I’ll Have The Scheudenfreud, Please…..
Over the years, I developed a taste for the German language. My admiration is not from its palate cleansing syntax but its highly logical nouns. An example of simple words combining to make a more complex word might be Hundehütte (eng. doghouse) or Baumhaus (eng. tree house). German allows for highly complex compound nouns such as Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaenskajuetenschluesselloch, which means “the lock in the cabin door of the captain of the company running steamers up and down the Danube”. My favorite German word is scheudenfreud. Translated, it means the fascination with another person’s misfortune. The word describes an all too common unhealthy appetite in our human nature and captures the bubblegum essence of American media programming – – reality television.
We all, it seems, have a flawed predisposition to become consumed with other people’s failings and to live other’s lives vicariously. Reality TV feeds this inate longing baking it into a range of menus from personal competitions to law enforcement. Last week, 31.2m people devoured American Idol while 16m slowly savoured Survivor: Fiji. While my family was gathered in the family room drinking in the acerbic sarcasm of Simon Cowell, I was secretly taking in the TV show, “Cops”. I always feel guilty when landing on channel 58 – – just in time to watch a methamphetamine addict trying to outrace the entire Miami police force in his mother’s 1972 AMC Gremlin or a woman who has been on a binge for three straight weeks trying to convince the authorities she is Tsarist Princess Anastasia. If I hear anyone coming towards my den, I quickly flip to ESPN. How ‘bout those Yankees ?
And then there is “Jackass”, a show where faux stuntmen Johnny Knoxville, Weeman, Steve-O and Chris Pontius perform outrageously dangerous and insipid stunts. I close the door to my office and laugh that deep, from the groin, painful laugh that only comes when you witness someone being injured doing something incredibly dumb. “Jackass” gave rise to a follow on show called “ Wild Boys”. The first episode of “Wild Boys” featured a sequence where Steve-O and Chris ate a variety of bizarre Asian foods culimnating in snorting wasabi mustard where they promptly, threw up. Steve-O and Chris were then off to Africa where, donning only athletic supporters, they ran through a pride of lions dragging hams behind them on long hemp ropes. This is about the point where being an arm chair historian, I wonder if the majority of Rome was watching a show called “ When Praetorian Guards Go Bad “ when the Barbarians charged into the city limits and brought the great empire to its knees. Or perhaps, everyone was wearing ipods and just did not hear them coming.
America is hooked on the empty carbohydrates of reality TV. However, we cannot take credit for creating these cultural moon pies. While it is true, like fast food and greenhouse gases, we are producing a disproportionate amount of reality TV, Asia and Europe actually got the whole thing started. It was Japanese and the Dutch who built on the theme and created game shows based on humiliation, survival and co-habitation. ( For those with stupid sense of humors like me, watch the YouTube episode of the Japanese reality show, Gaki No Tsukai – Silent Library, entitled: The Old Man Who Bites Tenderly, to illustrate just how “evolved” reality programming has become.)
TV pundits estimate literally thousands of new reality shows will be released in the next year. I worry. What does my fascination with other people’s misfortunes say about me ? Why can I not skip to a channel that does not seek to demean, exploit, marginalize or ridicule ? These shows are lugubriously seductive speakeasys. Is one genetically predisposed to scheudenfreud ? Was the Roman Colleseum a massive reality TV for the masses of the Empire so they might for a moment, be liberated from bad news of foreign wars, threat of plague, the increasing Roman deficit and the rising cost of chariots ? Why can I not seem to resist this nightly dose of toxic cinema verite ?
The experts have divined that as many as half of American TV programs are now some variation of Reality TV. I figure the other half must be some variation of ER or CSI and infomercials. I was distraught to learn that as many as 82% of these shows are, in some way, shape or form, “scripted”. What ? You mean “Dog, The Bountyhunter” is really a security guard at a Chucky Cheese ? Don’t tell me those uber babes of “The Hills” are really Universal Studios tour guides. Those long green spongey things on “ Fear factor” are not actually baboon adnoids? The “Ghost Hunters” are not making contact with a thumping spirit but really just filming in a room over a night club in Soho with a big woofer? Flava Flav does not really don viking horns and a massive alarm clock around his neck when he goes out on dates ? I feel like we need a new word for our salacious interest in other people’s false misfortunes, scheudenfreudfalshe.
I have a few ideas for shows. There could be “Dancing With the Infidels” where Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton compete for a chance to run for an empty Senate seat. No contestant is allowed to actually touch their partners or they will be eliminated. “Rap and Cheese” could appeal to Francophiles by teaming up defrocked French politicians with hip hop artists in a race from Newark to Avignon. There is so much potential material.
Another crack addict is being wrestled to the ground on “Cops”. I realize that I am living in a time where the media is all too willing to enter my home to fuel my paranoia that the world is not full of possibilities, but instead choked with meth heads, terrorists and hookers. I have become a nightly regular at the Fear and Consumption café where I get a healthy plate of “ Reality” TV, news and talk shows that fuels my concerns that my country is on the downward slope of its moral, spiritual, and economic preeminence. It’s crowded in the F&C café and sometimes I have to wait for a seat. While I realize that scheudenfreud is a natural human frailty, it is also a warning sign. It’s a subtle hardening of the arteries in the chest of a pampered soul. It can be mitigated by simply remembering that the real world is going on outside while reality TV flickers inside our homes.