We've Let Smiles on TV Mask Human Complexity

IN 1980 I spent a lot of time at NBC Burbank. I ate at the commissary made famous in Johnny Carson's monologues and watched ``The Tonight Show'' being produced. Two observations have stayed with me. The first was that ``Doc'' Severinsen always seemed depressed when he ate lunch by himself in the commissary. He never smiled. The other was that Johnny Carson always seemed serious and pensive when I'd see him in a hallway or arriving at work, alighting from his Mercedes with a bag lunch.

Of course, I soon realized that over the years my impressions of these two television fixtures had been exclusively informed by their smiling, publicly managed TV images. But the lesson is a hard one to learn - I have encountered other celebrities since that time and am still often baffled for the first few moments when I realize that they are sometimes quite different from what I expected.

No wonder I was similarly baffled when learning that O. J. Simpson had a history of physically abusing his wife, and that he may even have committed a double murder. After all, O. J. was one of these familiar, smiling people whom I regularly welcome into the intimacy of my home, and whom I believe I know. The fact that I refer to him as ``O. J.'' reveals just how familiar I think he is and want him to remain.

I had another lesson about smiling TV images when I was asked to audition as a possible replacement for Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert when they left PBS. The producer said my reviews were quite good but that I needed to smile more. I was too serious, unlike the ever-buoyant Jeffrey Lyons and Michael Medved, who now host ``Sneak Previews.''

If you have a video camera, try this experiment. Look into the camera, talk about most anything, but smile so much that you feel as if you're smiling too much. When you play the tape back you'll look fine, just like everyone else on TV. Smile till you feel like a raving idiot. You'll look even better. Few people can smile too much when they're on TV.

Another lesson I learned some years ago is that television and film also render a distorted picture of what sorts of people commit crimes. Murderers in movies and on TV are uniformly evil. If they exhibit a ``nice'' side, we soon learn that it is only a front. It's a rare story indeed in which a person who has done many good things during his life one day commits a murder and then remains a nice guy after the crime.

But some murderers are nice guys. I once taught college-level courses at a maximum-security penitentiary. The inmates, even the murderers, were like many people one encounters - quite nice. Few seemed at all like the criminals I knew from television.

But it's not only the media that simplify our understanding of what people are really like. We do it on our own. We often behave as if most everyone is more simple than we are. It's when we explain our own behavior that we provide complex, detailed, idiosyncratic explanations. (``I didn't give a proper turn signal because I only realized I had to turn at the last minute. Besides, I was in a hurry and the kids were fighting in the back seat.'')

It's when we explain other people's behavior that we enter into simplistic explanations - he didn't signal because he's selfish. Or, he committed a crime because he is a bad person.

For many people who believe that O. J. Simpson is a nice man, it is extremely difficult to believe that he could do something so terribly wrong as committing a double murder. One way that some of us, including many of those who know him personally, have found to resolve our feelings about O. J. is to give an explanation that maintains his innocence: He's been elaborately framed, or he was at the scene but was cut while trying to rescue his ex-wife from the real killer.

Another way is to conclude he's guilty but to change one's previously held notions about him: We never really knew him, we tell ourselves; he's really a bad guy after all. Few of us can resist coming to one conclusion or another. It creates too much dissonance in our thinking. So does the idea that perhaps O. J. might be a nice guy and a murderer.

People are much more complex than we like to think. And when it comes to those smiling celebrities and politicians on television, many of us will go right on being perplexed when they are shown to have feet of clay because we want to believe in them.

In reality, we often know little about the people we see on TV, or about many of the people with whom we work or socialize, or even about members of our families. We believe people are simple because it's easier that way. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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