August 23, 2005

The differences between our countries became apparent when I turned on the news: "Hey, here they report every murder!"
- paraphrasing a transplanted United States comedian
Few things mirror our societies, our selves, more thoroughly than our choices of entertainment. What is said, what is assumed, what is simply an invisible given in the background paints a fractal portrait of our deepest, truest nature: precisely because when we seek out entertainment we see no need to present masks to the entertainer, be they interactive screen simulation or live person. We see it as being the entertainer's job to entertain us. The audience, depending on their inclinations, may or may not be willing to meet the entertainer halfway in this (whose job is empathy anyway? what entertainer would be willing to tackle an audience lacking any sense of humour?): most commonly with an initial benefit of the doubt as part of the price of admission, eroding quickly if the performance fails to catch our interest. The "exit game", an inverse Farewell Symphony improvisation exercise where a bored audience abandons the performer, only reflects the realities of modern entertainment in a multimedia galaxy of choice.

(I leave open the question of whether the "selected-for" quick hook and then sustained reeling in increases overall quality of the creation -- "quality" being another of those slippery words -- or simply undermines any requirement for active audience participation in the action of being entertained.)

As is the case with sociologists, many of the most talented comedians and satirists tend to come from liminal subcultures (and sometimes countries) persisting within the dominant societal structures: perhaps because the most enduring comedy depends on the willingness to poke fun at ourselves, our own foibles. It is very difficult to see ourselves as objects of fun except from an "outside" that isn't, really: for another distinction lies also in how a joke is taken. One person or group teases, another takes it rather differently: but an a priori unspoken rule with this kind of humour states that criticism must be given from within lest it be taken as an attack in truth. (Jokes can be the most personal things.) Call this, then, the comedy of personal insight. These comedians, safely marginal while at the same time one of us (more or less), at their lightest serve as a kind of societal safety valve (a popular version of this can be seen in the wittier rants), while stronger and more focused satire can have the effect of almost literally excising the object of humour from the societal mainstream.

Another type of comedy, this one growing directly from the grassroots of the dominant culture, focuses instead on poking fun at others. Perhaps its function, beyond simple entertainment, might be to establish the boundaries of "us-ness" against a semi-threatening "other"? In its own way it is just as enduring in its patterns. The same types of jokes will tend to arise again and again. Only the specific targets will change.

This particular quote caught my attention because what it casts a spotlight on -- not the direct data it presents, but what the manner of presentation of that data represents -- is so very sweeping. It plays on one piece of audience assumed-to-be-general information: murders are perceived to be fairly frequent in the United States, as measured per capita against other countries of an equal or higher technological level; and specifically the murder rate in the host country is much, much lower. (In one of his short stories, Asimov wonders whether all jokes are in fact at the expense of someone, with some of them turning very dark if the subject material is considered at its surface level.) By itself the information is dry and debatable and not funny at all. What turns it into a joke and a true insight is in observing how that data is expressed in the everyday, in this case through the vehicle of the current events programme: because the second, not-previously-thought-about piece of information conveyed in this quote is that what is considered "news", even what is considered a representative cross section of "news", is not universal.

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