On Saturday, Drexel University hosted its third TEDx symposium—independently organized TED talks showcasing the same flavor of futurism and technological wowing as the flagship, but featuring local speakers. Drexel professor Frank Lee spoke about putting Pong on the Cira Center for this year’s Philly Tech Week; Larissa Milne channeled the spirit of Elizabeth Gilbert and recounted her own Eat, Pray, Love-esque trip around the world; astronaut Paul Richards spoke about being an astronaut.
The event concluded with Sam Hyde, billed as a “video documentary filmmaker and journalist from Brooklyn” who “recently returned from Mogadishu, the most dangerous city on earth, where he shadowed the heroic al-Mahamud women on their quest to clean up their streets and restore humanity to their war-torn country.” TEDx organizer Dhairya Pujara introduced Hyde’s presentation, titled “2070 Paradigm Shift.”
Hyde, 28, is not a journalist; he’s a member of the Massachusetts-based comedy troupe Million Dollar Extreme, which employs a type of shock-value comedy along the lines of a more goalless version of Yes Men sabotage. Hyde took the stage dressed in a crimson sweatsuit and clad in a gold Roman centurion breastplate and shin guards, did a kind of faux deep breathing preparation, reclined on the steps in front of the TEDx letters, and began his talk.
“Guys, pat yourselves on the back right now, okay? I’m not gonna let you stop until I see everyone do it,” he began. “That pat on the back is for saving the world.” Hyde launched into a discursive presentation that touched on the “trash economy,” described a future in which gay men will develop the ability to procreate, and recounted his experience traveling to Africa with Elon Musk to give iPads to the impoverished:
“Now, we looked at the data, and what we found surprised us. What we found was that culture is a sewer. We’ve got lewd media, nasty bedroom things on TV. And they’re sexualizing young girls and it’s getting to the point where even I have a problem with it. And it shouldn’t be that way.”
The mission of Million Dollar Extreme has always seemed a spin on afflicting the comfortable, except its targets usually aren’t the comfortably powerful. To the extent that satire exists in MDEs comedy (Hyde told me afterward that he undertook his Drexel performance because “I don’t think TED talks are cool. I don’t want it to sound too sanctimonious, but I think [TED talks are] really self-congratulatory”), it feels like more of rationalization than a reason for the shock itself.
There’s a mélange of clear influences or at least clear correlates, such as the id-like Tim and Eric (even Hyde's stutter and awkward silence while looking down at his notes are straight from Tim Heidecker’s standup), but MDE’s main influence is the Internet itself, and Hyde’s performances appear to be what happens when a troll crawls out of the Internet and comes to life. Hyde once performed at a stand-up comedy night in Williamsburg in which he spent 20 minutes reading from an anti-gay manifesto as the entire room slowly exited, either believing that he was a bona fide ranting homophobe or getting the bit and simply not finding him funny.
“Great ideas come in all shapes and sizes,” Hyde said in his talk on Saturday. “9/11, September 11th. We’re gonna use some reverence here and not be silly about this, but look at what they accomplished with no weapons and just 11 guys who didn’t even speak English? And that proves that sometimes great ideas are actually horrible ideas.”
But moments quite that glaring were limited at his TEDx, so much so that the TEDx crowd stayed, even after Hyde exceeded his time limit. A sizable minority of the crowd, including most of the technicians, responded with enough laughter to offset the bone-rattling silence that can accompany an MDE performance.
At the rear of the audience, Pujara stared ahead, straight-faced, with something resembling apprehension or confusion or anger. If he was in on the joke, he didn't show it.
One wonders if the organizers of TEDx whiffed on vetting Hyde, which wouldn't have taken more than a few minutes of Googling. Pujara was not immediately available to comment afterward, but Hyde allegedly fed them a good story. Hyde said: “I told them I had just returned from Mogadishu where I was shooting war journalism following this group of women cleaning up the neighborhood, and by picking up trash, they had lowered crime rate. So it’s like broken window theory there, or whatever the fuck. A little Malcolm Gladwell. [They] wrote back and said, ‘Wow, that’s exciting. We got some real hard hitting stuff here.’”
Or maybe we’ve all been manipulated House of Cards-style and Pujara is a publicity genius (though this exchange confirms TEDx was not in on the joke). Either way, the whole thing is worth watching.