Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sensor Scan: Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

If I need to explain to you who Mister Rogers is, this can only mean one of two things. You either hail from somewhere that isn't North America or Hawai'i or something has gone badly wrong with the universe. Because the only thing that needs to be said about Mister Rogers is that he was one of the greatest television personalities, if not one of the greatest human beings period, to ever live. For almost forty years, he asked generations of children and children-at-heart to be his television neighbour for a half an hour each day. And, anyone who took him up on his invitation knew that for that time they would feel welcome and safe and enjoy sharing the company of someone who truly cared about them and was interested in what they were thinking and feeling.

The more pertinent question is why now? I could have looked at Mister Rogers' Neighborhood at literally any point in this project, that's how important Fred Rogers was to our collective memory and for how long. But I wanted to take just a little time to talk about him, his show and his legacy here, in the mid-1980s for a number of reasons, one of which is because in an era so deliberately and self-consciously steeped in artifice and performativity, it's important to keep in mind that all this spectacle isn't just for its own sake. There are real, genuine truths we're trying to talk about here, even if we're approaching them from odd angles, and we must never lose sight of that. Performativity and artifice do not equate to vacuousness and falseness, and nobody understood that better than Mister Rogers.

The Neighborhood only ever existed on TV, and Mister Rogers was well aware of this. There's a reason he always called us “television neighbors”, after all. It clearly operates by televisual logic, and most certainly hails from a time when television was seen as disposable theatre. The show always opened with an aerial pan over the Neighborhood, which is very obviously conveyed through miniatures.We then cut to inside Mister Rogers' house, where he hasn't arrived yet. Then we pan over to the front door, and Mister Rogers comes in singing “It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”, taking off his coat and shoes and putting on his sweater and sneakers. Likewise, the show always ended by doing the opposite, panning away from Mister Rogers' house and retracing the steps in reverse.

I always got the sense that the show's intro was meant to depict each one of us coming to the Neighborhood from different places: Mister Rogers probably hitched a ride on the Neighborhood Trolley, which you can always see making the rounds in the street, and then walked the rest of the way. As for us, perhaps we flew because we exist on the other end of the television and can travel via camera angles. Each episode then is a different visit to the Neighborhood, which is a place we all come to from somewhere else at the same time, even Mister Rogers himself. This also means idea of “reruns” or “home video releases” of this show, though they obviously existed, feels a bit...weird, even knowing Mister Rogers himself was an early advocate for the VCR. Maybe that's part of the reason this show was able to last as long as it did.

As a kid I found it really fascinating that Mister Rogers seemed to have two houses he split his time between, the one in the Neighborhood and another one somewhere outside of the television world. I would always wonder what his life was like away from the show and would try to imagine the sorts of things he did and the places he went to when his show wasn't on the air: It was probably my first exposure to the idea of larger worlds and histories that existed within the subtext and beyond the reach of the media artefacts we could see. As it turns out, Mister Rogers' life outside the Neighborhood wasn't too different from his life inside it, and I find that marvelous and inspiring.

Even though Mister Rogers knew he was only communicating to us through television, he also didn't see this as an excuse to treat his viewers any differently than if he met them in real life (he made a point of personally responding to every piece of fan mail he ever received, which was a considerable amount) as he considered everyone his friend, and nor did he feel the need to play an exaggerated caricature of himself. Mister Rogers only ever showed us specific facets of himself on his show, but all of those facets were absolutely, honestly who he really was, and anyone who did get the chance to meet him in real life said that he was instantly recognisable and approachable, and that he was every bit as you'd expect him to be based on how he appeared on TV (No, he never flipped off the camera on air, at least not intentionally. Although, for that matter, nobody ever stole his car either).

Look at this episode, for example, when LeVar Burton comes to visit the neighborhood to share a book with Mister Rogers. The episode is from 1998 and thus way after the period we're talking about, but it's relevant to us for obvious reasons, and the whole segment is just a perfect encapsulation of what made this show so good and so important (and I really do apologise for the quality, but this is sadly all we have of this series anymore unless you want to shell out for Amazon Prime or iTunes). After going through his iconic daily routine, Mister Rogers talks about how he and LeVar became friends because they both like making TV for children. He's openly acknowledging and calling attention to his own artifice, because he believes in honesty and sincerity above all else. Then, he shows us a series of pictures of LeVar in different roles (Kunta Kinte in Roots, Geordi in Star Trek: The Next Generation *and* Reading Rainbow), pointing out how LeVar is an actor who likes to play many different people. Then, when LeVar eventually shows up, Mister Rogers shows the pictures again, and LeVar even explicitly says that on Reading Rainbow he plays “a version of [him]self”.

But what's equally as wonderful is the actual conversation they have together: Mister Rogers asks LeVar about his love of books, what it's like for him to be an actor and prompts him to share why the book he's brought is important to him. It's a TV moment, but it's in no way a fake one: This is a real, authentic conversation where two real people share positionalities, and its a truly revealing character moment for both men. LeVar's passion, zeal and enthusiasm is palpable, and Mister Rogers has an unmistakably gentle, inquisitive tone that's as much a testament to his genuineness as it is to how good a listener he is, which can be a rare thing to find in this world. Mister Rogers never wavered from this either in real life or on television, and the people who talked to him responded to that. If you met him on the street, he'd talk to you the exact same way he does to LeVar here. It's not that he treated everyone like children, but rather that he treated children as people and saw every person as valuable and worthwhile.

Furthermore, Mister Rogers wasn't just willing to listen to you, he wanted to listen to you because he had an unyielding sense of curiosity and imagination. He was always looking to learn more about the world and other people and perspectives, and this shines through in his show as clear as the sunlight that always streamed in through the window in his house. The Neighborhood was as big as it needed to be to accommodate all sorts of people, and Mister Rogers would regularly take us on walks around town to see factories, gardens, workshops, bakeries, and any place people gathered to do different things that helped us understand the world better. Many, many episodes would open with Mister Rogers talking to us about something he's been thinking about lately, and he always took care to remind us that we never stop learning and growing throughout life. He once said “There's so much in this world we can learn, no matter how young or how old we are” and asked us “Are you discovering the truth about you? I'm still discovering the truth about me”.

These are lessons and ideas that I think everyone would do well to think about. I know for me, Mister Rogers sets an example that I constantly strive to follow, not just in his work but in the way he lived his own life.

That Mister Rogers was a firm believer in the power of imagination is obvious, especially in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe” segments that used storytelling to highlight the themes of every episode. But even though Mister Rogers on the one hand took care to clearly delineate the parts of his show that were “real” and that were “make believe”, this is ultimately another recursive artifice because, of course, even the supposedly “real” segments were still part of a game of pretend Mister Rogers played with the audience and he was never ashamed to admit that. But this wasn't an artifice designed to obfuscate reality, instead, it was intended to accentuate it, and this means that Mister Rogers never shied away from complex and confusing topics other children's television would never touch, like death, divorce and war. He believed, rightly of course, that imagination helped children deal with things that confused or scared them.

But all of this also means that Mister Rogers was never unaware of what the real world was really like outside of both of his make-believe neighborhoods. What he did was create an environment that was on the one hand happier and safer than the real world, but that still acknowledged all the problems and issues of the world outside. Yes, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was an idyllic utopia, but that didn't mean people coming to it through television were supposed to forget what life was like outside it. That's actually the opposite of what Mister Rogers, who spent a not-insignificant amount of time talking about negative emotions on his show, would have wanted: He wanted to to provide a space where people could talk freely about all different kinds of things and to help them find ways to deal with their troubles in a positive, constructive and healthy way. The Neighborhood may be a conflict-free utopia, but that doesn't mean we weren't allowed to talk about conflict. Conflict is a thing that exists in the real world, and the Neighborhood exists to help us talk about the real world. To paraphrase Mister Rogers himself, it's all make believe, but it's still something to think about.

I mean, after all, we're talking about a person who endorsed his own Saturday Night Live parody. The somewhat famous "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" sketch starred Eddie Murphy as a down-on-his-luck inner city Mister Rogers analog constantly on the run from slumlords and rent collectors and forced to take on various licit enterprises to get by. Though he tries to remain positive and chipper, Mister Robinson's lessons tend to be more cynical than Mister Rogers', and he tries to instil in his television neighbours a distrust of authority figures, the class structure and capitalism, which I mean come on, that's only fair. Mister Rogers thought this was just delightful, calling the parody “amusing” and “affectionate”. The underlying joke in the Mister Robinson's Neighborhood sketch isn't targeting Mister Rogers himself, it's actually doing the exact opposite-It's pointing out the tragic humour inherent in how hard it can be to live up to Mister Rogers' ideals in the real world. It's not skewering those who try (after all, we're supposed to sympathize with Eddie Murphy), indeed it glorifies those people. What the sketch is actually trying to do is criticize a society that all too often makes living like Mister Rogers feel like a hopeless endeavour.

And this touches on one of the surest signs of the positive effect Mister Rogers' work has had on people: Even comedians parodying him can't bear to make fun of him. He's one of the most universally beloved people who ever lived.

You can see the same sense of love for what Mister Rogers accomplished in a more recent work of satire, Saints Row, a video game series that alternately has you waging citywide gang wars, overthrowing a multinational crime syndicate, fending off hordes of men in hot dog suits with a dildo bat and avenging the destruction of the planet from within a virtual reality simulation by distorting the rules of reality and fighting aliens with electronic superpowers. In between the cartoonishly nonsensical bouts of ultraviolence, you can take some time off to dress up your character in a variety of outfits, and a few of the wardrobe options are clearly modeled off of Mister Rogers' signature sweaters and sneakers. Which, in a video game that is, when you get right down to it, actually about staying true to a neighborhood and the importance of friendship, seems oddly appropriate. If Mister Rogers had lived to see Saints Row, I'll bet he would have smiled and called it “a lot of fun”, which is, incidentally, the same reaction he had to Night of the Living Dead, a film by his dear friend George A. Romero.

(Actually, I think Mister Rogers would have liked video games a lot in general: They're built around the same sense of shared imagination and creativity he always seemed so inspired by. In one episode he even visited an arcade and learned to play Donkey Kong.)

One thing I find really interesting about Mister Rogers is how he got involved with television in the first place. Namely, the fact that he thought the entire medium was frightening and dreadful and wanted to help show how it could be used as a force for good. And this was in the early 1960s, so nobody can pull the excuse that TV was just “so much better back then”. This reminds me a lot of some of the things Avital Ronell, my favourite theorist, has said about television; that it's a medium that, at its very core, has an obsession with trauma, death, voyeurism and surveillance. Ronell talks about how television's fixation on crime (police procedurals, courtroom dramas and lurid, sensationalized hyper-violent representations of current events on the news) “frustrates” it, because it simultaneously feeds on sensationalism, needs to prop up authority and order and satisfy its viewers' demand for neat, tidy and instantaneous solutions to things. And, since no problem in the real world has easy solutions, television violence becomes stripped of its symbolism and complex dilemmas are “effaced”. So, we see grotesque depictions of violence that are handily resolved at the top of the hour and never addressed again.

And it's hard not to see Mister Rogers' Neighborhood as an out-and-out rejection of not Ronell's theory, but precisely that which she criticizes in television. Mister Rogers doesn't sensationalize negativity, and nor does he run from it when his daily thirty minutes are up: He understands it as a part of life and keeps returning to it time and time again because he has ideas about how we can work through it he'd like to share with us. Mister Rogers isn't an authority figure either: I know some people have seen him as a surrogate parent, but that's never how I saw him. I saw him as, I think, the way he tried to portray himself: A neighbour and a friend who enjoyed spending time and talking with me, just as he did with anyone else. He may have had experiences I didn't, but that's true of everybody in the world, and that's exactly the sort of thing Mister Rogers liked to talk about.

Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, this leaves Mister Rogers' Neighborhood feeling a bit ill-suited to its medium in the end. On the one hand, it feels like definitive blueprint for how television can do good in the world, but at the same time, it's hard to shake the notion that Mister Rogers may have pushed the boundaries of television too well and too far, and that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood might in fact be a prototypical proof-of-concept of a far different, and far superior, form of media. I mean, well, even The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has different imaginary neighbourhoods of fantasy and make believe full of neighbours with different lives and schedules who I can visit with and talk to. Mister Rogers' true strength lay in his boundless empathy and his faith in the generative power of communication to help us lead better lives. And I think true art can make it easier for us to see the world around us a little clearer, and maybe to leave it a little kinder and gentler then we found it, just like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood did.

Well, that's all make believe. All make believe. But it's still something to think about.

(If you want to learn more about the real Mister Rogers, Cracked's Brendan McGinley has written the definitive tribute to his life and work here.)


  1. Amazon Prime paid for itself many times over when I was able to watch lots of classic Mister Rogers with my new son. Nostalgia certainly played a part, but I also think MR had magic in a bottle in his ability to actually connect with children (adults too) through the TV. Many children's shows did and continue to this, but, at least for my son, none came anywhere close to feeling like a live person was actually talking and listening to you (bits from classic Sesame Street might come closest). Additionally, I loved sharing all the workplaces MR visited or watched on tape - many long defunct no doubt - but that journey into how people worked or how stuff was made was its own invitation to broaden one's imagination, using new, unseen parts of the world as further springboards to new pretending. It should be required viewing for all kids, who are likely going to be watching TV in some form anyway.

    1. Beautifully put-I agree completely. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. If I had a 'like' button here I would do that for the above comment. Lovely.

    "He's one of the most universally beloved people who ever lived." You see, this essay is a revelation to me (that's why I come here after all). I was peripherally aware of Mr Rogers but had no idea of his impact or importance with regards to storytelling, the imagination and American television.

    I recent years I have gotten through performing as a storyteller, into working with kids - and the main thing I seek to do is to fire their imagination and to help inspire them. I tell you this guy, MR certainly has *got it*. Thanks again Josh.

    1. Thank you so much for saying so: I'm particularly proud of this post, and it's wonderful to hear it resonated with you.

      I don't know if you get Amazon Prime or the iTunes store offerings are the same where you live, but I'd definitely recommend checking out his show over there if you get the opportunity. The Neighborhood is a breath of fresh air and a fine place to visit at any age.

    2. Yes wonderful essay, I am loving getting opened up to new experiences here. I am on Amazon Prime in the UK, but sadly the show is not even available there on DVD for me. I will find a way to watch some as it looks really worth the time.