the sudden loss of celebrity pressure

The anthropology of the contemporary world has many questions to take up. One of the things we particularly need to understand is the precise character and operation of our dynamism. As a culture, we are changeable, dynamic, and discontinuous in ways that few cultures have ever been.

Yesterday, I found myself thinking about a special case of this dynamism. I was thinking about what we might it the “cataclysmic loss of credibility” that sometimes occurs on the public stage.

Chevy Chase, the comedian who began his career on Saturday Night Live and did a series of successful films (Caddyshack, Fletch, National Lampoon’s Vacation) did a talk show for Fox in 1993. For more info on Chase, see the Yahoo bio here. Here was a guy with lots of credibility as a comedian. The world was long practiced in “finding him funny.” Suddenly, it was over. He wasn’t funny any more. At all. His talk show was excruciatingly precisely because it presupposed a humor that Chase could not produce.

Are there politicians to whom this has happened? One moment they are more or less credible representatives of the people, the next they are just “over.” Musicians or actors? Examples, please.

The fact that a cataclysmic loss of credibility can take place tells us something about famous people. I think it says that we must “stake” them some part of their credibility. To be sure, some they earn by dint of effort and talent. This they can claim to own. But some of their credibility exists in them because it comes from us. We “spot” them this credibility and it is, it turns out, ours to take back.

The website and books series called “Jump the Shark” specializes in spotting these moments of cataclysmic loss of credibility. The point of the exercise is not just for people to see that they no longer like “The Apprentice,” it is to identify the precise moment we withdrew our consent, the moment it ceased to engage. The Jump the Shark players are REPO men (and women). They hunt the neighborhoods of popular culture and exercising the right to repossess anything that no longer “belongs” to its possessor.

There are two particular issues that must vex and mystify us:

First, that there is, apparently, a kind of political contract at work here. I had always assumed that we admired our celebrities because, well, in most cases how could you not? They are talented, accomplished, charismatic, beautiful, durable, winning, influential and so on. But the “cataclysmic” model looks a lot more like something out of the world of political science. It says that celebrity is a much more cooperative enterprise, that the fan, at least in the mass, actually possesses the rights of authorship. Celebrities do not extract our deference, we give this to them. Celebrities do not fashion their credibility, but persuade us to surrender the stake and more besides.

Second, that, when there is a loss of credibility, it can happen all at once, “before our eyes.” My guess would have been that credibility was something that wore away. But no. Sometimes it goes “right then and there.” This is vexing. How is it possible that a very large group of people can change their ideas this dramatically and this simultaneously. They are not following one another in a diffusion array. They are all undergoing the same change of heart and mind virtually simultaneously. We are accustomed these days to think of ourselves as a culture with lots of differences and lots of inconsistencies. We sometimes wonder how any consensus, cultural or political, can be made to happen. And here it is, something that looks for all the world like a consensus that is somehow both simultaneous and naturally occurring.

There are many religious and political enterprises that have hoped for this extraordinary moment when the “scales” fall from our eyes that we may see where once we were blind. It has been a long and frustrating wait for the Marxists particularly. But here it is, the kind of thing they hoped for and worked so hard to set in train. Here it is happening apparently by itself in our midst all the time!

No doubt, there is a substantial literature on this problem somewhere. Or it may be that I have framed it badly, creating a problem where none exists. Dear reader, do advise.

3 thoughts on “the sudden loss of celebrity pressure

  1. Tom

    This type of phenomenon, a “tipping point” moment in which changes appear to come about in an instant, may be the result of accumulate imperceptible changes. The history of psychology contains a great deal of research into sensation, especially by the Gestalt psychologists.

    That research shows that there is a point (“just noticeable difference,” or JND) below which our senses are not able to detect differences in stimuli, even though those two stimuli are objectively different. At the point of JND we can determine that items are of different weight or brightness.

    An analog of this may exist for a celebrity. Chevy Chase is simply going along, imperceptibly losing “humor credibility” for the “normally perceptive American adult” until reaching the JND (Jumping The Shark) for “no longer funny” in a film like Fletch.

  2. Steve Portigal

    Rock journalists have adopted and promoted the truism that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded the immediate death knell for heavy metal music (they probably are fond of mixing a few more metaphors than I have the heart to do here). But I only heard that story in hindsight, so it’s hard to really be objective.

    I didn’t intend to re-analyze the Cobain legacy here, but merely to present a variation on the theme where one cultural event is responsible for the demise of credibility for another cultural icon.

    Of course, we have a seemingly insatiable appetite to redigest (oops tortured metaphors) the same post-credible icons in a new ironic light. Put ’em in Old Navy commercials or on a reality show and they have a new form of currency.

    If Chevy would revel in his “overness” he wouldn’t be so over.

    I think Chevy didn’t grow much after leaving SNL and he eventually wore out his welcome. I liked “Fletch” because it was a film/story I could connect with on a variety of levels – dramatic, funny, irreverent, romantic. Funny Farm, for example, did not do that, and I have the impression of Chevy’s career being filled with more Funny Farms than Fletches (Fletchs?).

    Did everyone check out the Jerry Seinfeld films that were basically AMEX ads going around the ‘net quite actively last week? I was kind of amazed to see that it was not much of an evolution of the Seinfeld show – and how many years ago did that go off the air? I started to wonder what else Jerry could do. Will he continue to do new creative artistic things? I hope so, but the AMEX thing didn’t leave me very confident.

    Okay, ramble off

  3. Grant

    Steve, thanks! Interesting point about heavy metal. My understanding was that the so called “alternative sound” come out of an unexpected fusion of punk and heavy metal with Frank Black playing unlikely midwife.

    And I like the idea that Chase was being punished for not growing. My expectation is that we sometimes reward comics for not changing (much more than we do musicians) and this, if true, would raise the question of why repetition is ok for a comic but bad for a musician. Anyhow, thanks again. I guess I should post this, shouldn’t I?

    Best, Grant

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