FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Slapstick nation

Monday, February 02, 2015

Slapstick nation

Sam Smith - The other evening I watched, probably for the last time, the latest episode of Glee. Although the show has long had its fantastical side – such as highly professional musical performances suddenly appearing in otherwise realistic contexts – something more fundamental had changed. People weren’t talking to each other; they were shouting. Rachel was speaking far too fast and too loud. The school principal, Sue Sylvester, had transformed herself from amusingly mean cynic into a ludicrous imitation of herself. And one point, a review noted, “Sue traps Blaine and Kurt in an ersatz elevator before the Warblers perform and, via a mechanized robot, tells them that they must passionately kiss if they want to leave—which they do, after spending over a day in confinement.” Even if you saw it, it made no sense.

In short, Glee had become a slapstick version of itself, an example of a dominant style that is not limited to television series but is leaving its mark on our politics and culture. Beyond the slapstick humor and poor plot of shows like Backstrom, for example, we also find ourselves being loudly lectured by Steven Kornacki, Rachel Maddow and the Fox crew as though we were students of Sue Sylvester.

Move over to politics and we find slapstick candidates like Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz, who seem dreamed up by some second rate script writer.

Almost every public space we peer into we find the loud, the dumb, the exaggerated, the boisterous and the super simplistic taking unprecedented dominance. Sometimes, we can’t even hear music anymore without it being overwhelmed by theatrical background, including fireworks and dancing fish. Whether it is a TV show, State of the Union address, snow storm in New York or half time at the Super Bowl we are surrounded by media propelled hyperbole while things that really matter – such as our declining democracy, environment and economy – proceed with little attention.

Perhaps it helps to explain why we can’t get out of Mid East conflicts and are on the cusp of another Cold War. Exaggeration is the language of the day and bombast the favored lifestyle. Even deflated footballs have become inflated matters of concern.

The original slapstick was a device described by one dictionary as “consisting of two paddles hinged together; used by an actor to make a loud noise without inflicting injury when striking someone.”

In other words, slapstick creates the sound of action while not engaging in  any real version of it. Which is pretty much the story of America today; an excess of noise and drama and a paucity of productive action.