Culture, Anarchy, College Life, and MTV
Last Sunday night I spent a half-hour watching MTV. Not my usual fare, but this was the premiere of a comedy series entitled The College Humor Show, and I was curious. The show, as it turns out, has less to do with college life than the name might imply. It is a scripted comedy series that has the feel and look of “reality” television and springs from the highly successful website CollegeHumor.com.
CollegeHumor.com was founded in 1999 by two friends, Ricky Van Veen and Josh Abramson, when they were still in their teens. The website began with films of late night fraternity pranks and “college” humor generated by participants in the site. According to Nielsen Online, the website has garnered over six million viewers. In 2008, Van Veen and Abramson sold the website to InterActiveCorp, though they remain active in the company and are guiding this new venture into television.
The College Humor Show is set in the offices of the website and features, in this first episode anyway, the workplace of a fictional rival comedy website. Hi-jinks ensue as workers pull pranks on one another, intimidate the new guy, try to outdo one another in the amenities of their offices (a ball pit out of Chuck E. Cheese is constructed in a cubicle), culminating in a beer pong tournament between the rival comedy shops. Throughout we see the fast pace and seemingly amateurish visual look of reality TV and website sketch comedy. In one such sketch the lone female staffer is “soup’d,” i.e. has her face pushed in her soup bowl during lunch; and this is repeated several times with other foods.
I watched this with dismay. Animal House, that baneful model of fraternity life from over 30 years ago is a complex narrative of characterization and social comedy compared to this. Now, I understand that my comments could sound very fussy and out-of -touch. After all, MTV or this particular show is not exactly targeting college presidents or males in the first weeks of their sixties as their key demographic. And as a guy who grew up loving Jerry Lewis films, the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and laughing at Mr. Ed, a talking horse, I probably don’t have a judgmental leg to stand on regarding high-toned comedy.
And though long a student and teacher of film and popular culture, I have missed key trends before. In 1971 after seeing a terrific performance by a young actor in the movie Panic in Needle Park, I commented that this guy was great but he will have no future because he looks too much like Dustin Hoffman. That actor, a certain Al Pacino, has done okay for himself. So maybe The College Humor Show will be this generation’s I Love Lucy or Laugh In or M*A*S*H. I doubt it, but I have been wrong before.
But what really sinks my spirit about this show is the depiction of young people here, and particularly the view of young men. These guys make the slacker stereotypes of ’90s film look like existential heroes. The men of The College Humor Show are full of furious intensity in inconsequential competition and humorless pranks, which are not only not funny to this viewer, but bring little delight to the participants. The characteristic mood and presentation is of a tired and world-weary depression even in the midst of pranks. These men seem old and tired and sad to this much older viewer. In this comedy, no one seems to be having any fun.
And the notion that work is a continuation of a college experience bounded by “fraternity” pranks, beer pong, vulgarity of language, and gross physical humor demeans college and work, and makes them both inconsequential experiences to be endured. Now, I can hear you saying, “Lighten up, dude. It’s a comedy show.” And the world does not need to be bounded always by what the 19th century critic and poet Matthew Arnold called, in his vital book Culture and Anarchy, “high seriousness.” This I acknowledge. I have written comedy and even worked as a gag writer for some time and like to think of myself as a pretty funny guy.
Still, out there somewhere guys are watching this show and are having once again a message conveyed to them that says there is no real work worth doing, having fun means being mindless and curiously humorless, boys will be boys, and a lack of responsibility, initiative, ambition, and purpose is cool.
Maybe I am too grumpy. But I would feel better if there were more alternative images of young men in our culture. I would like to see out there images of young men that call forth from them joy in their lives and their prospects, delight in what Jim Amidon called in his Chapel Talk last week “the swagger” of Wabash men, and the delight that comes with good work done well among good friends, the kind of experience at the heart of Wabash.
I continue to talk about the ways in which Wabash is distinctive in that we call out of young men their capacity for greatness, their appetite for a mature relationship with one another, their teachers, and with the larger world. I think that is true and a great marker of this great college. But what we do is maybe even less startling and seemingly less ambitious. We call young men to a mature imagination of themselves and what it means to have a good life, with appropriate measures of Arnoldian high seriousness but also with a generous quantity of good laughter, delight in one another, kind humor, and sharp-eyed joy in life. The laughter and genuine amusement I see all around at Wabash is a college humor worthy of a website, a TV show, and even more than six million viewers.