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Imagine if Jay Leno, Conan O'Brian, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Hardwick, and David Letterman were put into a giant centrifuge and spun around at such force that they merged into a mega-talk show host. Horrifying, right?
Buster Friendly is basically that creature of the night. Isidore calls him the "Earth's most knee-slapping TV comic," and his show is on all the time (6.13). But not like The Big Bang Theory where some channel is showing a re-run day and night. Buster's show is brand new every day, and with his radio program, he records forty-six hours of show a day (6.38).
Impossible? Maybe for a mere human, but Buster Friendly is an android, likely a series of androids, programmed to make sure the audience keeps watching.
If you read Mercer as a type of deity, then Buster Friendly is his opposite deity. He's the Antichrist to Mercer's Jesus, the Maya to his Buddha. As Isidore tells Sloat, "I think Buster Friendly and Mercerism are fighting for control of our psychic souls." To which Sloat responds, "If so […], Buster is winning" (7.30-31).
While we discuss Mercerism in more depth in our "Symbols, Allegory, Imagery" section, we're going to tl;dr a bit here and say that Mercer represents empathy and inclusion. His empathy boxes allow people to come together from across the universe, "making citizens more concerned about the plight of their neighbors" (7.24), with the added bonus of reducing crime. So Buster Friendly should represent the opposite: isolation and indifference.
Let's take a look at the evidence.
While watching the Buster Friendly show during his morning routine, Isidore doesn't think about how lonely his San Francisco apartment is. Once he turns the TV off, though, he "experience[s] the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive" (2.16). Ack. Can't have that, right? Buster Friendly's TV show provides life and friendship to fill the void—and illusory friendship, all color and sound but no substance.
While Mercer brings people together legitimately, Buster Friendly makes them seem like they're together with guests, interviews, and witty banter. But Buster Friendly isn't really being friendly with anyone watching him. TV is one-way entertainment.
Later in the novel, Buster Friendly airs a special expose stating that Mercer is really an actor named Al Jerry and that Mercerism is a fraud: "We may never know [who has spawned this hoax]. Nor can we fathom the peculiar purpose behind this swindle. Yes, folks, swindle. Mercerism is a swindle!" (18.54).
Say it isn't so!
Well … it is so. Mercer himself—or, at least, a delusion of Isidore's standing in for Mercer—admits it (18.86-88).
But what Buster Friendly missed is that, even if Mercer is a fraud, his effect is real. The empathy effect really has reduced crime—and the characters who hang on Buster Friendly's every word—like Baty, Pris, and Irmgard—are the ones torturing a spider just to see if it can walk on less than four legs.
If Mercer is a fraud because he was created, then so is Buster Friendly: he's an android. But Mercer's lies affect the world positively; Buster's lies just keep people focused away from the world around them.