pre fab culture

David Blum recently wrote  "Tired joke or cultural touchstone: The sitcom clam." The clam, he said, is a joke from Friends, say, that has found its way into daily life. There are lots of them.

"Too much information!"
"Don’t talk to me, talk to the hand."
"I’m not going there."
"That’s why they pay me the big bucks."
"You think?"
"It doesn’t get any better than this."
"Good times."
"Did I say that out loud?"

The last was delivered by Cliff Clavin on Cheers. It is now in wide circulation.

Writers hate clams. They see them as lazy, pre-fab humor. But they are obliged to use them. It’s as if they have been taken hostage by their own work. These lines are now so much a part of everyday speech, they are sometimes the mot juste. Not to use them can compromise a scene.

But the rest of us are less conflicted. Clams are the stuff of speech. They come to us unbidden and they score. I was fielding an odd comment from a student in a class room. He asked, for some reason, what I thought about those moments when cocaine is suddenly not available. I could hear the class come unhinged. A carefully crafted teaching plan now hung in the balance. "I hate it when that happens," I heard myself say.

Big laugh. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t made it up. Indeed it was funnier because prefab. We are happy to have our jokes ghosted by comedy writers. And why would we not be? (You have heard people tell their own jokes? How about professors?)

It is, generally, a good thing to be scripted. We deliver better lines, and our "audience" is ready for us, cued as surely as if an applause sign had just lit up.

This is not always true. I recently did a pub tour, looking for the ghost of Mordecai Richler (Looking for M. Richler, November 7, 2002, below). The evening was going pretty badly, when suddenly the door blew open and in came a man yelling "Yeah, baby," his tribute to Austin Powers, which he liked so well that he repeated it over and over till I felt obliged to leave.

A Budweiser ad armed perfect idiots with the right to say "whazzup" until this clam was finally put to rest by the people at www.tinyriot.com. A little clam can be a dangerous thing.

Clams may come from sit com writers, but they belong to us. A friend of mine was struck by the new maniacal laugh of a friend of hers. My friend was surprised to hear this laugh again in the movie Mars Attacks (1996, Tim Burton). And when she saw her friend next, she said,
"so that’s where you got it."

"What?"

"That laugh!"

"What laugh?"

"That one you got from Mars Attacks."

Her friend was mightily offended. She may have got the laugh from Tim Burton’s movie but now it belonged to her. Something in us supposes, apparently, that we deserve some of the credit for these performances.

Our skill with clams comes from media exposure. I went to a wedding a couple of years ago in which every member of an otherwise pretty typical family stood up and delivered "A" material as part of their roast of the groom. I was stunned they should be so good. The only moment of real creativity came when one of the brothers got up and said, "I’m the odd one in the bunch" and proceeded to do a satirical treatment of the Catholic minister who had performed the ceremony. This was so funny that people were actually shouting at their plates with laughter.

But the rest of the time we were co-conspirators in a reproduction of popular culture. "A river runs through us," I thought. (I’d had a lot to drink.) We have all of us absorbed so many media feeds. We have bathed in so many comedian routines, we are now pretty good at them.

If we were in a diminishing mood (and this is the tone of a lot of pop culture criticism), you could say that we have been reduced to participants in that famous comedian’s convention in which all the jokes are so well known they have been identified by number. You only have to say "57" to get a big laugh. Culture has been flattened. Creativity has been diminished. We have been turned into robots, thoughtlessly reproducing bits and pieces from the stream of popular culture that passes constantly through us.

But I’m not in a diminishing mood. Clams are consistent with a lot of what we see now in popular culture: "Like" talking, air guitar, Lip sync, Karaoke, Flight Simulator, Sim City, fanfic, Blade Runner (the game), Goth theatre in the streets of San Francisco, MUDS, MOOs, Virtual Worlds, Rotisserie baseball, and HSX.com (reviewed Transformation, pp. 287-296). People are taking the theatrical resources that come to them from TV and movies into their own hands. They are using these props to step into someone else’s personae (real or fictional). Clams are perhaps the smallest moments of transformation. We can insert them, just in time, in a little space in the conversation.

And in that moment we appropriate the humor of a TV character, and we dress ourselves up in humor funnier than any thing we could manage on our own. We are not naive about this, neither are our listeners. But we are not without our standards. We can’t just say "57." The line has to be well chosen, well timed, and well delivered.

This is a shift we see more and more. That virtually everyone has moved from being a consumer of culture to being one of its, unofficial, producers. Even when this is borrowed production, it is still production. And this should be enough to discourage the "dupe" argument that says contemporary culture has turned us into, well, dupes. We have shown ourselves increasingly voracious in the consumption of clams. And increasingly skilled in the way in which we recreate this comedic material in everyday life.

It turns out, contrary to the Frankfurt school, Stewart Ewen, Stuart Hall, and other social scientists too numerous to mention, the culture that comes out of commerce is actually quite inclusive and participative. It does not "dumb us down." Quite often, it smartens us up.

Now it remains to do the anthropology. What is a clam exactly? Why do some sit coms lines make it into popular culture and others not? How long do they stay in circulation? Do they "diffuse" like other cultural innovations? Do people characteristically chose certain clams and avoid others? How do clams change social performances? How do clams change the social construction of the self? How much and what kind of traditional humor has been supplanted by clams? A few questions for us to contemplate.

Thank you, David Blum, for the article.

5 thoughts on “pre fab culture

  1. Nigel Mellish

    More often than not, clams also serve as a common reference point. Socially, it allows one to say, “I like this aspect of modern culture, do you”? To be successful at this, most people seek the lowest common denominator – a highly successful television show or well known comedy routine.

    Saturday Night Live, at it’s prime, was the worst distributor of clams. I recall in middle school how, on Monday morning, everyone would attempt to be the first to use the newly introduced (or semi-cleverly recycled) clam into conversation. Nothing was worse than picking the wrong sketch “clam” that you thought was particularly funny but no one else found humorous. I guess that was a “bad clam”?

  2. Grant

    Nigel, great post, and an inspiration for my post today (August 19: how to blog like an anthropologist III). Thanks! Grant

  3. josh

    Has anyone else heard of Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “meme”? I’m just putting it out there; read his book “The Selfish Gene” to see what I’m talking about. He basically proposes these “clams”, or pieces of culture, music, ideas, or whatever else are replicators that live or die in the sea of minds and may prove to be a completely different kind of evolution in its infancy.

  4. Grant

    Josh, I had a look at this idea when I was writing Plenitude (on this site), and it seemed to be that it had some problems. It told us that ideas traveling but not how. The metaphor is of course a biological one, and the method and the impulse of transmission is pretty clear here. But I think we need to specify how memes work when the transmission takes place between people by word of mouth. In fact, I ended up thinking that the theory of the meme best described itself. The idea spread far and wide, but it was not clear why and exactly how it helped us. But I may have missed something. I often do. Thanks. Grant

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