Eventually everyone leads a strange life, probably because life isn’t a sit-com. And out here in Hollywood America’s situation comedies are in constant production – there are hundreds of soundstages in the Thirty Mile Zone (yes, like in the tabloid show) – and fake families or hypothetical groups of compelling but improbable young singles go through their twenty-two minutes of conflict and resolution, over and over. They are played by earnest professional performers and it’s a parallel universe. It’s America, stylized. And as such it’s carefully unreal – no one shoots on location. Lucy’s living room, with the nasal Ethel Mertz offering advice, was deep in the back of a studio complex down off Santa Monica Boulevard, and Seinfeld’s Manhattan was a lot on the north side of Ventura Boulevard on the other side of the hill in Studio City. You can’t make these things too real – it upsets people.
And you can’t make the conflicts too real. Life is hard enough as it is. And this is comedy. So nothing is too dire – there are no life and death situations, no irrevocable losses, and no crushing failure that doesn’t work out in the end. It’s all theme and variations on the ordinary, the quite ordinary. These imaginary people are like you, really – or could be – and they find themselves in somewhat unusual but quite imaginable situations – situations, not life-crises. The idea is to make what is quite normal only a tad unusual, and then charming. And that means that nothing all that strange ever happens. Only the quirky happens. And then everything resolves to just what it is supposed to be. But comedy is about what everyone agrees is normal, or pretends is normal. We all laugh at what falls outside those assumed norms. It’s reassurance.
And of course it’s nonsense. No one is normal. America’s situation comedies have seduced and deluded us. Is that how we’re supposed to be? Damn – and here you are, strange as strange can be, because your life experiences are the sort of thing any television producer would pencil out, as too improbable. And so most people feel like oddballs. It’s a general unease you can blame on Hollywood. Face it. You’re not normal.
But life is what it is. In the early seventies it was graduate school at Duke University – English, Early Eighteenth Century English. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time, save for the required courses that we all had to take, like Old English. That was odd, but a working knowledge of German helped make that manageable. But it wasn’t sit-com stuff. And there was that final exam in Middle English – passage after passage you had to identify by geographical dialect. Hey, was that Kentish? Those were strange times, but no stranger than anyone else’s experiences. Others might have found themselves designing machines that made the ultimate shipping containers for ripe avocados. No one leads a normal life.
But it was there, long ago, that one came across the Ayenbite of Inwyt – Kentish of course, a confessional prose thing. It’s well beyond obscure of course, but it has a certain ring to it. James Joyce thought so – it pops up again and again in Ulysses, although he spelled in differently – the agenbite of inwit. It’s the pain of thinking too much. Your conscience gets to you. It’s about the unease you feel when you realize that there’s something terribly wrong with the accepted normal.
Allen Ginsberg felt that bite in the fifties. While Lucy and Ozzie and Harriet found themselves in situations and resolved them, over and over and over, Ginsberg wrote Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection / to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
He was not a happy camper. There was something terribly wrong with the accepted normal. The Beat Generation was practically screaming that from the rooftops. And that was a dangerous message.
Of course dangerous messages have to be contained and tamed, and Hollywood came to the rescue – they made a Beat hipster comic relief in that Dobie Gillis show. We got American television’s first beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver). And he was a joke, because he was so far outside the norm. But comedy takes the dangerous and makes it droll – that removes the fangs. From 1959 through 1963 all that Beat rage became lovable and cute. It was stylized. You can’t make these things too real – it upsets people. And what was dangerous was neutered. Mission accomplished.
It’s all about fighting the massive unease we all feel, because we’re not normal – not even one of us. Hollywood posits the normal, and makes sure we laugh at what isn’t normal. The only problem is that this eventually leaves all of us on the outside looking in. We know we’re not in a sit-com. It’s that inevitable agenbite of inwit.
But there are all sorts of manifestation of this, as the staunch conservative, Richard Ramsey, explains the Fox Geezer Syndrome:
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). Eight of us (so far) share something in common besides our conservatism: a deep frustration over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day – especially Glenn Beck’s program.
Yep, something absurd was posited as normal, and damned if people didn’t believe it.
The years 2009 and 2010 were a period of declining popularity for Barack Obama, for the Democratic Party, and for progressive politics in the United States of America. Under the circumstances, it’s tempting to examine any particular trend in American political life that operated in parallel to this and see it as advantageous to conservative politics. Hence the skyrocketing popularity of a deliberate kind of political entertainment in which folks like Glenn Beck lie to gullible conservatives about what’s happening in America appear to many as a form of successful political tactic.
In reality, however, the declining popularity of Obama, Democrats, and progressives can be easily attributable to poor economic conditions. Now that trends have leveled off and Obama is back at 50 percent and we seem to be headed for a span of so-so growth I think we’re going to find that while Beck has certainly carved out a lucrative business niche for himself, that in political terms, creating a paranoid and misinformed base is not helpful.
But that base, the geezers, would claim that they’re quite normal. And until one of them appears as comic relief in a sit-com, that’s not going to change. What is normal, and thus what is real, is in dispute. And we’ll live in an age of unease.
Consider this passage from Time’s new cover story:
As the conversation progressed, it became clear to several in the room that Obama seemed less interested in talking about Lincoln’s team of rivals or Kennedy’s Camelot than the accomplishments of an amiable conservative named Ronald Reagan, who had sparked a revolution three decades earlier when he arrived in the Oval Office. Obama and Reagan share a number of gifts but virtually no priorities. And yet Obama was clearly impressed by the way Reagan had transformed Americans’ attitude about government.
Brendan Nyhan in this item argues this transformation never actually happened, as public opinion data shows no one was thinking, after listening to Reagan, that government was in and of itself kind of creepy. But people think that transformation happened, and that transformed view became the new normal. It gets tricky. As with Hollywood, norms are posited, as givens. And Yglesias adds this:
In some ways I think it’s more useful to just look at broad policy outcomes. Suppose someone proposed to repeal Obamacare, then end Medicare prescription drug coverage, then repeal SCHIP, then repeal the Americans with Disabilities Act, substantially roll back the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reduce Medicaid eligibility, and repeal COBRA. We’d consider that a gigantic rollback of the welfare state, right? This would be a more right-wing agenda than Mike Pence dares propose. And yet it would describe returning the American welfare state to its pre-Reagan status quo.
Some folks say that this would be going back to normal – to the days of Lucy and Ozzie and Harriet – but Yglesias sees that as misreading everything:
The remarkable thing, to me, is that if you look at the years 1977-2008 there was a clear trajectory to policy that continued more-or-less unbroken despite changes in party control of different branches of government. Environmental regulations got stricter, the welfare state expanded, and other forms of business regulation declined. The biggest welfare state expansion happened under G. W. Bush and the biggest deregulatory episodes occurred under Carter and Clinton.
So just what is normal and real here? And why does everyone feel so uneasy all the time? Is it the cultural norms presented to us by the entertainment industry?
For the answer to that there’s Taylor Clark and his new book – Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
That will be published in March, so you’ll have to wait for your answers, or you can read a teaser in Slate – on “the three real reasons why Americans are more anxious than ever before.”
And one of the answers is not the job market:
When a team of UCLA researchers released its latest annual report on the mindset of America’s university students last week, one finding screamed out for red-alert media attention: Our college kids are more stressed out and anxious than ever before. In the researchers’ surveys of more than 200,000 incoming freshmen, students reported all-time lows in overall mental health and emotional stability, and this news sent the media on a high-strung spree of its own. ABC World News ran footage of harried-looking teenagers rushing around campus, Time wondered “Why Are College Students Reporting Record High Levels of Stress?,” and the New York Times story on the report vaulted to the top of the paper’s most-e-mailed list.
The culprit for this soaring stress, the stories unanimously declared, is the horrendous job market – a thoroughly lame explanation. I don’t know about your college experience, but when I got to school a dozen years ago, my classmates spent about as much time pondering the future “job market” as they spent leafing through calculus textbooks for fun.
Clark says that’s all nonsense:
Students are becoming more anxious because, for many years now, we’ve all been growing more anxious. This isn’t just a campus issue. It’s an American issue.
Over the last several decades, both through good economic times and bad, the United States has transformed into the planet’s undisputed worry champion. Around the turn of the millennium, anxiety flew past depression as the most prominent mental health issue in America, and it’s never looked back: With more than 18 percent of adults suffering from an anxiety disorder in any given year, the United States is now the most anxious nation in the world, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Stress-related ailments cost the nation $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity, while our usage of sedative drugs keeps skyrocketing; just between 1997 and 2004, Americans more than doubled their spending on anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, from $900 million to $2.1 billion. And this anxious strain hits us well before we reach college. As psychologist Robert Leahy points out: “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
And the fifties were so pleasant….
But Clark finds the whole thing puzzling:
A century ago, psychologist William James wrote that modernity had insulated us so well from grave threats like grizzly bear attacks that “in civilized life … it has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from the cradle to the grave without ever having had a pang of genuine fear.” Yet James might have been surprised to learn that even as our streets become safer, our cars more crash-proof, and our food and drugs better regulated, we still keep finding ways to become more tense.
We do have issues with anxiety and stress, but the usual answers don’t answer much, so Clark spoke with psychologists and neuroscientists and sees three things going on here:
For the experts, one particularly egregious offender is America’s increasing loss of community, what we might call the “Bowling Alone” effect. Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: “If you’ve lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you’re going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you’ll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it.”
Another factor that adds to this problem – especially among young people – is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you’re feeling most dreadful, you don’t run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.
And the second thing is all the information we now consume:
For one thing, the amount of data we take in each day has jumped dramatically – the average Sunday newspaper contains more raw information than people in earlier eras would absorb over the course of a few years – and some neuroscientists believe that our brains simply weren’t designed to handle this kind of volume. But even worse, this avalanche of data is increasingly of the alarmist, fear-igniting variety. If a TV newscast isn’t covering a grisly double homicide, the anchor is teasing a story about the hidden threat in your own home. “The media does this to us,” explained Evelyn Behar, a worry expert who teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It’s always reporting that this thing causes cancer or that thing can kill you. We live in a culture where fear is used to motivate us.”
But Clark really hits on our “intolerant attitude” toward negative feelings:
Put simply, Americans have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that – which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.
And of course one place you won’t find negative feelings and aversive emotions is in our popular entertainment – and in that most American of genres, the situation comedy. Sometimes we just feel bad, of course, but there’s something terrible wrong with that, and it’s fixed by the end of the half-hour. And we accept that as normal.
But eventually everyone leads a strange life, probably because life isn’t a sit-com. And being uneasy and unhappy comes with the territory. The agenbite of inwit will get you, sooner or later. You too will howl. And old reruns of I Love Lucy won’t help a bit.