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In the Internet Era, Does Anyone Still Have Gravitas?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

A few months ago, my wife challenged me to name three people in public life today who really have gravitas. Practically the only person we could agree on was Nelson Mandela…who promptly died.

Barack Obama’s recent turn on Zach Galifianakis’ comedy webcast reminded me of our “Who Has Gravitas?” game. The presidential “Between Two Ferns” segment racked up millions of views—and some divided opinions.

Was the president undermining the dignity of the office? Or simply exploiting his media environment the same way chiefs of state have since Lincoln?

To me, the video crystallized one of the quieter subplots of the new-media era: the slow death of gravitas—and what’s replaced it.

First let’s clarify what “gravitas” refers to. It’s “a very serious quality or manner,” according to Merriam-Webster. I’d expand on that to say it implies a widespread acceptance of that seriousness as legitimate, earned, and valuable—a person whose concerns and views transcend ephemeral triviality and who thus possesses a degree of wisdom that eludes the rest of us.

But gravitas is also “the weight, the authority, the soup bone in the stew of television news,” according to Stephen Colbert: “If you have sufficient gravitas, what you say doesn’t have to mean anything at all.”

The latter (and vital) definition emerged in a landmark moment in the history of gravitas’ demise, Colbert’s 2005 “Gravitas-Off” with news anchor Stone Phillips.

Colbert was shrewd to link gravitas to the news media; surely the late broadcaster Walter “That’s The Way It Is” Cronkite once exemplified it. The lingering memory of Cronkite’s gravitas causes pundits and historians to point (over and over) to his announcement that President Kennedy was dead as the moment that a “shocked nation” confronted grim reality. Removing his glasses and betraying just a hint of human emotion had definitive impact precisely because they revealed tiny cracks in a mighty wall of gravitas.

The general idea (mythical or not) that, when Cronkite soured on the Vietnam War, the nation followed suit similarly turns on the broadcaster’s gravitas.

But by then gravitas had already been under prolonged assault throughout the authority-questioning 1960s, and probably began its death throes when President Nixon capitulated to being a punch line on the TV program Laugh-In:

Later leaders of the free world more skillfully channeled cultural skepticism of gravitas. Think Ronald Reagan’s amiable jokester persona, or Bill Clinton’s saxophone theatrics (among other, um, shenanigans). Meanwhile the vaguely outsider irreverence of entertainment like Laugh-In evolved into the mainstream skewer-everything ethos of South Park. 

So the Internet didn’t kill gravitas—but there’s no question that it continues to stomp it down. Since the 1990s, we’ve gotten more skilled every year at using our digital tools to make and distribute gravitas-destroying essays, blog posts, and memes about…well, everything. Nothing, and no one, is sacred. 

Gradually, public figures who might once have strived for gravitas have learned to keep it at a distance. Consider Brian Williams, the definitive modern prime-time anchor—not because he’s pretty good at acting serious when he reads the news, but because he’s also a talented comic actor and goof-off.

So while Jimmy Fallon’s cut-together videos of Williams “rapping” are funny—you can’t really subvert the gravitas of a guy who was practically a regular on 30 Rock.

Indeed, if you want to be taken seriously in our post-gravitas culture, you must demonstrate that you do not take yourself too seriously. If you are the pope, you must pose for a selfie. If you are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, you may keep your comically pompous name only if you will accept pizza delivery during your signature event.

And if you are the president of the United States of America in 2014, you must display your comic timing in a skit with Zach Galifianakis, pretend to have an opinion about The Hangover, and hope it goes viral.

That’s why the “Who Has Gravitas?” game is harder than it sounds. Think of someone who refuses to participate in such silliness, who strives to embody a pure version of that elusive quality, and you end up with someone like Vladimir Putin. Someone, in other words, whom many people have judged to be absurd. The agency that the rest of us now have to judge gravitas in the web era is what’s made Putin the most meme-able world leader this side of Kim Jong-un.

In effect, the gravitas equation has been reversed—it’s no longer a façade to be cracked, but an occasional quality that resonates only when it filters through the façade of quotidian irreverence. I’d point to David Letterman’s monologue in his first show back on the air after 9/11. It was unbelievably moving. And one reason is that this was a guy I’d idolized since childhood for taking nothing seriously: When the embodiment of anti-gravitas behaves in “a very serious quality or manner,” it matters.

This brings us back to the viral Obama-Galifianakis collabo, and I’ll give the final word on it to Colbert. Responding to the undermining-the-dignity of the office critique, he noted, via his definitive-satire-of-gravitas persona, that the stunt had “boosted traffic to Healthcare.gov by 40 percent.”

In other words: Laugh all you want, but Obama was doing post-gravitas at its best.

And that’s the way it is. ;)

 Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. The RSS feed for my columns and posts is right here.