WWJSD? (What Will Jon Stewart Do?) updated

September 24, 2008

Updated below

By now you’ve probably heard that Senator McCain has chickened out “suspended” his campaign and unilaterally attempted to postpone Friday’s scheduled debate, so he can hasten to the Capitol (presumably in a celestial chariot, drawn by wing-ed horses) to Save the Republic.

McCain must rid himself of the distraction of debating his opponent, so that he can devote all of his Mojo to solving this crisis (as only a Maverick can!), or we’ll be looking at 12% unemployment, and a depression by Monday.

Never mind that McCain hasn’t cast a Senate vote since April 8. And the fact that he’s slipping in the polls? Pure coincidence.

If the news media falls for this stunt, they are officially beyond redemption. If the public falls for it, we’re beyond stupid.

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The Immigrant

September 23, 2008

I’m not sure what to think of Craig Ferguson, but my old friend Radio Steve* sent me this clip, which I found pretty interesting.

I’ll confess that I haven’t watched Ferguson very much. If I’m up at that hour, and up for more comedy after Stewart & Colbert, my usual fare, I’ll watch Conan. Ferguson’s too cute, too frenetic, too dependent on being liked, for my liking. I don’t mean that he comes across as desperate for our approval; it’s just that his appeal is based on personality, rather than material or a particular comic point of view. To borrow Eric Idle‘s useful categorization, Ferguson is a “red nose” comic, as opposed to the “white face” types we’re used to seeing as late-night hosts.

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Prunes & Politics

September 22, 2008

Awards shows are usually dull viewing, but last night’s broadcast of the Emmy Awards was so bad it was almost shocking: not just lame (I expected that), but unprofessional. It was like a public access show with better-looking people and better production values.

On top of its general crapitude, ABC also managed to make the occasion a pretty impressive display of cowardice, cutting away from John Adams writer Kirk Ellis, just as he was about to make the shocking charge that George W. Bush is inarticulate. Heavens! We can’t let our viewers hear such heresies!

Leave it to Stephen Colbert to figure away around the suits’ preemptive censorship.

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SNL‘s “A” Game?

September 21, 2008

I had better things to do than watch SNL last night, but via Oliver Willis, I did manage to see the lead-off sketch about McCain’s negative advertising. Like last week’s Sarah Palin opener, it was somewhat above the low bar the show has maintained for the last, oh, 10 years or so: somewhat funny, somewhat on-target, somewhat biting. But it’s still pretty weak tea compared to what Colbert does regularly, and what Jon Stewart could be doing, if he takes off the gloves RE: “friend of the show” John McCain.

Still, the sketch has a couple of strengths most recent SNL pieces of recent vintage lack. First, it has more than a single idea: McCain’s cluelessness about technology, the announcer legendary for having “the most sarcastic voice in the history of campaign ads,” and some fairly specific references to the McCain campaign’s recent tactics. Second, it builds: though they don’t hit him terribly hard, McCain goes from merely clueless to consciously ruthless (when he approves the “black babies” ad, after being reminded that George W. Bush won using such sleazy tactics). The announcer character also allows the writers to turn the sarcasm back onto Team McCain (on Sarah Palin: “she’s so experienced”) in some unexpected ways.

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Dave Serves Up Ad Hominem Nouveau

September 20, 2008

Pardon my French—and Latin—but I’ve noticed that David Letterman and his writers have introduced a new variation on the kind of joke traditionally told by mainstream, “equal opportunity offender” late-night comics. These are jokes that focus on the personalities of candidates—or really, on one or two caricatured traits—and have, at best, only tangential relevance to the ideologies and policies the candidates represent. The Latin phrase ad hominem (literally, “at the man”), as some of you may have learned in Freshman Comp, is a logical fallacy in which one attempts to win an argument by attacking the person making it. For late-night comedians, the ad hominem strategy allows them to make fun of politicians without really talking about politics. No one can accuse you of “bias” (accepted idiot-speak for “caring enough about an issue to have an opinion”) if instead of dealing with what a politician says about, say, the mortgage crisis, you just make fun of his haircut.

Thus, the hotly-contested and highly consequential 2000 presidential race was, as far as Dave, Jay, Conan, and SNL were concerned, merely a choice between a dumb guy who couldn’t pronounce big words, and a guy who bragged about inventing everything from the Internet to the phrase “Don’t go there, Girlfriend” in a robotic monotone. In 2004 it was the dope vs. the flip-flopper with the rich wife, and in 1996, the womanizing Bubba vs. the old guy who referred to himself in the third person. There were some funny lines along the way, to be sure, but no real satire, because none of this was really political—it was just personal.

And that is the case with this new subset of Letterman jokes, too. But they are, at least, a different—and, if only because of their novelty—more interesting form of ad hominem jokes. Yet they proceed from the unfairest basis of all: physical appearance:

I kind of like that Sarah Palin. You know, she reminds me, she looks like the flight attendant who won’t give you a second can of Pepsi…. She looks like the weekend anchor on Channel 9. She looks like the hygienist who makes you feel guilty about not flossing. She looks like the relieved mom in a Tide commercial.

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Jon Stewart: MSM’s Last McCain-Lover?

September 17, 2008

Josh Marshall’s TPM has another entry in its “Tire-Swing Watch” — a running tally of media members once enchanted with John McCain who have finally quit giving him the benefit of the doubt. Today’s disenchanted former fan is The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, whose column is well worth checking out. It seems McCain’s extraordinarily dishonest campaign has not only caused Marcus to question his “Maverick” bona fides, it has emboldened her to utter what is, in the MainStream Media world, the ultimate heresy: “balance” does not equal fairness.

This may be a Copernicus moment: a challenge to conventional wisdom that could, if enough other media members pick up on it, or stumble upon it themselves (as Galileo did with heliocentrism), could fundamentally change their picture of the universe — and thus, the picture they present to the public.

This would be a welcome change. The practice of reporting every devious political tactic with the qualifier, “both sides do it” attached has nothing to do with fairness or thoroughness, and everything to do with preempting partisan critics who will cry “Bias!” any time their candidate is caught.

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A Friendly Reminder

September 16, 2008

I’ve got a book:

Palin by Comparison

September 15, 2008

As anyone who watched, and everyone who has mentioned it has already said, the Sarah Palin meets Hillary Clinton sketch that opened SNL‘s 33rd season was the one bright spot in an otherwise awful show. Tina Fey had Palin’s accent down (though anyone who’s seen Fargo more than once could probably do it about as well), and her already much-remarked upon resemblance to the GOP Veep-nom helped sell the bit. (For that matter, Amy Poehler’s pregnancy gave her a rounder face, and made her Hillary impression — which I’ve never found very evocative of the real HRC — a bit more persuasive.)

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, here: the sketch was funny, well-performed, and at least a little bit pointed. But shouldn’t that be the norm for America’s premiere sketch show, with its Ivy League writing staff, zeitgeist-transcending staying power, and talent-roster chockfull of the future stars of It’s Pat — Again! and Another Night at the Roxbury?

Should a sketch that was merely timely and competent get its own segment on the NBC Nightly News? This one did, last night, on a day dominated by news of Hurricane Ike, the collapse of another couple of pillars of the financial sector, and, you know, the real presidential candidates and their running mates. Poor Lester Holt, the weekend anchor, actually looked a little embarrassed by this triumph of corporate synergy over news judgment. And I last saw Lester sitting in as the bass player with Earth, Wind, and Fire on the Today Show, so we’re not exactly talking Edward R. Murrow, here.

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Nelson Muntz for President

September 13, 2008

We hear a lot about how this country is split down the middle between liberals and conservative, secularists and evangelicals, “blue state” and “red state” values. But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced the real split is between nice people and bullies. And the bullies have been winning. Anyone who ever got a wedgie, or heard the phrase, “stop hitting yourself” between the ages of 5 and 14, recognized Dubya and Cheney for what they were as soon as they appeared on the scene, despite the Eddie Haskell act they put on for the press. An John “Nasty” McCain and Sarah “Barracuda” Palin are more of the same; except that now, instead of stealing your milk money, they want to steal your country.

It’s not that their followers don’t recognize them as bullies; they admire bullies.

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Dave vs. Sarah

September 12, 2008

I don’t have a lot to say about Barack Obama’s appearance on Letterman the other night. He did okay. He had a few moments of genuine, off-the-cuff wittiness, and managed to deliver some planned zingers (like the one about Sarah Palin’s actually being the lipstick in the pig/lipstick metaphor) with elan. Most important, he didn’t embarrass himself: no gaffes, and he didn’t seem to be trying too hard. Sometimes politicians–and newsfolk, who in spite of the fact that they’re on camera for a living, can be surprisingly dumb about this–try way too hard to be funny when they appear on late-night shows.

With Letterman, though, there’s an added danger. Though he shares the anti-political, pseudo-satirical, “equal-opportunity offender” approach to comedy with Leno, Conan, Craig, Kimmel, and Carson before them, he’s capable of giving a guest–even an “important” one–a good grilling, when he feels like it.

Whether he feels like it is completely dependent on whether he likes you–he, the “real” David Letterman, from Indiana. Which is why, even though in some respects he’s been coasting for years, he’s still worth watching. He’s gotten to the point where he can fake it pretty well with movie and TV celebs he doesn’t care for, but when he’s talking to a “serious” guest, he can’t hide his respect or lack thereof.

He likes Obama: the interview was substantive (consider it’s a late-night comedy show, I mean), but not very tough. When they returned from the post-interview commercial break (which is often where you really find out how Dave feels), he called Obama “smart” (Paul pronounced him “smooth”–which may or may not be strictly a compliment, coming from him).

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Anchors & Pundits

September 11, 2008

So MSNBC’s parent network, NBC, and corporate grandparent, GE, decided that it was the better part of valor to bow to pressure from Republicans whining about “bias” than to continue pursuing a winning ratings strategy: they demoted “liberal” Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews from campaign-season anchor duties (by the way, if Chris Matthews is a “liberal,” we might as well throw out the dictionary–the word has lost all meaning). The totally untainted by bias David Gregory (whom you may remember as one of Karl “M. C.” Rove’s backup dancers) will handle those chores from here on out.

The last straw–or more accurately, the excuse–for Olbermann’s demotion was his on-air objection to the GOP’s exploitative use of graphic 9/11 footage at their convention. Instead of maintaining the pretense of disinterested “objectivity,” Olbermann reacted to something he found shocking and disgusting with shock and disgust. For an anchorman, that’s a big no-no.

The principle that reporters and anchors should put aside their own opinions and present all points of view fairly is a good one, in theory. In practice, however, journalistic “objectivity” has been turned into an excuse for throwing skepticism, judgment, and even the recognition of empirical truths out the window. We must respectfully report what both “sides” say, even if one side says “fire is hot,” and the other side says, “fire is NOT hot, and third-degree burns are just Satan’s way of making us think that it’s hot–just like he went around burying all those dinosaur bones to make us doubt the book of Genesis.” Over the last couple of decades, the GOP has played the the media’s fear of being charged with “bias” like a violin, and the result is that views that would once have been considered nutty, and tactics that would once have been considered sleazy (like McCain’s baseless charge that Obama supports sex ed for kindergartners), must now be accepted without question. This is not “objectivity,” it’s capitulation to the irrational, and to the bullies who depend on the support of the irrational.

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My Not-So-Ulterior Motive…

September 10, 2008

…in starting this blog is to encourage people to buy–and read–my book: Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke. It’s like this blog, only not free, much longer, and with serif type. Check it out.

The New Yorker Misses Again

September 9, 2008

The pages of The New Yorker have featured, over the years, a parade of America’s greatest literary humorists: Benchley, Thurber, E. B. White, Dorothy Parker, and Woody Allen, to name but a few. In recent years, they have featured some fine political reporting, including the invaluable essays of Hendrick Hertzberg. And of course, The New Yorker raised the magazine cartoon (though they’re still too snooty to call them that on the Contents page, where they are referred to as “drawings”) to an art form, with the work of Charles Addams, Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno, and others too numerous to mention.

So–art, politics, and humor they can do. But they can’t do political satire. And they should really stop trying, at least on their covers.

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