Sunday, December 11, 2005

Pranks and japes

The latest reality TV series, Space Cadets, has exposed what has lain mainly hidden in its predecessors like Game for a Laugh, Beadle's About, and Candid Camera: that its humour is derived from cruelty, or at the very least from exploitation of dramatic irony (the audience knowing something the protagonist does not). Hence it is an act of collusion by the viewers at the expense of the participants.

This is a strong but largely unexamined part of traditional humour. The attraction of the 'surprise party' is surely for the other attendees, who can smirk to themselves as they lead the dupe to believe that everyone has forgotten. And a similar pattern can be seen in the initiation of apprentices, who were sent off in search of tartan paint or for a long weight (wait): a rite of passage intended to remind the new workers that, however cocky they may be, in the workplace they are at the mercy of their bosses and colleagues. The humour is anaemic verging on albinoism: but humour is not the point.

TV programmers may not realise the danger they face. Newspapers these days very rarely present April Fool's stories; I think this is because they have realised that they rely on their readers gullibility, which offends them, or undermines the paper's credibility. If your newspaper tells you that Elvis is alive and well and living on the moon in a WW2 bomber, you are hardly likely to pay much attention when they tell you which political party to support. We do not expect, when being bombarded with information, to have to distinguish not just between hard fact and soft fact and opinion, but between fiction masquerading as fact and simple fact.

The irony is that the hapless and charmless space cadets, whose desire to be famous exceeds any talent that might justify such a desire, have proved to have some strength of character. Everyone else is smirking, but they have trusted in the
reliability and safety of Russian aeronautics, and have demonstrated that the Right Stuff can be found in all sorts of containers.

No comments: