Playing to the Cheap Seats
or: Why The End of the World Will Be Funny
Sometimes I think too much. I take heart in knowing that I'm not alone in this. Lots of people think too much (I think).
I remember seeing an episode of Monster Garage that paired up a couple of MIT-style brainiac engineers with a team of blue-collar welders to create some Monster Something or another. I think it was a hovercraft. The brainiac engineers wasted half the week over-thinking the project. They bickered, they argued and they planned. There was a lot of planning. By the time Mr. James came down on them like Maxwell's silver hammer, the project was in such disarray that they had to start over from scratch. Jesse threw their plans out the window and the team started over. Thirty-six hours of flat-out, head down, hands moving, STFU and get "˜er done work later they still didn't have a finished product and they lost. Everyone felt bad. The engineers, still thinking too much, blamed everyone else. They came out looking like buffoons.
This is why I try not to think too much. It tends to over-complicate relatively simple, straightforward situations and make one look like a buffoon. Fun word to write. Bad way to be.
It might be fun if the ability to create chaos out of pure thought were a supernatural ability or something. If that were the case, I'd make one hell of an addition to the Justice League. I'd call myself Captain Complication. I'd wear a suit with too many pockets and I'd have my own catchphrase. Something zippy like "I'll take that under advisement!" or "You raise a good point, let's get the rest of the gang together to have a meeting!" Super Villains of the world would have total anarchy 97% assured before I'd be able to decide on how to even begin combating evil. Batman would mock my inability to organize, and Superman would probably just punch me through a wall.
Sadly, that is not how thinking works. When you're thinking too much, you're not creating anything out of anything. You're just sitting there. Thinking.
Occasionally, I can't help it. I'll have something or another on my mind and I'll end up thinking too much about it. Hours will pass. Then I'll realize what I'm doing, think about how useless it is and get stuck in a feedback loop of thinking about thinking. Entire days go by this way. This is usually when I end up writing.
So I guess you could say that my writing comes from the deepest, most neurotic part of me. That it is a way for me to transpose difficult thoughts and emotions into entertaining snippets for your amusement (or my own catharsis). You could also say that this is all bullsh*t, and that I am once again thinking too much and you'd probably be right.
It's been said that the opposite of thinking is doing. I disagree. I believe that the opposite of thinking is making.
Watch a master carpenter at work. There is a certain amount of skill and knowledge required to carpent like a pro, but once you've earned that knowledge, it is yours. The knowledge moves from the brain into the hands and becomes almost automatic. Interrupt a carpenter at work to ask him his name and there's a fair chance you'll have to repeat the question.
When you're in that zone, making and not thinking, you feel transcendent. Nothing is real to you but the materials in your hands and the tools with which you are shaping them. It's as if you can hear the Charm of Making echoing through your head, and the project you are constructing is emerging piece-by-piece from the Dragon's cave. Boards materialize out of mist and a magical hand, moving slightly too fast to see, takes measurements, makes cuts, slaps on glue, throws fasteners in all the right places, routs, sands and finishes. Then, when the mist clears, you step back, look upon what you've constructed and feel a worth to your efforts, a value to your being alive that is indescribable.
To sit in a chair of your own making. To behold the completion of a project which days or weeks prior existed only on paper. To know that you can do a thing because you actually did it. These things grant a human being confidence like no other. It is real, it is tangible and it is intoxicating.
In terms of achievements, is the construction of a chair less of an accomplishment than say, "building a civilization that will stand the test of time?" Or finishing Ninja Gaiden: Black? Perhaps not. The difference, however, is in the making.
Playing a game requires coordination, concentration and smarts. No one is denying that (I think) but once it is done, it is done. You've solved a puzzle and one for which there is no reward. There is no tangible product of the time spent, so to speak. It has been argued that playing games is exercise for the mind, and I tend to agree. Exercise, however, is only valuable as a means to further means. That is to say that a well exercised mind used only for further exercise is wasted. Oil it up, throw a Speedo on it and send it to South Beach for all the good it will do you. Use it to make something and then you'll have my attention.
But I digress.
The problem with worshipping the making of things is that as intoxicating and pure as the charm of making may be, it can barely compare to the siren song of destruction. Or as Antonio Banderas put it in the wonderfully orgasmic film Desperado,
It's easier to pull the trigger than play the guitar. Easier to destroy than to create "…
This reminds me of another phrase. It's "playing to the cheap seats." Those of us in theatre like to say that this phrase comes to us from Shakespeare because his theater had some very cheap seats occupied by some very common folk who were easy enough to entertain so long as the dick jokes came fast and furiously. To this day, therefore, when we introduce a comic bit which appeals more to the brain stem than the frontal lobe, or ask an actor to emphasize the bawdiness of an otherwise intellectually challenging scene, we say that we are "playing to the cheap seats." Or, to put it another way, "keeping the masses entertained."
The phrase may not have originated with Mr. Shakespeare, but we like to attribute it to him because it gives us a higher sense of self, elevating in our own minds those of us who often pretend that we are above such low humor. The phrase then becomes deprecation. We offer that we are "playing to the cheap seats" as an apology. We say that we do not enjoy making dick jokes but we must do so in order to pay our bills.
I'm implying hypocrisy here, because I firmly believe that in spite of how much we doth protest to the contrary, deep down most of us really enjoy a good dick joke. Hearing a good dick joke is like watching a building collapse. They both draw on such a base emotion that one finds oneself halfway through enjoying the stimulus before even considering whether or not such enjoyment is proper. Watch Fight Club again and tell me you don't smile (just a little) at the look on the movie-goer's faces when Tyler Durden splices a phallus into a family film. Or, to draw on yet another part of the same film, tell me that the sight of the nation's financial heart imploding doesn't excite you just a little.
When I was younger, my parents gave me a weekly allowance and encouraged me to do something constructive with it. Which I did. Sort of. As soon as those crinkly dollar bills hit my hand I was out the door, headed to the model aisle at Woolworth's. There I would gaze lovingly at scale models of Camaros, Ford Broncos and conversion vans, searching for just the right one. After I'd picked my favorite, I'd take it home and spend hours in my bedroom painstakingly placing each plastic piece alongside its mate, joining them with generous dollops of model cement, then whiling away the long hours (high on cement fumes) while my creation cured. All the while obsessed with the gleaming anticipation of that jubilant moment in which I'd take my replica into the backyard, place it beside the pecan tree, face eastward and blow the holy crap out of it with M-80s. This was how I passed entire summers.
Years after I'd given up my model hobby, I met an adult man who would spend hours building scale model replicas of trains, planes and zeppelins from scratch using balsa wood and an X-acto knife. Night after night he'd sit at his dining room table measuring, carving and assembling the pieces. Often the work progressed so slowly that weeks would pass before he achieved any appreciable result. Each model took months to finish.
One day when he showed me a completed replica of a B-17 bomber, complete with authentic paint and markings, I shocked him half to death by suggesting that we install rocket motors in the wings, lace the fuselage with firecrackers and take it outside with the video camera to re-enact the bombing of Dresden. He stopped showing me his models after that. Stopped working on them anywhere near me, in fact.
I may have outgrown model-making, but I hadn't outgrown my thirst for destruction. Still haven't, truth be told. Half of the fun of playing video games and watching blockbuster movies is in enjoying the new and unusual ways entertainment creators have discovered over the years to capture the essence of destruction. My favorite games these days allow me to blow things to crap and beyond on a whim. My favorite movies are those in which the protagonists and antagonists alike chew through architecture with the same manic frenzy with which I devour my popcorn.
It is in these moments, when my hands are coated with fake, buttery topping, my gums are being raped by the corpses of corn kernels and my mind is being flayed by brilliantly choreographed depictions of mayhem underscored in THX that I wonder how on Earth Western Civilization would tame this eternal urge without the calming clamor of cataclysmic recreation.
Images dance through my head of Marines in the desert filling washing machines with grenades. Thoughts of post-hurricane rioting. Memories of Tuesday. How enthusiastic would the militant Jihadists be if they were offered a root canal and a Hustler instead of a gaggle of virgins and the means to make things explode? How "civilized" would we continue to think that we were if every destructive urge, act or thought were shared as freely as our opinions on the weather?
"A bit balmy today, isn't it Fred?"
"You bet. And that surprise rain storm this weekend was quite a shocker, eh?"
"Oh you can say that again. Kind of makes you want to take a baseball bat to the weather man, doesn't it?"
"Hell yes. Stuff his dead ass with grenades and ride his flaming corpse through the sky like a witch on a broom."
"That would be dandy. Wouldn't mind driving my car into the news station, while I'm at it. Teach those bastards to show pictures of dead babies during the dinner hour."
"No doubt. No doubt. Going to the meeting later?"
"Have to. Probably be thinking about gouging the boss's eyes out with my Mont Blanc the whole time, but I'll be there."
"Me too, friend. Me too."
The sad truth is that no matter who we are, no matter how expensive our clothes or where we work or what we drive, we are all in the cheap seats listening patiently to the boring chatter, waiting for our turn to laugh or rejoice. Traffic, taxes, that guy over there doing that thing: many are the frustrations of being one of the small people. The helpless, underpowered souls who are given no great reward, yet are nevertheless tasked with keeping the machine running.
What would seem to make all the pain go away, despite our pretensions to civility, is the chance to ruin everything. Wrapping the foundation columns of half a dozen buildings with enough explosives to reduce several blocks to smoldering ruin, perhaps. Yet that way madness lies. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water, to borrow a phrase I hate from a man I don't.
So we exercise our urges through entertainment. Blowing up a virtual building may not solve any real-world problems, but it won't really contribute to any, either. The urge exists. To ignore it is to feed it. To purge it is to, momentarily at least, sate it and become balanced. Consider it exercise, if you need an analogy. Hitting the bag for half an hour, for example, will not make you want to carry the hitting further. To people's faces perhaps. Not unless that is your career path, of course. Video-game violence is not a gateway drug. It will not lead you to harder drugs and eventually into sleeping with random drug dealers and/or stealing bowling trophies for petty cash. It will also not lead to actual destructive acts. This is not an opinion. This is fact.
To say that video-game violence begets real-world violence is complete and utter bullsh*t. Yet real-world violence exists, and has existed since before video games were even a remote possibility. How we deal with that should be of primary concern, here. While I'm at home wreaking havoc on an epic, yet imaginary scale, where's the other guy? The guy who doesn't have a healthy, creative way to exercise his urges? "What is he destroying?" I wonder. That's the thought that keeps me awake at night. Then again, maybe I'm just thinking too much. Let's get the rest of the gang together and have a meeting.