Forget sounding death knell for irony; it's too soon to tell

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If we grant credence to the effluvium emanating from self-styled, self-aggrandizing media prognosticators, we are to conclude that Americans will never again laugh, never again derive visceral pleasure from gossip or fictional depictions of violence and certainly never again employ irony-not even New Yorkers.

Which is precisely why we should reject such blowhard notions.

That the death of irony is being declared by its most ardent practitioners is, in itself, ironic, as The New York Times so deliciously noted. With all respect to the victims of the horrific crime of Sept. 11, it's preposterous for anyone to make confident pronouncements about the degree to which consumer sensibilities have been altered.

And it's just plain wrong to assume there will be no place for goofiness or irony.

"It would be a real shame if we all just became earnest and patriotic and lost our sense of humor," Mark Whitaker, the editor of Newsweek, said at a roundtable discussion hosted by Advertising Age last week.

There's no question the terror attacks in the U.S. threw us out of kilter and disabused us of false notions of security. It is almost impossible, at this proximity, to understand how we will move beyond the pain, the immense sadness and nervous fear.

There is more to come: from the economic uncertainty to the certainty of a U.S. military response to the concern that the response will be answered with more terror.

There will be permanent scarring. But to assume that we, as a people, have been uniformly, permanently and profoundly changed by the experiences of Sept. 11-or, worse, to presume to know how we've changed-is to walk dangerous ground.

On the night of Sunday, Sept. 23, I watched two TV shows: the fourth installment of the World War II miniseries "Band of Brothers" on HBO and the second hour of a hilarious tribute to 50 years of late-night comedy on NBC. I cringed at the graphic violence on "Band of Brothers," but wasn't repulsed by it. I laughed out loud at Carson, Letterman and Belushi, and didn't feel guilty about it.

To the contrary, I embraced its frivolousness as a counterbalance to the oppressive weight of depressing news coverage.

At 11 p.m., I watched the local news and was saddened yet again when faced with the reality of human suffering.

The creators of media content and advertising by all means should be sensitive in the short-term. They need to review-and if necessary revise-their TV shows, films, commercials and billboards to avoid words or images that would appear insensitive in the current context.

But no one should make long-term decisions predicated on forecasts of how we as consumers will think and behave six months from now or a year from now.

There very likely is a cultural shift under way. There are indications it began around the turn of the century and that it will only be exacerbated by recent events. But no one can claim now to know the outcome, and no one can credibly issue blanket statements about the death of irony, the collapse of celebrity culture or the new seriousness.

If celebrities are out, why did 89 million of us tune in to a star-studded TV and radio telethon that raised $150 million? True, it was on every channel, so we didn't have much choice. But you just know each person who called to make a donation was secretly hoping Sylvester Stallone would answer the phone.

The only thing we in the business of content creation can do is remain alert and sensitive, and be willing to adapt as needed.

Shifts of such scale don't happen overnight, but over years, in almost imperceptible phases. And, let's face it, some things never change.

Martha Nelson, the editor in chief of In Style-a cultural escape hatch that may be more relevant now than before-said it best during our roundtable discussion.

"Ordinary life," she said "will reassert itself."

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