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Please Have Your Fame Spayed or Neutered

November 1st, 2007 · Written by · 1 Comment

I had a tragic epiphany while watching Bob Barker on The Price is Right the other day. And no, the tragedy was not that I was alone in my studio apartment on a weekday watching The Price is Right at an age that I used to think would be part of my transitioning years into corner offices and conspicuous consumption. I’ve been resigned to my fate ever since I exchanged Epicureanism for Existentialism and figured out that the secret of life was, you know, fraternity and harmony and… all that shit. And besides, I was just flipping through the channels when I came across my old friend Bob, and I only watched long enough to have this epiphany. Honest.

Anyway, here’s what I realized: I don’t really know who the hell Bob Barker is. Seriously, I don’t, and neither do you. With the possible exception of a few candid appearances on the Tonight Show, Bob Barker the person has spent 35 years in front of a camera and never been on TV. He’s had the attention of seven generations of Americans over the span of four decades, and what has he done with it? He’s quizzed us on the price of useless household goods and beseeched us to mutilate our pets’ genitals. That’s it. The same basic premise, minus the neutering, goes for Jay Leno, Hillary Clinton, Judge Judy, and Jared from the Subway commercials (actually, in the last case I’m pretty sure there’s nothing else there to see). Lots of face time, no personality, not one original idea.

bob barker

Now, network heads have been trotting empty suits out onto the stage for a long time, with promises of celebrity conditional on pledges to say only what is written on the cue card. But these are truly exciting times for the nebulous concept of fame, with the latest and greatest contribution coming from everybody’s favorite whipping boy: Reality TV. And while we’re on the subject, it makes little sense why Reality TV is the target of such universal scorn. Are you telling me you miss the time when each network’s primetime lineup consisted of seven cop/courtroom melodramas and fourteen one-liner-a-thon situational comedies? Were those days really that great? Anyway, Reality TV has done something remarkable: in a world where the collective social attention span has become ridiculously short, and movies like Fight Club manage in three twenty-fourths of a second to say what John Wayne movies used to take 43 minutes to establish, the standard allotment of fame accorded to each lucky sap who “makes it” is actually lengthening. Fifteen minutes? Sheesh. A paltry sum. We gave six hours of screen time to Rupert Boneham. We know more about that crazy chick from the Real World than her own mother does. And yet in the end, almost every reality show character manages to be so disappointing (despite zero expectations), so non-unique, and so shallow that it gives us one more reason to be ashamed of our species. I guess the noble middle classes are only attractive via suggestion and innuendo. Shine the harsh light on them and we get incoherent cliché-filled rants and painfully awkward self-conscious sermonizing. We get 38 million people watching as Paula Abdul attempts to talk her way through a narcotic-induced stupor.

Nobody wants Ryan Seacrest to interrupt the American Idol Results Show with his take on Locke’s Two Treatises of Government

But we need to back up a bit. My liberal education has taught me to never blame the victim, even if the victim is Courtney Love. So I say let’s do the easy thing and blame the consumers again. Maybe there is hidden depth to Jessica Simpson and inner beauty to Paris Hilton. The problem is that audiences just don’t care. Nobody wants Ryan Seacrest to interrupt the American Idol Results Show with his take on Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, or Jeff Probst to kick off tribal council with a few stanzas of original poetry. You see, television “personalities” are really not personalities at all, they are just roles, and from each we require something a little different. Some are there to make us laugh (like Craig Ferguson); others to arouse us in any number of ways (think young Britney Spears); the least fortunate to make us feel better about ourselves (again, Spears). Maybe this is why people are able to treat retail workers with the same level of respect as they do vending machines.

I long for the days when the only “real” people we saw on camera were the ones jumping up and down like idiots in the background of newscasts. At least they were displaying real emotion. And reminding us of our Chimpanzee roots. And I mourn for the philosophical contributions Bob Barker might have made.

But what, you ask, would I do with my 15 hours/days/years of fame? Well, I would talk about things that I value and others don’t. I would tell stories. I would launch into 20-minute monologues on environmentalism and philosophy and the flaws of civilization. I would scream at all the stupid people around me for wasting my oxygen with insincere recitals of tired anthems about faith and togetherness and protecting the weak. Then CBS would edit all of that out and run clips of me talking about how I prefer blondes over brunettes and how life really isn’t worth living without toothpaste. And then I would get voted off the island for agitating the sacred hyper-normalizing herd instinct, after which I might try to get a book deal and/or whore myself out to whatever two-bit morning show wanted to pay me to reflect on my experiences. And when all that failed, I would recite my memoirs to my webcam and post it on YouTube, where my heartfelt angst would vie with a clip of some guy’s uncle getting hit in the nuts with a golf club for your thinly-stretched attention. Long live the new American dream!

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