Tag Archives: Dave Chappelle

The ‘wicked grin’ test (as a new creative measure)

How do you know when something in our culture is really good?

I think it’s when it makes us grin a wicked grin.

This is one of those: Dave Chappelle does imitation of Prince and Prince uses the imitation for his album cover. Dave becomes Prince. Prince becomes Dave becoming Prince.

For post-modernists, this is ‘signs circulating.’ Fair enough but not very interesting. It doesn’t explain why we grin wickedly.

It’s the relocation that does it. Daveness taking on Princeness. Princeness taking on Daveness as Princeness. These are meanings in motion. We grin wickedly because we can’t believe that Dave dared attempt Princeness. It’s not temerity that gets us. Dave is free to make fun of a genius like Prince. That’s the privilege of his genius.

No, what makes us grin is astonishment. How did Dave do it? How is that possible? Daveness and Princeness share a claim (and a proof) of genius, but they come from very different parts of our culture.  They are in a sense incommensurate.

And they just made themselves (for a moment, in a way) commensurate. This makes our minds happy…and our faces grin. I think it is at some level it makes our brains happy. Meanings attached to one thing now, astonishingly, belong to another. We can feel gears turning in our heads.

Dave and Prince have brought meanings together that are normally kept apart. And we thank them for this semiotic miracle by grinning our admiration, astonishment, gratitude. Who knew our culture could do that.

We make a lot of culture with acts of unexpected, unprecedented combination.  (I have tried to map this process for contemporary culture in a book called Culturematic.)

Indeed, wicked grinning should be the new objective not just of comedy and album cover design, but of branding, design and advertising. We used to slavishly obey the rules of official combination (aka genre). Now we bore people with this predictability. If the user, viewer, consumer, audience can see where we’re going, they won’t come with us. (Susan Sarandon did an interview yesterday on Charlie Rose in which she said precisely this.)

Compare a culturematic to old fashioned marketing. The ad man and woman came up with a blindingly obvious message, stuffed it into one of the mass media (3 network TV, magazines, newspaper, radio) and fired it at the target over and over again until our ears bled. Everyone just wanted the “persuasion” to stop. This was cold war torture. And the worse part of this torture was how completely unsurprising it all was.

Every thing changes when we assume that our “consumers” are clever and interesting, and, chances are, making culture on their own. This means first that they can see the grammars we are using. Second, it means that they are looking for culture to make their own, for critical purposes and creative ones.  Culture creative, assume you are talking to someone has smart as you are. Assume you are talking to someone who can do what you do. And go with the idea that we have no hope of success unless we are making content that makes people grin wickedly.

Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green have invited us to embrace a new slogan: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” The idea is that a message will die unless people take an act hand in distributing it by social media. I am proposed that before we apply the Jenkins-Ford-Green test, we apply “wicked grin test.” Forget the focus groups and the audience testing. Just show your work to someone and look at the expression on their face.

Charlie Sheen and why some celebrities act all crazy and everything

Ain’t no going back.  You can’t get unfamous.  You can get infamous.  But you can’t get unfamous.  Dave Chappelle

I was reading the Entertainment Weekly coverage of Charlie Sheen, and thinking about how many stars flame out.  The head shaving, the shop lifting, the outbursts, the throwing things, the ranting and raving.

There must be as many reasons for this behavior as there are celebrities.  But what if there’s a secret motive?

Maybe some of these people want to stop being famous.  

It’s hard for the non-famous to imagine this. Wealth, glamor, adulation, media coverage. What’s not to like?  

But of course the costs are high.  You give up your privacy.  You give up amiable for adulation. You take on a team that must be fed, a lifestyle that must be maintained.  But the real cost might be: you can’t leave.  Fate has claimed you.  You have lost your mobility.  You can’t go home again.  Actually, you can’t even leave the house.  

This would explain how strange these outbursts are.  Celebrities believe themselves to be as gods.  So when they tire of celebrity, I expect they believe they can just up and go.  And it’s here that they begin to glimpse the truth of Dave Chappelle’s comment above.  They are struck.

This is why it goes steadily from bad to worse.  They begin with small acts of rebellion. Attempts to scale the wall.  And those don’t work.  They try a little more bad behavior and this too leaves the door closed.  It’s not very long before they are using their talent for drama and very considerable ingenuity to see if they can just get the f*ck out of here.  

This would explain why the crisises are so public.   I mean, celebs have the money and the staff to contain or conceal their moments of difficulty.  Things find there way into Entertainment Weekly precisely because eventually that’s the very point of the exercise: is to evade the controlling power of this money and this staff.  Celebs are looking for anything that works.  

The Chappellian revelation must be a moment of pure terror.  This beautiful garment is actually a trap.  It went on so easily.  It looks so stunning.  It became you until you became it. Now it won’t come off. Now it’s time to panic. All that wealth, profile and adulation you worked so hard to get…

In their heart of heart, celebrities continue to believe in their talent and their ingenuity. Surely, they just have to work a little harder.  There has to be some way out of here.  What if I steal this piece of costume jewelry.  That should do it.  No?  What if I go on top of a building with a megaphone.  No?  Ok, what if I …   

By the time we get the news, the celeb is deep into the Chappellian cycle.  They’ve tried A and B and are now working their way to M and N.  It looks to us like they have boarded the crazy train, but in fact this is merely the last stages of a rational undertaking.  Celebrities are producing crazy behaviors only because the rational ones will not pan out.  And they are trapped.

In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio.  Rebroadcast on Bravo, December 18, 2006.