Monday, June 20, 2011

The Best Thing That Pretty Much Is An Earlier Thing, Only Better.

If you read this post yesterday on my blog Thinking The Lions, then you know that I am really, really irritated by the fact that pop culture sucks.

And pop culture is you people, so to be more pointed, you suck, was kind of my thesis, although it was filtered more through the lens of "RachelInTheOC" and "Kevin Smith" and people like them suck.

I haven't calmed down any; I still think pop culture sucks, but I no longer solely blame you because I heard this morning about 1/5 of this week's This American Life and it began with Ira Glass interviewing a deaf guy who got cochlear implants and could hear for the first time -- and he was disappointed.

That's neither here nor there, although, funny story, when I first typed "neither here nor there" I accidentally misspelled here as hear, so I was ready to say that a story about a deaf guy being disappointed with the world of sound was neither hear nor there, which is kind of funny, right?

The point of the deaf guy story, as it pertains to this post, is that the deaf guy, as he was waiting for his implants, was wondering what it would be like to hear, and he couldn't imagine what that would be like, which is kind of a hard thing to even describe. I've always been able to hear, and so I can't really imagine what it would be like not to know what hearing feels like. I had to rely on this guy's description of what it was like to anticipate what hearing would be like, and then compare what hearing would be like to what hearing was actually like.

And then, when he could hear, this deaf guy didn't really like it -- because, it turns out, his brain wasn't prepared to hear. He'd never learned to hear the way we learn to hear, which included not learning how to tune out unimportant sounds. He found he could not focus if he was in a room with an air conditioner, because all those little sounds we hear around us -- people talking, the radio in the background, traffic in the distance -- are so familiar to us that our brain can sort among the important and unimportant ones and essentially ignore the unimportant ones.

This guy couldn't do that. Every sound was equally important to him, and it made it hard on him to live his life, so eventually he took out the implants and went back to not hearing.

What, you might ask, does that have to do with the fact that the world is filled with crappy writers like RachelInTheOC who nonetheless get lots of acclaim?


We-- well, you, but I'm not blaming you, remember -- are not trained to filter out the noise of pop culture, especially now, especially when pop culture isn't so much just a small stream of input coming through little by little, but is this overwhelming explosion of information and experiences that surrounds us and is available at our fingertips constantly. Our brains have never been trained to make out what is really good and what is simply crap, and so we have no ability to do that and continue simply doing what we've always done.

In terms of the metaphor that I started this with, pop culture is sound, and we were born deaf and slowly grew to hear things, but before we learned how to manage those sounds, we jumped into the middle of New York City.

Okay, let me explain better.

In the olden days (before 2002), people relied on a limited stream of information to get their pop culture. Television started with only a few hours of programming a week, on only a few channels. Radio stations were limited and not on the air all the time.

Then, as options expanded, pop culture seemingly expanded, but it was still all being fed to us through conduits: We got cable television and videotapes, but those things were still released by gatekeepers, studios and production companies that decided, more or less, what we got to experience. Radio stations maintained tight formats and it was virtually impossible to hear music that didn't get the imprimatur of a major label.

So over time, we got used to having someone else decide what was good and what was bad, and the entire range of human endeavor was pared down to a manageable stream. Books were published by a few publishers and available at Waldenbooks at the mall and that was it. Newspapers and Dan Rather told us what was important in the world. If you were at the beach, you didn't know what people were talking about until you got home that night and watched the 10:00 news and learned what important things happened that day.

Then, instead of this little trickle of information, the world of pop culture went supernova, all of a sudden, and it really was sudden.

Consider: The first television broadcast ever was in 1928. It took 20 years before there were four networks broadcasting programs at some point during the week. Cable TV first became available in 1948 -- but it wasn't until the late 1970s and early 1980s that it became more widespread and common, and 60+ years after cable TV was invented, less than 60% of the households in America have it.

The Internet as a thing started in the 1960s. But personal computers weren't invented until the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the word "Internet" itself wasn't common until the late 1990s. The first popular web browser (Mosaic) was released in 1993.

Remember TV standards are 60 years to get to 60% saturation. The Internet took 18 years to go from "Hey, what's that thing?" to 1,970,000,000 global users. It grew at a rate of 109,444,444 users per year. If Cable TV grew at that rate, by now, 6, 894,999,972 people in the world would have access to cable, and all of them would complain that there was nothing on.

For the sake of accuracy, I will note that there are only 6,926,000,000 people in the world as of this moment.

How does this all factor in? Simple: The growth of the Internet is the equivalent of putting a cochlear implant into a previously deaf ear. For most of our lives, people had a trickle of entertainment that was predefined for them. Then, one day, we woke up and suddenly EVERYTHING WAS HAPPENING ALL RIGHT NOW AT THIS MOMENT AND IT'S AMAZING.

Instead of four or forty or even 400 channels, there were suddenly 400,000,000,000,000 things.

I may be exaggerating, but not by much: There were 182,000,000 websites in 2008, with the number having grown by nearly 3,000,000 per month. But some 6% of those websites were things like blogs, which are not made up of just one thing; they're made up sometimes of hundreds of things over time.

And confronted with that multiplicity of things, the vast majority of people just shut down.

The Internet made it possible for everyone who has a viewpoint to express it. Anyone who wants to publish a book can publish a book. Musicians were free to make their music without having a label or a radio station, and make lots of money. The Internet and computers made it possible for budding filmmakers to create films on a shoestring and have them viewed 6,485,000 times:

And also, unfortunately, made it possible for people to use the phrase "face raped" in conjunction with a discussion about whether or not it made sense for Jim Gordon to fake his death in The Dark Knight. But that's beside the point, too.

With all the possibility out there, then, why the #(#$&# do we still have to read tripe like "my kids don't like my music" and "Guess what!? Men hate doing housework?!"

I think it's because people took out their ears. Being unfamiliar with all the varying things that could constitute entertainment, and being unable to sort out the good from the bad, the familiar from the unfamiliar, the new from the old, most people just didn't bother trying.

I haven't finished that episode of This American Life yet, so I don't know why the deaf guy took out his ears. But I think it's sad that he felt so overwhelmed by a new sensation that he couldn't cope and deprived himself of 20% of his senses.

And I think it's sad that with great writers out there and great filmmakers out there and great musicians out there and great everyone out there, we are still spending all our time reading and hyping substandard crap like "RachelintheOC."

Why do we do it?

Because we never learned to hear and we don't want to now. Instead of learning how to sort out new from old, bad from good, up from macaroni, we -- you-- just decided to retreat into two basic types: things we're told to like, and things that look like things we've seen before.

That is, if enough people say to like something, we'll like it. And if something looks enough like something else, we'll like it. Which is why According to Jim and Two and a Half Men and RachelintheOC survive: because they don't just look like things we've seen. They're the very things we've seen. They don't even try to mask it: they just take the same idea, over and over, and show it to you again.

This is not a rant against familiarity. Remember, I'm the guy who said people actually like sequels a lot, and should. I'm the guy who said that the McDonald's cheeseburger is truly great, and invented the formula for proving it.

Familiarity breeds contempt only if familiarity is worthy of contempt, and that... THAT... is why RachelintheOC and Kevin Smith's Sweating To The Oldies and 99.9% of pop culture in general just makes me, when I think about it, lose my sh*t and spend an hour on Father's Day typing up a rant.

Because we're better than that. We shouldn't be reading and re-reading old Erma Bombeck columns ad nauseam simply because doing otherwise is too hard and too overwhelming, and because we shouldn't be doing that, we should either not read "RachelintheOC" and her ilk, or we should at the least demand that they put some effort into it.

I mean, seriously, if you're going to spend 10 minutes reading a blog post, shouldn't it be more than a recap of a mediocre episode of Modern Family with "Rachel" cut-and-pasted in place of "Claire?"

Okay, so not everyone likes stuff to be new and different the way I do; not everyone wants to be challenged all the time by great entertainment. Sometimes people just want familiarity. And, let's be fair: there are universal experiences that we all share and that are fun to talk about.

So what about those, you defenders of tripe might ask me. What about comedians who make jokes about early dating experiences, like Mike Birbiglia did on that same episode of This American Life, and you thought he was funny even though, like, a zillion people have joked about their first date with someone including Ira Glass on that very episode? Are you insisting that Mike and Ira never ever tell another joke about a first date?


That's not what I'm insisting.

I'm insisting that if you revisit the well, you do it better.

If you can't find it in you to make something new or creative or inventive, if you must tell the same old joke again, at least for God's sake do it better.

David Sedaris is ludicrously funny -- but not everyone wants, all the time, to hear a story about how his efforts to upstage his boyfriend by pointing out that his boss had a rubber hand were thwarted by his inability to speak French. And not everyone can tell stories like that.

Another person who's ludicrously funny is Jim Gaffigan, who talks about the same old things everyone talks about: eating, church, holidays. But when Jim Gaffigan does it, he does it funnier and in a new way. When Jim Gaffigan jokes about how boring church is -- something many people have said over many eons -- he makes it seem fresh because he does it so well and in a new way.

There are, it's been said, only seven basic stories. Or maybe only two. I don't know. I do know that whoever said that did not include the basic story of how hard it is to be an assistant manager at an aquarium, so they were wrong in their count because really, that's an untouched-upon theme in literature that I'm just throwing out there for the universe, but I digress.

There are only a few basic stories. There are only 8 notes in the scale. There are only two food groups people should eat from (The two groups are "Deep-fried," and "Somehow related to Cap'n Crunch.") But from those basic building blocks, we create a wealth of songs and stories and movies and there are also at least four different kinds of Cap'n Crunch, so it's possible to keep on making things new.

I myself did that when one day I decided to make Rice Krispie bars, only to substitute Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch for the Rice Krispies in the recipe, and several sugar-induced comas later, society is the better for it.

So what I'm saying is, if you just want to do the same old thing, if you're going to make a blog (and call it, wrongly, edgy and snarky) that's just a mommy blog and write about how men really aren't very good at housework, at least do it with a bit of flair and make it seem new.

RachelintheOC, and Kevin Smith, did not do that. I was three words into their posts and I thought I know exactly where this is going and I don't have time to waste, and I quit.

And you people -- you who have shut your ears back off -- you should insist that if you're going to watch the same old thing, hear the same old thing, read the same old thing, that it at least for God's sake fix its hair up and put on a nice dress before you take it out to dinner. Marriages fail because people stop trying to impress their spouse, and civilizations fail because people stop insisting that its creative types actually give a sh*t about what they're creating and we end up with Justin Bieber and RachelintheOC dominating pop culture until we all die alone and friendless and, worse yet, bored.

Which brings me to Happy Endings.

Happy Endings
is, as you may have just realized, The Best Thing That Pretty Much Is An Earlier Thing, Only Better.

Happy Endings is about a group of friends, two of whom were romantically connected and may be again, two of whom are in a relationship, and one of whom is a kind of weird guy that has strange adventures. Which is to say, Happy Endings is Friends.

I'm not the first to remark on that and I'm not the only one who constantly thinks it. The moment I saw an ad for Happy Endings, I thought "hey, they remade Friends with someone more attractive than Ross in his part."

(Jennifer Aniston in her prime

and Casey Wilson in hers

are about a wash.)

But I watched Happy Endings anyway because here's the thing: I liked Friends. I liked it enough that from time to time I'd DVR a couple of episodes and watch them, laughing again at jokes I knew so well I could tell them by heart. "Take off your shirt and tell us!" I still use that in conversation, which is why there are so many restraining orders I have to keep track of.

So when I saw that Friends was essentially airing new episodes with younger people, I tuned in to see if I still liked Friends With New People.

Had Happy Endings simply been Friends, I'd have watched an episode and never gone back. But it wasn't just Friends. It was Friends only newer and funnier and hipper; it was the Friends who might exist (who do exist) now, as opposed to the 1990s Friends. These Friends, like the old ones, still drive food trucks (Monica and Phoebe had their catering van, Dave (?) has his food truck.) They still try to be hip when they're not. (Joey wanted to play young, Casey Wilson dated a hipster.) There are weddings about every third episode, as sitcom rules demand. They never seem to work, as sitcom rules demand.

But it's not just Friends all over again; it's Friends dressed up and with a new hairdo, trying to keep that spark going and impress me all over again. Maybe trying too hard sometimes, but still trying. Even when they recycle gags, they do so with a freshness that I appreciate.

Take the Apartment Across The Street gag. On Friends, the Apartment Across The Street was for a long time occupied by Ugly Naked Guy, and in one episode I remember, the Friends pieced together a bunch of chopsticks to try to poke Ugly Naked Guy and see if he was alive. For some reason I can't embed them, but you can watch a series of clips about Ugly Naked Guy here.

Happy Endings takes that same concept -- weird guy across the street -- but makes it seem fresh and new by having the weird guy be ugly, but somehow able to score with women at will, and also by having the New Friends shoot at him with Nerf guns or something:

... aaaaaaaaannnd I don't have a video for that.

Anyway, you get the point of that: it's the same idea, really: Young cool people live across the street from someone who is not as cool and is also nakeder, and make fun of him.

But it works in both contexts, which needs some working out, maybe, to understand how that can happen.

How is it that the same story line can be funny just by tweaking it? Is it just that chopsticks were replaced by Nerf guns and that's all I need?

Or is it more? Would it have been funny if RachelintheOC, instead of having her husband be difficult about doing her chores when she was sick, had her husband be difficult about filling in for her as a speaker at an indie book conference?

Well, yes.

I think had RachelintheOC begun her bland, tepid oatmeal of a post with "I was sick and so my husband had to go speak at an Indie Book Conference on my behalf but here's the thing -- he's no writer, he's a heart surgeon and so he ended up speaking about how it felt to actually hold a person's beating heart in his hand to all these bloggers," that WOULD have been funny and I'd have read it, even if the basic post boiled down to "Surgeon Hubby complains about having to do wife's work."

(I don't know if RachelintheOC's husband is a surgeon. I'm sure, though, that whatever he is, he's stereotypically and blandly that thing.)

Taking a familiar premise and tweaking it is what good writers do. Taking Ugly Person Across The Way and tweaking it is what good sitcoms do. Taking a good guitar riff and tweaking it is what good songs do -- not everything has to be purely original. It just has to be yours and seem fresh.

It's kind of the difference between leftovers and LEFTOVERS! The other day, I had LEFTOVERS!, by which I mean, I took the leftover Italian casserole that we had in the fridge, and I put it into a tomato-basil tortilla, with some cheddar cheese, and microwaved that, and then ate it, and instead of oh, here's some casserole I had something that was a little more interesting.

Happy Endings wraps Friends in a tortilla and nukes it: The episode playing in the background at my office right now is The Shershow Redemption, in which a woman who ran out on a wedding runs into a guy who is going to run out on his wedding -- which is how the whole Friends show began, right? Jennifer Aniston ran out on her wedding. So Happy Endings takes that concept and doubles down, throwing in some other tropes, too, to make that basic story (which was also done as The Runaway Bride and, in real life, by The Runaway Bride:

) seem fresh. And it did that even though Happy Endings also used the "friend as a minister" trope in that same episode.

But I still laughed -- just like I laugh when the same old story is given a new gloss in The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, with good acting and a fresh coat of jokes, but I don't laugh when the same old story is run as a by the book, let's go through the motions sitcom on Two and a Half Men or According to Jim or That One Show With David Spade That's About Marriage But Which In Commercials Looks Like Every Other Show About Marriage.

Which after all, maybe doesn't need so much working out, because as I look back on this, I think the difference is effort.

If you're trying, it shows. If you're trying to do something well, it shows. Whether you're trying to do it in a new, unique, unusual, fresh way (like, say David Sedaris) or whether you're trying to do something that's very familiar but simply better, it shows. The gang on Happy Endings isn't doing anything particularly new or fresh; each episode probably tracks one or more earlier episode of Friends, but they're working really hard at it. They're not just re-reading old Friends scripts; they're putting two or three of them together and somehow fitting that into 20 minutes. They're upping the ante by updating premises and mixing old familiar tropes with new familiar tropes.

But they're working at it.

People like According to Jim, and RachelintheOC aren't even bothering to try. People like Jonathan Franzen aren't bothering to try. After a while, it began to seem like John Grisham wasn't bothering to try.

And they don't bother because you don't make them. I just clicked over, out of curiosity about how many hits she had, to RachelintheOC's blog, and was not at all stunned to be confronted with jokes about mancode and this turn of phrase:

Writing about men is fun. I adore men. They make me laugh. Why?

Well, for one thing they’re hairy. That alone is just funny.

And before I could put my hand through my monitor in frustration, I clicked away, but not before I saw the phrase dirty martini.

That blog might be the laziest f**cking thing I have ever read.*

*Is that enough, Rogue Mutt, or should there be more.

It's not even trying, and she'll probably get more hits today than I will in a lifetime




Because you've taken out your ears and you're content to just read the same old sh*t and not even insist that it be dressed up with something new or fresh seeming. I could spit out crap like that simply by throwing a magnetic poetry kit at my wall, and I would, except that I'm not interested in being popular for popularity's sake. I'm not interested in being what is essentially a random cliche generator just to make money. I have a day job; I make a fine enough living at that and so I can do this for fun and not worry too much about whether or not you like it or you even read it.

But every so often, like this week, I get frustrated, because every so often I think For God's sake, people, why do you settle for junk? And I get frustrated that critics rag on Happy Endings and that great writers like Rogue Mutt can't find a publisher while A Walk In The Snark can republish Henny Youngman's routine under a female name and get onto bestseller lists, and I have to blow off steam.

And also I have to explain it, which I think I've done here. I thought about this yesterday while I walked around eating my orange chocolate chip ice cream and looking through castles with Mr F and Mr Bunches and Sweetie, and I thought about it while I ate burgers with Middle and Oldest, and I let it percolate through my brain as I drove into work listening to This American Life, and I think I've hit on it.

Things can be new and exciting. Or they can be old and familiar. Either of those are okay; like I said, I sometimes just watch old TV shows I've seen before, and I rewatched The Dark Knight Friday.

The problem is when someone takes something that's old and familiar and makes money off of it. If you're going to try to sell me me old and familiar, you ought to at least try to make it better. If you're going to sell me an old house, paint it first. If you're going to ask your wife on a date this Friday night (as I have), put on a nice shirt and shower before you go out, the way you used to when you were dating.

If you're going to have a bunch of young attractive people do weird funny stuff, work really hard at making it funny. The way Happy Endings does.

Because it's possible to make a living acting in According to Jim, and it's apparently possible to make a living recycling "snarky" cliches and calling them a blog, as Rachel does. But the fact that it's possible doesn't make it desirable. And maybe, if more writers and musicians and actors and directors stop taking the easy/RachelintheOC/Kevin Smith way out, then people -- you -- would stop letting them.

Or vice versa.

Either way, I'm going to continue watching Happy Endings, and I'm going to continue to write things that I find new and exciting and unique. And I'm pretty sure that you will continue to gravitate towards Rachel's latest "edgy" post -- probably something about how funny it is when moms try to work and raise kids (!) -- and let her, and the rest of society, off the hook of "trying."

You'll keep reading that crap, but I won't. And I'm the better for it. And as long as there's a few people out there who think like I do, I'll be able (with my like-minded people who insist that, if you can't come up with something new or original, the creative types at least try to make something feel new and original) to find something I like.

I'll have to sift through a lot of drivel and white noise and junk that you like, junk that Rachel and Kevin produce, but I'll find it.

I hope you, too, eventually start to think like me. Because no matter what that deaf guy said in This American Life, hearing is better than being deaf.

And no matter how much you think you like re-reading crappy cliches on RachelintheOC's blog, you only think it's great because you don't know any better. But that's your fault. You're the one who took your ears out and let them pass you a pile of mush and pass it off as something worth your while.

I won't waste my time with it anymore.

I'll be watching Happy Endings, and writing my stuff, and generally doing the best I can to ignore the steaming pile of garbage that is 99.9% of pop culture.

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