“Killer Karaoke” And Cultural Corruption

In “Ricky’s Hawaii Vacation.” a famous episode of “I Love Lucy,” the Riotous Redhead was so desperate to win tickets for her neighbors (Fred and Ethel, or course) to accompany her and husband Ricky to Hawaii that she agreed to appear on a sadistic radio quiz show, in which the host, Freddie Freeman—played by the immortal Frank Nelson of Jack Benny skit fame (“Yyyyeeeeeeessssssss???”)—tortured his contestants with various indignities before awarding prizes. This was funny at the time, because it was a wild exaggeration of current TV quiz show programming. It was also funny, as with all slapstick, because the mayhem being inflicted was, the audience knew, part of a comedy skit and not real. A real Freddie using a contestant’s desperation for a prize as an excuse to degrade and humiliate her would have been unacceptably cruel…in the 1950’s.

Now, however, we have True TV’s new reality/game show, “Killer Karaoke.” It is a reality/game/ comedy show of shocking sadistic glee, the result of more than a half century of incremental slippage in standards of decency and public tolerance for cruelty. Take that episode of “I Love Lucy” and take it through a journey that includes stops at “Beat the Clock,” “Truth or Consequences,” “Let’s Make a Deal,” “Scare Tactics,” “Wipe Out,” “Fear Factor,” “Survivor,” the worst of the “let’s watch a human train wreck as desperate ex-celebrities beg for exposure and pay-checks” reality shows, and nightmare futuristic sci-fi movies like “The Hunger Games” and “The Running Man,” and “Killer Karaoke” is what you get.  The show has been hailed by TV critics as “brilliant.” I admit: it is difficult to watch it without laughing. So why are those ethics alarms going off in my head?

On “Killer Karaoke,” young, attractive, healthy, enthusiastic contestants demonstrate that they will do anything for money by subjecting themselves to guaranteed disgusting and unpleasant experiences while simultaneously looking like idiots, all for the pleasure of the studio audience, who decide, electronically, which individuals accept  their fates with the most elan. There are no questions to answer correctly, no talent or skills to display. The only issue is what a compliant fool will endure for money. The show and its disturbingly happy host take full advantage of their guests’ desperation, lack of dignity and courage. I think my personal tipping point was reached at the grand finale, which consisted of—follow me now—the remaining two contestants having to run a gauntlet of horrors, bounded by an electrified wire, while clothed in bulky outfits covered, head to toe, with crisp hundred dollar bills. They had to run through a curtain of mousetraps, a wall of disembodied but live human arms that groped them, and more obstacles to reach the final challenge in which, to quote the host, “your heads will be inserted into one of those boxes suspended above you, in which you will face one of your worst fears!”

That’s right—the awful climax of “1984” is now a hilarious comedy game show.

The host wasn’t exaggerating, either. One box, lowered over the remaining male contestant’s head, contained huge leaping frogs, which promptly went nuts and jumped into his face. The other box was filled with black, furry spiders approximately the size and heft of softballs. That one went over the head of the female contestant.

Oh! I forgot to mention that through all of this, and in every similar test, the competitors had to keep singing the words on a karaoke screen projected in front of them, as the song’s music played over their periodic screams. The contestants are judged, first and foremost, on how well they are able to keep singing.

I must admit, there can be impressive displays of true character in this carnage. In the episode I watched, a young woman  (the eventual winner of the grand prize, the one whose head ended up in the spider box) had to keep singing a perky Lady Gaga ditty while successively having dumped on her, from many feet above—head tilted up, mouth open in song— gallons of chocolate sauce, M&M’s, furnace ashes, leaves, and powdered paint, and she emerged from each mess still singing, dancing, and smiling. What a trouper!

Or, in the alternative, what an idiot.

Here are the ethics alarms that keep ringing for me as I consider this Lucy show come to horrible life:

  • It’s essentially “drunk dancing”: offer the drunk money to pay for the drink he desperately needs in exchange for him dancing a grotesque jig in the bar, as the patrons jeer. Imagine a Depression version of this spectacle in which the contestants were the poorest of the poor, willing to do or endure anything for cash to put food on the table. Would it still be so funny to the audience? Today, I fear it would.
  • Using money to turn human beings into crash dummies, monkeys and human cartoons is an abuse of power.
  • Is it the fame, the TV time, or the faint hope of lasting celebrity that drives the contestants? Never mind: that’s currency too. Using these enticements to exploit the sick victims of our celebrity obsession  is no better than using the promise of riches.
  • There is something disturbingly Nero-esque in the studio audience’s joyful mockery of the show’s willing victims, followed by their expressions of approval and exercise of power by voting to reward the one whose humiliation was greatest. This is cruelty as entertainment, is it not?

And yet, as I said before, it is hard not to laugh, which may only signify that it is hard not to be corrupted by the culture around us. I might be willing to accept this latest perversion of entertainment as less than full-fledged cultural rot in progress, if I wasn’t so certain that what “Killer Karaoke” will morph into over the next several decades will be more horrible and corrupting still.

“The Hunger Games” do not seem so unlikely or far away .

Now here is our new starting point, a long way from “Ricky’s Hawaiian Vacation,” pointing us to a more unethical future:

31 thoughts on ““Killer Karaoke” And Cultural Corruption

  1. You are absolutely correct. How bloodthirsty a culture are we becoming that we find entertainment in the suffering of real people? How long before Circus Maximus-conditioned audiences turn to televised executions?

  2. This is just as bad as “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” to me, but that show didn’t survive the backlash. Will there even be any backlash to this?

    • No one in the audience seemed particularly disturbed with what went down on the stage, so I guess that’s a “no” to the backlash. I must admit I hadn’t even heard of this show until Jack wrote a blog entry about it.
      That the audience could laugh about it and I couldn’t made me feel old. I find this show to be pathetic and degrading and I absolutely loathe the host.
      I like Jeopardy…I feel old.

  3. Our civilization is doomed. This is another symptom of a culture that cannot continue much longer. Historically, as you mentioned, cultures have a pattern of decadence that precedes the inevitable crash. Bread and circuses was not exclusive to the fall of Rome.
    I could list other symptoms, but it’s much less tolerant of me to notice those. It might even get me called a h8ter.

    • But Rome crashed and burnt because it had expanded to much (geografically speaking) and was trying to put out fires on all fronts. Debauchery and cruelty, rather than being a threat to the reign, were the bread and butter of Romans. In those days “getting religion” meant going to the right temple on the right day – not being a good person. As for the inevitable crash – we must not disregard the human factor: it can be quite surprising and unpredictable what good people who are determined to change something for the better can do.
      And all the big ones (likes the Romans) lasted for over a thousand years, so we’re good to go.

  4. The post’s title reflects my sentiments: the ethics failure is in the “cultural corruption” more than in the on-air presence of the “Killer Karaoke” show and its ilk.

    Would a dance marathon become ethical if only millionaires were contestants? I say no. I would be no more ethical jeering at the Vanderbilts in that hypothetical millionaires’ dance marathon than I would be to jeer at the true-life desperate people in a real-life dance marathon.

    As I’ve watched the 2014 Winter Olympics, I’ve thought of that phrase from the opening credits of ABC’s Wide World of Sports: “the human drama of athletic competition.” Apparently there are millions of people who hope only to see “the agony of defeat” – and to see it, they will tune in to “Killer Karaoke,” “Fear Factor,” “Celebrity [whatever],” and any other show like it.

    May God help them.

  5. I can’t stand these shows, as we are becoming the jeering crowds in ancient Rome. We have many dozens of these shows over too many channels whose subject area doesn’t lend to gladiator events. The singing and cooking ones test something and long as they can resist the side challenges that have nothing to so with singing or cooking. But it’s not just in America as I’ve seen really bad ones from other countries. It just hasn’t been lethal yet, but anything else is fair game. The agony of defeat used to be pity, not jeering.

    • But it’s not just in America as I’ve seen really bad ones from other countries.

      I think the Japanese were the pioneers on this front. Their version of “Candid Camera” is especially sadistic. As much as I hate to admit it, the Japanese version of “Silent Library” makes me laugh… a lot.

  6. Can’t remember to accurately attribute, (PT Barnum perhaps?), but frequently am reminded that:
    “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste or intelligence of the American public!”

    • You can always make a living by playing to the baser instincts of humanity. It’s like rubberneckers on the highway, passing a major wreck. You don’t really want to see something horrible, but you’re drawn to it nonetheless. Pornography works the same way. In a healthy society, such things are immediately known for what they are and run out of town. When they’re protected (and even exhalted) you know you have a major cultural issue.

  7. For me, this story was the turning point. Nothing shocks me anymore. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/600145187/Mom-sells-face-space-for-tattoo-advertisement.html?pg=all

    Yes, there will be no shortage of desperate and/or stupid and/or I’ll-do-anything-to-be-on-TV people out there. Terrifying.

    But I also feel that way about boxing, football, and watching 15-year old kids competing in the Olympics. Oh, and child actors and models. I guess my list is pretty long now that I think about it.

  8. After living outside of the country, I came home to such obscenities as the 64oz. Big Gulp drink, Gangsta Rap music, and Fear Factor, a tv show where viewers watched contestants retch and vomit while trying to consume “delicacies” like cow bile popsicles, pig penises and chicken lungs.
    Needless to say, I had a difficult time transitioning back to American life.

  9. Observation: Humiliation for prizes on game shows is nothing new — my personal favorite is an old show called “Queen for a Day” (which ran from 1945 to 1964, acquired extraordinary popularity, had several additional layers of “ugh” added in, and is IHMO *still* a contender for the most tasteless and unethical gameshow ever produced).

    Of course, this has no impact on how ethical — or unethical — a new show is, but does impact the aspects of your piece that argue about *changes* in ethical standards.

      • I REMEMBER it, Ulrike. My mother was an absolute addict of the show. When I was unfortunate enough to be home when it was on, I had to witness women being led to tell sob stories that strained even my kindergarten credulity. Even then, I marveled that my mother could actually sit and watch that idiocy. Once, I was even uncautious enough to tell her so. I learned then that one NEVER stands between a housewife and her natural obsession with freaky and contrived tragedy! I think that’s where I developed my mild misogynistic traits!!

    • “Queen For a Day” was amazing, its true—my family watched it regularly. (Jack Bailey: “Do YOU want to be QUEEN FOR A DAY????” Audience, screaming: “YES!”) It also just involved women trying to top each other with pitiful stories of accumulated misfortune and woe which as bad as it is, is still missing the sadist element. QFAD is also commonly cited as the all-time low point in game show tastelessness. Not any more.

      We’re supposed to get MORE ethical over time, not less, since we learn. QFAD was 60 years ago; the dance marathons (there was the sadism) were almost 90 years ago.

      • Queen For a Day involved people humiliating themselves — *and their families* — for profit on national TV. The sheer level of betrayal involved in that… yeaaaah. Even if the husband agreed, the kids…

        And yes, we’re supposed to get more ethical over time. I can say with some degree of certainty that a modern attempt at that sort of show would commercially fail (or at least receive mass protests from feminists, disability rights activists, child rights advocates, and so on). This shows at least *some* progress, ethically speaking.

        You can argue that we’re backsliding in other areas, sure. But, to me? Slapstick self-humiliation in a game show is a step up — a major step up — from the public and deep humiliation of your family on national TV.

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