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Adventures in television, part 438

"Have you ever met a masturbator?"

How would *you* respond? You're in a TV studio, being filmed by three silent cameramen in front of a green screen, a monitor displaying the title "You Decide" with a Christian cross in the middle, and behind a big grey desk-like affair with a mostly (fake?) bald guy, who earlier confessed, with dry-eyed, dry-nosed weeping-like behavior and an apology to his at-home wife, to being a former "chronic masturbator". Replying "Everyone I've ever met in my life, probably" seemed dull.

I said, "I've met *you*."

He indicated that I was unkind to bring up something so personally painful. Yes, readers, I apologized for the unkindness because I'm a schmoe.

Apparently making fun of us humorless skeptics is back in fashion (see also Nick Pullar and Tony Youens for more on the 2004 Shirley Ghostman experience. Twenty-four hours later, I am ashamed that I haven't yet managed to identify the perpetrators or the real agenda for certain. Possibly, as the Jonathan Levene who booked me for Wednesday's taping said, it really is getting people to discuss their different beliefs. Except that one of them is always a set-up whose goal is to make both the religion he's pretending to represent *and* the mark look stupid.

I hate dishonest comedy, even when I'm not the dupe.

The veteran sitcom writers Ken Levine and Earl Pomerantz frequently blog about writing comedy that derives from character, not just jokes. That approach is why sitcoms like Frasier (which Levine worked on) remain funny for decades. Even though they relied heavily on puncturing the Crane brothers' pretensions, the writers respected that the snobbish Frasier and Niles truly loved the things - opera, wine, antique door knockers - they were snobbish about. Frasier and Niles weren't just assholes who liked looking down on people, and that was crucial.

Televised practical jokes originated, I think, with Candid Camera, which I loved as a child in the 1960s ("I'd have thought it was earlier" my opponent remarked on Wednesday). Candid Camera had two winning qualities that Wednesday's encounter lacked: 1) the setups were often fantastically clever; and 2) they ended by sharing the joke with the mark (not always on-screen, but marks were given the chance to withdraw; my aunt was caught once). One unforgettable Candid Camera stunt featured a car that split in half; it remains awesome today.

256px-Marx_Brothers_1931.jpgSo do the Marx Brothers, whose license with their scripts famously led the great playwright and drama critic George S. Kaufman to react in surprise during a Broadway performance of The Cocoanuts, "I thought I heard one of the original lines". Although I loved all the brothers, I particularly admired Groucho's spontaneous verbal wit. People who are good at them claim that puns are the highest form of humor, but I disagree: you can store up puns to perform whenever they slot in, like memorized scripted jokes. Groucho's high-percentage word play, building on whatever anyone said to him, requires real improvisational genius.

Of course, all comedy relies on the straight man/stooge. In six of the Marx Brothers movies Groucho was paired with Margaret Dumont (above), who perfectly played the unamused high-class matron. It's often claimed she genuinely didn't get any of their humor, but that's absurd: no one survives as long or successfully in comedy as she did without a pretty clear idea of what they're about. She was *supposed* to play it straight, and she did, expertly.

Since Wednesday's production team's agenda remains unknown, I don't know if they think the "interview" succeeded. I noted my opponent's frequent male-female gambits: in checking the pronunciation before we started, he stressed GrossMAN. He went on to: repeatedly accuse me of being attracted to him (as IF); apologize to his wife, "Jean", for my "flirting", which he assured her was inappropriate and unwanted; claim he succeeded in giving up masturbation by ceasing to eat apples, the fruit of sin; and suggestively miming eating a banana to show how perfectly "it fits in a MAN's mouth". I can't say - lacking access to the footage - whether my face took any of those baits. I think I soon ignored anything to outrage a feminist, and insults don't bother me too much; even at 16 I just guffawed when a male acquaintance said of my shape, "Frankly, I've seen better-looking doors". What was hard was to stop arguing against my words being repeatedly twisted into things I didn't say. "What are we really doing here?" I asked the room 20 or 30 minutes in. Crickets. Occasionally, though, a cameraman smiled, and I began playing to that out of boredom. I've posted a fuller, raw account of the encounter for posterity.

Until they explain their actual agenda, I have emailed Levene to withdraw consent to using this footage. Even though the skeptical movement has its problems, I feel protective of the principles it represents and my part of it. Personally, I think my best moment was my response to his explanation that according to an unmemorably blandly named science institute in KANSAS the direct cause of the Flood was that male masturbation levels had reached 99% (cue: unsourced, colored-in world map). They've proved this, he explained, by carbon-dating the remains of semen found inside ancient clay pots in Jerusalem.

"Well," I said, "They probably didn't have socks."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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