February 06, 2001
As many of you know, I used to host a radio comedy show called A Night at the Asylum at WVBR-FM in Ithaca, NY. The show was largely inspired by Dr. Demento, only we focused more on comedy and less on novelty records.
Recently, one of my fellow former producers of said comedy show discovered that someone she knew was wanted by the police for child molestation. The culprit was caught, and as the facts about his predatory practices were revealed, it became clear that this very sick individual had messed up a great many people's lives... including friends who were very near and dear to her.
As we discussed this traumatic chain of events, my fellow former comedy show producers and I came around to the question of a routine we used to play on the show: Kinko the Clown, by Ogden Edsl. None of us could remember ever really liking this particular song, and we all wondered why we'd every played it. It didn't have any particularly funny lines, and it's rather insenstive to a nasty subject.
But... I've been thinking about this more and more lately. I think that, in fact, we *did* find it funny at the time; we've simply forgotten why. Our context has changed.
The reason I believe this to be the case is because I happened to see Dr. Demento in a live performance this weekend. Focusing on "things [he] can't play on the radio", the syndicated radio show host played songs and videos of a number of bits that don't (currently) pass FCC muster. Some of these items would never, ever make it, but were very funny (including an extremely rude Mick Jagger tune that he recorded with the *intent* of being so bad that the record company would never release it, simply to fulfill a contract that he wanted out of). Others used to be playable on the radio, but have since elicited fines from the FCC. This collection surprised me, in particular, because it included a number of routines we used to play all the time: Monty Python's "Sit on my Face", for example.
Then, the good doctor showed us a music video and prefaced it by saying, "This song used to be one of the most requested on the Dr. Demento show, but I haven't played it in a couple of years, given the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorodo." The video was for Julie Brown's, "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun."
Wow. I was stunned. This song was frequently featured on our show. And, as the video unfolded, it was so patently clear why playing it now would be so beyond the bounds of acceptable taste. Given the events that transpired in Littleton, there was no way to interpret this song as anything other than a sick and depraved acting-out.
But, the thing is... this was recorded *years* before Littleton, and it was mocking high school homecoming pagentry; it was not advocating violence. The song and video were so clearly cartoonish; the humor so obviously a coy swipe at high school's culture of popularity. Yet, in the context of a post-Littleton world, it is both mean and savage; an indictment of a culture of violence.
Watching this video on Saturday, I completely agreed with Dr. D: even if the FCC had no reason to fine you for playing it, this was one routine worth dropping from the playlist. And, yet...
And yet the fact is that, in its day, this piece was actually quite funny. It still is, in it's own juvey way, if you can overlook Littleton.
But Littleton did happen.
And there really are maniacs who go around molesting little children.
And context is everything.
February 09, 2001
Lately, I've taken to writing the beginnings of these magnum opus essays on this site, which I have then never gotten around to finishing. I finally got called on it.
A long and thoughtful e-mail took me to task for the part of an argument I'd left unfinished. And so, allow me to continue my thoughts about comedy and context. I offer no promises that this completes my thoughts on the subject, but at least I can get into it more now that I know where the dialog is heading.
The reader's e-mail begins: "You seem to imply that 'The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun' was only funny pre-Littleton."
My essay does imply this, but the implication comes from an omission on my part. Rather, the events at Littleton changed the context in which I (and others, I'm sure) receive the song, and *that* changes the nature of the humor with which it is received.
Pre-Littleton, the song is funny because it is an absurdist fantasy. High school punishes all who enters its doors -- students and faculty alike. But to the typical student, the Homecoming Queen (or Prom Queen, or Captain of the Cheerleading Squad, or whatever) appears to be the one little darling least affected. This song's humor lay in the fact that it tweaks our recognition both of the frustration that leads to such a seemingly unlikely event, and the casting-against-type of the actual perpetrator. We recognize and empathize with both the antagonist and the protagonists in the song. It's ludicrous. Impossible to imagine... and yet, it's perversely satisfying at the same time. A Homecoming Queen reigning destruction upon the previously celebratory event.
Post-Littleton, the scenario is not so absurd; not so foreign to the imagination. I agree with the reader that any reasonably intelligent person would have deduced when this song was first released in the '80's that a Littleton-style event was not only possible, but even *probable*, eventually. But, it was nonetheless outside the realm of our actual experience. The schoolyard shootings leading up to, including, and following Littleton banished that little false sense of "it can't happen here."
And, so, anyone who is familiar with the school shootings (and related events) that have taken place in the '90's receives "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun" with a different context: the situation itself is no longer absurd; only the particular angel of vengence.
(I will remind the audience that back in the '80's, high schoolers who felt particularly frustrated with their situations tended to commit suicide rather than homicide. That, or they played Dungeons and Dragons. I'm not sure which was worse...)
I was picking apart the structure of the song to myself as I sat at the concert hall listening to it, and it really is an exellently constructed bit of humor. I won't bore you with my analysis (I'll bore you with my rant about context instead), but I agree with the reader's e-mail that the song is still funny. *However*, because the context has changed, so has the nature of the joke.
The reader goes on to state (and, I think this is the heart of the matter):
"All this being said, I probably wouldn't have bothered to write except I think the idea that context is everything is rather offensive if not mildly dangerous.
"I remember years ago I was telling you about an episode I liked of 'Homicide, Life on the Streets.' I actually agree with you about what you found offensive, but I still liked the writing and presentation. Anyway, the plot revolved around some clean cut kid who committed a murder. He got his hands on a gun, and once he held it he felt it had power over him and he had to shoot someone. That's really simplifying but it's the basic idea. You were very right in that it played to the anti-gun lobby's contention that it's guns that are bad, and the shooters aren't responsible.
"In a sense I see the same sort of danger in ideas like 'song's about molesters are only funny until you know someone who has been molested.' This implies an inability to reason from the abstract to the specific. It also gives creedence to the idea that only those who have suffered from a gun crime should be allowed to have an opinion on gun laws. Or, to speak to another of your recent essays, the idea that only those who have suffered from racism should be allowed to have an opinion on affirmative action or other laws."
While I see the point, I believe there are two distinct issues here. The songs "Kinko the Clown" and "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun" remain the same as they ever were, before and after the potential listener becomes involved in an outrageous event such as the ones that serve as the setting for these songs. The outrageous event in the song is absurd. The outrageous event in real life is tragic. (The same can be said for Olivia Newton-John's "Let's Get Physical," I suppose.)
But, the listener may well interpret the songs differently after having actually experienced an event such as those depicted in these songs.
Our tastes in humor necessarily change over time, and I contend that this is largely because of our expanding library of context. Many people I know find the old Warner Brothers cartoons much funnier once they're adults than they did when they were children, because they had more context in which to fit more of the jokes. Alas, just as context can enhance the meaning of a joke, it can also sometimes detract from a joke's effectiveness.
I, for one, have outgrown scatalogical humor, but I've found an increasing love of puns. Go figure.
But there's a different, underlying issue that the reader points to, and it is one of politics, not aesthetics. Here, we come back to my original title, "Censorship and Context".
We may agree or disagree as to whether it is appropriate to play a song for a wide public audience that attempts to be funny against a backdrop of violence (or some other potentially tragic setting). As I stated in my last essay, I agree with Dr. Demento's decision not to play "Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun" on his radio show, given the events at Littleton. And if I were still hosting a radio show of my own, I would make the same decision.
I neglected to say in my previous essay, however, that I nonetheless believe that this is and should be a matter of taste -- to be exercised by the host (or performer), and not to be imposed by the government appointed arbiters of the airwaves.
Dr. Demento willingly refrains from playing "Homecoming Queen", although I suspect he looks forward to the chance to play it again on the radio one day. No doubt, his decision is as much motivated by business concerns as it is by any sensitivity on his part. Nevertheless, I would find it particularly offensive to have the government dictate his playlist by banning this song... just as I am offended that the government does see fit to dictate that certain other songs are stricken from the airwaves.
One of the many ironies here is that Dr. D can play a funny song about an absurd school shooting, but chooses not to, while he is prohibited from playing a lovely little ditty called "Sit on My Face (and Tell Me That You Love Me)" -- set against a pleasant backdrop of mutually consentual gratification -- but you can be certain that he'd play it if he were allowed.
How long will it be before the FCC finally regulates the thoughts we choose to express on the Internet (either on the web or via e-mail)? I shudder at the idea.
February 15, 2001
So, the reason I haven't posted here in the past week is because I've been spending all of my writing time working on The Do Over. I've begun the process of developing the draft (ie, converting all of my individual scenes into a narrative). At one point, I finally crossed the 80,000 word mark, and then the pruning began.
And, the re-writing.
In an effort to enter a prestigious literary contest, I have been working on a synopsis of the novel and the "first chapter". This has entailed writing a new 5-page synopsis (which has been through one round of critiques; I'll be revising it tomorrow before I send it in with the rest of my app.), and completely rewriting the first five scenes (three of which are completely new action).
Why completely rewrite the first five scenes? Two reasons. First: the original versions were terrible. I wrote most of them about a year ago, when I was still shaking some rust off of my pen. Second: after much hemming and hawing, I have finally acknowledged that the action cannot begin at Location B, since Location B is never a part of the story after the opening. So, I had to relocate to Location A, which is a very central setting throughout the novel. Alas, it's not enough to Find and Replace location names. Everything changes by changing the setting.
So, I've spent the last few days writing about 5,000 words of new material, plus the new synopsis. Yee-ha. The application needs to be postmarked by Friday, so I'll be a busy beaver Thursday after work, trying to put the finishing polish on my efforts. Will it pay off? I may have a fighting chance at getting some notice in this literary contest (Winners are announced this summer). But at the very least, I've gone through phase one of preparing a book proposal. So, I've taken a necessary step toward getting this beast published.
...and, as I've said above, I'm now on the road to turning my random scenes into a novel.
February 19, 2001
Maybe, as posited by the ubergovernment in George Orwell's 1984, changing how people speak really does change how they think and, in turn, changes the reality in which we live.
For example, we see doublespeak like this in the financial papers:
"According to First Call/Thomson Financial's research analyst Ken Perkins, of the 137 retailers monitored by First Call the sector overall is expected to show negative growth of about 5.4 percent year-over-year, which is down slightly from the 6.5 percent recorded in the third quarter."
Retail sales are expected to show negative growth? Negative growth? Hello? There used to be a term in economics that described "negative growth": recession.
Can you say "recession" boys and girls? I thought so.
While my employer has been right-sizing to optimize for our negative growth scenario -- which is double-plus ungood, if you happen to be on the unright side of the right-sizing -- I've become increasingly sensitive (a good, healthy American word if ever there was one) to the manipulations of meaning being broadcast by our decision makers.
I would say that my employers are, in fact, lying to my face, but I'm being constantly reminded by my peers that this is an unright way to look at it. They are not lying to us. They are not even telling us "untruths". They are simply assuaging the negative growth in our expecations with non-truths because that is completely appropriate in an environment such as this.
Language, in theory, is a tool for communicating meaning. Lately, however, it is increasingly being used as a tool for obfuscating meaning. From the former President ("That depends upon what your definition of 'is' is," and, more recently, "[sure she gave me lots of money, and sure I pardoned her husband, but] there was absolutely no quid pro quo."*) to the captains of industry to tell us "We all need to be in this for the long term" while they take $26 million out of the company as the stock price continues to plummet.
My favorite nontruth was recently uttered by a Vice President (my employer now has an organization that goes three Vice Presidents deep. Three! There are three VPs between me and the President of the company. How can we possibly need that many VPs?) when a fellow employee asked point blank "Are there plans for any more layoffs this year," and the VP said with a straight face, "No, there are no plans for any more layoffs this year."
Meanwhile, I'm being told to figure out how to manage my team with at least one fewer person on my staff by this summer. (BTW, in corporatespeak, people are not people. They are "headcount". In national security terms, layoff casualties are "collateral damage." Thus, I am not actually losing people... I'm decreasing headcount.)
My staff now has a better bead on the truth here than I do, because the rumors they hear are often more accurate than the official line I'm told by those higher up the food chain than I am. I think this is partly because the folks on the front lines don't bullshit each other the way upper management bullshits their staff.
Did I say bullshit? I meant to say "lie through their teeth."
Telling the truth doesn't make reality any more palatable, but it *does* make it more likely that you'll be able to negotiate reality's treacherous waters successfully. But, neither our news media nor our captains of industry seem to think we can handle the truth.
*note: the second quote above [with my paraphraseology in brackets] is attributed to Clinton by ABCNews' account of the incident in this online article. ABCNews claims to quote the former President's statement in an Op-Ed piece which appeared in the New York Times, but I have not seen the original article.
February 27, 2001
When Everett and I were at grad school together, we often tossed about the idea of working on a paper comparing the parallel evolution of American Science Fiction movies and the prevailing political attitudes of the day.
The argument was pretty obvious, but we hadn't seen anybody address it in the academic press, and we thought it might be fun. Here's the obvious:
Fear of nuclear bomb testing was obvious in such cheesy grade-B movies as They!, Godzilla, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman!, and so on.
Worried about communist perversion of the American ideal? There were scores of invasion flicks that highlighted that theme, but the best by far had to be Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
For fear of nuclear war, look no further than the parable in The Day the Earth Stood Still or the more literal Fail Safe and Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.
We began to feel a little bit more optimistic at the power of our ingenuity in 2001: A Space Odessey, as well as the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas that came a decade later.
Concurrently in the 70's and 80's, the popular sci-fi movies presented growing concerns about technology getting us in over our heads in Alien, Logan's Run, and Mad Max -- and, later, Terminator and its many rip-offs.
My thesis stopped there; this was, after all, 1991 at the time I contemplated writing this scholarly work.
I've been reminded of this little idea, though, as I've been preparing to host a get together of some friends to watch a movie. This group gets together on a monthly basis with the members taking turns hosting. The host can assign homework that pertains to the movie that the host intends to show.
I decided, for various reasons (mostly pertaining to the fact that certain members of the group are big into conspiracy theories), to show The Parallax View. I assigned as homework for the members of the group to watch either The Conversation or Three Days of the Condor.
These three movies came out in 1974 and 1975, and each are about conspiracies and the use of very plausible, very real technology in carrying out those conspiracies. Having now seen all three quite recently, I have to confess that I don't think Parallax holds up as well as I remembered. It feels a little dated, and the conspiracy is simply too far fetched... but, then, that's quite possibly the point. Alas, all three films have their flaws. In the end, though, I think Conversation holds up the best. Francis Ford Coppola is expert at making every scene count.
The fact that all three films came out at the same time is no coincidence. The assassinations of JFK, King, and RFK had started to take their toll on the American psyche, and the revelations of Watergate fueled a national mood of distrust -- both of the government and of technology.
This distrust was echoed again and again in the mid-70's, in mainstream films like All the President's Men as well as in the science fiction of the day. Aside from Logan's Run and others, there was the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This one is particularly telling. In the original, 1956 version, the G-men save the day at the very last minute. In the 1978 version, the government has already been co-opted. Authority can not be trusted. In the end, no one can save us.
Getting back to my three conspiracy movies of 1974 and '75: it's been fun for the past week to watch these movies and pick apart their similarities and their differences. But, in the interrim, I happened to catch up on a movie I've been meaning to see for some time: The 13th Floor.
Interestingly, this movie came out at around the same time as three other movies with the exact same theme. If The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and The Parallax View are all representative of a culture that is increasingly paranoid about conspiracies, what should one make of the period of 1998 and 1999 producing four movies that focus on the idea that our reality is merely a construct by some outside power?
I maintain that The Truman Show, The Matrix, eXistenZ (written and directed by the same man who brought us the 1978 version of Body Snatchers), and The 13th Floor are representative of a new undercurrent in American political thought. As a nation, we are in the midst of an incredible identity crisis, completely uncertain about what is real -- what is true. In Truman and Matrix, the message seems to be that we are at least partly culpable for our part in confusing reality with make-believe... willingly participating in, if not actively encouraging, the deception.
Do these movies resonate with the public because they ultimately forgive the pop culture for its lack of moral conviction? I'm inclined to think not. Rather, I'm inclined to believe that these movies have tapped into a growing ennui that must, eventually, lead to an awakening. We laugh at the conceit of The Truman Show even though we know the joke is on us. But as the nation contemplates, in its own politicorganic way, the nature of reality, I have a sneaking suspicion that the wake-up call is not too far behind.
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