Authenticity and “The Cable Guy” (1996)

“I’d rather be anywhere, doing anything…”

There was a gleam in her eye when Ghostbusters (2016) came up in the group’s discussion. She corrected the speaker, a male, who didn’t make an elaborate point to reference the movie’s notorious gender component- “the new Ghostbusters” he offhandedly called it, but this was “girl Ghostbusters,” she said with pride. After all, she was a high school Science teacher and this was a victory with which she could attach herself.

This attachment was the point, existing independently of the movie. She may not see it, nor should she have to- her attachment to “girl Ghostbusters” had served to bolster her identity. The actual film is an afterthought- a big budget talking point. Beyond all the fuss, Ghostbusters is a pile of crap with regurgitated jokes, so who really cares?

The modern addiction is identity. The impulse to create a large inventory of bullet points which can be used to detail an image of unique superiority. A strong and intelligent woman should like a movie about female vigilante scientists, that’s easy- a real no brainer, and then it’s on to the next talking point in a never ending continuum. And that’s why “girl Ghostbusters” will be dead in the water by the time it hits theaters- the audience has already cannibalized it and moved on.

All identities are not created equally. The game isn’t about mutual acceptance, the game is about superiority, and when the stakes are high there must be standards; judgment necessitates regulation. As the race toward becoming the smartest and most unique grows increasingly rigorous, so does our sensitivity toward the potential inauthenticity of the identity being crafted.

I went to a foodie kind of restaurant with a date. Date knew the chef. Afterwards, the chef asked what our least favorite dish was. I was unaware, at the time, that this was a loaded question not meant to be answered. I told him I didn’t love the dark chocolate liver pate. Everyone around me got nervous. I got nervous. I said, maybe it was just me. They agreed.

I didn’t understand, at the time, that this was more than just a meal at a restaurant- an enjoyable intermission between one activity and the next- but, rather, I was an attendant to an experience. My reaction to this experience said a lot about my depth of sophistication. The chef was testing the authenticity of that depth- was I really one of them? My answer suggested that I wasn’t. My date got nervous; I had potentially embarrassed her. The vibe became uncomfortable, and I recovered by outing myself as a tourist in an unfamiliar world; having a least favorite dish was my own issue– an issue hopefully born out of inexperience and not a lack of sophistication entirely, a mortal sin in this landscape.

Authenticity testing is the natural consequence to “identity as accessory” becoming part of the mainstream consciousness.  To understand this shift, we can look to Fight Club (1999), when Edward Norton explains that he seeks to express self-definition through his consumer habits, asking “what kind of dining set defines me as a person?” Rather than starting at self-knowledge and moving forward, like Norton would have you believe, he’s instead thinking about how he’d like to define himself as a person; the assumption he casually makes is that the authenticity of these choices is inherent. This observation would no-longer seem clever for a modern audience; we understand that our choices serve to define who we want to be rather than expressing who we are, and this has created a paranoid pop-culture where authenticity is always suspect.

There is a decadence to this obsession with authenticity. Our culture fosters a kind of Holden Caulfield-like suspended adolescence where wearing the Metallica shirt isn’t enough, nor is it immediately permissible, but only after an undefined quantity of experience is your ownership of the shirt acceptable. Are you sophisticated enough to understand why you should enjoy dark chocolate liver pate, regardless of personal taste? Are you watching Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) the right way, ironically and detached, or following the film’s narrative as intended?

If the obsession with authenticity is a luxury, indicative of a culture so problem-free that it’s boring itself to death, to what degree is any expectation of authenticity reasonable?

Like Edward Norton in “Fight Club,” Jim Carrey’s lonely, television obsessed cable guy in The Cable Guy (1996) is never given a proper name, and like in Fight Club this is to imply that Carrey is both everyman and no-man simultaneously; a cultural composite and a blank slate. Carrey is useful to Matthew Brodrick’s character of Steven Kovacs, an average-joe doofus, throughout the course of the film; initially as an underhanded cable installer ready to work his magic and give Kovacs free cable- something of a 1990’s urban legend- and later as a crucial element in Kovacs’ ailing relationship.  Throughout the film their motivations are always clear: the cable guy wants Kovacs’ friendship and Kovacs wants to get rid of the cable guy- despite begrudgingly enjoying the cable guy’s quirky offerings.

Kovacs immediately recognizes the cable guy’s usefulness beyond free cable- when the cable guy tells him to “thirst for knowledge” of his ex-girlfriend’s “complicated spender,” Kovacs finds it “incredibly insightful” and implements it the following day, even after learning that it came from an episode of The Jerry Springer Show (1991). The cable guy suggests Kovacs invite her over for dinner, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was showing on HBO- Steven follows along here too and is met with a surprisingly positive reception from Robin, the frigid ex.

Although grossly overused, there is something to a woman’s accusation of a man being a “creeper.”  Follow around a beautiful woman and you’ll see awkward men fumble about while attempting contrived small talk- or so I’ve heard. Say what you will about female privilege in the western world, but this shit is fucking uncomfortable. These men stand out because their interactions are so boldly unnatural and inauthentic that their agenda is entirely evident- it isn’t about connecting with the woman at all, and even if she’s just an attractive sexual vessel for the more nondescript men she interacts with, they are able to hide their intentions and seem authentic while the creeper fails in this regard and stands out as “icky.”

Humans are wired with a social radar that rejects awkward or unnatural behavior that makes us uncomfortable. We require that our interactions seem natural. The audience is presented with Carrey as a social creeper; the cable guy is anything but natural. When he crashes Steven’s pick-up basketball game his desire to be included seems too pre-planned for pick-up basketball which is meant to be spontaneous. This is like how the girl at the bar going home with the pick-up artist doesn’t want to believe their interaction was set-up by a man looking for sex- she wants to think it was something special that just happened.

When the cable guy is included in the game his social inadequacies become glaring. If we dissect Carrey’s thought process here it seems logically sound: the guys are playing basketball so he shows up in what he considers serious athletic gear, he plays harder than everyone- misunderstanding the term friendly competition, and since Kovacs is his target for friendship he demands to be on Steven’s team. To someone who doesn’t understand the natural dance of socialization this would seem like how you’d ingratiate yourself into a new group, by proving your value and loyalty. When the cable guy shatters the backboard on a slam dunk, a scene straight out of the climax of a movie, he expects to be met with high-fives… but, of course, that isn’t how real life works. Embarrassed, Steven makes it clear that the two aren’t friends.

Until the next scene when Steven’s television service is disrupted, without Sleepless in Seattle he seems lost with Robin, and he’s happy to use his friend the cable guy to fix things. Throughout the rest of the film, Steven and Robin’s relationship only progresses with Carrey’s intervention which begs the question: what do they really have in common? If a hollow sound byte from Jerry Springer is enough to mend things, what does it say about the relationship’s authenticity?

And suddenly it seems as though Steven is the inauthentic social creeper when compared to the awkward and lonely cable guy. While Steven knows what to say and how to act in order to fit in socially, he lacks true depth- which speaks to his inability to maintain Robin’s interest on his own. The cable guy may be inauthentic on the surface, but he displays a raw emotion that the viewer can relate to.

A comedy is considered dark when it cuts too close to reality. The characters in a dark comedy are more complex; there is often a sadness beyond the laughter. A dark comedy can produce feelings of guilt- what does it say about us if we find Jim Carrey’s portrayal of lonely desperation funny? And, what might be more troubling, how much of the cable guy do we see in ourselves?

How you view the scene at Medieval Times may answer this question. Are you like Steven, and find Medieval Times inherently embarrassing or would you be able to lose yourself in the moment and have a good time? And, if not, what would you think of the people around you who were there to have fun? In the war of identity superiority, our greatest weapon is judgment.

So what did we learn about authenticity? Get good at being cool, and people will like you- act socially retarded, and you’ll be treated like a buffoon.

Oh, and always remember to like the dark chocolate liver pate.

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  1. greenmantlehoyos · June 10, 2016

    The Last Psychiatrist wrote great stuff on what you’re talking about here. For the true narcissist it isn’t really about the self at all, it’s about the image of the self.

    You may want to check out F for Fake. It’s an Orson Welles movie about forgery that’s not about forgery, instead calling into question the whole idea of expertise.

    Really good article, good insights.

    • Awesome, I’ll check it out!

      • Ede Wolf · June 10, 2016

        Wait, you’re not the Last Psychiatrist?

        I always thought you “sound” exactly like him…

      • nickbsteves · June 15, 2016

        TLP is almost certainly a woman.

    • greenmantlehoyos · June 15, 2016

      FYI TLP is actually a man and a real psychiatrist, he disappeared because he got outed. Sadly.

      • JGF3 · June 17, 2016

        Shit, really? What happened?

      • greenmantlehoyos · June 17, 2016

        Don’t know the whole story, other than someone leaked his name, the hospital system he was working for said stop, and he did.

  2. nickbsteves · June 15, 2016

    I still can’t believe dark chocolate liver patee is a thing. I’m kinda foodie-ey, and I never heard of it. But on The Goog, it’s looks like it’s real.

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  5. ScarletNumber · June 16, 2016

    Umm, it’s complicated splendor.

  6. betterthantheoriginalwally · June 30, 2016

    For giggles I swapped the keg lines so the taps poured the wrong beer. Some people noticed but were too worried to say anything in case they were wrong. Some people had no idea and it gave me a sick, little thrill watching them swoon over the caramel notes and dry, fruity hoppiness of Bud Light.

  7. Johnycome · July 1, 2016

    Great post, great writing style.

    This movie is one of my all time favourites, I mulled over this movie for a long time never fully coming to grips with is meaning. I always saw the Cable Guy as Steve’s alter ego sans the super ego and societal script.

    Identity as accessory and authenticity testing blew my mind.

    Once again brilliant writing.

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  12. B_Tampa · March 2, 2017

    Your comments about the Cable Guy (I guess I’ll have to watch the movie now) trying to fit in on the basketball court reminded me of something I learned in High School. I switched schools in the middle and became “the new kid.” At that point, I was reserved, maybe even shy. But I could play baseball and as soon as tryouts were conducted, it was pretty clear I was the best player on the team.

    The combination of newness/bestness/standoffishness meant that the popular kid clique absolutely had to have me. I did nothing to encourage them and I found myself included and wanted with no effort or desire on my part at all. A couple of years later, one of the cool kids confided to me that “When you first came here, we couldn’t tell if you wanted to be our friend or not.”

    For the next couple of years I watched others desperately trying to break into the group and failing, every one of them. They wanted it too much and it’s a perverse twist of human nature that we don’t willingly give things to people who want them too much. I didn’t help them, because I couldn’t if I’d tried. They had taken their shot and come up short and no amount of continued shooting was going to change that.

    • Making friends is an art. We spend so much time talking about gaming women, which I clearly find infinitely interesting, but we often forget that “game” is just human psychology- everyone is susceptible game. We all desire to be associated with people we think are valuable, or have a mystique, or are playing hard to get; people who seem needless, and, because of that, ultimately charismatic.

      • Lamprey Milt · June 21, 2021

        The concept of making friends or even “breaking the ice” is an American social phenomenon. Ego Preservation run amok in a country that lacks an underpinning zeitgeist in a sense.

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