Curious to see what’s out there, since we don’t watch television at home, while visiting friends recently I flipped through the channels after the children were in bed, and came across some sort of roast, I think on VH1.A woman who turned out to be the host was insulting several people sitting nearby and a man sitting a little above them, who turned out to be the evening’s victim.
The only guests whose names I caught were George Hamilton and Hulk Hogan. “That guy was governor of Minnesota?” I thought, confusing my pop culture references. The victim was someone named David Hasselhoff.
I watched as long as I could stand it, which was about five minutes, maybe ten. As they were being insulted, the guests would toss their heads back as they laughed in an open-mouthed way that was supposed to look like a surprised belly laugh. It looked, and I am sure was, utterly fake.
In her monologue, the host simply insulted her targets, with a good bit of profanity thrown in. Not once did she show an ounce of wit or intelligence, not a feather’s weight. Not, let me emphasize this, any. She spoke of Hulk Hogan, for example, as something like (I quote from memory) “the most disgusting person on the planet.” At which Hulk Hogan threw back his head and let out an open-mouthed laugh, which looked utterly fake.
And the audience, to whom the show cut a few times, never once really laughed. They giggled rather than guffawed. This means something, because they had come to laugh, had presumably paid money to laugh, were probably loosened up by a few drinks at dinner, and are, like the rest of us, conditioned to laugh at the cues.
Yet they didn’t. Some of them, when the camera cut to them, were looking at their partners as if, judging by their faces, to say, “Am I supposed to laugh at this?”
At the end of her monologue, now addressing the night’s main victim, she said that he had tried to do three things in his life, and (speaking directly to him) that you hadn’t, you couldn’t, and you’re a [very rude and crass insult]. Here she had the structure of the joke—it was the only wit-like thing she said in the time I heard her—a list in which the hearer expects one thing at the end and gets another. But to be funny, the new last item has to make sense. It has to say something true, that will be emphasized and made amusing by the surprise. It has to be a twist.
This woman’s climactic joke didn’t offer a twist. It was just an insult that made no sense in context. She substituted obscenity and shock for wit and insight.
It is hard to exaggerate the crudity of the performance: not so much the crudity of the language and subjects, but its intellectual crudity. Every single remark was the foul-mouthed adult’s equivalent of the seven-year-old’s “You have a big butt.”
And as I watched, with lurid fascination, I realized that the monologue reminded me of junior high, with one difference: in junior high, people were expected to be funny when they were abusive. Kids valued real wit, even if it were only seventh and eighth grade wit. They understood the need to end with a twist that made sense the kind of joke the host ended with an insult that didn’t. They knew more about real comedy, and real abuse, than the host of this VH1 show.
In the Darwinian world of junior high, the merely insulting and abusive kid was ignored, and other kids shunned him if he persisted. He wasn’t funny enough to get a hearing and gain a place. The kid whose abuse was not just persistent but stupid became the target himself. The host would not have done well in junior high.
People my age tend to find in every change a decline, and in every decline evidence of a general decline and fall. But it’s hard not to see in this show real evidence of a fall, and a long one, when the abusive kid who when I was a child would not have pleased junior high kids now appears on a television show on a major cable network.
The great icons of “edgy” humor like Lenny Bruce, and a few years later comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, began something that eventually lost its point but kept its edge. They shocked for a purpose, to force people to see something they didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, like Flannery O’Connor at a rather higher level. Their point was not always a very good point and the shocks sometimes seemed indulged for their own sakes, and being “edgy” built their reputations and brought them fame and work, but still, they were rude and profane for a reason.
But some, probably many, of their heirs have, judging from this show, descended to pointless abuse and obscenity, and because pointless, boring and trivial, shocking not for its content but for its emptiness. What is the pleasure in that? What does it offer? What is there in it to make the normal man laugh?
We have lost something, when obscenity and rudeness are no longer useful. It is a gift to be able to shock, but one we seem to have thrown away.
David Mills is the deputy editor of First Things. His previous "On the Square" articles were Spirituality Without Spirits and Show Us the Money