Archive for the ‘ Comedy ’ Category

Marketing, Consciousness and Evil


‘If anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.’

The audience laugh, but Hicks insists that the statement isn’t a joke, that he is ‘planting seeds, you do what you can.’ Urging advertisers and marketers to ‘suck on a tail pipe.’ But the joke does of course come: ‘I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now: “He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar, that’s a smart market.”’ Protesting against this assumption, he corners himself again, “He’s going for the righteous indignation dollar.”

The skit finds him trapped in the bottomless cynical reasoning that no matter what he says, his words will be construed to be addressing a particular market from which he will gain monetarily. Advertisers and marketers, he contends, are unable to comprehend his words in any other way. At the heart of this joke is the notion that so-called neo-liberalism’s insistence on the primacy of markets has subsumed all human activity into some kind of profitable endeavour.

Here Hicks echoes the greed is good ethos expressed by Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Everything worthwhile, even an act of charity, Gekko maintains in a lengthy speech, is done for selfish reasons. While this reasoning can be easily brushed aside, there is a wide public perception that public acts all have a common denominator: personal gain.

In short: a public sphere has become a commercial sphere.

But the reason for this is not because there’s been some insidious take-over by scheming and greedy marketeers. It’s simply that we are surrounded by more media now (billboards, TV, the internet etc.) than ever before. This has changed our consciousness, we identify ourselves as parts of a market and it is that identification -the way we identify with particular publics- through which we largely shape our beliefs and attitudes.

This tribalistic modality is nothing new, what is new is how important a role consumer goods and services play in the way we identify. The consumption of consumer goods and services not only as a way of enjoying ourselves (which is a misnomer) but also as an ordering system is no more or no less rational than, say, animal sacrifices in ancient societies or gift economies of remote tribes. There’s no point in justifying consumer capitalism in a technological society, but there’s a lot of point in recognising that it structures our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Hicks’s moral point is based on a false notion of human consciousness, that there are rational and fundamentally well-meaning people who are actively deceived by marketeers. What Hicks doesn’t recognise is the way marketing and publicity make us what we are.

Marketing and publicity is the oxygen of enterprise regardless of its goals – from an arms maker to a communist political party. Hicks’s reasoning is as flawed as Gekko’s.

Our buying power (I mean this in a more abstract sense “buying in”, rather than a literal sense) is seen as much of a power than our political power as democratic citizens. This is why, to Hicks’s frustration, any public announcement is assimilated into the market, because the people themselves – not the marketeers – do the assimilating.

The Smiling Dog (what animals can teach us about being human)

The World Famous Smiling Dog

I’ve already written something around anthropomorphism and it’s a subject that continues to intrigue me since it plays such a central role in our visual culture. Another popular internet viral which has taken my eye is the smiling dog, a happy chap from San Jose which was caught on camera beaming in front of his birthday cake with an uncanny human-like face.

‘Uncanny’ is a good word here since it denotes a kind of uneasiness (it derives from ‘unhomely’), the image is funny, of course, but as I’ve mentioned before, there is an unsettling component inherent in humour. The arbitrary configuration of the dog’s ‘expression’ in the midst of the anthropomorphic ceremony (Dog’s don’t do birthdays, we do) double scores the situation’s futile pathetic-ness (I mean this in the sense of the ‘pathetic fallacy‘ in which human emotions are ascribed to objects and animals), that’s what makes this funny.

I think we laugh, in part, because the utterly real arbitrariness of the universe has impersonally configured the dogs face to look momentarily human, it’s an encounter with the the unmediated blindness and arbitrariness of nature in a highly contrived human environment. The dog’s “humanness” simply underlines it’s unhumanness.

Richard Pryor’s Hunter Sketch and Narrative Fiction

I was just looking at Richard Pryor clips on YouTube. This one particularly struck me. It’s very funny, but it’s unique among the other sketches during this performance in that Pryor acts out the scenario while barely addressing the audience, as is expected for a stand-up joke.

I watched this during a break from reading Tinkers, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Paul Harding (which I have now finished and can thoroughly recommend). Pryor acts out the fictional situation fluidly moving between the characters (two hapless hunters, a deer, and even – for a split-second – a bird). What really struck me was that the fiction author (even, in some cases, the non-fiction author) does the same thing: they act all the parts themselves.

Of course, this is stating the obvious. But to me it came as a revelation since there is no illusionism (Pryor cannot change into new outfits and cut between characters) and this fluid live acting between characters and dialogue shows that the story-teller must do so on the spot by affecting the nature of the characters as the story demands from the cage of their own experience.

In Tinkers, Paul Harding does something very similar, his character description and dialogue flows with the rest of the writing, there are no quotation marks or line breaks, instead the “voice” modulates according to its current subject.

Both Tinkers and Pryor in the scene above demonstrate what writing fiction is all about – it’s a matter of performing with the same voice the modulations required to drive the story which – as we can really see from the curve of Pryor’s jokes – sequentially transforms what we remember of what came before.

The next time you read a novel, try to imagine, if only for a moment, the author on a darkened stage, under a spotlight, performing their tale.

What A Squirrel And An Autofocus Camera Can Teach Us About Humour

Melissa Brandts and her husband were hiking in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada and decided take a shot of themselves with their backs to a spectacular scene of Lake Minnewanka. As the camera autofocussed, a curious squirrel popped up to inspect the source of the whirring noise. The camera automatically focussed on the squirrel and shot it, leaving an amused couple out of focus.

This image circulated the globe as a light relief news item, it made a lot of people smile, if not laugh. But why? Why is it funny?

This question can’t be answered. But we can at least speculate a little on the many reasons in this case. For me, the reasons are based on an uneasiness. In order to explain why, let me get a better handle on the image itself. The image has a random sophistication and reminds me of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. The squirrel is practically in the centre of the image in the foreground, to the right of the vertical squirrel sit a blurred-out couple and in the distance our idylic mountain/lake scene. The other ‘player’ in this situation is the camera which has autonomously focussed and shot the image having been set to do so. The image is an intersection of culture, nature and technology (which I regard as outside of the culture/nature dichotomy – maybe I’ll post on that at a later date).

The squirrel ‘pops’ in the image in a posed yet uncomposed way – i.e. imposing. The couple seem marginalised by the very presence of the squirrel, and they are: not are they just visually pushed to one side by the presence of the squirrel, they are also of course blurred out by the nearer proximity of the squirrel to the camera, which took the squirrel in its blind reason to be the subject of the image it was about to capture. The human, then, has been marginalised by the interplay of an animal and a machine.

This explains what I mean by uneasiness. Comedy is often described as the space between our ambitions and actual achievements. The couple set out to picture themselves in a beautiful scene, perhaps as a momento with a little vanity. The unthinking actions of the squirrel and the camera (and I mean ‘unthinking’ literally – they do not think), is the rude eruption of machine and nature not conforming to the control we try to impose on them and doing so in an uncannily human way. It’s as if the beautiful scene has revolted against its captors.