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Individuality without Originality

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2012-02-02


There is a moment of real dread during any argument over same-sex marriage, the moment when your family-values, religious-based opponent has exhausted all of the usual social and philosophical arguments about the issue and is preparing to take another tack. You can tell the moment has arrived when you see the slight curling of the lip, the softening of the features, and you realize with a sense of horror that your opponent is going to attempt to be funny with his imminent observation. You wish you could do anything to change the inevitable, to stop him from speaking, to stop time itself, but you know that's impossible: he's going to make that joke, that stupid joke, and there's nothing you can do about it.

So he starts to speak, and just as you suspected, says, "You know, if God wanted gay people to marry he would have made the first two people 'Adam and STEVE' and not 'Adam and EVE!'" and he laughs, and then he waits to see if you got his joke. And so, after a deep sigh, you grimace out a pathetic little smile, fighting the urge to tell this half-wit that you've heard this particular bon mot a billion times already, that it's never been funny, that you totally get that "Steve" rhymes with "Eve" and that the transferal of the two names is what makes the joke so golden. You suppress all this and a dozen other insults that are at the tip of your tongue and then you try to get back to the argument at hand.

Full disclosure: I haven't heard that joke a billion times, it's only been a couple dozen, but it seems like a billion, especially since once would be more than enough. I find it incomprehensible that anyone would utter something so thoroughly unoriginal and paint-by-the-numbers obvious, yet the jokesmiths who pass this gem along always seem so satisfied by their wit, as if they've suddenly become modern day Oscar Wildes and Dorothy Parkers. And, oddly, it seems they believe they actually authored the joke themselves: every time I hear it, the speaker acts tickled and surprised, like it's the first time these words have ever been spoken aloud, by anyone.

This happens regularly enough, a joke or a catchphrase takes hold of the zeitgeist and spins around seemingly forever, bouncing around so often that nobody can really recall how it first came into existence. The "Adam and Steve" thing has been around for decades, though obviously, the recent spate of propositions on marriage laws has brought it back into popular usage. Which doesn't excuse it, of course.

In election years you'll hear other, done-to-death, super-obvious cliches brought out of mothballs and put back into the national conversation. We're barely into the second month of the primary season and already I've heard two of the worst ones, the "Kumbaya" thing and the "to the right of Attila the Hun” thing. The "Kumbaya" thing, I guarantee, will be heard at least 50 more times during the 2012 campaign season. For the uninitiated, the joke happens when a political analyst notes the surprising civility that two candidates show each other at a debate or some other public forum. "It's almost like you expect them to sing 'Kumbaya' and hold hands," the analyst will joke, referring to the old campfire singalong "Kumbaya," a spiritual song that has always been associated with hugging and positivity and 60's-style communal unity. It is presumably an ironical joke, for campaigns are decidedly pugnacious affairs, with a noticeable lack of spirituality and communal unity. I've heard the "Kumbaya" joke for years now, which is odd, because I'm pretty sure it's been a generation since anybody's heard the song "Kumbaya." Yet the cliche lives on.

The "to the right of Attila the Hun" thing you'll always hear whenever an analyst is struggling to come up with an adequate way to describe the most extreme, John Birch-loving conservative politician of the moment. It's been previously attached to fire-breathers like Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, and Pat Robertson, and it's also an exaggerated, ironical reference: Attila the Hun was legendary for his cunning and his rapacious appetite for war, two qualities that certainly wouldn't hurt a deeply Republican candidate during primary season. "Attila the Hun" sometimes gets replaced by "Genghis Khan" by some analysts, who probably figure that any of history's marauding barbarians could fill-in-the-blank and make the metaphor work.

I had exacting composition professors in college who would absolutely crucify students who tries to pass off cliches like these or other tired metaphors in their essays. They demanded originality from their students, believing that the only way writers can learn to write well is by forcing them to be distinctive. We were encouraged to learn from other writers, but the emphasis was always squarely placed on making our styles singular and unique. The professors had to suffer through a lot of immature, inchoate, rambling essays from young writers, but the process helped eventually establish a writer's true identity.

I always believed that all artists operated under the same notion, that having an original voice was sacred and integral and primary, but now I'm having my doubts. There are a lot of artists who seem to believe in assimilation. I've never understood karaoke, for example, for it's always seemed like an insulting idea: you can sing, but you have to sound like someone else, you have to reproduce what's already been done. Similarly, I'm always astonished how much time and energy people devote to reproducing things on YouTube without adding a thing. I inadvertently clicked on a false Shutter Island trailer once, and what I got was a shot-by-shot, homemade video that mimicked the original in its entirety. What the hell? What's the point? The "S*it Girls Say" videos on YouTube are admittedly funny, but it's distressing how many immediate copycat videos have already been made; one person's original idea has been piggy-backed by so many others, others who have absolutely nothing imaginative to add.

In college, I also studied theatre, and I remember how strongly valued the idea of experimentation was. Every young-turk director would absolutely balk at the notion of doing a classic play traditionally, so you'd get a Taming of the Shrew in the Old West, you'd get a Perseus in outer space, The Merchant of Venice would be set in the 1930's, etc. A lot of these productions were disasters, of course, but they were "good" failures: it was more honorable to take a big chance and screw up than it was to have a straight-laced, timid little success. Contrast this mindset with that of a local theatre professional, a director who notoriously watches filmed versions of plays and then simply tries to reproduce them, piece by piece, on a Fort Wayne stage. It's an astonishing tribute to conformity and unoriginality.

When I taught acting I frequently had actors who admitted that they were hoping one day to be "discovered" and become famous. Without trying to destroy all their dreams on the spot (which, I have to admit, can be a lot of fun), I pressed them gently about what they really meant. What, exactly, is somebody going to "discover" in you? I would ask. Is it worth anyone's time? It's not a light question; lots of people want to be "discovered", but what happens if there's nothing there to discover?

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