Friday, July 22, 2016

Why Comedy Isn't Funny

I was scrolling through another mindless Facebook newsfeed, when I noticed something I found really interesting.  Among the screeds of political haters and social justice warriors was a disproportionate batch of video clips and photo memes from comedians, all of which were politically themed.  Most of them were snarky.  A few were certifiably fake.  But none of them, regardless of their agenda, were particularly funny.

Instead of making me laugh, this phenomenon made me wonder.  Why is there so much comedy?  And why is so much of it just not funny?

Okay, so I'm not a young, millennial hipster.  I acknowledge that I am no longer cutting edge (not that I'm sure I ever was).  I hail from an age when comedy was a completely different animal, dominated mainly by self-deprecating Jewish men.  To this day, the works of Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Alan King, Don Rickles, Henny Youngman, Phil Silvers, Jerry Stiller, Albert Brooks, Garry Marshall -- schtickmeisters of the Golden Age -- still elicit chuckles from me and everyone else who has the motivation to seek them out.  

In those days, everyone in the multi-ethnic audience laughed.  Today, nobody really does.  I think I know why:

First, the whole notion of "funny" has changed.  And I'm not rehashing the whole social justice warrior thing. I'm talking about what people now identify as humorous.  Sigmund Freud once asserted that humor is actually veiled hostility, citing the fact that unlike every other animal on the planet, humans are the only ones who ostensibly don't show their teeth as an expression of anger. Freud speculated that all humor, therefore, actually is rooted in anger, it's just served up as laughter.

Freud may have been right, considering a majority of what I now see passing as humor is much more akin to harsh rants and endless diatribes about all that's wrong with someone else.  Whereas George Burns might have remarked on the adorable, misguided antics of his wife, Gracie Allen, now we watch any stand-up wannabe drone on about how stupid the people are at the DMV.  Or the post office. Or in the government. Or at the very next desk where they work.   

Today's comedy has also been dumbed down to the low level of education of the audience.  Few people know anything about history, world events, art or literature.  Were they to launch their act today, I'd bet Monty Python's Flying Circus would never get off the ground.  In fact, with the world increasingly atomized by digital technology, everyone lives in his own individual world, unaware that others exist.  As such, the comedians' frames of reference has shrunk dynamically to the point that very few common frames of reference can be addressed.  Believe me, comedians don't focus on sex because it's edgy; they focus on sex because it's one of the increasingly few topics to which everyone in the audience can relate.  As the country dumbs down, there's less relevant material.  This is the momentum which powered Jerry Seinfeld's brand of relativistic comedy:  Comedy went from people laughing at this is my funny observation to nodding in agreement to have you ever noticed

Comedy was no longer funny.  It became a sense of community which then morphed into factionalism.  You either get it or you don't.  You're either in or you're out.  You're either one of us or you're not.

I also notice that what passes for comedy is often nothing more than petty sniping, offering no solutions to the problems the comedians cite.  Even the dark humor of Lenny Bruce not only exposed the folly of narrow-mindedness, but offered up solutions. Today, if you listen closely, comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert offer nothing other than sharp criticisms, but never reveal their true cleverness by going the next step of solution, which would be far funnier, especially if the solution to the problem were simple and sensible.

It's too bad that comedy, like so much else, has deteriorated to the levels it has.  But it doesn't come as a complete surprise.  Now unzip your pants and enjoy the show.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Smith for President

Sometime between the Neolithic and Paleolithic Eras, I found myself a sophomore in college, which in the day of four-year university curricula, made me a second year student.  It was during these last years of childhood that I was fortunate to discover a variety of theories, philosophies and facts that expanded and altered my viewpoints on a number of topics.  At the top of the list was my exposure to economic theory.

Until college, I'd never heard of John Stuart Mill or Adam Smith.  To me, Malthusian Theory sounded like a first rate science fiction feature from the fifties.  Like most kids, I simply took economics for granted: as long as the liquor store had beer and I had cash, the system worked.

It was at the end of my junior year I chose to major in, and write a graduating thesis on, Economic History. Having discovered that everything I'd learned in life was pretty much a lie, I had no use for social, religious, political or art history.  I dismissed all of them as completely lacking any credibility. After all, who really marches across Europe to the Holy Land for religion? Isn't it really about pillage and treasure?  Of course. And that's when I embraced Adam Smith and the notion of humans moving in, and only for, their own self-interests.  

Now that made sense to me. But it also begged a much more important question: If so much of what I'd been taught was a lie, how much more was there to re-examine?  Turned out there was a lot. In fact, just about everything I looked at challenged the veracity of just about everything I'd been taught in my first 20 years of life.

The toughest transition young adults have to make is discovering the disparity between truths and teachings. Sure, it's great to hear how the American War Between the States was about the abolition of slavery. The truth, however, turns out to have far less to do about slavery than it does about economics, with the industrial North wresting control of the union from the agrarian South.  As politically incorrect as it may sound, prior to 1865, slaves were viewed as industrial capital, in the same way we view trucks, machines and hardware today.  Southern plantations invested the modern day equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars into the purchase, maintenance and propagation of their slave labor -- and weren't too keen about simply "letting them go" with no reimbursement.  Imagine today's government demanding Exxon and Chevron turning over their drilling, shipping, refining and research facilities with no remuneration. Probably wouldn't incite a whole lot of national favor.

When viewed through the economic lens, just about everything looks and acts differently, including politics. And nothing takes on a completely different personality than the Presidency of the United States.

For some reason, Americans -- including this, the least educated generation in modern history -- cling to the notion of the Presidency as they were taught in grade school.  Beginning with George Washington's chopping of the cherry tree, legends and under-qualified school teachers drone on about the political and social attributes of our national leaders, without ever addressing their true agenda: economic welfare of the union.   Oh, you may get a mention of the Louisiana Purchase or Seward's Folly (the purchase of Alaska), but that's just a minor withdrawal from petty cash.  Put on your big boy pants, and pretty soon you find that every President from Washington on down put the people's economic interests first and foremost.

The Boston Tea Party? Economic. The Whiskey Rebellion? Economic. The Stamp Act? Economic.  In fact, if you look hard enough, the vast majority of all legislation begins and ends with economic agenda.  The only reason Americans think otherwise is because too often, that legislation is cloaked in social agenda to help make the sale.

Look, I'm a branding strategist. I don't care about what it looks like.  I care about what works.

Women's suffrage? The fourteenth amendment banning slavery? The eighteenth amendment banning alcohol? Today, they're taught as matters of social justice.  But it wasn't always that way. At the time, it was all about the cash.  It's just more convenient to paint those issues over with a social justice spin to make ourselves feel better about the harsh realities that drive us.

As Adam Smith espoused, people move in their own self-interest.  As President Dwight D. Eisenhower pronounced, "You cannot legislate the hearts and minds of men." This is why you don't want a President who hides behind a social agenda. You want one who understands that the United States has always been, and always will be, driven by economic self-interest of its citizens.

It's not your traditional view of the American Presidency.  It may contradict everything you've been taught about it.  But that's okay. Discomfort is a good thing.  It's how you know you're on the verge of discovering the truth.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Good Guys, Bad Guys

Over the last decades, I've made a lot of clients a lot of money.  Some were stagnant brands.  Others were funded startups. In both cases, the cure for their ills was a true brand strategy that actually delivered more money on the bottom line (which is what brands and brand strategies are supposed to do, if you didn't know).  It was good for them and good for me.

Throughout the course of my cavalcade of clients, I always advised them that a true, productive brand strategy possessed four irreplaceable aspects in order to function.  Three out of four would never work.  It had to be all four or nothing.  Those four were authoritativeness, defensibility, credibility and clarity.  Simple, right?  I could issue a discourse on all four, but on this outing, I'd like to stick to one in particular:  clarity.

The other day, I was up early in the morning, on a Saturday where there's not much to watch other than rehashed news, pathetic infomercials and -- because I'm a big fan of retro television -- reruns of TV shows from the 1950s.  On this Saturday, I was treated to an episode of The Roy Rogers Show , a quintessential weekly western and was suitably impressed.  The entire show was in black and white. The plot was thin, the soundtrack was thinner.  The dialogue could have been phoned in. And the outcome was predictable.

I loved it. But why did I love it so much?

It's not so much that I'm a fan of sub-par production values, nor am I a soppy, weeping sentimentalist.  I never watched the show when it first ran, because I wasn't even on the planet its first time out.  After thinking about it, however, I hit upon the answer:  Clarity.

Watching The Roy Rogers Show -- and just about any TV show from the 1950s and early 1960s -- one realizes that everything and everyone is clearly depicted for who and what they are.  The good guys wear white hats; the bad guys wear black hats.  When the bad guys steal stuff, everyone knows it's wrong and the good guys go after them.  Nobody sits around debating why the bad guys stole the bank deposits, or whether stealing the bank deposits should really be classified as a crime.  The good guys see a wrong and right it.  In 28 minutes, the crime is committed, the case is solved and justice is done, usually ending with the bad guys going to jail.  No psychologists in the old west. No Facebook mobs or social justice warriors confusing the issues.

Retro television is an amazing looking glass, reflecting the clarity of an American society from another day.  Attorneys and lawyers, for example, understand that it is not their duty to "get their clients off," but to see that their clients are afforded a fair trial.  Prior to 1970, the majority of Americans expected their legal representative to hold prosecutors accountable, but in no instance did a guilty defendant expect to go free.  After 1970, it became a whole new ball game, where lawyers weren't hired to assure fairness, but simply to help the defendant avoid accountability.  Since then, the only reason why defendants hire lawyers are to get the charges dismissed, hung up via mistrial or derailed through delays and technicalities.  The present legal system, it seems, has lost all clarity, taken down by obfuscation and a distorted sense of purpose.

The more you look around, the more lack of clarity you can see.  Prior to the year 1980, for example, the United States military was charged with one basic mission, which was to identify a threat, pursue the threat and eliminate the threat -- with deadly force, if necessary.  Very simple, very clear.  I assure you that the Second World War was won with little hesitation. It was planned, executed and terminated.  Not so today, where despite technological wonders, many lethal strikes are delayed until permissions are sent up and down the chain of command, micro-managing decisions that in an earlier day were triggered in micro-seconds.  Again, no clarity. 

Nor is the lack of clarity limited to foreign battlefields.  As a result of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, police can no longer distinguish which crimes will portray them as heroes or criminals.  They see wrong, but hesitate to perform their duties lest they be prosecuted, suspended, fired or jailed.  Outside a recent political rally in San Jose, California, where protesters beat and bloodied an innocent, peaceful audience, the cops just stood by, unsure of what they should do.

Of course, there will always be those who seek to escape accountability due to extenuating circumstances.  In some case, there might be extenuating circumstances. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. I suspect a lot of people would be a lot happier if they knew what was right, what was wrong and that everyone was playing by the same rules.

In the meantime, stay safe and keep hoping you never need to call a cop.

  


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Dinner With Uncle Sam

It was my Uncle Sam's birthday recently, so a few of my cousins and I decided to take him out to dinner.  Sam has always been a big, generous guy who's been like a second father to us all, so we wanted to make the occasion special.

"Where would you like to go, Sam?" asked Bernie. "Any place you want to go! Money is no object!" Sam sat and thought about it.  Then Hillary piped up.  "Sam, you deserve a really special dinner.  I know a great place you'll love, I promise. You can trust me."  Again, Sam furrowed his brow in thought.  A minute later, Donald made another suggestion.  "How about Al's Steakhouse?"

Uncle Sam's contentment turned to discomfort at Donald's suggestion.  "Gee," he drawled, "I don't know about Al's Steakhouse.  I'm not so sure about the food there."  All three cousins asked what happened.  Then Uncle Sam told us about the last few times he ate at Al's.  

"The first time, I ordered the seafood and it was delicious. Came with rice on the side and a nice dessert.  But before I left the table, my stomach felt awful and I had to run to the bathroom with a horrible case of the runs.  A week or two later, I ate there again.  This time I had a shrimp salad and a pasta dish.  I was just finishing a small pastry dessert when I suddenly became nauseous and threw up right on my shoes! I figured maybe it was some bad shrimp that night. But two weeks after that, I had a wonderful steak with a baked potato.  No dessert, but a fabulous clam chowder as an appetizer.  Sure enough, before I could finish the potato, I felt dizzy, passed out and had to be taken to the emergency room."

"That's sounds awful!" my cousins echoed in chorus.  "Maybe we shouldn't go to Al's," offered Donald.  "No, no," insisted Bernie. "We must go to Al's.  A few bad meals doesn't mean that all of Al's food makes people sick.  After all, Uncle Sam got sick, but not everyone who eats there get ill!"  Hillary agreed with Bernie.  "I know the owners of Al's Steakhouse and I am very sure that this is all a coincidence.  I go way back with the owners.  I doubt they'd want to poison you, Sam."

Donald looked at them both with dismay.  "Wait a minute," he cautioned.  "Sam's gotten violently ill not once,, not twice, but three different times in the very same place.  I don't think he should go back there at all, at least not until they figure out what's making him sick."

Bernie and Hillary grew incensed.  "You can't do that!" they objected. "You don't know which food made him sick!  Just because he fell ill after two or three meals doesn't mean that all of Al's food is bad! You're an extremist! It's not fair to Al's to simply avoid the place altogether!"

Donald squinted his retort.  "Let's see, when Sam doesn't eat at Al's, he's fine.  But when he does eat at Al's he gets sick.  As far as I'm concerned, until we know specifically which food there makes him sick, we need to keep him out of there.  Once we find out which foods make him sick, we can take him back there."

Sam nodded in agreement.  "I like Al's Steakhouse," he said.  "One day, I'll go back there.  But not until I know which meals are making me ill."

"Sam, I must object," lectured Bernie. "Al's is a great institution. They deserve our respect."  "I have to agree," added Hillary.  "You should take another chance at have dinner there in order to avoid offending them."

"I think I'll go with Donald this time," smiled Uncle Sam.  "It seems safer for my health." 

"You made the right decision, Sam," smiled Donald. "If you stay out of Al's there's no chance that any of their food can make you sick.  And to show there's no hard feelings, I'll pick up the tab." 


Saturday, April 09, 2016

What Feminism Hath Wrought

"How was your date?" I asked, reaching for my coffee. 

"Awful," she replied. "That's over for good."  Apparently, they'd been getting along fairly well, but the sex, she volunteered, was horrible.  "He was just performing. I asked him, 'What are you doing?' and he said, 'I just want to please you.'  It was weird. The guy had obviously watched too much porn.  Whatever happened to making love?"

Quite honestly, it was more than I needed to know. I actually just wanted to find out if the restaurant at which they'd dined was any good, but her revelation did manage to hijack the conversation into a much more interesting direction, mainly because I'd been hearing the same type of complaints from people her age and younger. Just about all of the single people I know, from kids in their teens to middle aged peers had voiced similar sexual disappointments to me.

I know.  I'm that kind of guy.  People tell me stuff.  But hear me out on this, because what I suspect we're witnessing is no small thing. And despite the title of this piece, it's not what you think I'm going to say.  Yes, I'm going to lay this at the feet of feminism, but not for the reasons you expect. 

You should know that I personally harbor no bias regarding gender roles. I happen to love holding people accountable to my one set of impossibly rigorous standards, regardless of their ilk.  My scrutiny knows no sexual preference.  So in that sense, I've always somewhat supported feminism. And then one day, I watched as feminism's reach began to exceed its grasp, most notably with Gloria Steinem's pronouncement in the 1960s that  "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."  At the outset, it seemed to make sense, prying women off of their dependence on men. Good idea for anyone who valued freedom and independence. It really did open the eyes of both men and women to a whole new world of choices awaiting them.  What it didn't do was let them know that a fish without a bicycle rides both ways and that years later, everyone from kids to middle aged matrons would be paying for it:

Men no longer needed to depend on women, either.

The sexual liberation of both men and women gave rise to sexual freedom, but also undermined the main reason why people used to get married, so there was no longer any real reason for men to ever want to get married.  After all, men could dine out any time, without any of the maintenance costs.  They could have kids out of wedlock, pay child support and never suffer the inequities of community property.  And in the worst cases of sexual need, Steinem's quip about fish and bicycles was soon displaced by men's realization that they don't pay prostitutes for sex, they pay them to leave.

Add the mainstreaming of pornography to mix and it becomes clear as to how romance simply became obsolete. Most kids and people now learn about sex and romance from movies and porn, which leaves them pathetic at both.  What was once courtship leading to love and sex is now swiping right, leading to hook up and disappointment.  People really think life is a quick cut movie with no transitioning scenes. At this stage, most of them don't know that they're missing because they've never seen it.  And most of them are left bewildered and unsatisfied. 

The constant overreach of feminism into emasculation certainly hasn't  helped.  Stupid TV Dads and ever more ridiculous degeneration of male gender roles have continued their relentless attacks on primal masculinity.  For every John Wayne of yesteryear there are now two Pierce Brosnans, Ben Afflecks and George Clooneys.  You know, women with penises.  Not the best role models for those attempting to reconcile their natural maleness with society's distorted views.  Somewhere along the line, feminism crossed over from equal opportunity to denigration and opposition of gender roles.  That doesn't sit well with most men -- and from what they tell me, it doesn't play all that well with women, either.  After all, if someone called you up every day to tell you how wrong you were about who you are and what you do, how long would you welcome their calls?

You want everyone in the game to have an equal shot in the marketplace? I'm right there with you.  You want to be politically correct and accommodate far-fetched excesses of feminism?  Knock yourself out.  But then don't complain about a harsher world without love and understanding of what makes men and women, well, men and women. 

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by
And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you"
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate

That no one can deny.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Defibrillator

No matter what generation in which you are born, there are certain lessons you learn at your mother's or father's knee, or more accurately, at the end of their pointed fingers.  Everyone has heard the constant refrains about washing their hands before eating dinner.  Another old saw has to do with how long after lunch one has to wait before going swimming.  You know the drill, right?  These are warnings we've all heard a million times, and because we've heard them, we now know not to cross the street until the light turns green.

There does come a time in one's life, however, when we simply have to temper the warnings of childhood with the wisdom of experience.  Just as most of the adult world has figured out that "not stopping that" hasn't -- and probably won't -- render them blind, there comes a time when some of our childhood fears have to be re-examined or even reversed.

Among those that we reverse is our fear of electricity.  As kids, we're warned to stay away from electrical outlets because we're told that one finger on a bare wire could electrocute us.  Electrocution burns the skin and shocks the nervous system.  Electricity can kill you.  But like fire, electricity has its good points, too.  It powers everything in our lives, from can openers to large screen televisions.  Without electricity, there is no internet, no communications.  In fact, without electric power, our entire civilization breaks down and the system as a whole dies.

So imagine the fear one must endure when his physical health is in jeopardy.  The doctor confirms that your heart isn't performing properly.  That vascular pump -- itself driven by bio-electrical power -- is the engine of your overall health, distributing oxygenated blood and nutrients throughout the rest of your body, enabling all other organs to function.  But now, your doctor says, your heart is slowing down, and not performing its function.  In turn, those vital organs aren't functioning well.  They're breaking down and malnourished.  This, your doctor tells you, means that your whole system is breaking down.  Not good.

As you mull the bad news, you fall asleep, waking only to the sound of rush and panic. Your eyes barely open to reveal a team of technicians surrounding you.  One has two silver paddles pressed to your chest and yells, "Clear!"  At that moment you realize that he's going to electrocute your, jolting you with a shock in order to restart your heart.

Emotionally, you know that the same electricity of which you were warned is approaching, and that the very same danger about which your parents wagged their fingers is about to send its power through you.  It's scary. You've never done it.  Yet rationally, you know that if the doctor doesn't do it, that's it.  The end.  Your heart won't restart.  Your organs won't be restored to their previous vigor.  Your whole system will break down -- for good.

I don't blame people for harboring fear.  I do blame people for harboring irrational fear, especially when their entire system is about to break down -- for good.  At that point, you have no choice but to go with the effective option, because your survival depends on it.  The question is whether you can overcome the irrational fear to get to the effective solution.

Especially when the only man holding the paddles happens to be a Republican.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Millennial Amnesia

By now you already know that I write a lot about issues tangential to branding, although most of the time, the topics on which I opine here are borne more from some glancing tangent having to do with brand strategy.  Branding is about human behavior and the circumstances around them.  Those who believe branding is about products or companies are way off base:  Branding is all about people.

At the time of this writing, the United States is undergoing a presidential election unlike any in recent memory.  And I don't use the phrase "recent memory" any too lightly here.  The issues, candidates and voting blocs are strangely unfamiliar.  To be succinct, this is not your traditional presidential election.

One of the characteristics I've observed about this election is that the opinions expressed by its most ardent participants seem to be derived from two primary sources:

1.  Facebook memes
2.  Comedy Central comedians

I know, it sounds odd to me, too.  Because we live under the illusory existence of the "informed voter," which I assure you is about as real as the "informed consumer," neither of which has a good chance of being discovered any time before someone hauls in Bigfoot.  We're somehow laboring under the outdated notion that people are still motivated to investigate, compare, challenge and discuss before they render their carefully-thought decisions.  That process left the building ages ago.

In today's search-engine society, more people are inclined to push a button and expect an answer in a millisecond.   Good for Google.  Maybe not so good for you.  Here's why:

It occurs to me that the internet (the popular usage of it) is now roughly 20 years old.  That means anyone under the age of, say, 30, has pretty much spent his conscious life pointing and clicking.  He's never known anything other than instant answers presented to him, rather than his own motivations to access alternate viewpoints on any given topic.

But it gets worse.

Those same Millennials also have spent their conscious years (any time after the age of 10, if I'm generous) never knowing any other political or economic environment than the last four years of George W. Bush and the last eight years of Barack Obama.  Put it all together and the math produces the answer to why so many younger people embrace the likes of Bernie Sanders and eschew the man called Trump:

They simply haven't experienced what life was like before times got tough.

In what could be called Millennial Amnesia, those under 30 would have no memory of stable jobs, a thriving middle class, a strong defense, traditional notions of character or affordable lifestyles.  They may have been breathing, but all that stuff vanished before they blew out the candles on their tenth birthday cakes, in an age when pimples are more important than politics.  When you backdate them from their thirtieth birthdays, that means anyone born after 1990 or so -- people who are now eligible to vote -- make their decisions based on what they've grown up with and what they see on Facebook and Comedy Central.  They never bother to investigate further, because they've never been taught to do so.  

They dismiss the experiences of those senior to them because they never lived those experiences firsthand.

This would mean that an entire generation has grown up believing that a weak economy, unstable jobs, unaffordable lifestyles and the loss of traditional notions and character are normal, because to them, it really is.  Even scarier is that they accept the current situations as normal and have no notion of why or how they'd remedy them.

That's scary.

I call it Millennial Amnesia.  But maybe there's a better term.  After all, you can't really forget what you never really knew.