Posted tagged ‘truth’

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.

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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.

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: