Archive for the ‘Artistry’ 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 An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content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.

____________________________________________

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.

________________________________

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.

_____________________________

* 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.

Advertisements

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.

_____________________________

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.

_____________________________

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.

And another thing…..

March 30, 2008

A couple more quick notes:

I got an email today that feels a little less-than-fresh. The “joke thief” charge is being thrown around again, and the evidence seems a bit strained to me.

I enjoy watching Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, and usually TiVo it so I can watch it more than once. Oftentimes the guests are really astute and have some very nuanced arguments that I like to mull over. I don’t get a whole lot of belly laughs out of it, though now and again someone will say something really funny. As I noted earlier, Maher is much better now that his writers are back (I’m especially a fan of Chris Kelly).

Daryl Cagle is a political cartoonist who runs a site called The Cagle Post. It aggregates some of the best political cartoons from across the U.S. and around the world, and adds columns from noted pundits (though it seems to me that the roster of talent… and Jonah Goldberg… skews a bit to the right). It’s nice to be reminded that there are some very clever people making interesting and salient points in a 3″x 3″ square.

Today’s message was blunt and provocative:

The columnists and cartoonists have been focusing on Hillary Clinton’s goofy claims to have dodged sniper fire on a visit to Bosnia with her daughter, Chelsea and comedian, Sinbad. As he often does, comedian Bill Maher stole from the week’s political cartoons for his monologue, including the Bagley cartoon at the right, for his joke about Hillary claiming to raise the flag at Iwo Jima. […] Visit our site each week and you can write a TV show just like Bill Maher!

That’s a pretty strong accusation. But I don’t know that it’s appropriately placed. Topical humor leads to a lot of parallel thinking. There’s no shortage of political cartoons, for instance, that use similar imagery on a specific issue. Recall last summer, when Barry Bonds was chasing the Major League home run record. How many cartoons did you see with him using a syringe as a bat, or with an asterisk on his jersey instead of a number? Were all of those cartoonists stealing the idea of the first one who thought of it?

Cagle’s assumption that Maher’s writers went to Cagle’s site to get at the Pat Buchanan column strikes me as a bit self-serving. I suspect that Maher’s writers read Buchanan and his ilk the same way entertainment reporters read Variety. There’s going to be something in there you can use.

Of course, I don’t know the whole story, so I’m not trying to cast any aspersions. Could be that Cagle’s been tracking the jokes on Real Time for a while, and finally had enough. At least one comedy writer/blogger of my acquaintance has seen some jokes on Real Time that seemed… shall we say, familiar?… to ones they had written on their blog.

But suspicion is not evidence.

I understand that people can be very possessive of their ideas, often for good reason. I used to work with Gary Huck, a very funny and dedicated cartoonist who works out of Pittsburgh with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE). He labored mightily over each of his cartoons, and made my workday go by a bit quicker with his quick wit. He had a long-standing issue with people stealing one of his ideas in particular. You might recognize it:

Gary wasn’t concerned about sharing the idea. He was bothered by people stealing it. Usually, if some labor or political group wanted to use his work, he’d let them have it for free, or for a nominal charge. But when someone took it without asking, he had little patience. Justifiably so.

But not every idea is a singular act of artistry. Sometimes the idea is not especially unique, and more than one person comes up with it. With the Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook accusations spreading beyond the insular world of comics into the public consciousness, it might be that people are getting a little too sensitive, or perhaps a little too eager to cry foul.

_____________________

Didn’t they learn anything from Fox News?

After the embarrassing debacle that was The Half-Hour News Hour (see my review here), you’d think that “real” news people would have the good sense to leave comedy to the professionals. But apparently not.

CNN announced this week that CNN Headline News is starting a comedy show next weekend. (Preview it here.) Variety reports, “The first episode will feature commentators including Time.com’s Washington editor Ana Marie Cox, L.A. Times columnist Joel Stein, Republican strategist Amy Holmes, Huffington Post media editor Rachel Sklar and comic Hugh Fink.”

I’m a little troubled by the fact that it’s going to be produced by Conway Cliff, who also produces the loudmouth proto-fascist ignoramus eel Glenn Beck. Is this going to be yet another right-wing crankfest? I’m pretty sure that market is saturated.

On the other hand, if CNN tries to be “safe” and middle-of-the-road, the bigger risk is just being unfunny. I doubt anybody wants to tune in to a half-hour reel of comedic mediocrity.

But like H.L. Mencken said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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.

In re: Hicks

February 27, 2008

Bill Hicks still has a lot of fans, if the number of views that my memorial piece received is any indication. And as I noted in the post, many of them are fellow comics.

I received an email from Kevin Kataoka, a genuine, creative stand-up with a long and colorful career. He knew and respected Hicks and wanted to share his thoughts on the man and his legacy. With Kevin’s permission, I’m sharing a bit of his email here (in italics).

He was a complex character from what I could gather. He left right after his sets. His act always landed at 1:17-1:19 every show. He praised my bad ventriloqust joke that I treasure for that reason. He made me realize that he didn’t want my act to mimic his (something comics don’t get), but to be honest to what makes you truly unique and funny.

Kevin would certainly know far better than I, but there is ample evidence that Hicks had no tolerance for hack comics, or for gutless performers of any kind. His routines bashing New Kids on the Block and similar bubble-gum pop stars are unrelenting, and for those of us who grew up in those mind-numbingly dull cultural valleys, they continue to ring true.

He had the thickest skin of any comic I’ve ever worked with in my life. To be able to deal with people – small or large – hating you night after night is not a way I would want to live. But he didn’t care about it. And the sad thing is how on a good weekend night, there were plenty of seats available.

Here, Kevin makes another point I’ve heard from other comics who knew Hicks: He didn’t much seem to care about “pleasing” the audience. He wanted to get through his material. He didn’t like the idea of being a comedy jukebox, spitting out the favorites for nickels. And– this didn’t do a whole lot to help his career or ingratiate him to club owners– he was likely to turn on the audience when they deserved it (or sometimes not).

He’s a little overpraised, because he’s dead. Where was everyone when he needed them? Well, you could say in these days of comedian mailing lists, Hicks could have had the audience he needed. Back then, comedy was truly underground, because aside from the rare TV appearance, you really had to see someone in person to like them. No Youtube, Myspace, etc. Back then, he couldn’t find the huge following in the US.

You couldn’t get any local weekly in San Francisco to watch his show. I remember Tom Sawyer, owner of Cobb’s in SF, begging the local weekly (The Guardian – which despised standup) to see Hicks, review his show, and see what great standup is all about. They didn’t. And then years later they would write about how influential he was.

That’s a sad irony recognized well by his fans and his contemporaries. At the time, he was just another comic trying to get a gig. Now that he’s gone, he’s a demigod.

It’s a story that repeats itself. Mitch Hedberg comes to mind. My dearly missed friend Warren Thomas does, as well. Comic and writer Randy Kagan spoke about that lamentable phenomenon at Warren’s memorial service at the West Hollywood Improv, angrily and tearfully challenging the comics gathered there to mourn, to do better for one another. Because it was such a shame that a performer of Warren’s talent and artistry should pass with so little attention from the comedy-going public, despite the respect and admiration he so clearly held in the comedy community.

I confess, I have been guilty of failing to appreciate real comedic talent. I was working in TV news the day Phil Hartman was murdered, and only while writing a story about his death did I realize just how important he was to 1990s comedy. Start with his time on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was a one-man gang of characters, and the many voices he provided to “The Simpsons,” including the iconic Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, Esq., and add to that Bill McNeal, his character from the insanely clever and original “Newsradio,” and you have a comedic powerhouse.

I and many others recognized too late what we lost in Phil Hartman. And Mitch Hedberg. And Warren Thomas. And Bill Hicks.

Unfortunately, I expect it’s a story that will continue to repeat.

Bill Hicks, 1961-1994

February 24, 2008

Today, I mourn someone very dear. Someone I found inspirational, enlightening, and by any measure, hilarious. Someone, actually, whom I never met. This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks.

Books have been written about Hicks, deep and insightful looks at the person he was, some by people who knew him well. So I can’t speak of that with any aplomb. I’ll leave those testimonials to those who earned the right to share them.

I want to talk about Hicks the artist.

There are quite a few comics who tackle important issues, but few can lay waste to the absurdity and degradation of politics and society as Hicks did. Fortunately, his comedic legacy has found its way onto video and CD, allowing me to see much of his act, recorded in many venues in the US and the UK. Listening to the recordings chronologically, you can hear the bits develop and grow, the edge getting sharper and the punchline hitting harder.

What’s so impressive is that though his routines were timely and topical, they are also timeless. A few tweaks here and there, and they are as fresh today as when he first unleashed them onstage in the early ‘90s. Replace Debbie Gibson with Jessica Simpson; substitute Nick Lachey for Rick Astley; Iraq, religious fundamentalism and “American Gladiators”… well, some things just endure.

Try this bit on for size:

“Hey buddy, my daddy died for that flag.”
Really? I bought mine. Yeah, they sell them at K-Mart and shit.
“He died in the Korean War.”
Wow, what a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea.
No one – and I repeat, no one – has ever died for a flag. See, a flag … is just a piece of cloth. They may have died for freedom, which is also the freedom to burn the fucking flag. That’s freedom.

In post-9/11 America, where not having a little yellow ribbon magnet on your car is enough to rouse your neighbors’ suspicion, that’s a conversation worth having.

“Revelations,” his 1993 HBO special, had this line about the first war with Iraq, which would be repeated by many people, in many variations, ten years later:

You know we armed Iraq. During the Persian Gulf war, those intelligence reports would come out: “Iraq: incredible weapons – incredible weapons.”
“How do you know that?”
“Uh, well … we looked at the receipts.”

And in today’s presidential race, where a major party candidate can publicly deny the existence of evolution and gain votes, consider this bit:

Fundamentalist Christianity. These people actually believe the world is 12,000 years old. Swear to God! Based on what? I asked them.
“Well, we looked at all the people in the Bible, and we added them up all the way back to Adam and Eve, their ages – 12,000 years.”
Well, how fucking scientific! I didn’t know that you’d gone to so much trouble there…. You believe the world’s 12,000 years old?
“That’s right.”
Okay, I got one word to ask you. A one-word question. Ready?
“Uh-huh.”
Dinosaurs.

One of my favorite Hicks CDs is “Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1,” recorded in Pittsburgh in 1991. In it, Hicks vents his frustration with the moribund audience, who seemingly only want dick jokes. Hicks shows no patience for that. By turns, he tries to pry laughs out of them and berates them for not wanting smarter material. It’s painful, and funny, and in its rawness shows Hicks was not merely a funnyman, but a man with a driving compulsion to say something.

Nobody who has heard Hicks can doubt his brilliance. Many comics have been compared to Lenny Bruce, but with Hicks, the comparison stands. Like Bruce, Hicks is respected, long after death, by respected comics. Like Bruce, his material holds up, as true today as it was when he wrote it. Like Bruce, Hicks has inspired legions of imitators. Like Bruce’s imitators, none of them come close.

It’s a shame that Hicks never got his due in America when he was alive. He was a superstar in the UK, but the US never quite caught on. His many appearances on Letterman built a loyal following—including me—but the fanbase that the quality of his material should have brought somehow eluded him.

Now, more than a decade after his death from pancreatic cancer, Bill Hicks is something of a cottage industry. Books, CDs, DVDs, websites, t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets… and good for all of that, I suppose. So long as people hear and see and learn about what a brilliant comic and social satirist Hicks was, I won’t begrudge the moneychangers their profit.

Whether Hicks would be so charitable, I don’t know. He doesn’t strike me as the type to let himself be commodified; his thoughts on commerce were not kind.

But, he does strike me as the sort who loves people and hates society—a compassionate misanthrope.

I wonder what Hicks would have made of Dubya’s America. I wonder how he’d have blasted Cheney’s hunting skills, Alberto’s “quaint” opinion on torture, and “Heckuva job, Brownie.” There’s been plenty for him to burn with his acid wit. The only question is what he would have burned first.

What I do know, as a Hicks fan and a student of comedy, is that he was hopeful. His cynicism was borne of idealism, his anger borne of the desire to share. Mostly, it seems that he wanted us to be better people.

The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.

Killing frogs?

February 16, 2008

Welcome to my blog. I’m very excited to start this new endeavor, and I hope you enjoy reading it. Mostly, I hope you’ll think it’s entertaining and interesting, and worth coming back to visit.

But what, you may be asking, is this “killing frogs” thing about?

It comes from a quote by E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and co-author of The Elements of Style. There are several versions of it, but the one with which I am most familiar is, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

All due respect to the late Mr. White, I and hundreds of other professionals commit significant parts of our lives to thinking seriously about comedy. Humor is an integral part of human discourse, and it has significant meaning in many different ways. Academics from diverse fields of research investigate how humor happens, how it impacts our lives, and how it informs what sort of society we live in. Psychologists, linguists, rhetoricians, anthropologists, sociologists and many, many others turn an analytical eye to answering the age-old question, “What’s so funny?”

By profession, I am a college professor and writer. By training, I am a journalist and attorney. By habit, I’m a punster and wise-ass. By choice, I’m a comedy wonk.

By that, I mean that like everyone on Match.com, I love to laugh. But more importantly, I’m interested in why I laugh. And why you laugh. And what it means that we laugh at some things and not at others. And what comedy means to modern American society.

My particular interest is in political and social satire. I’m intrigued by the notion that making people laugh also makes them think, and that through laughter, we may change in some small but significant way our corner of the world. The great satirist, and my dear friend, Barry Crimmins says, “Humor is a great way to smuggle serious information to people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.”

Looking at the popularity and social impact of performers like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Crimmins’ words are demonstrably true. Satire informs as it entertains, and can help change the society it mocks. Stewart and Colbert are not merely comics, but high-profile social commentators and media critics. They and others like them are helping to open people’s minds by challenging the status quo, carrying on a lineage that goes back at least to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes (ca. 400 BCE).

Satire and other forms of social and political humor have been at the cultural core of American arts and letters, even if they are marginalized or unrecognized in their own time. Mark Twain, Will Rogers, the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Crimmins, Warren Thomas, A. Whitney Brown, Jimmy Tingle, Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo…. The list of American humorists who have drawn the attention of audiences to social and political issues of their day is a long one.

And their contributions should not be minimized. Forests have been felled to provide paper for books about Bob Dylan, and properly so. His music influenced an entire generation. But humorists like those named above also have swayed people, and it’s my interest to see that their work is given the same attention. It is art to craft a joke. It is transcendent art to craft a joke that enlightens as it entertains. That artistry should be given its due.

To that end, I hope to post at least once a week about issues in the world of comedy. Sometimes more than once as the muse, or the news, compels it. I plan on commenting on the goings on in the intersection of news and comedy, post interviews with comedians and comedy writers, and with any luck at all, occasionally be funny on my own.

I hope you’ll join me. Could be fun.