Archive for the ‘Review’ category

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.

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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.

What if they had an awards show and only 32 million people showed up?

February 26, 2008

Sunday night’s three-plus hour Academy Awards show is widely considered a flop because it captured an unusually small audience, a paltry 32 million, the smallest since the Nielsen folks started tracking such things. I battle mightily to keep 15 students awake for 90 minutes, but I suspect Hollywood has higher standards.

Jon Stewart’s performance as Oscars host has been mildly praised, which is just about right. He wasn’t as sharp as his fans (and I am certainly one of them) would hope, but this isn’t really that kind of a gig. I don’t know precisely what the movement was expecting Stewart to do, but the Academy isn’t paying for top-shelf, incisive satire and hard-edged comedy. It’s more “Tonight Show” than “Def Comedy Jam.”

Which doesn’t mean it was without some controversy. Stewart’s joke on Barack Obama, pointing out that his middle name is Hussein and his last name rhymes with Osama, is a tired, hacky bit by now, but it was enough to raise Keith Olbermann’s eyebrow. Or at least his producer’s. Check out this exchange with Patton Oswalt from last night’s “Countdown” on MSNBC (caveat: it’s a little long, but worth it):

Olbermann makes a good point. If Ann Coulter’s gotten around to making a “joke” like this, the shark was jumped long, long ago. Watching that gag, and I use that term advisedly, I muttered aloud, “The writers came back for that? Really?” The joke about John McCain’s “100 years in Iraq” pledge was not much better.

At the end of the day, the tepid response is appropriate to a tepid performance. But that’s the gig. You don’t throw fastballs to a slow-pitch crowd.

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The latter part of the Olbermann/Oswalt tete-a-tete, addressing the new “Saturday Night Live” episode that aired this weekend, was also interesting. The opening sketch, based on the presumption that the news media are all in the bag for Obama, set the tone for the evening. It seemed to be about a half-step behind the times, and not especially insightful.

Perhaps it’s that the weekly program can’t keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” doing four shows a week, and any half-bright teenager with a webcam and a modem able to put out a parody piece on YouTube and go global in 10 minutes. MSNBC’s Victor Balta makes a rather deft analogy, comparing TV satire’s old guard and vanguard to the the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

I was looking forward to the show, if for no other reason than the return of former SNL head writer Tina Fey, whom I love (LOVE!), as guest host. But even her presence was something of a bummer. Besides her brief return to the anchor desk on “Weekend Update,” where — all due respect– Seth Myers is not quite as sharp, her appearances in sketches were negligible. The line that “Bitches get stuff done” was a nice, edgy dig at the misogyny that seems to live, at least on the fringe, in many criticisms of Hillary Clinton. Other than that, she was not showcased well.

Unlike Oswalt, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Fred Armisen’s Obama impersonation. I don’t buy into the notion that you need a person of color to play a person of color (Darrell Hammond does a rock-solid Jesse Jackson, e.g.), though it’s probably a good idea. But Armisen’s caricature was more of a cigar-store Indian than Obama’s preacher-like cadence, too wooden to capture the rhythm that defines Obama’s speeches.

Still, Dana Carvey’s George Bush the Elder was a gross cartoon to begin with, but developed into the yardstick by which presidential parodies are now measured. So if all goes well in the Obama camp, Armisen might have time to nail the mannerisms and really own the character.

On “The History of the Joke”

February 22, 2008

I was really looking forward to the History Channel’s “The History of the Joke.” Set up the TiVo for it and everything. Watched it with the remote in hand so I could back it up and watch its key points over and over.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed. But maybe that’s just me. I go a little wonky for humor.

It didn’t suffer from lack of star power. Beside the host, Lewis Black, the panoply of comic stars who contributed is nothing to sneeze at: Dave Attell, Shelley Berman, George Carlin, Kathy Griffin, Robert Klein, George Lopez, Kathleen Madigan, Patton Oswalt, Penn & Teller, Bobby Slayton, Suzanne Westenhoefer, George Wallace, and Robin Williams. And those are just the A-listers. The History Channel website boasts “over 50 stand-up comedians working today,” and I can’t argue with that.

The arc of the program, dotted throughout with one-liners and quips from the comics illustrating the narrative points, pretty simply broke down the joke and the art of telling it into their component elements, and a few questions for the ages: improvisation; are joke-tellers born or made?; can women be funny?; working “blue”; untouchable topics; bombing; hecklers; pain; truth; and finally, what is laughter?

Add to that Black’s interstitial exchanges with Prof. Richard Wiseman of University of Hertfordshire, who claims to have isolated the world’s funniest joke from a library of more that 40,000, as well as a historical timeline tracing comedy writing from Sparta circa 7th Century BC ‘til now, and you’ve got a packed show.

Part of the difficulty I had with the show was that it relied on comics to tell jokes. But does anyone really do that anymore? The era of “gags” as a form of stand-up comedy is quaint in its nostalgia, but seems like a waste of all that assembled talent. Having George Carlin and Robin Williams tell one-liners is like taking Tiger Woods mini-golfing. Sure, he can do it, but is that really what you want to see him do with a golfball?

Which is not to say that the show was pointless. A lot of clearly well-informed and deeply considered ideas were shared. Jimmy Carr, erstwhile host of Comedy Central’s game show “Distraction,” gave about as succinct and erudite a definition of comedy as I’ve ever heard: “All jokes are the sudden revelation of a previously concealed fact.”

Okay. That sounds about right. Every twist, misdirection and pun is based on getting the audience moving in one direction and then jerking them another. That element of surprise is the pay off. As Carlin noted, “The more it’s a complete 90-degree turn from where we were going, the happier I am.”

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.

George Lopez spoke of his childhood of poverty as the impetus for his humor, joking to deflect the taunts of other kids. Others, including Robert Kelly, echoed the sentiment, with which I suspect many more can empathize.

The part that most interested me is the issue of truth in comedy. Much of my research is based on the notion that the joke exposes the truth in ways that merely “telling” the truth cannot. Sometimes the truth is too painful, too distasteful, or too dangerous, and only by making it funny can you make it palatable.

Some comics are driven to tell their own sort of truth, and take pains to add something to the public conversation. Some comics, however, say the job is to get laughs and nothing more. How would the show deal with that complex and philosophically volatile discussion?

“The heart of any great joke is truth,” Black said. Finding that truth within yourself and being honest to it, Greg Fitzsimmons said, is the key. Failing to do so, said Mitch Fatel, is why comics die onstage.

All of which is fair and, not coincidentally, honest assessment. But so much more could be said. I felt a little shorted.

And that is my beef with the whole program. Unsure of itself, it tried to do too much, ending up doing little.

Was it really the history of the joke? Kind of. But Jim Holt’s article “Punch Line: the history of jokes and those who collect them,” published April 2004 in The New Yorker (from which much of the historical content appears to have been lifted), does a far better and more thorough job.

Was it a search for the world’s funniest joke, as Black kept saying? If so, the program never presented it, other than Prof. Wiseman’s offering, which Black dismissed out of hand.

Was it an analysis of humor as a social construct? There was a bit of that, as well, with Penn Jillette presenting what I found a very compelling paradox of humor: “Comedy is a very intellectual form that’s supposed to get an involuntary reaction.” Interesting… but not deeply plumbed.

And that about captures it. It was interesting. Not terribly thought-provoking or engaging, but interesting, and pretty funny.

Ultimately, the line of the night belonged to the great Shelley Berman. Reflecting on the recent death of a loved one, he spoke of the visceral bond of laughter and sadness. “When you cry, when you laugh, you’ve been to an extreme,” he said. “And thank god for those moments in our lives.”

I can’t do any better than that.

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Just for kicks, here’s this:

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.