Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Secret Formula of Entertainment



My little boy turned seven months old today. One of the great pleasures of seeing him grow and advance before my eyes has been in witnessing the development of a sense of humor. At first I suspect his laughter was largely in imitation of mine, and later giggles and chuckles that came about as a result of physical manipulation (i.e. tickling) hardly count as genuine. But somewhere along the line he has become able to show signs of amusement in response to outside stimuli, and what he finds funny is often unpredictable. For example, yesterday I stumbled upon a way of gyrating my head which guarantees a response equivalent to tickling; it's like an invisible tickle, sending signals straight through the air to some neural pathway dedicated to chortling.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly know what someone else, baby or not, will find humorous, or in a larger sense, entertaining. Looking at the common denominators of what my son finds funny, I came up with a theory. It seems that if something is too familiar it doesn't elicit much of a reaction from him, if it is too strange or exotic it may frighten or overwhelm him, but if it blends these two concepts, it "tickles" him. For example, he's used to seeing my head, and even used to seeing my head move, but seeing it move in a novel and to him, illogical, manner was pleasurable.

And the more I think about it, the more it seems that as we get older, what appeals to us may change, but the formula really doesn't. I don't presume to assert that I've discovered anything new here-- certainly, theories of aesthetics have long held that slight variations on a reliably familiar theme are what penetrates an audience's consciousness. But I wonder if we should also look beyond fine arts to apply this to any popular phenomenon.

For example, I was watching a football game earlier today in which there was a rather scary injury. One of the announcers remarked that though such incidents are unfortunate, they are inevitable. He commented that the violent nature of the game is precisely why it is so appealing, that football is so popular precisely because it is physical. But then again, one could certainly devise a more gladiatorial pastime than football, one with a much baser appeal to savagery. Football is undeniably violent, but with 22 men at a time pursuing specific strategic goals, it is also undeniably intricate and complex. And that may be precisely the appeal. We fall into a routine of watching the same teams at the same times on weekends in the fall. We familiarize ourselves with a set of rules which is more or less static, we become accustomed to personnel who change little week to week, and gradually enough over the years to keep us invested. But the outcome of any game, any play, any season is always in doubt. Within the comfortable and the familiar, there is always the element of surprise.

Perhaps the apotheosis of this idea is the television show This is Your Life. The show's concept was to keep surprising the guests, but the surprises were always rooted in the familiar. The guest wasn't surprised because they were now going to meet somebody new, but because they were going to meet somebody old. Of course, the show's limitation was that only celebrity guests were truly experiencing this, yet I think the core appeal was so great that many viewers were content to experience it vicariously. If only the elements of this show could be packaged in a way that anyone could experience it, we would truly have a cultural phenomenon on our hands.

Oh wait, Mark Zuckerberg did do that. Conventional wisdom is that Facebook exploded in popularity because it appealed to a narcissistic culture, that people were served with a way to indulge their need for ego construction and projection. But geocities.com provided that in 1997. What makes Facebook different is that in addition to sharing about oneself, we have access to the sharing of others. And notably, the "others" are people we have a connection to-- and the more tenuous the connection, the stranger it is that we have access to their sharing. And this is exactly what makes the phenomenon. There is something inherently surreal about checking one's newsfeed and finding out that a person you went to high school with (but can't remember ever talking to) is having trouble with their pet, that someone you work with (but hardly ever talk to) has posted vacation photos, and that a guy who played rightfield for your favorite baseball team 20 years ago is excited to watch a football game this weekend. But again, this is only surreal because of the prior context. The information and the relationships may be mundane (and familiar), but the fact that we have access to the information elevates the mundanity, and makes us all like babies looking at a father with a gyrating head (though Zuckerberg probably wouldn't phrase it quite like that).

Of course, this theory is really only evident in hindsight. Even knowing that my young son enjoys a mix of the familiar and the strange, the degrees of each aspect and the exact manifestations of this formula are so variable that I can at best hope to stumble upon them by experimentation. But I think my neck muscles are up to the task.

3 Comments:

Blogger The Hungary Traveler said...

You're "friends" with Rob Deer?

5:04 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Deer played left.

10:42 AM  
Blogger ❤Sandii모래의❤ said...

Is that your son? Omg, he is so cute. :)

1:13 PM  

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