Archive for the ‘Analysis’ category

Funny thing about satire…..

July 21, 2008

Satire is a lot like a chainsaw. Wielded by skillful hands, it can turn a stump into a beautiful sculpture. Used appropriately, it can cut down a mighty, but diseased, oak. But in the hands of an inept or careless user, it can cause mayhem like a Quentin Tarantino remake of a Sam Peckinpah film.

The July 21 New Yorker magazine cover probably falls into the last category. The collection of caricatures, aggregating the smears and distortions leveled by critics of Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, is not particularly funny and has already caused foreseeable harm, and not to its intended target. Rather than cutting down the smear merchants, it created another diversion from the real issues of the campaign, where Obama’s focus (and presumably the media’s) ought to be.

“What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics,” New Yorker editor David Remnick explained to the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar. “I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed ‘lack of patriotism’ or his being ‘soft on terrorism’ or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers.”

It’s axiomatic in comedy to say that if you have to explain it, it’s not funny (although some argue that a stupid audience negates the axiom, but there it is). Nowhere is this clearer than in satire, which relies on an underlying truth as premise for the punchline/comeuppance. If the truth of the matter is obscured, or ignored altogether, the audience is left to guess at what is being satirized. Any good comic knows that removing such variables can make the difference between killing and dying onstage.

Accepting Remnick’s explanation that the intent was satirical, it simply wasn’t funny. Wingnuts are smearing Obama, and this is what it would look like if the smears were true. Get it?  I get it. Everybody gets it. We’re not laughing because it’s a weak joke– a  groaner at best.

Worse than being unfunny, there’s a distinct possibility that the “satirical” cover does not counter, but rather reinforces, the smears against the Obamas. An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content as the network news) finds that humor makes the audience more receptive to serious information. Specifically, Fox and her researchers found negative physiological reactions indicating aversion when watching network news, while watching The Daily Show provoked favorable reactions, indicating receptiveness to information.

Just to be clear, I asked Prof. Fox, does that mean that the “just kidding” defense doesn’t actually excuse the nasty accusation, but can in fact make it stick? Her response: “Exactly.”

Yes, the New Yorker cover was just a joke. Not a particularly good one, though, and a collective shrug was probably all it deserved. But this is an election year, and there’s a 24-hour news hole to fill. And in light of Prof. Fox’s research, there’s nothing funny about that.

The similarly tepid responses by the Obama and McCain campaigns— that the cover was tasteless and offensive—probably could have ended the discussion. But, appropriately enough for satire, at least two levels of irony came into play and magnified the problem. First, as Jon Stewart ably pointed out, the news media leapt at the opportunity to rehash the charges against the cartoon ad absurdum and vent their mawkish outrage, while also claiming with spitting indignation that the Obama camp was also outraged. Never mind that there was precious little evidence for this beyond a mildly worded quote from spokesman Bill Burton; the media machine was running of its own accord.

Then, after two days of studious silence, Sen. Obama finally did address the matter on July 15, and only at the prompting of Larry King. He said, quite reasonably, that the American people have more to worry about than a cartoon. Naturally, this set off some critics. The next day on Hardball, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post absurdly said Obama’s response shows “thinness of skin.” LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm argued somewhat paradoxically that Obama’s response was both too late and unnecessary. In Malcolm’s view, apparently, Obama should have taken swifter inaction.

The ongoing deconstruction of the cover and reaction to it, says Prof. Fox, is a double-edged sword. Her research suggests that those who find the New Yorker cover distasteful, which presumably includes Obama supporters and those likely to give him a fair shake come election time, probably won’t give it a second thought because it isn’t funny. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the aftermath could be worse than the cover itself.

“Visual processing is relatively automatic, whereas audio/verbal processing is more of a controlled process,” Fox wrote in response to my emailed questions. “So the numerous news reports criticizing the possible negative effects of such imagery may be serving to reinforce those negative effects rather than to dispel them.”

And isn’t that funny? Not “ha ha” funny, of course, but “It could only happen to a Democrat” funny. Even when the media purport to rush to his defense, they do more harm than good.

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I asked Gary Huck, the very talented and funny cartoonist for United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), with whom I used to work, his thoughts on the issue. His response:

“Often cartoonists communicate in reverse, and this is a perfect example. The cartoonist cannot be concerned, nor defend the intent of their art. In this case the intent is clear: it’s on the cover of the f#$*9ing New Yorker. The intent is not slander but satire. But remove it from the context and what do you have? An impassioned debate about the image and what it means, and one thing it means is the cartoonist DID ONE HELL OF A GOOD JOB! A DEFINING MOMENT IN THIS CAMPAIGN, AN IMAGE THAT WILL BE REPRINTED FOR A VERY LONG TIME AS HISTORY REVISITS THE HISTORICAL! That is what I seek each time I sit down to draw…period.”

Gary’s take seems similar to my discussion of Borat— if it makes people think, it’s probably doing some good.

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SATIRE ALERT!

South Carolina state senator Kevin Bryant put this up on his website:

Bryant told Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney: “You know, blogs are for satire and whatnot and, um, that’s why it’s up. It’s similar to the New Yorker picture. Maybe that’s why this has gotten so much attention, because of that thing that came out a couple days ago.”

So there you have it. Any stupid, jackass, racist thing you can imagine is now satire.

That high-pitched buzzing sound you hear is Swift, Twain, Bruce, Carlin and Hicks spinning in their graves.

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* The published abstract for the study can be found here: Fox, J. R., Wilson, B., Sahin, V., Sanders-Jackson, A., Koloen, G., & Gao, Y. (2007). No Joke: Motivated Cognition While Viewing The Daily Show and Broadcast Network Newscasts. Psychophysiology, 44(supplement), S94.

I wish it were under better circumstances….

June 23, 2008

George Carlin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself….

Far greater minds than mine can tell you how important Carlin was to social satire, and far lesser minds than mine tried today.

My job requires me to watch MSNBC pretty much constantly, and they’ve been revisiting Carlin’s death all day. They talked about how his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine was his most famous, of course. And they talked about how it was responsible for a Supreme Court decision. Aside from those facts and Carlin’s age, they got very little right.

The case stemmed from his “Seven Words” routine being played on a Pacifica Radio station in New York, where a man heard it while listening to the radio with his son. The father complained to the FCC, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. One of the blabbing heads on MSNBC– I don’t recall which and honestly don’t care to try– said, “It actually ended up as a loss for Carlin, because the Court said you can’t say those words on television.”

Well, duh. Genius insight from precisely the type of vapid, witless person Carlin spent his career mocking. (And actually, you can say “piss” now. “Tits” sometimes, but rarely.)

Carlin was only tangentially connected to the Supreme Court case. He was not a party to it. The case is FCC v. Pacifica Foundation— no Carlin involved. Ergo, he could neither win nor lose. And furthermore, the case would not be considered a loss for free speech types, among whom you could count Carlin.

The Court held that the FCC had the authority to regulate decency on the public airwaves. That much is true. The Court reasoned that broadcast comes into the home and can be readily understood by children who might not be able to read the same in a book or see it in a movie theater, so the broadcaster may be regulated. However, regulation to the extent that the entire audience is always limited to receiving material acceptable for children was not acceptable to the Court. Thus, the “safe harbor” hours, from 10pm to 6am, wherein materials of a more adult nature can be aired, came to be.

The distinctions drawn by the Court color media issues that continue to this day. Cable television is less regulated than broadcast, because, unlike broadcast signals, you must seek it out and invite it into your home. (Forget for the moment that you need to buy a television or radio to receive the broadcast signal, and each is equipped with a device that allows you to tune in or tune out a particular signal….) The Internet is, to this point, treated more like cable than broadcast, though that could change.

So, yes, George Carlin’s filthy mouth did a lot of wonderful things for you and me. We get to talk to each other like grow-ups after 10pm, and we can hear Gordon Ramsey curse out diffident chefs on BBC America. And his routine will be forever recorded in the annals of the Supreme Court of the United States.

He was also a very funny guy. And he’ll be missed.

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Referencing myself here, kinda: Carlin on his motivation for going into comedy, from the History Channel’s “History of the Joke”:

“Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, ‘Oh, you’re so clever.’

‘That’s all I really want people to say. “Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.”

Yes, he was.

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An $8.5 Billion opening act.

I crashed the ACLU’s Membership Conference in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to say hi to the headliner, Greg Proops. I’ve been a fan of his for a good while, but I had a reason other than hero worship to see him. He was best friends with my dear friend and former client Warren Thomas.

When Warren passed back in ’05, it came as quite a shock to many of us, despite his being very ill for several years. There were memorials for him in NYC, where he was working for Air America Radio and doing a regular gig at Rocky Sullivan’s “Satire for Sanity” show, at the Punchline in his hometown of San Francisco in conjunction with “Comedy Day” in Golden Gate Park, and at the Improv in West Hollywood. It says a lot about Warren that there were three events held in his memory. It also says a lot that some comedy greats attended. Barry Crimmins, who gave a most moving eulogy in New York and made the trip to San Francisco (it was my great privilege to read Barry’s eulogy at the Improv, as Barry couldn’t be there), Sue Murphy, Rick Overton, Robin Williams, Debi and Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo, A. Whitney Brown, Barry Sobel, Randy Kagan, David Feldman, Bob Rubin, Tom Rhodes, Martin Olson, Kurt Weitzmann and many, many others. I got to meet many of them for the first time as we grieved over our lost friend.

But I didn’t get to meet Proops. While he was inside the Punchline keeping things going, I was outside trying to help January, Warren’s widow, keep it together.

So I grabbed him by the elbow at the Washington Convention Center and introduced myself: “I was Warren Thomas’s attorney just before he died.” The look on his face was at first a bit surprised, and then became very warm. We shared a few brief words, and then parted so he could do his set. As he walked away, he said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Warren.” “Same here,” I said.

So Proops went up and did a very entertaining set, drawing laughs from the assembled lefties who keep the ACLU in paperclips and notepads. (He drew one shocked gasp when he suggested that Dick Cheney’s use of “hogwash” as an interjection was befitting of someone who strides to his horsedrawn carriage on a stairway made of Negroes. “Come on, ACLU. It’s called satire,” he chided.)

One of those donors was Proops’s lead-in. The speechmaker who preceded Proops was a multi-billionaire you may have heard of: George Soros. Not bad for a warm-up.

Eat My Shorts

March 28, 2008

A few short notes:

Jon Stewart is reportedly spending his time away from Comedy Central’s world news headquarters doing some old-fashioned good guy stuff. The Washington Post‘s “Reliable Source” reports that Stewart has quietly been visiting wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at Bethesda and Walter Reed hospitals. Stewart received the USO Merit Award for his frequent visits, which WaPo reports began in 2004.

Stewart reportedly does it to get out of the theoretical and into the reality of the war in Iraq. “If anything, it’s made me angrier. . . . You can be for the war, against the war, but you can’t be uninformed about it. To see the human cost is part of the equation,” he said.

Stewart has not actually gone to visit the troops in Iraq because, he said, “I’m chickenshit.”

I wonder how many “real” journalists and pundits have spent time with the people whose lives they speak so cavalierly about on television and radio and in print. Has William Kristol cast a shadow on the floor of a burn ward? Has Brian Williams or Soledad O’Brien spent time in the physical therapy room with soldiers learning to walk on prosthetic legs? I’m not trying to be a dick about it– I’d actually like to know.

Good for Jon Stewart, I say.

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Saturday Night Live is bathing in the rich glow of media attention since its return from the Writers Guild strike. The media-love-Obama/hate-Hillary sketches, Sen. Clinton’s appearance, Tina Fey’s pronouncement that “bitches get stuff done,” and Clinton’s post-SNL wins in Ohio and Texas have led to some serious hand-wringing about whether the old guard of TV satire has surrendered its street cred to back Clinton.

SNL honcho Lorne Michaels has defended his product on both coasts, telling the New York Times‘ Bill Carter, “I’m sensitive to the suggestion that we’re in the service of Hillary Clinton this year…. That obviously is not the case. We don’t lay down for anybody.”

Matea Gold writes in the Los Angeles Times, “[T]he show’s writers were divided when Clinton’s campaign called and said that the candidate was interested in making an appearance on the show March 2, right before the Ohio and Texas primaries. ‘Some people thought it wasn’t a good idea,’ Michaels said. ‘Would it appear partisan?'”

I can answer that: Yes.

Satire is dicey business, and the satirist always risks looking like a partisan. The vast weight of seemingly pro-Clinton material in those first weeks back from the strike, when comedy-loving Americans were aching to see how SNL would re-enter the fray of the campaign, gave a strong impression that it was, in fact, giving her a hand.

Writes Gold: “‘The show happens too quickly for any of us to have an agenda,’ added [co-head writer Seth] Meyers, who donated $1,000 to Obama in January. ‘And our egos as comedy writers are too big to ever let our own political loyalties get in the way of a joke. So we aim for whatever is the richest to be satirized on any given week.'”

Choosing what’s ripe for satire is an editorial choice, inherently laden with value judgments borne of one’s biases, conscious or otherwise. As a veteran of TV news, I can tell you that the work of simply getting a show on the air every night makes partisanship difficult. But not impossible. When you’ve got a week to do it, I’m guessing it’s a bit easier. Still, Michaels told Entertainment Weekly, “We can reflect something, but I don’t think we affect the course of human events.”

I think Michaels is being willfully naive there, as Jon Stewart and his colleagues are when they say they’re just doing a little comedy show. Too many studies have shown that young people in particular turn to comedy shows as a source for news. The simple act of satirizing something affects the course of human events. That’s the whole purpose of satire.

To quote Mark Twain, “No god and no religion can survive ridicule. No church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field and live.”

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In case you missed it, the New York Times had a very good profile of Eddie Izzard last week. Check it out.

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Maria Bamford is really, really funny. Silly, weird and so, so funny.

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Barry Crimmins has been under the weather for the last while, and when you live in northwestern New York “under the weather” takes on a whole new meaning. But Barry Crimmins on a bad day is funnier and smarter than you and I could hope to be. Read the last several posts. From his sickbed… check it out.

The Great Lady Comic Debate of ’07/’08

March 27, 2008

An awfully uncompelling debate reached its second round recently, long delayed despite its enviable collision of sex, beauty, humor and politics. Unfortunately, Vanity Fair‘s he said/she said go-round on whether women are funny is remarkably unfunny, despite the participants’ efforts, which unerringly leads the reader to assume that pundits are the least funny people on Earth, regardless of the packaging of their nobbly bits.

The Vanity Fair issue on the newsstands today features a cover story that purports to retort to a transparent provocation from January of last year. (It also features a cover photo of SNL‘s Amy Poehler copping a feel on 30 Rock‘s Tina Fey.)

That’s when noted curmudgeon and frequent inebriate Christopher Hitchens picked a fight, writing about why he believes women aren’t funny. His arguments are broad, his caricatures broader. In response this month, a broad gets argumentative about being caricatured. (Zing!)

Hitchens’s opening salvo from 01/07 is primarily that women don’t have to entertain men to be attractive, whereas a non-athletic, less-than-handsome, non-rich guy needs something to get him over the hump (as it were) with the ladies.

He references a 2005 Stanford University study, which found that women process humor differently from men. They do so, researchers say, because women approach comedy with a more skeptical eye than men (likely finely honed by years of listening to jackasses buffet them with “clever” pick-up lines and such), and accordingly are more pleased when they reach a good punchline, and sooner to conclude that a joke isn’t funny.

Sounds to me like women are more discerning comedy consumers.

Hitchens’s conclusion?

“Slower to get it, more pleased when they do, and swift to locate the unfunny—for this we need the Stanford University School of Medicine? And remember, this is women when confronted with humor. Is it any wonder that they are backward in generating it?”

He does throw a few bones to female wits: Nora Ephron, Fran Lebowitz, Ellen DeGeneres, Dorothy Parker among them. But no praise comes from Hitchens without punishment, as the rest of the female comedy world is dismissed as “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combination of the three.” When Roseanne plays the “tough broad” angle, Hitchens implies, she is merely acting like a man. When lesbian comics make the ladies laugh, it’s for the same sexual gratification that male comics seek. And Jews? Well, angst and self-deprecation are male traits.

Furthermore, Hitchens argues, men make jokes when bad things happen. Women, he says, want things to be nice and sweet all the time. Men joke about losing their hair, prostates and erections; women are less apt to laugh at their own structural collapse. It’s true that some of the highest reaches of comedy come from processing tragedy, but you don’t have to be Betty Friedan to understand that aging exacts a higher social toll from the fairer sex.

But Hitchens’s last point is the “best”: motherhood is not funny.

Well, hell, lighten up, Oedipus. My mom doesn’t giggle all that much when she talks about her episiotomy, but I’ve gotten a few laughs out of her.

This month, Alessandra Stanley responds to Hitchens, arguing that what sets today’s women comics and comedic actresses apart is that many of them provide their own material. In defending these female talents, Stanley inartfully drops in a few groaners that could not do more to distract from an actual refutation of Hitchens’s highly refutable claims.

After dwelling too long on the history of marginalized funny women, Stanley makes a salient point, quoting 1885 educator Kate Sanborn, who “pointed out that women have good reason to keep their one-liners to themselves. ‘No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady’s lips,’ she wrote. ‘What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.'”

That’s an excellent point, but one that’s woefully under-emphasized. Few women (or men, for that matter) are itching to make a funny that might cost them a crack in the mouth. Or worse.

Stanley then goes on to talk about how pretty the women comics of today are. Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Amy Poehler, the cover girls, are appropriately noted for their looks. And props are given out to Amy Sedaris for her willingness to make herself look horrible for the sake of character. “Even Lisa Lampanelli, a husky comedy-club veteran whose Donna Rickles act is an all-offenses-made smutfest, crammed with jokes about gays, blacks, and ‘fisting,’ does stand-up on Comedy Central in a low-cut, blue satin cocktail dress, with Jimmy Choo shoes and her hair long, honey blond, and tousled,” Stanley writes. She seems to argue that pretty girls are getting all the breaks in comedy. Unlike the rest of the world, where they’re always on the short end…..

(Inexplicably, Stanley compares Paula Poundstone to Lampanelli, saying they both have a “head-on … aggressive style.” Huh? Could Poundstone be any less aggressive on stage?)

Stanley speaks to the era of SNL with Tina Fey as head writer and a cast that included Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and, today, Kristen Wiig, and calls it a watershed moment in the previously male-dominated writers room. Which is true, as the current consensus is that Fey’s tenure gave women on the cast juicier roles, and gave fewer “Animal House,” ham-fisted, fratboy kneeslappers air time, in favor of humor with a feminine edge. And it was damn funny.

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Naturally, Hitchens cannot allow Stanley to have the final word, and offers a rebuttal (available also on video). His ultimate point: “She said what I said.” In that, he’s right. Stanley repeats much of Hitchens’s claims, but appears to try to excuse rather than refute them.

Hitchens says there are more bad female comics than bad male comics, suggesting that even though there are some funny women, they are the outliers on the survey. I say that’s nonsense. Writers and comics like Fey, Sedaris, Poehler, Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, Tina Dupuy, Samantha Bee, Lizz Winstead, Alex Borstein, Sue Murphy, comedic actresses like Jane Lynch, Jenna Fischer, Lauren Graham…. and a raft of others. That is a group of very funny women. There are many more like them.

Come up with a list like that for male performers… It won’t be too hard. But think about the ones you’d have to leave off. There’s no shortage of bad, hacky guys wasting stage time that good comics could be using, or getting roles that actors with real talent should be getting.

The nature of the female comic is no different from that of the male. To be funny, they must appeal to the audience’s ability to identify with the absurdity in their lives, to find irony and whimsy. There is no physiological reason why a woman can’t be as funny as a man. There is no heavy lifting required.

Funny requires smart, astute, creative observations. Neither sex has cornered that market.

And as the Hitchens/Stanley argument demonstrates, it’s hardly a fight worth having.

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VF.com has interviews with some of the best women comics. Interesting reads.

An Evening with Amy Sedaris, and the Vulgar Innocent

March 14, 2008

Amy Sedaris came to Iowa State Wednesday night, speaking to a full hall at the Memorial Union in the heart of campus. I’m told that the folks who scheduled the event and the students whose vote was required to fund it weren’t so sure she would be a good draw. They were wrong.

I’m talking about a packed room. Like spilling-into-the-corridor packed. They brought in extra chairs and people still stood in the aisles.

It was an interesting chat. She was there to tout her 2006 book, I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence. (It’s true– Iowa is a little bit behind the times.)

The talk, hosted by the local paper’s movie critic, addressed Sedaris’s film roles, her guest-starring turns on TV shows as diverse as My Name is Earl and Sesame Street, and, of course, her totemic role as Jerri Blank on Strangers with Candy.

(Interesting story about Jerri: Sedaris said she wanted the character to have a male name, but she and her co-writers, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, couldn’t come up with a last name. So she said, “Just leave it blank for now…” and it fit perfectly.)

She made a pantyhose “eye burrito” (instructions on p. 267) and did a little Q&A with the audience that included a 3-second burst of unfettered filth from her profane and promiscuous Southern character “Piglet.”

The line for autographs lasted an hour. She signed pretty much everything put in front of her, including a newborn infant (on the hoodie sweater, not the fontanelle). Many photographs were taken. Some college students from Kansas City (a 3.5-hour drive from Ames) were impossibly giddy about meeting her, or maybe just punchy from the road and amped up on Red Bull. A couple of local high school students bitched about their home ec teacher, who apparently thought it was funny that a student set herself on fire while cooking in class (for the record, so did Sedaris).

Sadly, I didn’t get the chance to talk to her much, but we did chat briefly about my theory on characters like Jerri.

I told Sedaris that I appreciate not only her making Jerri (and herself) so very unattractive, but also her willingness to make Jerri always the worst person in the room. Jerri is offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic, and to put it bluntly, foul. She is a hateful person, but you don’t hate her.

Sedaris said exactly what I thought she would: “She doesn’t mean to hurt anyone. She just doesn’t realize there’s anything wrong with what she says. And she really likes herself.”

It fit precisely with a theory I’ve been developing about the function and purpose of “offensive” humor. A character like Jerri, or Borat, or The Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin can say and do fundamentally objectionable things that would drive a prog/lefty like me completely rat-cage crazy if a real person said it in front of me. So why do these characters get a pass?

I’ve been pondering that question for several months now. I delivered a paper at the Modern Language Association/American Humor Studies Association conference in Chicago last December, talking about the political substance beneath the offensive veneer of Borat. During the Q&A session, a woman (African-American, in case that’s relevant, but I’m not sure it is) in the audience said that she laughed herself silly at Borat, but that the offensiveness of what made her laugh also made her question why she was laughing.  Where does one draw the line between offensive and funny?

I responded that “offensive” is in the eye of the beholder, that its context matters, and it can also be a tool to get people thinking. When the ultimate result of the offensive act is that the audience confronts the objectionable “ism” and ponders whether and to what extent it exists in them, as I argue happens with Borat, then is “offensive” humor necessarily “bad?”

I would argue that the operative issue is the character’s intent. That is, is the character malevolent? Does he or she intend to do damage?

I call characters like Jerri and Borat “Vulgar Innocents.” They don’t mean to hurt anyone. Their conduct is devoid of ill will; it is indifferent to those affected by it.

A prime example of this is Sarah Silverman’s character in her eponymous Comedy Central show. She doesn’t intend to offend with her black-face protest. She’s just completely oblivious to the possibility that anyone might be offended.

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A contrary example can be found in Andrew “Dice” Clay’s stage persona and material, laden with racism and sexism and wildly successful in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When the backlash inevitably came, Clay tried to distance himself from the controversy, deflecting the worst charges by saying, “It’s not me, it’s the character.” But in considering the social impact of the humor, whether Clay is racist or sexist is entirely beside the point; “The Dice Man” is. The character is malign, and intends to insult, belittle and hurt, and the audience identifies with him. There is no socially beneficial result, and there is reason to argue that there can be none.

Which doesn’t mean that a malevolent character cannot have a positive impact. Consider South Park‘s Eric Cartman. When the offensive behavior comes from a foul-mouthed ignoramus (albeit an 8-year old one) who believes the word “Jew” is an insult per se and that “there are a lot of Black people in China,” we can laugh at the obvious ignorance of his bigotry, and by extension, all bigotry.

The archetype of this is Archie Bunker, whose prejudice helped transform the sitcom into a vehicle of social commentary.

Not to belabor an obvious point, but whether we laugh at the character or with the character is an important distinction. Whether the target of the jokes is deserving or helpless is also significant. Ultimately, if there’s a higher purpose to the offensive, something beyond mere shock and a few titters from arrested-adolescent meatheads, it can be both effective and worthwhile.

It also helps if it’s funny.

How Hillary got her groove back.

March 6, 2008

I study how political humor influences public sentiment– not exactly astrophysics or cancer research, I know. I understand that some of my colleagues have a tough time believing I can watch The Daily Show and call it work. But evidence is building that I’m onto something here.

It’s axiomatic today to say late-night comedy shows are impacting the presidential campaign, but the reverse is equally true and no less troubling. The relationship between political satire and the political process is always fluid, but their current dynamic is something that Jonathan Swift couldn’t come up with on his best day. How could he imagine a world where the mockers and the mocked make a mockery of mockery?

Satire works like this: the satirist exposes the foibles and fallacies of the powerful in government and society to humble them in the eyes of the people and inspire change. Today, the satirists and the powerful are increasingly parts of a whole. Like the news media before them, the comics have lost their measured detachment from their subjects, and have become one with the Machine.

The resurgent political fortunes of Hillary Clinton are highly informative.

In its first show after returning from the writers strike, Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch premised on the press being in the bag for Barack Obama. It was a smile, but hardly the hard-hitting stuff you’d expect from the standard bearer for late-night comedy, especially after a three-month break.

It hit a little harder when guest host and former head writer Tina Fey called out Clinton’s critics, particularly the closet misogynists among them.

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Senator Clinton referenced the show at a debate in Cleveland, complaining about her treatment by the moderators.

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It didn’t go over well in the room, coming off more than a little whiny. But it had legs, as they say in the business… Were the media really giving Senator Obama a high profile and smooth ride down the campaign trail?

Studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggest that the answer is yes… and no.

According to a PEJ report from Feb. 18-24, the week before the first SNL skit, Obama had the most media coverage of any candidate from any party. That was also true in the next week’s survey. But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops.

Editor & Publisher magazine reports that the coverage in the week that followed Fey’s post-modern battle cry and the debate sketch put far more scrutiny on Obama, and took a jaundiced view of his treatment by the media. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported that Obama’s media corps was noticeably more aggressive after Saturday Night Live got done mocking them.

SNL has drawn some fire for what many say is actually an anti-Obama/pro-Clinton thread in their material. It has led the pundits to call out the show, accusing it of carrying water for the GOP. And it’s led SNL to respond– via writer Jim Downey– by writing more sketches about Clinton’s hard road through the primaries. And it’s led comedy writers to write about the comedy writers writing about Clinton. It got so bad that Obama reportedly joked about asking producer Lorne Michaels to even it up a bit.

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Senator Clinton’s wins this week might be partially attributable to SNL‘s treatment… or perhaps to her reaching out to the very same comedy audience.

This past weekend, she appeared on SNL to “rebut” another sketch lambasting the media’s coverage of Senator Obama. It was self-deprecating and gentle, not as funny as you’d hope but about as funny as you’d expect.

She followed that up with a satellite appearance on The Daily Show on Monday. Over the two segments with Jon Stewart, Clinton showed a sense of humor, tremendous grasp of and quickness with the issues, and was simply personable.

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Is it possible that those late night comedy forays helped her get some mojo back for Tuesday’s wins? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen. As an alternative campaigning strategy, it wouldn’t even be a first.

Remember, her husband Bill took an iron grip on the youth vote in 1992 when he played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. He cemented that position with two appearances in candidate forums on MTV News.

True, it led to the embarrassing “boxers or briefs” debacle, which still ranks high among the dumbest moments in campaign history. But it also gave Clinton a committed core of young voters, who helped him win 43 percent of the vote in that three-way race—just enough to put him in the White House.

For his part, Stewart responded Tuesday by mocking his Monday interview with Clinton.

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It’s a symbiosis of comedy and politics: the jokes about candidates now bring the candidates to the jokers, who then joke about the candidates coming to the jokers, and the candidates joke about being joked about by the jokers. And everybody has a good laugh.

And then they look over the numbers, from the pollsters and the Nielsens.

Will Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show help put Hillary or Barack or even John McCain over the top in November? The frequency with which the candidates have appeared on late-night comedies suggests no one is willing to bet the answer is “No.”

This may signal a whole new collision of meta-jokes and meta-politics. Remember Stewart and Colbert and Conan O’Brien “feuding” over who created Mike Huckabee? That was a mildly amusing strike-dodging time waster, but it wasn’t completely divorced from the truth.

In an interview more than a year ago, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) told me that arm wrestling with Colbert (she says he cheated) attracted more attention than 14 years’ legislative work. “I’ve gotten more calls from around the country about appearing on that show than from anything I’ve done,” she said.

And here’s something that pretty much guarantees we’ll be seeing more politicos cozying up to comics: according to a UC San Diego political scientist, it helps raise campaign cash.

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That should be enough to make Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) rethink his directive to new members of Congress to avoid Colbert.

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A note on the video: I’m sorry that some of the clips are very long and have some extraneous material. Apparently, NBC takes its copyright very seriously and won’t allow its online materials to be edited. Endeavor to persevere.

Real Fake News: Where the campaign trail and the laugh track intersect

March 2, 2008

Hillary Clinton’s appearance on last night’s Saturday Night Live was pretty funny. Not “ha ha” funny, but….

After yet another sketch about how much the news media supposedly love Barack Obama, which Clinton unwisely noted in a debate last week, the Senator had her chance to reply.

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Lionel Beehner on the Huffington Post had a pretty sharply-worded critique of the performance. I don’t agree 100% with everything he says, but I’ll go along with the gist of it. It was a so-so idea, so-so delivery and a so-so bit. SNL should be doing better. They had plenty of time to gear up for this.

Nevertheless, it was nice to see Sen. Clinton smiling and seeming very genuine (and I recognize the irony of that last statement). Although it may be too late to save her presidential aspirations, her SNL appearance, paired with a scheduled stop at The Daily Show on Monday night, could do a lot to help her shed the cold, phony persona that her critics, right and left, have cast upon her.

By now it’s a common ploy: get on a comedy show, tell a few jokes at your own expense, make a few statements about your policy ideas, and come off as a regular guy (or gal) with hopes and ideas for America, and dodge the label of “the stiff” or “the snob” or “the doofus” or whatever one-dimensional caricature the press have pasted on you.

John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, John McCain, Mike Huckabee (who ought to have a SAG card by now, but for his anti-union ways), Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Obama, Clinton…. they’ve all appeared on one or more of the late-night comedy shows. Bill Clinton helped create the process with his 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, and the candidate forums he did with MTV News.

Say what you will about Bill Clinton and MTV, the 1992 presidential election had the highest participation by young voters to that date, and they overwhelmingly supported Clinton, who won the three-way race with 43% of the vote.

I wrote my Master’s Thesis on the impact of MTV News and its “Choose or Lose” coverage in ’92, arguing that while their coverage may not have been perfect (and there is good reason to believe that it was anything but), it was serving a young audience with engaging political coverage targeted at young people’s interests and issues. And, by the way, those old men in suits at the networks who lament young people’s presumed disinterest in news not only fail, but don’t even try to appeal to that audience.

The last several years, I have been making a similar argument about The Daily Show and other topical comedy shows. In 2004, the Pew Research Center published a study that said what most journalism professors already knew, that a lot of young people get their news somewhere other than traditional sources. Hardly shocking. But one datum in the report drew a lot of interest: one-fifth of young people get their news from TV comedy shows.

There was great hue-and-cry from the news business about the dwindling TV news ratings and shrinking newspaper circulations, blaming The Daily Show for distracting young news consumers from real news and calling Jon Stewart “a political pied piper for countless college kids and recent grads.” Even as Stewart was lauded by progressives, and many journalism professionals and academics (including me), he was also pilloried, as later critics cited other studies to argue that The Daily Show breeds cynicism, apathy and intellectual complacency.

As to the cynicism claims, even the study’s authors argued that that was a very narrow reading of the survey results. And the charge of complacency is based on a fictitious “straw man” proto-dope student created by an obviously self-righteous, humorless prig.

In fact, many additional studies have shown that TDS viewers are actually more likely to be politically active and are better educated and informed than most people (including viewers of Bill O’Reilly, who once called Stewart’s audience a bunch of “stoned slackers“). It’s no surprise, considering that pound-for-pound TDS provides as much news content as the networks do, according to Indiana University researcher Julia Fox. And TDS viewers are less likely to be subjected to gossipy non-news about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears than incisive criticism of their overblown non-news coverage.

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Prof. Geoffrey Baym argues that TDS and its ilk are a new focal point in political reporting, where news and entertainment meet and collude, creating a new dynamic, an experiment in journalism.

I agree, and would further posit that TDS is, quite simply, news. It is what I call “Real Fake News.”

In presenting her comedy, the satirist must present the background facts in order to assure that the audience understands the premise. That context lays the groundwork for the punchline, which draws attention to a fallacy in the person or policy being satirized. Without context, analysis and exposition of facts, there is no joke.

Those exact same elements are required to do good journalism. In my estimation, it makes no difference that the satirist is looking to get a laugh. As long as she presents the situation fairly and reasonably, even as she sets the pretext to mock it, she is completing the same task as a journalist.

This is not a particularly popular position, but it’s an argument I’m willing to take up.

My reasoning is simple and pragmatic: I would love it if my students all read a daily newspaper and watched good television news and documentaries and devoured all the finest newsmagazines. They don’t. But if they can get informed by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Amy Poehler, Seth Myers, or any other comic who deals fairly and accurately with real issues, I am not going to look that gift horse in the mouth.

Like those network suits in the ’90s who blamed MTV for their audience woes, plenty of big-J journalists are happy to point an accusatory finger at Jon Stewart. But he and comics like him aren’t taking anything from the networks that they ever had claim to anyway.

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Here’s the entire SNL show open, including the sketch. I thought Will Forte’s Brian Williams impression was spot-on, though Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama inexplicably sounded a little more like Yogi Bear than Obama. See for yourself.

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Also, apropos of nothing at all, Bill Maher is so much better now that he’s got his writers back. Glad to see it.