When Eddie Van Halen died recently, I did what many of men in their middle age did. I threw myself down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos, reliving the mastery and flamboyance that embodied Van Halen.
Several YouTube videos later, I came across a highlights reel of a young Eddie Van Halen sitting in with Paul Shaffer’s band on The Late Show with David Letterman.
This was back in 1985, when Letterman was still in the early years at NBC. He and the show were in their prime. The show was so smart, hilarious, sarcastic and honest, and you could have someone like Eddie Van Halen just drop in to sit in with the band, with no pretention. Pure television gold.
The next thing I know, I’ve spent almost all of my free time bingeing old Letterman shows. Someone with a lot of time on their hands has meticulously gone through the Late Show catalog and assembled clip reels.
There’s The Guy Under the Seats Collection, featuring a young Chris Elliott (who would go on to star in the multi-Emmy-winning Schitt’s Creek). There’s a long list of Bill Murray appearances and the whole lineage of Jerry Seinfeld’s rise to stardom through the years.
I’m joyfully wasting time doing something that I haven’t done in a very long time. Can you hear it? That’s me, laughing out loud. I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard for the past 20 years.
As I watched Bill Murray confess to Letterman about his Y2K anxiety back in 1999, it struck me how much of our American fabric has changed these past two decades. Murray’s Y2K anxiety jokes were more poignant than even he could ever know at the time. We were in the infancy of The Digital Age; before Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Google was still just a silly word back then.
Now, here we are, 20 years later, living in such a different world. Over the weekend, a security guard, working for my alma mater, 9News, allegedly shot and killed a protester in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of people. This is the latest deadly result of Americans expressing their freedom of speech through protest.
Twenty or so years ago, I very well may have been part of that crew. This is disturbing to me on so many levels. Like all of you, I don’t know what happened there. I don’t know what words were exchanged that led up to a man being shot to death.
Sadly, the responses I’ve heard have been predictable. I’ve heard everything from: “He (the victim) was a family man who didn’t deserve this unprovoked attack,” to, “well, there’s one less Trump voter out there now.” We all think we know what happened by watching the video online and photos over and over again.
We have already formed our opinions and passed judgment following the online threads that have led us to our own conclusions. We are callous and emotionally unmoved by what we have witnessed before our eyes: a man’s last few seconds of his life.
What led that guy to downtown Denver to take a swing at, and spray another man in the face with pepper spray? Was it just an exchange of nasty words? Was it worth it? Today, a man who was alive at the end of last week is now dead. And another man who was free at the end of last week, is now in jail, accused of homicide. The families of both men are scarred and now likely ruined.
The superficial electronic connections we’ve all grown accustomed to online are suspect. Carefully designed and drawn by our own personal preferences, algorithms have outwitted our primitive human brains and in some cases, lead us to our death.
This is the thesis outlined in The Social Dilemma, a well-done documentary made by a fellow Colorado filmmaker, Jeff Orlowski. They are nothing more than little electrons flowing back and forth on microscopic computer circuitry. But they’ve put ideas into our heads that can occasionally lead to deadly consequences.
If these two men still only had their AOL accounts to get onto the “world wide web,” would one of them be a free man today? Would the other be a family man, still living?
In just the past 20 years, we have forgotten how to live with each other in this country. It’s been well reported, the online soup of misinformation that leads us down a road of an emotional response. It’s made all of us more stupid. We don’t want to know the truth. It’s easier to stop seeing each other as humans, which can rapidly lead from an exchange of words, to a shot of pepper spray, to a deadly shot from a gun. That’s the stupid truth.
We have an election upon us, and we hate each other. That’s the stupid truth. The only way for me to win, is for you to lose and lose bad. I hear the term “total sum gain” thrown around a lot these days. That’s no way to live with each other. When the results come in, some of us will win, and some of us will lose. That’s at least what the superficial algorithms will tell us. In my opinion, the truth is much more stark.
We are all stupid losers unless we find a way to live together and find a way to outsmart our social media tendencies. I’m not at all suggesting we limit free speech. No, it’s more like maturing to understand and appreciate our responsibility with our freedom of speech.
I don’t know if this thought has occurred to anymore else out there, but what will happen to the losers of this election? Where will they go? Will they simply evaporate into the ether, as I hope they will? Not likely. They will still be my next-door neighbor.
They will still be my co-worker and my family member. So, instead of doing a victory dance, or seething with rage and despair, how will I live with my American adversaries so that I don’t want to hurt or kill them, or likewise, they don’t want me dead? I don’t know the answer, but I’m working on it.
I do know how much I miss laughing out loud. Call me stupid, but I long for those days and hope someday, we can reach a point here where we can all have a full, hearty laugh together.
I’m not talking about the kind of laugh where we take joy in someone else’s flaws, but the kind where we can just laugh at life itself. Until then, I think I’ll just bury my head in watching Letterman’s Stupid Pet Tricks.
Brian Malone is a Colorado documentary filmmaker.
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