For those of you whom I have not already subjected to hours of Bob Ross and his show The Joy of Painting, let me introduce the man behind the meme.
There is a lot that I could say about Bob Ross. I could tell you about his past in the U.S. Army, the origins of his “wet-on-wet” painting technique, or the Alaskan inspiration behind his roughly 30,000 landscapes. However, you can find all those things on his wikipedia page, and what I want to discuss here is sincerity. Sincerity in general, and Mr. Ross’ peculiar brand of earnestness in particular.
Sincerity is not cool. Not only is it uncool, but it also leaves the speaker vulnerable, a double-whammy in a society in which the citizens constantly feel weighed, measured, and found wanting. When you speak something true and it is ridiculed, there is often no way out. So instead we hedge our bets; we make declarations we half-believe so that we can agree with whatever response they garner. Alternatively, we employ irony and sarcasm to make sure no one can really be sure of the intention behind our statements in the first place.
Not so with Bob. When Bob Ross wishes you “happy painting, and God bless” at the end of every episode, he could not be more earnest. There is no inkling that a generation after the shows were taped, Millennials would be laughing at him. This — I believe — is what protects him.
As I mentioned earlier, there are a few people whom I have already forced into The Joy of Painting-watching sessions, and the reactions are almost invariably the same:
- Amusement at this odd man’s afro.
2. Jokes made at the expense of some aspect of Mr. Ross’ character, or his painting technique.
(2a. Squeaks at the adorable-ness of the baby squirrels/other wildlife the Rosses are taking care of — not every episode.)
4. Silenced awe at the magical universe Bob is conjuring.
After this, the show ends with Bob’s encouragement to join him next time and reminder that everyone — yes, even you — can paint. Then Youtube or Netflix lines up the next episode and no one stops it. The only exception to this response was my own mother, another creature with the beautiful quality of being free from irony, who was enthralled for the full 27 minutes.
As much as something within us wants to laugh at Bob Ross (he is the face of one of my all-time favourite memes, after all), he is seemingly protected from humiliation by this undeniably open-hearted earnestness he is cloaked in. We want to curse him for being so completely lacking in self-awareness, but in video this quality is translated to perfect self- contentment.
Perhaps this is what is so magical about The Joy of Painting, a show that should not work at all, but does. It is mesmerising for people — especially in my generation — to watch an afro’d white man do something so simple, and so unimaginably difficult to us; smile un-ironically and paint his “happy little clouds”.