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Jason Ivey writes about David Letterman, irony, and the “HIP” counterculture.

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Everyone (who’s vocal) kind of has their ‘thing’ that motivates much of their political and philosophical thinking. For me, I suppose it’s culture and its changes and transformations. All of our individual beefs with the state of the modern world are all connected of course, in a cause-and-effect sort of way. In this case, a piece I just read about Letterman retiring got me thinking again about irony.

I think this is of more importance than some pop culture concern, because I think Letterman and his followers very quickly and radically changed the culture over the last 30 years. A few years ago, I mentioned ‘irony for irony’s sake’, because it’s gotten to the point where communicating ironically has become the norm, and that presents a problem. I say this as someone who’s had an ironic or absurdist sense of humor since at least my teenage years, and it’s still something I use at work to keep everyone entertained in what are often stressful conditions. Call it dry humor.

When Letterman was at the peak of his talent, what made him so funny was the fact that his humor went against the cultural grain. Up to then, as the piece I linked to states, people said what they meant. What was funny in the years before the ironic revolution were word plays, double-entendres, insult humor, pointing out uncomfortable truths. Think about any joke, and we laugh because most of them bring something to the surface that we otherwise suppress out of fear, embarrassment, or maybe hidden deviancy. The juxtaposition of two things that don’t go together in an organized world also produces laughter, and that’s where irony resides.

Letterman flourished when he took cultural norms and turned them on their heads, with things like stupid pet tricks, asking guests absurdly moronic questions, the monkey cam, and sending Bud Melman into the Port Authority Bus Terminal to hand out hot towels to new arrivals to New York. He was making fun of normalities by turning them upside down, all the while standing back like an innocent bystander.

In the early 80s, Letterman was the epicenter of hip, albeit in an entertainment world that was much less vast, but also one in which it was just as hard if not harder to rise to the top. If you stayed up late during this period and you ‘got it’, then you were part of that (perceptibly) small, hip crowd. Young people especially want think of themselves as being in some sort of cultural elite, because of the idea that their cleverness and being ‘in the know’ separates them from the philistine masses. When it comes to comedy, by the late 80s everyone had become ironic, and at that time there was still a dominant common culture to make fun of.

At some point though irony eats itself. Over time, it was successful in its own right in destroying the common, traditional culture. When you’ve destroyed all that there is to rebel against, you must find something new to rebel against. For Letterman, I think that ship sailed years ago. I stopped watching late night comedy, or much of anything on TV, around the early to mid 90s. In the few times I checked in on Letterman over the last 15 years or so, I saw an aging man who was tired of his own schtick, didn’t really enjoy talking to guests, and was simply going through the motions out of a commitment to his own ego. It’s no surprise he waited until Leno’s retirement to announce his own. His less dangerous followers are now left with the pieces of a severely diminished medium (traditional television) and a world that people like them have left fragmented, where there’s less and less of anything we’d call ‘traditional’ to make fun of. There are probably a few people out there in the world who fit the stereotype Stephen Colbert mocks with his act, but his admirers must believe there are many more and they must possess more power than they actually do in order for that schtick to work.

Irony is an elitist pursuit by nature, and it’s currently most prevalent in things like fashion and food (which is itself a fashion). Irony is irony when it’s small and separates itself from the masses, and by the time everyone is doing it it’s no longer hip and the hip crowd has to move on to something else. I personally find restaurant trends highly annoying. First it was organics, and now it’s “farm to table.” I have to suppress a maddening scream every time I go to a trendy new restaurant and read on the menu some version of the restaurant’s “philosophy” regarding sustainable food, locally produced. How about just making it good! Annoying as that is, now EVERYONE is doing it!

I’m also amused at the hipster culture, which I seem to be around so much of the time. I myself appreciate nice clothes and accoutrements that stand out from the pack, but at some point the hipsters all became a part of the same pack. They all have their tight jeans, tattoos, and ironic beards. Over time, the beards became more ironic, as men are now waxing their mustaches into pointy or twirly shapes, 19th Century-style. When I read a story a few weeks ago about hipsters now spending thousands of dollars on beard implants for that extra-hipster look, I immediately knew what would happen next. Sure enough, I see a new trend: extremely clean-shaven faces, head shaved on the sides, slicked-back hair on top. This will be the new trend, because it’s so anti-scruff. Too bad for the beard implant crowd, but they had it coming.

And this is what I mean about eating themselves. At some point, the ironic elite became the mainstream.

I’m friends with an engaged couple down in Florida, and the three of us often go to really good restaurants together and have great intellectual conversations. I’d say they’re both socially liberal, and he’s some sort of libertarian, or what I call a libertine libertarian. We all seem to be interested in similar cultural topics, while having a different take (although I’m always working on conversion). About a year ago, we were all fans of ‘Downton Abbey’, and that often led the conversation. I think part of that show’s appeal is its divergence from today’s mainstream. It portrays a time of rigid formality, discretion, morality, and civility. I think it also has wide appeal because most of the characters are good but flawed people, and some are untruthful and devious, but it has little or nothing to do with whether or not they’re upper or lower class.

People are people, regardless of the time or place. There’s something about that truthfulness and formality and adherence to structure, decency, and civility that has so much appeal because it’s now so foreign to us culturally. We look back at that time, less than 100 years ago, when the world was entirely different, and not (entirely) because of technological change, but in how we communicated with each other, and the rules that shaped our thoughts. Our minds are different now, turned upside down by the destruction of tradition.

And that’s why I’ll continue to be classically modern, with a little ironic twist. For me, that’s the ultimate in hip. It never goes out of style.