09 January, 2012

Jimmy Kimmel Made Me Cry

Have you seen the bit from a December episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! where parents sent in videos of their children opening intentionally bad Christmas presents? Kimmel asked parents to let their children open one gift a few weeks early and then post the reactions on YouTube under the title ‘Hey Jimmy Kimmel I gave my kids a terrible present’. The result was a video montage that is definitely hilarious and outrageous but I submit to you also terrible and insidious and bad.

By way of disclaimer, sort of, the argument here is not going to be PC or wet blanket-ish or otherwise down on making sport of children. Those claims are certainly out there for the making but this mini-essay is about something different, viz. just why the Kimmel piece is funny, and how this is sort of hard to see, and why all that’s terrible and insidious and bad. The reason for this disclaimer is probably obvious, but happily that very same self-consciousness ends up being germane to what gets discussed and unpacked below, which involves the way in which certain kinds of humour – especially as deployed on a show like JKL!, where the audience knows they’re watching a show, and the people doing the show (Jimmy et al.) know the audience knows – and so how at least this kind of humour not only invites but requires the same involved self-reference that makes writers like yours truly worry about where readers will think a mini-essay is going before it’s really underway. (Hence also the prenominate ‘sort of’, meant to indicate this disclaimer also declaims.)

The basic gag in the Kimmel piece is that children receiving bad presents react in ways the rest of us recognize as awful, horrible and grotesque. Some of the reactions are funny by virtue of being extreme (e.g. at 3:01, a rejected gift is thrown across the room), but the real humour trades on an underlying sentiment that’s hugely and obviously terrible: that it’s OK to reject a gift because you don’t want it, to deploy – in the face of the giver, no less – a boundless selfishness that recognizes gift giving as exclusively for the recipient’s satisfaction. The implications for generosity, caring, affection, really any kind of other-directed thinking are also poor, as when at 4:19 parents who profess to having thought very hard about their failed gifts are admonished, deadpan, ‘Well you didn’t do a very good job.’ We (=audience) know this kind of reaction is precisely the opposite of what’s required or appropriate, and it’s the gap between what the children are doing and what we know they should be doing that shocks and appals and ultimately delights; in a way, we’re embarrassed on the children’s behalf.

The children in the videos react so poorly because they don’t know any better, more specifically, that they haven’t yet learned to see themselves as objects and not just subjects. Think back to when you were a child and how often you thought other people were the centre of their very own universe. If you were anything like me, you thought precisely the opposite of this: that everything existed always and only for you, that your own mind and thinking exemplified all minds and thinking. This way of being is something like pre-solipsistic, I think, because in order to be a solipsist you have to first recognize the possibility of other ways of being and thinking. It’s this possibility the children in the video have yet to learn, and so from their perspective a terrible gift is inconceivable: If I know what I want, how could you not also know? The children’s reactions are not only poor but in some cases literally hysterical, like 2:45’s camera charge.

There’s even an exception that proves the theory: the young girl receiving a half-eaten PB&J sandwich, about 1:40, who seems genuinely torn between feelings of disappointment and the desire to show thanks and appreciation for her mother’s gesture. Witness an empathetic inflexion point? If that phrase isn’t just off-the-charts pretentious.

The kind of humour in the Kimmel video reminds me of stand-up routines by guys like Chris Rock, Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle, even Robin Williams or the early Eddie Murphy: comedy that’s intentionally loud, coarse, kind of brutal, like savage social caricature. The television equivalent (just shows I’ve seen and can remember off-hand; doubtless there are others) would be Married With Children, The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, maybe even Roseanne, all of which feature characters behaving in ways that are unabashedly selfish, personally indulgent and gross. The humour is satirical, deeply lampooning, and depends (it seems to me) on the audience knowing there’s something not quite right – even radically dysfunctional – about what’s being said and done, plus also knowing that the comic/actor/writer knows that the audience knows this. Just imagine an actual racist doing a Chris Rock sketch, or reading a script from South Park to your friends without telling them that’s what you’re doing. There’s just no way. And so the I know you know business is also the reason we’re comfortable laughing at all; what makes the jokes satirical and not just base and mean, a kind of catharsis for what we wish we didn’t know about ourselves.

Indeed, just this week the New York Times Magazine published a profile of Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, where comedian Jon Stewart makes precisely the same point about Colbert’s on-air appeal: ‘The third dimension is him [=Colbert]. That’s the thing we started to see here. He is so interesting, smart and decent. He’s a good person, and that allows his character to be criminally, negligently ignorant.’

The thing about the Kimmel piece, though, is that we (=audience) know the children aren’t acting; that they don’t know what we know. Their reactions are perfectly unironic and sincere, which means they really do think the purpose of gift giving is the receiver’s satisfaction. The children’s reactions are funny until you think about being in the room when it’s happening: take seriously 3:42’s ‘You stupid parents! I hate you, I hate you all!’ and try not to shudder. It’s a hideous selfishness made manifest but stripped of exculpatory subtext. We’re definitely laughing at children made to cry on our behalf – a dangerously PC and wet blanket-ish concession that’s also plainly true – but what’s worse, way worse, is that the crying children aren’t proxies for pro calibre comics or writers with serious cultural awareness and savvy. Kimmel isn’t telling the children what to do.

Except… am I the only person whose initial reaction to the piece was unadulterated belly laughing? Of the kind – like exactly the same kind – ordinarily stirred in me by superlative comedic writing and display? (Comedic derring-do, if that makes sense?) That’s at any rate why I watched the clip a few times straight away, and it was only after the second or third viewing that I started to feel something like That’s still pretty funny but I’m not sure I should be laughing, and then it took a further while and still more viewings to think about and parse just what was happening, and why maybe it wasn’t so funny after all; and then on still further reflection it occurred to me that what’s actually going on is that the piece isn’t funny for the reasons I’d originally thought. In other words, that the joke I was laughing at was different from the joke being told.

And this is why I think the Kimmel Christmas video montage is terrible and insidious and bad: it gives the impression of one kind of humour that’s well-known and legit, when the actual humour in play is almost unambiguously odious and foul. (Note the actual humour is o. and f. for reasons not necessarily squeamish and PC (although the phrase child baiting definitely comes to mind), because, as mentioned, the children really do think they’ve been maligned; 4:25’s not kidding when he says ‘This is the worst Christmas I’ve ever had’.) The Kimmel piece gives the whole gruesome production a sheen of regularity by situating it within some broader comedic gestalt, although it’s almost impossible to infer any sort of intent or wilfulness to the folks at JKL! without falling into a kind of infinite suppository regress: they know that we know that they know that… (As declaimed back up top, JKL! and other shows like it – possibly all television shows – thrive on the sort of hyper-meta exchange that’s just terribly abstruse and difficult to parse, a veritable Mobius strip of innuendo and nod-wink, which is why the argument here’s getting pitched at the level of effect and not cause.) It’s like we’re watching just another comedy sketch… except that we’re not, really, and so there’s a different criteria in play for whether what we’re watching is still funny; or maybe it’s that our laughter has different implications in different circumstances. (Recall the 1990s show Kids Say the Darndest Things, hosted by Bill Cosby, basically live and inadvertent child stand-up that no amount of reviewing has made me think is anything other than wholesome and funny and good.) The upshot is that Kimmel’s piece and its funniness require a different kind of thinking altogether from what’s implied by the context and maybe even the initial pass, possibly a warning sign like DO NOT ENTER OR EXIT.