August 20, 2008

If You're Watching, It's For You

On the Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, a joke about "man-ginas," a few drug/DUI references, a Kristy Ally fat joke ("uses her swimming pool to cook spaghetti") and a homosexual reference.

And I think about how TV has changed, things unimaginable 20 years ago are routine now.   I guess they'll do anything to get the coveted youth demographic.

And then I think, wait a second...


It's the easiest logic in the world to follow: racy humor targeting the youth; old people will either not get it or be outright offended, but it's worth it to get the young viewers.

Ok, but there are also going to be a group of older people, maybe in their forties, who are cool enough to get the humor, to like it, but, you know, most of other people their age will be offended, people like their parents.

But here's the sticking point: Ferguson, Conan, and Leno all have an average viewer age of 50.  They're not getting the jokes in spite of their age-- the show is written for them.

And it makes sense: the humor isn't more edgy or racy, it's the same stuff we heard 20 years ago from Stern and others, so this isn't a case of targeting the young, it's actually targeting the old.

Example: they picked Jimmy Fallon to replace Leno, theoretically because he can target the youth viewer.  But Fallon was funny on SNL a decade ago-- he's funny to people who were young a decade ago.  And so he's going to be funny to those same people who are now a decade older.  People don't step outside themselves and realize that everything that is being made by 30-50 year olds, which is nearly everything, is actually for 30-50 year olds, even though it appears like it's for 20 year olds.

Here's an example: Chris O'Donnell is Ferguson's first guest, and he comes out in jeans and a suitcoat.  Because he's cool, he's younger than he actually is.  Actually, no-- he's exactly as old as he is, because the only people who dress like that are people his age or older.

As if to solidify the point, the next guest is Henry Winkler-- the Fonz-- who also is wearing jeans and a sportcoat.  That was cool to (actual) kids thirty years ago when Letterman dressed that way, and now those "kids" are old enough to dress themselves the way they always wanted.  (Letterman doesn't anymore.)


But this isn't just old people pretending to be young, an innocuous though silly behavior.  This is a larger, social trend, a game, designed to promote a fiction.

The game is to pretend that all this media is for the young, so they're targeting the young by acting "young."  But it's really for the old-- who still think they are young.   They are calming the anxiety of a generation of older people who still think they are young.  "Winkler is acting and dressing hip for the kids, and since I get it and dress like that, too, I must be young."   But Winkler is 60.  And no one uses the word hip anymore.  Get it?

I'm not saying Ferguson isn't funny-- I watch him-- but I have no illusion that I get him despite my age.  It's the foundation of televsion: if you're watching it, it was meant for you.

I couldn't have produced the show better myself to reinforce my point: the commercial break between O'Donnell and Winkler was-- please sit down-- Just For Men hair dye.  The commercial showed news and concert footage from the sixties and seventies with a voice over, "The generation that said they'd never grow up-- didn't." 

TV may say it wants younger viewers, but every commercial was for older viewers.

About twenty years ago I learned the marketing law that young people have all the disposable income-- because older people were saving-- and they spend the most, and you have to go after them.  I don't believe that's true anymore.  Hell, the fact that it was true 20 years ago means that those young people are older.  They're still the consumerists they once were.

And so what we have here is semiotics, a redefining of terms.  "Young" no longer means "ages 18-24."  It means "old people who did not grow up."

Don't delude yourself that "40 is the new 30."  It isn't, ask anyone who is 30.  But that's your business how you want to be.  The problem is that the actual youth have no idea what to make of aging.  How long are they allowed to be adolescents?  Pretty long, it appears.  What's the reference point for being mature if your Dad isn't? 

Clearly this attitude doesn't bode well for capitalism. Older people who are supposed to be more thrifty are spending their money on useless symbols of wealth.  Yes, that includes (too big) houses.   And the narcissism that I'm accused of seeing everywhere may, in fact, only exist in people over 30.   Twenty somethings are allowed to be quasi-narcissists, and it's also defensive: what do you expect from a teenager whose Dad, overweight, balding, drives a sportscar?   Emotional lockdown.

Patton Oswalt said he'll be the best parent ever by being boring, because their kids rebel.  All  the cool parents who smoked pot with their kids raised the kids who moved to the suburbs and put warning labels on record albums.

I believe kids demand of adults to be different than them.  More stable, more future oriented, more careful with money.  Not someone they want to emulate, but someone they want to go beyond.   The adult serves as a foundation to build on.  That desire to be a foundation-- not a support or a model or a goal-- is lacking in the older people.  There's little thought given to multigenerational advancement, that the primary point of their existence is their kids', and their kids' kids, progress.  Not a point, not also a point, but the primary point.

So I wonder if the conventional wisdom "we are a youth obsessed culture" is actually wrong.   It may be worse than that: youth obsessed and frankly delusional.  They're not pretending to be young, they actually believe they are young.   A "residual self image" in a person's mind of who he thinks he is, despite that image being 20 years younger.  They picked an identity not supported by the facts.  And has set up a media apparatus to reinforce the delusion, hide the reality.

So the actual young get squeezed out of their own demographic, into being even younger, or jumping over and becoming too old, too quick.  If the kid is parentified, or grossly immature, you may want to consider that.