An Unnerving Situation

15 Mar

Last week (at least I think it was last week; it could have been the week before), Conan O’Brien had Jersey Shore star Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino as a guest on his TBS show Conan. Now, if you’ve read my previous post where I declare his cast-mate Snooki my arch-nemesis, you can infer that I’m not a big fan of the show, and not a big fan of Mr. Sorrentino. This was why I enjoyed it when Conan openly mocked him and Jersey Shore, calling attention to his insufferable vanity and how needless his fame and the show’s existence is.

Except that none of that mocking happened when Sorrentino was being interviewed. In fact, it didn’t happen while he was on Conan’s couch at all. It didn’t even happen in the same episode. It was not until the next day’s episode that Conan ran a segment replaying part of the interview to point out how often Sorrentino checked himself out in a stage-side monitor, and not until even later in the week that Conan did a segment where he destroyed the whole cast of Jersey Shore in a live-action recreation of the video game Angry Birds.

During the interview itself, though, Conan compliantly played the straight man for “The Situation,” spending more time poking fun at himself and his inability to follow Sorrentino’s body image tips instead of asking him how he can take himself so seriously when he’s built a career on nothing more than abs and a tan. It was painful to me how much Conan was just playing along with Sorrentino’s charade.

This reminded me of a similar event a while back when I watched an episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson which featured Paris Hilton. Ferguson, especially, seemed to be champing at the bit to make jokes at Hilton’s expense, but sat there tamely, trying to give her a question that would produce a substantive, worthwhile answer. After that, it was back to his typical irreverence towards celebrity culture, like nothing happened.

Why are late-night talk shows plagued by this hypocrisy? Ferguson I am going to excuse because he is on a network, and that means he’s accountable to a much larger group of sponsors, executives, and wretched Midwestern focus groups.

Conan, however, has no such excuse. He has become the darling of the Internet crowd, the youngsters who have identified with him as  an anti-establishment figure, who told the big bad network to fuck off and went to basic cable to do his own thing. What sets his style of comedy apart from past and fellow late-night hosts’ is its absurdist, outsider mentality that doesn’t hold any traditions or figures sacred. It’s punk-rock comedy.

One needs only to look at his predecessor and successor, Jay Leno, to see the contrast. I saw a clip of a Tonight Show appearance by Jerry Seinfeld. The combination of both Leno’s and Seinfeld’s bland, nonthreatening and unchallenging styles of humor seemed so amazingly outdated that I couldn’t believe it was filmed in 2011, just last week. It was in that moment I created a new slogan for the show: “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno: Where the ’90s go to die.”

NBC, if you decide to use it, please make the check out to “Angel M. Castillo.”

So what does it say when Conan, the outsider anti-establishment champion, plays nice with The Situation, the very face (and abs) of insipid mainstream pop culture?

You can make the argument that the term “guest” should be taken seriously, and that Conan shouldn’t invite people on his show just to harangue them. There was a time, however, if I’m not mistaken, that talk show hosts were seen as the gatekeepers of popular culture, and not its servants. There was an expectation of subversiveness, and if your presentation had a weak spot, it would be exploited. Carson was like that, and I suppose Letterman still is like that to some extent now, although more muted. Their purpose was to make famous people feel like they had to justify their fame to the audience and, if they had critics, try to answer them, hopefully showing something deeper than just the veneer of a tan face and good looks.

But this schizophrenic combination of being nice to their face and mocking to their back is a symptom of multiple illnesses. One is the attitude that no, ordinary people don’t have the right to question why what’s popular is popular anymore. The networks and the record labels plop their latest fully gestated star with stillborn talent into our laps, and we are told to consume them without question, and if we do question, we’re chastised as cynical hipsters who have no real market influence anyway. It’s why half-baked insipid bullshit like this video is allowed to exist.

The other is the non-confrontational, duplicitous anger that the Internet facilitates more and more. We no longer need to voice our grievances to those who cause them in person because we can rush to the Internet, behind the safety of anonymity, and shout into the void where we, supposedly, never have to answer for our actions. I’m sure that’s what this girl was thinking. I’m sure that’s what the people who post on Bored at Baker are thinking. It’s what we as audiences think, too. We obviously have a distaste for the manufactured slop the entertainment industry gives us, among other things, but do we actively deal with it by criticizing it to its face and not giving it our money? No, but we sure as hell go on the Internet to post scathingly worded blog posts with pretentious, elevated diction.

Maybe if we allow our television satirists and comedians to actually be, you know, satirical, and deal honestly and directly with the objects of their scorn, it will foster a healthy emulation that will lead to more honest and direct dealings with our culture and our dissatisfactions with it, so we can stop letting technology force us further and further into our own heads and actually come back out and meaningfully engage with one another.

I know this seems like I’m grasping at straws, but comedy and satire are often an accurate mirror of a culture’s general attitude. King Lear’s jester didn’t make fun of his senility when the king was off-stage. He offered Lear his cockscomb to his face! That was an age where, if we were pissed off at our kings (and untalented jesters), we cut their fucking heads off! There were no medieval message boards with image macros decrying the king’s latest “epic fail.”

I say that if Conan wants to be the comedic hero the Internet lauds him as, he has to decide if he really wants to be Shakespeare’s bold jester, or, like Leno, become Lear himself, believing himself powerful but actually ridiculed by the culture he thinks he controls.

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