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The Intercontinental Web
Written July 26, 2002


Good morning, students.  Let me start today's lecture by showing you this image.

You've probably seen Christopher Walken play this character, "The Continental," on Saturday Night Live.  He speaks in a European accent to a single camera, which he addresses as though it were a beautiful woman.  Here, he suavely offers his unseen guest a glass of champagne.

I thought that the Saturday Night Live writers had invented this character on their own.  Only last week did I discover that the sketch, like so many on SNL, was really a spoof of an actual TV show — in this case, a very old TV show.

The realization came while I was watching another very old program.  Some early Red Skelton shows have been syndicated to public television, and I've been tuning in.  I remember Red from the 1960s, but I had never seen these episodes before.  They aired when I was only five years old and my family did not yet have a TV set.

On one 1952 show, three minutes in, I was surprised to hear Red lead into his next bit by saying, "There's a wonderful program called The Continental."  He then went off for a costume change.

A voice-over announcer introduced the scene:  "Justifiably popular on the television airwaves these days is a certain charming man of the world who addresses his intimate remarks directly to the ladies.  Red Skelton now offers — and it's all in fun — his impression of this glamorous gentleman."

And then Red performed, with his own gags, what was essentially the Christopher Walken sketch!

What was going on?  Apparently there really was a show 50 years ago called The Continental which was ludicrous enough to be lampooned by both Skelton and SNL.

I was curious.  And with modern technology, it's easy to satisfy this sort of curiosity.  A few minutes with the Google search engine on the Internet revealed some details about the original Continental.

It was a 15-minute program that first aired on a local station, KTLA in Los Angeles, before making its CBS network debut on Tuesday, January 22, 1952, following the 11:00 pm local news.

Italian-born actor Renzo Cesana (who had been a priest in the 1949 movie Stromboli) played the video gigolo.  He wooed his viewers, who presumably were love-starved housewives, with lines like "Do not be afraid, darling; you are in a gentleman's apartment."

The show aired two nights a week, moving to ABC before being canceled in 1953.

The Continental was parodied a number of times.  Besides Skelton in 1952 and Walken starting in 1990, others took shots at it, from Ernie Kovacs to Billy Crystal to the AMC series about an old radio station, Remember WENN.

Thus, although this show lasted only a year in its original form, people have been making fun of it for half a century.


Quoted by Laura Sessions
Stepp in a Washington
Post article in the 7-21-02
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This story may be interesting in its own right, but I tell it to make a point about the Internet.

As many have pointed out, we are now in the information age, with unprecedented riches of data (such as the facts about this old TV show) freely available on the World Wide Web.  Young people have eagerly taken advantage of this resource.  Kenneth Kotovsky of Carnegie Mellon University says, "Students' first recourse for any kind of information is the Web.  It's absolutely automatic."

However, some teachers and professors — and librarians —seem less than happy about the Internet.  I've heard that some instructors have forbidden the use of Web research, insisting that their students use printed books instead.

One worry:  you can't always trust the "facts" that you find on the Internet.

Another:  you students, according to Kovotsky and his colleagues, are not learning how to reason through an argument.  You merely use the Internet to look up data and other people's opinions.

Personally, I'm not that worried.  I recall writing "reports" in high school where the source of information was a single book, perhaps augmented by a couple of encyclopedia references.  That kind of report-writing didn't teach many thinking skills, either.  It mainly amounted to restating what the author of the book had said.  But now the Web offers many times the number of viewpoints that were contained in my little high school library.  And they're easily accessible, from your home, without having to deal with the library mechanics of card catalogues and stacks and checking out and returning books.

Also, the uncertain reliability of Internet "facts" may actually aid the learning process.  You can't simply accept everything at face value, believing it because some authority wrote it in a book.  It's necessary to consider the source and other factors in evaluating the truth of what you find on the Web.

For example, while most of my sources said that The Continental aired after the 11 o'clock news, one referred to it as "an afternoon television show aimed at bored, love-starved housewives."  Perhaps at one time it was an afternoon show, but only one source said so.  Therefore, I omitted this quote from my summary, retaining only the "loved-starved housewives" phrase.

And it is not only on the Internet where one has to consider the possibility that the "facts" one receives are incorrect.

It's true in real life, of course.  Don't believe everything you hear.

And it's even true in books.  For example:

In the story of Christianity, who discovered the empty tomb on the first Easter morning?  You'd expect that you could look up the answer in the Gospels.  Surely the Bible is authoritative.

Well, John says that it was Mary Magdalene and implies that she was alone.  She did see two angels later, however.

Matthew disagrees, saying that another Mary accompanied Mary Magdalene.  Also, they saw only one angel.

Mark agrees that there was only one angel, but he claims that the two Marys were with a third woman, Salome.

Luke goes with the two-angel version, and he identifies the third woman not as Salome but as Joanna.

It's necessary to decide which story to believe, or to figure out how they could all be true.

Conclusion:  You should always exercise a healthy skepticism with anything that you're told.  With that caveat, you can discover untold riches right here on the World Wide Web.  Click away!



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