Posted tagged ‘george carlin’

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 An as-yet unpublished study* by Indiana University professor Julia R. Fox (whose research in 2006 found that, minute-for-minute, The Daily Show has just as much substantive content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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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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I wish it were under better circumstances….

June 23, 2008

George Carlin is dead, and I don’t feel so good myself….

Far greater minds than mine can tell you how important Carlin was to social satire, and far lesser minds than mine tried today.

My job requires me to watch MSNBC pretty much constantly, and they’ve been revisiting Carlin’s death all day. They talked about how his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine was his most famous, of course. And they talked about how it was responsible for a Supreme Court decision. Aside from those facts and Carlin’s age, they got very little right.

The case stemmed from his “Seven Words” routine being played on a Pacifica Radio station in New York, where a man heard it while listening to the radio with his son. The father complained to the FCC, and the case ended up in the Supreme Court. One of the blabbing heads on MSNBC– I don’t recall which and honestly don’t care to try– said, “It actually ended up as a loss for Carlin, because the Court said you can’t say those words on television.”

Well, duh. Genius insight from precisely the type of vapid, witless person Carlin spent his career mocking. (And actually, you can say “piss” now. “Tits” sometimes, but rarely.)

Carlin was only tangentially connected to the Supreme Court case. He was not a party to it. The case is FCC v. Pacifica Foundation— no Carlin involved. Ergo, he could neither win nor lose. And furthermore, the case would not be considered a loss for free speech types, among whom you could count Carlin.

The Court held that the FCC had the authority to regulate decency on the public airwaves. That much is true. The Court reasoned that broadcast comes into the home and can be readily understood by children who might not be able to read the same in a book or see it in a movie theater, so the broadcaster may be regulated. However, regulation to the extent that the entire audience is always limited to receiving material acceptable for children was not acceptable to the Court. Thus, the “safe harbor” hours, from 10pm to 6am, wherein materials of a more adult nature can be aired, came to be.

The distinctions drawn by the Court color media issues that continue to this day. Cable television is less regulated than broadcast, because, unlike broadcast signals, you must seek it out and invite it into your home. (Forget for the moment that you need to buy a television or radio to receive the broadcast signal, and each is equipped with a device that allows you to tune in or tune out a particular signal….) The Internet is, to this point, treated more like cable than broadcast, though that could change.

So, yes, George Carlin’s filthy mouth did a lot of wonderful things for you and me. We get to talk to each other like grow-ups after 10pm, and we can hear Gordon Ramsey curse out diffident chefs on BBC America. And his routine will be forever recorded in the annals of the Supreme Court of the United States.

He was also a very funny guy. And he’ll be missed.

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Referencing myself here, kinda: Carlin on his motivation for going into comedy, from the History Channel’s “History of the Joke”:

“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.”

Yes, he was.

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An $8.5 Billion opening act.

I crashed the ACLU’s Membership Conference in Washington, DC, a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to say hi to the headliner, Greg Proops. I’ve been a fan of his for a good while, but I had a reason other than hero worship to see him. He was best friends with my dear friend and former client Warren Thomas.

When Warren passed back in ’05, it came as quite a shock to many of us, despite his being very ill for several years. There were memorials for him in NYC, where he was working for Air America Radio and doing a regular gig at Rocky Sullivan’s “Satire for Sanity” show, at the Punchline in his hometown of San Francisco in conjunction with “Comedy Day” in Golden Gate Park, and at the Improv in West Hollywood. It says a lot about Warren that there were three events held in his memory. It also says a lot that some comedy greats attended. Barry Crimmins, who gave a most moving eulogy in New York and made the trip to San Francisco (it was my great privilege to read Barry’s eulogy at the Improv, as Barry couldn’t be there), Sue Murphy, Rick Overton, Robin Williams, Debi and Will Durst, Janeane Garofalo, A. Whitney Brown, Barry Sobel, Randy Kagan, David Feldman, Bob Rubin, Tom Rhodes, Martin Olson, Kurt Weitzmann and many, many others. I got to meet many of them for the first time as we grieved over our lost friend.

But I didn’t get to meet Proops. While he was inside the Punchline keeping things going, I was outside trying to help January, Warren’s widow, keep it together.

So I grabbed him by the elbow at the Washington Convention Center and introduced myself: “I was Warren Thomas’s attorney just before he died.” The look on his face was at first a bit surprised, and then became very warm. We shared a few brief words, and then parted so he could do his set. As he walked away, he said, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Warren.” “Same here,” I said.

So Proops went up and did a very entertaining set, drawing laughs from the assembled lefties who keep the ACLU in paperclips and notepads. (He drew one shocked gasp when he suggested that Dick Cheney’s use of “hogwash” as an interjection was befitting of someone who strides to his horsedrawn carriage on a stairway made of Negroes. “Come on, ACLU. It’s called satire,” he chided.)

One of those donors was Proops’s lead-in. The speechmaker who preceded Proops was a multi-billionaire you may have heard of: George Soros. Not bad for a warm-up.

On “The History of the Joke”

February 22, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carlin also spoke of what drove him to pursue comedy, an internalized need to prove himself. As a high school drop-out, he wanted to recapture the praise of an aunt who told him as a child, “Oh, you’re so clever.”

“That’s all I really want people to say. ‘Isn’t he cute, isn’t he clever, isn’t he funny, isn’t he smart,’” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t do any better than that.

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Just for kicks, here’s this: