Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Return of the Attack of the Creeping Surrealism

Last week I brought up a phenomenon which just about everyone has become aware of at one point or another, and which Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach termed "Creeping Surrealism." It's the strange and overwhelming feeling that nothing is real anymore -- that information manipulation has become so virtuoso as to render the artificial completely indistinguishable from the genuine.

An inevitable by-product of this is that even if Americans can tell the real from the fake, they no longer think the distinction matters and therefore don't even bother to try to anymore.

One of my favorite examples he cites is the curious case of Pepperidge Farms "Homestyle" Cookies, which are literally designed to look as if they've been lovingly spooned onto a cookie sheet one by one, no doubt by Grandma's frail, caring hand; the engineered imprefections doubtless proof of this fact. Achenbach posits that we all fully understand the reality -- that the Pepperidge Farms company has created a mold which cranks out cookies meant to look as if they weren't created by a mold -- but choose to ignore it.

We just accept the fact that we're being royally bullshitted.

A second example he offers is the odd and somewhat unnerving predeliction many in this country have toward trusting the people on television, simply because they're on television. Achenbach reminds us that long before reality TV created a vast expanse of gray area between honesty and nonsense, a significant portion of the American population saw nothing unusual in writing letters to Robert Young -- TV's Marcus Welby M.D. -- requesting medical advice. Only the most delusional among them actually believed that Young was, in fact, the wise and kindly doctor he portrayed on TV; the rest simply assumed that anyone who played the part so well had to be familiar with the subject -- which is frightening in and of itself, particularly when that subject is medicine.

I've seen dozens of examples of this phenomenon throughout my career: For every one television news anchor who truly understood the material that was going into his or her head and subsequently coming out of his or her mouth -- or took part in the assembly of that material, for that matter -- there were five who didn't have a goddamned clue what was going on in the world, or in their own newsroom, that wasn't placed in their teleprompter by a 22-year-old, six-dollar-an-hour writer. Yet, when the queries and suggestions from the audience came, they came addressed to the face on the screen rather than the people who were actually responsible for the gathering and dissemination of the information in question.

No matter how cynical we believe we've become throughout the years, to this day millions of us still trust the talking head on the mysterious glowing box in the living room.

The difference these days however, is that the recipients of all of that misplaced trust have finally learned to fully exploit and capitalize on the public's lack of discrimination when it comes to on-screen persona versus off-screen reality -- and they're now doing it in profoundly inventive ways. To put it another way, they're taking the advice that Guns N' Roses offered fifteen years ago: Use Your Illusion.

Enter Greg Behrendt.

For much of the early 90s, Behrendt made the rounds as a somewhat substandard comic, basing a good portion of his stand-up material on the supposed inherent irony in being a "Rock n' Roll Guy" (spiked hair, earrings, tattoos, affinity for wallet-chains with low-slung jeans), while at the same time being a "Metrosexual-type Guy" (hair wax, sterling silver earrings, skin cleanser, affinity for wallet-chains with low-slung Diesel jeans). Despite the fact that in reality these two extremes are nothing more than opposite ends of the same spectrum of vacuity, Behrendt's routine eventually caught the eye of HBO, which put him on televison -- and that's where things really took off. He landed a somewhat surprising new gig, which simultaneously made him the poster-child for Creeping Surrealism.

Behrendt was hired as a "consultant" on Sex & The City. He was brought on board to correct the writing staff of women and gay men whenever they were about to make one of the show's straight male characters do something that a real straight man would never do -- such as get anywhere near a woman who essentially looks like the four-legged half of a Tijuana donkey show, one would imagine. The only real requirements in the job description were that Behrendt be heterosexual and be at least as funny as the writers themselves, which judging by their output was about as funny as prison rape.

But here's the thing: Behrendt's stint on Sex & The City was by no means the end of his career -- far from it in fact. What he did next was parlay the "experience" he gained on the show into a best-selling book on -- in Creepingly Surreal fashion -- relationships.

Perhaps you've heard of it; it was called He's Just Not That Into You.

To recap: A relatively unfunny stand-up comedian took a gig on a show about women who sleep with the Manhattan phone book but can't make any of their relationships work, and used it to write a self-help book for the kind of vapid women who watch the show regularly and can't make any of their relationships work.

Now comes the latest twist: Behrendt has used the success of that book and his follow-up, the Oprah-ready monikered It's Called a Break-Up Because it's Broken, to land himself his own talk show, which debuts this week. What does the show focus on? If you guessed relationships, you win yourself some hair wax. In the commercial for the syndicated show, which debuts this week on various channels around the country, Behrendt walks purposefully while saying -- without so much as a hint of a knowing smile or a tip of the hat to irony -- that he's going to help people get more out of their "relationships, all kinds of relationships."

And needless to say, no one is more qualified to take on this seemingly gargantuan task than a guy who consulted for a show about casual sex and who once briefly dated Janeane Garofalo before she had her sense of humor surgically removed and began a new career as a pissed-off quasi-lesbian.

The Behrendt Love Gravy Train isn't the only one to have departed from the Sex & The City station. Awhile back, Kim Cattrall either became the toast of the method-acting community by forgetting completely where her character ended and where she began, or simply hoped to exploit the public's alleged fascination with her on-screen reputation by writing two books on -- can you see it coming? (pun completely intended) -- female sexuality. Her advertising campaign may as well have been a new twist on a well-known catchphrase: "I'm not a whore, but I play one on TV." Once again the idea seemed to be that no one is in a better position to lecture the American public on a given subject than someone who's portrayed an expert on that subject on television.

There's a part of me that would love to chalk all of this narcissistic presumptuousness up to Hollywood in general and its well-worn cadre of yes-men; it's probably the only place in the world where a rambling, coke-fueled idea tossed out at four in the morning is met not with a healthy level of friendly skepticism, but rather with a chorus of giddy approval and six business cards.

Regardless of who's behind the selling of this crap though, one thing is for certain -- we're still happily buying it.

And that's as Creepily Surreal as it gets.


Diana said...

it becomes an infinite loop; who even bothers checking to see if it's "real"--life seems to be all about marketing these days.

yellojkt said...

I saw a commercial for Behrendt's talk show and wondered what sort of slacker Dr Phil he was to deserve an hour a daytime tv.

Thanks for for pointing out the man behind the curtain. I will continue to ignore his existence.

Chez said...

Oh and thank you for making me laugh iced tea out of my nose.

Stevie said...

So Buffy doesn't really know about vampires??

Extra points for getting the phrase "narcissistic presumptuousness" in there, I've been gagging to use it for years;-)

Don't be too harsh on 4am coke fuelled ideas, they've kept the wolf from the door on occassion.

TBG said...

I thought I was the only one who has always thought Sarah Jessica Parker was unattractive.... er, ugly.

Love your insights. Good stuff.

Tim said...

"Regardless of who's behind the selling of this crap though, one thing is for certain -- we're still happily buying it.

And that's as Creepily Surreal as it gets."

Yep. PT Barnum had a famous saying about it: There's a sucker born every minute.

Another way to look at it is that hype has a certain value.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Stevie, I saw Sarah Michelle Gellar and some blond guy dusting a few vamps in West Hollywood the other week. Incredible, but true.

Boko999 said...

No TBG, you're not the only one who thinks Sarah Jessica Parker is homely.
Are you sure you're married?

Anonymous said...

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

The 'Feelies' erotic sensual touch cinemas where real objects are artificially recreated down to the last detail to give the sensation of actually doing it!

without any of the unwanted drawbacks of actually having to live a life, that is. Brilliant novel, but it appears to be coming true... there seems to be nothing wrong with replacing the real with the simulated for little or no reason any more, it's just about sense data. Life? Do I want it? Can I download it for free?