Being Little and Big in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

One of my favorite messages from the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood involves the failure of the reporter Tom Junod to expose Mister Rogers as a fraud. One of the movie’s opening scenes involves Tom Junod’s editor assigning Junod to write a small 400-word bio about Mister Rogers. At this point in Junod’s career, he was the dictionary definition of the cynical reporter bent on uncovering unsavory characteristics about his subjects. “These people are not my friends,” the actor playing Junod says in reaction to his editor telling him that the reason she assigned him this piece was that no one wants to speak to him now. At this point in his career, Junod developed a reputation for destroying his interview subjects, and no one wanted to be the subject of any of his future pieces. The inherent nature of his defense was, “Isn’t it my job to report on these people, warts and all? The American public needs to see the warts. If they don’t need to see that, they want to see it. Shouldn’t I focus on the unsavory elements of the subjects I interview? Isn’t that the modus operandi of the serious reporter, “You build them up, and I’ll tear them down?” Ton Junod, like so many cynical reporters, and cynical, broken people who want to destroy institutions one person at a time. We give them awards, we make docudramas that memorialize their plight, and we can now repeat the inconsistencies they discovered at the drop of the subject’s name. “Isn’t it my job to tell my audience that everything we love and cherish is an absolute fraud?” they ask.      

Fred Rogers from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”

These themes lay the foundation for Junod’s mission to try to destroy Mister Rogers. At one point in the film, we hear Junod openly state that he thinks Mister Rogers is a fraud, and that he thinks it’s his job to expose him. After his initial interview with Mister Rogers is cut short, Junod infers that Rogers and his people aren’t giving Junod enough time to interview Rogers properly. Those of us who know reporting in the modern era, know what the inference of proper reporting means. We know that Rogers, and his people, know Junod, and we know that short, evasive interviews prevent a subject from slipping up and revealing all that they have to hide. Even though the movie doesn’t go to great lengths to portray Junod’s frustration, we suspect that Junod probably asked Rogers and his people, “What are you hiding?” In a turnabout from what Junod was probably more accustomed, Fred Rogers personally creates more time for Junod. This leads to a series of interviews in which Mister Rogers begins asking Junod questions about his life.

“I’m supposed to be interviewing you,” Junod says at one point. Again, those of us in the audience are accustomed to believing that Mister Rogers is obfuscating. He answers some of Junod’s questions throughout, but we can only guess that the cynical, seasoned reporter has witnessed a wide array of rhetorical tactics subjects use to avoid answering questions, and he believes Rogers is engaging in them when Rogers continues to ask Junod questions. We can also guess that the interaction between the two men grew more heated than the movie portrays, as Junod attempted to expose Mister Rogers’ inconsistencies. The interesting turnabout happens when Junod realizes that Fred Rogers isn’t using rhetorical tactics, as he pokes and prods, and that the man genuinely cares about the self-described broken man named Tom Junod. The movie doesn’t involve the usual tropes that most on-screen exchanges do in which one of the two parties eventually experiences an obvious epiphany. It depicts Rogers as a somewhat naïve character who genuinely believes in what he’s saying, and he reinforces that notion with his answers. The implicit suggestion of these exchanges are that Rogers continues to ask Junod leading questions, because he genuinely cares about the broken man before him in the manner he cares about most complete strangers, and that implies that his care for children is as genuine.

Tom Junod’s final report does not culminate in a finding that leads to scandal, and he is not able to uncover an inconsistency that reveals what is wrong with Mister Rogers. Instead, he writes a story titled Can you say Hero? that thematically asks the question what is wrong with the rest of us? Why do we need/want to see the warts? Why do we need to complicate our heroes with inconsistencies that lead us to think they’re frauds and we’re frauds for believing in them? Though the movie, and the Junod story on which it’s based, depict Junod in a number of the revealing moments that characterize Mister Rogers, we find out that Junod heard about most of them secondhand. Regardless, the article pokes through the myth of Mister Rogers to portray Fred Rogers as “the nicest man in the world”.

The reason I love this angle in this movie is that we all know and enjoy “the story” of the nicest man in the world, who has an “inconsistency” of some sort that evolves into a lynchpin we can recite at the mere mention of the man’s name. “I know he performed for children for X number of years, but didn’t he …?” Americans prefer that angle. We love reporters who remove a brick from our foundation to reveal us as frauds. We grew to love and admire the various screen stars who, in some small ways, helped shape who we are today, and we all love to learn, in a bittersweet way, that it was based on a big lie. Either that or we enjoy seeing those who portray themselves as a paragon of virtue torn down, so we don’t have to feel so inferior in that regard. As Junod’s bio on Fred Rogers details, he couldn’t find that angle that would’ve and could’ve destroyed everything Fred Rogers built. He couldn’t produce that devastating expose to win that award from his peers for tearing down the American institution that was/is Mister Rogers. What he found instead was a man named Fred Rogers, whom he called “the nicest man in the world”. 

Tom Junod later summarized his time with Mister Rogers in a piece for the Atlantic, “In 1998, I wrote a story about Fred Rogers; in 2019, that story has turned out to be my moral lottery ticket,” Junod wrote in The Atlantic. “I’d believed that my friendship with Fred was part of my past; now I find myself in possession of a vast, unearned fortune of love and kindness at a time when love and kindness are in short supply.”

My takeaway from the legacy of Mister Rogers, as presented by the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is that he mastered the art of being present. He would speak with fellow adults in a manner that suggested there was no one else in the room. When he talked with children, he listened to them with the same level of acuity he did with adults, and he didn’t get caught up in how cute they were, how precocious they were, he just listened to them in a way that wasn’t condescending.

Being present sounds like new age, gooey, foo foo fluff, because it is, because most of our foo foo friends use such words. Being present involves putting forth a concerted effort to be in the moment while in the moment. It involves forgetting about the big stuff for just a moment to tend to the little stuff. We might want a happy home, but we have to chop wood and carry water before we can achieve that. Before we win championships, we have to wax on and wax off.

When it comes to the little things, some pride themselves on their ability to multitask. Some are better at it than others are, and depending on what they do, multitasking might be required, but how many other tasks can we accomplish at optimum efficiency? Do the results of some tasks suffer in lieu of others when you’re multitasking, or are you just that much better at it than I am? It’s impossible to know the totality of a man from movies, books, magazine articles, and various YouTube, but from what I gathered Fred Rogers was the opposite a multitasker.   

Anybody who lived during the era of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood knew and loved the creative and elaborate intros of the various children’s shows. Some of us loved those intros so much that that was all we watched. The intro to Mister Roger’s Neighborhood didn’t have any of that. It involved a man changing his shoes while singing a song called Won’t you be My Neighbor? The pace of Fred Roger’s creation was purposefully quiet, and painfully slow, and those of us with varying levels of ADD or ADHD couldn’t watch the show. Those of us who eventually aged out of the show couldn’t think of it without thinking of Eddie Murphy’s Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood skit. For most of us, Mister Rogers Neighborhood was the premise of a joke. The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and HBO’s Won’t you be my Neighbor reminds us of the big things that led us to tune him out and the little things that annoyed us, and they informed us of Fred Roger’s little and big theme.

Actor Tom Hanks said he watched hundreds of episodes of Mister Rogers Neighborhood to prepare for his role in the movie, before he realized Fred Rogers created the show for children. As the comedian that he is, Tom Hanks left the ironic, obvious punchline as a standalone after he received a laugh. If he continued, I think he would’ve said that every minute and ever second of Fred Rogers’ creation was devoted to children. Fred Rogers took great pride in how quiet his show was, for example, and when he spoke, his tone was so measured we could almost hear the punctuation fall into place. Linguists say that our ums and ahhs are quite useful, because they help listeners follow our sentences better. Fred Rogers didn’t um and ahh, but his tones were so carefully measured and methodical that those of us with ADD and ADHD couldn’t watch his show. We wanted him to finish his sentences quicker. When he told us he was feeding his fish, it drove us nuts. “Just feed the fish!” we screamed at our TV. There was a method to this madness. He developed this routine after a blind child wrote him to say she was worried that he wasn’t feeding his fish. He fed the fish, as part of his introduction on the show, but she didn’t know it. So, he began telling his audience that he was feeding his fish. Then, there was the silence. If Mister Rogers brought in an expert on how to build or fix something, there were long periods of silence involved in the process. This drove some of us nuts, but it was a carefully orchestrated part of the show, designed to help children understand the methodical, quiet approach to building.

Some cultural writers state that the approach of Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and Fred Rogers personal approach, suggest that he was anti-consumerism. While I don’t doubt that, I don’t think there is direct correlation to the idea that Fred Rogers was an anti-capitalist. I realize that marketing is a fundamental element of capitalism, but I think Rogers disliked certain elements of marketing more than he did capitalism. I don’t think he minded when company XYZ would say that their product was better than their competition’s product in a pure marketing ploy. What bothered Mr. Rogers was this idea that some marketing ploys lead people (children in particular) to feel shame. I think he disliked this idea that some marketing ploys encourage children to think they need the latest and greatest toy, and I think he abhorred the idea that the other child felt a sense of shame for being stuck with what some marketing ploys encouraged them to believe was an “inferior” toy. I think he detested the idea that marketing arms created the need people have to have more products and better products than their neighbors had.

How many of us wear battle gear? We’re adults now, so most of us don’t wear Masters of the Universe gear anymore, but we wear T-shirts that have strong messages on them to inform our peers that we’re strong on the outside. Mister Rogers met just such a person, a young child who carried a pretend sword. The young child refused to show any of the signs of endearment to which Mister Rogers was more accustomed from children. This did not bother Mister Rogers in the least. After the child’s mother failed to convince her child to say something to Mister Rogers, Mister Rogers leaned in on the kid and whispered something in the child’s ear. When asked what he whispered, Mister Rogers replied:

“Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

The movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wasn’t a big movie. It focused on the little things Fred Rogers did, in an effort to focus us on his message that our primary job duty in life is to attend to the little things. He also gave other messages in a more overt, less symbolic manner that we shouldn’t get so tied up in trying to accomplish big things that we forget about the little things. “There’s nothing wrong with you, if you don’t accomplish stupendous things,” he said in various ways. “I like you just the way you are.” If we attend to the little things every day, for the rest of our lives, as we fortify our connections to the little people around us, who are just like us, we might be able to accomplish big little things. 



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