- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The economy is really bad, Jay Leno told his “Tonight Show” audience in March. How bad? “So bad that on ‘Sesame Street,’ they won’t even talk about the letters A, I or G anymore.”

Not that Mr. Leno was content to leave it at that. In fact, in eight months starting on Labor Day 2008, the comedian has told at least 863 jokes about the financial meltdown in his “Tonight Show” monologues, according to a Washington group that monitors such things.

Counting jokes is straightforward enough. It’s a lot harder, of course, to gauge the more subtle ways in which the Great Recession has affected our culture: How we interact, how we entertain ourselves, how we worship, what we wear and buy and read and watch.

One cultural message has been clear, and Mr. Leno’s populist jokes reflect it: The country has been in no mood to celebrate ostentatious wealth or those forces seen to have brought us to such a precarious place in our history.

But some historians say such a mood is in some ways cyclical, a phenomenon that has followed past recessions and then disappeared - until the next downturn.

“It’s a critique that emerges periodically in our history, that consumption is corrupting,” said Peter J. Kastor, a professor of history and American culture at Washington University in St. Louis. “Those concerns have been around since 1776.” But, he said, we are a society of consumers, and that’s what will ultimately prevail. Others agree.

“Certainly, you can see more critical attitudes toward conspicuous displays of wealth,” said Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University. “And you can expect popular culture to reflect those attitudes. But we are a country that depends on consumption, and that’s why I would not expect us to see really enduring cultural changes.”

Perhaps that’s also why some designers allowed themselves a little optimism at this month’s Fashion Week shows in New York. The glitz of some previous spring seasons was gone, but in contrast to the more somber fall styles now in stores, one could spy some feathers and even a little tinsel from at least one influential label, Proenza Schouler.

“The last thing the world needs is another black pencil skirt,” said Lazaro Hernandez, co-founder of Proenza Schouler. “You want something that feels more joyful.” And something different, he might have added, to bring women back to the stores and keep the industry afloat.

Designer clothes are, of course, accessible only to a few. One can’t say the same for movies, which do well in times of economic distress because they’re a relatively cheap, not to mention escapist form of entertainment.

Indeed, Hollywood is coming off a huge summer in what’s been a banner year, with revenues running at a record pace of $7.4 billion for the year, 7.8 percent ahead of 2008 ticket sales, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com.

Could the content of our films be affected by the recession, just as the Great Depression fueled the popularity of Frank Capra’s common-man-fights-corruption films? There’s always a lag between current events and cinematic versions of them, because it takes time to get movies made. One upcoming film, though, promises a scathing look at the forces that contributed to the recession: Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street 2,” now filming, with Michael Douglas returning as Gordon Gekko, the voracious financier who uttered that famous line, “Greed is good.”

As for comedy, look for Mr. Leno, David Letterman and others to continue to wring all the rueful jokes they can out of our economic woes.

“Populist outrage is the undercurrent of all of it,” said Dan Amundson, research director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which monitors the late-night shows. “Particularly for Leno, it’s been a regular shtick.” (A favorite Leno target has been AIG, the insurance giant that was bailed out by the government.)

The recession may also have changed the nature of our celebrity obsession. Take a look at popular celeb weeklies these days, and the cover story will as likely be about a reality-TV star, such as Kate Gosselin of TLC’s “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” now famously split from her equally famous reality husband, as about a movie star or wealthy socialite such as Paris Hilton.

“It brings the celebrity addiction down to our own level,” says Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “It’s a more serviceable fantasy. Not everyone can be Beyonce, but we can be Kate.”

From celebrity worship to houses of worship: Though charity giving in the United States fell by 2 percent in 2008, forcing many groups to lay off staff, cut wages and eliminate programs, the same wasn’t true of giving to religious organizations, which was actually up by 5.5 percent, according to a study by Giving USA.

And, in what could be called a further silver lining for religious institutions, many have sensed a renewed purpose in serving communities that need them more than ever.

“It’s an opportunity for the church to be the church,” said Susan DeLay, spokeswoman for the Willow Creek megachurch outside Chicago, which has four campuses and a combined attendance of about 24,000 worshippers each week. “It’s an affirmation of what God has called for the church to be. That’s very satisfying.”

Unlike some other churches in more hard-hit areas, attendance at Willow Creek has remained basically steady, while giving is down by 2 percent so far this year, Miss DeLay said. Meanwhile, there’s been a huge increase in demand for the church’s services - such as the food pantry, where output is almost twice that of last year.

Demand has also gone up for the church’s cars ministry, which gives donated cars to those in need, and for a career transition workshop. And also for premarital counseling, Miss DeLay said: “It’s interesting that people are eager to give their marriages the best chance.”

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