How Hillary got her groove back.

Posted March 6, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Analysis, comedy, Hollywood, Journalism, News, politics, Review, Satire, SNL, The Colbert Report, the daily show, TV

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

________________________

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.

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

Posted March 2, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Analysis, Journalism, News, Satire, truth, TV, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

————————-

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.

Posted March 1, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Analysis, bill hicks, Crimmins, joke thieves, writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

______________

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.

In re: Hicks

Posted February 27, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Artistry, bill hicks, Memorial, truth

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted February 26, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Analysis, Hollywood, Review, Satire, TV

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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.

___________

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.

Bill Hicks, 1961-1994

Posted February 24, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: Artistry, bill hicks, History, Memorial, Satire, truth

Tags:

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

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

I want to talk about Hicks the artist.

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

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

Try this bit on for size:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On “The History of the Joke”

Posted February 22, 2008 by Dave Saldana
Categories: History, Jokes, Review, truth, TV

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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: