Capitalism and the Chicken Little Perspective of Pop Culture

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I recently read a blog post where an older man wrote about how he doesn’t seem to find today’s comedy movies and television shows funny.  He referred to an NPR piece postulating that mid-century comedy was more intellectual, whereas current comedy seems to stick more to slapstick.

I won’t link to the man’s post or reblog it.  I was working on a comment on my phone, but it was coming across too harsh and I don’t want to directly attack this guy just because I don’t agree with his opinion.

I have a real problem with this way of thinking.  Journalists, bloggers, storytellers, and many other groups seem to enjoy using vague generalizations to paint a picture that everything used to be so much better before the relentless march of time drove any given facet of civilization or culture straight downward into the sewer.  Depending on the source, you can sub out “relentless march of time” with “kids these days,” because people inclined to use that term seem to love this worldview.

Today, I’m going to use a unique blend of Capitalism and Pop Culture observation to explain why I will never agree with these folks.

Part 1:  The Rise of Television Real Estate in America

The television landscape has changed over the past several decades.  Dramatically.  When TV sets first became a mainstay in American homes, there were only three channels.  Advertisers didn’t have to guess which of the three given programs airing at any particular time slot was the best.  They were guaranteed an enormous amount of eyeballs, even on the lowest performing shows.  A selective viewing of TV series from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s will show that while there were some quality programs on the air, there were also some turd sandwiches as well.

The conceit of this argument is that because television real estate was so scarce, it had higher value, but I argue that comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges (that is, programs of the same genre and depth across time) would show that this argument doesn’t hold water.  There were crappy network shows back then.  There are crappy network shows now.  There are great network shows now.  There were great network shows back then.  People arguing otherwise tend to compare the great classics of the era with the disposable garbage of the modern day as most of the best stuff currently on the air flies right over their head.  We know that Real Housewives of Atlanta is not as good as The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Find your remote and change the channel rather than using one bad show as your reason for writing off everything else on air right now.

Part 2:  Enormous Growth in Viewer Options

Efforts by major networks to establish high-production value shows with maximum pop culture impact further supports my position that when competition for viewers is high, content quality must also be high.  If the shows on the networks aren’t up to snuff, consumers now have a gazillion other options on cable, premium channels, free and paid on-demand features, Netflix, Hulu, and even home video (which wasn’t around during those days when TV was “so much better”).

Targeted marketing through cable programming sells for a higher cost per thousand impressions (CPM), allowing grand cinematic visions to hit the small screen in the form of shows like The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and actually just about anything currently on primetime AMC.

Purely by the numbers, I would argue that there are more excellent shows on air or available to viewers right now than there were in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s combined.  (And no, I’m not counting the fact that any teenager with an internet connection can now pull up an episode of Gilligan’s Island if he or she is so inclined when I say “available to viewers right now.”)

The converse of this, of course, is that there are many, many, many more horrible, vacuous, pooptastic shows on air right now as well.  And they manage to find an audience unfortunately, ensuring that we will continue to know about any and every little thing that a Kardashian ever does ever until we locate the people watching that show and cut off their cable.  (That’s a homework assignment, Society.)

Part 3:  The Search for the Lowest Common Denominator

I’ve done my best to acknowledge the counterargument to each point I’ve made so far, and this point especially will tip my hat to those who believe that television has seen better days.

Desperate major networks have adopted a popular Hollywood method of marketing:  find the lowest common denominator – that one thing that won’t put off any single viewer – and get as close to that topic, tone, theme, etc. as possible.

It’s the reason why paint-by-numbers crime procedural NCIS is the top rated show every year.  There’s nothing wrong with that show.  It isn’t awful.  It just doesn’t have any flavor.  It doesn’t go anywhere risky or do anything that might make you think.  It doesn’t surprise you in any way that might make you uncomfortable.  It is a safe, mind-numbing viewing experience;  the culmination of the perfect execution of this particular programming formula.

Same goes with the strangely popular Two and a Half Men (prior to Charlie Sheen’s departure).  Nielsen keeps telling us that millions and millions of people are watching each week, but it seems like nobody is talking about it.  It doesn’t generate buzz or spur conversation.  It isn’t a cultural phenomenon that will be remembered through the ages.  It’s just some stuff happening on a TV screen that millions of somebodies somewhere out there like to space out in front of.

Though by necessity this approach must have been the goal of the networks in the early days of television (with three stations micro marketing would have been suicidal), there was still an experimental aspect to shows back then.  With so many unknowns on a new frontier, strangeness managed to find its way into American family rooms because the suits hadn’t yet perfected their  formula for hollow success.

Part 4:  Comedy’s Evolution

The statement that comedy used to be more intellectual is a bit ridiculous to me.  To argue that humor used to reference elements of history, science, or pop culture; that a degree of knowledge used to be required to “get the joke” is totally wrong in its conjugation.  Change that past-tense to present tense, because it never stopped being true.

Turn on Family Guy for God’s sake.  They reference anything and everything and all the freaking time.  I once saw that show reference a Crest Toothpaste commercial from like the early 80’s.

These days even slapstick, screwball, and physical humor are used to wink at the viewers who have been paying attention.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the elaborate joke constructions, episode-spanning set ups and rapid fire third act pay offs of Modern Family.  Seriously, watch the recent episode titled, Las Vegas, and marvel at all of the complicated things that they pulled off in just 21 minutes of screen time.

If you’ve got even more time to kill, watch all four seasons of Arrested Development.  If that show wasn’t cancelled for being so far ahead of its time, some of its jokes would have made our heads explode a thousand times over by now.  Had those writers chosen different paths in life, their knack for off-the-wall concepts and flawless execution would have made them prime candidates to form an Ocean’s Eleven-like crime ring.

After you finish Arrested Development, check out How I Met Your Mother.  It’s an entire series structured as flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks telling one long elaborate tale that is just a prologue to the pivotal moment when a hopeless romantic meets the love of his life.  And it’s one of those shows that appeals to people who enjoy a good boob joke.

Actually, all four of those shows have goofy physical humor and crude sex laughs, but it doesn’t take a genius to appreciate the complexity of what those writers are trying to accomplish in the big picture.  Sure, there’s a lot of junk shows whoring their one dimensional characters out for easy laughs.  But there are also a ton of really ambitious, weird shows that make you appreciate the hand of the storytellers in weaving such an unconventional, detailed narrative.

Remember the moment in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when you realized that Harry stabbing the talking diary with the snake tooth in the weakest book in the series was actually an enormous part of the overall conflict that all seven books build to?  Even network sitcoms are doing stuff like that these days, so you should check out those four shows and try really watching them.

Part 5:  Conclusion

The irony of writing a long post that speaks in broad generalizations to uphold my criticism of people that write long diatribes speaking in broad generalizations to uphold opinions that I don’t agree with is not at all lost on me.  This was a natural, human reaction.  I was frustrated and I won’t pretend that I’m not a hypocrite for responding in this way.

That being said, I don’t truly believe that television back then pales in comparison to television today.  They were different times.  Society had different expectations of their pop culture, different values, a different sense of propriety when it comes to questioning any given widely held belief of the time.  It doesn’t mean that their stories have lost value over the years, even the ones featuring now irrelevant plots and conflicts.  I grew up watching Nick at Nite – I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Genie, The Munsters, Happy Days, The Wonder Years.  I will always love these shows, but they do NOT represent some superior time period that we will never again live up to as creative people.

My problem is this:  When people state that art, society, civilization, pop culture, and everything else  has gotten unequivocally worse over the years, they write off a treasure trove of what the world today has to offer.  Quit lusting for the past so much and you just might find that the present is pretty awesome too.

I just might write up my similar take on movies someday to go along with this post, but it will probably only happen if someone gets me riled up on the topic again.

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A Mistake Wrapped in Other Mistakes: Trying My Hand at Stand-Up Comedy

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Throughout my efforts towards a film degree, I harbored nagging suspicions that upon graduation I would be truly screwed.  I came up with several hair-brained schemes to build my resume so that I would be that one-in-a-million Hollywood success story (the first from UCF since the Blair Witch Project kids made a buck or two back in the day).

As the greatest pre-writer in the world, I always succeed in over thinking absolutely everything I ever remotely consider doing and rarely follow through on it.

Even well thought out ideas can be terrible.

I knew that even if I wrote the greatest words ever to chase a cursor across word processing software, there would still be countless individuals between those letters and the big screen.  I was the only person in my corner so I knew that I had to take charge of my words in order to get them out there.

I decided to just become a stand-up comedian real quick to pass the time until the world recognized my brilliance and showered me with job offers (feel free to kick things off, Jon Stewart).  I had plenty of material to draw from and I was self-educated from hours wasted watching Comedy Central alone in my room Fall Semester.

After scripting everything that I planned on saying word for word and then reading over it a couple of times (you know, to sorta memorize it), I was almost ready to make my big debut at the crappy-sports-bar-in-the-Student-Union’s weekly open mic night.  There was just one last ingredient that I needed:  at least a pinch of self-confidence.  Luckily, I had just the recipe for that.  About an hour before showtime, I measured out 8 shots of my fancy Jim Beam bourbon into a big red plastic cup.  I topped it with Dr. Pepper and drank a big sip every time I realized how much I was nervously sweating.  I found the bottom of that cup pretty quickly.

I would have met up with some friends for a little pre-show support, but I made sure that I told absolutely no one anything at all about this because up until I finished my Dr. Bourbon, I was certain this would be an embarrassing failure.

I scuffed the side of my foot as I dragged it across the sidewalk.  I was wearing flip flops because it was January (which I have been told means something completely different in states that aren’t Florida).  That scrape probably didn’t feel very good but Jim Beam whispered that I was invincible and that it was no big deal, so I staggered onward.

Soon enough, I found myself sitting at a table next to the stage with my name on a list.  A rotation of hit-or-miss aspiring comedians warmed up the stage before me.  My bourbon really started to kick in while I waited.  The bullet points scribbled on my arm that represented my jokes weren’t making as much sense as they did when I originally wrote them.

Booze builds confidence but erodes short-term memory.

I don’t remember actually going up on the stage, but I do remember being grateful that my flannel jacket covered the ever-growing pit stains on my shirt underneath.  For the most part, I recited 20 tips for how to interact with your Pizza Delivery guy.  Literally between each one, I looked down at my forearm to try and figure out what the next smudged bullet point was.  The audience (who hadn’t been shy with their disgust at some of the previous comics) laughed at the lines that I remembered the best.  During the lines that I didn’t really remember, they would either maintain their merciful smirk from the previous joke, or just stare like I was part of the wall behind me.

The bourbon served its purpose and I made it through my 20 tips (I think).  I had an oak flavored squall brewing inside my stomach so despite my satisfaction with myself on some level, I quickly got the hell out of there.

Back in my room, I took a picture of my arm and smudged bullet points with my plastic digital camera and uploaded it to Facebook triumphantly.  Of course, I had to explain what the hell that grey stuff on my arm was, but I was still kinda proud.  It wasn’t until I was sitting in my dorm room that I realized that I had literally never spoken my jokes out loud before I got up on that stage.  My head was buzzing still, but I did manage to take away some very obvious lessons about the importance of rehearsing.

I also realized that my writing only works when delivered with care.  As I humorously captured the universal truths of crappy customer service jobs, my wit drowned in the drunken slur of my uncoordinated tongue as it struggled to remember what it was in the middle of doing.

Just to prove that I had almost zero understanding of my own body, I went for a 2.5 mile run around campus after that.  My sweat was 40 proof and my heavy breathing probably caused nearby breathalyzers to malfunction, but I did finish the long loop around campus.

After a very life-changing month of coming out of my shell, I would return to the stage to try my hand at topical comedy – I recounted a gun control debate between the College Democrats and the College Republicans (who had chosen a man too old to be in college who looked like Yosemite Sam to make their case).  Maybe it was how close I held the notecard to my face in order to read it in the dimly lit room, or maybe it was the fact that I only put 6 shots into my pre-show cocktail instead of replicating the 8 from last time, but nobody laughed.  I cut my set short, tucked my tail between my legs and suddenly realized that I had no interest in the hard work and rejection of being a performer.

I never stepped foot on that stage again, but through my cowardice I learned to respect people who submit themselves for ridicule in the name of entertaining total strangers.

Knowing what you are bad at is as useful as knowing what you are good at.

I still hope to hear my jokes spoken aloud someday, just by a performer with more skill (and a lower blood alcohol content).