More from acute awareness of Instant Karma's immediate sting than morality, I have learned to treat people apparently lacking power with cordiality. This means that when I arrived at the New York studios of Morning Joe, the gleaming, informal mid-morning MSNBC news analysis show, I was polite to everyone there.
I was surprised by the soundman's impatient intrusiveness and yet more surprised as I stood just off set, beside the faux-newsroom near the pseudo-researchers who appear on camera as pulsating set dressing, when the soundman yapped me to heel with the curt entitlement of Idi Amin's PA. In response I wandered calmly from the studio and into the corridor, where a passing group of holidaymakers were enjoying the NBC tour. Often when you encounter rudeness from the crew, it is an indication that the show is not running smoothly, perhaps that day, or maybe in general. When I landed in my chair, on camera, and was introduced to the show's hosts – a typical trident of blonde, brunette and affable chump – it became clear that, in spite of the show's stated left-leaning inclination, the frequency they were actually broadcasting was the shrill, white noise of dumb current affairs.
One of the things that's surprising when you go on telly a lot is that often the on-camera “talent” (yuck!) are perfectly amiable when you chat to them normally, but when the red light goes on they immediately transform into shark-eyed Stepford berks talking in a cadence you encounter nowhere else but TV-land – a meter that implies simultaneously carefree whimsy and stifled hysteria. There is usually a detachment from the content. “Coming up after the break, we'll be slicing my belly open and watching while smooth black eels loll out in a sinewy cascade of demented horror.” This abstraction I think occurs through institutionalisation. If your function is to robotically report a pre-existing agenda, you needn't directly interface with the content. I was surprised when the Morning Joe clip “went viral” (I have parenthesised a sexist joke here: “Many of my casual transactions with daft blondes go viral – I put penicillin on me Frosties”; don't read this if you are offended by that sort of thing) because a lot of my promotional interviews or appearances on these kind of shows have the odd “cuckoo” ambience that defines this transient slice of pop cultural life. It's the unreal, sustained glitch in naturalism that makes this genre of TV disturbing to either watch or be on. The Lynchian subjugation of our humanity; warmth and humour, usurped by a sterile, pastel-coloured steel blade benignly thrust again and again into a grey brain.
Why is our culture behaving like this? How has this become normal? It is by no means an exclusively American phenomenon, though wherever you encounter it, there is something American about it. Even on Question Time, which is as British as eating a pork pie out of Boudicca's vagina, on a Wednesday, in the rain, there is an air of the unreal.