Kurt Vonnegut's Idea for a Reality TV Show

I've been reading commencement speeches by Kurt Vonnegut, which are well-remembered today for mordant wit, dark humor and prophetic warnings about where society was headed. There was no one greater at sending freshly minted college graduates into the world with their skulls full of newfound doubt and grave misgivings.

In his 1974 Hobart and William College commencement speech, Vonnegut talked about the Louds, a family in Santa Barbara, California, who let a documentary crew film their private lives for seven months and turn it into a 10-episode TV series. This was a shocking thing to do in the 1970s.

In his address, Vonnegut pitched his idea for a reality TV show decades before that term was coined:

I suggest to you that the Louds were healthy Earthlings who had everything but a religion in which they could believe. There was nothing to tell them what they should want, what they should shun, what they should do next. Socrates told us that the unexamined life wasn't worth living. The Louds demonstrated that the morally unstructured life is a clunker, too.

Christianity could not nourish the Louds. Neither could Buddhism or the profit motive of participation in the arts, or any other nostrum on America's spiritual smorgasbord. So the Louds were dying before our eyes.

If my analysis is correct, then we have a formula for more such successful TV shows. Each show can feature an otherwise healthy family, from which a single life-sustaining element has been withheld. We might begin with the Watson family, which has everything but water. But no family could survive an entire television season without water, so we had better give the Watsons a diet absolutely devoid of B vitamin complex, instead.

We wouldn't tell the audience or the critics or the Watsons what was really wrong with the Watsons. We would pretend to be as puzzled as anybody about why they weren't happier with their quadraphonic sound system and their tap dancing lessons and their Pontiac Ventura and all. We would take part in symposia with ministers and sociologists, and so forth, reaching no firm conclusions -- while the Watsons slowly die of beri-beri.

A microscopic quantity of vitamins could save the Watsons. But a ton of Billy Grahams couldn't save the Louds. They know too much.


You should write more often.

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