Last weekend, I decided to take in a movie. I should have known right away since I was going with a bunch of immature guys that it wasn't exactly going to be Oscar bait. Or from all the reviews that were D- or lower, often bearing the words "tasteless" and "unbearably awful" and "there is no hope for humankind." But I didn't listen. It was two hours and ten bucks I'll never get back, and seeing boys guffaw at jokes that wouldn't even pass muster at the now-tragic "Saturday Night Live" made me wonder if there was some kind of rehab for bad taste.
But I was willing to take the risk in the name of good fun. Sometimes there's fun in the truly terrible. Going to see a bad movie on purpose isn't unheard of I once saw "Showgirls" at a cult movie night, and no one tried to have me arrested for crimes against humanity or anything.
Sharing the experience of poking fun at something awful - whether it's in a theater or at home - is the basis of the bulk of pop culture. It's definitely the crux of reality television as a whole. People uniting in their appreciation of the delightfully awful can be a bonding experience. We all have our guilty pleasures. It's like when you see on Twitter that Meryl Streep watches "Honey Boo Boo," too. Like a group of people united by tragedy, some people are united by bad television.
Schadenfreude - or the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others - is a basic element of human nature. Maybe it's the instinct of using laughter to overcome bad times, or to make others feel better. In pop culture terms, it isn't meant to be mean-spirited. Most people who take part in something that's so bad it's good know what they're getting into - like some of the Oscar winners in the movie I saw last weekend. All those real housewives should know the world thinks they're ridiculous. Lindsay Lohan has got to be in on the joke by now. I think the secret is dump trucks full of money.
The B-movie phenomenon was born out of low-budget cinema and gave birth the sport of laughing at bad movies. I've seen a live riffing of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," where comedians via satellite made fun of the sci-fi classic/disaster to a theater full of people. Poor Ed Wood thought he was making a masterpiece, but was instead more famous for inducing hysterics with his cringe-worthy films.
That's the downside of schadenfreude; you can sometimes feel bad mocking someone who was honestly trying to make something good. The key is to know when to stop laughing and when to start empathizing. You wouldn't go to a first-grade dance recital to laugh at little kids for messing up their steps. Note to self: make sure your appreciation of the bad and tacky isn't going to make little children cry.
That's why it's safe to enjoy a good laugh at something where they knowingly are trying to make something delightfully awful. A good grossout movie can be fun, or a parody. Sometimes, as Mel Brooks found out, the joke can become more respected than the subject of the joke. Thus is the art of schadenfreude, and humor itself.
But sometimes, this method jumps the proverbial shark. Someone will TRY to make something wonderfully bad, then go way overboard and make it legitimately bad. The aforementioned movie is a perfect example. This can also apply to music. I've seen bands running around in their underpants, or wearing fannypacks and wigs and bad thrift store clothes, playing onstage. Sometimes seeing a dumb, silly band is fun. Sometimes, it's just annoying. Especially if their music is bad too. I actually know a band called the Guilty Pleasures, but they're actually good so don't expect to see them in jock straps and moon boots or anything.
So, before you're ready to have some fun with something bad, make sure you're laughing with them, and not at them. And if you're laughing at them, make sure they're far, far away. Though I don't think I would pass up the chance to laugh at Kim Kardashian to her face. I'm sure Kanye West will have fun caplock tweeting about that.