A Quite Interesting Question. Why Don’t Americans Like Comedy Panel Shows?

1556d46c25e3ca64cd078151e136588a4d1c6aebIn the past year or so, thanks to Youtube and Hulu, I have become aware that the UK has an entire genre of program that we seem not to have, at least not that I have noticed. The best known example of it is probably QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, but there are a number of them. They are comedy panel shows, ostensibly game shows, but there are no actual prizes and no one is trying to win anything except a laugh.

A show like Real Time with Bill Maher brings a panel of smart, funny people together each week, but there the similarity ends. Real Time is a comedy version of Meet the Press. Maher’s guests are a combination of comedians and real political representatives and the banter is intended to be political satire and commentary. The guests are trying to make real points.

QI and its sisters (Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Mock the Week are examples) are a bit like a Friday game night where your pals come over and you bring out the board games and get to talking and forget whose turn it is next and don’t much care. Except the panelists are cleverer– or at least better edited– than your friends.

We do have Hollywood Game Night but the competition in that show is real and the non-celebrity contestants can take home $25,000. In this it has more in common with old game shows like Hollywood Squares, Liar’s Club or Match Game.

The panel shows are hit or miss affairs. They lack the comfortable guarantee of the set-up, punch-line pacing of a sit-com or the inherent drama of a real competition. Some groups of guests click better than others. But there is a kind of adventure in not quite knowing how it is all going to turn out or, indeed, sometimes if they are ever going to get to the point, any point, at all. (“I don’t think there’s a punchline scheduled, is there?“- Monty Python) This, I think, is what makes these kind of shows somewhat incomprehensible to U.S. audiences. We’re far too goal oriented for them.

QI has run for 12 seasons for the BBC, and surely a TV executive here has market tested the idea to American audiences. It has to be cheap to produce compared to standard Hollywood fare, and potentially profitable. Americans, in spite of our competitive DNA, embraced Whose Line is it Anyway, a British import that is set up as a competition but with no prizes and points given out at the random whim of the host.

It is hard to put my finger on what exactly is the difference between Whose Line and QI. I think it is the aspect of having a quiz and knowledge questions and not actually rewarding anyone for knowing stuff. The QI questions are designed to be almost impossibly hard and yet there is no Jeopardy champion.

The American narrative is, at its heart, a story about competition. We may not have QI, but we have Top Chef where people talk about making a winning soufle as if their lives depended on it. We have endless unscripted television dramas (reality series) which mimic scripted series. They have winners and losers, people pitted against one another. They don’t just need to survive together on a desert island– someone needs to be the last one standing. That is what a story is. It is how we understand the world. It is how our nightly news likes to frame stories. If our news consumption patters are anything to go on, we want to know which political party will be the winner in the battle over Obamacare much more than we want to have anyone to explain to us what Obamacare actually consists of. Competition is the essence of American entertainment. The idea that it can be fun watching a bunch of people not competing? That is downright un-American.

Are you “We”?

I’ve been writing about how writers and journalists tend to write from the perspective of the well-off rather than the struggling.  I attribute some of that to the fact that it is generally assumed that a writer cannot make a living at writing and needs to have another career, be supported by someone else, or be independently wealthy.  That means, to some extent, writing as a career is limited to people of means and leisure.  There is another factor here as well, which I only alluded to in my article on poor shaming.

A lot of writers do stick with it even though it means struggling financially. We are among the poor.  Yet because of the cultural shame surrounding poverty, we do not dare write in the voice of the poor or marginalized if we want to be taken seriously.  So we end up talking about “we” the financially secure Americans as opposed to “they” the poor, even when that is not true for us as individuals.

I found a fascinating example yesterday of a writer assuming that he and his audience were among those who do not struggle financially.  Jordan Weismann, writing for the Atlantic, wrote an article that makes the case that the poor are not other people, but that poverty is a situation that any of us might face for a time.

The article explains that 40 percent of Americans will fall below the poverty line at some point, but that most people do not stay there for long.

He concludes “What these numbers undercut, though, is the idea that most of the poor, as a broad group, are somehow different than you and me (aside from the bit about having less money).”

If so many Americans are dealing with poverty, and they are not different from anyone else, there is a good chance that some of them are among the readers of this article. They not only like you and me. They are you and me.

Very Few of Us Know Anyone Who….

Let’s be honest.  Very few of us are members of this unexotic underclass.  Very few of us even know anyone who’s  in it.   There’s no shame in that.  That we have  sailed on a yacht of good fortune most of our lives — supportive generous families, a stable peaceful democracy, excellent schooling, prestigious careers and companies, relatively good health – is nothing to be ashamed of. Consider yourselves remarkably blessed.

I was reading a very interesting and astute article today, The Unexotic Underclass,  by in the Entrepreneurship Review.  The quote above jumped out at me because it related to the point I was making yesterday about the dangers of having a publishing system that relies on writers who are either independently wealthy (do not need to make a living from their work) or writing as a hobby.   What starts to happen is that the people who comment on society start to get an idea of who “we” are that does not include most of America. The media, news, popular culture, fine arts all speak to “people like us.”

To be fair, in this case, the authors assumptions about who “we” are are shaped by the publication. “We” are the readers of the Entrepreneurship Review.   But assumptions about who “we” are pop up all of the time.

The authors of the book Love the Sin (Jakobsen and Pellegrini) analyzed the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?”  and wrote: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.” The framing of the question shows that “we” as in “the mainstream American public” does not include the victims of AIDS, for example homosexuals and IV drug users.

The “we” of business stories are generally assumed to be either consumers or management, not labor.  When we talk about immigration reform “we” are not the immigrants. When we talk about family values “we” are not single mothers, gays, or non-Christians.  All the lifestyle pieces in magazines (12 Things to Do Today to Make Your Life Better!) assume that “we” are upper middle class and that buying a new fragrance to spritz on will be an impulse not a major financial hardship.

Eventually even those of us who are not part of this “we” start to write as if we were. Female writers talk about “female voters,” for example, assuming the default voter is male. Writers who are working for free and who may not know if they will have enough money for food that week churn out those lifestyle pieces about red being the new black and how to maximize your investments and what the hottest new tech gadget is.  We write to the “we”– a reader who we picture as middle class, white, Protestant until proven otherwise.

Unstoppable! Self-Esteem, Boy and Girl Style

I would like you to stop for a moment an imagine a self-esteem workshop for a group of pre-teen boys.  What types of activities do you think might be planned?  What would the boys do?  Really think about this for a moment before I go on.  What comes to mind when you think of boys and self-esteem building?

ImageNow, I want to tell you about a workshop called “Boys Unstoppable!” The workshop is put together by a company in the personal care industry.  The boys arrive with their dads.  They sit down at tables and find paper and magic markers.

The leader, known as a “Self-esteem Ambassador” first asks the boys to think about their dad and his appearance.  The Ambassador asks each boy to write down anything he has heard his dad say about his looks.  Then the boys create a second column, and they write down how those statements made them feel.

One boy, Tommy, starts to fidget in his chair. Why do they have to think so much about their feelings?  It’s a nice day out. Can’t they go out and do something?

The Ambassador smiles like a salesman or a Ken doll.  He introduces the next exercise.  The boys are asked to think about all of the good things about themselves.  Then the Ambassador hands out “confidence cards.”

The cards say “I have a beautiful________”

The Ambassador tells them to fill out as many cards as they want.

Tommy stares at the cards.  “I have a beautiful face?” he thinks.  Not really, he thinks, but he writes it down anyway.

The exercise is kind of hard.  It’s hard to fit what he is good at into that sentence without it sounding weird.

“I have beautiful math skill.”

Tommy thinks about last week when he won the 100 yard dash.  He was proud of that.  “I have beautiful running skill” is awkward. So he writes “I have beautiful feet.”

That’s not right.  He gives up and looks out the window.

“What’s wrong?” asks the Ambassador with a kind of cheery sympathy.

“I can’t think of anything,” Tommy says.

The Ambassador tilts his head. Tommy can tell he is thinking that the boy is a real hard case.  He must have no confidence at all.  It’s worse than he thought.

“Come on,” The Ambassador says, “There are lots of beautiful things about you.  You have a great smile.  Great eyes.”

“Yeah, but…” Tommy is thinking about how his dad taught him to change the oil on the car.  He is proud that he knows how to fix stuff in a car, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that’s important in this exercise. He tells that to the Ambassador.

“Of course it is!” the Ambassador says. “You see, you’re talented. That will make you very attractive to girls. So write that down on the card. ‘I have beautiful repair skills.”

Tommy does as he is told, but he isn’t feeling what he thinks he is supposed to be feeling.

“You’re unstoppable!” The Ambassador croons. “You are an amazing, beautiful, talented young man.”

The attention pleases Tommy and he feels vaguely flattered for a few minutes, but he wonders if this guy has been listening to him at all.  Does he know anything about him?

“Of course it’s important,” The Ambassador tells the dads, “to compliment the boys on their intelligence too, not just to tell them they are cute.”

“You are unstoppable if you just believe in yourself,” he tells the group.

Tommy is not listening.  He is looking out the window wondering when they will let him actually do something.

I wrote this little scenario after reading an article on The Huffington Post about an empowerment workshop for girls called “Girls Unstoppable.”  It is essentially as I have described it above except with girls. I discovered the story through my Facebook feed where one of my friends had posted it for inspiration and as a reminder of what is important. I did not feel at all inspired by what I read.  My reaction, in contrast to most people apparently, was bleech.

Something about the nature of the workshop and the way it was described bothered me. I had a feeling that something underlying all that empowerment talk was not empowering at all, in fact it was the opposite.  It was not until I tried to envision the same workshop given to a group of boys that I was able to put my finger on what my discomfort was.

I have been like Tommy.  I may not have been in a Dove empowerment workshop, but I’ve had the same types of messages presented to me as inspiration and empowerment on talk shows, in magazines and by friends for years.

At the beginning of this article, I asked you to think about what an empowerment or self-esteem program for boys might consist of. You probably imagined something like the Boy Scouts or Outward Bound.  Young men test their limits, practice a sport, enjoy the outdoors, discover skills they didn’t know they had.  In short, they do.

When we try to “empower” girls we tell them to think positive and feel pretty.  If it is “empowerment” it is a strange use of the word “power” because it is entirely passive. The program focuses entirely personal qualities that make one attractive, not achievements and actions.

The article features a slide show with images of the “confidence cards.”  Beauty is the most frequent positive quality mentioned.  Other qualities also appear, sometimes described in terms of beauty.  Strength makes an appearance along with uniqueness, grace, unspecified “talent” and positive thinking which is phrased in various ways. “You are beautiful when you look at the positive things in life.”

The message is not to get angry or frustrated.  But sometimes anger is warranted and is the basis for action. Being unhappy is a sign that something is wrong, and that it is time to go out and make a change.

The aspirational vision in this workshop is not to take action. It is to look on the bright side of everything, even if you have to lie to achieve that beautiful inner confidence.  Indeed, we are asked to lie to ourselves, for example, by pretending not to notice which girl in the room is the prettiest by current standards.  “Look how beautiful we all are!” OK.

This might be worth doing if lies worked, but they don’t. A 2009 study published in Psychological Science backs me up on this. When people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. When people hear and affirmation they don’t believe, they adhere even more strongly to their original position.

The article on the workshop points out that six out of ten girls stop doing something they love because they are self-conscious about their looks.  There is something wrong.  It is not just a problem because it hurts their self-esteem, but because when a girl decides not to take woodshop because the protective glasses make her look ugly, we are all at risk of losing a fantastic future architect, builder or engineer.  This is an issue we should take seriously.

But when our response to the problem is to “coo over how beautiful she is” (a line from the article) we do little to set her back on her natural course.  The very messages we compose to soothe girls’ feelings are telling them that action is not valuable and that the only way for action to become valuable is if it can be defined in terms of feelings and looks.

Feeling good about yourself for no particular reason is not of much value. If you want to really make girls feel stronger, happier and more talented give them a challenge, give them tasks to master, goals to achieve.  Let them be who they are, and celebrate what they do.

“A Disreputable Person”


I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.”  It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.  After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance.  A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”

“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”

It struck me what a strange expression this is.  It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person.  In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation.  The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not.  By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so.  There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.

By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”

Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas.  Not sure why.


Libraries are a Bold Expression of the American Dream

“In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people.”-Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

I discovered via The Discarded Image (and a nice article there on libraries) that it is National Library Week.  As it is also National Poetry Month the best way to celebrate would be to go to your local library and check out a book by Natasha Trethewey.  (You did know she was the current U.S. Poet Laureate, right?)

The Discarded Image article, written by Mindy Rice Withrow, gives three reasons to support public libraries.  I would like to add one more:  It is in the library that you find the finest example of the American Dream, the ideal that every person regardless of his or her background or birth should have the tools to obtain a higher status, to learn, to invent, to create, to change the world.

The American dream is alive in libraries. The library is an idealistic expression of our value of true meritocracy, knowledge made available to anyone who wants it.No PhD required, no bank account, no credit score, only a curious mind.

Praise be to whatever higher power you believe in that the great thoughts of antiquity, high culture, modern information are accessible to anyone with a mind and a will to seek it out.
Glory hallelujah. Hosanna in the highest.

Public libraries, as we know them, are a distinctly American invention. There were manuscript archives before that, of course, but there was little need for libraries for the masses. The masses could not read, and there weren’t that many books to go around anyway. Until the middle of the 15th century, Europe was said to have produced no more than 1,000 hand-written books a year.

Medieval archives chained their books to desks like banks do with the pens. The idea that you might take a book home to read was impossible. Books, painstakingly reproduced by clerics with quills, were simply too valuable.

The printing press, of course, changed things a bit. In 1950, Europe produced 120,000 books, meaning a library that would once have taken a century to assemble could be collected in 10 months. Ten years later, the output of books had risen to 1,000 titles a day. In 1995, Book Industry Trends reported almost 2.3 billion books were sold in the previous year. There are now more than 1,000,000 books titles in print and the United States alone produces about 65,000 new titles a year.

It was that radical Benjamin Franklin who came up with the notion of the lending library. His model was a bit different than the modern library. It was a “social library,” which was a kind of book club. (They didn’t send you books you didn’t want if you failed to mail a card back.) You paid to join, but then you got to share books with a large group of other people.

Franklin’s Library Company, which he referred to as the “public library of Philadelphia,” was formed with an idealistic view to break down class distinctions and allow artisans to become as well-read as the well-born.

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps has contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privilege,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

As noble as his sentiment may have been, it would be a while before his concept caught on in a big way. Before 1876, about 3,000 social libraries had been founded mostly in the northeast United States. But most were small and short-lived.

The library movement started to grow as public schools were built across the country. People began to wonder, what good is it to learn how to read if you don’t have anything to read? Legislation in the late-1830s permitted school districts to levy taxes for school libraries. By 1850 Massachusetts had 2,084, while New York schools had some 1.5 million library books.

The patron saint of the American library system was the millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie poured his fortune into the construction of 1,679 libraries in the United States. The gifts came with the obligation that communities pay for their maintenance and support in perpetuity. Today, more than 1,000 of them are still in use as libraries.

“I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing,” Carnegie said in 1900. “They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring, and open to these the chief treasures of the world-those steeped up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower taste.”

Interestingly, another great boon to libraries came in the 1950s and 60s, when the nation found itself in a literacy race with the Soviet Union. The Library Services Act in 1956 and the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 may have come about in response to a 1950 report “Public Library Inquiry,” published by the Social Science Research Council, which observed that “communist countries have been most active in promoting public library growth within their borders.”

Today our nation has 10,000 library systems with 16,500 outlets, and 80% are located in rural areas or small towns with less than 25,000 people. Modern libraries not only make it possible for the cash strapped to share in the great literary works of our culture, they provide community programs and allow free internet access to millions. They offer access licensed databases, homework help, online instruction access to local community information and service for job seekers.

Be proud, America, of your free lending libraries. Be proud of the ideals they represent.

-This article was adapted from a chapter in my book Broke is Beautiful.

What Kind of Object Am I?

I have been reading The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett.  The book discusses the different thought patterns of Western and Eastern minds.  In the West we tend to view the world as separate objects which have properties that we can classify.  We believe that by classifying and understanding the properties of the objects we can understand the truth of the world.  In the East, people focus first on complex interrelations and the context in which objects reside.  Objects are seen as having properties in relation to external forces.  When western children learn to speak, their first words are usually nouns.  “Cat.  Ball,” and so on.  Eastern children are more likely to utter verbs first.

As an illustration, Nisbett noted that “Aristotle explained that a stone falling through the air is due to the stone having the property of ‘gravity.’ But of course a piece of wood tossed into water floats instead of sinking. This phenomenon Aristotle explained as being due to the wood having the property of ‘levity’! In both cases the focus is exclusively on the object, with no attention paid to the possibility that some force outside the object might be relevant. But the Chinese saw the world as consisting of continuously interacting substances, so their attempts to understand it caused them to be oriented toward the complexities of the entire ‘field,’ that is, the context or environment as a whole. The notion that events always occur in a field of forces would have been completely intuitive to the Chinese. The Chinese therefore had a kind of recognition of the principle of ‘action at a distance’ two thousand years before Galileo articulated it.”

We laugh a bit at Aristotle’s assumption that a rock has “gravity,” as it might have “magnetism.”  But I got to thinking about how our object focus works when it comes to social categories.  It seems to me that we make exactly the same type of leaps every day.

For example, rather than saying “I have this framework for understanding the world,” we say “I am a Christian” or “an Atheist” or a “secular humanist.”  The person’s working hypothesis becomes a property of the person, a way of defining the person.  Rather than speaking about someone as being attracted to people of her own gender we say “she is a lesbian.”  Rather than saying a person has certain political views we say “He is a liberal” or “She is a conservative.”  Every aspect of a person becomes a way of classifying that person.  We want to know what kind of an object is this?  What kind of properties does he have?

Making an idea into an identity makes it hard for people to change and be flexible.  What if I have a crisis of faith?  Does that mean I am no longer a Christian and I am therefore an entirely different type of person?  What if I like the Democratic candidate?  Does that mean I am no longer a Republican and I have lost my identity?  If my house is foreclosed on does that mean I am no longer a middle class person and I am not who I thought I was?

How might we relate to one another and ourselves differently if we had not inherited this object classification mentality from the ancient Greeks?