Posted tagged ‘bill hicks’

Funny thing about satire…..

July 21, 2008

Satire is a lot like a chainsaw. Wielded by skillful hands, it can turn a stump into a beautiful sculpture. Used appropriately, it can cut down a mighty, but diseased, oak. But in the hands of an inept or careless user, it can cause mayhem like a Quentin Tarantino remake of a Sam Peckinpah film.

The July 21 New Yorker magazine cover probably falls into the last category. The collection of caricatures, aggregating the smears and distortions leveled by critics of Sen. Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, is not particularly funny and has already caused foreseeable harm, and not to its intended target. Rather than cutting down the smear merchants, it created another diversion from the real issues of the campaign, where Obama’s focus (and presumably the media’s) ought to be.

“What I think it does is hold up a mirror to the prejudice and dark imaginings about Barack Obama’s — both Obamas’ — past, and their politics,” New Yorker editor David Remnick explained to the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar. “I can’t speak for anyone else’s interpretations, all I can say is that it combines a number of images that have been propagated, not by everyone on the right but by some, about Obama’s supposed ‘lack of patriotism’ or his being ‘soft on terrorism’ or the idiotic notion that somehow Michelle Obama is the second coming of the Weathermen or most violent Black Panthers.”

It’s axiomatic in comedy to say that if you have to explain it, it’s not funny (although some argue that a stupid audience negates the axiom, but there it is). Nowhere is this clearer than in satire, which relies on an underlying truth as premise for the punchline/comeuppance. If the truth of the matter is obscured, or ignored altogether, the audience is left to guess at what is being satirized. Any good comic knows that removing such variables can make the difference between killing and dying onstage.

Accepting Remnick’s explanation that the intent was satirical, it simply wasn’t funny. Wingnuts are smearing Obama, and this is what it would look like if the smears were true. Get it?  I get it. Everybody gets it. We’re not laughing because it’s a weak joke– a  groaner at best.

Worse than being unfunny, there’s a distinct possibility that the “satirical” cover does not counter, but rather reinforces, the smears against the Obamas. An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content as the network news) finds that humor makes the audience more receptive to serious information. Specifically, Fox and her researchers found negative physiological reactions indicating aversion when watching network news, while watching The Daily Show provoked favorable reactions, indicating receptiveness to information.

Just to be clear, I asked Prof. Fox, does that mean that the “just kidding” defense doesn’t actually excuse the nasty accusation, but can in fact make it stick? Her response: “Exactly.”

Yes, the New Yorker cover was just a joke. Not a particularly good one, though, and a collective shrug was probably all it deserved. But this is an election year, and there’s a 24-hour news hole to fill. And in light of Prof. Fox’s research, there’s nothing funny about that.

The similarly tepid responses by the Obama and McCain campaigns— that the cover was tasteless and offensive—probably could have ended the discussion. But, appropriately enough for satire, at least two levels of irony came into play and magnified the problem. First, as Jon Stewart ably pointed out, the news media leapt at the opportunity to rehash the charges against the cartoon ad absurdum and vent their mawkish outrage, while also claiming with spitting indignation that the Obama camp was also outraged. Never mind that there was precious little evidence for this beyond a mildly worded quote from spokesman Bill Burton; the media machine was running of its own accord.

Then, after two days of studious silence, Sen. Obama finally did address the matter on July 15, and only at the prompting of Larry King. He said, quite reasonably, that the American people have more to worry about than a cartoon. Naturally, this set off some critics. The next day on Hardball, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post absurdly said Obama’s response shows “thinness of skin.” LA Times blogger Andrew Malcolm argued somewhat paradoxically that Obama’s response was both too late and unnecessary. In Malcolm’s view, apparently, Obama should have taken swifter inaction.

The ongoing deconstruction of the cover and reaction to it, says Prof. Fox, is a double-edged sword. Her research suggests that those who find the New Yorker cover distasteful, which presumably includes Obama supporters and those likely to give him a fair shake come election time, probably won’t give it a second thought because it isn’t funny. That’s the good news. The bad news is, the aftermath could be worse than the cover itself.

“Visual processing is relatively automatic, whereas audio/verbal processing is more of a controlled process,” Fox wrote in response to my emailed questions. “So the numerous news reports criticizing the possible negative effects of such imagery may be serving to reinforce those negative effects rather than to dispel them.”

And isn’t that funny? Not “ha ha” funny, of course, but “It could only happen to a Democrat” funny. Even when the media purport to rush to his defense, they do more harm than good.

____________________________________________

I asked Gary Huck, the very talented and funny cartoonist for United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), with whom I used to work, his thoughts on the issue. His response:

“Often cartoonists communicate in reverse, and this is a perfect example. The cartoonist cannot be concerned, nor defend the intent of their art. In this case the intent is clear: it’s on the cover of the f#$*9ing New Yorker. The intent is not slander but satire. But remove it from the context and what do you have? An impassioned debate about the image and what it means, and one thing it means is the cartoonist DID ONE HELL OF A GOOD JOB! A DEFINING MOMENT IN THIS CAMPAIGN, AN IMAGE THAT WILL BE REPRINTED FOR A VERY LONG TIME AS HISTORY REVISITS THE HISTORICAL! That is what I seek each time I sit down to draw…period.”

Gary’s take seems similar to my discussion of Borat— if it makes people think, it’s probably doing some good.

________________________________

SATIRE ALERT!

South Carolina state senator Kevin Bryant put this up on his website:

Bryant told Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney: “You know, blogs are for satire and whatnot and, um, that’s why it’s up. It’s similar to the New Yorker picture. Maybe that’s why this has gotten so much attention, because of that thing that came out a couple days ago.”

So there you have it. Any stupid, jackass, racist thing you can imagine is now satire.

That high-pitched buzzing sound you hear is Swift, Twain, Bruce, Carlin and Hicks spinning in their graves.

_____________________________

* The published abstract for the study can be found here: Fox, J. R., Wilson, B., Sahin, V., Sanders-Jackson, A., Koloen, G., & Gao, Y. (2007). No Joke: Motivated Cognition While Viewing The Daily Show and Broadcast Network Newscasts. Psychophysiology, 44(supplement), S94.

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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?

______________

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

February 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Hicks, 1961-1994

February 24, 2008

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

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

I want to talk about Hicks the artist.

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

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

Try this bit on for size:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing frogs?

February 16, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you’ll join me. Could be fun.