There Goes the Idiot Box
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the revolution will not be televised. It will be streamed.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
Could the boob tube have a more ardent devotee than James Comisar?
The former television writer spun off into collecting about 25 years ago, and since then, he’s amassed possibly the largest stash of TV memorabilia in the world: Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone, Archie Bunker’s chair, Pamela Anderson’s Baywatch swimsuit and thousands of other relics. Comisar’s collection lives in a few climate-controlled warehouses in Southern California; he’s been on a mission to find it a more permanent home, a real Museum of TV.
Naturally, when we heard about the latest blow to television-as-we-know it — HBO’s announcement that it’ll start a streaming service, totally disconnected from both your cable box and your idiot box — we reached out to Comisar. Is this the end of TV, now that Americans are grabbing their computers instead of their clickers? A new golden era for couch potatoes and bingers? And does he have remotely any idea what we should do with our remotes?
Some people think HBO’s decision to stream shows is the nail in the coffin for TV. Do you agree or not?
We used to watch a refrigerator-sized box in our living room and now we carry a credit card-sized screen in our pockets. Does it matter how we watch television as long as we continue to consume it? Television’s new golden era is well underway, which is providing some of the most memorable and deeply textured shows of all time, and people should be able to view this content on their own terms.
Personally, I love the fact that it is now totally acceptable to lock yourself in a room for a weekend and binge watch 26 episodes of a show!
Do you think that as we move toward the long tail — lots of shows but not as broad an audience for any one show — objects will retain their power?
While every person in America is not sitting around the box at the same time watching the same show, this should not be confused with a diminished interest in television. TV has been our No. 1 leisure-time activity since 1960, and it’s not going away any time soon. Personally, I love the fact that it is now totally acceptable to lock yourself in a room for a weekend and binge watch 26 episodes of a show! And these days in the Hollywood memorabilia art market, Milton Berle’s iconic oversized powderpuff from the 1950s sells for $2K and Walter White’s underwear worn last season sells for $12K. There is a great fascination with more current shows.
Why do you collect TV objects?
My cultural mission is to rescue and restore costumes, props and sets from the most indelible TV shows of all time. Actually, it’s much more than what I do, it’s who I am: I preserve popular culture. I set out to honor an area of history that was not being minded by the studios or museums, which I always thought was strange since TV pushes the culture forward more than any other medium. What keeps me up at night is the fact that there is no museum solely focused on conserving and celebrating the touchstones of television. Not yet, anyway. Stay tuned.
Today I am terribly fond of Tony Soprano’s anti-anxiety pill bottles … and Walter White’s famous sky blue meth.
So are you curating a living collection or memorializing the past?
It took 25 years, but we now conserve thousands of treasures from every era and genre of television. While I personally grew up on the shows of the 1960s and 1970s, our current acquisition policy is for every object we acquire from these earlier eras, we need to bring in 10 from the 2000s. It’s OK to examine how television helped shape our lives and solidified America’s place in the world, but we can’t just look in the rearview mirror. We need to shine a bright spotlight on what comes next.
What’s your favorite collection item? Or some of your favorites?
Today I am terribly fond of Tony Soprano’s anti-anxiety pill bottles, the bloody ensembles we just picked up from True Blood and Walter White’s famous sky blue meth. Oh, and if you watched American Horror Story Wednesday, you will know why my sights are now set on that killer clown ensemble!