Archive for the ‘TV’ category

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.

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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.”

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.

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.

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: