Once schadenfreude didn’t play the important social function it does now. Originally, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others had been something kept in the shadows, nursed in private, and barely acknowledged even to oneself. Those were the days when too public a display of joy at another person’s adversity was considered undignified, bordering on “sick” even. That, of course, was before the coming of gotcha-entertainment. Few could have predicted its overnight success and addictive appeal to such large segments of the population. The old pleasure taken in watching a leering host expose the secrets of the rich and famous was an obvious draw, with its voyeuristic longing to share in their lifestyle excesses while simultaneously gloating over their stumbles on the red carpet and revolving rehab check-ins. But knowing that your life could never really be like theirs—that whatever pleasures and reversals the rich and famous experienced would always be treated by the show’s host as if nothing else in the world mattered while yours were just the same ol’ same ol’ of the nameless, faceless crowd—well, that didn’t do much for raising one’s personal self-esteem. For that, people closer to the level of the audience needed to be invited onto the set. Then, watching their carefully and not-so-carefully-worked-out defenses against the humiliations of discovery be stripped away brought the delicious satisfaction of watching them squirm while breathing a sigh of relief at one’s own escape from the spotlight. The notch or two they were taken down meant the equivalent of a notch or two up for every member of the audience as a result. In that sense, schadenfreude assumed the important public role of supplying a rough feeling of equality at a time when true equality was increasingly hard to find. If civic officials had proved themselves no longer interested in preserving the egalitarian spirit of society’s founding contract and instead pandered to the insatiable desires of those whose greed and thirst for privilege put them in a class by themselves, then gotcha-entertainment hosts were ready to step into the breach and offer their services. You needed to be selective in your choice of program when tuning in, though. Just as an unwavering fixation on society’s more fortunate could merely lead to self-deflating envy in the average viewer over time, a parade of squabbling lowlifes egged on by a studio “psychotherapist” and his boo-on-cue audience or a snarky “judge” tongue-lashing yet another set of squabbling lowlifes had their own drawbacks. Such fare might be an entertaining way to pass the afternoon in your vibrating recliner, but how much true satisfaction could be gained by snickering at those one already considered so clearly below oneself in every way? By default, then, in order to deliver the full measure of gratifying amusement expected, the new schadenfreude required a target neither unattainably high nor too unrelatably low. In short, someone very much on your own level.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans