Fresh Eyes: What’s so funny?

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Graham_Holtby Graham Holt

A couple of years ago, I decided to stop watching TV. And I love TV — so much so that my watching habits, which hadn’t changed much since early childhood, suddenly seemed unmanageable. So one day, at the conclusion of a particularly long daytime binge, I decided it was high time to stop. I don’t know what exactly prompted this impulse, but I have come to believe that it had something to do with what some people call the “life force.” Whatever it is, an ancient energy overcame me and prompted me to suddenly rise from the couch, grab the squealing TV into a bear hug and speed-walk it through my apartment out to the parking lot where I hurled the scourge into a Dumpster.

The above scenario may seem dramatic, but sometimes great change of habit requires violent ceremony. And I had no small habit. I watched four to six hours of TV a day and due to my membership in Generation X, I’m part of the first wave of Americans to consume massive amounts of TV since early childhood.

Please understand: I do not believe that TV is evil, rots your brain or causes children to become drug addicts and commit senseless acts of violence. But I do believe that TV influences our values, our views of ourselves. It definitely changes our relationships with each other. And I believe that underneath TV’s most oft-cited negative elements — like the exploitation of women’s bodies, gruesome violence, sadism and fame worship — lies an even darker and more insidiously powerful cultural force. Because we have grown so accustomed to this force, it remains the most grossly underappreciated element in American culture. The force to which I refer is irony.

Irony is when you say one thing and mean another. For example, on “The Big Bang Theory,” when Leonard tells Sheldon that he wants to ask Penny out on a date and Sheldon replies with, “Well that’s a great idea!” what Sheldon obviously means is that he thinks asking Penny out on a date is a bad idea. Pretty much every joke on the show operates in this manner. The characters hurl ironic ridicule at one another until the next commercial breaks up the party.

Of course, one could make a reasonable argument that I am being more than a little overly sensitive to irony. After all, Leonard and Sheldon are just joking right? Well yes, but if ridicule is deemed a legitimate way to communicate, then we face the very frightening prospect of other people directing ridicule at us. Thus, in everyday social situations, out of fear of ridicule, we protect ourselves by avoiding any communication that could possibly be construed as sentimental, emotional or even loving; lest we open ourselves up to “jokes.” Furthermore, I submit that watching people ridicule each other for four to six hours a day is not healthy and has had a profound effect on the general mental health of this nation’s citizenry.

Irony is everywhere. Nearly every utterance on every TV sitcom is ironic. Characters never say what they really mean. Every joke consists of one character’s judgment and ridicule of another character a la Leonard and Sheldon. Fashion is ironic. Our communications with each other are ironic and too often cross the line from friendly ribbing into the realm of destructive irony.

I have lost the ability to tell if my friends are being serious or not. If I ask whether they are joking or being serious they accuse me of banality. And this is one of the ironists’ greatest trick: If you ever try to hold an ironist to anything they say, they will just claim they were joking.

In a sense, Americans actually value evasiveness. The air of indifference that characterizes the ironist is what American “cool” is all about — a state of consciousness devoid of feeling and caring. And because cool people “know the score,” they are bored by everything and take nothing seriously. It’s no accident that the monotone musical styles employed by acts like Lana del Ray have become so popular. People are beginning to pay attention to this collective numbness.

But the absolute saddest thing about the modern proliferation of irony is that it was once one of the most potent tools employed by the counterculture. In the 1960s, TV was dominated by shows that portrayed America as a serene paradise of manicured lawns where happy people lived long and carefree lives. But as the decade progressed, these shows made less and less sense. The values expressed on the shows just weren’t consistent with the realities of the tumultuous times. And as the Vietnam War heated up, and more and more young men were coming home in body bags, those sappy shows began to look downright ridiculous. So in a daring effort to reveal these inconsistencies, writers like Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and Vladimir Nabokov invented postmodernism, exploding the outdated values of the day with irony and parody.

TV people scrambled as ratings for sappy shows like “Father Knows Best” plummeted. But it didn’t take them long to come up with an effective defense. This is when TV began to make fun of itself — to beat the counterculture to the punch. Thus was born the era of “Saturday Night Live,” a TV show that makes fun of TV shows. TV absorbed the irony from the counterculture and stripped the rebellious art form of its power. Ever since, irony as a form of artistic expression has been dead on arrival.

The people that make TV shows know what they are doing. The brass tacks of the thing, the reason irony is so alluring and keeps us watching, is because it makes us feel smart. TV producers know how much fun viewers have pointing out how dumb the shows are. Isn’t that the whole point of reality TV? To afford us the opportunity to be voyeurs and judge other people without the fear of being judged ourselves? If this is so, the grandest irony of all is that the joke is on us. We sit and we watch.

Not me, though. I’ve been off television for years, which may be the most ironic statement of them all.

Graham Holt practices law in his hometown of Greensboro.

  • Katae

    Refreshing take on TV – great article!

  • I agree, really great article.