Saturday, November 26, 2011

Comedy is funny unless it's happening to you. Or, apparently, when you simply declare it isn't.

OK, so a guy I know on Facebook posted a simple truism.
"Drunks are funny."
This is fairly unarguable.  Endless classic moments of comedy are rooted in inebriation, either via the scene, the actors, or on occasion the state of the writer when he thought it up. Foster Brooks and WC Fields made millions on the concept.
The conversation continued on for a while until one fellow piped up with...
"Drunks are not funny when they get behind the wheel of a car and kill an innocent person."
Well thank you, Wendy Wetblanket.

This was supposed to be everyone's cue to, you should pardon the expression, sober up, admit that alcoholism was A Terrible Problem, and walk away dour and shamefaced, guilty that they could ever find something so serious could ever be humorous.  I could actually envision the guy's arms crossed, a holier than thou look on his face.

But of course, I was there.  I don't chagrin easily.

After I attempted to call him on his attempt to dictate comedy to the world, he replied with...
"I hope one of your friends or relatives is never killed by a drunk driver like I have had."
But you know what?  I bet he does.  In his secret heart of hearts, the part of his soul he dares never show to anybody, he feels the desire to have others go through what he went through, because That Would Show Them.  It's universal.  It used to be handled by becoming supervillains, not it's done by walking into a crowded room full of happy people and announcing "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed"

If he didn't feel that way, he wouldn't be diving into conversations unbidden and sharing his tragedies with total strangers because they were guilty of the sin of being happy, or finding humor in a situation that he does not, and being so callous to find it funny in his presence.

Years ago, when that kind of thing happened, people did something weird - they'd excuse themselves and leave the room.  And maybe the someone would ask why, and someone else would explain "Oh, Bill's brother was crushed by a piano, so he can't bear to hear anyone play one" and they'd feel bad, and go apologize.  And usually use the phrase "I had no idea" because clearly, they didn't.  But note the way it was handled.  The person who was upset, offended, or simply didn't find it funny would remove themselves from the situation politely, because why should everyone else have a lousy time on account of them? 

Cut to today. Years of empowerment and mollycoddling have left us with a world of people who are convinced that they are the center of the universe, and it must bend to their will.  The laws of physics notwithstanding, this is not possible unless everyone agrees.  The phrase "like herding cats" comes to mind.

So now, if someone finds issue with someones attempt at humor or entertainment s a result of some personal tragedy, peccadillo or simply mood at the time, it's become perfectly acceptable to stand up and announce that this act makes them sad in some way, and therefore it should cease.  Becasue as we know, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many, especially if the one has a chip on their shoulder.
Q - How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Sometimes if they don't have their own personal tragedies to cash in, they'll just point to some nebulous sadness ("I don't know how you can find this pie fight funny when there are children in Africa who are starving and would be HAPPY to eat that pie"), cluck their tongues like so many hens and watch disapprovingly for people to realise what callous boors they've been.

Comedy is a tool used to entertain but also to help deal with tragedy.  Cries of "too soon" aside, it's the ability to find humor in even the worst of situation that allow us to keep from putting shotguns in our mouths.

My daughter is autistic, but Gilda Radner's "basket case" character is still screamingly funny  I have lost both my parents, but I have yet to ask Disney to change their films because seeing characters with one or no parents and STILL find a way to be happy just tears me apart inside.  I am an Overweight American, and can still not laugh when I watch one of those guys have to be taken from their home with a forklift.

Becasue I am able to grasp that these people are not aiming this comedy at me individually, and I am able to separate my personal tastes and opinions from the rest of the world.  And on the rare occasions I find something offsides, I sit quietly, or change the channel for a while, and wait for things to be funny again.  Because I realize that I am not so much more important than other people that things that only entertain me shall exist.  In short, I'm not five.

I fear for the day when a stand-up comic will be required to have all attendees fill out a form listing their personal tragedies, religion, favorite foods and allergies so they don't actually start a bit about vacationing in Cabo, only to have a person from the fourth row stand up in tears, complaining that Uncle Olaf died of skin cancer and how DARE you bring those memories up when all I was trying to do was have a little FUN.

Comedy was a lot funnier when we just didn't care about other people's feelings. 

And when other people all weren't the subject of that Carly Simon song.

No not "Anticipation", you knothead...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Thanksgiving tradition comes to a sad end

Remember trading stamps?  No, of course you don't, they happened before you were born, so they mean as little to you as manual lawnmowers, the Pyramids or the crank that you used to have to start a car with.

The way it worked was, you'd buy stuff, usually groceries, and you got x-number of stamps for every dollar you spent.  And you'd save the stamps in these books and when you got enough you could trade them in for damn near everything you could think of; appliances, jewelry, I heard one guy got a car.  You could get, say, a blender with 15 books of stamps.

The trick was, of course, if you counted up all the money you SPENT to get that blender, it was like 400 frillion dollars, and the blender was for sale at the store next door for like 15 bucks. 

But the Trading Stamp industry latched onto a truism of human thought - we will go to great lengths to get something for free.  Even if it's only for "free", and the time and resources spent obtaining it far outbalanced just spending the money.

In our modern world, trading stamps have been supplanted mainly by airline miles, credit card reward points and those saving club cards you get at the grocery store.  They all follow the same model - offer "rewards" for spending money, at a return rate of a fraction of a percent, knowing full well that only a percentage of your customers will even bother to redeem them, but the offer will still be alluring enough that it will cause a good number of people to do business with you anyway.

For example, for every 250 "points" (usually at a dollar spent per point) you earned at the store, you'd get a 5% coupon off your next order.  Your NEXT visit, mind you.  So they've ALREADY got you coming back.  And in your head you're scheming "I'll show them, I'll buy a whole LOT next time, and really make that discount coupon PAY!"  Oh, yeah, brilliant.  Spend twice as you would usually, making the store an extra 95% in sales, and feel like YOU came out on top when you show your receipt that says you saved five extra bucks.  You're a genius, you.

Back in the day, the biggest extra benefit the redemption center got from you was your name and address, which they'd sell to mailing list companies.  Today with the amazing power of computers, your store membership cards allow them to track what you buy, when, how often, what brands you prefer, which size, and so much more data they haven't quite figure out how to analyze it yet.  But hey, ten cents off on gas every other month when you've earned enough points!

Now here's the thing - I don't begrudge the stores the right to grab that data.  I get a few coupons out of it, and I'm just not as paranoid as some people; just cynical.  You'd be amazed how much data TiVo gets from you as well, and I don't see too many people trying to get people to turn their DVRs off.

But there was one time in the year that the whole process didn't just seem worth it, it felt truly rewarding.  Starting at the beginning of November, all your reward points went towards earning a free turkey. No discount towards a turkey, a free goddam turkey. OK, yeah, the store brand, and only a frozen one; if you wanted a name brand or a fresh one, it was only a discount. But I've gotten REAL good at making a frozen turkey taste delicious - props to Alton Brown's brine recipe. And as anyone will tell you, free food always tastes better.

Now again, same rules apply - I spent 300 bucks to pay for that "free" turkey. Plus, once you got that turkey, you spent that much and more for the trimmings, side dishes, throw-away roasting pan, and all the other stuff you need to make that "free" turkey taste all the better.  And come on, you're not just gonna walk in, pick up the bird and go buy everything somewhere else.  And like I said before, there's an indefinable rush as that monstrous bird shows up on your receipt as "$0.00".  Especially if, as I always did, you dug DEEP in the freezer to find the biggest goddam behemoth that the promotion would permit.  Screw those people happy with a 14-pound turkey, this slip of paper says "up to twenty pounds" - I am not leaving with anything under ninteen-five.

So everybody wins, right? 

Apparently not.

I only just found out our local Giant chain was not doing the free turkey promotion this year.  I'm crestfallen.  I just assumed it was happening, so when I asked how close I was to my certificate, and they said they weren't doing it, I literally didn't know how to process the news.

I haven't paid for a turkey since I moved to PA. The free turkey has become as big a Thanksgiving tradition as...well as the turkey.  Yes, I can afford the turkey, but as anyone will tell you, free food TASTES better, even if it's free food you had to spend 300 dollars to earn.

I know in past years the response has been big enough that they've run out of turkeys in many locations.  Doesn't seem to be a problem this year - they were stacked up like cordwood in Whitehall. Likely because people found out they were gonna have to pay for the damn things.

I'm sure this change somehow saves the chain money; the amount of money people needed to spend to shore up enough points probably didn't pay for the turkey this year.  But this strikes me as another one of those short-term smart, long-term foolish moves that a lot of companies have made this year.  It's another one of those "last straw" things that have been making people grow very upset with companies they formerly had very high opinions of.  And if it's companies they already didn't have high opinions of, it was close to an act of war.

Look at the two most obvious examples this year.  Bank of America announced it was adding a five dollar fee to its debit cards, and people reacted as if Hitler had announced that since the thing with the Jews was going so well, he was going to start killing redheads as well.  The country already hated the banks, but didn't know enough about how banking worked to understand why, or exactly what about banking they hated.  This fee gave them a focus, like a magnifying glass on an ant.  The other banks backed away from BoA like it had just punched a cripple, and people started closing their accounts in protest.  A lot more just thought about it, and you know how much big business hates thinking.  So last week or so BoA announced they had changed their minds, and were not going to start charging the fee.  And they had the grapefruits to spin it like they were good guys for doing it - "We heard you".  Yeah, you screamed when we tried to squeeze your testicles all the tighter, and it surprised us, so we stopped, aren't we nice?

Netflix didn't change their mind about their price increase; they just apologized for it.  And so they lost about a million customers (and that, for once, isn't comedic hyperbole) and no end of good will, both of which they had in massive amounts six months before.  Netflix made the mistake of reminding people of one of those charges that sits on their credit cards every month, unnoticed.  Suddenly, people who had no problem getting hit for ten bucks a month heard they were gonna get hit for sixteen, and thought, "Heck, I'm not even using it NOW, why throw more money away?"

It's the perfect consumer transaction - paying for a service that will never be used - and Netflix lost MILLIONS because of it.  It's how Blizzard makes the lion's share of their money - World of Warcraft accounts that people don't use, but keep alive because they mean to as soon as they get the time again.  Would you buy a gift certificate and never use it cause it's pretty? Why do you think the post office is so courting stamp collectors?  Because when they come out with Star Wars or comic book stamps, people buy sheets of them and put them away, never to use them.  More correctly, they're courting NEW stamp collectors, because true philatelists know that a stamp becomes MORE valuable if it's been used.  Often cancellation marks make a stamp even more rare.  But now collectors have the mindset that if they buy a lot of the new thing, in thirty years they'll ALL be worth a lot.  Apparently, the whole "supply and demand" thing got left in the classroom, forgotten as fast as the words to the school song.

So because the chain has decided it's not profitable enough, I'm gonna have to buy my turkey this year.  And I wish I had the fortitude to skip the turkey altogether this year, to prove a point.  But I'm weak.  And I know I'm going to buy the turkey, and the stuffing, and all the brine ingredients and the pies and all, just like last year.

Except this year I'm gonna buy it at Wegmans.