The Profitable Plunge from Lowbrow to Nobrow

December 22, 1993|By GERALD HOWARD

New York -- The Flavor of the Month in the media supermarket is Stupid, preferably with generous toppings of Vulgar and Vicious.

Stupid sells -- does it ever. From Beavis and Butt-head to Howard Stern's ''Private Parts'' (cf. Vulgar and Vicious),

reportedly the fastest-selling hard-cover book ever, the plunge from Lowbrow to Nobrow pays off big-time. And if the number of people who can distinguish wit from witlessness and sexual allure from full-frontal exposure is reduced to a corporal's guard, well, that's the cost of doing business. The numbers say you are giving people what they want, and numbers, famously, don't lie.

The great thing about selling Stupid, though, is that you can shore up your sense of hip superiority while expressing veiled contempt for your audience, and the boobs won't even notice! Huh-huh, huh-huh: cool.

In fact, what we are witnessing is a subtle but very real form of class warfare and exploitation. Look closely and you'll see that it is the country's best educated and most affluent people who are behind the Stupid trend, and they are smirking all the way to the bank. The worst and the brightest gravitate to Los Angeles and )) New York not, as in the 1980s, to peddle junk bonds but junk culture, to make their fortunes fabricating the artifacts of Stupid.

The people who do this are entirely too smart and well educated (and maybe empty) to feel simpatico with their characters and product and audience. Elevating a culture is a mug's game -- it keeps your numbers down and it requires some depth of feeling. It is much easier and more lucrative to pander to your audience, push their buttons, confirm their prejudices, congratulate them on their limitations.

And if, as in Beavis and Butt-head and the Bundys of ''Married . . . With Children,'' the portrayal of lumpenprole benightedness is applauded by the proles themselves as knee-slappingly on target, it only confirms the sense that there is little point in suggesting the possibility of dignity and self-transcendence. It would be wasted on the non-sentient segment of your audience.

Consider the backgrounds of the purveyors of Stupid. There is the former enfant terrible of the Fox network, 37-year-old Stephen Chao, the force behind ''Studs,'' ''America's Most Wanted'' and ''Cops.'' Mr. Chao, the son of a Bennington professor of literature, studied the classics at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, wrote his senior thesis on the Roman satirist Juvenal and declaims in interviews on Henry Adams' view of history and the excellence of William Blake as a guide to child-rearing. When he isn't crafting new breakthroughs in voyeurism, double-entendres and bogus interactive law enforcement, Mr. Chao reportedly cons his Catullus in the original Latin.

Harvard, in fact, has become the hot new feeder school for the Stupid factories, especially ex-Lampoon staffers who are so aggressively recruited they can virtually write their own tickets. Among them are Stewart Burns, '92, higher-mathematics dropout and Beavis and Butt-head writer (writer!); Richard Appel, '85, former federal prosecutor and a ''Simpsons'' screenwriter; and numerous other alums prominent on the teams of ''Saturday Night Live,'' ''The Late Show With David Letterman'' and ''Seinfeld.'' Do Harvard's courses in literary theory now concentrate exclusively on the low mimetic? T.S. Eliot, '10, wept.

Then there is the staggeringly successful book editor Judith Regan, formerly of the National Enquirer, as was Stephen Chao. Ms. Regan has brought us Rush Limbaugh's radio-powered right-wing rants ''The Way Things Ought To Be'' and ''See, I Told You So,'' and the afore-mentioned Howard Stern's ''Private Parts.'' (I think we all remember Mr. Stern from grammar school. He was the kid who learned all the dirty words first and whispered them in class in impressive, if anatomically unlikely, combinations.)

Ms. Regan is Vassar '75, an alumna of the school that gave us Mary McCarthy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Muriel Rukeyser and Elizabeth Bishop -- all products of a time when ''the Vassar girl'' was a virtual synonym for intellectual rigor and civic-mindedness. Ms. Regan's next big book will be, of course, ''MTV's Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks,'' ''by'' Beavis and Butt-head. Howard, look to thy laurels!

The usual counter to this line of criticism is to accuse its source of a narrow, snobbish elitism. But that works only if elitism is defined as the ability -- or desire -- to make any cultural distinctions and value judgments whatsoever. American popular culture -- vibrant, original, inventive, irreverent -- has been one of the glories of our democratic civilization. Our songs, films, cartoons, novels, plays, musicals and their writers and performers have defined all that is best and liveliest in us -- and as a result have swept the globe. They communicate and celebrate the importance of the common man and woman and the richness of our common life, across all class lines. Or they have until recently.

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