Comedy and “Balance”

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.

The other notable comment came in Meyers’s recounting of Palin’s cameo appearance. What was “great” about it, according to Meyers, is that (paraphrasing, again — the show has not yet been posted online, so I’m going by memory from what I heard) “liberals liked it because, ‘yeah, you slammed her,’ and conservatives liked it because they thought she did great. So that’s great, for balance.”

I’ve heard countless variations on this notion, from both topical comedians and journalists. The journalistic version usually goes something like, “Liberals accused us of a conservative bias and conservatives accused us of a liberal bias. If you’ve got both sides mad at you, you must be doing something right.”

This is a deeply ingrained tenet of conventional wisdom; it may even be the Rosetta Stone of conventional wisdom, at least inasfar as it applies to the way the public discussion of politics ought to be conducted. It is also completely stupid.

There is a case to be made for journalistic objectivity (though even that standard should not be accepted as the only potentially useful one). But what we usually get instead is “balance,” which, in practice, usually means that every potentially “one-sided” truth (to use a hypothetical example, “Republicans drink the blood of orphans”) must be presented in with a side of false equivalency (“…but some say that Democrats would raise taxes on orphans making over $250K, which is also bad”). Phew! Thank God we found a way to cover that story while angering “both sides”!

As bad as this “balancing” game can be for news, it at least arises out of a defensible principle: an ideal world of public discourse ought to contain at least some sources that can be relied upon to present facts with as little interpretive bias as is humanly possible. Exposing one side’s crimes while ignoring the other’s is unfair and — in the presence of a claim of “objectivity” — dishonest. Still, this does not mean, as the false-equivalency tic implies, that there is some pseudo-Newtonian law of nature ensuring that every misdeed of the Left is matched by an equal and opposite misdeed by the Right, or vice versa.

Comedy, however, has no professional or moral obligation to be “objective.” I may not like some of the satirical points South Park makes, but I don’t feel Parker and Stone are under any obligation to placate me by acknowledging my “side.” I despise most of what Dennis Miller says, but I’ll defend to the death his right to say it, Cha-chi.

But SNL puts a premium on “balance,” as Meyers’s comments indicate, and the show’s content proves. I would guess this is one reason — even the main reason — most of their topical comedy is so toothless (yes, even lately). The show that built its reputation on offending, often and ostentatiously, is terrified of offending unevenly. This is because SNL, like Leno, but unlike Miller, Maher, and South Park, is strictly an “establishment” show.

It’s been that way long enough now that it’s hard to be sad about it anymore. But lately I’ve seen more and more evidence that The Daily Show is headed down the same, safe road.

Monday’s show had one of the flimsiest and most egregiously disingenuous exercises in false equivalency I’ve ever seen on a comedy program. Correspondent John Oliver visited an Obama rally and a Palin event, with the intent of “proving” that the attendees were the same — specifically, that they were equally motivated by irrational fears.

The flaw in this premise is that it is not remotely true. Yes, both candidates have some idiotic supporters who will say stupid things when you point a camera in their direction. Yes, people will often say they are “afraid” of what will happen if the “other side” wins; and yes, some of those fears are unreasonable or exaggerated.

But the Obama supporters’ fears were almost all grounded in objective reality, related to policy differences, while the Palin supporters’ fears were almost all based on insane falsehoods about Obama. An Obama supporter feared a McCain win would jeopardize Roe v. Wade; a Palin supporter feared Obama would, once inaugurated, don a turban and impose Shariah law.

Watch it yourself, and see what I mean. The fears of one “side” are in no way equivalent to those of the other, despite the premise of the piece and the back-and-forth editing. Even the wackiest Obamite (the guy who goes on and on about how McCain doesn’t understand Internet technology) is merely obnoxious, whereas the baseline of the Palin supporters is tinfoil hat-wearing crazy.

Tuesday night’s show followed this up with the laziest form of “bipartisan” comedy of them all: the “elections are dumb” premise, featuring Wyatt Cenac in an “equal time” anti-political time-waster.

To be fair, Stewart has finally hit McCain hard on a few deserved points. And if he has hard questions for Obama tonight (or hard comedy for him later), that’s fine with me — as long as it’s not done to achieve “balance,” or in the name of being “equal opportunity offenders.”

Jon, with all due respect, we already have a Seth Meyers, and the Establishment already has its topical comedy shows. We expect more out of you and TDS.

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One Response to “Comedy and “Balance””

  1. Urk Says:

    couple o’ notes:
    1. I heard the Meyers piece, or part of it while driving today, and when Meyers started explaining that the McCain campaign didn’t really set any limits for them, but that they (SNL) had made a point to start out being “reasonable”… if i’d had a longer drive ahead of me, I might have turned it off then. Since I didn’t tho I got to hear the “piss off both sides claim, and found myself wondering whether you’d have something up tonight. Thanks for making me feel like a genius.

    2. I don’t know this on any factual level, but meyers strikes me as a model of the kind of would-be contrarian anti-liberal liberal that never fails to piss me off. The kindof guy who avoids any serious politicla position because it interferes with his snark.

    3. My wife, who is quite smart and perceptive about these things almost always, nevertheless had the exact reaction that Meyers ascribed to liberals on the show. She thought that they relaly razzed Palin pretty hard. I remained skeptical enough to not bother coming over close enough to the TV to hear.

    4. On a totally different subject: I’m watching the Bill Clinton-Barack Obama joint appearance in Florida right now, & Clinton is trying SO HARD to stay seated in that stool to the side of the podium while Obama is speaking. I don’t mean this to be just snarky: Clinton seems to be very engaged, and very supportive and enthusiastic. But I don’t think it’s easy for him to sit down while someone else is talking for SO LONG to SO MANY PEOPLE!

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