There’s an insidiousness in the implicit connection between entertainment and advertising. When we consume any media form, we make ourselves vulnerable to consuming other products, for in the act of consuming entertainment, which we have committed to see and/or hear based on our own tastes and preferences, we make a tacit pact with the entertainment provider that we like the program they offer, so we are willing to stick to the program even if it is interrupted by advertisements. In today’s digital age, commericals are completely and utterly inevitable. For the most part, they carry more burden than any utility in that they rarely advertise a product or service we actually want, and they interrupt the entertainment forms we consume, whether that is a TV show, a YouTube video, a Netflix show, a Facebook news feed, or even this blog (is there an ad on this page? Probably).
Before today’s highly diverse world of entertainment channels, Hunt Emerson acutely critiqued the dubious relationship between entertainment and advertising that drives people in a never-ending cycle of consumerism in his comic, Calculus Cat, picking up on the same topic addressed in John Boorman’s Having a Wild Weekend but a decade later and in a more television saturated world. Beginning in 1978, Calculus Cat first focuses on the role of commercials on television. By day, Calculus Cat grins, attempting to entertain and give people joy for free, and by night, after a day of heckling and attacks from the people he encounters on the job, Calculus Cat finds himself trying to drown out the miseries of his day with his favorite television shows.
Unfortunately, his television has its own priorities that conflict with Calculus Cat’s expectations for his television. While Calculus Cat’s shows do play on the TV, they will not begin until a TV announcer repeatedly declares commercials for Skweeky Weets, a cereal company. The incessant commercials drive Calculus to the brink of madness on a daily basis, but right at the moment when he prepares to destroy the television, the commercials for Skweeky Weets end, and the program he had hoped for finally starts.
This battle between Calculus Cat and the television repeats everyday, and each story in the Calculus Cat collection focuses on a new day of their altercation and Calculus Cat’s eventual surrender to the television, pulling our cat into a never-ending cycle of consumption, where he grudgingly consumes the commercials of Skweeky Weets then consumes his favorite television show, be it Rawhide, The Addams Family, or Bronco. Skweeky Weets commercials dominate every station and every type of program and eventually begin to dominate the markets such that it becomes the only cereal bar available in Calculus Cat’s world, and given the persistent commercials that infuriatingly block entertainment programming and the elimination of all other snack food choices, Calculus Cat too must succumb to finally purchasing Skweeky Weets products.
Calculus Cat, though filled with humor stemming from his belligerence toward his TV, contains a grim statement about the state of the human interaction with entertainment media in a post television age. With the expansion of the series for the collection released by Knockabout Comics last year, Emerson must have felt some pride (and horror) in his initial assessment of how we digest an enormous amount of advertisements in return for a chunk of entertainment given that this compromise between entertainment and commercials have permeated so much of society. Ultimately, Calculus Cat documents the numbing of individual thought and preferences through commercials and entertainment seen all in the comfort of one’s home because with each repetition of a commercial, especially the same one, we begin to become more indifferent toward the commercial itself and eventually toward the entertainment itself because we have to bear the commercials in order to actually see the entertainment we want, making it unclear what we actually want to consume. And after all desire wears away, we transform into mindless couch potatoes, seated and hypnotized by the television (or in this modern day, the computer) by compulsion and habit, and when we do go out, we purchase the products we see on the screens without second thought or question about whether or not we really need them.
Beyond the dissolution of human thought and preferences, what really makes the relationship between entertainment and advertising manipulated to drive consumerism really despicable is its ability to isolate individuals and pull them out of any socially or intellectually stimulating scenario, so much so that we begin to lose our ability to interact positively with others. Outside of Calculus Cat’s war with his television is his war with the world around him that he attempts to bring happiness to with simply a smile, but that world cannot process the smile and only returns anger and bitterness to his toothy grin. In seeking entertainment from a screen in the isolation of our homes, have we become unable to bear our own realities?
Calculus Cat really has no ties to calculus other than its attempt to understand the derivation of the malaise of our existence today. The series managed to foreshadow the general indifference toward each other and toward even entertainment in the decades to follow its incarnation, especially in today’s highly connected internet world where entertainment in the palm of your hand is more instantaneous than ever, and for that, it deserves a thorough read for anyone who just cannot get their phone out of their hand or cannot bear to do anything after work but return home to surf the web or watch television. If you are one of those people, please do read this collection in its book form, and perhaps, if you dare, read it in a public place or with someone. Otherwise, just go out and make something and talk to someone face to face….it’s a good thing, and avoid any Sweeky Weets products if you can.
Calculus Cat by Hunt Emerson is available via Knockabout Comics.