During last week’s episode of “Real Time”, one of Bill Maher‘s guests Esai Morales made reference to a documentary called “American Drug War”, which asserts a government interest in the distribution of drugs. Maher quickly called it a conspiracy theory. (And it does sound like one, when its so briefly described.)
A regular viewer of Maher show is Kevin Booth, the director of “American Drug War,” who’s a little bothered by having his work being just dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Booth was also close with the late Bill Hicks, producing much of his early albums and recording many of his live shows. He’s continued his involvement with comedy through his production company Sacred Cow, working with such Hicks-worthy successors as Doug Stanhope and Joe Rogan.
The drug war is a little outside the scope of my site here, but Booth made the point that I’m going to focus on here. The director said this in an email to his Sacred Cow members about Maher’s dismissal of the documentary:
I wonder how many people remember Bill Maher’s famous routine that got him fired from ABC -
“Who is the real coward ? when the United States is launching missiles from floating Iron Islands 200 miles away”
as first being performed by non other then Bill Hicks back in 1992
But maybe thats just “Conspiracy Theory”
I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of Hicks’ work, so I can’t verify exactly what album/performance Bill said this at. But what’s interesting in that it’s probably not necessarily a punchline, but an applause line. A piece of clapter in Tina Fey‘s vernacular. It kind of opens up another target as well as a defense of joke stealing.
Can making a simple observation of the truth as one sees it really be called stealing? Good comics are supposed to see things as they are, can you fault two for sizing things up exactly the same way? When I think about it, I don’t necessarily think of the punchline of the infamous Carlos Mencia‘s “Who going to build the wall?” joke stealing controversy as necessarily funny inherently. People would say the same thing without it being a joke. It’s an insight, a truth. Jokes are exaggeration - stealing an exaggeration seems far more egregious to me ( as evidenced by the subsequent reveal of the Cosby vs. Mencia son playing football routine).
In a sense when a comic is pointing out a repressed fact like these, they’re getting a laugh because of the tension of how we can’t acknowledge that truth in polite society. But everyone who’s hears it and laughs it, has thought the same thing - even subconsciously. Can you slam a comic for saying the unsaid thing second?
By the by, Booth says he really does like Maher’s show, describing himself as a “huge fan” of Bill Maher. He even mentions he just bitching a little to get his attention, obviously to get the documentary seen by more eyes. (It currently plays on Showtime.)
I haven’t seen American Drug War, but I did what Esai suggested and searched YouTube for it. From what I’ve seen, it’s an interesting treatment of the subject, more focusing on the “Prison Industrial Complex” and the corporate interest in the drug war in the clips I’ve viewed. Plus, it’s got comics - besides the afforementioned Rogan - there’s also a lengthy interview with Tommy Chong and a conversation with Tom Rhodes about Amsterdam and its drug laws. They’re in there, doing what good comedians do - telling truths that go unsaid.
“Laughing with Hitler” is a fascinating documentary on what happened to comedy and humor in Nazi Germany prior to and during the war. It looks at both at the jokes from comedians and the jokes told by the general public, which are a strange barometer for the truth when public expression is extremely circumspect.
Comedians deny their jokes have any power, but the fear oppressive regimes have of them shows that dictators certainly don’t believe that. But the diminished power of a joke is partially, thankfully, because of the society we live in today. One phrase in the documentary that rings especially true to me:
“In those days, you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went whhoong. And today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes ting.”
(Video found via Smashing Telly)
Last week was fueled with speculation about who would play Barack Obama on Saturday Night Live’s first post strike show. After some speculation about some rising African American comics joining the show specifically to play Obama, when Saturday rolled around, Fred Armisen was in the role.
From my eye, Armisen didn’t really seem to have Obama down, but I don’t think that’s his fault. The problem is there’s no good (or lame) joke about Obama yet - where Obama is the target.
During the 2000 campaign, the New York Times ran a fascinating article about how late night jokes contribute to the perception of a candidate. The title: “The Stiff Guy vs. the Dumb Guy.” Essentially a candidate gets at least one word - often exactly one word - which becomes their comedic persona. They become a kind of a shorthand for jokes that time-presseed monologue writers can be sure will land.
Because comedy writers don’t have that shorthand yet for Obama, there’s no comedic trait to attribute to a Barack Obama impression. Once a trait is found, that influences everything from the mannerisms. Hillary Clinton has a comedic trait - that’s she’s false. It makes a building block for Amy Poehler‘s spot-on replication of Hillary’s laughter. (It’s arguably the chicken and the egg here - Hillary’s laugh helped create the “false” trait.)
It can be argued that the writers strike helped Obama. For a whole month he was in the public eye without comedy writers searching for a joke to make about the candidate (the few writers who were working for Letterman and Fuergeson didn’t find one during that time either).
If you scour a month of the Late Night Joke Archive, you won’t find a single joke in there where Obama is the target. He’s mentioned in the jokes, but they’re mostly to make a joke about other candidates… often Hillary Clinton. Hillary has lots of comedic hooks and you can find many of them in the archive. Besides the notions that she’s false, there’s regular jabs at her femininity with increasingly stale pantsuit jokes. She’s also the butt of Bill Clinton as Lothario jokes. On rare occasions a joke will be so thinly veiled that the writers might as well used the word “bitch.” John McCain also already has at least one of his comedic traits defined - his advanced age and the senility that comes with it.
Not that Obama will be hurt by whatever comedic trait he’s labeled with. Sometimes this shorthand joke label can help. I believe that joking about Bush being stupid helped him, minimizing expectations of his debate performances and playing into his black or white worldview. It decreased public awareness that the man was a shrewd politician and made him more of a regular guy. A caricature of arrogance and ego would have done far more on target description, although it’s obviously a harder position to tell jokes from. But it was fertile territory against at least of his opponents. Gore contented with jokes about arrogance in 2000, thanks to missteps that got turned into the fertile comic territory “I invented the Internet.”
Obama has demonstrated some political jiu-jitsu with attacks, but eventually in public life he will be pined down and given a comedic trait. What will it be and how will that perception affect his candidacy? Perhaps the argument shouldn’t be that he hasn’t been vetted, but that he hasn’t been satirized.
There’s been quite a few parodies of the Tom Cruise Scientology Video, but the following one by Eugene Mirman is the latest and, I think, one of the best. Kind of proof that no topic can be beaten into the ground if you have the right take on it. Particularly wonderful is how Mirman takes the little detail about Cruise saying that Scientologists are the only one who can help at car accidents and makes it into an obsession that runs throughout.
It’s interesting as Mike Huckabee became ascendant on the Republican side, that this video from the Canadian comedy show This Hour Has 22 Minutes surfaced. It features Arkansas governor Huckabee, among other Little Rock residents, congratulating our northern neighbor on its “National Igloo.” Here’s the bit:
Obviously no real traction here considering Huckabee handily won Iowa. One of the things comedians constantly assert is how what they do doesn’t necessarily have an impact. It’s practically a mantra by Jon Stewart when people ask about the weight of The Daily Show on politics. It’s part of the natural defense mechanism for comedians - saying “it’s a joke” gives you the room to work. Why cut out the flexibility that let you tell you joke in the first place?
Even so, people attribute some impact on a well placed barb or prank. A recent piece in the New Yorker on the Australian elections talked about why prime minister John Howard was not out-going prime minister John Howard. It related that Howard was “humiliated” at the APEC summit by the sketch group Chasers, which was “supposed to be the zenith of Howard’s premiership.” You may remember this bit as it was pretty ballsy - a prank where the team dressed up one of their own as Osama Bin Laden and put him in a motorcade to see how far into security they could penetrate. Here’s the televised result:
The story doesn’t necessarily put an excessive amount of weight on the event but it’s interesting how much humor is attributed to driving the discourse. Many viewers are doubtless thrilled at the return of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report tonight, even if they are disappointed by having to cross the Writers Guild pickets line. Feeling the absence of their voices during the primaries is something they value, a perspective that helps.
But in what way? I don’t think humor and comedy rarely have conversion abilities - it doesn’t necessarily change minds. But it’s ability to bind and connect further those who already see things one way, that’s the balm for when things don’t go your way and the fire to press your advantage. In other words, people who are laughing at Huckabee unaware that there’s no igloo are already not voting for him.
How much effect do you think humor and comedy will have on these year’s presidential campaign?
A little while back, a blogger for CBS News talked about “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” being no substitute for regular news. It’s been funny to watch the mainstream media clamor to attach meaning to both shows - despite any disavowals from Jon Stewart & Co. It’s a little natural that perhaps a little professional jealousy will rise up to try and tear down what they themselves have built up.
CBS’s blogger takes issue with “Daily” and “Colbert” as news sources because when viewers were tested on knowledge of news facts they knew less than most of other news sources, using the same Pew Research Center study that many use to prove the satire shows’ importance. One of the things that he neglect to mention is that the people who get their news from comedy show is taken in the most broad way possible. They’re counting SNL, Leno and Letterman in there. Though there’s definitely political jokes in there, there’s very little news content. So to dismiss the informative qualities of “The Daily Show” when it’s paired with many less-than-news sources isn’t very fair. I’m pretty sure that if you test Daily Show or Colbert viewers on their own, the results would be much higher on the scale.
Particularly because, as far as news content, The Daily Show was studied by Indiana University and found to be as substantive as regular network news. And that is why some people probably can and do use it as a sources. I’ve said this before, but for a joke to land, you can’t let the spin and the falsehood be the set-up. You have to use facts. Truth. So much of network news has been simply presentation without critical thinking, which allows the spin to drag their news content down.
The CBS post closes with by trying to parallel the Daily Show with dessert after a meal of regular news, but with the amount of spin and obfuscation that’s seeping into our news, what the Daily Show really is is the menu that tells you what the hell you just ate.
Mike Judge’s much-mistreated comedy Idiocracy was released on DVD this week. As you might recall, Idiocracy’s distributor Fox only released the film in a few cities without a trailer or any advertising. It’s pretty much the kind of treatment a film only gets if it’s irredeemably awful. I’ve seen the film, and though it’s not Office Space, it’s definitely far better than many of the comedies that saw release last year (or in 2005, which is when Idiocracy was originally slated). It’s a smart comedy about stupidity and hence, it treads a very fine line, with gags that could be appreciated for the wrong reasons as well as the right. It’s a finely pointed satire that many I know have described as feeling like a documentary. The film is rough around the edges at some points, but there is a lot to enjoy if you look past where Fox obviously tightened its purse strings before the film’s completition. But seeing it will say much more than I can. Here’s the first couple minutes of the film:
If you’ve enjoyed any of Judge’s work in the past, particularly if you ever felt you appreciated Beavis and Butthead a bit differently from others, you should see this film. Rent it. And if you like it, buy it. You can find it on bittorrent quite easily now of course. But this is the type of film you should give a little bit of money to, just to show Fox how wrong they were.