The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, June 2, 2012
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Two thoughts for tonight, neither seem very substantial at first glance. I composed these thoughts on the first hot day of the summer season here in NJ, and my mind was not running on all 8 cylinders at the time. But let’s have a look, nonetheless . . .

I was listening to the radio the other day and had it tuned to a classic rock station. That was just for a few minutes while my main station, WDHA, was going thru its 12 minute cycle of uninterrupted commercials. WDHA fashions itself as a new rock station, but it still plays plenty of Zeppelin and Van Halen, with Kiss and Dio thrown in the stew. That’s what the DHA people now think that rock really was in the old days. Rock revisionism, you could say.

Anyway, after zooming over to a station that takes a broader view of what ‘rock n roll’ once was, I heard a tune that hasn’t been on the airwaves in the New York metro area in a long time: Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017”, better known as “Seen The Lights Go Out on Broadway”. The story line of this song has to do with an evil governmental force that destroys Manhattan, along with Brooklyn and the Bronx (they said that Queens could stay, according to the lyrics; and Staten Island wasn’t even mentioned by Mr. Joel).

This was the first time I’d heard that song since 9-11-01. Even though Mr. Joel was not thinking about Islamist terrorism back in 1976 when he wrote “Miami / Seen The Lights”, the song could obviously stir painful emotions amongst the families and friends of the 2,750 people killed at the World Trade Center site. But more than a decade has passed and nothing so terrible has happened in New York since then (knock on wood). Hopefully, playing this song once more is a sign of healing and normalcy, at least on the social level; the emotional wounds that family and friends suffer will never completely fade.

Mr. Joel was probably thinking more of the US government when he wrote “Seen The Lights”, which in 1975 had decided against giving financial aid to New York City. New York was then having its own sovereign debt crisis, not entirely unlike what is going on today in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc. You could say that Germany is now playing the role that the Ford Administration played with New York back in the 70’s. (Recall the famous headline from the Oct. 30, 1975 edition of the New York Daily News: “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.) Wonder if Mr. Joel is pondering a new version of his song, e.g. “They Killed the Lights At The Agora”?

Next topic, mostly unconnected with Billy Joel, or Islamic terrorism or the financial crisis: I read an interesting article in the May, 2012 Atlantic Magazine about a comic who calls himself Louis C.K. Although I stay up with rock music, I’ve mostly lost my interest in modern comedy. I used to like George Carlin, but lost my interest when Andrew Dice Clay raised (or lowered) the standards of comic obscenity and sexual depravity amidst the ‘stylists of verbal humor’. Carlin certainly could get dirty, and generations of Borsch Belt “blue men” fought for attention with bawdy jokes and explicit anatomical references. Yes, there is the occasional “clean guy” like Seinfeld, but for the most part, the jokes were all sounding alike to me; nobody was really saying anything in their monologues.

Should a comedian say “say something significant” in her or his work, something of social consequence? Or is it better to “just laugh, don’t think”? Well, James Parker (author of the Atlantic article) has picked Louis C.K. out for attention just because he IS saying something. Or seems to be, anyway. Louis has kept up in the obscenity arms race (masturbation seems to be his specialty, according to Mr. Parker); but his monologues and television appearances seem to broach deeper questions regarding human relationships and the meaning of life.

I can’t really comment on that; I had never heard of Louis C.K. prior to reading this article, and I don’t plan to wade through all of his gross-out performances waiting for a ray of enlightenment to appear. But Mr. Parker’s article asks an interesting question, one worth pondering: are the filthy comedians putting themselves out of business by tearing down all the taboos and de-sensitizing everyone, such that there could be no more guilty snickers about forbidden subjects?

Here are a few well written lines from Mr. Parker about that: “But how long can we continue to be offended? Won’t we soon be numb . . . This is—if you’ll pardon the glibness of the formulation—the tragedy of comedy . . . In a world desacralized from top to bottom, there’s no profanity, no obscenity—no material, for God’s sake.” Are the filthy com medians burning themselves out?

Mr. Parker concludes that “we’re not there yet.” Why not? Parker doesn’t analyze that, and I probably shouldn’t either (although he does give an unintended hint by mentioning “God”). Nonetheless, I will guess that there are two factors that will keep jokes and stories about sexual excess and indignity from growing old. Both have to do with immaturity. Due to hormone levels in adolescent brains, plus lack of effective social guidance and disregard for ancient sources of wisdom in modern society, humans will always have dirty minds. Sex will remain an obsession, and such obsession is not easily burned out in most people, despite the various processes of maturity and wisdom accumulation. Our modern world is not known for fostering the latter two forces.

A second factor that will save the dirty joke is religious immaturity, which seems to be going strong in both our modern post-industrial society and in the hinterlands beyond its reach. There yet exists a strong reactionary response to “western decadence”, both from within and from without. Ironically, a prime example of fanatic religious over-reaction to our own “wisdom immaturity” was mentioned above, i.e. the 9-11 terror attack. Billy Joel couldn’t be heard on the New York airwaves for a decade because some minority factions in far-off lands thought that the old taboos and spiritual totems should be defended, with blood.

Louis C.K. might have an interesting idea; our country can’t do away with its pit of sexual immaturity, so why not try to find a ladder from within it; find an absurdist plot line that unexpectedly seeks the truest human inspirations, those that have been twisted and perverted in the fanatic defense of taboos and “Angry Daddy” gods more than any filthy comedian has done? What became of the wisdom of those like Aristotle who once taught in that now-bankrupt Agora, espousing the virtues of “the golden mean”?

I’m not going to watch Louis’s show, but I do wish him luck! (Assuming that Mr. Parker wasn’t taken in by some meta-joke on LCK’s part.)

PS — As to the May issue of The Atlantic: the editors were really digging for enlightenment amidst the landfill sites; in addition to the Louis C.K. article, another article focused on an intellectual video game producer who is trying to create artful games, games that communicate “a deeply authentic vision of the meaning of human existence”. OK, the article is about Jon Blow and his Braid and Witness games.

And a footnote about Billy Joel: ironically, his Miami 2017 lyrics seem to have foreshadowed the situation in Mexico today much more accurately than anything regarding New York. I.e., the line “before the Mafia took over Mexico”. Just substitute “drug cartels” . . . which is pretty much what the Mafia was. The new incarnations south of the border truly do seem to be taking over that poor nation.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:01 am      

  1. Jim, First of all, I should say that much of what you say in this comment on life today is lost on me. All the references to NYC in particular, which constitute most of this comment, are not anything that catch my attention-¬my being from the Midwest and never having really paid much attention to the NYC area and/or the East, that is, until I met some individuals who lived out there. But even then, it was the individuals who interested me, not the area in which they lived. Well, that is by way of explanation for what lacks in the following.

    The radio stations you mention are lost on me as I have no clue as to what they might be/do (except for your explanations) and who might be involved in the stations.

    I can see that the reference to the “lights going out” by Billy Joel would bring a pang to anybody’s heart who tho’t that it referred to NYC. After all, what happened in NYC is burned into the minds and hearts of anyone (at least any American) who was alive at the time. Yes, I can see that playing that song might be a sign that NYC is “coming back” in a sense. Perhaps the building of the new Freedom Tower (Is that what they are calling it? See what I mean, I know something is being built to replace the buildings destroyed; but I’m not sure of its name.) helps along that sense that NYC may recover from the wound it suffered. (A lot of people would argue this was a national grief, but I’m not doing to address that issue; I’ll leave it with NYC.)

    As to comedy nowadays, I completely agree with you. As to Louis C K: The only thing I know about him is that recently I heard or read that he chose “C K” as a last name for use in his work because his ethnic origins are from Eastern Europe and the spelling and pronunciation of his surname is “close” to something like “CK”. What that means, I have no clue.

    As to your comments on today’s comedy being mostly composed of bad dirty jokes, I completely agree-¬100%! Notice I totally and completely agree with you here.

    First of all (and somewhat tangentially), I am so VERY tired of the canned laugh tracks on programs that are inherently funny in themselves; the laugh track, to my way of thinking, takes something away from the really good funny programs. (Here I personally prefer “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family”.)

    I used to enjoy late night programs, but I have noticed that they seem to have become one long dirty joke; and I ask myself, what’s the point? I should also say that I also thoroughly enjoyed George Carlin; but (and perhaps I would like to increase somewhat my agreement with you here) when it comes to comedians, specifically Andrew Dice Clay, I can’t abide his lightly hidden (and often not so lightly hidden) misogyny. To my mind, he might just as well say, “I hate all women” and let it go at that. There like is something good about the man, but he has not shown it to me yet.

    As to Louis C K: I cannot comment as I know nothing of the man, have never heard him in any respect. All I’ve heard is what I wrote above about why he chose his name.

    I do find myself pondering some of the same comments you have about just why comedians have taken on the “dirty joke” approach to comedy with such gusto. Your questions are good: Is it simply de-sacralization of words? Is it the old “that’s what the public wants”? If that’s what the public “wants”, then I find myself asking, why? You may be right: Perhaps it’s just that the demographic that most comedians appeal to is the immature one at this particular time.

    Actually, my objection to the whole “dirty joke” thing is not so much the fact of the “dirty joke” itself but the fact that for the most part the “dirty jokes” that are being said are NOT funny. A good “dirty joke” will make me laugh just as much as a good “non-dirty joke”; the “dirty jokes” that proliferate today are seldom really funny.

    And here I can’t help myself: I simply must add a tangential note because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. (And then too, perhaps somehow the following will be related in some unknown way to your whole thesis in this blog.) There is so much talk about children and autism, various levels of autism, ADD, ADHD these days. People, scientists in particular, are wondering why has there been such a sudden abundance of these problems among children recently.

    It seems to me that all one has to do is turn on a TV, computer, and presumably any other technological item in use today by a lot of people; e.g., smart phones, Ipads, etc. Right in front of one’s eyes (when one turns one of these on) one finds the reason (at least as I see it) for the profusion of these attention (deficit?) problems: And that reason is the multiplicity of ads, attention-getting “this’s and that’s” on every single screen (or so it seems) that one views.

    One wonders: Exactly where should I put my attention first? This, that, the other thing—¬all are soooo interesting, I have to give my attention to everything. OR do I give my attention to none of it?

    So, it seems to me that right there is a good reason for the prevalence of attention issues in young individuals, those who have not yet learned to fully focus their attention. Everything seems to be given the exact same quality of importance; everything and everyone wants your FULL attention. Does one block out everything but what one is interested in, or does one pay attention to everything because everything seems so important? Multi-tasking has taken a turn for the worse.

    And then too, (and I know this seems a total diversion from the topic) it seems to me that it takes longer in this information age for individuals to mature. Nowadays a “twenty-something” first begins to think in terms of accepting any kind of responsibility only when he/she approaches the end of the twenties—¬and then it’s, “oh my god, I’m turning 30; I’ve got to start to assume responsibility”.

    Now I say, put the 2 together: The massive inundation on the attention of any individual and the growing length of time it seems to take individuals to mature. (Or maybe it’s the massive inundation on the attention span that causes the immaturity?) Anyway, when addressing the issue of comedy, I find myself wondering if perhaps these two are the reason for the proliferation of the “dirty joke” syndrome in comedy.

    The demographic most TV programs, most movies, most comedians appeal to is the group that seems to be the least mature. Couple that lack of maturity with a need to compete with the attention of any individual who may be in your demographic group and you have the proliferation of massive amounts of the double entendre (to say the least) if not the plain old really dirty joke. I don’t know: Could that be a reason for the state comedy is in these days? MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 2, 2012 @ 2:50 pm

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