Selling out with a Smirk - Lessons from David Letterman, Susan Sontag and David Byrne

By McGowan, William G. | The Washington Monthly, March 1986 | Go to article overview

Selling out with a Smirk - Lessons from David Letterman, Susan Sontag and David Byrne


McGowan, William G., The Washington Monthly


SELLING OUT WITH A SMIPK

The deadpan humer of David Letterman, host of the TV show "Late Night,' is enjoying a vogue. Letterman's on-air pranks have included spray-painting the ankles of Bryant Gumbel, the host of the "Today' show; crushing a franks 'n beans dinner under a hydraulic press; covering himself with Alka Seltzer and being lowered into a tank of water; and, most famously, inviting viewers to demonstrate "stupid pet tricks.' Such put-ons have won Letterman a wide following (ad sales for "Late Night' are outpacing those of "The Tonight Show') and even a recent Newsweek cover story. The formula is simple: a slight raise of the eyebrow here, a mock-ponderous vocal inflection there, and suddenly the homely realities of everyday life acquire a tinge of the absurd. "We do a lot of what we call "found comedy,'' Letterman explained to Newsweek. "Things you find in newspapers. Viewer mail. The fact that January actually is National Soup Month, so we're saluting soup all this month.'

This new brand of minimalist irony has enormous and increasing appeal in our culture, and not just among viewers of "Late Night.' Films like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark quietly burlesque the conventions of adventure serials of the 1930s even as they revive them. Rock stars like Madonna and David Byrne of Talking Heads mockingly defend materialism and conformity. Jay McInerney's novel, Bright Lights, Big City, satirizes but also glamorizes the New York night life. Artists in lower Manhattan carry on the tradition of Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can--at one gallery you can buy a silkscreen of a 99-cent grape jelly jar for $150--parodying mainstream culture through mimickry.

In this increasingly conformist age, such cultural artifacts might at first seem vaguely subversive, or at the very least, confusing. But even as we laugh at the new style of irony, it's easy to see that it's completely unthreatening. It may be fun to savor the little banalities, non sequiturs, and incongruities of American life, but when we fail to distinguish between what is truly ridiculous and what merely can be made to seem so, irony loses its bite. The result is something worse than a lot of sophomoric jokes and bad art.

Gray-flannel wink

If David Letterman can be said to have an antecedent in American fiction, it is Frank Wheeler. Wheeler is the antihero of Richard Yates's 1962 novel, Revolutionary Road. Columbia College, class of '49, director of sales promotions at the Knox Business Machine Company in New York, Wheeler discharges his "lazy duties' with a "secret astringent joy.' Wheeler is a bohemian secreted inside a gray-flannel suit, a Connecticut suburbanite and World War II veteran in ironic rebellion against the tedium of his organization-man existence.

Revolutionary Road has not aged well in many respects; in particular, its 1950s view of organizational life seems caricatured today. But Yates's insights into the social type of the "ironic pretender' strike a surprisingly contemporary note. Wheeler runs everything in life on a double track, one for the acquisition of a paycheck and the lifestyle it supports, the other for his own amusement. Thus his job at Knox Business Machines, where his father toiled in lifelong obscurity, is "the very least important part of his life, never to be mentioned except in irony.' Intelligent, thinking people, Wheeler believes, "hold the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs' at an ironic distance. That isn't to say they reject them; after all, one has to make a living. "Economic circumstances might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing was to remember who you are.'

Thus armed, Wheeler can savor the disparity between his real self and the mannequin he sends to work in the morning on the commuter train and home at night in the club car.

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