The Emperor Has No Soul

You’d think one of the joys of extreme wealth would be having the privilege to give most of what you’ve made away.  Indeed, a few of the people who climb or claw their way to the top of the human heap do seem to be humbled enough by the experience to return a great deal of their fortune to the world by donating money to charity or making other grand philanthropic gestures, sometimes even anonymously.  (Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Paul Newman come to mind, along with George Clooney, who’s dedicated himself selflessly to helping put an end to the genocide in Darfur, Ben Affleck, whose focus has been the slaughter of the people in the Congo, Brad Pitt, who provided several million dollars to build homes for those who’d lost theirs after Hurricane Katrina, and Jeff Bridges, who has labored for decades to make sure there are no more hungry children out there.  On the fictional side of the scale you could add Larry David, whose televised incarnation was kind enough to put up the Black family for one season of his sitcom.)

Instead, there’s a nauseating tendency these days for those who’ve made it big to rub the rest of our noses in their success.  Then they wait for us to thank–no, bow down and worship–them for the favor.  While communism has proved itself a flop around the world (even though it has gained a longer shelf life when blended with capitalism as it is in China), the kind of extreme capitalism that’s practiced these days is absolutely devastating.  Lately the news has been rife with stories about rich racists spouting off their benighted views about black people in the U.S. mainstream media.  We’ve also learned that the Supreme Court of that country is essentially nothing but an extension of powerful corporate interests determined to crush what’s left of our democracy.  Even net neutrality has been strapped to the operating table, waiting to be dissected by the big media companies and served up to the rest of us at an exorbitant price.  Let’s hope WordPress can survive the assault.  It would be a shame to lose such a valuable forum for people who can’t afford a seat at the table with Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg (who deserves honorable mention for giving some of his money away to charity too), and Rupert Murdoch, whose name sounds like some kind of biological weapon or one of the items used by the Three Witches in Macbeth to season their bubbling cauldron).

But the people who are the most shameless about their opulence (with the exception of the Wall Street bankers who orchestrated the global subprime mortgage heist) are the celebrities mentioned in a piece featured in the International Herald Tribune (or New York Times) two weeks ago by Anand Giridharadas entitled “Seinfeld, His Show, and Inequality.”  For those of you who haven’t seen Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (available for freeonline–at least for now), it’s worth a look.  The author of the piece establishes with sobering accuracy how the show captures the ethic of our times, a period in which the superrich sit and gloat about how deserving they are to bask in the gluttonous glory of obscene fortune.  It would be unfair to condemn all of the guests who’ve appeared on the program, and I’ve only watched a few of them, as the theme gets redundant after awhile (believe me, I know all about redundancy from maintaining this blog).

The premise is that the host, Sir Gerald Seinfeld (okay, let’s call him Jerry), rides around in one of the models from his vast collection of classic cars, gets on the phone, and calls one of his celebrity buddies, another famous comedian and invites him to join him for coffee at a public venue.  It’s made to look spontaneous in homage to the tradition established by Curb Your Enthusiasm.  

Mr. Giridharadas is a far more percipient observer of the show than I have been, as I was besotted enough to be taken in by this clearly staged view of talented, if at times obnoxious, big shots flaunting their wares.  I’ve been interested in comedy for a long time, and there’s a lot you can learn from or by watching the pros.  I’m not here to disparage their ability to make me laugh.  Perhaps they’ve even earned their millions.  I can’t assail them for being slackers.

But what does rankle, as the author points out, is their callous sense of entitlement.  Again, to avoid making any blanket statements, I’ll limit any criticism to the two culprits mentioned in the Times piece:  Alec Baldwin and David Letterman.  

“The democracy of observational humor,” writes Giridharadas, “has become, in Seinfeld’s reincarnation, an oligarchy of mutual admiration.”

The show does reek of this sentiment–the court jesters who’ve become the kings scoffing at the rest of us peasants instead of recognizing the importance of respecting your audience, without whom you might still be able to acknowledge your own humanity.  It’s a chilling indictment of American society (and you can throw in Korean while you’re at it, as celebrity worship exists here as well, with the difference that actors and singers who appear on TV commercials are praised for promoting ramen noodles and beer instead of chastised for being money-grubbing whores).

Baldwin made me laugh when he pronounced the word “rapier” as “rahpeeAY,” telling Seinfeld the reason he didn’t say it the way it’s spelled was to avoid misunderstanding.  Paraphrase:  “My prison cellmate is the rapiest guy I know.”

What I overlooked at the time I watched the clip was how rude he was to the server (mentioned in the Times article), though the coldness of his tone to her was clear.  He revels in the role of one who can patronize people and get away with it.  (If you’ve ever waited tables before, you’ll know that a customer doesn’t have to be famous to engage in such nastiness.)  

Letterman, for his part, asks Seinfeld if they can ask the other customers at the cafe to leave.  When Seinfeld replies, “We don’t own this place,” Letterman says, “We can change that, though, can’t we?”

The gentleness of Letterman’s expression belied what he was saying, as if he might have even felt a little guilty about being in such a powerful position, as contrasted with the other hard-working folks who have to serve coffee to suits and show biz prima donnas for a living.

I’m a huge Louis C.K. fan, and I loved seeing him take Jerry around for a ride on his boat down the Hudson River.  I’d also like to watch episodes with Sarah Silverman, Don Rickles, and Chris Rock.  Calling for a boycott would doubtless prove ineffective.  After all, I’m a nobody myself.  The celebrity culture dictates that you’re either one of the beautiful people, worthy of the fawning adulation of the multitudes, or you’re a loser fed scraps by the manicured, diamond ring-adorned hand of one of the chosen ones.  The irony is that without our love and attention they become nobodies too (filthy rich nobodies, but still).

Instead of gawking at their success like a fornlorn viewer of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, maybe we should follow the advice given in the song played during the closing credits of the movie The Way, Way Back and “go where the love is.”

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