Archive for the ‘writing’ 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.”

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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.

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.

Quotes, frogs and blogs.

March 1, 2008

Some of you might have gotten here by way of link from the comic’s comic. A few days ago, its author, Sean McCarthy, posted on that site about the similarity between the name of this blog and Dead-Frog.com, a site run by Todd Jackson. Both Todd and I reference the line by E.B. White quoted above, a well-known quip that frequently gets tossed around when people talk about humor.

Sean’s tone seemed a bit sharper than the situation called for, so I sent him an email asking him to dial it back a little. I explained myself, pointing out that I had Googled the phrase “killing frogs,” and nobody was using it in connection with a comedy blog. I hadn’t seen nor heard of Todd’s site before I picked the name, and White’s humor quote has been part of the public sphere since 1941, when he published his book on the subject, A Subtreasury of American Humor. As an academic, being accused of plagiarism is a very big deal, even if it’s light-hearted. Sean was kind enough to post an explanation, and I appreciate that.

I also contacted Todd, and assured him that I have no desire or intention to step on his toes. He has earned a good reputation with his website, and he deserves to keep it. The site is very impressive and very professional, with Todd’s musings, industry news, reviews, discussion forums, and ads for comedy goods and services. It’s no geek-with-a-modem-and-an-ax-to-grind blog.

Which is where I come in. My interest in this blog is purely academic. Ironically, I started it to avoid having my ideas usurped in the academic field. I study satire as a cultural phenomenon and talk publicly about my research quite a bit, so getting my words into print somewhere is the only way I can be assured of getting proper credit for ideas I’ve developed. It’s kind of childish, but that’s academia for you.

Stylistically and substantively, Todd’s website and this blog could hardly be more different. All that links them is a shared general topic and the White quote. I think reasonable folks would agree, anyone who would confuse Todd’s site with this little dog-and-pony show has no business using the internet unsupervised.

Nevertheless, Todd explained that he earns a living with his site, which he started in June of 2004, and asked if I might consider changing the name of this blog.  He, understandably, wants to keep the cache he’s built up with his site, and thought there might be some leakage with my site.

I gave it a lot of thought. He asked nicely, not making demands or threats and being reasonable, and I don’t want to take money out of another writer’s pocket. (For the record, I don’t intend or expect to make one red cent from these postings.) Still, many of my friends in the comedy world and the academic world have been kind enough to link to this blog, and I’ve gotten a fair amount of traffic. I didn’t want to have to contact all of them again and ask them to change the links that they had been kind enough to put up in the first place. I think the look and content of our sites are very, very different.  And I really like the White quote.

So I called my old pal Crimmins. Barry Crimmins has been around the comedy world for more than 35 years, and as the founder of Boston’s Ding Ho comedy club was notorious for his merciless approach to joke thieves. I figured he would help me clear up my thinking.

Barry’s short answer was, “Fuck it. Change it. What do you care? Who are these people? Why do you have to deal with this?” (If you know Barry, it’s always best to picture him aggravatedly rubbing his forehead when you read his quotes. It just feels right.)

I explained to him the situation and assured him I wanted to do the right thing, but that I was having a philosophical discussion with myself about what, exactly, the right thing was. “Dead frog” is different from “killing frogs.” A professional, commercial website is different from a pissant blog. Neither of us could legitimately claim intellectual right to a quote that’s been part of the public conversation for nearly 70 years.

As we talked, Crimmins wanted to see the sites we were discussing. I told him about the original post on the comic’s comic. He asked, “Which one?” Googling the phrase “comics comic” had turned up a page of variants, including comicscomicsmag.blogspot.com, which Barry had confused with thecomicscomic.typepad.com. Easy mistake, I suppose, with coincidentally similar-named blogs….

He then wanted to see Todd’s site, so I told him to go to “dead frog dot com.” Which he did. “What is this? What is he talking about?” he asked incredulously. I asked, “Dead hyphen frog dot com?” “No,” says he, “deadfrog dot com.”

A little research finds that deadfrog.com was created in 1999. Not to be confused with deadfrog.net (created 1996), deadfrog.us (copyright 2004), and certainly not deadfrogrecords.com (created 2001) or johnny-come-lately deadfrogbrewery.com (created 2006).  The point is not to cast any aspersions on Todd, but to show that there are a lot of site names more similar to his than mine.  So the accusation (which did not come from Todd) was, in my opinion, unfair and gratuitous.

I’ve now had a few days to discuss this with Crimmins and some other comics and writers whose opinions I value. I want to give Todd a fair shake. I’m not here to ride anybody’s coattails or pick anyone’s pocket.

The controversy over joke-jacking (well reported by Larry Getlen at Radar) and who owns a bit, and whether you can own a premise, Cook vs. C.K., Mencia vs. Rogan, Leary vs. Hicks, etc., etc., all play into my thinking. I don’t want to be the guy who lifted Todd’s “bit.”

At the same time, I have strong feelings about free speech and intellectual property and who owns words and ideas and concepts and what happens when you surrender your rights. If I change my blog name, am I tacitly accepting Todd’s “ownership” of the White quote? And what does it mean if I do? So my interest in this is bigger than merely changing the name or not. Clearly, I’m thinking too much about this.

What do you think?

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Update 03/05/08: In the end, I decided to keep the name.  I have no hard feelings about this situation or against Todd, who was a gentleman throughout this whole procedure, which was not fun for either of us I’m sure.  I respect Todd and the things he does on his website, and I recommend you read it regularly.  We’re doing different things, and he does his thing well.  I’m just giving my pissant two cents on the goings on that affect my research interest.  You ask me what’s happening in the world of comedy, I’m going to send you to Todd at Dead-Frog.com.