Watching the Watchers

Watching them watch the “Classic Replay,” CBS 5.

I sat down to watch a football game yesterday, and I was appalled. I knew it was a repeat, but I did intend to watch as if it was live, and I didn’t know the outcome. But it was a giant fail! Most of the game was framed by three local commentators eating, drinking, and making obscure inside jokes. It was one of those “What is the world coming to?” moments, which are happening with increasing frequency.

I do understand that there are rules. Sports are a form of entertainment, like circuses and magic shows, not an epic battle upon which the fate of the universe or local pride rests. Entertainment is for watching. I am watching it on a screen while eating and drinking, so others must be doing the same. Plus, given that there are 752 channels that run 24×7, content must fill the time, so much of the content is people talking. In fact, there is more content of people talking about sports than there are televised sports, so the cycle of discussion circulates around the same people, sports, drama, behind-the-scenes will so-and-so play or get paid or ask to be traded, &c.&c.&c.

(This plays out elsewhere. I was in the lap pool swimming yesterday, and there were three fellas in the seating area outside the steam room at one end. In between gulps of air, I heard “quarterback.” When I came up for a turn at one, another person not in their party had walked up and was wildly gesticulating while yelling something about Aaron Rodgers. It’s worth noting that said Rogers is not on any team in our local area, but he does seem to inspire many people to get very excited. This is proof of the ultimate success: you generate controversy nationwide even though you are just an aging human being who occasionally throws a ball a long way.)

So this is where we are. There is so much talking to be done about this entertainment form, that when you go to experience the entertainment, it’s packaged as another type of entertainment: “Watching the watchers.” It’s a disturbing trend.


Part of the purpose in creating this form of entertainment is to retread old content. Content is expensive to produce. Saturday afternoon on a local network in August is a dead zone. There isn’t any college or pro football in season quite yet, and other sports have been relegated to separated specialized channels. Local CBS can’t show movies anymore because there are 100 channels for that. What is Channel Five going to do at 3 pm on Saturday? The idea of a “Classic Replay” is actually quite good. Put on a game with a local team where there were important stakes. I love it!

The problem is the wraparound packaging. Can someone explain it to me? Is it really more interesting to watch people eat Doritos, drink Red Bull, and yell or laugh or jump up and down, while the game is relegated to a tiny spot in the back. Even when it was shown on screen, the talkers were making loud comments, while the original commentary from the show was running, so it was just a blizzard of noise. Mid-show they had a pizza delivered. I turned it off.

Chef’s Cut with Alex watching herself. Food Network still shot.

This is not unusual; this is going to be our future. Take another example, a show on the Food Network called “Alex vs. America.” Because they only shoot six episodes of this show, they also repackage another six episodes in a “Chef’s Cut.” In this new version, the host and star of the show rewatch the exact same episode and comment on it.

The Food Network was created not that long ago as an experiment to see if people liked to watch others cook. People liked it so much that FN created cooking competitions; these were so popular that they spawned celebrity chefs, who became well known for judging, playing, commentating, and–occasionally–actually cooking. Alex Guarnaschelli was a competitor first in 2007. (It’s worth noting that one of the best meals I had was at her restaurant, Butter, in New York at 4 in the afternoon, a meal that was only appetizers, salad, and dessert because the entrees were too expensive for our travel budget.)

Alex, the ultimate judge and competitor, has such a reputation that it spawned her own show of her VS. the rest of the country, three chefs at a time. During the show, the host Eric Adjepong, who has his own cooking pedigree, wanders around and watches the chefs compete. Two judges sit outside in a trailer, waiting to be called in. So the normal format bounces around between the cooking, the chefs outside chatting about the cooking, cut-aways to the participants talked about what they were doing when they were cooking. A lot of stuff aside from the cooking.

Not the Chef’s Cut: Still watching. Food Network photo.

A few episodes ago, Alex sliced the tip of her finger off cutting vegetables. The camera didn’t zoom in on the blood, and she did walk away and ask for a medic. At one point, she turned to the camera and said, “Hey, turn that off, please?”

“You watched it, that’s just really what happened! I didn’t even think ‘You’re on camera right now,’” she continued. “When I came to for a second, in my out-of-body state, I think I said, ‘Don’t film me bleeding.’ Like, thinking to myself, ‘Who wants to watch me bleed?’”

But, of course, Alex, the answer is Everybody! Which is why Alex has now gone on other talk shows to talk about the moment when it happened so that everyone can watch and discuss it together, and we viewers can watch the talk show where they show the “Chef’s Cut,” where the hosts are watching the time when the host cut her finger… We are now in the hall of mirrors.

MST3K and “This Island Earth.”

Blame the Bots

I know where the fault lies. Mystery Science Theater 3000. In 1988, they proved that you could watch anything, and if the watchers made it entertaining, then you would watch the watchers. When they started riffing on old movies, bad movies, in particular it was a game-changer.

They had the puppets–Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy! It was originally supposed to be an elaborate version of a puppet show. Early cable, access channels, content could be anything. They had scripts, though. While the team made it sound improvisational, they did run-throughs and tried out different jokes, as comedians do. The jokes had to be carefully timed to maximize their value to what was being watched on screen.

MST3K created its own industry, another example of people not expecting to be so successful that they’d end up devoting most of their lives to this enterprise. Leonard Nimoy could never get away from Mr. Spock. Kevin Murphy can never get away from Tom Servo.

Nowadays, the group has splintered. There’s a reboot of MST3K with different people. There was a live touring company, “The Great Cheesy Movie tour,” the last live audience we sat in before COVID, in February 2020. So there we were in the audience, watching the bots watch a movie. It was frickin’ hilarious.

And there’s Riff Trax. A group of the originals, including Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson, have been very successful at continuing the watcher idea. Since 2006, you could buy a Riff Trax overlay that you put on a movie you had to watch them riff. But they also started doing shows where the commentators stood to the side, telling the jokes while the movie played. Naturally, they filmed themselves doing this. Now, you can watch replays of them doing this “Live,” where there is a live audience watching them riff a movie. So you are watching the audience watching the commentators watching the movie… what happens if the actors in the movie turn to see a local news report of a strange craft… then you are watching the watching the watching the watching….?

A still shot from a live audience of Riff Trax watching “Birdemic.”

The next version of Virtual Reality will be you putting on the goggles and seeing yourself putting on the goggles, in which you are putting on the…

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