Saturday, November 28, 2009

Don't put your son on the stage

I was interviewed for the One Show yesterday, for a short feature that might come out in January. My mother is the One Show's biggest ever fan. She retired a couple of years ago, and has a lot of free time (although complains most of it is spent brushing the dog). She writes letters to the One Show a lot with "ideas". She is very against animal testing at the moment, and thinks the One Show should do more on this topic, preferably with her in. Her latest thing is going around department stores "disguised as a researcher" (!), asking poor shop assistants if their products have been tested on animals, and then marking their responses in an official-looking folder. (I sometimes think I should devote my entire blog to what my mother says, thinks and does).

So when I told her I was being interviewed, I thought she might explode with joy. "Can I come on it?" she asked. I told her that due to the whimsical and transitory nature of television programming, and the fact that I become inarticulate and odd when a camera is pointed at me, that it is unlikely that they would use any footage of me anyway. I also told her not to tell anyone. I should have known better - she told her entire street to watch it last night - not understanding that I was only being interviewed yesterday, and that the feature, if it comes out at all, would be months later.

I had to travel down to London and then meet the interviewer and film crew in an art deco style bar in a basement in Soho, where the interviewing was being carried out. Fortunately it will all be edited, so they can reduce 20 minutes of me trailing off mid-sentence into about 10 seconds of something vaguely articulate. The weirdest bits were the "establishing shots" where they film you walking down the street, going down the stairs, or just sitting at a table and talking about nothing. In order for it to look like we were having an authentic conversation the interviewer said "Just tell me everything you did yesterday from when you woke up". So I did and then they all laughed at how boring my life is.

The interviewer was a reasonably well-known (if you live in the UK) comedian. He kept commenting on how he had been expecting me to be camp because I was gay, and I wasn't. "The other one we interviewed before you was camp, and he was wearing very flamboyant clothes," he said. I looked down at my sensible Marks and Spencer pullover and said "Although for an academic, I'm about as glamorous as you can get."

Afterwards, they invited me to lunch (a steretoypically Soho sushi place), there was various talk of which celebrities were "difficult" etc. I hadn't heard of any of them. The only celebrities I know about anymore are academic ones, and rather than read Heat magazine, I get my celebrity fix from an evil piece of computer software called Harzing's Publish or Perish. You type in the name of an academic and get a list of all their publications and how often each one is cited. This is then converted into a score called the H Score - the higher the score, the more famous you are. Mine is 13. That means I've had 13 things cited 13 times or more. To go up to 14 you have to 14 things cited 14 or more times. 13 is reasonably respectable for a linguist, and over the last couple of years I have begun to gain a tiny amount of academic fame. This means that at conferences I get more than 8 people at my presentation, and sometimes a Chinese student will come up to me and tell me that they've read one of my books. I rather like the strange parallel yet inverse world of academic celebrity. Real celebrities need to be physically stunning and stupid (Paris Hilton). Whereas for acaedemic celebrity, the more grotesque you are, the more introverted and socially stunted, the better-known you seem to be. I am thinking of developing a facial tic. It will do wonders for my H Score.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Did I fall asleep?

I've been watching the Joss Whedon sci-fi series Dollhouse, and just learnt it has been cancelled. Damn. It's Firefly all over again.

Dollhouse has an interesting premise. Young, attractive people sign away 5 years of their lives to become "dolls" - they have their memories and personalities wiped and then they are rented out to the wealthy and well-connected, having been downloaded with temporary new alter-egos. This results in a kind of Charlies Angels type of structure, whereby every week, the cast are put into new situations: one week you're a hostage negotiater, the next a pop star, the next a sex slave. The dolls all live in a giagantic underground spa/rehab centre and sleep in little coffins. When they're not been hired out, they're kep busy doing crafts or yoga in a kind of endless dream-like state, where they have a mental age of about 7. The Dollhouse is run by a (stereotypically) crisp British woman who wears nice skirts and blouses. There's also a geeky, wise-cracking tech guy who downloads all the personalities, and a morally confused ex-policeman who acts as a minder to the dolls. Then there's a sexy member of the FBI, played by a very gruffly-voiced Tahmoh Penikett, who is on a mission to prove that the Dollhouse exists and set them all free. Tahmoh looks and acts like a doll himself. Maybe he is. Almost every epsiode there is a twist where someone turns out to have been a doll all along.

Most of the "missions" that the dolls are sent on are a bit silly, and I have some difficulty in believing that the super-rich would want to pay for this kind of service. There's one guy who just seems to want someone to have motorbike races and slightly kinky sex with. He's young, rich and good-looking so I can't work out why he'd want or have to pay for that sort of thing. The show occasionally expands its central premise - for example, by showing how the Dolls could poentially allow people to live forever - if you die you simply download yourself into another person's body. And in the season 1 finale, which is set several years in the future, half the population of America have had their personalities wiped (via telephone) as an act of war, and replaced with that of a murderous psychopath, resulting in the breakdown of their society.

My favourite doll is Victor who occasionally malfunctions by getting erections in the shower, when he isn't supposed to.

Enver Gjokaj, who plays Victor, is good at doing different accents - he's done a passable posh Brit, been a member of the Russian mafia, a good ol' Southern boy and an all-American one. In a sense, acting is kind of like being a doll - you pretend to be someone else, show off your body and get paid a lot of money for it. I wonder if you can actually buy dolls of the cast? I imagine Victor would be a best seller.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The damning glee of making fun of people

There are quite a few sites and blogs I read which make fun of people. From the rather gentle My Mom is a Fob (which depicts Asian mothers who have poor English) and Passive Aggressive Notes (which often turn out to be downright Aggressive), through to the often horrific People of Walmart (which shows a the post-apocalyptic American underclass that Britain edges closer to every single day) to the toe-curlingly embarrassingly Lurid Digs, which comments on the tacky interiors and kitsch soft furnishings of gay men's self-porn portraits, to Awkward Family Photos, where bad hair + blue denim = shame shame shame. These sites seem to be springing up with alarming regularly. Or maybe it says something about me that I notice them and read them.

These sites are often funny - the commentaries read like they're channelling Karen and Jack from Will & Grace. And if someone puts up a naked picture of themselves on the internet, then really, I guess they deserve what they get. I'm a bit less sure about People of Walmart, who are snapped without realising (although if you will insist on wearing your Halloween costume ALL YEAR ROUND or decorating your car with hundreds of toy trolls, then maybe you deserve to be made fun of).

What's happening here though? It suggests a shaking up of the usual figures of fun. In the 1970s, before minority groups started to get rather mouthy, it was de riguer for comedians to tell jokes that featured mother-in-laws, racial stereotypes and sissified gays. Of course the minute that these groups started saying "that's not really very nice is it", conservatives invented the phrase "It's political correctness gone mad" and set out trying to turn the clock back and install all of that racism and homophobia that had been enshrined for decades. The Daily Mail (that nasty little snot of a newspaper) was the biggest advocate of PC-gone-mad, and seems to have had a remit to publish at least one bonkers PC story per issue over most of the 1990s and 2000s.

However, after a 20 year, often rather bloody battle - there are signs that the PC-gone-mad "brigade" are winning. The article by Jan Moir which I wrote about in an earlier posting actually wasn't that bad compared to some of what the Daily Mail has been saying about gay people for decades. Yet it produced an unexpected wave of criticism. I remember about 5 years ago, often feeling that I was the most bonkers PC person in the world. On various gay social forums, I'd complain about some instance of homphobia, or some sportscaster or celebrity making a gay joke, and be told that I was getting my knickers in a twist over nothing. Now I sometimes feel that my position is relatively calm in comparison to others. Maybe it's greater awareness of hate crimes towards minority groups - but it seems that more people are making a link between violence and those "funny" jokes that enforce stereotypes and get us to laugh at someone who's different from us.

So the rise of these new "snarky" sites is perhaps to be expected. We can't make fun of the blacks, Jews and gays anymore. So who can we make fun of instead? And the answer is the clueless. The People of Walmart are so uneducated and "out there" that they can't dress themselves decently. Those goons on Lurid Digs have terrible taste in rugs. The FOB (fresh off the Boat) Moms can't even speak English properly - ha ha ha! They say the funniest things.

A new underclass is emerging - one which I suspect is going to stick around for quite a long time - because unlike gay people and ethnic minorities - very few of them will rise up to complain in an articulate voice. Many of these people may not have internet access so may not even realise they are objects of fun. Will they be able to reclaim their "bad taste identities" and demand that people not laugh at them? Will there be FOB Pride? Or will they remain oblivious under their mullets?

I'll probably continue to read those sites, because as I said, I find them funny. But I'm not comfortable with it. And although I could probably come up with about a dozen ideas for similar sites myself, I wouldn't do it. Once you start actively making fun of people in that way, well - a piece of your soul falls off, or a fairy dies somewhere.

Yet maybe humans have a deep-rooted need to laugh at other people, and we'll always find a way.