Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome toThe Daily---: A Story of Delayed Gratification

Well, that was weird.

I was embarking on my usual daily anaerobic exercises--200 push-ups, 200 sit-ups, and some light weightlifting (yes, I'm trying to brag in an overly affected modest manner, just ignore politely and move on)--and, also as usual, my background noise per choice was an episode of the Daily Show, as streamed through the Comedy Network's website. (Look at that! A legal use of the Internet to watch television. How quaint.) But due to a crossed wire of some sort, the show kept stopping every fifteen seconds or so in order to load. So I'd get a few seconds of some joke, then a weird pause. I endured this process for approximately 20 minutes of work-out time, during which I received about 9 minutes of actual show. (BTW, the original title of this post was "Welcome to the Daily Sh---," which was more faithful to the actual pause in my viewing, but provided a sort of mixed message in terms of signaling today's content.) This stilted method of viewing drew a number of things to mind:
1) It was the first time I finished the my exercises before the interview segment, making it my fastest workout ever. (I know this isn't actually the case, but please, be quiet; I really need a win right now.)
2) I'm reminded of how big a role immediacy plays in the modern media culture. I want what I want, and I want it now. Internet lags, television commercials, video game loading time, waiting for book releases, listening to an entire song (I've got a friend with a record player) --they're all anathema to culture of NOW, dammit. I had to actively resist an urge to turn off the stream, because a large part of me would rather listen to nothing than be forced to wait.
3) The pauses really drew attention to the structure of the show. The Daily Show is very formulaic in this regard; there's the opening run-through of the news, a consultation with one of the reporters/comedy people, and a commercial. Followed by a a more in-depth look at some more news items (or a feature on-location piece by one of the reporters), another commercial, and then a closing interview. The formulaic approach comes in part from the news format the show is satirizing, and in part from the late night talk show format that it actually is. But another big reason for the formula is that, once people are used to it, they ignore it, and that's what the show wants you to do--to focus on the content rather than their format.

The constant breaks drew attention to the format. Not at the broad level I've been describing, but at the micro-level of the individual joke. There's the framing, from Jon Stewart, the set-up (some kind of news clip, usually), the punchline, and the laughter. With the show slowed down to a crawl, I found myself looking for each element more and more. And because the cut-off happened at various places, I got to see how each element blended into and anticipated the next, particularly the set-up and laughter. You could often predict exactly what Stewart was going to do for the punchline, just from the news clip used. And despite what you might think, the joke doesn't end with the punchline, but with the laughter, the reaction to the punchline. I think both of these elements draw attention to how much of comedy and humor is in its communal component; to follow Kenneth Burke a bit, you identify with the group by anticipating Jon's joke and reacting with them. Of course, that's the main function of a studio audience to begin with.
(There's been a lot of noise in the press this year comparing Jon Stewart to Glenn Beck. It would be interesting to see if his show, while not a comedy, follows the same pattern of formula and community creation/enforcement. If only I could figure out a way of doing it without actually watching the show...)

4) It reminded me a lot of my own research habits. Particularly, it mirrored the painstaking efforts I once went through to map out the conversation tree of a scene in the video game Mass Effect (in case aficionados are wondering, it was the scene with Wrex on Virmire. Flowchart of the conversation is available upon request). There would be a few seconds of speech, then I'd push pause, and frantically rush over to my computer to type out what had just been said. It was significantly worse than transcribing an actual video, because there's no rewind button; if I missed something, I had to reload the entire scene and try again.

More generally, it reminded me of my close-reading method, which is basically to read a passage, stop reading, spend a few seconds jotting notes and reflecting, then return to the text. Watching the Daily Show in this broken manner reminded me of the pros and cons of this approach--you get a very good reading on the micro-level, but at the cost of missing the bigger picture. I might have to rethink my approach a little in the future.

To recap: muscle building, entertainment, and scholarly reflection, all in one 20 minute work-out. Truly, I am the modern Renaissance man. Ladies, get in line.

Later Days.

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