The Circus is Always in Town

“We’re not going to solve our problems if we get distracted by side shows and carnival barkers,” President Obama said yesterday when he released the original copy of his birth certificate (where the heck is mine?  I have no idea).  This was after his lawyer personally went to Hawaii and made a special request to not only get it but to also make a copy – just like you have to do in a research library (2011 college students take note).

But let’s get back to sideshows and carnival barkers.  Because that’s what we really want to do, isn’t it?  OF COURSE, he’s speaking about Donald Trump.  But not only him.  It’s a whole 21st century movement, this side-showing and carnival-like atmosphere.  And you can make a lot, actually TONS, of money doing it. Which these days certainly isn’t unappealing.  Plus, it’s fun.  Because it’s entertainment.  And everyone in the world knows WORKING IN ENTERTAINMENT IS A 24-HOUR FUNFEST ALL DAY AND NIGHT ALL THE TIME!  Except perhaps for those of us who actually work in it.

That’s not to say entertainment biz isn’t fun – actually it’s great fun.  But not all day.  Not every day.  Nothing is.

Except in the case of the old, tired joke about the guy/gal shoveling elephant (shit) dung at the circus.  When someone asks, “why don’t you just quit, the shoveler looks up,  blankly replying “And what, give up show business?”

Has the world finally come to this in the 21st century – entertainment sideshow tactics trumping the future of a nation?  Well, Abraham Lincoln was shot by a disgruntled actor.  (Rimshot?  Maybe not).

Plus – you and I know this has always been so.   The Greeks and Romans loved a good show, especially when it meant a hungry crowd could literally see people they didn’t like get torn apart by lions or fight to the death.  Or in the case of the French centuries later,  get guillotined (or worse). Today there are certain countries that still prefer justice in the form of stoning and public flogging (And these are places where they don’t even get “Jersey Shore” or “The Bachelor”).

In the last 70 years, it’s become a bit more intellectualized, electronic and sophisticated but we humans still enjoy a good show.   And who better to run the show than carnival barker types.  That would be us, oh good people of the entertainment world.  But as we know, but the general public might not know, there are all kinds of persons in the business we like to call show.  Sure, we might all be carnival barkers of some sort, but we come in various degrees of subtlety and moralities, just like folks in any industry.  We’re not all on the fringe, as one of my favorite writers, Joseph Mankiewicz, had his alter ego director character state in one of my favorite films, “All About Eve.”  Arguing back against the story’s most outrageous carnival barkers, a venomous columnist named Addison DeWitt (get it?), who believes everyone in show business is crazy, neurotic, egomaniacal emotional misfits, Bill the director, answers:

“Oh, I admit there’s a screwball element in the Theatre (show business).  It sticks out, it’s got spotlights on it and a brass band.  But it isn’t basic.  It isn’t standard – if it were, the Theatre couldn’t survive.”

And that was in 1950.  But we’re still here.  Interpolating this to include his beloved Manhattan, Woody Allen took it a step further in “Annie Hall” and said about New York (another show business hub). “Don’t you see, the rest of the country looks upon us (NY) like we’re left wing communist Jewish homosexual pornographers?  I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

When I was in college I can recall Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s much lauded LP “Brain Salad Surgery” and it’s song “Karn Evil 9,” acknowledging the circus-like atmosphere through rock music.  As the synthesizer-backed lyrics went, a carnival barker-type singer shouted/sung in that song:

“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends, We’re so glad you could attend!  Come inside!  Come inside!…Come inside the show’s about to start, guaranteed to blow your head apart…You’ve got to see the show, It’s a dynamo, You’ve got to see the show, It’s rock and roll.”

Granted I’ve edited the lyrics and perhaps they were better appreciated in the altered states of 1970s college, but you get the idea.  Contemporary culture in a carnival setting.  Do you think Donald Trump listened to ELP at Harvard?  I mean, he was of that general age.  Yeah, me neither.  But it might have helped him.  Or, at least us.

Trump is, of course, doing just fine in our world of celebrity-invoked culture. Because somewhere in his non-rock ‘n roll listening heart he knows it’s all rock ‘n roll.  He’s the star of a still hit television show (“The Apprentice”) and supposedly worth megamillions, or perhaps billions, but no one knows for sure because he hasn’t released his tax returns and there is no public record of it.  Hmmm, perhaps he’s not really a citizen if we can’t find his tax returns.  I mean, I can release mine.  Can’t you release yours?  Maybe we should start a movement?

You don’t have to be a Donald Trump huckster to succeed in the world (thank God) and you certainly don’t have to be an egghead, editor of the law review Harvard-attending President Barack Obama (thank God because really, isn’t that setting the bar just a little high?).  But what you do have to understand is that each have gotten where they are with a combination of smarts (street, book or both), good instincts and understanding the value of show business/entertainment/hucksterism.  Isn’t that why Obama’s pre-fabbed “columns” were brought in during the 2008 Democratic convention to make him look more “presidential,” not to mention his own personal teleprompter? I rest my case.  But there are degrees of how you do this and it’s up to you to figure out the right balance.  As it applies to yourself.  And what you can’t and will be able to live with (Or else it’s eternal damnation in hucksterism hell of your own choosing).

At a panel I moderated for our students this week of three very accomplished, award-winning, successful film professionals, one student asked the panelists, “If you could give advice to your younger self from everything you’ve learned up to this point, what would it be?”  There were several moments of silence as we all tried to think of something valuable and intelligent to say to not only our younger selves but this group of 75 of our younger selves.  Across, the board, the advice was to “be bold, be courageous.  Work your butt off.  Because it will work out.”

One could say that’s exactly what’s happened for both Obama AND Trump.  Albeit in very different ways.  And they’re not even in the world of entertainment.  Or – are they?

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One thought on “The Circus is Always in Town

  1. There are books dedicated to this very subject. Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power and The Art of Seduction, written in a very blunt, Machiavellian style, describe how to create spectacle to gain influence, and back up each principle using examples in history and in fiction (most often fiction based on real-life subjects). I read these books and thought “This has been working for thousands of years… and it’s still in practice today!”

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