Another Week Ends

Getting Physical, Conan’s Exit, Forgiving a Father, the Algorithmic Mirror, Juneteenth, and Decelerating Busyness.

Bryan J. / 6.25.21

1. One of my all-time favorite comedy bits comes from Conan O’Brien’s great 2010 crucible, when the late night comedian was given Jay Leno’s spot on The Tonight Show on NBC, only to have it revoked six months later. Conan found laughs in faking petty revenge on his network overlords, joking that while he was still on air, he could do anything he wanted and make NBC pay for it. The result was a surreal moment where a fossil of a giant ground sloth sprayed beluga caviar from a garden hose on a Picasso painting. “Total cost for this bit: $65 million dollars” says a smug and somber Conan, as the crowd cheers. Queue the depression beard and infamous Dartmouth graduation speech that followed.

Now, Conan is saying goodbye to late night talk shows again, but this time the circumstances are happier. The 11-year run of his show Conan on TBS ended yesterday, prompting another round of public introspection from the beloved comic. Here he is over at Vulture being interviewed by Josef Adalian:

My favorite comedy is not topical; my favorite comedy is making stuff where you don’t need to know, Wait, who’s Joe Manchin, and how does West Virginia play into it? I appreciate that comedy, and I think it can be very brilliantly done. But it’s not what I do.

So I look at the whole thing as this hobbitlike quest where I have my little band of other hobbits, and we’re on this journey to find funny, silly things — images, characters, moments, remotes, travel pieces, puppets, papier-mâché birds, animation. It is a 28-year journey to find silly things that we hope amuse other people.

On the pressures of ratings and choosing a cable program over a broadcast network:

The media likes a late-night war. It’s kind of easy to understand, and you can have take after take on who’s up and who’s down. I was caught up in all that. It was actually nice for a long time at NBC at Late Night because I wasn’t caught up in all that. We were on at 12:30 at night, and once we got to the point where we were stable and doing well, we were allowed to play, and we had a lot of freedom. […]

Then I had a meeting with [then Turner Entertainment chief] Steve Koonin. … He came in, and he said, “All I can promise you is that we’re going to make you our priority, and we’re going to let you do whatever it is you want to do because we don’t know how to make a late-night show.” He had so much emotional intelligence, and he’s such a genuinely kind person. I thought, Okay, maybe this won’t sound cool to people, but I know I have to go somewhere where I can take my people, we’ll be taken care of, and we get to set up our own little workshop and get to work and make the kind of toys we like to make. And here we are, 11 years later. 

We had 11 more years of delightful Conan late-night because the law to perform was set aside by unconditional support. The interview goes on to profile how Conan is a man driven by passion for comedy instead of ambition, and how his new project for HBO Max will let him explore comedy beyond the late-night format. If you’re into comedy as an art form, or if you want a portrait of what calling looks like freed from the constraints of law, the whole interview is right up your alley. 

2. For a look at how a driven calling can be enslaved by a dark side, reviews are coming in for Apple TV’s new show Physical. Set in San Diego during the ’80s aerobic fitness boom, with all of its lycra and leg-warming glory, one of the show’s key features is how it portrays the damning inner voice so common among those with eating disorders, giving it a voice-over in the protagonist Sheila’s head. Alison Hermon in the Ringer explains:

For a half-hour dramedy, the results can be viscerally unpleasant. I have multiple friends who tuned out after the pilot, where Byrne’s voice-over is almost distractingly dominant. But over the next nine episodes, Physical also puts forward one of the more convincing portrayals of dysfunctional body image I’ve seen on TV. Even when they don’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, legions of women have experienced negative thoughts or behaviors around food and exercise. (Some surveys put the number as high as three in four.) When Sheila balks at a food-centric campaign event because it throws off her meal plan for the day, it’s queasily familiar. Today, weight loss has become “wellness” and crash diets are now “cleanses.” But Physical lays bare the contradiction at the heart of exercise as a commodity, then and now: What’s supposed to make you healthier can actually keep you prisoner to your unhealthiest habits. It’s never easy to tell which is which.

Reviewing the same show for the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert acknowledges the show has a perfect timing for its debut, pitching the dubious virtues of fitness as Americans are embracing a Hot Vax Summer of post-pandemic fun.

What happens when you grow up internalizing the idea that judging yourself is normal and quieted only with excessive effort? What becomes of an entire culture raised on the argument that our troublesome, too-big, too-weak, too-much bodies can be loved only when they’ve been conquered?

See also the recent David Brooks column about the pagan virtues of beauty, provocatively titled “Why Is It OK to Be Mean to the Ugly?

3. While declaring the pandemic to be over is probably premature, the process of returning to normal has taught many of us some appreciation for what was better about the last year and a half. Because for those stuck in a vicious productivity and anxiety cycle, it felt like, as David Zahl wrote, a grace period. Along these lines, Vice‘s Shayla Love wrote about “The Cult of Busyness” and the respite the pandemic provided.

At the turn of the 20th century, economists predicted that the ultimate symbol of wealth and success would be leisure —showing others that you were so successful that you could abstain from work. Instead, the opposite occurred. It’s not free time, but busyness, that gestures to a person’s relevance. […]

The pandemic offered a rare window of opportunity for some people to become literally less busy, and perhaps more importantly, to get perspective on their cultural beliefs about busyness. Instead of being caught up in the inertia of always projecting a busy life, they had time to reflect on how they used busyness to define themselves — and how it led to stress and the conflation of productivity and self-worth. […]

The phrase “deceleration” is an attempt to seek relief from “social acceleration,” a phrase coined by a professor of sociology and political science named Hartmut Rosa. He defined social acceleration as an “increase in episodes of action or experience per unit of time” — essentially more things per minute on average per day: more things made, more emails sent, more friends to go out to drinks with, more activities to bring children to. […]

During the pandemic, more people, albeit still privileged, have had access to at least one of these modes of deceleration in their everyday lives. Any increase in the number of people accessing deceleration is a good thing, Eckhardt said. If deceleration becomes the more dominant signal of well-being, social status, and “making it,” rather than busyness, it could set the standard for what we try to help others achieve as well. Eckhardt thinks it may be a turning point when the status symbol of busyness finally has some meaningful competition.

Changing out one status symbol for another may seem like trading one vice for another, but at least it’s one that probably has fewer negative side effects. We could all use a vacation (and fewer things on the calendar).

4. For those documenting their own Hot Vax Summer, TikTok seems to be winning the algorithm game. Kaitlyn Tiffany outlines in the Atlantic how the code behind the video service is remarkably accurate, a mirror of sorts that can reflect the best and worst of a user back to themselves. “Something is wrong with me, and TikTok knows it,” explains Tiffany. “I can tell because its recommendation algorithm keeps providing me with videos that only a horrible person would like.” After exploring the slew of unflattering videos that TikTok expected her to enjoy, Tiffany admits defeat:

Well, time to admit the real problem: I’ll never fix my feed because I don’t want to. I like being trapped in an algorithmic loop of disgust and confusion. I can’t stop myself from watching unsettling content all the way to the end, and I can’t stop myself from sharing it. It’s a little embarrassing that things have gone this far, but the embarrassment is fun.

As much as I might insist that my algorithm has nothing to do with me or my personality, TikTok actually has a pretty accurate sense of what I want to see. I don’t go online to laugh; I go online to scream. I like things that were made by people whose motivations are completely confounding to me. And I have to assume that there are many other people on TikTok who are looking for the same kind of experience, which is why TikTok is so reliable at providing it. When people complain that they’ve somehow “ruined” their personal algorithm, they probably know exactly what they’ve done. We are all working so hard every day at destroying one another’s brains.

If that’s a little too techno-dystopian for you, try Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, who found a gap in the system (ht Alan Jacobs).

5. Lots to laugh at this week, like “Potential Sequels to Girl Wash Your Face,”

Girl! Hey! Hey! Hey! Girl! Hey! Come on! Snap Out of It! Pick Your Head Up, Girl! Use the Fancy Towel to Wipe Away Your Tears of Impotent Rage About Aging as a Woman in Modern America!

See also “Man Takes Solace In Fact That World’s Oldest Person Didn’t Become Notable Until Age 112” and “I Am Not Defined by My Failures Despite the Trombonist Who Follows Me Around Making the Womp-Womp Sound Whenever I [Mess] Up.” And the New Yorker‘s “Letter to a Future Son from a Meek Son” has plenty to add.

6. Picking up a bit of extra post-Father’s Day fun, over at Christianity Today, Chad Ashby reviewed Lament for a Father, by Marvin Olasky: “It’s Never Too Late to Forgive a Flawed Father — or to Ask How He Got His Scars

His tale concludes with the sentiment, Who should I blame? When fathers and sons have poor relationships, when families fall apart, who is at fault? The author warns, “Scapegoating is an occupational hazard for writers of family history: It’s easy to blame parents.” […]

In Lamentthe author realizes that his father’s reticence may have stemmed from a desire to shield his son from trauma, pain, or personal sin. As fathers, it can feel shameful to be so known. Our kids see us at our worst; they know our bald spots better than we do. Rather than leaning into this intimacy, we can recoil from embarrassment and push our kids away. However, in hiding our flaws from our children, we hide ourselves.

One quibble readers might have with Olasky is that his lament ends abruptly with almost no conclusion or application. […]

But perhaps that is part of the point. Perhaps Olasky is resisting the trivialization of his father’s existence by boiling his life down to a few chirrupy lessons. The focus on the lost details of his father’s history — facts recounted without much commentary or digest — seem to be his way of saying, Eli Olasky has value not because of what he gave me or what he taught me but simply because he was my dad.

It is a human impulse to try to make sense of our bewildering tragedies by stringing together some greater purpose on our own — an artificial connecting of the dots to forge some cheap closure for ourselves. Olasky’s Lament refuses to do so. His elegy remains unresolved. Leaning into the dissonance of human sorrow and divine sovereignty, the author will not let God off the hook. Mankind cannot redeem his sorrows. Only God can — and he must.

7. One of the biggest news stories from last week was the institution of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in the U.S. Let’s give Dan van Voorhis, host of the Christian History Almanac podcast, the last word this week with his spiritual insight into the holiday’s origin story of delayed freedom:

Men, women, and children who woke up in bondage were set free that afternoon. The proclamation of the good news, already accomplished, would have them unshackled. For many, this day had been anticipated, but few believed it would ever come. It had been two and a half years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was more gesture than reality for those in the South. For slaves, their lives were caught between the ultimate truth of a proclaimed emancipation and the reality of bondage in the here-and-now. […]

As a historian and a Christian, I am often drawn to the stories of the African American experience. The deep faith of these enslaved people would forge some of the most significant art this country has ever produced, from spirituals to poems to autobiographies, and to music, literature, and culinary advancements. I cannot read the story of the Exodus without connecting it with parallels to the African American experience. Unfortunately for many slaves, the story of the Exodus was removed for “slave bibles” that were edited to discourage uprisings. It is a telling indictment that slave owners saw themselves as more like Pharaoh and less like the Israelites.

The story of Juneteenth is one of living between proclamation and emancipation, and the story of the Christian faith is one of living in that same tension. “It is finished,” Jesus cried aloud on the cross, and with that, the power of sin, death, and the devil was crushed. But our emancipation into that reality waits. We live in the “now and not-yet” of Christian hope and Gospel fulfillment. Just as Major General Granger proclaimed freedom to those slaves in Texas, freedom has been declared to all people in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Juneteenth is a secular holiday with historical implications, but it is also a gospel holiday – a good news holiday – with implications for history and beyond.

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