Taking pleasure in the failure of others has long been considered a grubby, poisonous quality. So bad that philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called schadenfreude “the worst trait in human nature.” More recently, British tabloid The Daily Mail claimed in a headline that a person who enjoys others’ misfortune “may be a PSYCHOPATH.” A tad dramatic, but it’s true enough that people who revel in their neighbor’s plight are often exhausting sourpusses with iffy morals. Yet, occasionally, circumstances arise where someone or something so high and mighty takes such a ludicrous tumble that the pratfall practically begs for a gleeful response, even from the most generous of spirits. Case in point: the disastrous debut of Quibi, a lavishly funded new streaming service that may currently have more jokes made at its expense than loyal subscribers. Yet, I’d argue that there’s nothing psychopathic or “the worst” about finding mirth in Quibi’s tribulations. It’s not sinful. In fact, there’s something akin to virtue in recognizing why Quibi deserves a ribbing.
Short for “quick bites,” Quibi is helmed by its founder, former Disney executive and DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg, and its CEO, former eBay and Hewlett-Packard chief executive Meg Whitman. Both of these people have already established their legacies: 70-year-old Hollywood big-shot Katzenberg has had a long, successful career ushering classic films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Shrek into existence. The 63-year-old Whitman, meanwhile, is one of the wealthiest women in California after a career spent hopping Silicon Valley C-suites. Instead of resting on their gilded laurels, this high-net-worth duo secured the astronomical sum of $1.75 billion in funding to make their dream of convincing people to pay for short-form video content into a reality. Quibi spared no expense to create the slickest, most luxurious-looking video player for mobile, and then acquired projects with big, pricy names attached for its original catalog, including Jennifer Lopez, LeBron James, and Reese Witherspoon. Several of its offerings, like an adaptation of Most Dangerous Game starring Liam Hemsworth, are essentially chapterized films. A few are actually decent—the Anna Kendrick sex-doll comedy Dummy sucked me in, despite exuding strong “rejected TNT pilot” energy. (Others are plain upsetting, like the Keeping Up With the Kardashians spoof Kirby Jenner, a one-joke turd that rudely pretends Rob Kardashian doesn’t exist.) Nothing broke through as a must-see in the way that The Mandalorian drew people to Disney+. Despite a fat pile of cash and all the Hollywood connections in the world, Quibi has sputtered since its launch, plummeting down the list of most-downloaded apps and reportedly struggling to retain subscribers who signed up for its free trial.
To be fair, the timing wasn’t great. Quibi debuted in April, as the Covid-19 pandemic flared in New York and much of the country held its breath at home—a tough break for a product intended for commutes and other in-between moments. Then again, people had more time than ever to watch stuff on their phones. And other factors in its struggle were clearly avoidable, like the decision to make its shows impossible to screenshot, which discouraged social media chatter. With the streaming market brimming with competitors offering programming in more familiar formats, it’s not particularly shocking that Quibi’s premise (“what if TV … but, uh, less?”) whiffed it hard.
While it has failed to secure a huge subscriber base or drum up much hype for its actual content thus far, Quibi has already been the subject of several juicy behind-the-scenes reports, detailing a cocky, out-of-touch workplace run by two Boomers too rich and self-assured to be told no. People aren’t avidly watching Quibi’s shows, but they’re busting out the popcorn to follow its real-world drama. In one telling detail from a Vulture rundown, Whitman admits she’s not an “entertainment enthusiast,” despite helming a fledgling entertainment company, and then name-checks the History Channel’s Ulysses S. Grant bio-show Grant as the one title she really likes. It’s enough to make a saint snicker.
Crucially, the stakes here are remarkably low. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman will be just fine. Watching them flail is like watching aristocrats in tuxedos plunge into a dunk tank disguised as a throne. They can survive a far bigger bath. And while the creators of the shows featured on Quibi may be disappointed that their work is being beamed into a very expensive, well-designed void, getting a show made at all in Hollywood is still a kind of miracle, and there’s never a guarantee of finding an audience. The employees of Quibi are in the least-enviable situation—and, sincerely, there’s nothing funny about precarious employment—but working for a struggling startup is a farce, not a tragedy.
Nor is it shocking that this fiasco has made people smile. “We tend to see schadenfreude as a form of respite,” Tiffany Watt Smith writes in her 2018 book, Schadenfreude. “The failures of others appease our own envy and inadequacy, and give us a much-needed glimpse of superiority.” Quibi’s cock-up provided this sort of satisfying glimpse, which functions as reassurance that money does not always buy success or guarantee quality. Also—and not to get too “in these troubled times” about it, but whatever—things suck right now, for so many people, in profound, flagrant, and deeply unfunny ways. The pandemic has made it hard to ignore wealth inequality. Having Quibi to kick around for a moment feels like a cosmic wink. A more guilt-free incident to mock could not have been engineered by a deity. In fact, this is such an innocent iteration of schadenfreude, it deserves its own name: Quibenfreude.
In the past five years, a cascade of Jackass Icarus narratives have outraged and delighted the public that consumes them. From Fyre Fest to Theranos to the rich parents behind Operation Varsity Blues, this is a flush era for grifting, trickery, and fraud. One of the central pleasures of taking in these stories is watching the players at the center get their comeuppance. They are morality fables, capped off with finales that produce shivers. While the emotional response it elicits is similar to that of a scam story, Quibi isn’t a scam. Delighting in Quibi’s foibles is distinct from, say, rejoicing when Elizabeth Holmes’ hubris was finally exposed. What’s the difference? Quibi is a good, clean goof, a majestically pure screw-up. No malice, no harm—just a flop. It’s “snackable.” It is a symptom of a fundamentally absurd system, an example of the rot of Hollywood patronage and American kakistocracy. Katzenberg’s folly looms even larger when you zoom out—only someone so thoroughly insulated from the economic conditions circumscribing the lives of the vast majority of Americans could blow so much cash on a stinker and maintain optimism that it’ll all work out. This wasn’t a good idea. It was a rich person’s idea. Failing to distinguish between the two? That’s entertainment.
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