Lies, Damn Lies, and Stupid Pet Tricks

How people raised on 80s TV can’t reliably distinguish between real and fake, and why it’s even worse now.

While I was trying to figure out how Dolly Parton manages to achieve near-sainthood in such a cold and nasty world, I kept spinning off on tangents thinking about how much we’ve gone astray from putting value in — or even recognizing — sincerity and authenticity.

My take on Dolly Parton’s magic is that she doesn’t make a distinction between the “real” Dolly and the one that’s on-stage. For a lot of people, being “on” all the time means that they’re always insincere, but Dolly uses it as permission to always be sincere.1The saying goes: “Working from home doesn’t mean you’re always at home, it means you’re always at work.” But at least in my own experience, it also means that you’re always at home, which is nice both for unexpected napping and for knowing what to expect every day.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more it annoys me that my generation is the one that took all the earnest sincerity of the 1970s, said “Nah, that shit’s too fake and corny,” and sent American culture into a decades-long death spiral of self-satisfied, sarcastic, self-awareness. Post-modernism obviously wasn’t invented in the 1980s, but the 80s and 90s are what took it mainstream and then ran it into the ground.

And now, every time I see someone celebrating a “sardonic” or “irreverent” take, or a site giving an oh aren’t we naughty? wink for being “snarky,” or when I see anything on Twitter, I feel a sense of revulsion that’s not unlike body horror. That repulsively tiresome “clever” take is the same horrible thing that’s been growing inside me since before puberty!

In middle and high school, I was a TV-obsessed kid with frequent insomnia, and I idolized David Letterman. I was probably one of the only 11-year-olds in the country awake watching Late Night when it first aired.

Now, whenever I think about Late Night, two things immediately jump to mind:

  1. In one of Letterman’s interviews with Teri Garr, she was complaining that she kept forgetting important things because her memory was filled with useless information. I remember her saying in exasperation and distress: “I know Charo was married to Xavier Cugat!”
  2. Years after I stopped watching the show regularly, I read a retrospective that talked about all of the show’s wacky hijinks during the NBC years, like doing episodes from Dave’s office instead of the studio. That article casually mentioned that Letterman and Garr were secretly married around the time of those interviews.

Reading that felt like such a betrayal! And not just because Garr and Letterman had each promised me that I’d be their first; it felt like a betrayal because it’s just plain weird. Why was the article just casually mentioning it, instead of commenting on how weird it was?

That’s not “celebrities have private lives when the cameras are off” normal. Who the hell gets secretly married, apart from heretical clergy, and tragically doomed Jedi Knights? A marriage is an announcement; it’s not secret, by definition. And yeah, there are plenty of celebrities who don’t make a big deal about their spouses or their marriages; not every celebrity couple has to be out there as Emily Blunt and John Krasinski. But if you’re going to keep it on the down-low, why choose to go on television together all the time, and put on a show to America of how you’ve got such great chemistry, but that’s as far as it goes, none of your business?

This is like sleeps-in-a-hyperbaric-chamber-and-has-a-beloved-pet-chimpanzee celebrity weird. But worse, coming from a celebrity who built his brand on making fun of other celebrities for doing weird stuff like sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or having a beloved pet chimpanzee.

That’s the part that felt weirdly like a betrayal, even years after I’d stopped watching Late Night. Letterman’s whole schtick was insisting he was skewering fame, celebrity, TV smarm, and corporate entertainment product, presenting himself as an aw, shucks Midwestern non-celebrity who didn’t take any of this “show business” stuff seriously. The show spent so much time calling out phonies that Holden Caulfield could’ve been an exec producer.

They’d call out other NBC shows for being silly or schmaltzy or fake, and they’d call out GE for being a consumer electronics corporation in charge of an entertainment company. Meanwhile, they did stuff like Stupid Pet Tricks and dropping stuff off the top of the building to see it hit the sidewalk, all with the attitude of “can you even believe the wacky stuff they’re paying us to put on the tee vee?”

All through the 80s and much of the 90s, I ate that shit up. It would be a couple of decades before I read any David Foster Wallace, and learned that TV is incapable of introspection or self-analysis. This felt like being granted a peak behind the curtain, the truth behind the lies of Hollywood. I remember magazines at the time liked to call it “irreverent,” but I had a sense it went deeper than that. It was authentic.

“Everything you see on television is a lie,” it said. And I thought, Man, I’m glad I’ve got you to tell it to me like it really is, person on television.

When I think about it like that, I feel like I’m starting to understand just a little bit how otherwise intelligent people could be taken in by such an obvious con in politics. If you’ve spent years seeing that politicians aren’t to be trusted, and the media is so easily manipulated, then someone ranting about lying politicians and “fake news” might seem to be a fresh alternative. They don’t even need you to support or believe them so much as you mistrust everyone who’s not them.

I should make it clear that I’m not actually accusing Letterman or anyone involved with Late Night for having sinister motives; it was a trend, not an agenda. And it was an attitude that was all over the place for the next decade and a half, including game shows like Remote Control and ad campaigns and blurred-line comedy news shows like The Daily Show. Showing applause signs, studio audiences, cue cards, and green rooms may have been at one point sincerely intended to bring the audience to the Real World of TV production, but all it really did was make more of the mundanities of TV production part of the production. And the effect it had on me, that took me years to notice, is that it made me start to forget where the camera was.

It all purports to be a peek behind the scenes, but all it really does is expand the performance to absorb more and more of the real world. The mantra that should’ve been repeated to every child of the 80s and 90s until we were sick of hearing it: Every single thing on camera is a performance.

And I say “mantra” because it’s not a shocking revelation; it’s something you have to keep reminding yourself of, since some very wealthy and skilled people have spent the last 40 years getting better and better at hiding the line between performance and authenticity.

I wish it would die off with Gen-Xers and unfortunate millennials, but it’s still an issue with the youths. Over the past few years I’ve traded my unhealthy relationship with TV for an unhealthy relationship with YouTube, and it’s unsettling to see so many people decades younger than me still wrestling with questions of “authenticity.”

It’s a platform with the aesthetic of a bunch of amateur filmmakers with a cheap camera making random broadcasts, now having to deal with having hundreds of thousands if not millions of viewers, and all the monetization and sponsorship concerns that come with that. That’s not so much a concern anymore for YouTube specifically — the days of getting a popular channel “by accident” are long gone — but it’s still kind of uncharted territory for media literacy.

A couple of years ago I saw a video on the topic of authenticity by the host of a YouTube channel fairly well known for their video essays about media literacy. This video was mostly twee but harmless observations about commercial aspects of YouTube, which might be unfamiliar to an audience that was trained to be aware of explicit commercial breaks, product placement, and the like. The creator of the video kept switching different styles to suggest different levels of “authenticity.”

The problem was that after 30 minutes of talking about voice and authenticity, they tacked on a coda designed to function as 100% GENUINE AUTHENTIC REAL TALK. For this, they recorded themselves sitting on the floor in a corner of the room, watching YouTube videos on a laptop. They’d already done segments in their “neutral voice,” sitting at a desk with a fixed camera, reading from a script, so this section was ostensibly meant to be double plus real. Apparently the audience was supposed to believe that because they’d turned off the ring light and sat on the floor, suddenly the camera had disappeared, and we were just having a casual chat.

I had a surprisingly visceral reaction; I think I probably jumped back from the screen like Joaquin Phoenix in Signs. Most stomach-turning to me was when, after repeating the assertion that everything on YouTube is inauthentic to some degree or another — even quoting Dolly Parton in the process, ironically — the creator of the video launched into their Squarespace ad. They gave an exasperated sigh, pulled out a smart phone, and made a show of reading the advertiser-suggested script off the phone, including appearing to have never heard of the concept of an offer code. All while credits for the video ran, followed by a long list of Patreon patrons. It was such a clumsy, insincere display of false sincerity. I mean, I’ve never made a penny off of anything I’ve put online, but I still know the Squarespace ad copy by heart. Don’t even try to act like this is the first you’ve ever heard of it.

So this was one of the most brazenly disingenuous things I’d ever seen on YouTube, but really, was it worth getting so worked up about? I think what made it so offensive to me was remembering how easily manipulated I was by the media when I was younger. Newer, more accessible platforms mean that viewers as young as teenagers need to be more sophisticated than I was as a teen, or even well into my late 30s, for that matter.

Instead of helping viewers get more sophisticated, stuff like this is going in the opposite direction. For one thing, it asserts that the line between authenticity and fakery is limited to when and how much someone is getting paid. We’ve spent the last four years subjected to a non-stop barrage of laughably false, blatantly manipulative BS in the political sphere — after decades of only barely more subtle manipulation before that — so it should be obvious by now we have more to worry about than just corporate advertisers.

And on top of that, even I have seen a growing number of videos on YouTube warning about burn-out and “parasocial relationships.” In other words, people making videos designed to look like they just switched on the camera and started chatting to viewers as friends, have now reached the level of popularity where they desperately need to tell viewers that they’re not actually friends.

That, along with issues with live-streaming, “user engagement,” forums or comments sections, and various questions of sponsorship and monetization, are all being presented as if they were new problems unique to 21st century democratized media. But they’re not really new issues. What’s new is that the same thing has happened to media that happened to taxis, food delivery, or any other aspect of the “gig economy:” the people making the most money have managed to shift a big chunk of their responsibility onto other people to make it their burden.

If there’s one main lesson in all of this, finally, it’s simply to be suspicious of anyone who’s trying to point out the line between “authentic” and “inauthentic.” And the more they assert that they’re showing you what’s fake, the more you should be suspicious. Generally, people who are making money honestly and responsibly don’t need to tell you how honest they are. Most people actually understand that people need to get paid to make a living, and they’re fine with that. And most people are aware that you’re talking to a camera, and there’s no need to try to hide it. If we’re moving towards a culture with more constructive sincerity and less destructive sarcasm, we’ve got to be comfortable with the idea that people aren’t all like the aliens in Galaxy Quest, and they understand that “performance” is not the same as “lying.”

Or to put it all more simply: the more someone says “believe me,” the less you should believe them. I wish I’d understood that when I was 11, believe me.