Saturday, March 04, 2017

Punching Down Is A Matter Of Perspective

One of the comments on my post on conservative comedy made an argument that I've seen a lot:
"Someone (can't remember who) said that comedy is about kicking up, not kicking down.  Republicans kick down. It's not funny."
I generally see it referred to as punching up, rather than punching down (I think my reader was either mixing up this metaphor with "kissing up and kicking down," or, like Lloyd Dobler, is into kickboxing) but the general argument remains the same.  Liberals are funny because they are sticking it to the man, Conservatives are unfunny because they are beating up on the little guy.

There's an argument to be made that this statement about comedy is, in itself, untrue, but since Ben Schwartz did so quite well in this Baffler piece, I'll focus instead on the fact that punching down is a matter of perspective.

I don't think that the majority of conservative comedy punches down. The primary targets are the media and cultural tastemakers in the media, who are "above," not below, since they are the ones rendering judgment on what is and isn't of value.

I may not be a fan of NASCAR or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, but their actual fans have every right to enjoy them without being mocked for their taste.  It's not that surprising that "Red State" residents resent how they are portrayed in the news, on television, and at the movies, since they are often the subject of criticism, or worse, the butt of jokes.

(Side note: I'm not arguing for total relativism.  It's just important to unbundle and criticize specific actions, as opposed to dumping on an entire demographic.  If you want to criticize a racist, criticize his or her words and actions, not his or her ZIP code.)

In this sense, things like mocking Donald Trump for ordering steaks well-done and topping them with ketchup plays right into his (unusually small) hands. Medium-rare steaks with a red wine reduction are for effete coastal liberals who look down on honest, hardworking Americans who get their steak at the Sizzler well-done. (I exaggerate, but only slightly!)

Liberals think they're better than conservatives, who are reactionary troglodytes. Conservatives think they're better than liberals, who are godless perverts. Very seldom does either side praise the other's virtues, such as a respect for tradition, or compassion for others.

Rather than worrying about punching up or punching down, let's focus on punching people who truly deserve it, like that Martin Shkreli guy.*

* By the way, did you know that Martin Shkreli grew up the son of working-class immigrants who came to this country and worked as janitors to give their children a better life?  Or that he opposed Donald Trump's presidential bid?  Even the most punchable guy in the world has sympathetic elements.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Situational Shyness

Very few people would characterize me as shy.  Based on the classic "Big Five" personality factor model, I score heavily on the extroversion scale.  Yet there are definitely times in my life when I have felt shy, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, and I've concluded that there is a pattern.

First, I'm more likely to feel shy in unfamiliar settings, when I'm surrounded with unfamiliar people.

Second, the level of shyness I feel is generally inversely proportional to the level of status I feel in that setting.

Here are a couple of examples, that help illustrate these principles at work.

Over a decade ago, back when I was still an unemployed bum during the dot com bust, I attended the Silicon Valley Forum Visionary Awards.  Since I was a volunteer, I got to attend the invitation-only event, which took place at some successful entrepreneur's luxurious estate, and was packed with famous and wealthy.  On the bus ride up to the estate, I sat next to one of the honorees for the evening, legendary founder and investor Andy Bechtolsheim, who was both incredibly smart and probably one of the nicest people I've ever met.

It was an unfamiliar setting, filled with unfamiliar people, and I was clearly one of the lowest-status people there, other than the catering staff.  While I had a good time and chatted with a lot of people, I felt much shyer than I would have at a less high-faluting event.  A symptom of this is that I spent much of the evening hanging out by the food with other low-status volunteers in attendance, like Jonathan Abrams, who told me about a startup he was about to launch called Friendster, and some developer relations guy from PayPal named Dave McClure.

Fast forward to last year's Visionary Awards, which I also attended.  This time, I was there in my capacity as a member of the Silicon Valley Forum board, which meant that I was now a host of the event, imbued with positional authority and status.  It was now my job to work the crowd and make sure people felt welcomed to the event.  Quite a change from being an unemployed bum filling up on crab cakes!

It was the same event, full of famous and wealthy people, but thanks to the twin factors of familiarity and status, I now had a very different experience (though I had a good time both years).

(Incidentally, if you're interested in attending this year's Visionary Awards, reach out to me, and I'll try to get you an invitation.  I promise, I'll introduce you to interesting folks!)

There are very few occasions on which I feel shy these days, but I would argue that this is due to environmental changes, not psychological ones.  Most of my time is spent here in Silicon Valley, where, even if I don't know the folks I'm meeting with, I'm very familiar with the mores and customs of their tribe, and we likely have a host of mutual friends and contacts even if we don't know each other yet.  In addition, even without Silicon Valley's primary marker of success (starting a billion-dollar company) I have enough secondary markers (best-selling author, teaching at Stanford) that my status is high enough to allow me to feel comfortable in most company, despite my embarrassing lack of private jets, vacation homes, etc.  I'm sure I would feel very different at an Oscar party in Hollywood, where I would be in an unfamiliar millieu with essentially zero status (imagine being at a Silicon Valley party without any knowledge of the industry, and without even appearing in Crunchbase or Angel List).

So if you do have a tendency to feel shy, maybe the answer isn't to try to change your personality, but rather to change your situation.  Develop a familiarity with the millieu; you might use your first year in attendance at an event to familiarize yourself with the customs and layout, and then return the next year with greater confidence.  You can also use the technique that I did (intentionally or unintentionally) with the Visionary Awards, by acquiring official positional authority and status.  Maybe you can volunteer for the organization that puts on the event, or if you're really gung-ho, organize your own!  This will also help you with your status at the event, and maybe even boost your overall status.

As I'm fond of saying, if you know the world is rigged, why not rig it in your favor?  You might be naturally shy, but if you rig the situations you find yourself participating in, you can arrange your environment so that you never feel shy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Come with me to Doha in April (all expenses paid)

The week of April 23-27, I'll be working with the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Doha to run an all-expense-paid program for entrepreneurs.

The QSTP has a host of promising technologies in its labs around which entrepreneurs can build startups.  The "Research To Startup Program" lets entrepreneurs from anywhere in the world apply to spend a week in Doha checking out the technologies, meeting the researchers, and getting mentored by experienced entrepreneurs and investors like me.

The QSTP will pay all your expenses, including 4-star travel accommodations.  If you find a technology you like, and the QSTP likes you, you get to come back for a 2-month accelerator program in Doha to actually build your startup.

At the end of the accelerator program, you'll present at a Demo Day where the QSTP's associated venture fund will invest $500K in the seed round of each promising company.

Since we're only accepting about a dozen entrepreneurs into the April 23-27 program, your odds of being invited back and, ultimately, receiving that $500K investment are very good!

Plus, even if you aren't picked for the accelerator program and/or seed investment, you still get to spend a week in Doha with yours truly and other similarly fun and helpful mentors.

If you're interested, you can apply on the Research To Startup Program website here:

Be sure to mention that you were referred by Wasabi Venture Global so that I can stack the deck in your favor evaluate the effectiveness of my outreach efforts!

Conservative Comedy

An oft-made observation is that comedy in the United States tends to be overwhelmingly liberal in its politics.  Despite the existence of a small number of Republican funny men and women (and most of those are more in the Libertarian bent anyway, e.g. Adam Carolla, Larry Miller, Vince Vaughn), there is no conservative equivalent of The Daily Show, This Week Tonight, or Full Frontal.

I've often pondered this puzzle myself, but never came up with an adequate answer.  Maybe it's just inherently difficult to make jokes about school voucher programs and tax breaks.  But just yesterday, I was struck by a different thought:

What if the polarization of society has reached the point where liberals and conservatives simply have different senses of humor, and don't find each other's comedy funny?

The realization hit me when someone described the importance of Rush Limbaugh's use of humor on his talk radio show.  I freely admit that I've never listened to Rush Limbaugh's radio show, but I've seen the occasional clip, and I never found him funny.  So I looked up "rush limbaugh funny" on YouTube, and found a recording of his performance at the CPAC conference from a few years back.  You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf4iwfkzbK4

I watched the entire clip, and never laughed once.  Not even close.  And I wasn't trying to suppress laughter; I just didn't find Rush funny, though he had an energetic and amiable delivery.  At one point, he even tells a joke about Larry King going to heaven--Larry King is God's gift to comedians--and even that wasn't funny.

But, during the clip, you can hear the audience rolling in the aisles.  It's full of genuine belly laughs, and the clip is from CSPAN, so you know they didn't have the budget to add in a laugh track.  Limbaugh's audience found him hysterically funny.

Conservative comedy might not be funny to me, or to the effete, coastal, liberal, Ivy-league educated television and film critics of the country, but it appears to be very funny to its chosen audience.

I thought Dennis Miller was hilarious back when he was on Saturday Night Live, and crashingly unfunny as a conservative pundit.  But my taste isn't the final arbiter of humor; the audience is.  Many people love to trash the comedian Carrot Top, but he continues to play to sold out shows.  Many others mock "The Big Bang Theory," but it remains the top-rated comedy on television.

More to the point, saying, "I don't find Rush Limbaugh funny, so he obviously isn't funny," is the semantic equivalent of saying, "I don't enjoy listening to rap, so it obviously isn't any good."

I don't have to agree, approve, or even condone someone else's point of view.  I can and should contest mistaken beliefs with facts and logic.  But I (and you) should start with the premise that most of the people you disagree with have honest and sincere reasons for their beliefs, even if they are wrong--after all, shouldn't they assume the same about you?