Photos by the author
It has come to my attention that a new phrase has entered the Hollywood lexicon: “Let’s TED talk this out.” A derivative of, “Let’s hug it out,” which was popularized by a bro-centric TV show produced by Mark Wahlberg. I find it repulsive, not because it makes absolutely no sense (TED stands for the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference) but because it’s a sure sign of the beginning of the end. Bastardizing TED talks as parody is the societal equivalent of “why we can’t have nice things.”
TED lectures are meant to illuminate the public on new inventions, relevant dangers of the future, and cool iPhone apps. Making a Christopher Guest attempt at peeling it apart is pointless, and you shouldn’t do it, unless, like the improv-based show Prompter, the focus is on wild-card fun rather than the conscious "skewering" of the TED format; all others need not apply.
I realized this when I attended the LA Fringe Festival’s Death by PowerPoint, a 60-minute play depicting four “TED-talk-like lectures,” in the hopes that somehow in the mix of theatrical farce I would find a gem that skewered it in a way that felt justified. What I got was a round of pessimism not much darker than Happy Hour on NPR, only NPR’s afternoon chats still felt slightly edgier.
I didn’t want anyone to die, but I desperately wanted the play to make good on its promise. Titling your show Death by PowerPoint is indeed a flashy way to get butts in seats, but anything that doesn’t resemble an intellectual bloodbath is sure to pale by comparison. As if in answer to my silent plea to see someone die, an 18-year-old tech hand stood onstage and recited an announcement that seemed to pain him with every word: “If any audience member should keel over from the power of the presentations—don’t be alarmed.” We all chuckled awkwardly, feeling for the kid. Is anything more poetic than a theater nerd who can’t handle performing in the theater?
The show began, and four young and enthusiastic actors sashayed across the stage. Each step they took was aggressively coached to the tiniest detail. Immediately, I recognized a handful of archetypes I was to assume fit well within the TED world: the obsessive overachiever, the aggro-brainy dude, the unassuming perky blonde who would somehow “prove us all wrong,” the slacker wunderkind who makes it all seem effortless. Not a single black Steve Jobs turtleneck among them. I guess that’s too on the nose.
Much like the obvious differences in their characters, each performer utilized the TED talk format to suit their individual arcs. The overachiever strung terrifying statistics that popped up with every slide. She wanted you to get depressed, and she did a damn good job trying. The aggro-dude spliced incoherent platitudes like “SUPERHEROES ARE AWESOME” in with gratuitously adorable photos of pugs, a tactic meant to grab the attention of the ADD generation. The unassuming blonde chose a more storytelling-like format, using anecdotes about her mom to pull at the heartstrings. The wunderkind veered off script completely, becoming one of those TED talkers who’s more Steve Jobs than Wozniak, giving the audience the intellectual finger.
An example of a pretty good TED talk
For a moment, I felt as if this play was going to take on a narrative. That it wouldn't be so much about the TED talks as it is the lifestyles of both the presenters and the attendees. Would it comment on the hypocrisy of the world’s top earners being the few to actually afford the pricey ticket to one of these conferences when the message is consistently about equality and innovation? Sadly, no. Would it use the characters that present these topics as a jumping off point into glass ceilings (there are two female presenters onstage), or perhaps to talk about what the next steps may be for the problems they pose? Also, no.
Instead we just got a glimpse: a peek at devastation; a glimmer of genocides; a brief glance at how an actual TED talk may look, feel, and taste. And that's when it really fell apart.
In all honesty, the messages presented were fine—just fine. When the aggro-dude said, “The poor used to starve to death—now they just die of diabetes," the audience gave a nod of understanding. When the unassuming blonde said her free will has been compromised by the fact that Gas Station store layouts are organized by chocolate temptation—the morsels of actual insight were a welcome change in an otherwise dry series of depressing presentations.
There was no “death” by PowerPoint. No overwhelming “a-ha” where it’s revealed that we’ve been watching these lectures in a futuristic dystopia where the losers are executed. Instead, the show climaxed when the floppy-haired wunderkind seemingly went “off-book” into a daydream about his first time having sex. The detail given to this first carnal temptation, and the break from the frenetic rhythm of presentation after presentation was nice—touching even.
Then he flipped it all by claiming he made up the entire tale to fuel his point that the truth doesn’t matter when you describe it with enough forced confidence. Later, when he lost to the overachiever girl, he took out a mask and tried to suffocate himself while wielding a gun. Sadly, his character survived.
This particular play danced on the topic "boldness of opinion" without ever making a clear argument. It laid out the harshness of the real statistics used by many TED talk-like presentations in the real world, and fused it with the fiction of a theatrical play but never made a decision on which direction it wanted to go in. Some parts would have operated fine as actual TED talks, and perhaps this is a love letter the playwright is creating for that form. It would have done well as a wacky sci-fi farce, positing a future where people who don’t give convincing public lectures are executed “Hunger Games”-style.
But since it meandered so aimlessly, much like a PowerPoint flips from fact to exciting image to video to fact; it’s lost.
“Let’s TED talk this out” is an incredibly gross thing to say, but it’s proof that the format has infiltrated the social lexicon. “Normies,” “civilians,” whatever you want to call the non-#blessed, crave the prestige that comes with these lectures, and they may wrongly believe a farce is as close as they’re going to get.
Follow Julia Prescott on Twitter.