On Clapter

Mar 6, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros mascot Orbit works the crowd during a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Osceola County Stadium. The Astros won 7-1. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A passage I read the other night:

What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls “clapter.” Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few “whoops” thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasn’t funny enough to actually make them laugh. … As far as writing goes, the only important thing is that it’s funny, and that it’s an original comment. That the audience agrees with me isn’t necessary and probably isn’t even a good thing. It’s so easy to coast by, just hitting the same familiar notes you know are popular and have been pre-tested for effectiveness. The audience will always at least applaud, so you never have to risk silence.”  (James Downey, in an interview with Mike Sacks, Poking a Dead Frog, 2014.)

My wife always wonders why I care whether people read my stuff. I always struggle to come up with a decent answer. This conversation usually begins after I display some signal that some latest piece didn’t find its audience, failed to resonate, as I perform the marital dance of hiding my immaturity. The self-absorption isn’t flattering, but more than anything else she just doesn’t get it -€” she doesn’t need validation from anyone about anything. She’s a strong person who gets things done, and if no one notices her do it, all the better. Her logic: if I made something and it’s good, isn’t that enough?

I try to explain that comedy doesn’t work that way, even the loose version of it that qualifies as baseball writing. Sure, if you’re working through feelings or developing an intricate philosophical system, you can write for yourself, insulated from the world, but when you write jokes you need someone around to laugh. You don’t need them to praise you or feel good about the joke; it just doesn’t exist without them. Humor is about making connections: between concepts, between people. It doesn’t work solo.

The people are the problem. Audiences are difficult things; they have their own perspectives, their own individual desires. Most of all, the system of writing and comedy doesn’t particularly reward challenging people. Good writing forces people to test new ideas, pushes them out of their patterns and their comfort zones. Sometimes it offends, sometimes it confuses, sometimes it just deceives. But it always makes them work. And a lot of people don’t particularly want to work, especially in their leisure reading; the sense of camaraderie that baseball instills is usually enough. There’s no thought required to cheer, or to wordlessly just feel. And so, systemically, the writing that allows people to clap, rather than laugh, is always going to be the safest, most popular work.

I like writing for the internet: the contact between writer and reader is so clean, so quick, so honest. The thrill of writing for me is in its alchemy: you take random ideas, even sometimes just words that seem to conflict, and you throw them in a pot and see what comes out. You never really know until it’s done, even if you think you do, and it’s exciting. But the other part, the meeting the reader halfway, knowing where they come from and getting them to empathize with you and understand your thought process and find something interesting and useful in it: that’s its own roll of the dice. When you succeed, it’s brilliant — and when you don’t, you get silence.

There’s a place for clapter. There’s a sense of belonging, perhaps, a shared rosary. I don’t want to deny that. It allows us to feel active in our participation in something larger than ourselves, the way all sports do. But it can also be exclusionary, political, negative. Sports breeds its own peculiar, shitty nationalism, against people who wear different-colored hats, who use different statistics. Affirmations become cliches, then become commandments. Relaxing becomes living thoughtlessly. It’s the comfort food of writing and reading, the macaroni and cheese that reminds you of childhood, loaded with a week’s worth of saturated fat.

As beautiful as baseball can be, as much as I love it, it’s a shadow world, reality television set before a live studio audience. Its virtue isn’t the game itself, but the fact that we’re all experiencing it and caring about it together. And because of that, there will always be writing and products that look to profit off that motive, to tell the reader what they already know and to praise them for knowing it. There will always be hero myths and origin stories, prophecies and promises, tried and true tactics that flatter and stir the heart. There will always be hot takes, and there will always be clapter. But in the end, it all has to mean something more than itself, has to find some truth, or it’s just telling the same jokes over and over again.