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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, December 14, 2002
    Cruel Comedy and the Mental Environment
     
    I wanted there to be something profound in The Face's 2002 Review. There wasn't really. An article on Swansea's surf evangelists who are getting a lot of media at the moment, and bless them. The mag carries lots of Jesus imagery but little depth. The one feature which drew me was titled 'Cruel Comedy'. Its thesis is that we have become sated by empty celebrity TV. The popularity of comedies such as The Office, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights and I'm Alan Partridge is because, by contrast to, say, PopStars, they are about the struggles of everyday people we can relate to:
      ... the quiet, ordinary desperation of Tim, Dawn and David Brent holds ... power. They're not going to be plucked from their everyday drudgery and made into stars. They have to resign themselves to their fates or fight tooth and nail for a dirty scrap of happiness. Like the rest of us. So, even if we're laughing at them, it's the uneasy relief of escaping from the relentless torrent of success and celebrity that makes it so compelling.
    Now, Adbusters magazine has taken this much further. In fact, they've built a movement on the concept of the mental environment. In the same way as in the eighties we became increasingly aware of the decline of our physical environment, Adbusters say that in the nineties it became clearer that our mental environment was 'no less in crisis':
      20 million North Americans diagnosed with clinical depression; another 20 million suffering anxiety disorders; antidepressants now a $10-billion-a-year business; commercial messages everywhere the eye can rest - from the banana in the supermarket to the booster-rockets of the space shuttle, to product placement in the movie you're watching to escape it all.
    Our weariess with 'celebrity' as described in The Face is another sign of our present condition. Adbusters organise campaigns such as Buy Nothing Day and TV Turnoff Week to try help people restore their mental equilibrium in the face of gigantic media forces. With its almost defiant celebration of the ordinary, 'Cruel Comedy' may unwittingly be having similar effects.