Third Order Note:
What Entertainment Is
5 June 2019

What is entertainment? Well, “entertainment” is one of those words that everybody uses without a hint of definition, as if entertainment were a planet, and all you had to do was point. Among people like me, there is a certain guilty feeling — more vestigial every day, it’s true — that entertainment is a disappointment, a lesser thing, not serious somehow. But these bad feelings are swamped and sunk by the fact that entertainment makes its producers pots of money, and gives everybody else something to talk about. Something like Game of Thrones that is. Not “entertainment.” Nobody talks about “entertainment.”

I began thinking about the matter just as anybody would. What sorts of products bear the label “entertainment”? A television sit-com is entertainment, certainly, and so is a circus act. But what about the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center? Is the show of Dutch paintings at the Museum entertainment? Cockfighting? Are Hamlet and The Real Housewives of New Jersey simply two instances of the same species?

I soon saw a jungle of split hairs and a world of disagreement. I had already decided that reassurance and something else were invariable elements of entertainment. I forget what the something else was, but my thinking pivoted on these characteristics to take the opposite point of view. What are the criteria that must be satisfied for people to be entertained? Assuming that almost anything can be entertainment, and that almost nothing entertains everybody, what (if anything) do people always have in mind when they seek it?

Here is my list of four criteria. I’ll get to reassurance last.

  • Diversion. The word that most people would use here is “distraction,” which suggests the distemper of the times. Diversion is the better term, because what people in search of entertainment want is something to shift their attention from everyday concerns to lighter, more pleasant matters.
  • Familiarity. Diversion also requires novelty, for the effortless capture of people’s attention. But if the novelty of the presentation is greater than its familiarity, the result is not entertainment, but challenge and anxiety. Consider the musical form of “theme and variations.” If the the theme is pronounced in every variation, as, for example, in Mozart’s take on the nursery song about the alphabet, the result is very entertaining. If, however, the tune is stripped down to its harmonic essence, to its chord sequence, as it is in Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and in the bulk of classic ensemble jazz, far fewer listeners will find the music “entertaining.” People may agree that it is “interesting” instead.
  • Straightforwardness. Interest is not a characteristic of entertainment — although, as Mozart proves, it is possible to be very diverting and very interesting at the same time. (What’s difficult is responding to both qualities at the same time. This is why Emperor Joseph complained of “too many notes.”) Interest is meta, a self-conscious reflection on what’s going on. Viewers cannot be teased with the suspicion that Peter Boyle is “up to something” — say, recycling an old Molière performance — in an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. Boyle must never suggest that Frank Barone is up to anything but raiding the icebox. 
  • Reassurance. Because, after all, who is Molière? The long-dead author of bygone entertainments, that’s who. And entertainments date poorly. The carefully-designed blend of diversion and familiarity inevitably collides with the icebergs of changing fashion and generational evolution. Entertainment must deny that such icebergs exist. Titanic is an entertaining movie because everyone knows from the start that at least one glamorous old broad has survived, and now the audience wants her story, even if a lot of other people die. Nobody, however, wants to hope for the best and book passage.

You might conclude from this list that entertainment must be cozy and benign, not to say — for hipsters — boring. But one factor crucial to the quality of human life is missing, and that is

  • Humanity. Here is a word that people misuse to connote the sum of human beings, emphasizing what they all have in common. Curiously, we do not have similar words for other species — “doggery,” “elephanthood” — and this suggests to me that people are aware that “humanity” means something else, which it does. Insofar as it refers to the aggregate of human beings, it stresses what makes each human being different from every other — there can be no sum. For practical purposes, “humanity” is the aggregate of two or three hundred other people who appear in anyone’s everyday life. (I’m thinking of city life here, although the total in many villages would be much higher.) “Humanity,” moreover, does not describe these other people — how could it? — but rather it expresses one’s willing ability to grasp, to respect, and to accommodate, as far as healthily possible, their peculiarities. Humanity is in short the opposite of sociology. Sociology searches for timeless laws capable of predicting what people will do. The most lucrative application of sociology today is television production, which is why so much entertainment today is plainly inhumane. What could be more pleasant than the freude in Schadenfreude? Let’s see those housewives throw tantrums with their Birkins!

“Entertainment” is not enough. It is never “only entertainment.”