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Comediocrity

February 1, 2011

In my last post, I asserted that Twitter is a superior platform because it is architecturally designed to facilitate pull over push.  The only problematic aspect of pull beating push is that the good stuff flows to the connoisseurs and not the masses.  While this democratizing force may not pose many moral quandaries about distribution of power, and while democratized art can also empower and enable artists who would have been unable to create because of barriers to entry,  it has also created a worrying level of self-distributed ignorance and artlessness.  Today, by their own choosing, people take the easy-to-digest gruel rather than more interesting food for thought.  In a time when pull beats push, we are rarely careful what we wish for, and we just plain get it.

Economics may provide a reductively simple explanation: in markets with few producers, those producers need not reduce their costs to the bare minimum (and can therefore afford to pay talented people a supra-competitive wage to create) and pass those higher costs (in this case, of comprehension or appreciation) on to consumers.  Oddly enough, the deadweight “loss” here is that the consumer loses the “surplus” of simplistic entertainment; instead, the media consumer must do some intellectual work to get the payoff.  On the other hand, more cutthroat competition most directly results in lower prices, lower costs, cheaper materials, lower standards of self-abasement, cheaper products, and easier-to-digest, over-simplified views of reality and decency.

For example, Elizabethan times saw elites selecting the winners and losers by virtue of their patronage, and the chosen winner would be accessed by elites and masses alike.  The masses learned to like Shakespeare simply because that was what was there to like.  Sure, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and others famously mixed the low humor with the high, but the result was a much healthier dram than today’s media diet.  Analogously, relevant and important news was pushed at the Greatest and Baby Boom generations simply by virtue of only having three television channels to choose from and a smaller universe of media alternatives generally.  Monopolistic dynamics brought Edward R. Murrow, Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, and their ilk to the fore, not because they were the easiest, but because they were the best.  And because they were the best, they induced their audiences to rise to their level.

By contrast, today’s media dynamics are super-competitive, with cable, satellite, and even telephone lines creating a profusion of channels and media to turn one’s eyeballs toward, and that’s not even counting the Internet, Netflix, Hulu, etc.  As a consumer, the plethora of available choices seems great.  But the fragmentation of media outlets is what makes Fox News appear to be a runaway success because 2% is a winning market share: they can rightfully boast to being the #1 rated 24-hour news channel.  But is that relevant to its accuracy or worth?  (Relevant: an estimated 26.2% of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.)

What might be more troubling is that Two and a Half Men is the number one television show in America with only 9% of the audience.  With standards of success so low, mediocrity has a lot of power to command attention.  As an unabashed comedy elitist (or, in the common parlance, I am a “comedy nerd”), it troubles me that a loosely strung series of simplistic, predictable gags that “don’t make you think” and enable one to “relax after a busy day” is what wins the largest proportion of the increasingly scant resources available to creators.  I’m not arguing that Two and a Half Men isn’t entertaining; if anything, Two and a Half Men is the WonderBread™ of the comedy world.  It’s not that I have anything against relaxation per se; I have a problem with the state of affairs where an American audience pulls in only entertainment junk food and forsakes most content with any nutritional value (and rewards legitimately deplorable human beings to the tune of $2 million per episode).  What I worry is that it is inherent in the American DNA to eschew elitism in favor of populistic simplicity.  I’m not worried that my elitist comedy producers are going anywhere; the democratization of the means of production continues to enable willing creators to create.  Just see the profusion of first-rate comedy podcasts and free hilarity on Twitter if you need proof.  What I worry is that freedom and efficiency means that people will seek out mindless entertainment out of a lack of desire or appreciation for higher art.

When creators lack the ability to rein in their audience, the audience becomes the director.  Add to that the echo-chamber cycle of newsworthiness–and thus, free/viral advertising and promotion–being determined on the basis of brazen outrage and news coverage creating free publicity to sate the public’s sense of morbid curiosity.  Hence today’s disproportionate attention given to what would only qualify as rubbish or marginalia.  People don’t seek out classics; they grasp at gossip.  And when the money is behind the search for the broadest common denominator on the cheap, it is no surprise that those higher values are generally less accessible.

Entertainment and comedy that actually contains some complexity is somewhat isolated and rendered inaccessible if the audience is unwilling to openly admit to their own preference for elitism.  Take Bob Odenkirk for example.  Despite being one of the funniest minds in the last 20 years (his main credit being the comedy-nerd-beloved Mr. Show with Bob and David), his under-acclaimed status means that the only people who get to appreciate his genius are comedy nerds such as myself.  Or at least people “elitist” enough to read the New Yorker and see his hilarious piece “Where I Got These Abs.”

You are probably wondering where I got these amazing abs. They’re so ripply and rock hard, they’re difficult to fathom. If I were a character on a reality show about me and my middle-aged acquaintances, I might be nicknamed the Conundrum, in reference to these abs of mine.  See, the abs don’t match the visage. My perturbed, puffy face sets you up for a blubbery gut. But then you see these abs, stacked like bricks, clearly delineated, and you have to ask, “Does he work out for two or three hours a day, or does he just work out all day?” Or perhaps you think I purchased them from a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills. My secret is simple—dynamic tension! Constant dynamic tension. Tension that is tense, and dynamic, and never-ending—the best kind of tension there is! I have analyzed each ab and where it draws its tension from so that you, too, can get the abs you’ve always dreamed of!

And the New Yorker is still pretty established and mainstream.  The latest Golden Globe awards show may also be illustrative.  While hosting, Ricky Gervais made dozens of jokes that were hilarious and creative, but also quite harsh and potentially personally insulting.  Of course, he was doing comedy.  He wasn’t actually criticizing his targets, but making jokes under the implicit assumption of agreement that people wouldn’t take a comedian’s words as an expression of his feelings but as an expression of ingenuity and irony.  For example,

Gervais only just barely entertained more than he offended his audience.  That makes me worry that newer, less established creators may be induced to self-censor themselves to get the increasingly artless network gig.  Those creators’ first-order audiences are the executives who have the power to decide whether or not an artist will be advanced the funds necessary to support a livelihood in creation.  And the executives themselves are beholden to an impression of American audiences that is not very impressive.  Executive have businesses to run, and businesses fear being labeled as elitists or alienatingly opinionated out of a fear of offending their audiences.  Thus, the gatekeepers’ fear of the most sensitive audience member becomes a de facto race to the bottom and form of self-censorship.

Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.
–Mark Twain(?)

I guess all anyone can hope to do is to direct people to the stuff that even an elitist might find worthwhile.

The design of PPE as a program is a microcosm of CMC as a college: limiting admission is required to accomplish mutually exclusive goals that are worth pursuing.  Other colleges can provide raw inclusiveness and shallow interaction if that’s what you’re after.
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