I dislike the word schadenfreude because a lot of times when people use it in everyday conversation they sound like showoffs. Like, OK, we get it, you aced a vocabulary quiz in the eighth grade, BIG DEAL. But I really dislike it as a concept—feeling good about other people’s suffering just sounds straight-up villainous.
Secondhand embarrassment, which I define as finding someone else’s uncomfortable predicament deeply entertaining BUT ALSO deeply troubling, is a similar feeling that I don’t mind indulging in every once in a while because, by experiencing it, you can’t help but imagine yourself in that person’s shoes. Like, for example, when someone in your history class accidentally calls the teacher Mom instead of by her real name. You laugh while also realizing that, under slightly different circumstances, it could have been you.
There is one source of secondhand embarrassment that triumphs over them all, and it is watching someone lose control on live television. Even though part of me knows better, I’m hung up on the idea that being on TV is the ultimate sign that you’ve made it. I frequently fantasize about being the guest on a live talk show, charming the audience with a story that makes me seems really fun and down to earth despite my status as the world’s most glamorous model/pop star/UN ambassador. So when people screw up during a moment that cannot be left on the editing room floor, I take a weird sort of pleasure, like, Oh right, those are people, too.
Among television personalities, I find news anchors to be particularly disturbing because they are just so energetic and pleasant, day in and day out. I hold tight to the theory that the most bright and cheery people among us are probably the ones with the seediest secrets to hide. So, when I learned that two anchors from one of my very own local news stations (CAROL THE WEATHER LADY AND ANCHORWOMAN NICOLE!) had been getting into unscripted, passive-aggressive arguments on-air for weeks, I was thrilled:
(Someone was motivated enough to compile these moments, which I’m thankful for, but please try to ignore the reference to Nicole as “spicy.”)
I love that these women repeatedly go off script to work in thinly-veiled-but-probably-honest jabs at each other, and in an environment as tightly controlled and happy/creepy as a local television soundstage. They couldn’t help but crack! If I had to fake a jolly rapport with someone I couldn’t stand every single day, I can picture the tension slowly escalating like theirs did. As in: “Carol, I’M NO ANGEL, EITHER.”
But sometimes on live TV, a moment so disastrously real strikes that it makes you look around the room, then back at your TV, and say out loud, “Did I just hallucinate that?!” LIKE THIS ONE:
It turns out that the vomit was actually preplanned, as a sort of performance-art stunt by the dude being interviewed, who prepped by eating a half gallon of Blues Clues ice cream for breakfast before the interview. (You can read more about it in the video’s description.) But that still doesn’t make it look any less real for the anchor or viewers like me. If this day ever comes, you know, when I’m being interviewed on the previously mentioned talk show, I probably would NOT be chill about it. Like, this guy is pretty calm. This would be me: “Oh my god! Ah, this is really bad, um, sorry do you need me to clean this up? CAN WE CUT TO COMMERCIAL OR SOMETHING?!”
I would also want the screen to go black if someone ever got the terrible idea to propose marriage to me during the live broadcast of any sporting event:
She was much nicer about this than I would have been (NO ANGEL). I’m always suspicious of dudes who feel the need to propose to women not only in front of an entire stadium of spectators, but everyone watching at home, too. Maybe they do it because the women they’re with really, truly love sports—but I have a suspicion that it’s because they are so afraid these gals will say no that they need the nonconsensual support of thousands of onlookers to back them up. I find it particularly satisfying when the guy gets turned down, as in this case, but I have to say that I hope, too, that a consoling mouse will be there to pat me on the back during my darkest moment, especially if it’s on TV.
Another layer of satisfaction to the sweet, sweet cake of live-TV-gone-wrong is that when something bad does happen, you feel like you’ve won a prize. Sometimes when everything goes wrong, EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT. This is the sort of drama that I imagine TV executives secretly dream of, which gets me thinking that maybe NOTHING HAS GONE WRONG and it’s all staged LIKE THE MOON LANDING. WHICH WASN’T REAL. Take, for instance, the legend of the Shockmaster. In front of a live TV audience, the World Wrestling Federation wrestler Fred Ottman (the Shockmaster), was to make his debut as the newest, most menacing competitor in the land. What happened instead, was, well…
When his bedazzled helmet fell to the ground, he just moaned “Oh god!” like a true fallen hero (and a truly sympathetic symbol of second-hand embarrassment). The WCW tried to re-market him as a klutz, but it didn’t really catch on. I feel that the tragedy of the Shockmaster is actually a metaphor for everything that is wrong about performing masculinity, but I don’t know, that’s just a theory.
Maybe there is some karmic element to all of this, and my love of seeing people fail on live TV will come back to haunt me one day. Maybe when I eventually go on to win American Idol, I’ll get pantsed just as Ryan Seacrest announces my name. Or I’ll slip and fall on the train of my gown as I’m handed the winning rose on the finale of The Bachelor?! But if (ahem, WHEN) my day in the live-TV-mishaps-sun comes, I won’t feel too bad. People at home will be laughing, but I’ll know that at least some of them will feel for me, too. ♦