There is this great moment during the second season of Louis C.K.’s FX series Louie when the comedian is scheduled to play a lounge at an Atlantic City casino and he quits the job based only on the fact that somebody told him he wasn’t allowed to make fun of Donald Trump during his set because Trump owns the lounge. Somewhat dejected, Louie runs into Joan Rivers and the two share an exchange that essentially boils down to him whining about how unfairly he feels he’s being treated. Rivers, taking on a bit of a tough-love motherly role, immediately — and justly — rips into him for giving up on a job based on what he calls “a matter of principle.”
Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, brought that scene to Louis C.K.’s attention in a 2011 interview and asked him if he ever had a similar experience in real life.
“I remember there was a guy named Paul Kozlowski, who was a comic in Boston at the time who I really looked up to,” C.K. explained to Gross. “And I told him how frustrated I was, and that I just felt like I wasn’t getting enough work and it wasn’t fair, and I was depressed about my career. I was about 20 years old… I was already a beaten veteran, apparently, in my head. And Paul, who was a veteran, said okay, well, get out. We have enough comics. Like, give up then. I don’t need to hear this.” (“Louis C.K. Reflects On ‘Louie,’ Loss, Love And Life”, Transcript on interview, National Public Radio, 13 December 2011)
It was hard not to reflect on that exchange two weeks ago as the Oscars telecast unfolded on ABC. Eagerly digesting the Trophy Show of All Trophy Shows, I would occasionally make the mistake of glancing at the various social media tools afforded to everybody with a power outlet and a keyboard. Sifting through what seemed like trillions of proclamations and opinions, one thing became abundantly clear: Nobody liked this year’s Oscars. The problem? Nobody — and I mean nobody — was willing to actually stop watching the show, even though these usernames and avatars in front of me were spewing both insulting and oh-I’m-so-offended statements of their own. It’s like, what — you think the winners will change by tomorrow morning? If you think that what you are watching is so blasphemous, turn the damn thing off, go do something that makes you happy, and then, if you really care about who a group of rich white people think gave the best film performances in 2012, type “Oscar winners” into Google when you wake up the next morning and be on your way.
Otherwise, shut up. We have enough opinions.
But alas, in today’s interconnected culture, it now seems as though the single reason Al Gore invented the Internet in the first place was this: Adam in Oregon and Sarah in New Hampshire have thoughts, and damnit, those thoughts matter. In fact, not only do those thoughts matter, but those thoughts should be considered along with — and next to — valued, respected and established-in-the-business people’s thoughts just the same. More often than not, those thoughts will be critical and those thoughts will be entirely unimpressed with whatever the universe is talking about. Those thoughts will attempt to be molded into something clever and/or funny, and rarely will the success rate of either adjective be high. Sarcasm will be an undercurrent within most every word that is transmitted in order to relay these very valuable thoughts, and while it’s clear that Sarah and Adam have a very acute disgust for whatever topic is being addressed, Sarah and Adam will continue to find reason after reason to drive home the single argument about which both Sarah and Adam feel abnormally passionate.
It’s Sarah and Adam’s world, people, and we should feel lucky just to be living in it.
Or, at least, that’s what the World Wide Web has done to a large part of us: The ability to constantly opine on everything from the weather, to sports teams, to television, to movies, to music, to politics, to theater, to foreign policy, to dessert, to everything else in between, has allowed us an unprecedented (read: unjust) amount of self-worth to which we hold dearly and assuringly whenever these popular culture zeitgeist moments pass us by. Never, in the history of this planet, has there been a time when we have been this obsessed with ourselves, our own thoughts. We take to Twitter to let you know why the BBC has great original programming. We use Tumblr to illustrate moving pictures called gifs that suggest how creative and witty we can be. We click the word “Like” if we read four sentences of something and think we could look more intelligent or interesting if we let people know we enjoy it.
The 2013 Academy Awards ceremony was a social media lesson in precisely how devolved we have become as a popular culture. Seth MacFarlane’s turn as host resulted in some of the most narrow-minded, pathetically predictable put-downs that the Twitterverse has seen within all of its long and storied four-minute history. The guy didn’t have a sincere shot at impressing any of the people who inevitably proclaimed how unimpressed they were with his performance. A song about boobs? He’s sexist (color me edgy, but I, for one, will offer some of the loudest laughter this side of Los Angeles next year when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler decide to write a two-minute ditty about penises to the tune of Grease‘s “Summer Nights”). A joke about Chris Brown and Rihanna? He’s tasteless (as though he’s the first or 54,269th comedian to make a joke about that unspeakably awful situation). Some off-color comment about the death of Abraham Lincoln coupled with the obligatory “it’s getting late” quips? His schtick is tired (because every host in the history of awards shows offers up A+ material each minute of the four hours he or she is expected to entertain the masses. Oops. Sarcasm.).
I get it. You can’t entirely excuse the very real and very problematic undertones of some of the material MacFarlane presented at the Dolby Theatre. Sexism, for one, is a tough issue to confront in this context, because the entire premise of comedy is based around the medium of That Which Is Improper. Truth be told, all comedians go too far, so calling out one while ignoring the trillions of others seems like an exercise in hypocrisy that could be corrected only when the entire art of being funny ceases to exist as a practice. If the guy was half as offensive as some claim he was, the call for his head on a stick should be more an indictment of the modern day comedic culture than it is a guy whose biggest mistake was innocently saying yes when someone offered him the job of a lifetime.
But that’s not what happened. And in today’s knee-jerk, critic-fueled world, that’s probably not what’s going to happen as we move forward, even though this blatant oversight in blame placement is a far more troubling revelation to the equal-rights set than a few wisecracks about how George Clooney likes to date younger women. More often than not, the verbal shots fired in MacFarlane’s direction on the night of the Oscars came out of contempt for the guy while the very easy and very accessible mask of inequality was abused far more than it was utilized. You can hate the guy if you want, and you can even hold a rally to burn Family Guy DVD sets if that makes you feel better, but what you can’t do is use your predetermined prejudice against him as some rallying cry for how he is the single most offensive comedian to ever walk onto a stage. Why? Because MacFarlene is anything but.
“If last night proved nothing else, it’s Seth MacFarlane is exactly who we thought,” Cinema Blend’s Mack Rawden wrote the day after the Oscars. “He’s a pompous douche with a shit-eating grin, a razor sharp wit and a sometimes sophomoric sense of humor. Personally, I think that’s a good thing. Maybe you think otherwise. Ordinarily, I would agree to disagree, but considering all of the hogwash I’ve read today about how MacFarlane was apparently a) sexist and b) one of the worst hosts ever, I can’t hold my tongue anymore because both of those statements are just factually wrong. First of all, last night’s ceremony was not sexist because there’s a major difference between jokes being made at the expense of women and jokes being made specifically to put women down…
Second of all, MacFarlane is not the worst Oscar host in history. In fact, he’s not even close. You know why I can say that with certainty? Because unlike the majority of critics who despised his so-called antics, an extremely high percentage of readers actually loved it.” (“Sexist? Worst Oscar Host Ever? Seth MacFarlane Was Actually Good”, by Mack Rawden , Cinema Blend, 25 February 2013)
Herein lies the root of the issue: It’s fashionable to be dissatisfied. Remember those valued, respected and established-in-the-business people I mentioned at the beginning of all this? They love to hate things. Tom Shales — who is as fine a television writer as there has ever been to walk this Earth — panned the broadcast. Rolling Stone had a next-day headline that read something to the effect of “Seth MacFarlene worse than we thought he would be.” Lena Dunham, America’s darling, tweeted this: “Hey ragers. ‘The ones who aren’t advancing the cause’ I mentioned aren’t always, or mostly, women. Case in point: I saw your boobs.” (Side: Pot. Kettle. Black.)
My point is as such — there is already enough negativity in the fabric of popular culture coming from people who are actually paid to have educated and well-thought positions to share. So, why do we, as consumers, feel so inspired to add to the collage of put-downs and punditry? Chances are, if you were watching the Academy Awards telecast live on ABC, you were probably also a fan of film. So, if that’s the case… what’s wrong with just being a fan of film? What’s wrong with recognizing excellence in that medium? What’s wrong with rooting for Amour to win everything? What’s wrong with letting yourself enjoy the mere sight of all these important and immaculately dressed people? What’s wrong with saying, “I didn’t much care for the host, but it sure was great to see Christopher Plummer on stage again”?
These days, it feels like our minds won’t allow those passive thoughts to formulate. Instead, so many of us obsess over being the funniest, smartest, angriest, wittiest and most articulate voice in a world that has become overflowing with noise. The more consistent this practice becomes, the less value we will begin to place on expansive, insightful commentary. It’s easy to be angry. It’s easy to be critical. And it’s easy to pass judgment.
It’s not easy, however, to have opinions maintain relevance when all those opinions begin to sound the same.
Besides, as Paul Kozlowski told Louis C.K. years ago, if you have more reasons to obnoxiously and small-mindedly whine about something than you do reasons to feel good or constructive about something, simply get out and give up. Remember: This world will always have its fair share of opinions.