America has a tradition of interviewers who can’t really interview. I think it may start with Johnny Carson. It got worse with David Letterman. It may improve with the new lot on late-night. We shall see.
Of course it’s wrong to ask comedians to interview well. Their job is to find the funny and pitch the film. There’s no time to ask a real question, no chance to open a view corridor on the guest.
But surely, we are a little sick of Hollywood “personalities” and would cheer the host who could occasionally crack open that polished candy coating called celebrity for a glimpse of the person within. Is it too much to ask for the occasional question that goes the heart (perhaps even the soul) of the guest? What could it hurt? As prime time TV gets better, surely late-night could improve a little too.
Which brings us the Chris Rock documentary called Good Hair. This is not late-night, but it could make a real contribution to late-night (and anyone else who wants to learn how to be a better ethnographer).
Good Hair is filled with great interviewing. The camera takes in Rock occasionally and while there is no question that he is aware of the camera and no question that he is sometimes playing to the camera, we catch him listening well (as pictured).
There are several enemies of ethnography. One of these is self absorption. Vain people can’t ask a question that has any hope of revelation because they only care about themselves. They are dark stars, their curiosity never escapes the gravitation field of their own egos. All questions bend back on the bearer.
The other enemy of ethnography is self dramatization. Think of John McLaughlin, all bluster and tough mindedness (and no trace of nuance or thoughtfulness). The interview is merely a platform for the McLaughlin performance, and this is now tedious.
It may be that Chris Rock is already a big enough star that he doesn’t need to commandeer the interview for his own purposes. In any case, he doesn’t.
In Good Hair, Chris Rock demonstrates one of the really interesting moments of the interview, that moment when the ethnographer isn’t exactly sure what he’s asking and the interviewee is working hard to answer but doesn’t quite know what he/she is answering, and neither party is fully in control of the interview.
A guy like Larry King wants to keep things tidy. The questions are crisp. And answer are crisped. King fields a answer and bangs off the edges, the imprecisions, the glimmers of some other meaning. And, to be fair, this is the obligation of the old TV, to make things indubitable.
But things have changed. Imprecision is forgivable. It is indeed an opportunity. You the ethnographer are not sure what you are asking. You can just feel something out there beyond the scope of the interview. And the interviewee, bless him/her, shares the intuition and is prepared to go looking. Even if this means being a little vague for a moment.
There are several moments in Good Hair when the interview just floats. Rock and his respondents are waiting for answers to form. Sometimes, there’s silence. What we can hear is people struggling to figure out how to think about this, how to talk about this. These are delicious moments. This is how you capture culture.
Clearly, it helps a lot that Rock is talking about a topic (hair) that is not much talked about. It’s a topic surrounded, he discovers, by prohibitions. People don’t talk about it. Even to themselves. Coaxing this kind of knowledge out of its prohibited space is always interesting, and to get in on camera is really superb.
We are a culture enamored of ethnography. And we are surrounded by bad interviewing and terrible interviewers. Those of you looking for a short course on ethnography might consider watching Good Hair.