It’s often not so much what happens in our lives—as what we figure ought to happen. If no one likes this post, did it fail?
I started noticing camera-angles and how they manipulated the audience far too early in my life–especially for the poor bystanders who were stuck in a living room, basement or movie theater with me.
The Cosby Show, for all of its garish sweaters and too-good-to-be-true charm of a doctor/lawyer upper-middle class family, was a breakthrough on many levels—it revitalized the sit-com and finally placed a TV African-American family out of the ghetto—if you bypass George Jefferson moving on up.
But what I noticed immediately, from my hero of a dozen scratched LP comedy albums, was the cutaway to Clair—Cliff Huxtable’s long-suffering wife who managed to smile through the monologues. You’ll see it in every episode, the need for the reaction shot—generally Phylicia Rashad or one of the kids letting the rest of us know it’s time to laugh. Cosby’s timing and great irony didn’t really need such an “applause” sign, but it was still there. And once you notice it, you can’t shake it, like the irritating laugh-track found in nearly every episode of M*A*S*H–as Larry Gelbart explains why…
It’s like a public pool with the kid screaming for someone in his family to “look at me” before he jumps in.
In one of my favorite parts of Annie Hall, Alvie takes his former partner to task for selling-out (here cleverly edited with scenes from The Big Bang Theory playing).
During the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates there was no audience cheering or laughing–no town-hall meeting of undecided voters. Viewers were just left to their own devices on how they were to think–perhaps. Below (at :30) a director decided to switch from Camera 2, covering Nixon speaking, to Camera 1, showing Kennedy laughing–just after the famous shifty-eyed Tricky Dick attempted a joke. You can also see another cutaway (at 9:13) that did nothing to endear viewers to the Republican as his eyes noticed the studio’s tally-light click on in front of him–for 10 eternal seconds of swallowing nervousness. The TV viewers thought Kennedy won the debate–the folks on their radios thought otherwise.
I attempted a daily comic strip in college and was unfortunate to be placed with two much funnier neighbors, Bloom County and The Far Side.
I loved drawing cartoons since I’d first bumped into Don Martin in a Mad Magazine in 1976–doodling in class got me through 12th grade and continued well into many a boring lecture in college…
I dreamed of being discovered and somehow being allowed to hang out in my room and draw for the rest of my life, throwing in a terrible pun as well, of course…
But, it quickly became a job–and for nearly two years I had to come up with 4 panels 5 times per week, in addition to getting a degree. So my Saturdays were shot–more than most Saturdays are shot in college.
The first day it appeared, I nervously sat in the dining hall waiting for the cascades of laughter to echo around the cathedral ceilings. My ego got the better of me and I spied over my chicken sandwich at a guy from my dorm reading the comic page–then he was on to the next page–not a chuckle, grin or even partial smile.
I was crushed. Never mind that Gary Larson didn’t get a reaction either. My future was lost. I was doomed to be toiling away in some cubicle while an undiscovered author of Dilbert was contemplating that how to get rich on that fate.
We, like Cliff Huxtable, need to have an audience. The Marx Brothers would enact their entire film before a live crowd with a stopwatch to measure the laughter so no lines were buried in the theatres like this exchange from Horse Feathers…
Continued stalking of lunchtime diners made it clear to me that few people find the funnies that funny. But the more revealing discovery was that nothing is more subjective than humor. The same day that someone told me that they loved my comic–that they cut it out and put it on their door–someone else would say, “When are you going to stop?” One time I went to the newspaper office to retrieve my originals and someone had written below my request to have them returned, “But why?”
At least I was able to use those stories on my first job interview.
But in 1997, when I became too cheap for Olan Mills and decided to take my own portraits, I noticed that fun-stuff, in general, is like humor and beauty–very much in the eye of the beholder. I’d line up my son and his cousin Quincy with ice cream cones ready for that Kodak photo-spot moment…
Notice–no big smiles, just another day at work. Aidan is just passing the time until he can re-insert the binkie. Quincy looks like he’s inspecting for termites. Certainly no “Thanks, Dad, You’re the best!” were heard.
Of course, the same goes for blogging. It’s there; it’s read, perhaps, if someone’s got the time (generally at work, I’m told) or if there’s an engaging title. We look hopefully to see how many “likes” we have or how many hits in the WordPress counter–but eventually, like child-rearing and comic-drawing, you just have to cut that umbilical cord, hit the “Publish” button, take a deep breath and hope for the best for the new orphan–as homely as he may be.
Perhaps we don’t really need audiences as much as the need to keep producing. Grandma Moses and Emily Dickinson just kept cranking out their work in obscurity. Even Paul McCartney has a new album that comes and goes to little real notice–perhaps due to his unpardonable sin of surviving and having the nerve to work beyond 1970’s famous breakup.
In 1984, Gary Larson spoke to my freshman Mass Media class, a year or so after he had made it big. He shared a series of comics that created bins of hate-mail, including a baby being carried into an anthill. When he changed it to an old bum, no one minded the imminent carnage. At some point, like Calvin and Hobbes’ Sam Watterson, Larson decided to quit–he’d run out of things to say and dreaded the redundancy of it all…like Charlie Brown falling for the yanked football one too many times.
Cosby knew when to cancel his show and Nixon, in 1974, when to cancel his presidency.
Controversial Jesuit priest and author, Anthony De Mello, wrote in The Most Important Minutes in Your Lives:
Then you don’t have to apologize to anyone, you don’t have to explain anything to anyone, you don’t give a damn what anybody thinks about you or what anybody says about you. You have no worries; you’re happy. That’s what I call being a success. Having a good job or being famous or having a great reputation has absolutely nothing to do with happiness or success. Nothing! It is totally irrelevant. All he’s really worried about is what his children will think about him, what the neighbors will think about him, what his wife will think about him.
Getting back to the ice cream cone. No one told the kids they had to be smiling while eating ice cream–they were more likely to be smiling when asked about getting ice cream, but once the task is at hand and we’re comfortable with ourselves and our situation, there’s really no one left to please, is there?
Not that I probably won’t glance at the share-tally in an hour or so…