Posted tagged ‘stephen colbert’

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.

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How Hillary got her groove back.

March 6, 2008

I study how political humor influences public sentiment– not exactly astrophysics or cancer research, I know. I understand that some of my colleagues have a tough time believing I can watch The Daily Show and call it work. But evidence is building that I’m onto something here.

It’s axiomatic today to say late-night comedy shows are impacting the presidential campaign, but the reverse is equally true and no less troubling. The relationship between political satire and the political process is always fluid, but their current dynamic is something that Jonathan Swift couldn’t come up with on his best day. How could he imagine a world where the mockers and the mocked make a mockery of mockery?

Satire works like this: the satirist exposes the foibles and fallacies of the powerful in government and society to humble them in the eyes of the people and inspire change. Today, the satirists and the powerful are increasingly parts of a whole. Like the news media before them, the comics have lost their measured detachment from their subjects, and have become one with the Machine.

The resurgent political fortunes of Hillary Clinton are highly informative.

In its first show after returning from the writers strike, Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch premised on the press being in the bag for Barack Obama. It was a smile, but hardly the hard-hitting stuff you’d expect from the standard bearer for late-night comedy, especially after a three-month break.

It hit a little harder when guest host and former head writer Tina Fey called out Clinton’s critics, particularly the closet misogynists among them.

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Senator Clinton referenced the show at a debate in Cleveland, complaining about her treatment by the moderators.

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It didn’t go over well in the room, coming off more than a little whiny. But it had legs, as they say in the business… Were the media really giving Senator Obama a high profile and smooth ride down the campaign trail?

Studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggest that the answer is yes… and no.

According to a PEJ report from Feb. 18-24, the week before the first SNL skit, Obama had the most media coverage of any candidate from any party. That was also true in the next week’s survey. But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops.

Editor & Publisher magazine reports that the coverage in the week that followed Fey’s post-modern battle cry and the debate sketch put far more scrutiny on Obama, and took a jaundiced view of his treatment by the media. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported that Obama’s media corps was noticeably more aggressive after Saturday Night Live got done mocking them.

SNL has drawn some fire for what many say is actually an anti-Obama/pro-Clinton thread in their material. It has led the pundits to call out the show, accusing it of carrying water for the GOP. And it’s led SNL to respond– via writer Jim Downey– by writing more sketches about Clinton’s hard road through the primaries. And it’s led comedy writers to write about the comedy writers writing about Clinton. It got so bad that Obama reportedly joked about asking producer Lorne Michaels to even it up a bit.

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Senator Clinton’s wins this week might be partially attributable to SNL‘s treatment… or perhaps to her reaching out to the very same comedy audience.

This past weekend, she appeared on SNL to “rebut” another sketch lambasting the media’s coverage of Senator Obama. It was self-deprecating and gentle, not as funny as you’d hope but about as funny as you’d expect.

She followed that up with a satellite appearance on The Daily Show on Monday. Over the two segments with Jon Stewart, Clinton showed a sense of humor, tremendous grasp of and quickness with the issues, and was simply personable.

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Is it possible that those late night comedy forays helped her get some mojo back for Tuesday’s wins? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen. As an alternative campaigning strategy, it wouldn’t even be a first.

Remember, her husband Bill took an iron grip on the youth vote in 1992 when he played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. He cemented that position with two appearances in candidate forums on MTV News.

True, it led to the embarrassing “boxers or briefs” debacle, which still ranks high among the dumbest moments in campaign history. But it also gave Clinton a committed core of young voters, who helped him win 43 percent of the vote in that three-way race—just enough to put him in the White House.

For his part, Stewart responded Tuesday by mocking his Monday interview with Clinton.

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It’s a symbiosis of comedy and politics: the jokes about candidates now bring the candidates to the jokers, who then joke about the candidates coming to the jokers, and the candidates joke about being joked about by the jokers. And everybody has a good laugh.

And then they look over the numbers, from the pollsters and the Nielsens.

Will Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show help put Hillary or Barack or even John McCain over the top in November? The frequency with which the candidates have appeared on late-night comedies suggests no one is willing to bet the answer is “No.”

This may signal a whole new collision of meta-jokes and meta-politics. Remember Stewart and Colbert and Conan O’Brien “feuding” over who created Mike Huckabee? That was a mildly amusing strike-dodging time waster, but it wasn’t completely divorced from the truth.

In an interview more than a year ago, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) told me that arm wrestling with Colbert (she says he cheated) attracted more attention than 14 years’ legislative work. “I’ve gotten more calls from around the country about appearing on that show than from anything I’ve done,” she said.

And here’s something that pretty much guarantees we’ll be seeing more politicos cozying up to comics: according to a UC San Diego political scientist, it helps raise campaign cash.

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That should be enough to make Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) rethink his directive to new members of Congress to avoid Colbert.

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A note on the video: I’m sorry that some of the clips are very long and have some extraneous material. Apparently, NBC takes its copyright very seriously and won’t allow its online materials to be edited. Endeavor to persevere.

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

March 2, 2008

Hillary Clinton’s appearance on last night’s Saturday Night Live was pretty funny. Not “ha ha” funny, but….

After yet another sketch about how much the news media supposedly love Barack Obama, which Clinton unwisely noted in a debate last week, the Senator had her chance to reply.

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Lionel Beehner on the Huffington Post had a pretty sharply-worded critique of the performance. I don’t agree 100% with everything he says, but I’ll go along with the gist of it. It was a so-so idea, so-so delivery and a so-so bit. SNL should be doing better. They had plenty of time to gear up for this.

Nevertheless, it was nice to see Sen. Clinton smiling and seeming very genuine (and I recognize the irony of that last statement). Although it may be too late to save her presidential aspirations, her SNL appearance, paired with a scheduled stop at The Daily Show on Monday night, could do a lot to help her shed the cold, phony persona that her critics, right and left, have cast upon her.

By now it’s a common ploy: get on a comedy show, tell a few jokes at your own expense, make a few statements about your policy ideas, and come off as a regular guy (or gal) with hopes and ideas for America, and dodge the label of “the stiff” or “the snob” or “the doofus” or whatever one-dimensional caricature the press have pasted on you.

John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, John McCain, Mike Huckabee (who ought to have a SAG card by now, but for his anti-union ways), Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Obama, Clinton…. they’ve all appeared on one or more of the late-night comedy shows. Bill Clinton helped create the process with his 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, and the candidate forums he did with MTV News.

Say what you will about Bill Clinton and MTV, the 1992 presidential election had the highest participation by young voters to that date, and they overwhelmingly supported Clinton, who won the three-way race with 43% of the vote.

I wrote my Master’s Thesis on the impact of MTV News and its “Choose or Lose” coverage in ’92, arguing that while their coverage may not have been perfect (and there is good reason to believe that it was anything but), it was serving a young audience with engaging political coverage targeted at young people’s interests and issues. And, by the way, those old men in suits at the networks who lament young people’s presumed disinterest in news not only fail, but don’t even try to appeal to that audience.

The last several years, I have been making a similar argument about The Daily Show and other topical comedy shows. In 2004, the Pew Research Center published a study that said what most journalism professors already knew, that a lot of young people get their news somewhere other than traditional sources. Hardly shocking. But one datum in the report drew a lot of interest: one-fifth of young people get their news from TV comedy shows.

There was great hue-and-cry from the news business about the dwindling TV news ratings and shrinking newspaper circulations, blaming The Daily Show for distracting young news consumers from real news and calling Jon Stewart “a political pied piper for countless college kids and recent grads.” Even as Stewart was lauded by progressives, and many journalism professionals and academics (including me), he was also pilloried, as later critics cited other studies to argue that The Daily Show breeds cynicism, apathy and intellectual complacency.

As to the cynicism claims, even the study’s authors argued that that was a very narrow reading of the survey results. And the charge of complacency is based on a fictitious “straw man” proto-dope student created by an obviously self-righteous, humorless prig.

In fact, many additional studies have shown that TDS viewers are actually more likely to be politically active and are better educated and informed than most people (including viewers of Bill O’Reilly, who once called Stewart’s audience a bunch of “stoned slackers“). It’s no surprise, considering that pound-for-pound TDS provides as much news content as the networks do, according to Indiana University researcher Julia Fox. And TDS viewers are less likely to be subjected to gossipy non-news about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears than incisive criticism of their overblown non-news coverage.

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Prof. Geoffrey Baym argues that TDS and its ilk are a new focal point in political reporting, where news and entertainment meet and collude, creating a new dynamic, an experiment in journalism.

I agree, and would further posit that TDS is, quite simply, news. It is what I call “Real Fake News.”

In presenting her comedy, the satirist must present the background facts in order to assure that the audience understands the premise. That context lays the groundwork for the punchline, which draws attention to a fallacy in the person or policy being satirized. Without context, analysis and exposition of facts, there is no joke.

Those exact same elements are required to do good journalism. In my estimation, it makes no difference that the satirist is looking to get a laugh. As long as she presents the situation fairly and reasonably, even as she sets the pretext to mock it, she is completing the same task as a journalist.

This is not a particularly popular position, but it’s an argument I’m willing to take up.

My reasoning is simple and pragmatic: I would love it if my students all read a daily newspaper and watched good television news and documentaries and devoured all the finest newsmagazines. They don’t. But if they can get informed by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Amy Poehler, Seth Myers, or any other comic who deals fairly and accurately with real issues, I am not going to look that gift horse in the mouth.

Like those network suits in the ’90s who blamed MTV for their audience woes, plenty of big-J journalists are happy to point an accusatory finger at Jon Stewart. But he and comics like him aren’t taking anything from the networks that they ever had claim to anyway.

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Here’s the entire SNL show open, including the sketch. I thought Will Forte’s Brian Williams impression was spot-on, though Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama inexplicably sounded a little more like Yogi Bear than Obama. See for yourself.

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Also, apropos of nothing at all, Bill Maher is so much better now that he’s got his writers back. Glad to see it.