Saturday, July 18, 2009

Russian roulette

     In Friday’s New York Times, Dick Cavett describes his professional encounters with the late Richard Burton, who appeared on Cavett’s talk show in 1980, despite the actor’s fear of audiences, I guess. (See Who’s Afraid of Richard Burton?)
     Cavett describes Burton’s first program entrance, which inspired noisy and sustained applause, thus giving the actor needed encouragement.
     The “sedate” PBS studio audience, he wrote, “went nuts.”
     Then, in parentheses, Cavett adds:
   Happily, this was taped before the later craze of piercing, high-pitched cries and shrieks from talk show audiences that have replaced applause as we knew it. Today, when a guest — of whatever high or low consequence — steps out, the air is ripped with screaming. Why? Who started this?

     It doesn’t much matter who started this. It matters that audiences were and are inclined to go along with this idiotic practice.
     Certainly there are those for whom I would stand up and cheer. But were I a member of a TV talk show audience (that ain’t gonna happen), and were a guest of “low consequence" to be introduced, I would not scream nor yelp nor yo.
     In some settings (I’m excluding funerals and invocations and such), audiences can be mob-like and thus dangerous. When you stand up to applaud with an audience, you’re joining in a group action—you are going from “I” and entering into “we”—and yet you can’t control the “we.” As a consequence, if your colleagues act like assholes or dopes, you are ipso facto an asshole or a dope.
     So standing up with an audience is a kind of Russian roulette. Sometimes, not often, you have reason to feel good about the group act. Other times you feel like an asshole. The only control you have is whether to join with them in the first place.
     Let’s face it: in the setting of a talk show (as opposed to, say, a comedy club), screaming and hooting for, say, Gary Coleman or even Robin Williams is plainly undignified and idiotic. It’s like announcing, “Here we are, the stupid and clueless!”
     I guess I love politics, but I hate participating in political rallies or demonstrations. I recall joining in an anti-fur demonstration about twenty years ago. I believed in the cause (still do), but when I arrived for the demonstration, I could see that I really wasn’t like most of my colleagues, many of whom were politically simplistic or self-indulgent or immaturely motivated. (There were exceptions, too: activist/protesters who were both smart and committed. I admired them. Still do.)
     I rejected the way most of my fellow-protesters saw the issue and viewed the protest, and yet I was a member of the group—I had deliberately joined it. The group was doing and saying something. That meant that I was doing and saying it too. Naturally, I felt uncomfortable. (Sometimes, such discomfort is the price you pay to take the opportunities you have to do what is right. You can’t be a purist about such things.)


     I recall a moment from my teenage years. My German mother and I were watching TV. There was a large and enthusiastic audience attending a ceremony in honor of someone. They clapped and cheered as the honoree got his prize.
     The honoree smiled a broad smile. He joined the clapping.
     “Look. He’s clapping," announced my mother. "I don’t understand that. It’s stupid,” she said.
     And it was. That little moment stayed with me.


     When we join in group actions that are old and familiar, we pretty much know what we’re getting into. But when things change and group or mass behavior is new and not-yet-fully-understood, our joining it is definitely a kind of Russian roulette, a toss of the dice with something at stake.
     This is where people mystify me. Why join into the new thing without reservation? Because it's new? If everybody jumped off a cliff, would you do that too? If people started smearing excrement on their heads, would you join along?
     Aincha got no dignity, no sense, no brain?!
     Years ago, I’d see kids walking along with boom boxes, disturbing the peace. They didn’t care how anybody felt about the booming, rhythmic sounds they were pumping into the atmosphere. Or maybe they did care: they hoped it pissed people off.
     In recent years, I’ve occasionally been startled to find someone alone, talking to himself. They’ve got a cell phone—or, worse, one of those contraptions that you just wear on your head all the time. You see 'em, striding down the frozen food aisle at Ralphs, talking a blue streak, sometimes cursing or discussing matters that no sane person would broadcast. They're yacking, but nobody's around, except for me and maybe some old woman buying frozen pees.
     And, for a moment, the lady and I are weirded out.
     Then we see the guy's headset. Oh that.
     As this fool passes, we sense that he's doing something he shouldn't do. He's doing it to us. He's saying, “You don't matter; only I matter.”
     Lots of people seem to have grabbed one of those gizmos as soon as they became available, and they're out there, man, causing weirditude left and right. That’s what I don’t understand. Why just start doing something that's new? Why dive into the deep end with it? Don’t you want to understand it first? Isn’t it obvious that it’s at least possible that it isn’t nice or that it does harm or that it degrades our lives?
     Doncha care about such things?
     I see people picking up firecrackers and throwing them into crowds, all day long.
     That's what I see.
Watch Walt deal with a lout: the Breaking Bad "exploding BMW" episode.
You don't get to see it, but the loutish BMW driver doesn't just steal Walt's parking spot. He's one of those rude cell phone squawkers. That's the clincher.
So Walt destroys his Beemer. Not that I approve.