Underdog’s transformation, from a severely mild-mannered, mopey, humble — and rhyming — being in the original animated series into the non-rhyming, wisecracking cynic seen in the ads for the new live action/computer-animated movie, is offensive, though, not merely because it’s a betrayal of the original character (after all, isn’t Underdog too low as source material to worry about degrading?) but because it’s a glaring example of how knee-jerk cynicism is the only way Hollywood (and perhaps the broader culture) can imagine “updating” things these days. (This must be how an ex-girlfriend of mine felt about the TV-movie Muppets Wizard of Oz turning Dorothy into a fame-obsessed brat played by the singer Ashanti, in contrast to a warm-hearted girl who simply wanted to go home in the beloved original film — though I enjoyed seeing Gonzo as the Tin Man.) I suppose I should be grateful the new Underdog isn’t rhyming, since they’d probably turn him into a gangsta rapper, at which point they might as well just cast Poochie in the role. He’s got an in-your-face attitude, after all.
To give you some idea how detached I feel from most of pop culture — despite my frequent references to subsets of it — keep in mind that I stopped watching sitcoms (with a few rare exceptions) when I decided that one show I’d been watching had gotten too insult-oriented in its comedy, and that hostile, uncivil show was…Cheers, and it was about twenty years ago. Obviously, I had little idea what lay ahead: twenty years of watching the entire population convulsed on cue by nervous, mechanical, and unsatisfying laughter every time some jerk quickly retorts with a third-grade put down along the lines of “You mean like your face?” Make it stop. Make it stop. And more importantly, make real people stop imitating the sitcom characters in everyday conversation. This will come as a shock to most people living in the twenty-first century, but: being insulting really does not make you superior and arguably makes you worse. Try to wrap your mind around that now novel (but once obvious) concept.
Lest I sound like a typical clean-up-the-filth-on-TV guy, let me add that one of the reasons I could never take politicians’ crusades against TV and movie decadence seriously is that they so rarely attack the things people are likely to imitate — such as banter they find funny — preferring instead to attack things virtually no one will imitate, such as decapitating cyborgs from the future, but then, political efforts to quantify these problems are always ham-handed, as I was reminded once back in the 90s when a congressional report listed the most-offensive and least-offensive shows on television, and the list, compiled using very objective criteria such as counting the number of intentionally-inflicted injuries and gunshots on each show, ended up declaring Star Trek: The Next Generation one of the most wholesome shows and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one of the most offensive, though any fan knows that the two shows had virtually the same underlying ethos, as have all manifestations of Star Trek. Sometimes the phasers just get used more.
Context matters in art, I realize, so people should not judge shows, as Congress did in that study, by simply counting nipples or explosions, and I would certainly not make some pronouncement as sweeping as “All insult comedy is bad” (witness Triumph), but I’ll happily say “Most insult comedy is all too easy and much too coarsening to be worth wasting one’s precious finite life on.” A trickier question is what to think about boxing, which is, after all, a crowd cheering on two guys punching each other in the face. On that I have no strong opinion, though I know it’s not my idea of a good time — or is it, given my fondness for superhero stories, which are largely concerned with guys in costumes assaulting each other? Perhaps I should attend the event that (past Lolita Bar debater) Stephen Davis is organizing tonight, where you can be regaled by a speaker who went fifteen rounds with the legendary Muhammad Ali.
If you ask him a question, please be polite for a change.