Comedy and Civilisation

Posted on 19 January 2012

Once upon a time how civilised a man was reflected on the quality of his manhood. A robust man went to the opera because that showed he was the epitome of evolution. After all he had the intelligence and ingenuity to create and enjoy such entertainment.

Civilisation, and the coordinated cooperation that comes with it, has certainly made it possible for us to develop survival strategies at a much faster pace than biological evolution. However like many things such as cyanide, which becomes toxic with refinement, certain aspects of our culture have become toxic with their refinement: things including media marketing, corporate values, and the concentration of power.

The core values that are consciously and subconsciously driving our culture are: status, dominance, and control at all costs.

For a bit of fun I regularly read the Neatorama Website. Recently they republished an article that was based on a campaign begun by Commercial Alert in the 90s. This campaign had to do with the way companies were attempting to control the minds of our children in order to extract more money from the parents. Here is a portion of the open letter sent by Ralph Nader, Gary Ruskin, and a group of others in 1998 to the International Advertising Association in order to encourage the establishment of ethical guidelines.

Advertising firms use techniques that harm children and families, including:

  • Convincing children that purchasing products will solve their problems and make them happy.
  • Exploiting a child’s emotional weaknesses, such as his or her sense of insecurity, inferiority, need to be loved, powerlessness, and need to fit in.  Nancy Shalek, then-president of Shalek Advertising Agency, explained: “Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser.  Kids are very sensitive to that.  If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant.  But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention.  You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”
  • Fueling anger and rebelliousness among youth.  According to Rick Litman, a partner at Kid 2 Kid Research, “marketing is a unique process in which corporations learn to use youth rebellion to more effectively target a product and sell a product.”
  • Manipulating children to nag their parents to buy products.  In other words, pitting children against their own parents, and causing strife within families.  As Cheryl Idell, director of strategic planning and research at Western International Media, explains “It’s not just getting kids to whine, it’s giving them a specific reason to ask for the product.”

Children are unable to defend themselves against this commercial manipulation.  They cannot understand the manipulation that your industry subjects them to.  They are not mature enough to see through what advertisers direct towards them.

What IAA and Advertising Firms Can Do for Children

Think about when that was written. It would mean that people had been observing and creating the effects of child targeted advertising for at least a decade. So the generation of comedians we are now seeing would have been influenced by a culture saturated with this child marketing. I remember in my own childhood how angry some parent groups were with Sesame Street because it deliberately used advertising formats as a way to capture the attention of children and teach them literacy and numeracy.

This generation has been taught to be insecure and that insecurity is resolved through materialism (life is short, eat dessert first). They have been taught that it’s cool to be rebellious like the kids in the sixties had been, but it’s taken out of context and equated with freedom without responsibility (silence is golden, but shouting is fun). They have been taught the need for uniforms of solidarity in a generational us against them culture (all black couture and all the latest technology). And they completely get the golden rule: those who have the gold make the rules. And how do you get that gold: status, dominance, and control.

It’s no wonder we have so many angry comedians at the moment. Anger has been portrayed as sexy. And yet mostly I’m seeing purely anti-social anger. During the Vietnam war when George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and the Smothers Brothers were angry, they had a reason to be angry. Ongoing racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, etc means that when Dick Gregory, Margaret Cho, and Lily Tomlin are angry, they have reason to be angry. This generation has reason to be angry as well, but marketing has made it hard for them to properly see and take aim at their target.

The skinny-fat debate has women tearing one another to shreds. This plays right into the hands of corporations who will use the anger and insecurity to sell more products. The solution is for women to turn around and demand to be valued for the quality of their character, rather than their appearance. Men are given cool detached icons to emulate—so cool and detached that men are no longer involved with families, friends, or their community, then have severe problems with loneliness, depression, and suicide.

In fact we are seeing a massive divide and conquer campaign through marketing. So long as people distrust and wish to out-do one another, you can convince them to keep on buying your “weapons” such as makeups or 4WDs. The arms race we are holding against ourselves is bringing about the dissolution of our civilisation.

Think about how many close friends you really have. Facebook has encouraged a generation who are satisfied with “Tupperware friends”. These are friends close enough to invite to the party, distant enough to not mind selling them things. What everyone needs is at least three “lasagne friends”. These are friends who when you have no money after the rent is paid are happy to pop by with a lasagne.

In my pursuit to get laughs I’m disturbed about the times when I have been complicit in this culture. When I make self-deprecating jokes about the (small) size of my breasts: on the one hand I am revealing to other women that I have insecurities as well, on the other I am perpetuating the idea that breast size is an issue of real concern.

I’m also aware of the times when certain comedies started out as satire, but ended up being perceived as celebrations of the very things they stood against. The character of Archie Bunker in All In The Family was meant to be an unreconstructed man and a person worthy of derision. Every week he was given one-liners to characterise his narrow view of the world, such as, “I’m not racist! I’ll be the first to say it, it’s not their fault they’re colored!” People would then quote these the following week in a positive manner. The creators cancelled the show when they discovered the hero Archie had become to their audience. The Simpsons followed a similar trajectory, their lead characters originally were meant to be unsympathetic. I once worked with a child whose developmentally delayed brother was forbidden to watch The Simpsons because he would emulate Bart. He was incapable of seeing the satire. What he saw was a self-directed, empowered boy.

Addressing these issues is tricky, but it still needs to be done. Fear has brought us to this place. Fear about survival, fear of one another, fear of loneliness. Carpe diem (seize the day) has been too long interpreted as “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Instead let us savour experience out of a respect for life. This draws out the fear and grounds us in a healthy and balanced approach to the present. You can also “seize the day” by performing one act of kindness right here and right now.

The awesome thing about live comedy is that it brings people into a social experience. The next step is activate these people into forming communities. These could simply be communities of friendship, but that’s a big step toward eliminating the fears. The following step would be to help these communities begin a dialogue, which is a thoughtful and compasionate examination of all things social, political, commercial, etc, followed by life-affirming action. Now is the time for people to learn how to think for themselves. Now is the time for people to assert for themselves that they are valuable, not because they look a certain way or own certain things, but because they care and are doing something about it.

Can you tell a joke that makes someone feel better about themselves? Start doing it. It will be the most authentically edgy thing you could do today.

Peace and kindness,


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