Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life”
That’s Life, 1966
Receiving spam is nothing notable anymore. Every so often something crawls past Yahoo’s proprietary filers, but since I only use this Yahoo account for spam anyway, it’s never a problem. But recently I received the following in my inbox:
…and that’s just upsetting. Where’s the craftsmanship? The incentive? The heart-rending tale of woe intended to get me out to Western Union as quickly as possible?
There’s an art to this kind of spam, and it’s an art that “Conniel” is disrespecting entirely by sending out something so effortless.
Set aside the poor grammar (as there’s really no getting around that) and you have a woman(?) telling me she’s sick, and asking me to take her funds so that I can give them to charity. Then she demands — doesn’t even implore! — that I email her back. The subject line is promising, but nowhere does Conniel actually invite me to save any souls so I’m pretty disappointed. Sing us a song…you’re the spammer man.
This is the equivalent of a real-life panhandler saying, “Give me three dollars.” There’s a big difference between that approach and, “Excuse me, could you spare any change?” They both want three dollars, but one is far more likely to get it from me than the other.
And you know how panhandlers will often times call out, “God bless you, sir,” when you pass by, ignoring their request totally? That kills me. That kills me because it preys on the same part of me that guilt-farming spam emails are meant to prey upon.
It’s also suggestive of a story, an unseen personal history for the panhandler. Yes, we know he needs money. But now we also know that he’s selfless enough to wish God’s blessings upon you after you turn away from his needs. It sketches in just enough humanity to make it seem legitimate, like a request above and separate from the money he needs to survive.
It’s misleading, of course — at least, it’s misleading in the sense that it’s a total lie — but there’s also some effort behind it. Details are arranged and the requirements for cooperation are well explained. This does more than pencil in some human tragedy…it writes an encyclopedia entry about it and implores you to learn more.
In short, they’re working for the money. They’re not saying, “Give me three dollars.” They’re constructing an elaborate world of weddings, plane crashes and corporate expansions. None of these details are necessary. Mr. Yacouba Maru could have easy said “yo I’m sick email me, something about charity” and been done with it.
But instead he took time. He thought this through. His story may not be worthy of my money, but it sure as hell is worthy of my time.
Is that too much to ask from my spam? An engaging customer service experience?
It still needs work, but that’s a lot better. I have a better idea of what she intends to do, if no better idea of what she expects from me. I understand the nature of her tragedy (I’m “sick” too, lady…I have a box of tissues on my desk and by fuck do I ever use them). I also like the passive suggestion that she can’t donate the money herself because she’s already donating her body…as though if she hadn’t promised her body to somebody else already she could use it to deliver the money after death. It’s sweetly innocent. Conniel might be too young to understand why that wouldn’t work…or perhaps she’s dazed by the ravages of her esophageal cancer…which she was kind enough to link as a keyword to a page on a medical website that helpfully explains what it is. I guess if you can’t be asked to spin a yarn yourself, you could just leave some breadcrumbs around the internet and hope I follow them.
Still, though, this is a huge improvement, and I look forward to seeing more from Conniel in the future. I think with some practice and a lot of guidance, she can grow to become a really effective spammer, and I wish her all the best. Sh-So back, Conniel, so I know you got this.
I picked up Kid Icarus: Uprising this Friday, its day of release. I’ve pre-ordered games before so there’s nothing special about my immediate purchase, but I do think it’s worth pointing out just how promising the game looked. For starters, it’s the first entry in a long-dead — but classic — franchise in twenty years or so. That’s enough to at least get me interested. Then the advertising materials started to surface, followed eventually by reviews, and everything seemed…well, everything seemed pretty perfect. It looked like a strong title and a safe bet, so I pre-ordered it…and I love it. It’s great. It exceeded more or less every expectation I had, and my expectations were pretty high.
But there’s one issue I do have with the game. Not a problem, but an issue.
See, the game is self-aware. And while this is not an issue exclusive to Kid Icarus: Uprising, the fact that even tried and true Nintendo franchises are becoming self-aware is really making me think that this self-awareness thing has gone too far.
By self-aware, I mean that the characters know they are in a video game. They keep referring to not having been around for twenty-odd years, they crack jokes about how — in previous installments — the gorgeous environments and characters we see now were much more pixilated, and they josh around regarding video gaming tropes, commenting ironically on characters who have titles like “Dark Lord” and writing off Pitt’s flight limitations as being a result of “poor fuel efficiency.”
Whether you find these jokes funny or not is beside the point. I haven’t found many of them funny, but that’s okay. Unlike Skyward Sword, you don’t have to stop and sit quietly while a group of moronic NPCs crack wise around you; this all happens in the background, as you play, and it’s easy to tune out if you’re not interested. Also unlike Skyward Sword the tutorial is skippable and doesn’t eat up the first six fucking hours of the God damned game but okay, okay, that’s a rant for another time, so back to the issue at hand.
My issue is that we, as a culture, have gotten to the point that this sort of ironic self-awareness, this postmodern acknowledgment of a product’s own shortcomings, this sidelong smirking at the audience to make us feel like we’re all part of one big in-joke, is kind of destroying entertainment.
It’s everywhere. My girlfriend and I discussed this recently when I was describing some Adult Swim show to her. (The fact that I can’t remember which one says something in itself.) I was talking about how it’s sort of an ironic undercutting of some genre or other, and she asked, “Aren’t they all like that?” And she’s right, more or less. An enormous portion of Adult Swim’s original programs are ironic undercuttings of established genres, which tap into our expectations and then — humorously — stopping short of their fulfillment. I’m happy enough, though, that Adult Swim does that. I’m not upset that so much of their original material trods the same ground. (Or, at least, approaches an audience with the same intent.) We need an Adult Swim that we can turn to, somewhere. What I’m upset about is that this self-aware game of pulling the audience’s expectations apart like taffy is infiltrating the mainstream. That’s destructive.
It’s destructive because it consumes itself. In order for expectations to be undercut, we need to have expectations. In order for us to have expectations, there need to be certain reliable tropes and facets of genre and type. Without that, the ironic commenting can’t exist. Or, at least, it can’t have any impact. When everything’s ironic, can there be any more irony? We need sincerity, too. We can’t have every piece of entertainment commenting humorously about its limitations. We can’t have otherwise straight dramatic films mentioning that their villains can’t shoot straight, or saying things like “Of course we’ll be okay; we’re the main characters.” We can’t have every commercial joking about how it wants to sell us something. And we can’t have video games making fun of what makes them video games.
At least, we can’t have that stuff all the time. And I honestly don’t think I’ve seen much, lately, whether comic or dramatic, that didn’t feel obligated to toss some broad wink at the audience. It’s not funny anymore. It’s not interesting anymore. Or, at least, you aren’t doing anything interesting with it. We don’t want you to be part of our in-joke…that defeats the purpose of it being an in-joke. When we watch a terrible movie and we laugh at it, that bonds us as an audience. When we watch a terrible movie and the movie laughs at itself for being terrible, it’s over. There is no bond…it’s just out of place and annoying, like a seventh grade teacher quoting Beavis and Butt-Head to try to find common ground with his students. It doesn’t bridge any gaps…if anything, it just encourages us to push things further away.
I like you, Kid Icarus: Uprising. I think you’re a great game. You’re a lot of fun, you look beautiful, and you’re already enticing me to replay earlier levels with a more difficult setting. You’re everything a game needs to be. You don’t need to be my ironic, smirking friend. That’s not what I want from you. That’s not the kind of bond I’d hoped we’d achieve.
You don’t need to tell me how silly and contrived things are about the story you’re telling. Because you know what, Kid Icarus: Uprising? If you really feel your story is contrived, then maybe you should have told a different one. Hanging a lampshade on these shortcomings is a way of humorously drawing attention to them, but it’s not an excuse. If I have some problem with the story, I get to laugh at it. That’s my right as an audience member. If you have a problem with the story, you need to fix it. It’s the only respectable thing to do.
I know your story is about an angel fighting mythical Greek monsters. I know that. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s absurd. But it’s a video game. By commenting on yourself ironically, you’re not endearing yourself to me; you’re only robbing me of the opportunity to enjoy the story in my own way. You may not guide the gameplay as much as Skyward Sword, but you sure are leading my interpretation by the neck.
Let us enjoy whatever story it is you have to offer. Video game, television show, film, novel, commercial, song…anything. Write a few sincere pieces. Reinforce some genre conventions. Stop tearing away at what’s established; that is not constructive. Build upon it. Learn from it. Grow stronger.
Because until you start doing that again, there won’t be anything sincere left to comment upon. The ironic outlook is self-defeating the moment it becomes universal. In fact, at this rate, it won’t be long before a genuinely sincere work of art would look like an ironic undercutting, simply because it adheres to conventions without wanting to make us laugh at them.
And that, my friends, is irony.
But my coworker assured me that that hadn’t happened. That South Park was just as good as it ever was, or probably even better. So I tuned in for the first time after a long absence, and watched each new episode of season eight as it premiered. And though the kids were all the same age and the adults were no wiser, South Park as a show revealed to me just how much it managed to grow up.
The self-imposed tight turnaround on South Park episodes sounds like a living nightmare when you hear creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about it in interviews, and often that fatigue shows in their responses to the interviewers’ questions. They sound careless and dismissive. They don’t seem particularly invested or enthusiastic. But it works wonders in terms of keeping the show fresh — note I’m saying nothing about topicality — and I think that’s the reason it glides so smoothly along to this day, periodically achieving greatness sixteen seasons on.
Why do I think this brutal tightness of schedule might be a facilitator of quality? Well, because of “AWESOM-O.” And because of many, many other things that this episode leads me to think about.
In the week leading up to the premiere of “AWESOM-O,” Comedy Central ran promos promising the return of Lemmiwinks. Lemmiwinks was the gerbil from the deservedly popular “The Death Camp of Tolerance” episode from two seasons prior, and while I could understand why they’d think fans would appreciate a callback to that episode, I wasn’t quite sure why I was supposed to be getting excited about another episode centering around the sexual insertion of rodents. But then the night came, and there was no Lemmiwinks. Instead we got a title card, explaining that due to the recent tragedy in Hawaii, that episode would not be aired, and we would get something else instead. That something else was “AWESOM-O.”
“AWESOM-O” is easily one of my favorite episodes of South Park, and I could fill another post by simply listing the reasons for that. It’s also, apparently, the episode with the fastest turnaround time in the show’s history: three days from conception to air. That means that when the Lemmiwinks episode vanished, they didn’t just air a rerun, or slap up something else that was ready to go. They built something from the ground up, a ramshackle creation of whatever they could get their hands on quickly, much in the same way Cartman must have constructed his robot costume. There was no tragedy in Hawaii. They just made it most of the way through the process of producing an episode that it turned out they didn’t believe in. And rather than just finishing it and shipping it off to air and be forgotten, they stopped. They had the courage to throw it away, and to begin again. With a deadline looming and nothing to show for the work they’d already invested, it was up to them not only to replace an episode in the lineup, but qualitatively justify the fact that they had thrown a different one away.
That’s something that few shows have the luxury of doing, and it’s why South Park is able to continue to feel fresh: in a very literal way, it always is.
A show like The Simpsons — which was beginning to show its age not long after South Park shuffled into view, and was well past its prime by the time South Park gave us “AWESOM-O” — has a turnaround time of around six months per episode. That means that by the time all the pieces are put together, it’s too late to do much corrective work. Even if the entire creative staff is unsatisfied with the way the pieces fit, little more than polish can be applied. The episode, as it is, six months after the final script was written and recorded, is airing whether you like it or not. South Park, fortunately, never had anywhere near that turnaround. Parker and Stone started off with Comedy Central working at a frantic pace and never stopping to catch their breath, and that’s the way it remains today. It means the two of them don’t get much sleep and often feel as though their creation is eating them alive, but it also means that if they produce an episode that they don’t like, they can destroy it and start fresh. They are in the habit of doing so, they have a production style that was built to sustain such changes in trajectory, and there isn’t half a year and several million dollars invested. Ironically, the tighter time frame and smaller budget allow the South Park crew to do more than shows with more bountiful resources.
As a last-minute substitute, “AWESOM-O” makes perfect sense. The germ of the idea (Cartman dresses like a robot to play a prank on Butters) is simple. It doesn’t require much thought to flesh it out; it’s an episode where kids behave like kids, making it a good fit for the characters, and also an easy night in the writers’ room. There’s no need for topical jokes or complicated inversions of established tropes; this is a chance for two of the show’s most popular characters — and, arguably, the show’s single most fruitful dynamic — to take center stage and entertain us.
It’s also, however, a brilliant little character piece, offering both Cartman and Butters the chance to display emotions they don’t often get to tap into. It’s a small story that could have taken place entirely in Butters’s bedroom, but its themes are powerful and universal. “AWESOM-O” is a story of friendship, like Double Indemnity before it. And like Double Indemnity, it’s a story of underhanded dealings, dubious motives, and the climactic disappointment of the piece’s only innocent man.
Cartman decides — off camera, for reasons we never hear — to play a prank on Butters, and it’s his most cutting and personal one yet: by pretending to be a robot, he’s going to let Butters believe that he has a friend for life, and then take that friendship away from him.
For comparison’s sake, two of Cartman’s previous pranks on Butters are recounted in this episode: he once locked him in a bomb shelter for several days, and he imitated Butters on the phone so that his father would come home and beat him. Either of those pranks sounds significantly crueler than the helpful robot persona Cartman adopts here, but a step back reveals that that’s not the case; either of the other two pranks would have worked just as well on any of the other children. There’s nothing about either of them that target Butters as an individual…he’s simply a victim, and might as well be anonymous. Here, however, Cartman is preying on something he knows Butters — and only Butters — will respond to in the necessary tragic way: a friend. For any other child, friends come and go. Betrayal is unfortunate, but not uncommon. In order for someone to be betrayed, however, there must be a relationship to betray, and Cartman knows that Butters has never had that. He will befriend the boy for the sole purpose of breaking his heart. It’s the most hurtful thing Cartman can do to Butters, and so of course he can’t resist.
Of course Cartman’s plot falls apart the moment he finds out Butters has blackmail material on him: a videotape of him dressed as Britney Spears and dancing with a cardboard cutout of Justin Timberlake. Butters doesn’t intend to blackmail him, and in fact doesn’t even remember where the videotape is, but once Cartman learns of it existence he’s unable to reveal himself, and is therefore unable to break Butters’s heart. He is, instead, forced to become and remain the actual friend that he was going to make Butters look foolish for believing in.
You’ll notice that there’s nothing about Stan, Kyle or Kenny in the above discussion, and that’s because they’re relegated to cameos here. They show up to wonder why Cartman is still keeping his robot ruse going, but, technically, that scene didn’t even need to be there. They serve no purpose as characters, and the script doesn’t try to force them in where they don’t belong.
I noticed this when I watched it new, way back in 2004, and it’s just a broader reflection of why the tight schedule works so well for this show: with no time to lose, Parker and Stone are used to throwing away ideas that don’t work, and shifting directions at a moment’s notice. It’s an approach borne of utility, but in a larger sense it works in the show’s favor, as it’s conditioned them not to hold fast to what no longer interests them for the sake of maintaining status quo.
If you think I’m going to bring up The Simpsons again as a point of comparison, you’re right. After all, there’s no better reference point for either of the two shows than each other, and whereas The Simpsons has been recycling plots and echoing itself in gradually deteriorating whispers for the sake of remaining familiar to whatever small audience still chooses to follow it, South Park has been ditching characters and ideas since season two, scrambling up core dynamics and introducing new regular characters in order to explore avenues that they previously couldn’t reach without stretching characters beyond their scope of believability.
Compared to the early seasons of South Park, “AWESOM-O” seems like an almost completely different show. It looks and sounds the same, but so many staple features have been abandoned in the meantime. Chef doesn’t sing an inappropriate song, Kenny doesn’t die, Kyle doesn’t learn something today, Stan has been ousted as the central figure by a previously unnamed background character we now know as Butters, the town doesn’t riot, and no grand observations are made about politics, religion or society. Officer Barbrady and the Mayor don’t exist anymore, Mr. Garrison no longer speaks through Mr. Hat, Ike doesn’t show up for a round of Kick the Baby and Randy Marsh has gone from “Stan’s dad” to breakout character. Things have changed, and the show let them change.
This is a simple story of a boy and his robot friend, and it’s a thousand miles removed from anything the show laid the groundwork for in its early years. The reason? That groundwork proved limiting and was growing tiresome, and so the creators chose to evolve rather than to stagnate. It was a wise decision. After all, despite what any network executives might think, it’s not the familiarity that keeps people tuning in…it’s the quality. Lose familiar elements and an audience might stick around, but lose the quality and you’re finished for good.
The promotion of Butters to main character status is probably one of the most fruitful changes the show ever made. It was a sacrifice of familiar elements made in favor of maintaining quality, and it allowed them to write the kinds of stories that were previously off-limits. After all, Butters is a different type of child…one that was not represented within the main group. Stan was logical and well-centered, Kyle was the moralist, Cartman was the asshole, and Kenny was…well, Kenny was several things, but outside of a few grand exceptions (like his Mysterion arc) he was simply crude. They were all distinct characters, as you can see, but none of them were at all fragile. In fact, that’s what won over audiences — and infuriated parents — when the show premiered: these kids didn’t take any shit. The cursed, they fought back, and they were perfectly capable of resorting to things we never thought we’d see children do on primetime television.
Butters, however, does none of that. He is fragility incarnate. Easy to hurt, and yet always willing to get back up and let you hurt him again. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body, and he is endlessly selfless and caring. He’s neither rude nor profane (he blurts out “Oh hamburgers,” when he’s particularly upset), and he just wants everyone around him to be happy. This makes him an excellent foil for the boys in general, but especially, of course, for Cartman in particular.
Cartman doesn’t just get annoyed by Butters as the other boys do…he actively wishes to harm him. In Cartman’s world, there is no room for a Butters. It is impossible to co-exist…the fact that Butters is fragile and helpless is a clear-cut reason that he must be destroyed.
Butters, on the other hand, sees the boys — and, again, particularly Cartman — as his friends. He must; without ever having had actual friends to compare them to, he assumes that these boys who talk to him must qualify. It doesn’t matter how badly they mistreat him, or how callously they abuse him…Butters sees them as friends. Which is why “AWESOM-O” is interesting. Cartman assumes that Butters has never experienced friendship…despite the fact that he himself is often on the receiving end of Butters’s declarations of loyalty.
But he’s right. What Butters has with AWESOM-O is different, and even Butters must feel that on some level. At first, he’s just another friend. But once he listens to what Butters has to say, helps him with his chores and engages in social activities with him in public — all things his other “friends” never did — Butters knows that this is really what friendship is supposed to be, and he falls for it. Hard. Listen to the wistful way he sings the word “friend” in the song quoted above; there’s an enormous gravity hanging from that tiny word…a large investment of emotion that, previously, had nowhere to go. And when AWESOM-O asserts himself and expresses desires contrary to what Butters now expects of his friend, there’s a telling moment during which Butters scolds him, and even resorts to physical violence: a spanking. He has a friend now…and he’s not going to let him get away.
I don’t know precisely what it was about “AWESOM-O” that made me like it so much at first, and what still causes it to resonate with me today. Maybe it’s the writing-workshop approach to the script, the alchemy of pressing deadline pain into gold. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a small, human story instead of some grander, topical plot. Or maybe it’s just something simple: the small satisfaction of seeing Cartman on the losing end for a change, and watching him struggle to reverse that, as his prank backfires and he’s stuck in an endless premise with no conclusion. The plan was to give Butters a taste of friendship and then take it away, but he’s unable to progress past step one, and the joke’s on him: like or not, he really did become Butters’s friend. As the scientist observes at the end of the episode, it doesn’t matter if AWESOM-O is a robot; what matters is the very human spirit of friendship it brought to the boy who loved him. Of course the scientist believes Cartman to actually be a robot when he says that, but it rings true for the eight-year-old boy inside the cardboard suit as well: whatever Cartman’s motives, it felt sincere to Butters. And that made it real.
“AWESOM-O” might not be what you’d think of when defining a South Park plot, but it’s a perfect fit for the universe created by Parker and Stone. After all, at its best, South Park has always been about the characters rather than the situations. That’s why most viewers, when asked about their favorite episodes or highlights, will tend to point toward smaller scenes or moments or interactions than any broad celebrity caricature or townwide apocalypse. And the show is still, another eight seasons after “AWESOM-O” premiered, finding new and impressive ways to let those characters be themselves, and find their voices, and live their lives. The Simpsons, at its best, was also about its characters, but that show is no longer anywhere near as interested in letting them be themselves. What made The Simpsons so brilliant is that they started with a palette of stereotypes, and layered and explored those characters until they felt like real human beings. What unmade The Simpsons was that, at some point, they destructively stereotyped them again, and left them there.
I don’t know what the Lemmiwinks episode was supposed to be about. Perhaps I would have loved it. That doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the creators weren’t pleased with it. They took a long hard look at what they accomplished, and they made a difficult decision: to throw it away, and to try harder.
It’s an interesting coincidence to me that this episode was part of South Park‘s eighth season, as I’d say that the eighth was the last truly great season of The Simpsons. From season nine on, it was a slope that got more slippery all the time, and now, I’d argue, it’s no longer even interested in climbing back up again. South Park was poised at that precise point three days before “AWESOM-O” aired. Would they take the easy way out and just air some mediocrity, and hope that the show would fix itself in the future? Or would they keep working until they had something worthy of carrying the reputation that they’d built?
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and South Park could not travel both. It took the road less traveled by.
It chose not to follow the path to ruin and creative bankruptcy. After all…Simpsons did it.
When I was linkbuilding this past week, I came across this:
It’s sweet and all, but do me a favor: if I ever die unexpectedly and you’d like to turn my blog into a tribute to me, please remove from the sidebar whatever bikini babe weight loss ads might be undercutting the solemnity.
After all, if you have access to my blog and can therefore post those mournful goodbyes, you can also delete my Google adsense code. I won’t need the twelve cents a year anymore. Thank you in advance, from this side of the veil of tears.
Here’s a question: what does Mega Man think? When he stands there blinking, staring into the space where the now defeated robot master once stood, pelting him with projectiles, what does he think? What runs through his mind? What kind of things bubble up from beneath, into and through Mega Man’s consciousness, as he stands stock still, willfully paralyzed, unresponsive to requests and commands to move, blinking, wondering, pondering.
What sort of things might go through his mind? What memory is he fighting to suppress? What goal is he fighting for? It can’t be everlasting peace. Not anymore. He knows better. The fighting never ends, and yet he never stops fighting. He stands alone and small in an empty room, blinking.
What injury is freshest in his mind? What narrowly-avoided death trap will haunt his dreams? When will he get to go home? What sort of a life is this that he leads? An endless gauntlet of machines designed for the specific purpose of wearing him down, breaking him, demolishing him so that he can never be rebuilt.
But he survived another battle. The robot master is no more. And he stands there blinking. A robot that blinks…for what purpose does a robot blink? Is it too much to assume that he thinks at all? He speaks, and he acts, and he conquers…why could he not also think? And how would his thoughts manifest themselves? As digital coding fed repeatedly through receptors, wired circuitously so that they never quite leave him, or as something internal, something not hardwired or foreseen at his conception. Is thought an unintended consequence of designing a robot with the freedom to choose his own path forward, or was it there from the start, and the stage select screen only an illusion? After all, there might be several ways in, but only one way out.
And he stands there blinking. I tell him to move, and he does not move. I ask him to jump, and he does not reply. He stares vacantly into a room as empty as his mind might be…but then again, it might not be at all, and his lack of response could simply be the weight of the matters he is processing, pondering, considering.
What is it, Mega Man? What are you thinking about at the end of your fight? You don’t look particularly glad about your victory. Do you dread the next battle, which is always around the corner? Are you just glad to have a moment to catch your breath, to clear your mind, and to heed no man as you await the involuntary teleportation that heralds in the next fight?
Speak to me, Mega Man. You can talk…I know you can. You have a voice, and you have a mind, and right now you are so deeply inside yourself that you can’t even hear me ask you to leap around the room with joy.
What is it? Is the hero’s burden really as tragic as you make it out to be? What is it about the sight of an empty room that chokes you up in a way that no phalanx of enemy soldiers can? Have you stared, even for a moment, into the abyss? And, if you have, what is it that you learned about yourself? What broke your resolve? What robbed you of the will to continue forward?
Tell me, Mega Man. Tell us all. What presses so heavily down upon you that it renders your motionless?
What is happening in your head? I wish I knew…