No Laughing Matter

I used to joke that, “Americans are a very self-loathing people; it’s one of the things I really can’t stand about us.”  I stopped telling that joke because whenever I did, to my disappointment, no one ever seemed to get it.

The funny thing about America is that when ever you’re trying to be funny people take you seriously, and when you’re trying to be serious, people take you for a killjoy.  There’s no place anymore, it seems, for an authentic, dynamic relationship to one’s experience that maintains a distance from that experience; no place for cleverness, no place for wit.  In the last 15 years or so, comedy has become a deeply serious business, and this is the fault of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

In reality, it’s a problem of centralized media, of September 11th and its repercussions, and of the general contortions of cowardice from which the majority builds their opinions, but The Daily Show, along with its spin-offs and contemporaries (The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Onion), have done more than anything else to blur the line between serious and funny in our time.

Comedy in this country has been turned into sound bite speech-writing for the masses, and what Jon Stewart says today will be half of everyone’s earnest opinion tomorrow.  The other half, unfortunately seems to be taken up by the maniacal, over-the-top infotainment of FoxNews, CNN, and the rest.  The news media ruined the discourse, and the fake news media ruined the conversation.

And ultimately this isn’t a cut on Stewart or Colbert, or even what they do; it’s a cut on their audience.  It’s a cut on all of those who allow their world to be defined by the best thing they’ve heard on television in the last week, and who allow the talking box to tell them how they feel, what they think, and what it’s really all about.

Everything is a statement these days, and whether it’s comedy in the media or dialog between individuals, every facet of our common dialog has been conscripted into the political sphere.  People have lost the will to be candid and prosaic, and more importantly, they have lost the ability to be flippant.  There’s no place for an observation, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, that isn’t meant to cut to the quick of our modern times and explain to everyone what is really going on.  If one is to say something that people can get behind it has to be quotable, or more often, plagiarizable for years to come; it has to be activist, to be useful.  In short, there’s no place anymore for silly.

The rise of political comedy has led to an an arms race of rightier-than-thou, an epidemic of laughing overseriousness, and it’s caused this inversion where regular people care more about how others jest than what either party actually believes.  Perhaps, what’s worse, it’s gotten people to forget the difference.

I don’t know what the remedy is for this kind of non-committal always/never point-making, but it couldn’t hurt for people to watch less TV and read more books.  Maybe if people tuned out for a while and stopped rewarding themselves for echoing the pseudo-sophistication of the mass communication networks we might get somewhere.  Maybe if people thought for themselves we might be able to laugh again.

The Great 20th-Century Funnel – On the Gulf Between Television and the Internet


You might be thinking that it’s just a question of time.  And in a way you’d be right.  There really is a significant difference between what can be said and done in three minutes and what can be said and done in nineteen.

Anyone who has ever spoken at length in front of a group of people, or anyone who knows anything about performing for an audience can tell you just how long those minutes really are.  Comedians “die” in a matter of minutes, singers miss a note or actors flub a line in a matter of seconds, and if things should go off the rails it can feel like forever before they get going again.

On TV, time is at an even greater premium, because there are a lot of big interests paying a lot of money to see how it gets spent.  People take for granted these days that peppered throughout a story line or interspersed throughout a conversation or a game, about every five to ten minutes there will be a string of five or six 30-second spots, and suddenly we’ll be talking about medicines and syndromes, the new car from Honda, stain-fighting laundry detergent, triple-strength toilet paper, low fixed-rate mortgages, and at least one kind of beverage, before we get on with whatever it was that was going on before.

And that’s the way it’s always been; advertising is what TV was built on.  Take for example, this episode of What’s My Line?, a popular game show during the 1950s:

The show was sponsored by the Kellogg cereal company, and they sure weren’t going to keep quiet about it.  In the first thirty seconds, you’ve literally seen or heard the word “Kellogg’s” a full 82 times, and once the show gets going it sits right there, emblazoned in big proud letters beneath Arlene Francis, Groucho Marx, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Bennett Cerf, along with two life-sized boxes of Special K.

what's my line

[You can see an earlier video here, from when they were sponsored by Remington Electric Shavers.]

And What’s My Line? was hardly alone in this.  At the time it was very common practice (see this episode of another popular game show, To Tell the Truth, proudly sponsored by Geritol).  There was The Chesterfield Supper Club, a musical variety program put on by the cigarette company (as well as a mystery series called Chesterfield Presents…), there was the Goodyear Television Playhouse, the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, the Colgate Comedy Hour, and at least a dozen more similarly branded shows in the 1950s alone.

But you’ll notice, if you watch the video, that they do manage to get on with it.  The ad is blatant and obvious, of course, but it doesn’t really get in the way.  Commercial breaks are relatively short, the pacing is relaxed, and in general there’s an incidental, almost dismissive air about the necessary evil.  It’s not subtle, but it is, in a way, rather reasonable.

But that was more than 60 years ago.  These days there’s often an almost panicked air when they say “we’ve got to go to a commercial now,” as if there’s some commercial-fiending monkey off camera that will have a fit and start smashing the place up if they don’t.  The brand names have dropped out of the show titles now, but they’ve come to envelop the networks themselves.  When the shows I mentioned were on the air, there were only three major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC).  Now there are more than 50 over-the-air broadcast networks, and hundreds of cable and satellite networks, each with their own “family” of shows and sponsors.

So it seems that transmissibilty in general has increased right?  The total bandwidth is much bigger, so surely it stands to reason that they can delve more deeply into subjects, there ought to be more variety, and that ultimately there’s a lot more content out there right?  Well, no, no, and not quite.

To take them in reverse order, a 2009 study found that, “An average hour of monitored prime-time US network TV programming… contained seven minutes, 59 seconds (7:59) of in-show brand appearances and 13:52 of network commercial messages, for a combined total of 21:51 of marketing content,” which makes up 36% of the hour.  But prime-time is not the greatest offender; the same study found that late-night talk shows were nearly 49% marketing, and at least one other show managed to reach almost 75% (for the curious, it was America’s Toughest Jobs).

There’s a squeeze on the legitimate variety as well.  It’s fairly well known today that, of those hundreds of networks, nearly all (about 90% of American media, including print and radio) are owned by just six companies— CBS, Comcast, Disney, Newscorp, Time Warner, and Viacom.  These companies have advertising contracts to hock products from the ten biggest product corporations, and they program content that goes along with their products’ brand identity; SPIKE TV shows ads for Axe Body Spray, Lifetime shows ads for Dove, Unilever makes and sells them both, and Viacom and Disney get money to keep making TV shows that are designed for people who like Axe Body Spray and Dove.

So the advertising influence has become more subtle while at the same time becoming greater in scope.  Even if we assume that this connection is a bit overstated, and that it only tangentially affects the content of the programming, the sheer volume of advertising (as stated above) means that there’s about 35-50% of the time where you’re not watching the program you selected, you’re watching the same ads as everyone else.

But just for fun why don’t we run for a minute with the idea that Newscorp, via 21st Century Fox, via FX, via FXX just might have their own ideas about how real topics of interest that affect our culture and society ought to be handled, and that all down the chain they distribute power and influence to people who, even if they don’t conform through coercion and enforced corporate mandates, are in line from the outset with with the views and ideas of that corporate interest.  To put it another way, suppose that they don’t bother bullying people into saying what they want, they just hire people, fund enterprises, and acquire properties that will discuss these things in terms that they can accept.  Perhaps it isn’t that they promote one set of ideas or another, but that they simply maintain an atmosphere where those ideas are not far from consideration.  (If this sounds a little far-fetched to you, it may help to take a cursory glance at another Newscorp property, the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.)

Before we get to the representative examples, by which the writing of this whole piece was prompted, it’s important that I make one particular point about the relatively recent technological shift to wholly digital transmission– some of you might remember that back in the days of analog TV, whether from the networks or on basic cable (if you were over at a friend’s house), there would sometimes be a little pause in between when one show or one commercial would end, just before the next one began.  It was just a beat, really, a little breath that went between globs of decidedly non-stereophonic sound as the cuing went on down at the TV station.  Sometimes, every once in a while, there would be a little skip in the pacing and that beat would hang for a few seconds, and you could imagine some frantic programmer trying to fill the dead air.

Those days, my antiquated brothers and sisters, are over.  The beat is gone.  The hang is miles away.  They’ve now got it all under control.  Modern broadcast television, with its digital boxes and fiber optics and orbiting geosynchronous satellites, has become a perfectly engineered slaughterhouse of time.  It’s digital baby, and no foolin’.  If you take out all the lags, trim down the programs and the time between breaks, inch everything in slightly, you can fit a few more commercials throughout the day here, make it a little more punchy there.  They’re paying to broadcast for 24 hours, and 24 hours is what they will get.

This subtle shift is a transition bought and paid for by the big media interests (and lobbied, because let’s not forget, we’re talking about FCC broadcast policies and regulations, not just industry standards).  It’s a business move, toward efficiency, and toward being able to use the methods and practices of these service providers to offer advertising interests more attractive contracts in terms of total media impressions.  It’s the last step in perfecting the mechanized advertising distribution service, save for abolishing that pesky content.  I mean, once some of these damned fool consumers actually get interested in something they can go hours without paying attention to a single thing they can buy.

What you have on television nowadays is a drooling, rabid, relentless stream of cuts and transitions, and the entire thing smacks of how impatient the men behind the curtain are to get you looking at products, and developing opinions of products and brands, and making mental notes about what you’ll be choosing the next time you’re at the store.  It shows how annoyed they are that they have to bother waving these sports and dramas and comedies and news in front of you before they can even begin preparing you to put your money where it belongs.

It varies of course, to account for the broadest range of demographics.  I’ll grant that there’s a difference between C-SPAN and Fox News, that PBS is one thing and TBS is another.  But I’ll wager that within a fair margin of error, there’s a fairly clear inverse relationship between the calibre of discourse of a given show and its advertising budget; C-SPAN may air parliamentary debate and conduct in-depth interviews, but I’m guessing it doesn’t move a lot of Bud Light.

And the budget goes with the viewing figures– I give you path of the lowest common denominator.

And what effect does this have on the discourse?  What distortions can be observed when you take something from the real world and try and represent it in that tone of voice?  I think it has to be said that, however blind or how calculated, however emergent or how intentional, there’s no getting around the fact that if they want you to focus on something as trivial as which breakfast cereal has the most raisins in a few minutes, you probably won’t be getting to the upper echelons of conversation between now and then.

But especially when it comes to social or political issues, the Raisin Bran rule applies in spades.  You get “both sides of the issue,” as if there are only two, they keep it loud, fast, and bombastic, and ultimately it ends up trivializing everything.  It’s just enough to get your attention without inflaming your imagination; just enough to wet your appetite while doing nothing for your intellect.  This is why cable news is a sham, why those inexplicably popular police procedural dramas can wring 40 minutes out of the story equivalent of a bald tire, and why they won’t let you watch more than two or three minutes at a time of any given sporting event.

Let me tell you, if you watch television yourself, and you’re thinking, “Could it really be that bad?,” I’m about to show you the intellectual equivalent of a side-by-side between a runner’s lung and a smoker’s.  Behold:

Excellent, am I right?  The video above was produced for the YouTube channel of a now-canceled FXX show (isn’t it great that they never cancel YouTube?), Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.  I had been browsing through their videos with pleasant surprise, thinking it was one of the more interesting and thoughtfully written shows of its type, and when I came across this one I was simply floored.

For a start, I’ve seen this issue presented a few times, and this is the first time I’ve seen it discussed by people of differing opinions from within the group that’s supposed to be so affected, and you might be surprised to find that that discussion tends away from racism and hurt feelings and pride, and leans instead toward questions of identity and what it means to be offended, what it means to be portrayed, and on the relationship between image and reality.

For another thing, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard said .in a public forum that maybe it isn’t as respectful as white people think it is to decide that everyone of a certain description should be called “Native American”, as if that concept would ever have existed without Manifest Destiny and the colonial expansion, and that it’s more appropriate to describe someone as a member of a particular tribe than it is to categorize them wholesale as being somehow vaguely indigenous.

What’s more, both of the program’s guests get the opportunity to say that whatever they feel or don’t feel about the imagery and its uses, they have their own personal senses of dignity and identity that are beyond the cartoonish forms with which they are connected, and which, frankly are one of the very few things on which they as a people are routinely invited to comment.  It shows the better side of reasoned and thought-out activism, which relies on honor and culture, rather than pity and anger.  It demonstrates that there are real, down-to-earth human beings that have considered opinions and ideas about issues that in the mainstream are only discussed in terms of buzzwords and caricatures.  And it shows that people affected by these issues have stories and thoughts and ideas beyond the ones that the mainstream media are willing to tell (one of the video’s best moments is right at minute 19:00, where Elder Andy Thundercloud of the Ho-chunk Nation says that he wouldn’t wear a Redskins jersey… because he’s “from Packer country”).

Whatever you think of the issue itself, you have to admit that that discussion represents a far greater level of thoughtfulness and candor than the subject is usually afforded, which sadly, is probably the reason why it didn’t go out on the airwaves that way.  The channel calls that video an “Extended Web Exclusive”, which I suppose is one way of saying it (although I’ve since learned that a cut and watered-down version did actually make it to broadcast).  Instead, the following was the treatment of that subject that was specifically developed for general cable TV:

Same subject, same show, same producers, but two very different approaches. And it’s fairly typical of the usual treatment (see, for instance, this similar bit on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart); invariably it’s drawn in terms of offended Native American activist groups vs. usually half-drunk sports fans who don’t get the point and who basically don’t take the question seriously.  And it is one version of the story, or at least one way of telling it.  But clearly, as the previous video illustrates, not only is there a lot more to the issue, there are a lot more interesting and productive ways of talking about it.

And it’s not unusual for the more thoughtful and interested programs to post more in-depth content on the web, and really that’s what separates the two bodies of content.  On the sprawling, meandering tubes of the internet, you can focus, at a high level, for hours on almost any topic you choose, without a single commercial interruption (if you play your browser’s cards right), and most of the time you can get to about as much content as you could possibly want to work with, across dozens of types of media, all for free (or nearly, depending on what you have to pay for access).

Again you might be thinking that it’s just a question of time, that when you’re using the internet you might have hours to spend and you can choose your own level of involvement, that network programming is under pressures and constraints, and that they’ve got a lot to get through.  But who says?  Who calls the shots for this kind of thing?  The answer is ultimately uninteresting, but the real point is that there isn’t the slightest reason that they have to.  If TBS can stand to program a 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon for Christmas Day, there ought be at least one network that can drum up a real following for thoughtful, in-depth, long-form intellectual content, and that can stand to program it consistently for whoever cares to watch it.  There ought to be at least one network that will program what ought to be shown, not just what it’s good business to show you.

Until then there’s just the internet, and I guess we’ll just have to keep making it up as we go along.  Maybe that is good enough.