Proof of Concept: Why Evidence Matters

In a world full of deception and lying, it’s only natural that many people would develop a strong sense of skepticism. It’s a defense against the scams and cons that prevail. This creates a cultural ecosystem of disbelief. The question is, how do you communicate an honest message and promote a cause or brand you believe in without being drowned out by naysayers and a tendency to doubt? 

One answer is to prove your concept repeatedly until it is undeniable. If you believe something to be true, then show it. Show how it works. Show what doesn’t work. Explain why. Doing the work of proving a concept is the best way to build credibility. You must earn people’s trust.

Accountability is the key to credibility. If you believe something to be good for you, then showing how it works only makes sense. This is one of the reasons why we value live performances. Without the ability to edit, the live performance creates the appearance of credibility, it is proof of the performer’s abilities.

The most effective way to prove your concept is with consistency. If you can repeatedly come up with the same results, then you have an art. If you achieve your desired goal, but can’t repeat it, then you might have just been lucky. It is through consistent repetition that we gradually grow to believe that someone is honest and that something they are promoting is true. The proof is in the evidence.

Why It’s Funny When Comedy Fails

Lots of comics enjoy watching comics bomb. The funniest part of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the audience’s response to the awful play performed at the duke’s wedding. This scene is funny because of the irony. We have watched these passionate but unexperienced actors preparing for this night throughout the play and it is exactly how wrong they were that makes it so funny. 

When we first meet these aspiring thespians, they are gathered in the woods to rehearse and from the very first moment they get it wrong. It is a failure of leadership, due to a lack of experience that summons the fearful critic among them to point the ship in the opposite direction. They start out concerned that the subject matter is too disturbing for the women in the audience, showing a double misunderstanding: they don’t get theater and they have a false idea of women.

This concern over the violence leads them to horrible stylistic decisions that then shape the rest of the play. To avoid offending the ladies, they invent a prologue to explain that the violence is only symbolic and that nobody is going to be hurt during the play and that the lion is not a lion, etc. To work, a play must create the tension needed to get people’s full attention so that it can then reverse their expectations and surprise, delight, or otherwise entertain. Afraid that the ladies in the audience would not understand how to suspend their disbelief, these actors choose to violate the 4th wall and bring the audience into the show.

This device makes it impossible for the audience to take it seriously, though, and so they are left to critique the choices and to laugh at their unintended buffoonery. The players lack of understanding how they are perceived causes them to botch their shot, and this flat-footed clumsiness makes it even funnier when Bottom is turned into an ass by Puck at the service of Oberon to trick Titania, queen of the fairies. They turn bottom into an ass and give Titania a potion so that she falls in love with him.

To take the stage, in order to win the affection of a fairy goddess you have to have some belief in self, and it is Bottom wrestling with his insecurities and his delusions of grandeur that is so similar to what the path of an aspiring comic likely entails. Bottom is a phase, a stage that must be overcome grown through.

The process of finding out just how funny you are, of seeing an audience respond to you in real time makes for some vicious therapy and it is no wonder that actors and comics have a hard time sometimes making sense of where their act begins and ends. You must love anyone who attempts the feat and give thanks to those who succeed, because it makes our world a much more pleasant place to live. Long live the failure of comedy.

Team Helena

In our asinine social media Internet troll phase of US American culture, 2016-20, the character Parolles would have been the hero of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. Bertram would’ve been an influencer, hype beast, even though he’s almost as smart as a bag of muddy rocks. It was a bleak but necessary phase of growth, our terrible twos of a digitally connected world. We celebrated snitches, nerds, and creeps.

Not anymore. Not since Joe Rogan got his Spotify deal. 

Ultimately, Trump will have been less influential than Rogan, and that is just something you are going to have to consider if you want to be taken seriously as a thinker. Influence is influence. 

Shakespeare is the strongest brand in English Literature. He’s the Disney of the stage. Nobody even comes close. That’s one reason why studying Shakespeare makes so much sense right now. We are slowly globalizing as a culture and that means a cultural transformation that will change things in a way that feels threatening to some and promising to others. Superhero movies have dominated this period for this reason. We need a common language to speak, a mythical language.

We have evolved from a culture best defined by Disney, to one described in spirit by comic book characters. Can you see how young we are as a culture? The next logical step, as happens with any 9th grader in this country I believe, is to start reading Shakespeare. That’s the next level above comic books for us, for some reason. It’s not so much a hierarchy, however, as much as a process of maturation that entails the development of certain strengths or capabilities. 

When we are young, we require the entertaining quality of cartoons. When we get a little older, we can read books with pictures. Eventually, we can read sophisticated plays and derive value and meaning from the text. Does that mean that reading Shakespeare is better than watching Looney Tunes? Not exactly. It just indicates a more mature and sophisticated ability to consume culture. It’s still just consuming culture.

The most important part of consuming culture is the dialogue that it provokes. Reading Shakespeare can lead to more relevant and interesting conversations about things that matter to today’s context without directly discussing topical news. 

Bertram is a bro. He’s too young to be noble. He’s suffering from testosterone poisoning and that is no excuse for his rapist mentality, his narcissistic abandoning of family and country. It’s just an explanation for why he is such a kook. He probably would never become someone cool, but surely, he could not remain this stupid forever. Once he realizes that his own sexual appetite is less important than being good to the people in his life, then he might simmer down a little bit. Not in the play, though. He’s cool as a grease fire. He’s suffering from mental illness, a combination of grief for his father’s death, of a repulsion of being controlled, and of a manic desire to kill enemies in battle and to have sex with virgins as a reward. Bertram is a head case.

He’s also a loser. Despite all the actions he takes, he still ends up a victim of fate, made to do what other people tell him to do. Bertram is a submissive male. Bertram is beta. His aggression on the battlefield and in the bedroom derive from his knowledge that he has no control over his own life. Thankfully, Bertram is so stupid that he never really hurts anyone. The virgin he is trying to sleep with tricks him into having sex with his own wife. His best friend betrays him. Slowly, Bertram realizes how stupid he has been, what poor judgment he has shown.

This is a painful awakening during a comedy. 

Reading Shakespeare, listening to the characters, and thinking about how their plots relate to our lives today is a good way to engage in debate without devolving into fighting. At least, I hope it could. Who knows, though. It might end up as a shouting match between Team Helena and Team Bertram.

Creativity, Danger, and Internet Culture

I keep finding myself surprised by the appearance of things in Shakespeare’s plays that have a ton of relevance to contemporary culture. For example, in All’s Well that Ends Well there is a scene where they prank a soldier. Prank culture has a big place on the Internet, too. Nelk Boys, the Logan Bros, Chad and JT: these are the children of Jackass, the offspring of Punk’d, but they have a four hundred- and twenty-year-old ancestor in Shakespeare’s play.

One of the great things about studying Shakespeare is the mental effort it takes to figure out what is happening as you are led through multiple plots that interweave and are only known through dialogue. We must decipher the stories and their relevance through what characters say to each other. In the case of All’s Well, we hear the soldiers plot out the prank ahead of time. They want to test their friend’s loyalty, so they plan to have him ambushed and held hostage so that he thinks he has been captured by the enemy, but it will be his fellow soldiers in disguise. 

Helena also pulls a kind of trick on Bertram. She switches places with the woman he is trying to have sex with, and she gets him to impregnate her. This is a prank with much more serious consequences, and it is the moral question of the play. Through this dynamic, Shakespeare creates an opportunity to ask a lot of interesting questions. There are debates to be had about the morality of the character’s actions.

One of the problems in our culture today is the changing line between culture and life. Shakespeare wrote plays that were performed in a theater. Nobody gets pregnant or is held hostage. One of the great things about self-made celebrities on the Internet is that they have a ton of creative freedom, because they did it their way. The downside to that freedom is a lack of support or connection to a sustainable business model. Once a movement starts making a lot of money and the players involved depend upon that income it becomes hard to make certain changes. There is a momentum to success that is hard to control.

There is also an escalation of the stakes. People study what performs well on YouTube, for example, and then you get someone like Mr. Beast who constantly feeds the algorithm exactly the kind of stuff it wants. Mr. Beast is performing stunts, not pranks, and this is a more sustainable model. Mr. Beast has an interesting combination of fantasy and reality at work in his videos and he does outlandish and absurdly expensive things, but they also take a lot of discipline and endurance.

Partly, this desire for reality that is shown in pranks and stunts is due to the ungrounded aspect of Internet culture. Because it is a potentially global stage, the internet attracts evermore extreme types of content where the stakes are real. We see people hanging with one hand from the edge of skyscrapers, walking a slack line across an impossibly huge canyon, snowboarding down basically vertical mountains of snow, and so many other death-defying acts.  The fear of death is universally compelling. 

So is sex appeal. If sex sells, it’s because people demand it. The attention economy is flooded with prurient content. The sexual trick in All’s Well works because Bertram is so damned horny. Helena knows it will work, too. She instructs the woman he is trying to screw how to get him to give her his ring, and he does it the dummy. 

Helena manipulates Bertram into marrying her and getting her pregnant through political power and sexual deception. Bertram is a character who represents something you see a lot of today. He is a guy who desires freedom because his life is ironically very unfree. Bertram’s retreat into bro culture shows just how defeated he is. 

It is super interesting to witness and participate in the cultural revolution we are experiencing. I believe that this is an early renaissance of internet culture and some of the characters we are watching are going to innovate and produce work that will be worth of studying far into the future.

My hope is that we will course correct away from higher and higher stakes and veer away from the potential for devastating consequences and instead we will raise the bar by focusing on developing talent and style. Instead of being impressed by someone who is so willing to risk their life, we could be celebrating things that are extremely hard to do, but that are good for life. Mr. Beast learned by studying the YouTube algorithm and now younger YouTubers are learning by watching him, so who oversees this thing? Creative control is the scary thing. Going to the edge of a building is obvious, compelling, and ultimately stupid. Going beyond the known and accepted ideas is scarier and has more potential to break new ground.

We have so many insanely terrifying and challenging problems we could work on tackling. Mr. Beast has a philanthropic component to his content that has the greatest hope to lead this pack of wild creators towards something more sustainable. By using the media to do philanthropic things in the world, he sets a precedent for achieving success by helping other people. The easy and obvious thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to risk our lives, but the harder and ultimately more rewarding thing is to prove our courage by showing we are not afraid to commit to challenging ourselves creatively instead of with danger.