Sunday, August 30, 2020

Curation & Creation: 2 sides of the same coin?

On the menu of the various things I've been keeping myself busy with is serving as an advisor to a Boston-based startup called koodos. koodos is a venture-backed startup out of Harvard and MIT that’s building tools and incentives for people to curate on the internet. They’ve started with an experience that allows users to curate music and add commentary using emojis, and have reached thousands of users that actively do this every week.

In this week's edition of the koodos newsletter part 1 of a 2-part interview I did with co-founder Jad Esber on the current state of content curation and creation, and how the two are overlapping more than ever.

What does it mean to curate in 2020?


Things have changed dramatically since the top down, industrial strength days of content creation and content curation e.g. I worked in radio in the 1980s and 1990s (yes I'm that old but don't tell anyone, ok?). In those days — and I only think it's worth talking about the 'old days' to the extent that it informs what's going on currently — there was extremely limited access to the system, whether for artists, fans, or people who wanted to be in the industry. Only so many spots were available on charts, only so many jobs were available in the industry. A world of engineered scarcity you could say, but engineered that way because of the cost of taking something from inception to success took a lot of people, and a lot of connections, and cost a lot of money. In those high barrier to entry worlds, whether music, journalism, film, fashion, whatever, there were a relatively small number of what could be thought of as 'tastemakers' and generally broadcast media (whether radio or television or newspapers or magazines) were used to disseminate those tastes. Again, a lot of meetings, a lot of marketing, a lot of money.

In the past 10 years or so things have flipped. No to low barriers to entry. Is that good news or bad news? It's both, because it means nobody can say no to your idea but it also means hugely increased competition. We see things like 50,000 tracks a day, yes each day, being uploaded to Spotify, 4+ million creators on Roblox, over 7 million Twitch streamers, over 30 million YouTube channels. And then there's the world of TikTok, which is harder to categorize as what exactly is a TikTok video in relation to the categories we generally use to think about these things. At any rate, all this is the inverse of the world of a handpicked 10 or 20 bands getting signed every year or TV shows getting greenlit or games getting made.

So the new game is not about getting in the door, so to speak. The door is wide open. But damn that front hallway is packed. The new game is about doing something so new, so captivating, so must see/hear/do that hundreds then thousands and hopefully millions will come along with you. In theory it's a from the ground up system (and certainly was in the early days of online content creation) but in practice it's about building taste communities and fan communities but it's also about algorithms and discoverability and those things are complex and dynamic and therefore require strategies and know how and budgets in order to optimize them.

In terms of technology's role in all of this, it has given us algorithms, it has given us recommender systems, it has given us machine learning and AI, and we need all those things because as the numbers cited above indicate, everything is happening at previously unthinkable scale. But can the technology alone be the curator? Is there a role for human touch in there? We're at the point now, about 10 years into this tremendous flurry of creative activity, that we're only now starting to see the strengths and also the limitations of the coming together of technology and curation. There are all sorts of new categories and new use cases for slicing and dicing things for recommendation and curation, new ways of thinking about end users, and how they may have many different personas at different points in time and therefore there are many different use cases for content for each individual.

Is there a living to be made from curating online?


I think we're already seeing that in various places and ways. The playlist makers at Spotify are effectively curators. When there are 50,000 tracks uploaded daily and something like 50 million in total we need that layer of curation. This is what radio used to do, what music magazines used to do, what the front rack of the record store used to do (for those that remember record stores). Now, the playlist makers that are making a living are generally employees at Spotify, as opposed to independent music curators online, but we also see people like Anthony Fantano and his Needledrop channel on YouTube, which has over 2 million subscribers and about 640 million views and he's one guy sitting at home reviewing albums...he also does live events on Twitch (and used to do live events in person in pre Covid times). Here's a guy who created his own niche, on his own, and it was different enough from what either legacy media or other digital media outlets were doing that he now pretty much owns this space of album reviews. And the new crop of Substack writers is another example. Many are both creating and curating. Adding opinion and expertise to the world of over abundant content and adding enough value that people are willing to pay.

Patreon has been a great enabler of similar activities too. They've paid out over a billion dollars to creators ince their inception and half of that was in the last year or so. I'm also very impressed with what Cherie Hu has been able to build there, as a kind of curator of market intelligence, and generator of insights, about the new, technology-driven music industry. Another example of someone, working as just 1 person, who has been able to build what appears to be a nice cottage industry online, in a space where there was no shortage of 'noise' or conventional (whether legacy or digital) covering the sector but there was a shortage of smart commentary and insights, and people are willing to pay for this. And then in the broader sense there's influencer marketing, which is now a $10B industry, and it could be argued that many of the influencers are performing a curatorial function, of fashion or travel or sports or makeup or whatever their area of interest may be.

Part 2 coming soon!

In the meantime if you're interested in more musings on digital communities and internet culture in 2020 there's more to dig into on the koodos newsletter that can be found here.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Some concluding thoughts on the media prankster

And here we are at Chapter 5, aka the final part of the paper, with some concluding thoughts about what has been examined and explored in these preceding chapters:

Chapter 1: Putting the prankster in context
Chapter 2: Carnival pleasures: The liminal, the ludic, the synthetic, and the spectacular
          

“Traditionalists are the endangered species and iconoclasm is orthodoxy.”
 Andrew Calcutt, in Blueprint, May 2000
                                        
In an era of widespread and arguably predictable iconoclasm, the media prankster’s concurrent habitation of the worlds of work and play locates him in an interesting paradox. His (Ed. Note: There were no female media pranksters known to the author at the time this paper was submitted, i.e. Fall 2000) popularity gives him sufficient power to impact significantly upon popular culture, while his reputation as a self-parodying clown makes him seem harmless to the status quo. In reality, however, what the prankster brings to media discourse is a new logic, a rationale of the reflexive and the ironic. If we conceptualise the conventional media model of decorum, curiousity, and logic as signifying the reasonable and the temperate, then the prankster-initiated model of unfettered inquisitiveness and dismissed boundaries should read as chaos and illogic. Increasingly this is not the case. 

The proliferation of niche groups, or microcultures, with a deep understanding of alternate approaches to cultural production and reproduction, has greatly enhanced the intelligibility of the media prankster. In addition, the mocking of both media personality and media protocol by the indisputably popular media prankster weakens the sovereignty of the conventional media. What we are left to ponder, then, is what is more genuine: the openly derisive media model presented by the prankster, or the rigidly self-conscious version put forward by the majority of conventional media? Additionally, popular acceptance of the prankster’s techniques and sensibilities indicate a move away from the stigmatisation usually accorded to rule-breakers and mavericks, and a move toward mainstream permeation. For a style of discourse rooted in such avant-garde and openly dissenting traditions as Dada, Situationism, and punk, this represents a remarkable achievement.

It also bears reiterating that such cultural incorporation positions the media prankster as something apart from the binary opposite of conventional media professionalism and protocol. He must therefore be considered as a manifestation of a larger cultural moment and a point on the curve of highly vernacular, (and after Goffman) ‘backstage’ and ‘informal’ strands of broadcast talk. The prankster’s modus operandi thus conducive to the production of a media metadiscourse, a constantly evolving language of broadcasting that references broadcast culture and repositions media personality and audience in the process. 

The media prankster, unlike previous figures of media authority and/or celebrity, is neither expert nor imagined companion to the viewer, but co-conspirator. By dislocating the power relations and boundaries of broadcast discourse, the entire media environment becomes destabilized. Information flow becomes a continuous loop rather than a one way transmission, notions of authenticity and authority are undermined, formulaic broadcast talk becomes a laughable, if not highly suspect, form of public discourse, and consequently the model for what constitutes broadcast talk, in both nature and actual utterance, expands.

As the hoax becomes a more commonplace activity in a culture that celebrates irreverence and heterodoxy, it also becomes a less deviant activity. The prankster figure is no longer relegated to the sidelines of society. By incorporating the prank into his grammar of broadcast discourse, he offers an antidote to soundbite culture and media-trained celebrities and spokespeople. Recent media developments such as the syndicated American radio program The Phil Hendrie Show, in which the host of the program cunningly plays the role of presenter, guest, and callers, suggest that the high moment of media prankstering is upon us. 


Such an extension of the synthetic into all aspects of the media experience, combined with the proliferation and popularity of the media prank discussed in this dissertation, indicate a need for further research into audience readings of pranksters and synthetic narratives as everyday components of broadcast discourse.

      **********

(Ed. Note: And to tie things up with a nice Mobius strip of a bow may I refer back to the original post in this series, and its reference to a more recent crop of media pranksters, in particular Stephen Colbert's  'Stephen Colbert' of The Colbert Report. Here we find the either/or of satire is a lesson, and parody is a game may be too crisp a distinction. Much food for thought. 

And then there are the armies of YouTubers and Instagrammers and TikTokers and the like; gatekeeper-free environments that are open to anyone with a phone. Millions of daily uploads, billions of daily views, and, of course, a high rate of turnover in this world of influencers and microstars and 'ordinary celebrity'. (Turner, 2010)

Give me another 20 years?

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Suffering The Fools?

Welcome to Chapter 4 of the paper. In case you missed any of the previous chapters, you can dig into them here:



**********

“Pranks challenge all aspects of the social contract which have ossified.”
“The territory signposted by pranks may represent our single supremely tangible freedom.”
“…things are never what they seem…”



This chapter will be devoted to an analysis of the work of the media pranksters. Methods will include textual analysis as well as a discussion of the way the media have reported upon the phenomenon. The analysis will also include the relationship of aspects of the media prankster phenomenon to existing academic theories which have not yet been touched upon in this essay. In attempting to understand this style of broadcast talk, the literature review section of this dissertation pointed to cultural theories of the liminal, the ludic, the spectacular/narcissistic, and the carnivalesque as relevant to the theoretical positioning of the media prankster. What became clear is that the mission of the media prankster is to test the boundaries of appropriateness, and create room in media discourse for a point of view that contravenes conventional notions of truth, integrity, and consistency. Goffman’s work on identity, interaction, and styles of talk proves to be of particular value in this analysis, as does Tolson’s work in the area of synthetic personalities and its larger implications for the public sphere of broadcasting.

While it is tempting to accept the idea of the inversion of values of the carnival world and transpose it wholesale to the world of the media prankster, additional considerations should be factored in to the equation. The media prankster defies neat categorisation as he does not simply negate or oppose the status quo. Instead, he continually surprises, craftily switching gears and keeping us guessing. He plays against expectations, but it is not always clear when he is being sincere, sarcastic, or sardonic. Often his methods yield more interesting, and arguably superior results to those of his ‘professional’ media colleagues.

To further complicate matters, the media prankster exists both inside and outside the world of the media. By incorporating certain aspects of media and interaction protocol and blatantly ignoring others, the media prankster draws attention to the artificiality and arbitrariness of not just the media encounter, but to notions of media personality, authority, and celebrity as well. Yet, however awkward or uncomfortable it may be to observe the resulting style of communication, it makes for indisputably compelling viewing. Barnes’ (1980) and Bakhtin’s (1968) respective theories of subversion through ‘grotesque parody’ and 'grotesque realism’ provide us with insight into the strategies of the media prankster. It is through the manipulation and satirical overstating of those elements of everyday media presentation that are predictable and unremarkable in themselves that the prankster creates spectacle from the ordinary.

Meet Prankster #1: Ali G

In many ways the Ali G character represents a media manifestation of Baudrillard’s simulacrum. Of the pranksters analyzed in this dissertation, Ali G is probably the most seamless, and therefore the most successful at hoodwinking officialdom and creating intelligent, entertaining satire. Ali G creator Sacha Baron-Cohen has created a comprehensive universe for his character, complete with its own distinctive look, language, taste, sensibilities, and values. The Ali G persona has become so entrenched in British popular culture in 2000 that if we see a 'yellow Fubu track suit, wraparound shades, chunky jewellery, and Hilfiger hat', we automatically conjure up images of the skilled. Ali G’s heart is with the ‘Berkshire massive’, a fictional association based out of a well-to-do suburban London neighbourhood. It is from the untenable point of view of a ghetto boy from Berkshire that the world of Ali G originates. With this alter ego established, Ali’s strategy is to feign ignorance and gain social immunity by virtue of exotic ethnic and subcultural affiliations. In this guise he asks the most fundamental questions of the most respected figures. 

 
Ali G guilefully positions himself as the voice of youth, the host of a television program said to speak to the young people in the ghetto, hence his impressive track record in securing interviews with assorted spokespersons and officials, e.g.:

Ali G to High Court Judge Pickles:

“Is I allowed to kill a man who calls me Mum a slag?” 

Ali G to noted scientist and Professor Heinz Wolff: 

“What is the smallest thing in the universe? Is it smaller than a sand?”

Ali G to Major General Ken Perkins (Britain’s most highly decorated soldier):  

Ain’t the army just full of thick blokes? Would it help getting in the army if you’ve already killed someone?” 

Ali G creates a protective wall around himself with intentionally bad grammar, naive questions, malapropisms, historical inaccuracies, and vernacular slang. Allegedly serious exchanges, such as the above noted and the following, between Ali G and Lindsey Owen, the Bishop of Horsham, are thus able to take place within the context of what appears to be a straightforward media interaction.

Ali G: What does God look like?

Bishop: He is sort of Jesus-shaped.

A: What has God ever done?

B: Well he made the world. He created.

A: (incredulously) He made the world?

B: Of course.

A: (sounding surprised) Did he?

B: I can only tell you what I believe.

A: So you’re saying God made the world. (pause) And since then he’s just chilled?


In the world of the media prankster the embarrassing questions are asked, the social codes that govern interactions are tossed aside, and the usual cues and norms are ignored; in other words, a significantly different set of rules than those that apply to the world of the media professional. What we have here, to use Goffman's terminology, is the prankster deftly playing with the guidelines of 'in frame' and 'out of frame' interaction, the latter representing a form of communication that would be scrupulously avoided by the average person for fear of embarrassment or social retribution. Yet, for a reason difficult to pinpoint, ‘out of frame’ communications do not hold this threat for the seemingly humiliation-immune media prankster. Goffman’s work in the area of ‘backstage language’, or the type of speech usually reserved for subordinate spaces or areas without surveillance, is also applicable to the world of the media prankster. Whereas clear distinctions once existed between the backstage world and the onstage world, the dividing line has become increasingly difficult to ascertain, particularly now, and particularly in media culture.

After establishing the Ali G character on Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show with the short interview segments cited above, Ali G creator Sacha Baron-Cohen was commissioned to create his own six-part series for Channel 4, and added the character of ‘Borat’ to his repertoire. Posing as a television reporter from Kazakhstan assigned to a story on ‘how to be real English gentleman’, Borat sought out British manners expert Lady Chelsea.


Once inside Lady Chelsea’s home, site of her respected etiquette classes, Borat carefully violated almost every norm of British behaviour, even broaching such taboo topics as sex, death, and bathroom habits at the dinner table. After the Borat segment featuring Lady Chelsea was broadcast in March 2000, the well-mannered Lady was said to be ‘mortified’, and was even considering closing down her etiquette classes altogether.Such anecdotes speak volumes about the circumstances under which norms can be contravened with relative impunity; namely in the face of implicit, societally shared ideas about media integrity and political correctness. The diffusion of the media prankster phenomenon, however, detracts from the public’s faith in the media as an institution. Not too long ago the popularly held assumption was that media presentation in the western world reflected the values inherent in a democratic society: reality, truth, balance, and reason. In the intervening years we have seen a shift away from communication at face value, and movement towards the manipulation and reconfiguration of both media object and subject. By the early 1990s Scannell and Tolson viewed this proliferation of synthesis and simulation in the media as a threat to Habermas’ (1974) conception of the public sphere. While Scannell emphasises the importance of maintaining rationality as a core value in the public sphere, Tolson acknowledges the paradox of a public sphere so diverse and so fragmented that it represents everyone and thus, in essence, no one.

Meet Prankster #2: Tom Green

This is the Tom Green Show
It’s not the Green Tom Show
This is my favourite show
Because it is my show


So go the intentionally nonsensical lyrics from the theme song of MTV’s The Tom Green Show, a contemporary media phenomenon posing even more of a threat to a broadcasting sphere assumed to be truthful, decent, and reasonable. Various critics have labelled the show using terms such as 'sick, offensive, amateurish, and infantile', and Green himself admits that he does not always know where the line of acceptable prankstering lies. On the weekly television program Green partakes in such activities as surprising his parents in bed at 3 a.m. with the bloody skull of a dead animal, sucking milk from a cow’s udder, and impersonating an injured, blind, or otherwise disabled person, taking repeated pratfalls and causing physical damage to public property and/or himself. All of these events take place with cameras rolling, making a point to emphasise the uncomfortable, awkward moments usually relegated to the cutting room floor. Not unlike the performers in carnival and festive rituals referred to earlier in this essay, Green does not believe in separating the audience from the spectacle, even subjecting himself to violence, scorn, and humiliation along the way.

Clearly, Green’s interest is in creating extreme situations and provoking reactions. MTV executive John Miller sums up the appeal of Tom Green as “a live action hero for the Beavis and Butthead crowd", referring to the irremediable MTV cartoon duo whose public sphere was limited to heavy metal videos and random acts of neighbourhood vandalism. Proving MTV’s Miller right in an episode from the second season of The Tom Green Show, Green took his camera crew to several New York City electronics stores. The alleged object of the exercise was the investigation of product warranties. If an item claimed to have a one-year warranty, Green took that to mean the article was covered for a full year, regardless of the circumstances surrounding its damage. With that logic employed, Green proceeded to demolish clock radios, watches, and even a guitar, in full view of the shopkeepers, and then walk out without paying for the articles, arguing they were covered by warranties. By creating this extreme situation Green provoked extreme reactions, in spite of the presence of video cameras. Whereas some people would defer to the camera’s presence and be more lenient and accommodating under its gaze, the shopkeepers in this segment were uniformly enraged by Green’s behaviour, one even threatening to ‘kick his [expletive] [expletive]’, regardless of whether the camera was on or off. This incident suggests that an unwavering faith and belief in anyone with a camera no longer holds true, and adds fuel to the aforementioned Scannell/Tolson debate on the status of broadcasting in the public sphere in an era of synthetic media personalities and unclear rules. But there are also differences between Tom Green and the uncivilised Beavis and Butthead. Green, for example, invariably attempts to overcompensate for his wrongdoings, often asking for forgiveness or hugs from those he has trespassed against. In the exchange below between Green and a cinema security guard, note Green’s use of manipulative, childlike techniques, in this case asking for friendship from the authority figure he knows he has pushed too far.

Tom and cameraman brazenly walk in to cinema without buying tickets, with camera rolling.
Tom (to camera, while walking): We're going to sneak in to the movie now...we've slipped around the side...(he whistles to himself nonchalantly)
Tom (upon encountering the security guard): You're tall! You're fantastically tall.
Guard:  I'm not taller than you.  Now I'm asking you to leave or I'm going to throw you out.
Tom: You've got good security here.
 (TG to camera): Of course they're a business and if everyone snuck in they wouldn't make any money.
 (TG to guard): So we're friends again?
Guard: We were never friends to begin with. I have no stake in what you're doing; you have no stake in what I'm doing.
Tom:  We talked a long time though.  That's the beginning of a friendship, possibly. (Guard begins to break a slight smile)
Tom:  Unfortunately I live on the other side of the country so it would be a long distance relationship.  (pause)  Maybe we just better part company now before we get too attached.

Unlike routines that rely on choreographed set-ups and punchlines, Green’s act succeeds regardless of his subjects’ reactions. The mere staging of extreme situations provides viewers with the opportunity to observe the equivalent of a car crash in slow motion, all within a context sanctioned by the masses: the media environment. Despite its many negations of broadcast protocol, The Tom Green Show succeeds in its communicative intentions, making the case for the existence of a new media language, one in which the unspoken is spoken, the off-camera becomes the on-camera, and the repugnant is the norm.


In addition to forging a distinct broadcast discourse in these ways, Green plays with conventional notions of media personality by sending out mixed messages about his identity via his appearance. Of the media pranksters studied in this essay, Green is the only one not to use what amounts to a costume to transmit signals about his persona. On the set of his television show he usually wears a suit and tie, an improbable wardrobe choice for the iconoclastic Green, but the outfit does add an aura of seriousness to the otherwise lawless goings on. And although Green comports himself like most other 20-somethings during his ‘on the street’ segments, there is something slightly suspicious and menacing about his mundane self-presentation. At a time when piercing, tattooing, and unusual hairstyles and hair colours have been adopted and co-opted by the masses, one of the few remaining ways to be different is to be inconspicuous. Dave Laing observed a similar tendency amongst the Mods in the 1960s, and Caroline Evans noticed the affinity for such ‘disappearing tactics’ amongst the rave generation of the 1990s. For Tom Green this has meant the adoption of a very ordinary physical appearance, thus casting himself as less overtly freakish than fellow pranksters such as Dennis Pennis and Nardwuar the Human Serviette, whom we will encounter next.


Meet Prankster #3:  Dennis Pennis


If the media prankster is a practitioner of the punk equivalent of journalism, then Paul Kaye, creator of the Dennis Pennis character, would be happy to be considered a card-carrying member of the trade. Kaye admits that “…as a kid, I was big on John Lydon/Rotten…I guess that’s evident from the orange hair. I used to be a bedroom punk. Ruffing (sic) up my tie on the way home from school. There’s a lot of that in Pennis.” Coincidentally (or perhaps not), a quote from John Lydon/Rotten used to synopsise the punk movement, proves illustrative in an examination of the media pranksters. Lydon dubbed the efforts of the punks the 'achievements of the deformed. Like their punk brethren, the media pranksters are imbued with the rebellious spirit of the disenfranchised. Not pretty or mellifluous enough for the straight media world, the pranksters, like the punks, cultivate and capitalise on a grotesqueness, or negative charisma. They simultaneously captivate and repel. 

With his fluorescent orange hair, tasteless suits, nerdglasses, and a boisterous American accent and manner (oddly, he introduces himself as representing the BBC), Dennis Pennis communicates contempt for conventional media practice and its unwritten rules about appearance, appropriateness, and journalistic decorum. Operating from this dual base as member and mocker of the media, Pennis exploits techniques Goffman (1974) termed ‘deceptive frame’. When Pennis unabashedly insults the celebrities he is ‘interviewing’, and does so in the first few seconds of the encounter, it is clear that what ‘appears’ to be going on, is not really going on at all. Rather than a balanced media encounter, this is an outright attack, a communicative bait and switch.

It is significant that Pennis, unlike fellow media pranksters Ali G, Tom Green, and Nardwuar, deals exclusively with superstar celebrities. By accosting the likes of Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Cindy Crawford, Mel Gibson, and Cher at awards ceremonies and other superstar meeting places, Pennis stages assaults on the most highly media-trained personnel. His technique is the surprise attack, essentially carpet-bombing the stars with insulting one-liners. With an arsenal filled with corny wordplay and bad puns, there is little room for interviewee rebuttal or redemption. Pennis’ pranksterism is primarily about his performance, with a large part of the appeal being celebrity schadenfreude.

Examples of Pennis’ ‘hit and run’ interviewing technique include:

Demi Moore, if it was done tastefully and they paid you enough, would you ever consider keeping your clothes on in a film?

Pierce Brosnan, I was glued to my seat during your last movie. Otherwise I would have left.

Elton John, do you know what they call you in Germany? Herr Piece!

Mel Gibson, your film did wonders for my sex life. When I went to the cinema, I slept with the whole audience.

Tom Hanks, I loved your new film “Apollo 13”… but it was completely lacking in atmosphere!



A feature unique to Pennis as media prankster is the inversion of the focus of attention in media encounters. Whereas the conventional model usually features a brief question from the interviewer, followed by an explanatory and/or anecdotal response from the interviewee, Pennis rejects this mode of interaction in favour of one which shamelessly focuses the attention on the interviewer. This scenario would be one result of the violation of broadcast protocol initiated by the media pranksters. Part of what Pennis’s act is about, then, is the repositioning of the celebrity spotlight. By brazenly disrespecting those usually surrounded by sycophants and disproportionate praise, he invokes a pleasure Fiske (1987) associates with the spectacle of wrestling, namely the “exaggeration of the pleasure of looking.”

Exaggerated pleasures notwithstanding, even Kaye tired of his celebrity-assaulting alter ego, laying the pesky Pennis to rest in 1998. “I was bored [expletive] of the whole [expletive] thing”, admitted Kaye, “…Dennis…was becoming a fat, bloated, parody of himself…falling into every cliché in the book…Killing him was important to me.” Ali G creator Sacha Baron-Cohen is reported to have similarly hung up the trademark yellow track suit earlier this year, and rumours are circulating in North America that it’s only a matter of time before everyone in North America will be able to recognise Tom Green, effectively nullifying his act. For the media prankster there is an inverse relationship between success and efficacy, and he therefore must be viewed as having a ‘best before’ date. With these parameters for the media prankster established, we are poised to meet the final protocol-defying character under consideration in this essay. It should come as no surprise that he breaks the rules set out above.

Meet Prankster #4: Nardwuar The Human Serviette

The longest surviving of the media pranksters examined in this dissertation, the quizzically named Nardwuar the Human Serviette has been performing feats of media trickery since 1987. In the early days he was armed only with a tape recorder on loan from the college radio station with which he was affiliated. Soon the help of friends with parents who owned video cameras was enlisted, and confrontations between Nardwuar and television personalities, pop stars, and heads of state were documented on both audio and video formats. The resulting footage ended up broadcast on CITR, the University of British Columbia radio station, or on occasional specials on the local cable television channel. Alternately, transcriptions of the notorious exchanges ended up in such publications as Discorder (Vancouver), Chart (Toronto), Roctober (Chicago), The Rocket (Seattle), and Flipside and Popsmear (Los Angeles). As tales of his adventures have been confined to small circulation publications and broadcasts with limited zones of transmission, Nardwuar has been able to keep a relatively low profile (especially compared to the other pranksters discussed in this essay) and not have to worry about becoming a household name or face. (Ed. Note: As of the mid 2000s this is no longer the case as Nardwuar has become one of the most popular celebrity interviewers on YouTube, where his channel boasts over 228 millions views and  1.68 million subscribers as of mid July 2020.)

That it is Nardwuar’s habit to use the title ‘Nardwuar versus _____’ in his descriptions and transcriptions of interviews, indicates his framing of the interaction as oppositional and provocative as opposed to promotional and co-operative (the usual tone of the media encounter). Not entirely dissimilar to the style forged by Dennis Pennis, Nardwuar works with a model of the media encounter as obstacle course, the major difference between the two being that the assault is over much more quickly with Pennis. On a note of convergent evolution, also observe the physical similarities between Nardwuar and Pennis, two media pranksters operating concurrently and unbeknownst to each other, on opposite sides of the Atlantic. But in stark contrast to Pennis and his stinging one-liners, Nardwuar torments interviewees with a seemingly endless string of questions, testing both mettle and patience. Often times Nardwuar finds himself under attack from the interviewee. The result of this anomalous method is an upsetting of commonly held ideas about the temper of broadcast discourse and the related role of the media personality.

The following barrage of questions posed to rock musician Rob Zombie typifies Nardwuar’s interviewing style. For the most part, the incessant questions elicited either a non-verbal or monosyllabic response from Zombie. The non-verbal responses ranged from nervous laughter to sighs of frustration, silence, and even yawns. The overt yawn, meant to be read as a cue of the interviewee’s diminishing patience and increasing agitation, is superficially addressed by Nardwuar with “you seem a bit tired, Rob”, but ultimately ignored as social cue.

Are you a fan of those true-life crime books that are put out by Time-Life Books? 
Have you ever tried absinthe? 
Do you know exactly where in Los Angeles that Alfalfa from the Little Rascals was shot in the head over a bad drug deal? 
Have you been to a graveyard at midnight? 
What do you know about human sacrifices, Rob Zombie? The Aztecs were into human sacrifices. 
Have you ever been to a mortuary? 
Are you into necrophilia at all, studying the history of it? 
Do you own any shrunken heads? 
What kind of lenses do you use to get that effect in your eyes?

The interview continued for quite some time, complete with Nardwuar’s inexplicably formal, perhaps grotesquely parodic, use of the interviewee’s full name in almost every question. In addition, note a politeness that defies reason (statements such as ‘thanks for the interview’, and ‘really appreciate your time’ repeatedly appear in the full transcript), considering the fact that Zombie has been subjected to a line of questioning resembling a mutant form of cross-examination more than an interview. As Zombie grew increasingly weary with the proceedings and it was clear the interview was drawing to a close, Nardwuar’s method takes a Dadaesque turn, as he attempts to cajole the interviewee into participating in a childlike call and response (‘doot doola doot doo’) which has become the customary grand finale of his interviews.

N: Well, thanks very much for your time, Rob. I really do appreciate it.  Keep on rockin' in the free world. And doot doola doot doo... 
RZ: Okay. 
N: Rob Zombie? Doot doola doot doo…
RZ: (silence) 
N: Hello Rob Zombie? Just to end the interview? Goodbye, thanks for your time, Rob, and doot doola doot doo... 
RZ: See you later.  
N: Thanks again for your time. Would you be able to finish off with that at all? Could I ask you please? Please? 
RZ: A couple more times. 
N: A couple more times? Okay. Doot doola doot doo... 
RZ: I almost got it down. 
N: Okay. Doot doola doot doo... 
RZ: Keep going, it's almost funny.  
N: Rob Zombie! Doot doola doot doo... Are you there on the speaker phone? Are you still there? 
RZ: I'm still here.  
N: Thanks very much for the interview. I do appreciate it. And doot doola doot doo... 
RZ: (Silence)

(After an extended silence, it is clear Mr. Zombie has left the premises. He did not utter the meaningless linguistic units ‘doo doo’ and consummate the interaction as desired.)

Exchanges such as the above violate many tenets of media and communications theory, thus prompting questions related to sense-making and the media prankster encounter. Insight into the decoding of multiply inflected interactions may be obtained from Hartley’s (1999) work on ‘DIY’ (i.e.do-it-yourself) citizenship, a thesis informed by McKay’s (1998) definition of ‘DIY’ as a distinctive cultural force. Because of mutual ‘DIY’ cultural affiliations and bases of knowledge, there are those who implicitly know how to translate the unique language of the media prankster. In addressing the burgeoning of microcultures and the associated plethora of reinscribed meanings, Hartley identifies ’DIY’ as a fifth possible form of citizenship, following civic, political, social and cultural. In so doing, Hartley validates the efforts and activities of those operating outside and/or around the usual centres of power, such as the pranksters considered here. According to Hartley, “while cultural identity has classically been perceived as proceeding from natural or territorial authenticity…more recent identities arise from the private…world of individual lifestyle, choice, and preference…and subcultural identities based on youth, taste, or fanship of various kinds. Now we are moving…towards…citizenship based not on an authenticist notion of cultural identity, but on a radically deontextualised network of meanings which locate identity in the mediasphere, not in the public sphere.”

The exchange between Nardwuar and Graham Coxon of the British pop band Blur that follows serves as an excellent example of the media prankster as DiY culturalist and of the implicit, successful interpretation of the prankster’s cultural activity by someone inhabiting a similar universe of sensibility, taste, and information. Coxon shows his ability to recontextualise the decontextualised meanings (as referenced above by Hartley), indicating a successful transmission of meaning from the mediasphere. In this case the meaning came from Coxon’s exposure to the already discussed British media prankster Dennis Pennis. Able to read the appearance and combative style of Nardwuar as a media prankster in the Pennis tradition, Coxon implicitly understands the context of the tete a tete, and does not get flustered. He is therefore able to turn the exchange with the media prankster into an amusing volley. Those who do not understand the cheekiness, sarcasm, and simultaneously self-mocking and media-mocking nature of the prankster are unable to do so.

Nardwuar: Everybody thinks, ‘oh Blur are Mods’.  You guys are not mods, are you?
Graham Coxon:  No.
N: ‘Cause I always think of Mods like '65 Who, R&B, all that stuff.  Mods wouldn't wear Converse. You're not Mods, are you?
GC: No, we're not Mods.
N: Like you're not Mod.  You're not Mod. Like Blur are not Mod! You guys have effects pedals. What are all those effects pedals you have Graham?
GC: They're Mod pedals.
N: Yeah, ‘Mod’-ulation pedals, but I mean...
GC: (interrupting) You press one of them and a parka suddenly appears.


Tolson’s (1991) account of the ‘dialogic improvisation’ characteristic of television chat show talk is also helpful in this analysis. He likens this type of broadcast talk to a “…jazz performance, not only because it is apparently unrehearsed, but also in so far as it involves a play of thematic repetition and variation…A form of wit is demonstrated by interweaving these various topics, so that each is inflected in terms of the other…Two or three topics in the air at once and the skill of the participants consists in their ability to manipulate the dialogue to ensure that the verbal juggling act continues.”

To conclude the methods and analysis chapter, I would like to recap some of the main points. The media prankster is creating a new form of media discourse by parodying aspects of broadcast talk and mixing in elements of what Goffman has termed “informal talk”, the site where shifts in identity and topic are allowed. As opposed to being a straight inversion of the institutional language of broadcasting, this new form of discourse mixes genres in jest and in seriousness, turning media communication into a puzzle for which clues may be found in theshared networks of meaning of ‘DIY’ citizenship. In these ways the language of the media prankster demonstrates its ludic playfulness, its carnivalesque unpredictability, its punkish rebelliousness, and its ‘betwixt and between’ liminality.

Monday, July 13, 2020

Normalization & neutralization vs. rebellion & resistance

This third chapter of the paper (1999-2000) puts forward theories on how a combination of an ever-fragmenting media industry and a new tolerance of the edgy and offensive created a welcoming site for the media prankster at the turn of the millennium.

And if you're just joining us, here are direct links to the previous chapters:


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In this third chapter the case of the media prankster will be looked at from the wider perspective of cultural forces implicated in what is rapidly becoming the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, the mainstreaming of the irreverent. While speculation persists as to why this is the cultural condition of the moment -- increased media fragmentation opening up both space and demand for more extreme viewpoints -- what does seem certain is that the conventional ways of thinking about transgression no longer suffice. The majority of subcultural theories, be they of Chicago School or Birmingham School origin, map out an ‘us versus them’ scenario. The literally subordinate subculture is portrayed as disadvantaged and disenfranchised, acting out against a clearly dominant group for whom power and advantage are givens. The mere fact that a rule-breaking media personality can be embraced by the masses suggests that the way has been cleared for a new, more incorporative form of subversion.

To better understand this claim it is helpful to take a broader look at popular culture in the year 2000. Part of the argument I would like to make is that from the early 1990s onward, popular culture has acted as a neutralizing/normalising agent. Elements which were once considered shocking or outrageous no longer seem so, having been funnelled into mainstream discourse by a perpetually present media. The soundbites and information morsels constantly transmitted to us via old and new media seem to make it possible for anything to be palatable for a time span of twenty seconds. As a result, we see the extremes rearing their heads. At one end of the spectrum we find prefabricated boy bands and teen sensations like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Though their messages and appearance may overflow with subtext they are nonetheless sanctioned as family entertainment. At the other end of the spectrum we find the rawness and vulgarity of, for example, South Park and Farrelly Brothers movies.

A consequence of this stretching of the boundaries of the mainstream is the inclusion in media discourse of that which was previously perceived as countercultural, subcultural, alternative, or fringe, and therefore excluded from traditional media narratives. In this way, popular culture may be seen as much less resistant to difference. Meyrowitz (1985) explains it this way: “By merging discrete communities of discourse, television has made nearly every topic and issue a valid subject of interest and concern for virtually every member of the public. Further, many formerly private and isolated behaviours have been brought out into the…public arena.” To relate this reconfigured arena of popular culture more specifically to the case of the media prankster I will now introduce theories of rock and roll as a distinctive and all-encompassing lifestyle and ‘structure of feeling’.

Rock, rebel, and reconstitute

The intention of this segment is to position the media prankster as one who has effectively harnessed the power commonly associated with rock and punk traditions -- rebellion, opposition, provocation -- and placed them in the arsenal of the prankstering media personality. Just as so much of the extreme and the seminal has come to the fore in popular music, style, and lifestyle, so too is the case with media culture. Although the way in which media culture impacts upon the construction of identity and the production of pleasure has not been adequately studied useful theoretical work from the parallel world of rock and punk culture exists, providing potential insights to an analysis of the media prankster.

Grossberg (1984) wrote of the ‘strategic empowerment’ of rock and roll practice, but the main shortcoming here is rock culture referred to as the disenfranchised ‘other’, as located outside the forces of hegemony. While this may have been the case at the time of publication of Grossberg’s article, it is certainly not the case now. Today rock discourses are big business, infiltrating mainstream taste, fashion, and attitude with unprecedented speed and ease. And once the ‘hipness’ or the ‘otherness’ of rock discourse can be successfully packaged and marketed, all claims of rock and roll as counter-hegemonic lose their legitimacy.

Greil Marcus (1989) adds a new dimension to the idea of rock and punk as sites of empowerment by formulating connections between the one-time subterranean musical movements and the antiestablishment traditions of Dadaism and Situationism.


That the methods used by the Dadaists and the Situationists (some have argued their methods were identical) bear a remarkable resemblance to those used by the pioneers of the punk movement in the latter part of the 1970s, is more than coincidence, contends Marcus. According to him, cultural history would be better considered from the point of view of the rebels, as opposed to that of the victors. Marcus sees a timeline of counter-hegemony stretching from one end of the 20th century to the other, creating the net effect of a ‘secret history’ revealed by the beliefs and actions of those who opposed the dominant power structures. When, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Dadaist Tristan Tzara defined the logic of the revolutionary artistic movement as “…sucking in all the trivia, the rubbish, and the cast-offs of the world and then stamping a new meaning on the assemblage” how much closer could the philosophy be to the bricolage of the punks in the late 1970s, or the intentional violation and subsequent recontextualisation of practices enacted by the contemporary media pranksters? It is therefore productive to think about the spirit of inversion and resistance associated with Dada, Situationism, and rock/punk as a distinctive way of thinking, being, and reacting; in other words as a renovation of Raymond Williams’ 1961 definition of culture as a ‘structure of feeling’.

The possibility that the discourses of popular music are complete enough to symbolize a whole way of life has been suggested primarily by two cultural theorists, Steve Redhead (1990) and H.L. Goodall Jr. (1991). Redhead wrote: “rock and pop discourses have produced…a range of individual positions [styles, poses, identities, narratives, desires] which youth culture can occupy…as a collective subject.” Goodall extends the proposition, designating rock and roll as a “new form of life itself’”, complete with its own lore, customs, and sensibilities. What we have, then, is collective identity construction on the one hand and unique life form on the other, both spawned by the influence of rock and roll as not just style, but as lifestyle. How people come to understand and organize the communication presented by a species such as the media prankster may therefore be attributable to this new life form enjoying influence outside its usual jurisdiction of sound and fashion. Goodall continues by pitting the puckish disorder of the rock and roll world view against the rational order of the scientific world view: “…rock and roll as playing the fool to technology’s genius…[but] this time around… the king is not a nation, but a dominant ideology of technological capitalism and formula-driven research reports that is the currency of the mixed media of the side-by-side modern and postmodern eras.” Extending the metaphor from rock and roll as the fool, to the media prankster as bothrock and roll andthe fool, serves us well in our attempts to theoretically situate the jester of the electronic age.

An article in the prominent British pop/rock music publication the NME, or New Musical Express, addresses this metaphor. Against the background of a blown up frame grab from a television set, the NME cover story of April 29, 2000 proclaims, “Why Ali G is the most rock ‘n’ roll show on TV”. The article inside goes on to mourn the bland portrayal of rock and roll on television. In the mind of writer Stephen Dalton, it turns out rock on television it isn’t very rock and roll at all. An executive at Britain’s Channel 4, broadcast home to The Ali G Show, praises the Ali G character for “...talking about drugs and things that pop stars really wouldn't do now. It seems like pop stars in the Spice Girls sense, who have a media personality, are quite safe. There isn't a Sex Pistols or a Rolling Stones out there to have a laugh about taking drugs or being in a porn film. Although there's lots of good, edgy alternative music, things seem to be either co-opted into the mainstream or they tend to be underground and faceless." It is worth noting that these comments are more relevant to the British pop music scene than its American counterpart, in which rapper Eminem and hip hop-metal hybridists Limp Bizkit top the charts with lyrics about pornography, rape, murder, homophobia, misogyny, drugs, and vandalism, and seem only too happy to broach the taboo topics during interviews. But differences between the popular culture climates of North America and Great Britain aside, the universally acceptable face of the ‘bad boy’ of the moment, and the one most likely to leave a lasting imprint on popular culture is the media prankster.

When considering the location of borders and boundaries in official media practice, it is important to note the ground already gained by characters who could be referred to as borderline media pranksters. Falling into this category would be envelope pushing American media personalities such as David Letterman and Howard Stern, and animated series such as The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead,and South Park. The irreverent style characteristic of these personalities and programmes flies in the face of everything network broadcasting has come to be known for. With fact, fiction, sincerity, and satire in constant collision with each other in this new broadcast discourse, the “communicative ethos” of broadcasting becomes an endangered species. Furthermore, this new brand of discourse is being stylistically reproduced in advertising and the day-to-day language of fans and viewers.

This trickle-down effect aside, the media prankster seems less intent on discrediting the media as institution than in the degree to which s/he can play with media protocol and manipulate the public’s faith and belief in the media. The substantive question with regard to media culture is no longer the political economy-based ‘is the media too powerful?’ but, rather, to what extent is media authority taken at face value? That is to say, if someone has a camera and a microphone and is asking a set of questions, are they assumed to be part of something called the ‘legitimate’ media, and if so, is the behaviour of the ‘interviewee’ adjusted accordingly? The net result with the media pranksters analysed in this dissertation is that most of the time, disbelief is suspended, even though what we’re being confronted with is clearly not the media encounter as it once existed.

It may also be useful to think about the prankster phenomenon as a result of a media-saturated society of the 1990s, and how (particularly in the 2000 summer of the ever popular reality TV programs, this enduring trust and acceptance of a ubiquitous media presence may be on the brink of change. A recent article on the current ratings-topping ‘reality TV’ shows, which have lately become nothing short of obsessions in North America and Europe, addresses the impact of a pervasive media. Statistics presented in the article include: 10,000+ live cameras continuously transmitting signals from various locales around the world, and another 250,000 personal webcams broadcasting the minutiae of life on a part-time basis. The idea that events that were previously thought to be inappropriate for broadcast are now netting record numbers of viewers, is germane to the discussion of the allure of the media prankster.

The aim of this chapter has been to establish some personal theories with regard to the case of the media prankster, in particular his/her role in what appears to be the larger cultural process of a neutralization of the iconoclastic. What this means to media culture is that what used to be thought of as amateur, irreverent, and inappropriate must now be reconsidered. In the place of old ideas about media integrity, balance, and professionalism come new ideas about the opening up of broadcast discourse and the media environment as a playground, not just workplace. Inarguably, conventional media superstructures continue to wield a great deal of power, but the runaway popularity of the media prankster would suggest that certain voices of opposition, once kept outside media discourse, are no longer relegated to a position of disadvantage. Just as those who were at one located outside the music industry, then given a voice as a result of the upheavals of the punk movement, the media prankster phenomenon mixes up the rules of work and play, rendering the old rules about professionalism and protocol obsolete. Exactly how the prankster does this will be considered in the next chapter on methods and analysis, where we will be observing and analyzing specific media pranksters.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Carnival pleasures: The liminal, the ludic, the synthetic, and the spectacular

This second chapter of the paper examines various strands of theory, such as play, satire, and spectacle, in the context of what were at the time of its writing (1999-2000) contemporary manifestations of media products. So be prepared for a heavy dose of theory but with reference points ranging from Shakespearean fools to Beavis & Butthead and Howard Stern.

And if you missed Chapter 1, you can find it here.

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From the ancient world’s Saturnalia to the fool of Shakespearean drama the prankster figure occupies an important place in what may be thought of as a secret cultural history. This history is one viewed through the lens of cultural trickery and pranksters. The parallel universe of the prankster has indeed travelled an interesting route: from the parodic twin of the official in ancient times, to the temporary of carnival time, to an increasingly subordinate position in the industrialized, modernized world. Today’s ultrafragmented culture, however, has provided a space for the voice of the prankster alongside the conventionally sanctioned voices of expression. The media prankster of today may be seen as transgressive, but not in the same way as his prankster predecessors.


Using Bakhtin’s framework as a base, along with that of such culturally subversive movements as Dadaism, Situationism, and punk, a central objective of this essay is to illustrate how the media prankster, not unlike the historical fool or jester figure, hides behind a façade of feigned ignorance and naivete to illuminate the comical and contradictory in official discourses.

I. Carnival

Though the media prankster is certainly a media phenomenon, the most relevant theoretical work appears to reside in the notion of the carnivalesque, a term derived from the field of literary criticism, and coined by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin theorises the carnivalesque as a way of understanding ceremonies of transgression, opposition, reversal, and renewal, all of which are intended to lift societal constraints and upset norms and power relations. All notions of absolute truth, authority, and dogma are put into suspension when viewed from the standpoint of Bakhtinian carnival.

Moving Bakhtin’s ideas from the literary world to a larger cultural studies grid, postmodern theorist John Docker has correlated such characters of carnival culture as the rogue, the clown, the fool, and the crank to “…figures who parody conventionality at the same time as they parody themselves and their own claims to truth.”  Here we find a direct link to the current crop of media pranksters, whose work challenges what previously was an implicit trust between television viewer and television audience, and is now a multiply-inflected, highly subtextual form of communication. Indeed, as John Fiske has stated in a chapter entitled ‘Carnival and Style’ (Fiske, 1987), “allowing the viewer to be ‘in the know’ and to participate in the joke reverses the power relations involved in watching normal television…” The inversion of power relations is certainly one of the key issues under consideration when correlating the carnivalesque to the contemporary media prankster. It is therefore worth considering the characterisation of carnival as inimical to the existing power structures, as has been done by Bakhtin biographers Clark and Holquist. “Carnival is a gap in the fabric of society, and since the dominant ideology seeks to author the social order as a unified text, fixed, complete, and forever, carnival is a threat.”

This tradition of carnivalesque trickery provides a useful analogy for the phenomenon of the media prankster. As an inhabitant of the mundus inversus -- the upside down dimension of a right side up world -- the carnivalesque character stakes out his territory by opposing and defying the norms and standards of the day. Fast forward several centuries and we find a character who is clearly closely related to carnivalesque characters, but not as easy to situate theoretically. While we find many of the traits of his carnivalesque ancestors in the media prankster, the softness of boundaries currently existing between the mainstream and the oppositional makes it difficult to ascertain if the media prankster represents inversion from within, or inversion from without.

On this critical point of inversion, I turn to the work of anthropologist Barbara Babcock (1978). Several years before the notion of the carnivalesque became fashionable in cultural studies circles, she displayed interest in acts of ‘symbolic inversion’, defining them as
“…expressive behaviour which inverts, contradicts, abrogates, or in some fashion represents an alternative to commonly held cultural codes, values, and norms”. Babcock urges us not to make the mistake of conceiving of such inversions as activities taking place on the subcultural sidelines, affecting only the select few. “What is socially peripheral is often symbolically central”, writes Babcock, and it is in this spirit that the significance of a genus of media personality born on the symbolic sidelines of mainstream media discourse and now influencing its broader language is being considered.

The socially liberating properties of symbolic inversions, as well as their facilitation of reflexive points of view with regard to a society’s culture and practices, are at the core of their ability to exert influence. Whereas functional anthropologists have tended to view the symbolic inversions of carnival time as a site for the venting of accumulated tensions, Abrahams and Bauman (in Babcock, 1978): propose a different role: “far from constituting events that have hostility and conflict as their organising principle, carnival…appear[s] to…draw together opposing elements”. By proposing this more integrative model of carnival, the theories of Babcock, Abrahams, and Bauman encourage the conceptualisation of carnival as a constructive social and cultural activity, thus opening the door to the possibility that carnival possesses a value beyond its status as an occasional cultural event.

Suppose for a moment we frame our analysis of the media prankster within the context of carnival not as relegated to ceremonies that occur only on specified days of the year, but as a kind of constant carnival. While such a designation may just be another way of expressing the omnipresence of such features of postmodern existence as irony, irreverence, fragmentation, and reflexivity, an interesting question is raised with regard to the media prankster’s routine practice of iconoclastic, carnivalesque behaviour. This question of subversion built into the mainstream will be more closely considered in the forthcoming Methods and Analysis chapter, where issues of the shaping of mainstream broadcast discourse by traditions once considered voices of opposition and inversion will be examined in greater detail.

II. The liminal

Another helpful way of framing the phenomenon of the media prankster is by applying to it the concept of ‘liminality’. The idea derives from the work of anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, who shared a scholarly interest in the developmental stages of mankind and ‘rites of passage’ (a term of van Gennep’s coinage). The term ‘liminal’ refers to the staking out of a ‘betwixt and between’ space in which the subject has one foot in the world of childhood, foolishness and uncertainty, and the other in the world of adulthood, seriousness, and the accepted conventions of society. That media coverage of the media pranksters has invariably made allusions to their juvenile behaviour, infantile humour, and general immaturity, all paradoxically stemming from the body of a grown man, provides a case in point for life in the limen, or margin.

In this way liminality provides a very useful way of thinking about the media prankster. The space he occupies is ‘betwixt and between’ in a number of ways: between the amateur and the professional, between the ridiculous and the rational, between the childlike and the mature, between the artistic and the aberrant. Moving away from the structuralist grid of binary oppositions, Turner emphasises that the liminal character is not merely exhibiting binary differences, but is an intentionally ambiguous character, leaving it to us to determine whether his intentions are to negate, agitate, or simply play.

In the chapter ‘Betwixt and Between’ in The Forest of Symbols (1967), Turner elaborates on van Gennep’s designation of the tripartite structure of rites of passage. These three stages are separation, margin, and aggregation. Turner writes of “…the intervening liminal period [in which] the state of the ritual subject (the ‘passenger’) is ambiguous; he passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state.” Arguably, the liminal character has attributes from both states, past and forthcoming, though perhaps unbeknownst to him. Not unlike the impetuous teenager testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour, the media prankster has one foot positioned in the world of media structure and privilege while keeping the other in the world of free association and childhood whimsy.

III. The ludic

A third and related way of classifying the literature applicable to the study of cultural trickery is to conceive of the prank as a ludic interlude. Deriving from the Latin ludere, meaning to play, ludic activity is a key feature of carnival as well as of subcultural theory, particularly that which deals with sharply contrasting notions of work and play. Interestingly, the term ‘ludicrous’, which we now take to mean ridiculous, is directly etymologically related to ludere, indicating a clear evolution of a cultural value judgement related to purely pleasurable activities.

Subcultural theorist Jock Young (1971) has conducted some of the most significant work to date on the subterranean values of work and play. He characterises work and play as inhabiting two discrete worlds which symbolize binary oppositions; i.e. that which is work is defined by its ‘unplayfulness’, and that which is play is defined by its ‘unworklike’ quality. While the notions of work and play are central in a consideration of the media prankster, it is important to note an inherent weakness in Young’s theory. Specifically, he does not account for a situation in which work and play may commingle, complement each other, and create a new route to subversion from within. The fused work/play of the media prankster is a prime example of such commingling, with subterranean values brought into the workaday world, and elements of work structure imposed on the activity of play. Young defines the subterranean behaviour of play as that which is a hedonistic, cathartic expression of ego identity, as an end in itself. While it could be argued that the prank for prank’s sake is occasionally what the media prankster’s ‘work’ is about, thinking about the product created by the media prankster simply as play is problematic. By creating a pastiche of the media personality convincing enough to fool most onlookers, the media prankster’s ludic performances successfully encroach on the world of work, redefining both work and play in the process.

Young also references the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, and how the deferred gratification of the latter suggests a necessary stage of maturation, where one leaves behind the selfishness and indulgence of pleasure and play for social responsibility. These theories, too, are interesting to consider in light of the media prankster and his amalgamation of the principles of pleasure, reality, work, and play. What is pleasurable for the prankster, providing gratification and ego-expression, is being encased in the identity of a media professional’s ‘work’, and as such is being read as work by those duped by the skilled prankster.

Consider also de Certeau’s (1984) contribution to the conceptualisation of work and play. He calls our attention to la perruque, an apparently widespread practice in the workplace in modern day France. de Certeau defines la perruque as “…the worker’s own work disguised as work for his employer”. Creative time-wasting, or creative time-poaching is what de Certeau alludes to, and in so doing expands our interpretation of the boundaries of work and work time. Thus the private is merged with the public, and the serious with the playful. In this way la perruque informs the sphere-colliding, protocol-defying actions of the media prankster, presenting a way to think about simultaneous work and play that structuralist (and much subcultural) theory does not. The problematic area is no longer the distinction between work and play or the melding of the two, but whether or not an everyday action can be viewed as resistant, by the very virtue of its ‘everydayness’.

IV. The synthetic

The single most valuable piece of writing from media studies relevant to the consideration of construction of the media personality is Andrew Tolson’s essay “Televised Chat and the Synthetic Personality” (in Scannell, 1991). Tolson focuses in on a phenomenon he calls ‘synthetic personality’ as a new site of subversion. Tolson uses the concept of synthetic personality to describe increasingly artificially-constituted media personalities. In his article he points to such 1980s media curiousities as Dame Edna Everage -- a gaudy, over-the-top, theatrical ‘dame’ of the stage played by Australian comic actor Barry Humphries -- but synthetic personality is a term that applies equally well to the contemporary media prankster. Any time there is an interplay of multiple identities and premises, it is safe to say a synthetic media personality exists. Tolson sees the synthetic media personality as emblematic of the ‘postpopulist’turn in the public sphere of broadcasting. What was once a linear, authority-based transmitter of messages has shifted toward a mode of plurality, artifice, and subtext.

It is therefore worthwhile to consider the challenges inherent in the reading of the synthetic media personality, specifically the sophisticated decoding mechanisms required to read seemingly contradictory layers of text. Meyrowitz' (1985) work on the overlapping of previously discrete spheres and the subsequent emergence of new identities proves helpful in this regard. Of particular interest to one considering synthetic aspects of today’s media personalities are Meyrowitz’s observations on the blending and blurring of the public and the private, and of childhood and adulthood. Of the media pranksters being analysed in this dissertation, all four exhibit ‘man-child’ characteristics, whether in style of dress, speech, attitude, or mannerism, as well as a blending of private and public spheres through the interweaving of fictitious and factual narratives.

Although further empirical investigation is required into how synthetic media personalities are being read (and if/how these readings are changing over time), it should be noted that as recently as January 2000, seriously discrepant readings of the synthetic media personality were being made. In this particular case the debate was over the racial and ethnic ambiguities present in the Ali G character, an admittedly tricky pastiche of Black, Asian, and White youth culture. Ten years earlier, and without the weight of considerations of ethnicity and race, Scannell (1991) observed that a group American exchange students, upon first viewing The Dame Edna Experience on British television, were unable to make any sense whatsoever of the proceedings. The juxtaposition of fact and fiction, of satire and truth, combined with the significantly divergent comic sensibilities of the Americans and the Australians, led to a completely confused reading. Where at one time uncertainty or instability of identity would have been viewed as a communicative failure, it now seems that the more intricate the personality construction, the more compelling the communicative message, regardless of any controversy or misunderstandings that may accompany the situation. That the reading of the synthetic media personality is not singularly-inflected is likely to be considered a feature, not a flaw, by its creators.

To conclude, there are a number of valuable points to consider from Tolson’s work, some which point to similarities, others which point to major differences, between the synthetic personality and the media prankster. Of particular importance is Tolson’s reference to the appearance of a ‘highly self-reflexive metadiscourse about television as a cultural institution’ evidenced by the awareness on the part of both interviewer and interviewee that what they are participating in and creating is in fact a performance. While this may have been the case with synthetic personalities of the 1980s such as Dame Edna and Max Headroom whose interviewees were in on the joke, it is usually not the case with the current lot of media pranksters.


In addition to concocting a synthetic media personality, their modus operandusis to badger interviewees with almost painfully ignorant and/or transgressive questions, then watch the interviewees squirm, joust, or attack. Still, Tolson’s point about the reflexivity of the metadiscourse evidenced in television talk is well taken, though to update his observation it should be added that the emergence of a more complex synthetic personality in the media prankster has called for the creation and circulation of a more refractory metadiscourse. Such a shift is evidenced in the move away from the generally good-natured but innuendo-laden verbal banter that typified the language of the television chat show in the 1980s, to the more adversarial, celebrity-mocking form of broadcast talk used by the media pranksters.

V. Where the narcissistic and the spectacular meet the prankster

Douglas Kellner (1995) foresaw a major turn in popular culture with his writing on the incorporation of the irreverent and transgressive into established orders of media meaning. His discussion of the early 1990s broadcast talk/media discourse exemplified by Beavis and Butthead and American radio ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern points to an interesting correlation between these figures and the media prankster. Kellner refers to the ‘narcissism and sociopathic behaviour’ of the aforementioned cartoon world characters and the real world Mr. Stern and offers the following analysis. “It is indeed curious that many of the most popular media culture figures could easily be clinically diagnosed and analysed as narcissistic: Rush Limbaugh, Andrew Dice Clay, Howard Stern, and other[s]…[they] resort to extreme behaviour and assertions to call attention to themselves…These figures are basically buffoons, sometimes entertaining and often offensive.”


Susan J. Douglas (1999) proffers further insight into the embryonic stages of the narcissistic media personality. Referring to the genre of American radio helmed by radio announcers with extreme social and political views, Douglas writes: “Growing at first out of the bitterness of political and economic alienation of the late 1970s and 1980s, some talk radio – especially the versions offered by [Howard] Stern and [Don] Imus – was a rebellion against civilisation…against bourgeois codes of decorum that have sought to silence and tame the iconoclastic, delinquent, and defiant impulses in which adolescent boys especially seem to revel and delight...There was a place – an important place – for disobedience, hedonism, disrespect, and bad taste.” At the same moment vulgarity and insolence were being championed on American radio, ‘trash TV’ -- sensationalistic, tabloidesque, and crude – was also increasing in popularity. Twitchell (1992) offers the following explanation for the phenomena: “As the economics of mass production give greater access to those previously excluded…the young, the unsophisticated, and the aggressive…the stories demanded and produced become progressively more crude and vulgar…Carnival time starts.”

Picking up on the widespread carnival spirit in media narratives, Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) introduce their concept of ‘spectacle & narcissism’. To them, the media and everyday life have become so closely interwoven that they are almost inseparable, making contemporary society an essentially performative society. Moreover, Abercrombie and Longhurst import the Debordian notion of spectacle as “…capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image" and merge it with such postmodern preoccupations as style over substance, fragmentation of subject and object, and the instability of identities. In so doing, the two provide another vantage point from which we can ponder issues of cultural production and reproduction as they pertain to the media prankster. By partnering spectacle with narcissism, Abercrombie and Longhurst present a complete circuit that offers a reasonable explanation for today’s protocol-defying, boundary-insensitive prankster figures.

Furthermore, if narcissism is to be seen more as a widely diffused cultural condition and not a personality disorder, then the behaviour and performances of the media prankster make sense as expressions of this cultural condition. In turn, the sideshow-like atmosphere which had became commonplace in the North American media during the 1980s and 1990s assists us in positioning the media prankster along a trajectory of ‘boys behaving badly’. The media prankster is unique for bringing to broadcast discourse elements of the evolving genre of synthetic personality chat identified by Tolson (1991), aspects of the happily juvenile and abrasive media personalities of the 1980s and 1990s alluded to by Kellner (1995) and Douglas (1999), and manifestations of the spectacle and narcissism described by Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998). Now into the third decade of living in an atmosphere in which defiant and disobedient media personalities are embedded, few resistant forms of broadcast talk remain. Perhaps this would explain why counter-hegemonic forces within popular culture no longer seem able to hijack the hegemonic, but instead intermingle with it, thus carving out a high profile space for oppositional voices such as that of the transgressive media personality. The next chapter of this dissertation will pay closer attention to the subject of popular culture’s co-optation of elements once considered resistant, and assess the impact of this cultural turn on conceptualizations of media personality and broadcast protocol.