Bad Bread And Circus

Monday, 5:08pm
Reno, NV
“Once more into the breach, dear friends…” Henry V (by the Bard)


I’m a little ticked off here, so forgive me if I start ranting.

And you may disagree with me completely.

If you do, good — I want to hear your rebuttal.

Here’s what this is about:

Do you watch TMZ?

What do you think of it?

It’s addictive, I’ll tell you that much. I was just walking by the boob-tube last night, minding my own biz, when I caught sight of a single clip on some train-wreck celeb being bad.

Man, I think we’re hard-wired for gossip and shit like this. I just stood there, mesmerized, for half an hour.

I escaped, finally, during a long commerical break (hah!).

But just barely.

The show — if you’re mercifully unaware of it — is an hour, each Sunday evening, of a “behind the scenes” meeting of a typical tabloid/papparazzi staff of idiots. They talk smack about celebrities, while airing the nastiest video they can buy, steal or swindle.

It’s red meat for our celeb-obsessed culture.

And you watch it, mouth agape, the way you might watch an actual train wreck in progress.

If you’re lucky, after watching all this dirty-laundry crap, you just shrug off any larger meta-implications about our civilization and go to sleep.

If, like me, you’re not lucky that way…

… you start to wonder about when — not if — the hammer of history is coming down on us.

For me, last night, the epiphany came while the smarmy producers were ragging on two musical heroes of mine.

These two guys were doing nothing but being themselves. Weird, outlandish, and abnormal, yes. But they’ve never pretended to be anything else.

They were:

1. George Clinton — the Godfather of Funk, founder of the group Funkadelic, and all-around rhythmic bad ass.

2. And Sly Stone, of Sly and the Family Stone.

If you’ve never seen the Family’s live version of “Take You Higher” from the Woodstock (1969 edition) movie, your soul is just a little bit poorer for the lack.

It’s goooooooooood.

And, for those of you paying attention, I’ve been asking the sound guys at seminars to use Funkadelic’s “We Got The Funk” as my intro music when I hit the stage for a lecture.

Gets the crowd in the right mood.

My own life would have been infinitely more dismal without these two greats contributing to the soundtrack of the last half of the twentieth century. They’re both in the Rock Hall of Fame, and deserve to be there.

Back to TMZ…

The rat-bastards on this show pretend to be hipper than thou. “Oh, look at Suzy Starlet, puking in the alley behind Spago’s, she’s such a loser tee hee hee…”

Sure, there are no lack of celebrities out there dying to have their sex tape, or their latest brush with the law, or their inside story of rehab prominently displayed on TMZ and the other trashy shows and magazines feeding the mob.

But you go too far when you spit on the reputation of folks just being themselves.


Who the hell are you to giggle at dudes like Sly and George Freaking Clinton?

The TMZ doofus producers have no talent. And they seriously confuse real “coolness” with the false bravado of sarcasm.

They pretend to a hipness they do not possess. They are clueless about the actual “value” of the beauty around them, and obsess on the ugliness they can laugh at.

This is the kind of attitude that made so many of my generation eager to drop out of society, and go try something else.

Yes, George Clinton is a startling sight at age sixty, in his day-glo wig and flowing robes. So what?

And Sly may or may not be cross-dressing a bit these days. Again — the cat’s a frigging genius. And he’s not hurting anybody being weird.

In fact, we are better off as a civilization with artists like this challenging our smug certainties and zombie stupification.

At some point in my lifetime, the whole concept of what is “cool” slipped from describing your attitude about life — your mindset and philosophy and willingness to engage with gusto, even if it entailed risk — and morphed into being about fashion.

So let’s get straight: You are not “cool” because you dress well, or look good.

“Cool” is in your head and your heart. It requires a functioning brain and a feeling heart — attributes the yo-yo’s at TMZ have never brushed up against.

It’s been twelve hours since I accidentally saw that show last night… and I’m still seething.

None of those tittering TMZ nabobs have produced anything of value in their entire lives.

If life plays out the way it should, all of them are headed for karmic blow-outs designed to force-feed a little humility and respect into their jaded skulls.

Man, I’m steaming.

I gotta go listen to some funk, and mellow out…

Love to hear what you think about all this.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. In case you’re wondering about the title here, “bread and circus” was the way The Man kept control in ancient Rome — by feeding the mob with free bread, and entertaining them at the Coliseum with gladiator fights and lions eating Christians.

Funny to think our modern “high tech circus” is a direct descendant of killing people. It includes the Olympics (as well as every organized sporting event, at every level), Vegas, rock shows, and every single second of television ever transmitted.

It’s all mob control.

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  • David Craft says:

    Hi John!

    Can’t agree more with you on this! When trashing successful people is more riveting than actually doing something with your life, you know we’re in the downward spiral in the toilet bowl of history. For some folks this may be the perfect way to spend 60 minutes of their lives, seeing the dirt dished on celebs, but I’d rather be checking on my popcorn for another viewing of “The Big Sleep” myself.

    Everyone says kids love video games or nothing – until they actually play one. The personal involvement and interaction with your fellow members of the family or friends gets everyone engaged.

    Or how about a cold beer on a hot night checking out the stars and catching a meteor as it flames out in a rush of glory? Life means more than trashing someone else’s. But then it might mean you’d actually have to have one of your own now wouldn’t it!


  • john-carlton says:

    David —

    Thanks for the comment. Nice insight.

    Now the big question: Which version of “The Big Sleep”? Please tell me it’s the Bogart one…

    I spent a week reading my first Mickey Spillane novel a few months ago — “I, The Jury”. Grisly, sexist, homophobic, early-1950s alpha male low culture crap.

    I loved it. It was in-your-face pulp fiction, and yet bristled with life. The critics savaged Spillane, but after the dust settled, he ended up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (though not in league with Flemming or MacDonald).

    The secret ingredient is exactly what you mention here — the best writers infuse everything they do with life experience. And they live hard and deep. They engage.

    And the August meteor showers are coming, folks…

  • Even getting irritated about them smearing mud on good people is a waste of time in my opinion. If TMZ is full of it, why bother in the first place? Why waste time and emotional energy on stuff like that? (Isn’t that exactly how the mob is controlled? By having people waste their thoughts on this stuff instead of doing something of value with their time?)

    “The rain falls on the just and unjust alike” and TMZ smears shit on the good people and the messed up ones. So if it’s a fact of life, why bother?

    Or am I missing something here?

    John Carlton replies:

    Are you advocating Unibomber behavior here, Kid? Go hide in a shack somewhere, and disengage from society?

    Seriously — it’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to want to walk away and avoid the unpleasant parts of modern life. I even mentioned my generation’s “drop out” mentality in the sixties and seventies… and I do advocate a very Zen approach to living well, in a broad sense, akin to letting bad ju-ju slide off you like water off a duck. And there are not insignificant amounts of people still dropping out all the time. They live amongst us, or near us, or at least in the same country… but they are not “with” us in any meaningful sense.

    But this is a marketing blog, dude. If you’re going to market to people… or, since your handle is “Copywriting Kid”, I assume you’re in advertising, or plan to be… you need to be PART of the culture you sell to. So you must engage, and understand how your fellow citizens are operating.

    You don’t have to like it, though. That’s why I rant about it.

    But you cannot just wander off into your own little world, and pretend the driving issues of the culture can’t affect your efforts to do business. That’s a disconnect. That’s a good way to have your marketing efforts disemboweled.

    Thanks for posting, though. I’m always happy to debate anything I write about, and I appreciate your honesty and willingness to say what you feel.


  • Ellis Kirk says:


    Two issues I have with shows like TMZ.

    The first is exactly as you say – people who have unique identities become targets for snide entertainment news. But it gets worse.

    How can it be a good thing that the struggles of people’s lives – a need for attention, loneliness, despair, ego adjustment issues, relationship problems, addictions, etc – are entertainment?

    Oh, it’s way too early to get this angry.

    Then I just have to remember that those who create and often watch these train-wreck shows are struggling with the same fears and insecurities. By saying ‘look at those weirdos’ they’re really saying ‘look, I (we) are not weird.’ And ‘look at how messed up those people are’ translates into ‘I’m doing pretty well.’ The poor sods are just trying to feel better about their own miseries. With that in mind, I can try to take a compassionate stance.

    Damn, I’m still pissed.

    So, to move into happier territory…

    One of the best books I’ve read within the last year was John Fowles’ “The Magus”. Both a great story and a fantastic dexterity with stringing words together. A better entertainment option by a long shot.

    I think I’ll go read for a bit.


    John Carlton replies:

    Hey Kirk. Great insight there, about the post-Freudian struggles people have with reality.

    When I said our species is hard-wired for gossip, I meant it. It’s part of coping, just as important as denial in getting through tough times. The trouble starts when these things aren’t used only in emergencies, but become the default first-choice position for people… so gossip rules their reality, and denial shields them from growth.

    Life is constant struggle, emotionally, physically, philosophically, biologically. As I’ve written about before, it’s even hard to get pissed off at people once you begin to understand their point of view — you can disagree with them, and want them to shut up… but you can’t get righteously angry anymore, once you know that they’re controlled by crap they’re in denial about or can’t face. It’s like being mad at a squirrel for doing what squirrels do… even if they’re tearing up your yard. You can still fix the situation… you just don’t have to submit to anger in the process.

    The Copywriting Kid perceived my rant as being angry, and that’s my fault for using words like “pissed off” in the post. I’m not actually spitting-mad, nor am I obsessed with this matter to the point of “wasting” energy on it. But I am legitimately offended, and rueful about the larger issue of cultural meltdown.

    Thanks for posting.


  • Patrick says:

    I have to agree with you John. What type of negative affect does this garbage have on the people who watch it?

    If a 15 second commercial shown on TV at various intervals during a night can sell a product, is it also possible to conceive that a program like TMZ or similar can sell us a life style?

    Garbage in, garbage out.

    Has anyone here watched the DVD “The Secret”. The law of attraction. It’s about manifesting good things into your life by focusing on them. One of the sayings from it is “Energy flows where attention goes”.

    I’m not a prude nor perfect either. No one is 100% all the time, we’re all human. Cut people some slack and look at their good qualities.

    Having said that… I sure would like to hear more stories about you (John) and your mate Gary Halbert. You guys sure are interesting characters.

    Now, I wanna hear everything, all the juicy bits, don’t miss out a thing!

    Now that’s really peaked my interest.

    Damn, I guess I’m no better than the TMZ watchers.

    P.S. But it’s in the name of writing better copy… please…

  • Blake says:

    “If life plays out the way it should, all of them are headed for karmic blow-outs designed to force-feed a little humility and respect into their jaded skulls.”

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think the most potent karmic penalty for this type is having to spend 24 hours a day confined to their small minds and surrounded by people just as conceited as themselves.

    Being an ass is its own punishment.

    John Carlton replies:

    Hey, Blake — I absolutely agree. Long ago, I learned to get over resentment and anger with people by saying “Tomorrow, he’s gotta wake up and still be him. That’s gotta hurt.”

    Still, it takes other people to do damage-control on what these guys have wrought…


  • Tom Ash says:

    Good Morning:
    While I don’t watch TMZ, apparently the “market” disagrees with you. After all, the show is still on. As a marketing person, you must respect that fact.

    I enjoy the music of George Clinton, and some of Sly Stone. However, I respect the fact that others don’t. That’s what makes our country great: we are free to disagree without recourse (mostly).

    Your writing generally brings positive information (in my opinion) to the world. Hopefully it offsets the negativity foisted upon us by TMZ. Stay positive, things will even out – probably just not as fast as you like.

    Tom Ash

    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Tom. Actually, I don’t get the feeling the goons on TMZ have ever heard any of the music here. That’s part of why it frosts me: The position that these musicians are old, and thus worthless to us now, and thus acceptable fodder for trashing.

    It’s the lack of respect, and the smug self-righteousness of TMZ’s attitude that gets me. It’s “We’re okay, but you’re not okay.”

    And yes, this is a very Quixotian rant on my part. I’m tilting at windmills. But it hit a nerve…


  • Robert Woodring says:

    Mob Control!
    For fun I looked up the meaning of mob. From :”directed at or reflecting the lowest intellectual level of the common people.” I think that also describes our schools also. And politicans.
    Hardly anybody questions anthing anymore. If an expert, government authority, politican, special interest group, celeberity says something is true, common sense seems to go out the window.
    Keep people ignorant and you can control them.
    There’s so much crap that passes for the truth that I watch very little TV and lately I’ve been turning off the radio.
    And most reality tv shows disgust me.
    Mainly I do this because I know how easily information can be slipped into your subconcious and affect your decisions.
    Sometimes it might pay to “drop out” and take the garbage out.

  • Hey John,
    It’s kinda interesting that folks who have never done anything of any interest or importance in their life are fascinated by seeing TALENT dragged down to their level.

    For me it’s kind of an indication of the way that the man works.

    First thing they teach you at school when you arrive as a terrified kid who would rather be at home in the garden is to…
    YES that’s right…


    And what’s more they are then subjected to years of crap about what it means to conform…oops sorry I meant to say “Be successful” by someone that has done nothing better than getting a parking space in Homepro at the end of season sale.

    The poor little sods tykes go through years of homegenisation to keep them the same.

    Shit…They don’t want you to be different, unique or a success in any way….apart from theirs.

    It’s exactly those reasons and that sort of mind numbing brain washing that decided me and a whole heap of other folks to drop out and do what we love doing.

    BEING ourselves.

    The man doesn’t like individuals as they upset the mushroom management strategy they operate with.

    thing is that most folks are just too plain old fashioned, brainwashed to see it.

    Keep ranting John,

    Stay hot,


  • Dave C says:

    JC wrote:
    “… you need to be PART of the culture you sell to. So you must engage, and understand how your fellow citizens are operating But you cannot just wander off into your own little world, and pretend the driving issues of the culture can’t affect your efforts to do business.”

    That is the most difficult part of marketing for me – relating to the mindless masses.

    I admire your stamina in that department.

    You and Dan K have repeatedly lectured us on that subject. Gene Schwartz said to watch popular movies multiple times. I know all successful copywriters watch TV. And I know I should too.

    But I can’t stand pop music, movies, food, radio, and I don’t watch television.

    I am trying tho… I rely on the Interweb for news, forums for opinions, radio, and even vids. Add the odd magazine, Saturday National Post newspaper, and lots of books.

    And a technique I’ve been refining since I learned it selling home sanitation systems door-to-door — listening to what real people say… a technique best polished by constantly reminding myself why I have two ears and one mouth instead of the other way around…

    Like the song says…
    “One nation under a groove… gettin down, just for the funk of it…”

    John Carlton replies:

    Stay with it, Dave. I’ve developed alternate personalities — like Dr. Smooth — to handle situations I was uncomfortable with. Pretend you’re a “culture spy”, and spend one day a week at the mall, buying popular magazines to read that night, and watch one evening of TV.

    As a spy, you won’t even have to hold your nose. You’re like Jane Goodall with the apes — taking notes and observing deeply.

    The Funk is only “funky” if you’ve got your nose too high in the air…

  • JC wrote:
    “If you’re going to market to people… or, since your handle is “Copywriting Kid”, I assume you’re in advertising, or plan to be… you need to be PART of the culture you sell to. So you must engage, and understand how your fellow citizens are operating.
    But you cannot just wander off into your own little world, and pretend the driving issues of the culture can’t affect your efforts to do business. That’s a disconnect. That’s a good way to have your marketing efforts disemboweled.”

    Haha, we got a little Bambi meets Godzilla situation going on. Ok, I got it (I hope!). Thanks for putting my head straight. You’re right, I want to get into advertising. Lots to learn, that’s why I read your blog. And this was quiet an epiphany.

    Will get my daily dose of pop culture from now on.

  • Why Copywriters Gotta Put Up With Shit…

    John Carlton recently wrote about TMZ and went into a little rant about dirty-laundy crap like that.
    Upon reading it, I thought: “Gee, why is he getting irritated about it? Why does he even waste his time with stuff like that?”
    Well, turns …

  • Brent says:

    “Britney is gold, she is crack to our readers, Her life is a complete train-wreck and I thank God for her every day.” Harvey Levin Managing Editor of TMZ

    TMZ is actually owned by Time Warner! They shovel more mind drivel your way as a way to generate publicity. It was a way for “The Man” them to compete against popular independent websites.

    Even though they catch the celebrity in a compromising situation it still benefits the celebrity by putting them in peoples minds and giving them “free” advertising. As for TMZ they can attract huge ad dollars, because the advertisers know they have a captive audience waiting for the compromising photo or video.

    My own opinion is it is set up as a distraction for the masses and mind control, but this is another topic for another time.

    Can anyone learn something from this? Sure! Time Warner makes TMZ “look”(so I like quotes) independent, but it’s just one big publicity mill about the stars and past stars they own or have owned.

    In practical application you can develop a site or source to look “independent” to help generate publicity or give credibility to what you are pitching. Trickery? Yes! However, these companies do it all the time.

  • James Legacy says:

    Gee John, would you like to tell us how you really feel? 😀

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