, we tell you!’), but it was at the same time determined to keep them in that little box, have them subsumed by their inferior medium.

I was also on the lookout for another bit of formal showbiz grammar, involving a very loaded use of the word ‘that’. It would appear in stage introductions, as a kind of lesser analogue of an announcement that such-and-such needs no introduction. (My experience being that the acts this was said about, were exactly the ones for whom an introduction was essential.) It would go something like this: ‘And now, it’s that hilarious comedian, [insert name of hilarious comedian]’. Or perhaps: ‘Direct from the Batley Variety Club, that star of stage and screen, [insert name of star of stage and screen]’.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the showbiz ‘that’, and I’ve not heard it in any other context. Partly I think it is the implication of needing no introduction. It’s the linguistic job of ‘that’ to be specific: it’s not just any comedian; it’s that one. And yet, even more so than explicitly stating that someone needs no introduction, the showbiz ‘that’ makes it plain that, despite the surface implication that we should know who this person is almost without hearing their name — because it’s that hilarious comedian — no chances are being taken, and we’re being told what they do, and how amazingly good they are at it. It’s having it both ways: pumping the act up in the introduction, making them sound special and distinctive enough that ‘that’ is appropriate, but also covering the bases enough so that elderly woman in front row sucking on boiled sweet and clutching handbag to chest won’t be left in the dark. I think that’s what makes it a particularly showbiz usage: it’s razzle-dazzle on the surface, with something far more mundane and practical underneath.

All in all, I think I should be grateful that I didn’t crash into the car in front of me on La Brea, with all this crap going on in my head.

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