The Unexpurgated Version

November 3, 2010

I was invited to participate in a New York Times “Room for Debate” online roundtable prior to the Stewart/Colbert rally. I was told initially to submit a few paragraphs (and given less than 24 hours to come up with something). Upon submitting my piece, I was told to trim it to about 1/3 the length, and quick, quick, quick! Naturally, some of the nuance was left on the cutting-room floor.

Here, then, is the longer version:

There has already been a good deal of pre-emptive tut-tutting about the Stewart/Colbert rally, so I want to say at the outset that I am all for it, and think that the intentions behind it are, if not exactly pure (it’s partly a publicity stunt, of course), then mostly good. And despite Stewart’s somewhat disingenuous denials, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” is absolutely an “answer” to Beck’s rally, which absolutely deserves—nay, demands—a satirical answer. Why have satire, and why live in a society where we (rightly) cherish the right to satirize, if not to respond to such provocations? It’s no leap of logic to see that one of the unstated goals of holding this rally is to outdraw Beck’s 87,000 attendees, thus “proving” that, despite all the attention he and the Tea Partiers have gotten in the mainstream press, that they represent a fringe phenomenon—which would be a welcome corrective to the media narrative that has developed around them.

When any group of Americans uses their freedoms of speech and assembly to express ideas with which we disagree, the most appropriate, honorable, and patriotic way to respond is to use those same freedoms to express our opposition. Answering one rally with another is wholly appropriate; it’s the American thing to do. Nor do I think that the humorous tone diminishes this exercise of the First Amendment; any country that venerates Twain as its greatest writer and Lincoln as its greatest leader ought to realize that a sense of humor is not incompatible with a sense of serious purpose.

As to this rally’s purpose: though Stewart’s stated aim of “restoring sanity” is obviously a bit of comic grandiosity, I think he is basically sincere in stating this as the rally’s theme. It’s hyperbole, but it’s not cynicism. I don’t think Stewart is himself a cynical person—anyone who has watched his interviews can see that he takes ideas and issues seriously—nor is cynicism the basis of the kind of satire The Daily Show and The Colbert Report deal in.

There is a tendency, in covering the role of comedy in our political discussion, to simply equate mockery with trivialization and cynicism, but not all mockery is trivial, or cynical. Some of it is. The kind of political humor that is the stock in trade of network late-night shows—the Johnny Carson, “equal-opportunity offender” model which Leno, Letterman, Conan O’Brien and even Saturday Night Live still mostly follow; which treats politics as a silly game played by a set of roughly interchangeable fools and charlatans; which goes for quick, broad jokes that focus on personalities more than policies—that’s cynical. It precedes from a cynical premise, and in large doses (which we’ve surely been getting since late-night shows started multiplying in the early 90s), it does, indeed, encourage cynicism. The bottom line of this kind of humor is, “they’re all crooks, it doesn’t matter, why bother, why care?” And it’s easy to forget this, especially with the present focus on Stewart and Colbert, but that kind of political humor is still far more prevalent than the very different kind you can see for four hours a week on Comedy Central: Leno’s ratings are down, but he still reaches millions more viewers than Stewart or Colbert.

I refer to that type of humor—“George W. Bush is such a ninny, Bill Clinton is such a horndog, Al Gore is a robot, John McCain is so old”—as pseudo-satire. It seems political, because it mentions politicians, and uses the day’s headlines as a jumping off point, but it’s actually dismissive of politics. It’s scrupulously bi-partisan (or non-partisan) and anti-political, and it is so by design. It not only suggests that political engagement is futile, it insists that it is. And though that may seem like a radical premise, it’s actually very safe: if it’s all just silly, there’s no reason for anyone to get very upset about it.

Colbert and Daily Show viewers, as a general rule, take politics more seriously than that. These shows traffic in genuine satire (not always, but most of the time). You have to care about what’s going on in order to get anything out of them. Fans of Stewart and Colbert watch with the feeling that if you couldn’t laugh about what they’re saying, you would have to cry. That essential, underlying appreciation of the seriousness of the subject—the consequential nature of politics—is not compatible with cynicism.

That sense of consequence, and the passion that arises from that commitment, is the common link between Stewart/Colbert viewers and followers of pundits like Beck. But though Beck, on the one hand, and Stewart/Colbert, on the other, do represent constituencies that are likely to support different sets of politicians, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say that they are surrogates for those politicians. They are, rather, alternative representatives for their viewing constituencies. They give voice to audiences that feel, justifiably or not, voiceless. Elected officials purportedly represent the people who vote for them, but media figures can “represent” in a purer way. (Especially in this age of narrowcasting. Neither Fox News nor the Comedy Central shows have audiences large enough to have kept them on the air in the network era.)

They are comparable, I suppose, to politicians in very ideologically homogeneous districts, like some of the more viable Tea Party candidates: their appeal is narrow, but powerful, because their circumstances allow them to succeed without compromising or tempering their remarks. On the other hand, if you’re a politician from a “purple” state, a president or presidential candidate, or a member of Congress who actually wants to get something passed, you’re going to have to compromise, and you’re going to have to speak more carefully. By a similar token, if you’re a “mainstream” journalist or a network comedian, you can’t succeed playing it “pure” to a narrow, but fervent, constituency.

Having said that, I think the Stewart’s position is in danger of becoming untenable, in a way that Beck’s—or even Colbert’s—is not. For one thing, as Stewart’s influence grows, his insistence that he is “just a comedian” becomes harder to accept. You can’t go on Crossfire, refuse to be funny, accuse the hosts of “hurting America,” get the show canceled, and then go back to insisting you’re “just a comedian.” Stewart deserves credit for those occasions upon which he exposes truths where news media fear to tread, but you can’t both influence the political discussion and claim to be outside of it—not without coming across as disingenuous.

The other problem I see for Stewart is this whole commitment to “sanity.” Not that I’m not pro-sanity, but satire, like contemporary punditry, originates in a sense of outrage, and is essentially a negative form of address. It’s about what you are against, not what you are for. That’s why The Daily Show really came into its own during the Bush years: politically-aware Americans who thought that both the country and the news media had gone crazy with the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, and the other excesses of the W. Bush administration, found an oasis of sanity on Comedy Central, and turned Stewart into a force to be reckoned with, whether he sought that or not.

But being Pro-Sanity is not as viable, for a satirist, as being Anti- (specific kinds of) Crazy. The “Pro-Sanity” premise, and the very structure of The Daily Show, force Stewart to keep one foot in the “equal-opportunity offender” camp. The correspondents say crazy things, the politicians and media figures he shows clips of say crazy things, and he stares wide-eyed, into the camera, looking shocked. He’s the sane referee, “they” are the crazy idealogues. He is the surrogate for the audience, but this assumes the audience also aspires to neutrality, which is, like cynicism, a form of disengagement. Though he may spend more time worrying about the jokers to his right than the clowns to his left, he is still stuck in the middle, with Us.

But now that the real-world situation is somewhat different, and a president who is more palatable to the average Daily Show viewer is in office, that “impartial referee” position pushes Stewart dangerously close to Jay Leno, “equal-opportunity offender” territory. When he was interviewing Obama the other night, Stewart criticized the health care act for being too compromised—but you can’t really be for “moderation” and then attack things on the basis of their being too compromised and, in a sense, too bipartisan. (I don’t mean this to be a defense of the bill; what I’m examining is the viability of Stewart’s rhetorical position.) If your over-arching commitment is to be criticize whatever is going on and whoever is in office from a standpoint of reasonableness and moderation, you’re going to run into trouble coming up with a satisfactory response to the frustrations that arise from an excess of reasonableness and moderation.

Fortunately for Stewart, Beck and the Tea Party candidates still provide plenty of outright madness to contend with. Still, I find it painful to watch The Daily Show engage in calculated acts of “balance”—stooping so low, at one point, as to do an Obama/teleprompter joke that would barely have passed muster on Fox’s late, unlamented Half-Hour News Hour—so that Stewart can continue to deny that he is for anything other than “sanity.” I don’t think Stewart should “declare” himself as a committed liberal, or turn The Daily Show into agitprop—that would probably kill the comedy—but I do wonder if he hasn’t painted himself into a bit of a corner.

Ironically, Colbert—whose whole shtick is built on saying the opposite of what he really believes—runs less risk of being forced into a kind of cynical insincerity. Since he doesn’t play “himself”—a sane, “nice-guy” audience surrogate—he doesn’t have to go through any of those “equal-opportunity offender” motions. And he can’t get by, like Stewart too often does, on being cute and likable. (For all the sharpness The Daily Show sometimes musters, it’s amazing how much camera-time Stewart eats up mugging and giggling.) The Colbert Report has revived the tradition of Swift, without much taint of the spirit of Leno. It’s partly a function of the writing (it’s much more of a through-written show than Stewart’s, which gets a lot of mileage from taped pieces featuring rubes saying the darnedest things), but it’s largely due to the central conceit of Colbert’s right-wing blowhard persona. The fact that he operates from the perspective of this character allows Colbert and his writers to analyze political language at a much deeper level of complexity than even the unusually-literate-for-TV Daily Show can manage. More to the point, it represents a step away from the “I’m just a comedian, and this is all a joke” foundation that keeps Stewart tied to a more timid tradition.

I’m certainly more in favor of Restoring Sanity than Keeping Fear Alive, but I think Colbert’s position offers richer and more sustainable satirical possibilities. We could use a dose of Sanity, but as history suggests it is unlikely to prevail (and that Fear will out), we will definitely continue to need satire that stays on the attack.

Here is a link to the version that appeared on the Times website: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/10/28/when-does-a-fake-political-rally-turn-real/the-opposite-of-cynicism

More Trouble for Who, Now?

October 1, 2010

I really didn’t think I was going to post on this blog ever again, but this is perhaps the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen.

The real story here, as anyone who is not a reporter out to make his mark in the mainstream media by taking a contrarian angle can see, is that Rick Sanchez, well-known to everybody who has ever seen him on TV as a big-mouthed idiot, opened his big mouth and said something idiotic.  But that’s not “man bites dog” enough for Time.

Stewart is as much of an innocent bystander to Sanchez’s stupidity and bigotry as Jeffrey Smuzinick was to Sanchez’s drunk driving, when Sanchez ran him over and drove away (and got off scott-free) back in 1990–undoubtedly due to the machinations of the International Cuban-American Cabal (note: sarcasm) that controls the US Justice system.

But by all means, keep an eye on this Nate Jones. With this kind of ability to call black white and to spin a news story 180 degrees from its factual basis, he will probably soon have his own cable news show.

Un-Presidented

March 20, 2009
"How come you don't do 'Iron Jay' anymore? That bit was hilarious!"

"How come you don't do 'Iron Jay' anymore? That bit was hilarious!"

I don’t have a lot to say about President Obama’s Tonight Show appearance, but there’ll never be a better excuse for taking this blog out of mothballs.

Clearly, this is an attempt by Obama to get around what his predecessor infamously referred to as the “filter”–that is, the mainstream news media–in order to speak directly to “the people.” Given how awful the news media has become, I think this is perfectly defensible. Leno let Obama speak at some length, and his questions, while not especially insightful, were no more trivial than those typically heard in The Situation Room, or from the other side of the Meet the Press desk. Leno’s no great shakes as an interviewer, but he knew to keep the focus on  his interviewee, and to stay on topic. Until the last, light-hearted segment, it was a relatively substantive interview.

It was not, however, a challenging one (though Jay deserves credit for poking the Pres. when he appeared to be overselling Geithner’s responsibility for the AIG mess).  It would be interesting to see how Obama would do with Jon Stewart or David Letterman. But that, of course, would defeat the other, less legitimate reason for “reaching out” via late-night TV: it’s not much of a risk. Obama going on Leno is hardly the same as Bush appearing on FOX News, but the probability of tough questioning is about the same–albeit for different reasons. (I’m not suggesting Leno’s “in the tank” for Obama, as Rupert’s crew was for Bush–just that Leno can be counted on to defer to Big Stars, whether from showbiz or politics, in a way that neither Stewart nor Letterman can.)

On the “Special Olympics” gaffe: Jaime Wieman has a good take (I love how he calls ABC jackass Jake Tapper the network’s “senior trivia correspondent”). It was unclear to me whether the joke was merely a self-deprecating comment on that still-low 129 score, or a characterization of Leno’s condescending applause (watch again, and see what you think). If it was the latter, that’s a little more impressive demonstration of quick-wittedness, and wickedness, in the sense of betraying a darker sensibility.

In any event, it was pretty inexcusable. I support Obama, and think he has used humor well, for the most part, but you just don’t do jokes about the Special Olympics on The Tonight Show. Especially if you’re President of the United States.

Early to Bed

December 13, 2008
Leno poses with one of his 16,784 (est.) cars

Leno poses with one of his 16,784 (est.) cars

Much has already been said about Jay Leno’s move to prime time. Jaime Weinman and Mark Evanier have some interesting insights into what NBC might be thinking, though for my money, political blogger Attaturk had the best one-line reaction: “Paddy Chayevsky was an optimist.”

I will confess that I find Leno hard to watch. And although I can certainly identify things that annoy me—the predictability of his punchlines, his Arsenio-like insincerity with guests, the faux-macho bluster that has crept into his persona over the last few years, his blatant stylistic stealing from Letterman, and especially his creepy and borderline racist on-camera relationship with bandleader/toady Kevin “Heh-heh-heh” Eubanks—I can’t put my finger on the cause of this visceral dislike.

I almost wish I liked him better. He is, after all, the late-night ratings champ—has been for years. I feel like a snob for disliking him. I respect his work ethic, and the fact that he’s honoring the Carson legacy by doing a long, topical monologue chock-full of well-crafted (if predictable) topical jokes—jokes that aren’t “meta”-jokes, but jokes that are actually about what they’re about. I’d like to think that’s not a lost art.

I’ll even confess to actually enjoying “Jay-Walking”—which a lot of Leno detractors point to as the nadir of Lenoism. I actually think some of the criticism of this bit—”it’s hypocritical to expose the stupidity of the average American, while playing to an audience made up of similarly low-information, ‘average’ viewers”—itself smacks of a complicated kind of elitism. It’s okay to say Leno’s viewers are stupid, but terrible of him to go out exposing their stupidity. I don’t know; I think it’s a kind of Public Service.

That said, the move to 10 o’clock (9 Central) is a kind of watershed moment. Part of the reason late-night has been the place for “political” humor is the assumption that the audience was more adult and “sophisticated.” In the old days, Johnny hosted a grown-up cocktail party after the Cleaver kids had gone to bed. The subject matter discussed, and the whole tone of The Tonight Show had a different feel than the “for young-and-old” paradigm of Prime Time.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. More than that, it’s extremely dated: the “family-friendliness” of Prime Time was never all that solidly established, and waxed and waned for decades before being definitively abandoned in recent years. Nothing could be less wholesome than “Survivor”-style reality shows, which have for some time been common in what was once the “Family Hour.” And that’s just the networks. I think MTV now reserves that time slot for The Meth-Addicted Prostitute ‘n’ Backstabbing Sociopath Super Team-Up Product-Placement Hour.

But competitive sluttery and bug-eating contests are one thing; politics is something else. The day after NBC’s big announcement, Countdown‘s Keith Olbermann (looking a little embarrassed about participating in this boundary-blurring moment of newsertainment corporate synergy) asked Leno about breaking political humor’s time barrier. In face, he asked twice, but Leno more or less ducked the question, offering little more than the lame and self-serving “observation” that “people are going to bed earlier” nowadays (something about the economy forcing more people to take public transportation, and therefore to get up an hour earlier, blah, blah, blah…for a multi-millionaire who owns an airplane hanger full of cars, Jay’s got his finger on the pulse of his viewers’ commuting habits).

In fact, the further mainstreaming of Leno-style topical comedy is yet another sign of how commonplace the cynical notion that politics is just a big, bipartisan clown show has become. It’s the premise not only of traditional, “equal opportunity offender” topical comedy, but also the rhetorical home base of newschat, on cable and Sunday morning network shows. Why not have the comedic version of this in prime time? The “serious” version is running 24-hours a day on CNN.

The good news—or the glimmer of hope, anyway—is that network TV thinking is almost always a step or two behind the times. And the times, they really could be a-changing. I cling to the hope that a lot of people are fed up with what passes for political journalism, political comedy, and political “sophistication” (i.e., utter cynicism). While Leno’s invasion of Prime Time may look like the establishment of a new beachhead for this kind of thinking, it could end up being a Bridge Too Far. After all, people who want political humor that is actually humorous, and has something to say about politics, aren’t going to bed earlier—they’re watching Stewart and Colbert.

An Early Thanksgiving, and Some Leftovers

November 5, 2008

thanksgivingI am elated (and relieved) by the outcome of the election, and even, dare I say, a little bit hopeful about this country’s immediate future. Thanks voters, and thank God!

I’m as tired of thinking about politics as I imagine most of you are, which is why I’ve let a few recent things slide without posting. Here’s a few links worth a look, though.

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It Always Comes Down to Jocks vs. Nerds

November 1, 2008

I’ve been griping about Jon Stewart’s McCain-love for some time now, and Thursday night he finally came out and said that if McCain had won the GOP’s nomination in 2000, he would have voted for him, instead of Gore. (The video‘s here, but be warned: you have to watch several minutes of Bill Kristol, love-child of Goebbels and The Joker, to hear the quote.)

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Comedy and “Balance”

October 29, 2008

Today’s installment of NPR’s Fresh Air featured an interview with SNL head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers. He came across as an articulate and pleasant fellow, generous in his praise for colleague Tina Fey, boss Lorne Michaels, and recent guest-star Sarah Palin — and as an uninspired and workman-like creator of mass-market comedy. Seth Meyers is to comedy what an Applebee’s entree is to food: reliably palatable, but nothing memorable.

On further reflection, that’s pretty unfair to Applebee’s. Maybe he’s more like a Denny’s Grand Slam: not great, but readily available and unlikely to make you actually vomit.

Two things from the interview jumped out at me as worthy of comment. First, he called Amy Poehler’s delivery of the Sarah Palin rap (I’m paraphrasing, but this is close) “one of the best performances in the history of Saturday Night Live.”

Okay, maybe the Denny’s comparison is too generous. How about Jack in the Box: usually okay, but with occasional e. coli poisoning.

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Can Comedy “Humanize” Anybody?

October 23, 2008

Sarah Palin’s cameo on SNL doesn’t seem to have moved the needle very much, on way or the other, in terms of the public’s perception of the GOP VP candidate. To borrow a very nice turn of phrase from New Hampshire journalist/blogger Gina Carbone, I don’t think it will turn out to be her “saxophone moment.” It was probably both too little (she didn’t risk very much in her two rather staid spots on the show) and too late for that.

Still, she came off reasonably well: she looked like a good sport, didn’t trip over her lines, seemed to be in on all the jokes, and generally performed like the former broadcast professional she is (given her train-wreck performance in unscripted interviews, it’s easy to forget she was once a TV sportscaster — as long as she’s got a teleprompter, she’s fine). Indeed, Lorne Michaels said afterward that Palin could easily have “her own show” — a compliment, though perhaps a back-handed one. (Though if, as Mark Evanier speculates, Palin has given up on succeeding Cheney and is instead gunning to be the next Ann Coulter, I guess she passed the audition.)

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Expertise We Can Believe In

October 22, 2008

Long time, no post. I’ll have something more substantial to say soon, but I wanted to pass along this snippet from an Onion AV Club interview with Daily Show “resident expert John Hodgman:

The thing that I find so compelling is that right now Obama’s whole campaign strategy is simply [to] speak to people as though they were adults and trust that the truth of the world situation will be evident to them. For him to be attacked as a friend of a terrorist, for “palling” around with terrorists and to simply go back and say, “No, I’m not”? That was such a refreshing political moment. …I’m enchanted by the idea that a politician can come along and speak simply and clearly and truthfully to an electorate as though they are grown-ups and to feel the electorate respond to that. I’ve found that to be astonishing and especially now that we are in the end game and you see basically the McCain campaign has nothing left but conspiracy theories to throw at Obama. It really has become a fight between fantasy and reality, and although I don’t make my living off of it, I endorse reality.

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Just What this Sitcom Needs: A New Character

October 16, 2008

Joe "the Plumber"

Joe

Unlike Sarah Palin’s favorite Joe (Sixpack), Joe the Plumber is at least a real person.

He’s less of a real plumber, or at any rate not an average one: the average, journeyman clog-wrangler earns about $42 grand a year. Joe Wurzelbacher is worried about the possibility that he will soon climb into the $250K+ bracket which would, indeed, mean his income tax rate would go up under Obama’s plan. (Though he appears not to really understand the distinctions between personal income and the value of a business, to say nothing of the various deductions of which an entrepreneur can take advantage. Maybe Joe the Plumber needs to have a chat with Stu the Accountant.)

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Definition of Character

October 11, 2008

Time‘s James Poniewozik has some interesting insights into the possible impact of Tina Fey’s impression on the public’s impression of Sarah Palin. On the one hand, he notes, an impression that succeeds in capturing what the public sees in a candidate — as Fey’s Palin surely has — can be devastating because it is “shamanistic; it’s like owning a voodoo doll: capture your target’s soul, and you can make her dance just by waving your arms.” Fey “owns” Palin’s image in this sense.

And make no mistake, that is a powerful thing. Chevy Chase’s depiction of Gerald Ford, though it was not even really an impression — let alone a very convincing one like Fey’s Sarah Palin — had a huge claim on the public’s perception of the man, and probably contributed to his political downfall.

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SNL News, and More Republican Whining

October 9, 2008

Before I get to the whining, the New York Times’s Bill Carter, the Woodward and/or Bernstein of the late-night comedy beat, has an interesting article on how the election is boosting the fortunes of SNL and other shows. It includes some interesting ratings info, showing the Comedy Central shows’ strength in the 18-34 year-old male demographic.

Via Mark Evanier, news that tonight’s prime-time SNL special will be a weekly feature up until the election. For some reason, this news fills me with foreboding.

One reason is the fact that, in addition to the easy (if funny) shots they’ve been taking at Sarah Palin, SNL has, in the name of “balance,” also become one of the Mainstream Media’s principle conduits for the dissemination of bizarre, right-wing talking points. A case in point is the angry, tedious bailout sketch I wrote about a few days ago, which presented an Oliver Stone-like conspiracy theory that managed to blame everybody but the party that’s been running things for most of the last eight years for the current economic mess.

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Those Poor, Poor Hollywood Republicans

October 7, 2008

There’s a strange non-review of An American Carol in last week’s Time magazine. It begins like this:

There are the things you admit to in Hollywood–that you’ve been to rehab, that you wrecked your first marriage, that it took 12 people to pick out your outfit. And then there’s the thing you don’t admit to: that you vote Republican. “I preface it by saying I’ve been convicted of child molestation, and that breaks the ice,” says director David Zucker of sharing his political views with liberal-leaning colleagues. “Then being Republican doesn’t seem so bad to them.”

You can read the rest here. Non-review movie articles are certainly not unheard of in the newsweeklies, though they often accompany a review, which is not the case here. It is also noteworthy that this article does not carry the byline of Richard Corliss, Time‘s main movie guy.

I would suggest that Time‘s curious treatment of this right-wing satire tells us a lot about how effective conservative criticism has been in spooking the “MSM” (MainStream Media) into a posture of cowering deference. I suspect that Time wouldn’t dare review this movie — rather, they wouldn’t dare review it negatively; and since the consensus of those who have reviewed it seems to be that it stinks, that means it’s safer not to review it at all.

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George Soros? Really?

October 5, 2008

After the opening VP debate sketch, I was ready to offer SNL unqualified praise. I laughed a lot, and was impressed by Fey (her best performance as Palin yet), Sudeikis (not a spot-on impression of Biden, but a spirited performance that captured something of the essence of the man), and the writing. (Queen Latifah as Gwen Ifill was fine, too, though not all that Ifill-ish).

Unfortunately, I kept watching. More to the point, I kept watching long enough to see a sketch about the bailout bill that seemed to have been written by William Kristol, with an assist from Jonah Goldberg. Except not as funny.

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This Just In: Brian Williams is a Tool: UPDATED

October 4, 2008

UPDATE: A commentator has suggested Williams was merely comparing the two current candidates with Eisenhower and Kennedy, rather than mistakenly suggesting Eisenhower ran against Kennedy. I don’t think so, but you can watch for yourself, beginning at about the 3:22 mark. For a transcription, see below.

I just heard Brian Williams—twice—compare the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama to “Eisenhower/Kennedy.” The chief problem with this comparison is of course that Eisenhower never ran against Kennedy. Nixon ran against Kennedy.

Even a network anchor can be expected to misspeak once in a while, of course. But Williams said it twice, and even took time in between to explain the basis of his erroneous comparison: experience vs. new blood.

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Palin: Embracing the Caricature?

October 3, 2008

I am loathe to give credit to Tom Shales, because I think he’s gratuitously mean and often clueless (he doesn’t get Mad Men, and thinks Lorne Michaels is a genius and SNL is still cutting-edge funny), but I think he’s onto something here: Sarah Palin is not only not defying the caricatured version of herself Tina Fey and others have created, she’s deliberately embracing it.

Sarah Palin looked as though she had prepared for her appearance at the vice presidential debate last night by studying Tina Fey’s impressions of her on “Saturday Night Live.” She twinkled and winked and piled on the perkiness, a “darn right” here and an “I’ll betcha” there.

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Does SNL Pay Attention?

September 29, 2008

To update my last post, nope — McCain’s refusal to look at Obama hasn’t become a thing yet. SNL made no reference to it in their debate sketch, which surprised me, given the attention it had gotten elsewhere. Not only that, they had a joke about Jim Lehrer insisting that the candidates look at each other — not an innaccurate depiction (except I remember him admonishing them to talk to each other more), but an inclusion that made the exclusion of lack-of-eye-contact-gate all the odder.

The return of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin has gotten a lot of attention already, and I can’t add much, save to join the chorus of those noting, as I just heard Joan Walsh say on Hardball, that some of the parody dialogue was pretty much a verbatim transcription of the real interview. The writers didn’t have to work very hard on that one.

Which brings me to today’s question: do the writers of Saturday Night Live even follow the news, beyond the bare minimum their jobs require? I’m not just being snotty because they didn’t go the way I predicted with the debate sketch (and I’ll point out I wasn’t advocating that comedians should focus on the eye-contact business).

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Is This Going to be a Thing?

September 27, 2008

“Hey John — my eyes are up here.”

In the aftermath of the debate, John McCain’s refusal to look directly at Barack Obama is garnering a good deal of attention from pundits and bloggers. My expectation is that this will be something late-night comedy shows pick up and run with, but right now that remains to be seen.

But it is certainly the kind of thing SNL, Leno, Letterman, et al. can latch onto. Moreover, it is the sort of thing comedy can do a lot to amplify, and make consequential. For example, even people who didn’t watch any of the Bush vs. Gore debates knew about Gore’s audible sighs, at least in part because SNL made fun of them. Topical comedy — especially the mainstream, “equal-opportunity offender” sort we see on network TV — always prefers dealing with the silly, the trivial, and the personal over the serious and the substantive. It’s easier to mock, it’s more accessible to people who don’t necessarily follow politics that closely, and it’s relatively uncontroversial, because it doesn’t touch on issues or ideologies. Unfortunately, “journalists” like these sorts of stories for the same reasons.

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John McCain: Master Thespian

September 27, 2008

I’ve been critical of Jon Stewart for what I perceive as a tendency to pull his punches when dealing with John McCain. But The Daily Show did a pretty good job responding to McCain’s ridiculous and reckless “suspension” of his campaign.

There’s still a tendency, shared by many “straight” pundits and late-night comics, to treat McCain 08′s excesses as strange anomalies—as if McCain himself is somehow not responsible for them. Even as Letterman was pummeling McCain for his dishonesty about jetting off to DC the other night, he put it in these terms. This was not, Dave said, “the John McCain I know.”

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Don’t Mess With Dave

September 25, 2008

“Something doesn’t smell right.” That may well stand as the public’s verdict on John McCain’s surprising “suspension” of his campaign yesterday. Perhaps it will even end up being McCain’s political epitaph.

Lyndon Johnson knew he’d lost the public’s mandate when he “lost” Walter Cronkite. With this judgment, McCain just lost David Letterman.

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