Good night, sweet prince

In a blow to snide remarkers everywhere, Michael Steele is no longer chairman of the Republican National Committee. He has been replaced by a man named Reince Priebus, who certainly sounds amusing, but seems unlikely to go on television and talk about how he’s so street that sometimes he wears a hat backwards without even thinking about it.* We are not likely to see another Michael Steele. That’s kind of ironic, because there are already two of him. As Ben al-Fowlkes and the Huffington Post recently pointed out to me, the story “Michael Steele loses RNC chairmanship” threatens to be eclipsed, in our minds if not in our lives, by the story “Daily Show retires Michael Steele puppet.” Video after the jump.

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Obviously, that is not a 100% realistic depiction. Yet the personality of actual Michael Steele was so obviously falsified that something about this puppet seemed more real, if by “real” we mean “present as a compelling object in our minds.” Because Steele never appeared on The Daily Show, the puppet gradually became a distinct entity with a logic unto itself. The degree to which its behavior seemed authentic or parodic became measured not by what Actual Michael Steele would do, but by what Puppet Michael Steele had done before.

In other words, the puppet took on a life of its own. I’m going to call this phenomenon the Tyler Durden Effect: when a fictional character, by virtue of being more fun than the original, begins to lead a more interesting life than the person on whom it was based. It’s not so much that we explicitly believe that the Tyler Durden is real; we do not, as Sartre would have it, form a “thetic conception” that the parody version is alive. Yet in our subconscious perception of substance derived from authenticity, the puppet seems more compelling, more viscerally real.

The Tyler Durden Effect abounds in contemporary culture. You can see it in The Onion’s depiction of Joe Biden, whose behavior bears little resemblance to that of actual Joe Biden but somehow captures his essence better than anything the Vice President himself has ever done. When I was a child, John Belushi’s impression of Joe Cocker was far more real to me than actual Joe Cocker.* And I still wind up with Val Kilmer whenever I attempt to visualize Jim Morrison.

What one initially fails to appreciate, when considering the Tyler Durden Effect, is the flimsiness of the presumption that the original referent is more real. Consider Sarah Palin, whose parodic version in Tina Fey briefly threatened to eclipse the actual. Obviously, Sarah Palin is an actual politician whose behavior provides the basis for Fey’s impression, and whom the parody therefore cannot supersede. In the game between man and mirror, the man gets to move first. Yet to conclude from this that the Sarah Palin we see in news and on television is therefore real—or at least any more real than a character in a parody—is erroneous.

The difference between public-sphere Sarah Palin and comedy-sketch Sarah Palin, like the difference between RNC chairman Michael Steele and puppet Michael Steele, is not one of degree but of purpose. Both are adjusted versions of the actual calculated to make you respond a certain way. The puppet Michael Steele is designed to make you laugh, whereas the actual Michael Steele is designed to make Republicans feel like they understand black people. The eventual primacy of Puppet Steele is a testament to how much more effectively he did his job.

This aspect of the Tyler Durden Effect also explains why it only happens to famous people. Sure, you could argue that non-famous people are unlikely to become the subject of parody, but I submit that isn’t because there’s no money in it. It’s because non-famous people lack the presentational unity that allows the TDE to take hold. Unlike Palin, with her folksy patriotism, or Steele with his relentless Uncle Tommery, the lives of ordinary people are not usually organized around one thing. Their personalities are less deliberate and focused—in a word, more authentic—than those of public figures.

So good night, Michael Steele. The version of you that you presented to us is officially less plausible and interesting than a rhyming puppet. Only one version of you ran the Republican National Committee, but the memory of that person will eventually succumb to our fond recollection of the puppet. We had some good times, you and us and that puppet, and my only regret is that they ended too quickly. We hardly knew ye.

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  1. I love the Sarah Palin example — I think lots of Americans actually think Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house!” and it’s really the quote that sums up her upbeat ignorance. But she never said it, Tina Fey did.

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