Intelligible

By Allen Stare

It’s an old joke. When playing Charades or Pictionary, someone will invariably do the “you know, he was that guy who was on that show with that other guy…” It’s a reference so unbelievably vague no one could possibly figure it out, right?

I was zipping through a commercial break on my TiVo. The “jump back” took me into the last promo of the break. It was for Charlie Sheen’s recently cancelled effort on FX called “Anger Management.” In the last couple of seconds of the promo, he was talking to a female bartender. She looked familiar. The gravelly voice, the Southern accent…hold on a minute…isn’t that?…oh, you know…that woman!…the blonde…she had that show!

I know I knew her. I squinted but still could not pull her name up out of my grey matter. Oh, come on! You know her! I happened to be sitting at my keyboard with the Google parser open. Whether it’s on my iPad or at my computer, I pretty much always have the Google parser open. Knowing, instead of sitting and wondering, was only a few keystrokes away. I typed in “female comedian who had her own TV show in the 90s.” That was the extent of my request. It was so vague it was almost the Charades joke.

My search returned just under twenty million results in thirty-five one hundredths of a second. The first article on the list was about Tracey Ullman. Oh, yeah! Tracey Ullman! Not who I was looking for, but nice to be reminded of the very talented Brit who also had her own TV show in the ’90s. A lot of people forget it was her show that launched “The Simpsons.” The SECOND entry was a “biography.com” article about Brett Butler. There! She’s the one! Brett Butler! She was the star of “Grace Under Fire” which ran from 1993 until 1998. A Marcy Carsey/Tom Werner production. How could I have forgotten Brett Butler? I was a regular viewer for the first three seasons or so…then I sort of lost interest. I read the article. Brett, it would appear, also lost interest after about five seasons. She took up painkillers and booze instead.

I read the Biography article about Ms. Butler. I jumped over to her IMDb.com page and discovered that, yes, she played a bartender on a recent season of “Anger Management.” I scanned a few of her post-rehab movie and TV credits. She’s had a comedy special and has been doing some stand-up. Good for her!

I continued to scan through the first page of results. There were articles listing the best and worst sitcoms of the 90s, the funniest female comedians of the 90s, the funniest female comedians to have their own good, and bad, TV shows in the 90s (Margaret Cho really took it on the chin in that one). I clicked over to the second page where I found links to articles listing the best and worst sitcoms of all time, of the 90s, of the 80s…you name it.

Yeah, I looked. I started clicking articles like crazy. It was like dangling raw meat in front of a pop-culture obsessed bear. Each entry linked to an article contained on a website. Some of the website names were recognizable as printed (or formerly printed) periodicals. Some of these web based “publications” existed only in the minds, and basements, of a single: ‘blogger-turned-author-turned-editor. Most of the lists had a comment paragraph or two about each show or comedian in question. I saw dozens of pages of written material as I clicked through the topics that caught my eye…and I was only into the SECOND PAGE of a 20 million entry list!

What have we done here? Is this a good thing? Johann Gutenberg (J.G. to his friends) invented movable type in 1440. He didn’t print his first book for fifteen years. In 1455 he produced a printed copy of the Bible…in Latin. We took it slowly in those early days. It would be another 20 years before the first book was printed in English. The first newspaper in the Americas wasn’t published until 1690 (in Boston). In 1741 the first American Magazine was published…its title: “American magazine.” It wasn’t until 1771 that we had an English reference book. “Encyclopaedia Brittanica” was published for the first time that year in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was incredibly valuable, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t contain a single entry about famous female comedians of the 1760s.

Right around the turn of the 20th Century, publishing took off. Specialized topic magazines, Pulitzer Prizes, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” muckraking journalism and the “Book of the Month” club all exploded onto the scene in the space of about 20 years. The heyday of the printed word would last about a hundred years. Don’t believe me? Magazines and newspapers are disappearing. Of the survivors, most publishers are closing up shop on their “hard copy” editions. The written word still has power and value, just not so much when it’s printed in ink on paper. In 2011, for the first time, eBooks outsold printed books on Amazon.

I love the fact the web was almost able to read my mind when it came to identifying Brett Butler. That’s impressive, but aside from the Biography article and her IMDb page, virtually everything I read about Brett, and dozens of other shows and comedians, was nothing more than an opinion put forth by a single person. The filters are gone. Fifty or a hundred years ago, those opinions would have been sifted through editors and publishers. Facts would have been checked, grammar and spelling corrected. Only the most interesting and insightful commentary would have been committed to the limited real estate of the printed page.

I’m worried our increased bandwidth, and a lack of gatekeepers, is going to make it more and more difficult to find something real or meaningful in those millions of articles. Should we “edit the internet?” Whoa… hold on a minute…did I just see that guy who was on that cop show in the 70s on an episode of “Law & Order: SVU?” To the Google parser!!

[Questions? Comments? Column ideas? I would LOVE to hear from you! Write me at: allen.stare@gmail.com]

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