Uncomfortably entertaining absurdity in ‘Studio Apartment Live!’

Upon reading Thomas Nagel’s “The Absurd”, I immediately thought of a short video series I had been watching recently called Studio Apartment Live! by Igor Hiller. It is in the general format of a talk show, except all the elements are slightly off – there is a one-woman “band”, but her playing cannot be heard over the non-diegetic music; the audience are a few unpaid random people found on craigslist; the editing creates awkward silences and mismatched reactions; there is no attempt to hide the crew; the conversation is all over the place… the list goes on. To me, the show is very subtly absurd because you can follow it based on what you expect a talk show to be like, while also encountering sequences incompatible with the ‘reality’ presented by a commercial talk show, and all the while everyone is behaving as if the nonsensical elements are totally normal. According to Nagel, “In ordinary life a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality”[1], and in Studio Apartment Live! this operates on two levels – there is the fictional discrepancy between the characters hosting/attending a talk show and the ridiculous ‘reality’ of how awkward it seems to viewers, and then there is the discrepancy between the seriousness of the show on the surface and the viewer’s awareness that everything is probably crafted perfectly to make us slightly uncomfortable. Nagel’s philosophical idea of absurdity is based on a clash between the attitude of seriousness and an awareness of its possible arbitrariness. By creating incongruous moments in his ‘serious’ show, Hiller draws on the viewers’ inevitable recognition of absurd situations, whereby the realisation of arbitrariness or what Nagel calls the “backward step” is triggered, thus eliciting a comedic reaction. At the end of the first episode, Hiller appeals to the viewer to support him financially through Patreon. The guest Allison Raskin comments upon this as if shaming him for asking for money when the show looks like it was put together by a totally incompetent team. Hiller responds seriously, stating that he put a lot of effort into the show and that artists need to make a living. This attitude aligns with Nagel’s, because Hiller acknowledges that even though life is absurd, we don’t need to know its meaning to continue living our arbitrary lives.

[1] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” The Journal of Philosophy 68:20 (1971), 718.

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