Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Laugh and the World Forgives You

When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it still has a place in my heart as quite possibly my all-time favorite Spielberg movie and I look back fondly on the days when I would let it and Star Wars battle it out in my own mind for title of "Chez's Favorite Movie" -- as if that prize held some kind of overwhelming importance in the film world.

I was obviously a serious geek.

Oddly though, for such a simple movie -- one laced with fantasy and child-like awe -- it contains at least one nugget of worldly wisdom (I mean, besides, "Never believe a nerve gas derailment," and "EZ4 gives you a hell of a headache").

It comes about two-thirds of the way through the movie, as terrified citizens are attending a meeting held by the military lackeys whose job it is to calm them down. The Air Force officer who leads the conference says that he'd like nothing more than to see a UFO himself -- to which Richard Dreyfuss's frazzled and unemployed lineman, Roy Neary, responds, "You can't fool us by agreeing with us."

I bring this up, because these very words from popular culture thirty years ago are in desperate need of resurrection, and application to today's popular culture.

Last week, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips accidentally took a live wireless microphone with her into the bathroom during a broadcast of a presidential speech. Apparently, due to a "glitch" in the network's audio board, the control room was unable to turn off the mic -- which meant that viewers around the country, rather than suffering through another ridiculous round of talking-point repetition from our Idiot in Charge, were treated to a cackling dissertation on the personal politics of the Phillips family.

According to Kyra, her sister-in-law is a control freak; her brother's kind of spineless. You get the picture.

The gruesome details continued until someone interrupted this rambling monologue with the words that have crushed the careers of literally hundreds of television personalities: "Your mic is on." Kyra's career however, as it turns out, has been far from crushed by this incident. Quite the contrary in fact. Let's put it this way: there's a pretty good chance that you still have no idea who the hell I'm talking about, but I guarantee that more people know the name Kyra Phillips this week than last. She may go down in Darwinist history as the news anchor who took a mic into the bathroom, but at least she'll be remembered for something.

I could complain for hours about the belief that any publicity is good publicity, but that's been done to death.

I'm actually more interested in Phillips and CNN's reaction to the gaff, and how it's representative of the latest trend in pop culture Get-Out-of-Jail-Free cards.

As the clip made the rounds on the internet and all that unintended publicity swirled around her, Phillips accepted an invitation to address the issue on CBS. Not on CBS News however; on the Late Show with David Letterman. Not as a guest per se, but as the presenter and punchline of one of Letterman's Top Ten lists -- entitled, "Kyra Phillips's Top Ten Excuses."

It was genuinely funny; Cute Kyra was personable and sweet and seemed at the very least embarrassed by the incident.

It also served what was no doubt its primary purpose -- which was to effectively gain the upper-hand in the controversy, put it to rest quickly and summarily, and give Phillips and the network the last laugh.

But that's the problem. Yes, it was worthy of a chuckle, and certainly on live television mistakes are not only possible but likely. Still, the ability to poke fun at yourself -- although laudable at face value -- isn't a solution to a problem; it's merely a means of putting a positive spin on that problem.

There's no greater beneficiary of this kind of P.R. stunt than Ashlee Simpson -- a celebrity whom I would hope CNN wouldn't care to be mentioned in the same sentence as. Who the hell can forget Simpson's "live" performance on Saturday Night Live, where she was left dancing around like a scared baboon while her voice seemed to magically appear out of nowhere? Simpson was the immediate target of ridicule, which was confusing only because it took that long for America to begin mocking a recording artist who had no discernable talent from the very beginning.

What Simpson did though -- after the requisite, childish finger-pointing and litany of asinine excuses -- was to immediately put on a humble Burson-Marsteller-approved smile and join in the torrent of jokes being made supposedly at her expense. It didn't win over everyone, but it certainly made the best of a bad situation. It's what Keanu Reeves's character in Speed would call "shooting the hostage;" you take the liability out of the equation yourself, and automatically render your enemy powerless.

Once again though, it doesn't solve the problem.

The willingness to laugh at your faults doesn't make them any less offensive. You can make fun of yourself all you want; it won't make you less of an idiot. Unfortunately, this means of damage control seems to be the new go-to M.O. for public relations flacks and their desperate clients worldwide.

It worked for Ashlee Simpson. It will no doubt work for Kyra Phillips.

But it probably shouldn't work at all.

Roy Neary's words should ring true.


VOTAR said...

I am compelled to ask the obvious question (asked with sincerety, since I don't know how the technical stuff works in that biz). Was this, in any way, Kyra's fault? Does she have sole control of the mic in situations like that?

If turning that mic off was someone else's responsibility, she's wound up in the position of an embarassed partygoer whose drunken date has just fallen through the coffee table and thrown up on themselves in front of a hundred of her closest friends.

Just keep smiling.....

Chez said...

No, it absolutely wasn't Kyra's fault -- and by that standard, it may be fair to say that maybe laughing it off is the best way to go.

However, I'm questioning the reaction -- sanctioned by the network, and acting as the face of the network -- to what amounts to a rather serious mistake.

I don't blame Kyra for any of this shit; I'm just not sure it was dealt with in the best way.

Liz said...

Okay, I can concede the point that when you are looking at it from a network point of view, that being glib and dismissive is not the best way to deal with it. But from a social retard's (me) point of view, I'm not big on confrontation, so making a joke out of it is one way I deal with my dorkiness. So this is probably how I would have dealt with it personally, plus she's just so darn cute! But I'm willing to guess that she wasn't given the option to apologize for it, am I correct? Dance, monkey, dance!

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Celebrity has erased the concept of shame."

Pauline Kael

Stevie said...

Sadly I think it goes even further than that. Over the pond here, my experience of watching tv's "Big Brother" show is that these days, laughing at one's own mistakes and indiscretions to cover one's tracks is not just a character trait, it's a whole character type. There is a growing group out there of people who's whole idea of representing themselves to the world is "Look at me and how crap I am!"