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Would you have watched me on The Tonight Show? February 17, 2010

Posted by markgeil in Philosophical musings.
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There was a time when I was younger and therefore capable of staying up for late-night TV. Sometimes it was Friday Night Videos, or Saturday Night Live, or David Letterman. I even remember when Johnny Carson was the host of the Tonight Show. I’d watch him every now and then, when I would accidentally stay up for Saturday Night Live on a Friday night. I don’t know how many times I did that. I guess I figured the weekend had started, so it must be time for SNL. I seem to recall that Letterman wasn’t always on Friday nights, so that left Carson.

I am perhaps ambitious, perhaps narcissistic, but I rarely watch someone perform without wondering if I could pull it off. Some people just watch a performance and enjoy it. I watch a performance, enjoy it, and then imagine myself doing it. Even when I was that younger version of myself, struggling through the late local news to stay up for Carson, I imagined myself in the chair beside the desk, between Johnny and Ed McMahon. I was entirely confident that my life story was as compelling as anything those celebrities discussed. It’s not so much that I thought I was as interesting as anyone else; it’s more that I grappled with the concept of celebrity, and realized that everyone, even the typical average ordinary (insert other mundane adjectives) person, has interesting stories to tell.

That was before reality TV. Now, average ordinary people are on TV all the time. Celebrity is self-fulfilling, arbitrary, even effortless. There’s a problem, though. We don’t see ordinary people on The Tonight Show, sharing their unique and interesting stories. Somebody decided that if we’re going to put non-celebrities in front of cameras, we must exaggerate. They need to be weird, or pitiful, or some societal outlier. Comedian Patton Oswalt pointed out that the outrageous things people used to do when no one was looking are now only done if everyone is looking.  

I think we’ve gotten it all wrong. I still like the romantic notion of counting each ordinary person as a unique creation who is infinitely compelling. I’ve looked down from airplanes upon houses and streets and neighborhoods and been wildly curious about all the life stories. I think we learn more from the ordinary than the outlier. And as far as TV goes, if our only goal is eccentric or extreme, we will soon run out of eccentricities and extrema. Perhaps we already have. Perhaps TV will self-correct someday.

I know there are problems with my notions. No one would watch a show in which ordinary people swap life stories. Even if they did, even once, they would find one of the ordinary persons interesting, gobble that person up in the celebrity machine, and discard them. Such is the mass attention span. So, I’m left with my own limited capacity to meet ordinary people, hear their stories, and learn from them, if only for my own betterment. That’s not so bad, is it?

[By the way, today the blog passed 10,000 hits. As always, thanks for reading!]

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