The Reason Online has a wonderful transcription of a talk on free speech with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Much in the past has been made of the idea of South Park Republicans, but Matt & Trey assert in this talk that they’re not really comfortable with any label for their political positions. The only reason they seem to be even willing to partially take on the label of Libertarian is due to the prompting of the moderator. (None of this is to say that they don’t cozy up to one side or the other. Conservative Andrew Sullivan posted today an e-mail rave about his book “The Conservative Soul” from Matt Stone.)
For a show that’s often been described as provocative, it’s incredible how levelheaded and even fair South Park is. Much of the talk focuses on religion and, of course, the frustrations of attempted censorship by both the Catholic League and Scientologists in the past year. But an episode of Mormonism is very much a stand-out on how incredibly gracious South Park can be in religious satire. Though it essentially describes the origins of the Mormon faith dumb, it firmly admits “so what?” because Mormons are, on the whole, kind and generous people. Satire can have a single minded view of its targets, sometimes even to point of setting up straw men. The fact that Matt and Trey can savage a target and then admit to the grace within it is a marvel.
With politics, South Park finds their middle ground by piercing the excesses on both sides of an argument. I remember once Jon Stewart saying that nobody ever takes the streets yelling “Let’s all be reasonable.” But it occurs to me the South Park, and comedy is general, are the model of political expression for those of us who don’t think either side has a monopoly on truth. So much is made of humor being exclusively a tool for the left, but the left hasn’t been ascendant enough during comedy booms to be a target. Satire’s a weapon that can and should be used on both sides. It’s a balance beam that Matt & Trey continue to walk upon and one I hope that more of our current satirists decide they should tread.
Filed Under Satire
The New York Times this week had a story about an Iraqi comedy news program called “Hurry Up, He’s Dead.” I had seen a story earlier on the show, but this is the first time I’d actually bothered to dig in and read up on it.
It’s a interesting concept: essentially the main character is the last Iraqi alive in the year 2017, and the rest of the show is a flashback of newscasts showing how it got to be that way. One details that caught my eye about the description was that rather than going for emulating a serious newscast, the producers went with a very broad, almost clown-like figure in a big wig to do all the parts for the show. It sounds like a far cry from the personas of Stewart, Maher or Colbert (well, maybe not Colbert).
I haven’t seen the program - unfortunately there’s no clips available on the web (if anybody finds one please send pass it on). So I have no first hand knowledge about how well such a broad approach works - and even if I did - I don’t know Arabic, so I wouldn’t necessarily get it all. But I think it’s interesting that when attempting political satire in this country, so much of it must be delivered in a suit, in a wry and “smart” manner.
But the roots of satire are so much in exaggeration and caricature. In some ways, I almost imagine our current approach to political humor may be less effective simply because the stance of today’s satirists is designed to preach to the converted. The outrage is pushed through a cool exterior that sometimes shows more cynicism than passion.
But with something like “Hurry Up, He’s Dead” - again, conjecture - because the actor Saad Khalifa goes so big and broad it can connect with more people, because the comic isn’t portraying himself as “smart” but is rather in the mud and morass with the people. Highlighting the most cartoonish of features to make serious points with jokes that aren’t wonky, but are rather coming from what the people are feeling. I don’t know if at all accurate in describing “Hurry Up, He’s Dead” but does political comedy have to be presented smart? Is a whole audience missed by being droll rather than a troll?
Filed Under Satire
At Sunday’s New Yorker festival, Jon Stewart actually had to deny that he was going to run for President in 2008, describing it as a “sign of how sad people are” about the state of the government and the country. He also scoffed at the idea that anybody gets their news from The Daily Show.
But a recent Indiana University project has recently determined The Daily Show to be as substantive as any network news program. That doesn’t mean that the Daily Show is better than news shows, but that news shows are as bad as a comedy show. The impression that people get their news from The Daily Show might be augmented by the fact that network news had signifigant amounts of “hype than substance.” Hype by definition is designed to hide substance, whereas if you going to be funny - you have to use the real facts as setups to your material. Often the Daily Show is using the hype as the setup and the facts as the punchlines - no wonder it comes out more substanative. It’s actually building it’s material from the substance rather than showing substance and hype at equal weight.
The Daily Show only comes off with more meaning because the Mainstream Media is letting facts get obscured by talking points far too often. At the same New Yorker festival, Jon Stewart also said:
It’s not a dodge for us to say, ‘We’re a comedy program.’ We don’t have to do their [the MSM’s] job too. It’s like asking a movie critic, ‘Why don’t YOU make a movie?’ [We are a comedy show,] and that to me is enough.
In an earlier post, I talked about how sincerity was becoming the new mode in comedy. I think people on both sides of the aisle because of their agendas, mistake exactly what Stewart & Colbert are sincere about. They don’t think either side necessarily has a monopoly on the truth - perhaps one side is certainly more truthinees right now. But what they are sincere about is their anger about how dishonest our government and media, on all levels, is being with us. They don’t want to run the country or do real reporting, they’re mirroring our own disappointment partially in hope that our leaders and reporters will start doing their jobs. And start making theirs harder.
Related: An Imagined Jon Stewart Presidency.
Filed Under Satire
This month’s Utne Reader has a cover story entitled “Want to Know What’s Really Going on? Ask a Comic”, focusing on the upsurge in satire during President Bush’s second term.
One of the interesting parts of the article is how the writer David Schimke tries to distinguish the current crop of comics from their predecessors. The example he gives is Stephen Colbert and his post-White House Correspondents Dinner appearance on David Letterman. He claims that Colbert made Letterman “as uncomfortable as he had the president’s apologists.” To Schimke, Letterman doesn’t seem to get Colbert for whatever reason - including the very dubious idea that Letterman recognizes that his comic persona is of the past.
I’ve found the appearance on YouTube, and I don’t really see Letterman being uncomfortable here. True, there’s not a lot of riffing with Colbert, but what I see is someone who’s grown comfortable enough as a performer (well, as comfortable as Letterman can be) to play straight man for a little while. He’s helping Colbert look good. There’s even a little joy from Letterman in not seeing one of Colbert’s punchlines coming.
Also considering Colbert was on the show to promote the Strangers with Candy movie, a movie that Letterman’s Worldwide Pants produced, I think it’s fair to say Letterman gets Colbert’s brand of humor.
Besides it’s not important how Letterman handles the Bill O’Reilly parody, but rather the real Bill O’Reilly. This is what discomfort looks like. (A great little detail: notice that Letterman stirs O’Reilly’s drink with one of his pencils prior to bringing out the Fox commentator.)
The Boston Globe ran a rather ridiculous op-ed today entitled “Why Jon Stewart isn’t funny”. The argument isn’t so much about Jon’s mirth-creating abilities, but rather the effect of “The Daily Show” on younger people who could become public servants.
Using a composite (a la Nick Sylvester), the writer describes a recent graduate, progressive and “Daily Show” viewer who goes into financial services rather than beginning their careers working for, I suppose, local or state government. The idea is that watching “The Daily Show” makes talented minds less likely to engage in our political process because they see it so full of idiots that they feel better than it.
Completely ludicrous. There’s all kinds of paths to political change, and, considering the amount of money required to win offices these days, working in financial services might make you in a better position to run for office than a career politico (see Bloomberg). There’s going to be no loss of brilliant minds to politics because of “The Daily Show.” The show is not responsible for making politics entertainment; it’s the 24-hour news channels which show flacks aiming their talking points at each other and then chuckling when the other gets a good one in. They’ve made it a game and “The Daily Show” points that out regularily and not from some ironic “aloofness”. The show sublimates the anger under it’s fake news persona, but it’s outraged at the level of spin and the lack of the truth from political leaders. Both it and “The Colbert Report” make viewers more engaged in politics simply by making it clear you’re not the only one who feels so frustrated by our current political system. Pointing out what’s broken doesn’t mean that nobody will want to fix it; it makes them want to fix it more.
Filed Under Satire
Today there was a four page advertising insert in the NY Times where Kazakhstan proclaims it’s modern infastructure and attitudes, all in a refutation of the jokes made by the character of Borat. No explicit reference to Borat is made in the supplement, but the country’s leaders are stinging from his hosting of the European MTV Video Awards. There’s even been some indication they want to sue. (Are there any links out there to his European VMA performance? I’d love to see for myself what’s got them so outraged - considering he beat them up for two seasons on HBO before that.)
Borat’s true alias, Sasha Baron Cohen, isn’t afraid of any threats and is having some fun with this. Below, a transcript of Borat’s earlier video response:
“Jagshemash. In response to Ashykbayev’s comments, I like to state I have no connection with Mr. Cohen and fully support my government’s decision to sue this Jew.
“Since the 2003 (unintelligible) reforms, Kazakhstan is as civilized as any other country in the world. Women can now travel on inside of bus, homosexuals no longer have to wear blue hats and age of consent has been raised to 8 years old.
“Please, I invite you to come to Kazakhstan, where we have incredible natural resources, hard-working labor and some of the cleanest prostitutes in all of central Asia. Goodbye. Chenque.”
UPDATE: Some quotes from Borat’s hosting of the MTV Europe VMA’s. And watch Borat promos from European VMA website (scroll on the right). And thanks to Matt for a more accurate transcript of Borat’s response.
Why TV Funhouse didn’t last confused me. Though its connecting puppet sketches didn’t really work, everything else, the short films and animated parodies, was pretty spot-on. After witnessing MTV2’s Wonder Showzen, I got what TV Funhouse lacked - a firm commitment to its target, children’s television.
The original FOX pilot for TV Funhouse was a full-on Bozo parody with kids in the studio for most of the insanity - including a segment where the camera sweeps through an audience to find a winning child only for it to stop on one tyke and announce “it’s not you!” From that, it’s safe to say, creator Robert Smigel was pretty committed to using the conventions of kid’s show. It was Comedy Central that got nervous (including switching one segment from “Porn to Kids” to “Porn for Everyone”).
Wonder Showzen is a kid’s show in all but title and, of course, content. Kids sing the main theme song and litter nearly all of the dark segments including an investigative report entitled “Beat Kids,” each word labeled across a fist. The show is brilliant - committed to be as horrific as possible with blood poring from dying trees and pictures of dead animals set to chants of children yelling “funny” or “not funny.” The ominous warning that begins every act includes eerie music and, if you listen, screams.
Some bits are ridiculous - bugging everyday people on the street with a puppet just makes the puppeteers look like assholes. But even then, they know it, and target people who deserve to be bothered like impolite cell phone users. The most recent, a visit to find out why people are angry in Harlem was even a good demonstration of how bad race relations still are.
The show even knows when it goes over the edge and calls itself on it. One cartoon featuring a song about celebrating differences includes “ooga-booga” African tribesmen and “Ching Chong” Chinamen is followed by a six-year-old saying, with perfect inflection, “Oh, I get it. Your racism is ironic.” The show is childlike clarity in form, but it has adult ambivalence and pain underlay every part.
It’s a shame it’s buried someplace like MTV2, but that might be the only reason why we’re seeing it at all. If you don’t get the channel, check out some segments here (wmv) or a bootleg of the original pilot here. And for the brave, check out the creators’ fantastically trippy site.