Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Just Plain Folks

What's the best way to get caught in a gaffe? Have cameras follow you everywhere. Oh sure, the rest of us do stupid things, but if a middle manager falls in the woods and no one is there to capture it on his cell phone camera, is it still cause for Schadenfreude? No, the people who give us the greatest chuckles when they screw up are almost by definition our most accomplished representatives. And politicians top the list.

The political pundits tell us that what we want in a political candidate is somone just like us-- a person we'd like to have a beer with. But let's face it, if our candidates were jsut like us, they'd be eating re-heated $5 Little Ceasar's pizza from a TV tray while watching American Idol, not traveling from coast to coast asking for your vote.

The sheer effort, resources and ambition needed to take the national stage mean that successful politicians probably put you to shame. They're rich, polished,great public speakers and are admired by a sizeable portion of the population. Is there anything they can't do?

Well, there's bowling.

And Hillary Clinton isn't going to knock Madonna off the top of the charts any time soon.

See? They're not any better than you.

While you're enjoying that clip of Hillary, remember that it could be worse. At least she didn't sing the national anthem like this:

Have a suggestion for a Schadenfredue story I should cover? Please send it to

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Don't Taze Me Bro

One of the news stories/pop culture phenomena that occurred between the writing and the publishing of Schadenfreude, Baby was the YouTube sensation: "Don't Taze me, Bro." Leave it to YouTube to turn issues of political protest and the use of force by police into a comedic catch phrase.

In case you spent the past year living in a cave: "Don't tase me, bro" was shouted by journalism student Andrew Meyer of the University of Florida as officers removed him from a speech by Sen. John Kerry. News networks may have aired the clip to spark debate about how police handled the situation, but most of its viewers were rubbernecking or giggling at the student's choice of words. Deep, dark, Schadenfreude.

"Don't Taze Me Bro" topped the 2007 list of most memorable quotes compiled by the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. And my excuse for mentioning it today is a follow up story published online at about changes in policy at the University of Florida following the event.

Incidentally, the second item in the list of most memorable quotes for 2007 could also qualify as Schadenfreude. It came from Lauren Upton, the Miss Teen USA contestant, who surely wished people would just forget all about her incoherent response to a question about why one-fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a map:

Why did people revel so much in poor Lauren's embarassment? It made all of us kinda-goofy-looking folks feel a little bit superior. I may never win a swimsuit competition, but I can find America on my map. The universe is in balance.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Schadenfreude Watch: Australia

The latest article explaining the word Schadenfreude comes to us all the way from Australia. Ruth Ostrow, writing in The Australian Business, warns against malicious joy in the misfortunes of others and suggests the more positive Buddhist concept of mudita - "sympathetic joy" or "happiness in another's good fortune." This is certainly the more enlightened approach. But is it funny?

Metaphorically slipping on a banana peel produces much more mirth than appreciating your neighbor's promotion. And Ostrow is forced to admit that "Wellbeing experts describe laughter and a sense of humour as 'healthy' while perhaps overlooking the fact that the humour is often rooted in humiliation of the other."

For more on the positive aspects of humor, especially in the workplace, visit The Humor Project.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Science of Schadenfreude: Nyuck, Nyuck, Nyuck

While we're on the subject of Schadenfreude, I'd like to turn your attention to a scientific study of the brain functions involved. Tania Singer at University College London published her team's findings in the journal Nature about two years ago. I read about it in the New York Times:

"First the experimental subjects watched people playing a game in which some cheated (bad people) and others played fair (good people). Then they watched the same people suffering from a painful stimulus. The empathy circuits lighted up in both men and women when bad things happened to good people. When bad things happened to bad people, the women in the study were still empathic. But not the men. Not only did they show less empathy toward bad people, but the reward center in the left nucleus accumbens lighted up."

This points to biological differences in how men and women respond to bad things happening to bad people, and it may be the final word on why men find The Three Stooges funny and women can't stand them.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Schadenfreude History: Geraldo and Al Capone's Vault

This is the twenty-second anniversary of a moment Geraldo Rivera would just as soon forget, but no one will let him. We're certainly not going to let him off the hook here. His overhyped television special "The Opening of Al Capone's Vault" has its own chapter in the book Schadenfreude, Baby!

Geraldo's penchant for showboating and putting his own feelings into a story earned him many critics, even before he opened Al Capone's vault on live TV to find nothing but a couple of empty bottles. That's why his public embarassment was the cause of so much Schadenfreude.

And because Geraldo's style seems to have paved the way for a whole breed of opinionated reporters who now dominate the airways, "The Opening of Al Capone's Vault" has become a symbol of self-aggradizing, celebrity journalism with nothing at its center.

In the following YouTube clip, Geraldo took time away from being hit in the face with with chairs and drawing lines in the sand in Iraq to laugh along with his detractors. (Taking the advice of psychoanalyst Claudie Sies).

And let's give Geraldo his props. As Neil Steinberg wrote in his book Complete and Utter Failure, “the definition of real failure is the presence of true consequences—a fall, as opposed to a neglect to climb.” In other words, you have to get off your butt and try something before you can fail spectacularly at it. Could you get yourself a prime time TV show and a big enough audience for an embarassment of this size? I didn't think so.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Schadenfreude Watch: The Movies

The word "Schadenfreude" is gaining currency. A new CGI animated adventure made its debut yesterday at The New York Comic Con. Igor is about a mad scientist's assistant. In this film Igor is the main character.

But for our purposes much more interesting is the bad guy, the villainous Dr. Schadenfreude, played by British commedian Eddie Izzard. "Schadenfreude is described as being like a rock star in his world," according to the review at

Next time I'd like to see a movie with a corporate marketing exec named Mr. Schlimbesserung. (It translates as a so-called improvement that actually makes things worse.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

How Did You Understand It?

The Washington Post recently reported on a prostitution trial that appeals to lovers of Schadenfreude on oh-so-many levels. The lawyers are arguing whether Deborah Jeane Palfrey was an upscale pimp or if her escort service was a legitimate business. It has everything--the gawking and craning of the neck to see if a smut peddler gets her comeuppance (with its warm glow of moral superiority), with the added entertainment of seeing prostitutes with PhDs on the stand.

Seriously, prostitutes with PhDs like Rhona Reiss, who was putting her doctorate in higher education to a non-traditional use.

The Washington Post's reporter couldn't resist quoting a press release nnouncing Reiss's appointment to the faculty as head of a graduate program at he Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions two years ago. "Her numerous career adventures include clinical and academic positions in Tokyo, Chicago, Sydney, Dallas and Washington D.C."

But my favorite moment of Schadenfreude was reserved for defense lawyer Preston Burton, who forgot the number 1 rule of courtroom lawyering: never ask a question for which you do not already know the answer.

As proof that his client's escort service did not permit illegal activities he brought up the call girls' standard contract, pointing out clause No. 5: "Individuals caught performing illegal activities of any nature will be terminated."

When he raised the issue with Reiss, showing her the document and her signature, she told him, "I didn't sign any agreement saying I wouldn't do anything illegal." In her parsing of the clause, Reiss said, the rule technically did not prohibit illegal activity.

Burton seemed surprised.

"You're an educated woman," he said. "How did you understand it?

She didn't pause.

"Don't get caught."

The Law of Unexpected Consequences

Well it's tax day, and so it seems appropriate to share a tax related Schadenfreude story courtesty of The Real Estate Journal.

It begins with a clever team of lawyers (I assume it was a team, the original article doesn't say) representing Marilyn Monroe, LLC, who decided they could save Marilyn Monroe's estate a lot of money by convincing California tax authorities that the movie star had been a resident of New York. As a New Yorker, she would not have to pay taxes on the estate in California.

That saved them a couple of bob. There's just one thing: California allows "rights of publicity" after death. That means that even if a person is dead, you still need to license her image on posters, photographic prints, T-shirts, mugs, socks, whimsical clocks... And those rights of publicity have been netting Marilyn Monroe LLC more than $30 million. New York, on the other hand, says the dearly departed have no "rights of publicity."

A court has now ruled that if Monroe was a New Yorker, as her legal team successfully proved, there's no longer a right of publicity for Marilyn Monroe, and photographers who own Monroe photographs shouldn't have to pay her estate. Photographers who have been paying fees since the starlet died are looking for refunds. But hey, they were pretty clever about that estate tax, weren't they?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Schadenfreude Across the Political Spectrum

Four years ago on this date, the new liberal radio network Air America is went dark in two of its six markets because the owner of stations in Chicago and Los Angeles, Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, claimed the left-leaning broadcasters owed the firm more than $1 million.

I'd like to thank Failure Magazine's "This Day in Failure" feature for reminding me of this item, which brings up an interesting point about how subjective Schadenfreude is. Did this item give you a chuckle and a feeling of glee? You probably voted for George W. Bush.

If you shook your head and said, "what's funny about that?" Would you feel different if "Air America" were replaced by "Fox News"?

All of this ties in quite nicely to an item I covered in Schadenfreude, Baby! I give you a small preview here. This tale is unique because it has something for people on both sides of the political spectrum. The only question is whether you feel joy in the first part of the story, or when the man who engaged in Scahdenfreude gets his own comeuppance.

It began in Baltimore in early 2007 with a vandalized billboard. This is not the kind of thing that normally makes national headlines. But then this billboard featured Rush Limbaugh. When the guy responsible for cleaning up graffiti saw someone had done an imitation of Jackson Pollock over the radio ranter’s chin, he chuckled with glee.

Robrt Murrow of the Department of Public Works called up the Baltimore Sun. “It looks like they took globs of paint and threw it on his face,” he reported. “It looks great. It did my heart good.”

Murrow, who was described by the Sun as “a soft-spoken man who is usually in the limelight only when a water main breaks,” saw his quote splashed onto the online version of the newspaper in less than 30 minutes. With a few cuts and pastes, the story started to spread. People who hated Limbaugh gleefully sent it to friends and dittoheads sent it to complain about Murrow’s inappropriate comments.

It was inevitable that Limbaugh himself would get wind of the story and make a joke out of it. “What’s happening to the civility of our society?” he asked.

“I don’t care if it’s Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore or Britney Spears,” said Kurt Kocher, a department spokesman. “You don’t deface anything—period. And you don’t endorse defacing anything—period.”

Murrow “deeply apologized.”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Schadenfreude Watch: Detroit

You can tell when the public is reveling in unrestrained Schadenfreude by the t-shirts.

Here in Detroit, you'd have to live in a cave not to know that mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is embroiled in a scandal involving text messages. (Moral of the story: if you are engaged in an extra marital affair, and you don't want anyone to know it, try a form of conversation that is not written down.)

The public reacted to the mayor's alleged lapses of good taste and decorum by saying, "right back at you!"

Here are just a few of the products on sale in metro Detroit. The Milford Baking Co., is hawking cookies shaped like cell phones decorated with text messages saying “Busted” and “I’m sorry.”

A Royal Oak company set up a Web site featuring the mayor's mug shot, practically before the flash bulb had stopped glowing. The site,, got great free publicity from nightly news stories which questioned the company's taste while posting the URL.

"I need one to go with my Camp OJ T-shirt," one customer wrote on the web site's forum.

The Detroit News ran a feature on the T-shirts popping up on Cafe Press, Zazzle and Ebay. Slogans include "I Did Not Have Text With That Woman," and "I was at the Manoogian Mansion Party, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."

By the way, from the "endorsements you don't need" file: The Detroit Free Press reported that Mayor Kilpatrick is "believed to support" the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Oops, indeed.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Welcome to the official blog for the book Schadenfreude, Baby! coming out soon from Lyons Press. I am your host, Laura Lee.

Schadenfreude has taken hold in the American vernacular. This German word translates, roughly, as "pleasure taken at someone else’s misfortune."

The Windsor Star named it "Word of the Week" this week. It notes that the word was used in the final rounds of the 2007 AARP National Senior Spelling Bee.

(Picture to the left from an article on Schadenfreude on Fox Sports blog)

Because English lacks German’s nifty ability to stick nouns together and call it a new word a la “Fahrverneugen” we’ve gone ahead and adopted this great import. This is not to say that we didn’t have the concept, even if we have vastly different views on which stories produce Schadenfreude and which are just sad.

Is it a sense of superiority, the leveling effect, pity or painful empathy? Whatever the reason, we keep laughing when the clown gets a pie in the face. If you’ve ever read scholarly analyses of what makes humor funny, you know that it’s best to enjoy it and not to think too much.

Feeling guilty? Tell yourself this: Dusseldorf, Germany psychoanalyst Claudie Sies says Schadenfreude is actually healthy since it "relieves stress because it can lead to a hearty laugh that helps people relax." Targets of laughter, she says, should just laugh along with them. She should know. She's German.

The Broadway msucial "Avenue Q" used the most basic definition of Schadenfreude, using anyone's misfortune as a reason for celebration: ("Human nature/Nothing I can do/It’s Schadenfreude/Making me feel glad that I’m not you.") Its lyrics go on to express joy in a waitress dropping a tray full of dishes and other such everyday examples.

We all feel fairly guilt-free when the object of Schadenfreude is a bad guy who gets poetic justice from the fickle finger of fate. Case in point? The recent story, reported in the Associated Press, of the clumsy, would-be suicide bomber who tripped going down the stairs and blew himself up.

But Schadenfreude has become most closely associated with reveling in the woes of someone who seems too big for his britches. The people we elevate the highest seem to be the ones we most want to level. Whenever CNN is staked out to watch a vehicle headed to a courtroom, you can bet a little Schadenfreude is at play.

While some people argue that celebrity gawking is the ultimate meaning of Schadenfreude, my personal feeling is that most of it doesn’t quite qualify. When we’re gossiping about who JLo is dating this week, or how much Heather Mills got in the divorce from Sir Paul McCartney, I believe we’re enjoying the spectacle as a living soap opera. It’s not Schadenfreude, baby. It’s gossip. So the book includes a walk through of some of the celebrity downfalls we've reveled in, but focuses more on political figures, historical blunders, loveable losers and the works of the least adept criminal minds.

One of the things about Schadenfreude-watching is that it is ephemeral. Paris Hilton's arrest is SO last year. Eliot Spitzer was Shadenfreude currency last week, but his star has already waned. Next week there will be something new. That is why I started this blog to keep up with some of the stories that come my way after press time.

And also to plug my book. Lovers of Schadenfreude will note that I lost out on the name Schadenfreude for the URL for this blog. It was already taken. Seems fitting somehow. Anyway, the book comes out in May, and I would love to get you a copy the moment it comes off the presses. Anyone who places an advance order now will not only get one of the first available copies, but I will also send an absolutely free copy of my earlier book Bad Predictions. That's two books for the price of one. Plus they come autographed. What online book seller can beat that? Look at the link to the side to order, and enjoy the Schadenfreude stories and discussion as they appear here.