Tag Archives: art

I’m Going Back to School… Kind Of

multiculturalism

When I was in art school, I really enjoyed my experience — mostly because I like to learn, but also because I excel when I know what the rules are and what’s required to obtain the “A.”

In the years since I graduated, I’ve done what most of us do when we reach “the real world” — I stopped learning in any structured way. Yes, I still read, watch, and learn about the topics I’m most interested in — or the topics my friends or girlfriends are passionate about — but most of that is accidental or incidental; it’s not intentional, because I didn’t have a structured goal.

But now I do.

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the lack of diversity in mass media. Most of the stories we experience here in America are stories about white men, created by white men, for presumed audiences of white men. And hey, I’m a white man, so I appreciate all the attention… but I’m also a bit burned out on the endless retread of the “straight white male as epic hero” storyline.

I’m sure there are plenty of college courses I could take on this subject… but I can’t really fit a time-specific course into my schedule right now.

So instead, I’m giving myself a challenge, and I’m structuring it like a curriculum because I think that’s what I’ll be able to stick to.

Here’s what I want to do:

From July 1 through November 30 of this year, I want to:

  • read at least 5 books that were NOT written by a straight white male
  • watch at least 5 films that were NOT directed by a straight white male

And then, in December, I want to summarize my initial reactions to these stories — and this experience — in an essay, which I’ll post here on my blog.*

The catch?

I want you to help suggest the books and movies.

Please list your suggestions in the comments below, and why you’d suggest them. (It doesn’t have to be any profound reason; maybe it just happens to be your favorite book or movie.)

Then, based on your suggestions, my instincts, and a little of my own research, I’ll announce my self-imposed curriculum in July. (Apologies in advance, since I doubt I can include everything that’ll be suggested, but I’ll try to select things without any conscious bias. Also, I can only read in English, so please don’t suggest any books that aren’t available in an English translation.)

And hey: if there’s something you think you’d enjoy learning about in a similarly structured self-imposed curriculum, be my guest. Let me know and I’ll try to lend my own suggestions.

Let’s all get smarter together, shall we?

* NOTE: It’s not like I don’t already try to read and watch media created by a diverse group of artists, so I don’t want this to come across like some newfound burst of cultural tourism. What I’m actually interested in are the similarities and differences between the “traditional” straight white male stories that populate most of our mass media and the stories told by people who don’t fit that type. Maybe I’ll learn that the differences are surprisingly negligible, or maybe I’ll learn that different creators rely on different patterns just like the traditionalist media I’m questioning. Who knows? But the sooner I start consciously exploring, the sooner I’ll start to learn… whatever it is I’m about to learn.

Flickr photo by rwdownes.

Why Gatsby Can’t Be Great on Film

The Great Gatsby 2013

“Great costumes, great set design, great performances, boring movie.” Does that sound like what everyone you know is saying about Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby?

Yeah… me too.

Oddly, it also resembles the reviews of the disastrous 1974 version of the movie.

And I think I figured out why.

[Warning: mild spoilers ahead, even though most of us have read the book.]

Can’t Repeat the Past? Why of Course You Can!

When I first heard that Baz Luhrmann was adapting The Great Gatsby (in 3-D, no less), it struck me as a bad idea. Luhrmann excels at operatic emotion and visual opulence, and while Gatsby is a story about opulent people, the story itself is about quiet, subtle, excruciatingly small things that explode internally. All the great moments in the novel are either emotional exchanges between two people or dramatic reveals of shrouded pasts and obscured intentions. For all its gaudy excess, Gatsby isn’t a Moulin Rouge type of spectacle, which made me worry that Luhrmann might be the wrong voice for Gatsby.

But then I saw the trailer, and all my fears seemed unfounded.


Look at the energy!

Look at the style!

Look at the action!

Never mind that I was having trouble remembering there being much action in the book itself. The sheer grandeur of the trailer had convinced me that Luhrmann just might have everything right.

And the frustrating part is, he almost did.

Where I think Luhrmann went wrong was in making the exact same mistake Zack Snyder did with Watchmen: by remaining too faithful to the source material, he created a moving book, rather than a film that lived as its own creature.

In Stories, Form Follows Function

It’s a hard trick, adapting a story everyone knows in such a way that it becomes “of the moment” while still being true to its essence. If you stray too far from the source and the movie fails, you’ll be pilloried for ruining a classic. But if you’re a slave to the original, then your own work can only live in the source’s shadow.

Sound tough? It gets worse.

The real reason most books fail as films is because what makes a book work is the exact opposite of what makes a movie work.

There’s a lot about Robert McKee‘s screenwriting advice in his now-classic Story that I disagree with, but one of his basic tenets is almost bulletproof. To paraphrase McKee:

  • If a conflict is primarily internal, it’s a novel.
  • If a conflict is interpersonal and dialogue-driven, it’s a stage play.
  • If a conflict is external and action-driven, it’s a screenplay.

As with any rule, there are exceptions, and no one says you can’t make a great dialogue-driven film or write a bestselling adventure novel. But, generally speaking, the nature of your story’s conflict determines its ideal form.

The Great Gatsby is a story about an idea, told primarily as an internal monologue by a character who bore witness to the unfolding events of a conflict he had no direct hand in. In other words, it’s nearly the textbook example of what a novel is supposed to be.

Unfortunately, Gatsby‘s status as a (and perhaps the) great American novel is the very thing that prevents it from becoming a great American film. Or, to put it another way, it’s not that Luhrmann was the wrong voice for Gatsby-as-movie; it’s that Luhrmann decided that silencing his own voice would best serve the material, when what the material actually deserves is to be retold in a voice as singular as Fitzgerald’s own.

God Sees Everything

As I was watching Luhrmann’s film, I could pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped caring about what was happening. It occurs when Nick excuses himself from tea so Gatsby and Daisy can talk, alone. It’s a necessary scene, and the entire story unfolds as a result of it.

But it’s also a scene where Nick — meaning us — isn’t actually present for the action.

Nick also isn’t present for most of Gatsby and Daisy’s gallivanting during the subsequent weeks, or Tom’s various affairs, or Gatbsy’s firing of his staff and his rapid unspooling into a barely functional, paranoid obsessive.

No, Nick is just the witness to the moments between these events. In the book this works because Nick has the benefit of hindsight, and he can posthumously contextualize what happened, and why, how it impacted everyone else, and muse about what everyone thought and felt, and tell us why any of it mattered.

Thus, in the book, Nick is “God” in the same way that any narrator becomes the eyes through which we see (or don’t see) the story. We have to trust him (or not) because his is the only perspective we have. But onscreen, we have our own eyes to rely on, and that shift in context requires that the story be told in a functionally different manner than retrospect and hearsay.

The problem is, Luhrmann didn’t trust himself — or us — enough to fill in the blanks with action instead of anecdotes. And he must certainly have felt he’d be doing Fitzgerald a disservice if he allowed us to come to our own conclusions about the characters and their motives without the aid of Nick’s lumbering voiceover that tells us exactly what to think and feel — sometimes unnaturally, as when Nick tells us Gatsby was a man with “an extraordinary gift for hope,” while his actions in the film make him look more like a dangerously unhinged and chemically imbalanced stalker.

And if we can’t believe our own eyes, whose should we trust? Luhrmann’s… or Fitzgerald’s?

That’s a Great Expression of Yours, Isn’t It?

Lurhmann’s adherence to period language and his stubborn reverence to Fitzgerald’s prose doesn’t help draw a modern audience into the story. From a taste and tone standpoint, Luhrman having Tobey Maguire narrate Fitzgerald-as-Carraway’s written words aloud as though they possess mystical importance is cringe-inducing, but having DiCaprio end every sentence with “old sport” is even worse because it’s unintentionally hilarious. After the thirtieth or fortieth mention, the phrase makes Gatsby seem entirely unworthy of being taken seriously.

And there’s also one nagging stylistic choice I found distracting for all the wrong reasons: while the book (which was written in 1925) barely mentions non-white characters, Luhrmann’s insistence on including African-American extras as background characters in as many scenes as possible feels obligatory at best and, at worst, strategically calculated. (Notice the first scene in the trailer? A Jay-Z-fueled soundtrack throbbing over footage of zoot suit-wearing Harlem high-rollers speeding over the Queensboro bridge in a 1920s convertible may make for attention-getting trailer fodder, but it also feels like the studio thought the only way they could get “urban” audiences to come see a story about sad white people from 1922 would be to oversell the story’s “diversity.”)

And yet, while the big knock on Luhrmann’s Gatsby is that it’s boring, I think the subsequent accusations that the original story is now outdated and irrelevant is mistaken. The success of Mad Men proves that modern audiences can still be captivated by the melodramatic antics of white alcoholic narcissists from bygone days. Those antics just need to be retold in a form that serves their function, and in a manner that rewards the audience rather than the author.

And that means the greatest compliment the next director who adapts The Great Gatsby can pay to the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald would be to use his book as an inspiration, a reference, or simply as a guide along the way to creating a film that shows us what the book made us feel.

Just don’t use his novel as a screenplay. Trust me; he’d have told you the same thing.

Why The Avengers Movie Is Actually the Ultimate Explanation of Geek Culture

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Avengers since I read this astoundingly dense (and hyper-useful, if you’re a writer or artist) scene-by-scene dissection of the film by Todd Alcott. He meticulously explains why each element in the movie does (or doesn’t) work, what it all means thematically, and how it all supports the multiple arcs and narrative threads that combine to form the overarching story.

Many of Alcott’s filmmaking observations have been stuck in my head over the past few days, but one in particular got me thinking. Alcott says:

Now that our narrative has a protagonist (Nick Fury), the question, as always, is “What does the protagonist want?” Superficially, Nick Fury wants “to save the world,” that most generic of motives. To save the world, Fury must get a group of superheroes from vastly different backgrounds to work together.

Surprise! What the protagonist wants is exactly the same thing as what the writer-director wants! If Joss Whedon cannot succeed in getting his dog’s-breakfast of a cast to mesh, meld and work as a unit, his narrative will fail and no one will go see his movie.

Makes sense, although you could really say the same thing about any movie: the director needs the hero to succeed so people will want to pay to see him succeed.

What it actually got me thinking about was the other way a writer-director imparts himself upon any story he creates. See, no one writes a story about people they don’t care about. And in order for a writer to care about a character, s/he has to see that character as a human being worth relating to. Thus, every character in a story represents that author’s worldview about what that type of person means to the author personally.

Which, really, means The Avengers is the logical culmination in Whedon’s career-long lionizing of the pop culture [white male] geek obsessive as hero. In other words, The Avengers is about how Joss Whedon would be a hero.

Not sure about this? Here are the notes I spewed across my laptop as they came to me in a flood of self-recognition; stop me when you see yourself.



Hulk (Bruce Banner)
= the geek who always wants to punch the jocks / racists / idiots at the bar, but there would be repercussions if he did; yet, as the Hulk, you’re invincible AND there are no repercussions (especially because what he finally unleashes himself upon are faceless and anonymous representations of pure militant evil). Thus, Whedon’s Banner is “always angry,” and Whedon’s Hulk is finally allowed to take all the punches that Banner — and Whedon, and we — must pull, every day.

Hawkeye (Clint Barton) = the emotionally distanced technician who’s exceedingly good at something a human actually could become good at if he tried (and he’s funny, and the only girl in the group likes him), which makes him the surrogate for all the geeks in the audience, as they imagine themselves to be (in their idealized versions of themselves).

Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) = the alpha female fantasy of all guy geeks; she’s smart, impossibly attractive, uses her body as a weapon, allows herself to be fetishized and abused, yet always turns the tables on the bad guys she’s manipulated and beats them down (although she’d never manipulate you because you’re on her side — see? finally, a hot chick you can trust AND understand!), AND she’s secretly in love with the guy who most obviously resembles the proxy character for the male audience. Yay! You have a girlfriend!

Iron Man (Tony Stark) = the smart, funny geek playboy athlete billionaire, AKA what you presume you’ll grow up to be someday — especially because he makes it all look so easy, as though you really don’t have to work all that hard to achieve it because IT WILL JUST COME NATURALLY TO YOU IF YOU HAVE THE INHERENT SKILLS (wish fulfillment!) and then your biggest problem will be which of your amazing achievements you’ll be remembered for.

And who’s Iron Man’s opposite in this film?

Loki! The truth is, if Hawkeye is how the geek audience already sees itself, and if Iron Man (actually just Tony Stark) is what it aspires to become, then Loki is what it’s afraid it would become if it DID have access to extreme power — petty, angry, vengeful, totalitarian, and loved by no one. This is why Loki (who’s a completely irredeemable asshole in most of the comics) works so well as a villain the way Tom Hiddleston plays him in the Marvel film universe: his craven motives are implicitly understood by the audience, because he is us (as we fear ourselves to be).  Which brings us to Thor.

Thor = the hardest character to assimilate into this geek self-actualization fantasy, which is (I suspect) partly why Whedon waits the longest to introduce him. The other characters are all shades of Whedon’s own personality (and, by extension, of ours), but Thor is essentially the jock in a room full of geeks. He’s unearthly handsome, strong, athletic, and charismatic — just like the high school jocks that the comic geeks naturally feel like (resentful) insects in the presence of. So how does Whedon make him accessible to the audience? By

  • making him awkward and uncomfortable (just like he’d be at YOUR party, if he actually showed up), and
  • by focusing his character arc on achieving some kind of reconciliation with his brother Loki, AKA the bad version of us.

In other words, Thor becomes a character the geek audience can reluctantly embrace because HE LITERALLY WANTS TO EMBRACE US (LOKI) AND MAKE UP AND LEARN HOW TO WORK TOGETHER (wouldn’t it be GREAT if the jocks sat down at the geek lunch table of exile and were all like, “Hey, we respect you, and we’re not happy unless we’re all getting along?”). It’s telling that the thrill of Banner’s Hulk indulgence is punctuated by self-satisfyingly punching Thor out of the frame. Thor is a character the geeks need on their side, and will tolerate, but only when he recognizes that their brains are equal (or superior) to his brawn (and good looks).

http://lifestyle.inquirer.net/files/2012/04/t0428avengers_feat1_1.jpg

Captain America (Steve Rogers) = represents the audience’s own naive, childish, and stubborn belief in two things: the individual potential of the audience members themselves to grow up and become the kinds of “real men” that their own dads and grandfathers would be proud of, and the possibility that America actually *could* be the greatest nation on Earth, *if* we all learned how to work together in honor of our mythical common dreams of justice, equality and the pursuit of happiness. Making Cap a dork makes him human (it’s akin to the tactic Whedon uses with Thor), rather than a holier-than-thou espouser of arbitrary ideals. And if this dork can grow up to embody America, so can you, dear viewer.

Nick Fury = just like the Black Widow represents the ultimate male geek fantasy as it pertains to women, Nick Fury represents the ultimate white male geek fantasy as it pertains to black men, on two levels. By making Fury black when he was always white in the comics (until The Ultimate Avengers, anyway), Marvel wins all the politically progressive brownie points AND audience demographic spillover it could hope for while only angering the sub-audience of comics purists and white supremacists whom it would rather not have to take into consideration anyway. This allows the audience (and Marvel) to feel progressive, in the same way that going to Starbucks makes you feel like a citizen of the world: no, listening to Count Basie while you sip your vanilla latte doesn’t really make you actively cosmopolitan, but it’s a visual shorthand for WANTING TO BE SEEN AS SUCH.

Likewise, in the context of the film, Samuel L. Jackson as Fury is the ultimate scary angry black guy who is, in this case, ON YOUR SIDE, IN CHARGE, NEEDS YOUR HELP, AND IS WILLING TO BREAK ALL THE RULES (AND LAWS) SO YOU HAVE EVERY CHANCE TO SUCCEED. He’s really a mix of Thor and the Black Widow — the kind of guy you can’t be and secretly resent because you think women like him better than they like you, PLUS the kick-ass cathartic fantasy of a type of humanity (black, as opposed to female) that you can’t understand and therefore secretly fear, BUT WHICH NOW RESPECTS AND LIKES YOU, so we’re really all cool, right?

*

This isn’t all meant in any way as a knock on or oversimplification of Whedon. He’s spent his entire career (Buffy, Firefly, Dollhouse) chasing these themes, the same way Woody Allen and Kathryn Bigelow and Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino revisit their same themes over and over, each time re-peeling the same grape from a different side. And in The Avengers, he finally achieved his thematic apex.

Personally, I’m curious to see how much more time he’ll spend on this particular adventure before he turns his attention to another shade of his themes — feminism, intellectualism, traditionalism, etc. — and explores them in another fictional universe. But for now, the Marvel universe is his self-analyst’s couch, and we get to see every session in 3-D.

*

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Overcoming the Cult of Easy

This weekend, I tweeted a link to an article about the new ABC series Last Resort, which argues that Andre Braugher’s character, Capt. Marcus Chaplin, is a bold commentary on what it means to be a black male in modern America.

In return, someone who follows me responded:

I’d read that column, but I don’t have an hour to kill. It lost me in the first paragraph.

I, too, got thrown by a run-on sentence in the first paragraph.  The site it’s linked from, The New Inquiry, is a purposely self-indulgent meta-critique of pop culture, and I’m used to their style.  But I can certainly see how someone who’s never read their work before might find it challenging, and maybe the article does a bad job of giving a newbie a reason to stick with it.

But here’s what really worries me about that response: because the reader had trouble following the article’s logic, he gave up.  Note that he doesn’t say he found the article uninteresting; he says he’d read it “if he had an hour.”  (The article runs about 1900 words; it should take an average reader approximately 7-10 minutes.)

Not only that, but his response makes it subtly sound like it’s either my fault for sharing something that was beyond his ability to comprehend, or it’s the author’s fault for not making the argument easier to understand.

In short: it wasn’t low-hanging fruit, so it was ignored.

Welcome to modern society, 2012.

But Would You Want to Have a Beer with Him?

Since 2000, when education, intellectualism and expertise became synonymous with “elitism” — and elitism became synonymous with “Un-American” — society has been skeptical of intelligence and the efforts to acquire it.

Politically, we reward the people who seem most like us, rather than the people we’d most like to become.  Artistically, we reward TV that serves up predictability and music that provides us with [danceable] emotional escapism.  Scientifically, we question everything, believe nothing, and prefer to rely on conventional wisdom rather than statistical probability.

When critical thinking is frowned upon, even achieving mediocrity can start to seem rebellious.

This explains why films that seem smart end up being touted as modern masterworks, when they’re really just modernized rehashes of classic tropes.  Inception, Looper and Prometheus aren’t particularly complicated films, but when compared to anything by Adam Sandler, I can see why critics are desperate to call something “smart.”

Lowering Our Common Denominator

The Graduate

On Salon, film critic Andrew O’Hehir mourns the death of film culture, noting that TV has replaced film as the source for our most intelligent and boundary-pushing stories.  Whereas previous generations could debate the morals, ethics and cultural commentary found in films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Chinatown on a near-weekly basis, modern audiences must turn to The Wire, Mad Men and Game of Thrones for that same level of authorial analysis.

Not that this is a problem, per se.  The rise of TV as the standard-bearer for intellectual pop culture may be surprising compared to TV’s own past, but the serialized format does lend itself to greater depth than a 90-minute stand-alone film. No, the problem isn’t that TV is now “smarter” than film; it’s that audiences who crave “smart” no longer exist in meaningful, market-impacting numbers.

If you adjusted for inflation, The Graduate (1967) would be the #21 film of all-time in terms of box office, at a staggering $686M.

That’s higher than The Avengers.

Meanwhile, The Wire — regularly cited as the most intelligent TV show of all-time — averaged 4 million viewers per episode.  Granted, it aired on HBO, which isn’t a standard free TV channel.  But considering TV viewership was hitting all-time highs in 2006, which was the same year The Wire aired what’s often considered their finest season (Season Four, AKA the “school” season), you’d think it could have attracted at least a quarter of the 13.89 million people who were watching Two and a Half Men.

Don’t Write for People Who Can’t Read

I realize I’m connecting dots here that may not be actually be adjacent.

I realize I’m basing my estimation of America’s sociological decline on my own opinions about popular culture, mixed with the kind of sepia-toned “things used to be better” nostalgia that’s easily debunked by pointing out that some pop culture is always smart, and most of it is always stupid.

But I’m also connecting these dots due to my long-simmering frustration with the increasingly vocal ghettoization of knowledge.

I get that we’re a busy culture, so stopping to read when we don’t have to is an imposition.

I get that we’re a depressed culture, so having to think about problems isn’t as fun as avoiding them.

I get that we’re a remix culture, so learning what came before is never as compelling as seeing what’s coming next.

But maybe if we stopped to dissect our modern culture a little more, we might understand it better.  And if we understood it better, maybe we could improve it, or we could at least stop rewarding the producers of information who demand nothing from us beyond a glance, a “like” or a click.

Maybe we could stop seeing intelligence as the problem.

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What Everyone Missed About the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Controversy

I never expected Daniel Tosh, of all people, to be the impetus for my first blog post in a month. And since I find him to be one of the most aggravating personalities in entertainment, I didn’t expect to find myself defending him during his ongoing public pillorying over a poorly-interpreted rape joke, of all things.

But here we are.

This Is a Long Post, So You Should Probably Get Some Coffee First

As with all things in life, I want to preface what I’m about to say with three standard disclaimers:

* We never really know what anyone else is thinking.

* We never really know why anyone else does anything they do.

* We never really know why we react to things the way we do.

But unknown unknowns are the lifeblood of the Internet, which has been aflame over this issue for a week now, to the extent that you probably can’t think of anything else that could be said about this admittedly contentious situation.  However, the reasons I’m even writing about it at all are twofold:

* I’ve long held a silent suspicion about Daniel Tosh’s true intentions

* I think everyone who’s talked about this particular incident has missed the point

Ready?  Here we go.

The Setup

As well-documented on sites like MamaPop:

In case you missed it, Rape.0 went a little something like this.  Tosh, known for being as inappropriate and equal-opportunity-irritating, was doing a bit about how there are horrific things in the world and that being horrific doesn’t mean there aren’t jokes to be made.

The woman blogged:

I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

And then, after the blogosphere picked up the story and took Tosh to task, he apologized on Twitter:

The Problem

To me, the real problem isn’t that Daniel Tosh made a joke about rape.

To me, the problem is that nobody seems to understand what Daniel Tosh actually does for a living.

Let me qualify the following argument with one caveat: I’ve never actually seen Daniel Tosh live.  I’ve watched dozens of episodes of his TV show, Tosh.0.  I’ve read a little about him.  I’ve watched some of his stand-up routines on Comedy Central.  But I’ve never actually paid to see him live, unedited, and physically delivering his routines, so my impression of him is limited to the same reduced context that everyone has access to.

That said, I think Daniel Tosh is probably the most misunderstood comedian on the planet.

Yes, his routines are almost always designed to offend someone. He’s often accused of being misogynist, racist, homophobic, or any other designation you can assign to a person who denigrates others for a living.  And yes, he’s clearly doing it all on purpose, to push his audience’s buttons and provoke them into a specific reaction.

I just don’t think we give him enough credit for the reaction he’s actually pursuing.

What do I think he’s actually trying to do?

I think Daniel Tosh is trying to make you angry enough to stop paying attention to Daniel Tosh.

Let me explain.

Comedy is all about unexpected reactions.  You think you know where a joke, a story, or a scene is going, and then it veers into unexpected territory, and you find yourself grappling with your subconscious reaction to something that your brain hasn’t quite processed yet.  From stand-ups to sitcoms to performance art to film, the goal of comedy is the same: to generate a reaction from the audience that surprises them.

This is actually the exact same goal as horror and suspense, but while the twists of horror and suspense usually result in some kind of primal catharsis on the part of the audience, the twists of comedy usually make someone uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s the target of a joke that feels uncomfortable. But when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, sometimes it’s the audience itself that feels uncomfortable.  (See: Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Louis CK)

Because when a controversial joke is skillfully delivered, you can find yourself laughing at a statement or insinuation which, on paper, you would decry as racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise hate-filled. Often, those jokes are intended as a commentary on society’s unspoken biases and hypocrisy; they’re a commentary on the audience itself. Thus, by involuntarily acknowledging the humor inherent in even the most grotesque situation, we’re then free to voluntarily ask ourselves why that situation exists in the first place, and why we may be culpable within it.

And that’s what I think Daniel Tosh is really up to.

Yes, it’s pretty clear that he rejoices in making other people feel uncomfortable. He’s almost giddy in his skill at knocking you out of your comfort zone. And even his biggest haters will admit that he leaves absolutely no stereotype unscorched. In Tosh’s world, no one is safe from humiliation for their masks and presumptions. And while Tosh.0 cashes its checks on the backs of fame-seeking idiots who post their own stupidity to the Internet, it also does something else: it rounds up a legion of — literally — millions of schadenfreude-addicted couch potatoes and challenges them to look away.

You Can’t Train a Monkey to Care

Tosh uses his fame to incite his followers to ape him. One recent challenge urged people to videotape themselves “lightly touching a woman’s stomach while she’s sitting down,” with the clear intention of making a complete stranger feel uncomfortable, if not vulnerable, or even violated.

Needless to say, people did it.

Maybe they did it because they thought it was funny. Or because they hope to get their clip shown on Tosh.0. Or possibly just because Daniel Tosh said they could, and since he — and, by association, his parent company Comedy Central — said it was okay, then it must be okay, right?

Which means scores of women had their days ruined, all because Daniel Tosh has a TV show.

Except that’s not why they had their days ruined (and videotaped).

They had their days ruined because people are assholes.  And that’s Daniel Tosh’s whole point.

Just like the girl who walked out of the Laugh Factory had her day ruined. It wasn’t because Daniel Tosh is an asshole; it’s because people are assholes.

The Machine Is Largely Unaware of Itself

Say what you will about Tosh’s sense of humor, or his delivery, or taste in cardigans, but he clearly understands people. He couldn’t possibly aggravate as many people as he does on a daily basis without understanding what buttons to press, and why, how, and how often.

I’d also wager that he’s just as incensed as you are about all the shitty things that people say and do to each other on a daily basis. (Heaven knows he sees enough of it.) In fact, I’d say he’s even more upset about it than you are. Because while you’re sitting here condemning his words, he’s on stages and TV screens every night, throwing those same dangerous words in people’s faces, over and over, and witnessing how they react.

And you know how those people are reacting?

They’re laughing.

And I bet that pisses Daniel Tosh off.

See, while I’ve never met Daniel Tosh, and I have no other reason to say this than my own instincts, I’d say that their laughter at his words is what angers Daniel Tosh more than anything else in the world.

Because he knows the things he’s saying are horrible. Hell, he’s spent his entire career perfecting the art of offense. And when people laugh at the horrible things he says, he realizes something that the rest of us — in our furur over propriety — miss:

Empathy is dead.

An Obituary for the Concept of Giving a Shit

It’s impossible to watch Tosh.0 and not fear for the future of our species.  Not just because people will videotape themselves doing the stupidest, most dangerous, most humiliating things imaginable. But because they will then put those videos on YouTube, with the explicit purpose of sharing them with complete strangers. Or, because other people will videotape the misery of others, and then share it without their consent.

And because, through it all, people will laugh at it.

Not only will they laugh, but they’ll pay money to sit in a studio and have a comedian point out other tragic or appalling things about these videos — and the people in them — that they might have missed if they’d just watched them at home.

Not only will the audience pay money, but global corporations will pay even more money to advertise on this ghoulish entertainment when it’s televised.  Why?  Because, at last count, more than 3 million people tune in to watch new episodes of Tosh.0.

What kinds of people?  People who will videotape themselves touching women’s stomachs if you ask them to, and millions more who will queue up to watch complete strangers be humiliated.

Now, after doing that for years, tell me that Daniel Tosh could truly enjoy it.

Well, anything’s possible, but here’s what I think is more probable.

I think Daniel Tosh enjoys his job. He likes making people laugh. And he likes pushing the envelope, not just because he likes to make people uncomfortable, but because he also likes to give them the opportunity to think.

He also knows when he’s pushing the envelope past the point of social acceptability, or when he’s about to push that envelope right off a cliff. And every time Daniel Tosh pushes the envelope, I truly believe he’s hoping that someone else pushes back.

But not like this, though.  Not like the national firestorm of “Denial Tosh hates women” accusations he’s heard before (and which, frankly, miss the point entirely by assigning the blame exclusively to Tosh himself).

I think he’s waiting for you to push back by not listening.

In fact, I’d go out on a limb and guess that nothing would make Daniel Tosh happier than if no one showed up at his comedy shows ever again.  Not out of some misplaced sense of moral outrage, as though they’re making an example of him by silencing him. But out of a sense of newfound empathy and humanity, and a refusal to laugh at the depths of mankind’s depravity.

Seriously.

For example, you recall Tosh’s apology on Twitter?  Here are some of the responses to that tweet:

Apart from Plimpton, a well-known actor and feminist who’s obliged to take these things seriously, what I find most telling is the banality of these responses.

Maybe they hate women. Maybe they hate themselves. Or maybe they think they’re being as funny as people think Daniel Tosh is trying to be. But the one thing none of them seem to be doing is “getting it.”

Tell me you could perform, night after night, to an audience like this and not snap.

Tell me you could be the poster boy for the basest instincts in the American psyche and not wonder if you were singlehandedly empowering the downfall of America on a daily basis.

Now tell me how long you could keep doing that, and seeing your audience become ever more oblivious to their own nobler instincts by the day, before you’d quit to pursue a less emotionally debilitating career.

Daniel Tosh knows what he’s doing. He’s just appalled that the rest of us are missing the point.

All of which brings me back to the actual rape joke itself.

The Mathematics of Comedy Is Nothing to Laugh About

See, the part of this story that’s been widely reprinted, as above, is only the middle of the story. If you read the whole thing, you’ll also read the beginning, which provides some context that’s missing from the part everyone is outraged over. To wit:

This is something that happened to a friend of mine in her own words.

“So, on Friday night my friend and I were at her house and wanted to get out and do something for the evening. We brainstormed ideas and she brought up the idea of seeing a show at the Laugh Factory. I’d never been, I thought it sounded fun, so we went. We saw that Dane Cook, along some other names we didn’t recognize we’re playing, and while we both agree that Cook’s style is not really our taste we were opened-minded about what the others had to offer. And we figured even good ol’ Dane can be funny sometimes, even if it’s not really our thing. Anyhoo, his act was actually fine, but then when his was done, some other guy I didn’t recognize took the stage. Of course, I would find out later this was Daniel Tosh, but at the time I thought he was just some yahoo who somehow got a gig going on after Cook. I honestly thought he was an amateur because he didn’t seem that comfortable on stage and seemed to have a really awkward presence.
So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

You know the rest.

But what you didn’t know, if you only read the popularized and context-free account of this story, was:

* These people are not regular comedy club patrons.

* They did not know who Daniel Tosh was.

* They did not understand that his “awkwardness” is part of his schtick.

* They did not understand that his endless repetition of offensive themes is, literally, the whole point of his act.

The way the story has been reported around the web, you’d think Tosh made a statement about offensive comedy in general, and a sensitive audience member lobbed the rape topic back at him as a challenge, hoping he would admit, “Well, you’re right; that’s never funny.”

But that’s not how comedy works.  For better or worse, comedians like Daniel Tosh exist to point out that, yes, everything in life can be funny, depending on the context.  (And, in Tosh’s specific case, he’s simultaneously implying that this could be seen as a flaw in humanity that we should address before we lose our ability to process it.)

And that’s especially not how live comedy works.  Because anyone who interrupts a live comedian immediately becomes a threat to the act, and will be either silenced, escorted out, or incorporated into the act so that the comedian doesn’t lose a) control, b) his train of thought, or c) his authorial voice. It would have been impossible for Tosh to have a bit ready to go, stop it, validate the interrupter’s caveat, and then continue as though nothing had happened. To do so would be to admit that the entire act is a performance, and that it doesn’t matter.

And that’s absolutely not how Tosh’s comedy works. Because when he’s at his most venomous, it matters more than anything.

In this instance, Tosh wasn’t even making the point about rape as an action.  His retort was actually a deft observation about the nature of comedy itself.  Crusading against rape, and then immediately getting raped, would, as a human act, be unconscionable and deplorable.  But as a comic act, the timing would have been perfect, because it would be the epitome of an unexpected reaction to where you thought this story was heading.

And that’s the problem with comedy: it works best when it feels worst.

The intention isn’t just to say, “Hey, these horrible things are funny.” It’s for someone else to say, “Yes, but, they’re still horrible.”

When we all stop making that distinction between concept and action, or between comedy and humanity, we lose our ability to empathize.

And then we become the very ghouls who let poor Daniel Tosh cry all the way to the bank.

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