Friday, July 29, 2016

The GOP Horror Picture Show

What does this guy,

have to do with this guy? 

I think the answer has something to do with “genres”--the types or categories of literature, film, music, and so on.

In film, genres essentially evolve in the same way.  There is a period of innovation in which the standards for the genre are set.  Next, the genre enjoys a period of replication where the genre becomes a powerful resource for filmic invention and a series of similar films flood the market.  Eventually, the genre enters a period of self-reflexivity in which films begin to “talk back” to the generic conventions that constrain them.  And finally, self-reflexivity gives way to full blown parody, spoof, and send-up. 

Okay, that last little bit isn’t in keeping with classical genre theory, but I think works anyway.  Also, I study comedy, so you knew I was going there eventually, right?

Here’s an example from the horror genre—because I like horror films and because that is how Sharon Croft explained genre when I took film studies at Capital University.

  1. Innovation—(1974) Texas Chainsaw Massacre & (1978) Halloween get the slasher genre going.
  2. Replication or “Can I get a sequel?”—(1980) Friday the 13th and (1984) A Nightmare on Elm Street define the slasher genre and generate franchises that still haven’t quite gone away.
  3. Self-reflexivity—(1996) Scream begins a slasher franchise that is keenly aware of its participation in the genre and occasionally references not only itself, but also other films in the genre.
  4.  Parody—(2000) Scary Movie gets Ghost Face high and makes a pile of money mocking the slasher genre and horror films in general.
  5. Rebirth—(2004) Saw picks up the serial killing slasher, adds a creepy puppet, and earns its way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful horror franchise in Hollywood history.

So what does this have to do with the Republican nominee for president?

Rhetorical critics, like the one writing this post that you are miraculously still reading, are at times quite taken with the idea of genre.  Speeches are often classified as to how they respond to various occasions, how they function, or which form or forms they prefer.[1]  Beyond speeches, Glenn Richardson has also noted how the genres of popular culture—like uh, I don’t know, horror films—impress themselves upon other kinds of messages (notably political advertisements) in order to convey complex meanings in apparently simple packages.  Essentially, these genres are powerful sources for inventing persuasive messages.  Appealing to a genre activates already existing tendencies in audiences to like or dislike particular kinds of messages and triggers emotions associated with the messages in the genre.  This persuasive potential isn’t lost on the power hungry and politically ambitious.

Given the overwhelming reliance on fear appeals (“Make America Safe Again”) during the Republican National Committee’s quadrennial spectacular scare-a-thon,[2] I find it no small leap to suggest that contemporary conservative rhetoric is particularly drawn to the signs and symbols of the horror genre.  Of course, fear appeals in conservative politics aren’t new (and, I should add, aren’t limited only to conservatives—the DNC had plenty of Donald Trump centered fear appeals), but characterizing Republican-talk in terms of the horror genre might be helpful in understanding the evolution of conservative discourse that created a space where the Donald could take up the standard for the GOP in the general election somewhere other than on The Simpsons.

Think about it.

Genres begin with innovation.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that contemporary conservative discourse begins with Reagan.  Which is to say, Reagan is the Leatherface of Republican rhetoric, which is also to say, he was terrifying in ways that his rhetorical descendants never really were/are (neoliberalism is a thing, people). 

Bush Sr., then, takes up Reagan’s already existing genre and functions as replication of a well established way of relating to the world.  Consider him Jason to Reagan’s Leatherface—a burgeoning franchise that looks a lot like the original, but is a little more predictable.

Speaking of franchises, Bush part Deux takes the genre out of replication—he wasn’t really like his dad or the Reagan—and into self-reflexivity. His rhetorical reliance on social conservatism (of compassionate conservatism, as his campaigns preferred) was certainly unorthodox, but thanks in no small part to some genetic engineering and his penchant for being photographed near flags, he looked like a president and he occasionally did things that reminded us of his Republican predecessors (like, you know, invade Iraq).  Exchanging the hockey mask for a ghost face, the result (murder of innocents) was the same, but the genre appeared to be reaching its limits and collapsing back in on itself.

And here we are.  Republican slasher film rhetoric appears primed to make its last final generic evolution.  If Trump is the new (orange-tinged) face of conservatism, perhaps his rhetoric is best understood as a generic parody.  It all sounds familiar, comprised of the same old scare tactics and fear appeals of Reagan era rhetoric and its replicants, but it’s hard to take too seriously, almost like everything he says is accompanied by a wink and a nod.  In fact, his incredible reliance on catchphrases, slogans, and talking points—without any of the argumentation—makes it seem almost as though he’s mocking Republicans rather than rallying them.  His fear appeals are ridiculous, laughable, and reprehensible.  

But that’s exactly why they’re appealing.  The horror audience gets a double pleasure from parody because it at once supplies the scare-tactics that they so enjoy, but also rewards them for getting the jokes and catching the references along the way.  Republicans like to be scared, so they tell the same ghost stories with many of the same characters (immigrants, communists, and Clintons), but with Trump they get to revel in the pleasures self-mockery and laughter as they celebrate and pay homage to their rhetorical legacy all the while preparing it for rebirth with a touch of torture porn.

The upshot, although liberal commentators and critics are at once terrified and tickled by the idea of a Trump nomination, his expression of the genre—though potentially lucrative and franchise worthy—isn’t likely to scare audiences enough to have staying power.  Trump’s Reagan/Bush parody isn’t scary enough to move his audience to the polls, but the Republican Jigsaw killer—whoever he is—will be something terrifying indeed.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Donald Trump, Dick Jokes, and a Politics without Shame

When I wrote my last post about the election, I didn’t think for a moment that Donald Trump would actually secure the incredible lead that he’s already secured in the Republican primary.  He is, by most counts, more than two-hundred delegates ahead of his nearest rival and a little less than five hundred delegates away from being the presumptive nominee.

He also defended the size of lil’ Trump tower in a March 3 debate after Marco Rubio, who has since suspended his campaign, commented on the size of Trump’s hands.

Trump’s response to Rubio’s comment—which also included a plea for serious policy debate—focused entirely on the threat to his manhood.  And of course, with typical braggadocio, Trump assured concerned Americans saying, “I guarantee there’s no problem”—and, really, why would he lie about such a thing?

The joke, which Rubio made a few days before the debate, was borrowed from an extended Trump take-down on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (below).  John Oliver’s satirical brilliance aside, what I find interesting about the debate over Donald’s dick is that it exemplifies an interesting shift in our political culture.

A couple smarter people than me have commented on the changing face of contemporary politics in America.  Jeremy Engels argues that contemporary politics are marked by a rhetoric of “resentment” that seeks to divide a people against itself.  Susan Herbst similarly draws attention to the rise of incivility in public discourse as a strategy for forming and moving publics.[1] Resentment and incivility, though clearly present in our political discourse, just don’t explain dick jokes.

Although commonplace in late night programming, phallic humor usually doesn’t hold sway during official campaign events.  Rubio’s jab and Trump’s defense during the debate, however, took center stage as twitter exploded in response.  CNN even ran the following headline: “Donald Trump defends the size of his penis.”

The next day, Rubio was questioned about the joke on the Today Show (below).  And, like Trump, he defended his comments.  Was not ashamed for having “gone there” in his attempt to get back at a “rhetorical bully.”  He also admitted that he would even vote for Trump in the general election if he was the nominee—small hands notwithstanding.

The whole exchange, I think, points to a shift in political culture in terms of how we understand shame.  For Aristotle, shame was an emotion, a feeling and, therefore, among the available emotional appeals (pathos) in a speaker’s repertoire.[2]  To appeal to shame, for Aristotle, is an imagined loss of reputation or disgrace in the eyes of those whose opinion we should value.  This appeal, in the “shame-culture” of Ancient Greece was at once a tremendously powerful rhetorical weapon and an important component to Athenian democracy.

The exchange between Rubio and Trump and the fall-out on social and traditional media, demonstrates, I think, that ours is becoming a politics without shame.  Both Rubio’s joke and Trump’s defense of his nether regions were as shameless as discourses can be.  Both speakers, and the media that covered the exchange, disregarded the public’s opinion of the candidates and the campaigns.  When politics devolves into dick jokes, its shamelessness distracts the demos from its inevitable task of the vote. 

When our politics ignores shame our candidates can build platforms on insults, bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and fear.  When our politics lacks shame, it loses its humanity.  When our politics fails to respond to shame, it disregards its responsibility to the citizenry.  More the point, when our politicians are beyond shame, they flaunt their utter disregard for the voters they represent. 

Arguably, this last point isn’t all that surprising for the cynical reader (or, frankly, the cynical author).  Maybe our politics isn’t newly shameless.  Maybe politics is, but nature, immune to shame.  Maybe, but even so our political rhetoric tends feature at least the veneer of shame.  Even where a politician clearly does not care about his or her constituency, he or she must keep up appearances.  In a post-Trump political landscape, regard for the voter appears to be becoming less and less necessary for political success.

Regardless of the public’s perception, Rubio isn’t ashamed of his jokes at Trump’s expense and Trump isn’t ashamed of his proposed policies… as long as you think he’s bigger than “Little Marco.”

[1] See Engel’s Politics of Resentment and Herbst Rude Democracy, respectively.
[2] Aristotle discusses shame in Nicomachean Ethics 4.9 and Rhetoric 2.6

Friday, January 22, 2016

Is Trump a Fool?

In his oft cited Attitudes Toward History, Kenneth Burke challenges critics to hold themselves to highest of standards.  Regardless of subject, “criticism,” he writes, “best be comic.”

Comic criticism requires an attitude of humility, sensitivity to irony and complexity, and, most of all, a commitment to finding fools where others see villains.  The comic critic fundamentally seeks to humanize his or her subject so that we might correct it, rather than eliminate it.  This challenge, at times, can be quite difficult.

Nowhere is this charge to stay comic more tested, at least for this critic, than when considering political discourse and campaign rhetoric.  Especially, when that rhetoric is “from the other side” of the political divide.[1]  Uncle Kenny (Burke) urges me to listen carefully to Ted Cruz and his rabid supporters judge them as fools.  For the Burkean critic, Cruz is a misguided, mistaken fool.  Not a villain, not a populist thug, not an opportunistic hate-monger, a fool.

This. Is. Hard.

But it get’s harder.  See, I probably don’t really have to take Ted Cruz too seriously.  He’ll never win anyway (though, even he probably thinks of himself as running for VP).  The Trumpster, on the other hand, really tries my comic patience.  Donald Trump, by most polling data, is the favorite for the GOP nomination.  I can laugh at Ted Cruz and, in some contexts, I can laugh at Donald Trump.  But the prospect of a Trump presidency is a little hard to stomach.

Trump fails most criteria for candidate viability, but his money, fundraising network, and the groundswell of popular support generated by his vitriol and bigotry just might dwarf the fact that he doesn’t “look presidential” or “know anything about foreign or domestic policy.”  By most measures, Trump is a terrible candidate, but that doesn’t seem to matter this early in the primary campaign.

What I find interesting about all of this, though, is that my trouble with Trump is that he’s hard to take seriously and it is precisely that fact that makes him hard to understand comically as any good Burkean critic should.  His persona—a strange blend of narcissism, used-car salesman, reality TV host, and spray tan—is such an exaggeration of humanity that I’m not sure who he really is (or if, he really is…).  And yet, I can’t seem to laugh at him—even when he’s on Saturday Night Live (see above, if only for the moment where Larry David calls him a racist and Trump doesn't deny it) or when he makes his GOP opponents look like idiots during a debate.  I just can’t find it in myself to think of Trump as a fool. 

The fool exists to be corrected for the betterment of society.  When Trump suggests, as he did on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert (see below), that he has “no apologies” for anyone he’s wronged or anything he’s done, it becomes evident that he is not interested in correction.  Trump is ridiculous, to be sure, and he wears the fool’s cap (or whatever that thing on his head is), but he is no fool. 

At the same time, however, his hyperbolic persona makes him hard to see as a hero or a villain—Burke’s tragic foil to the comic fool.  He isn’t easily distilled into the good bin or the evil bin.  Even as a person on the opposite side of the political divide, he doesn’t read as a threat, because I just can’t take him seriously.  I struggle to believe, for even just a minute, that he could actually be president.  If he’s a villain, he’s just not that scary.  I feel like if I just don’t pay attention that he’ll eventually just go away.  Even though the reality of the matter is that he has already made the shortlist for the conversation next November and shows no signs of backing down—or apologizing—anytime soon.

I’m not sure what all this means.  It is, however, an uncomfortable position for the comic critic.  I can’t seem to think of Trump as a fool or a villain.  I can’t get my head around it.  Maybe, that’s because he’s neither.  Even if you hate him, and plenty of folks do, he’s not serious enough—not really—to take comically and if he can’t be a fool, he can’t be a villain.  He’s a curious mix of equal parts terror and ridiculousness.  For this comic critic, Donald Trump is no fool.  He’s a clown.

[1] Unsurprisingly, I, like so many academics, tend to lean left to way left.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Jon is Gone

On Monday, we got our first glimpse of the new-look Daily Show with Trevor Noah.  The show, for the most part, was the same old Daily Show, right down to the dick jokes… about the Pope.

Noah, a South African stand-up and relative unknown to most U.S. audiences, did some solid material and plied his stand-up honed chops to great effect drawing out a few big laughs with little more than a sheepish grin (see above) in his opening monologue.  

What I find interesting about the monologue (see below), however, is that it was Noah’s first real opportunity to reach out to the Daily Show audience and attempt to fill the void left in the wake of the absence of one of the most influential public figures of the last decade—Jon Stewart.

In the monologue, Noah pays homage to Stewart by thanking him personally and accepting the challenge to guard against “bullshit” before turning his attention to anything topical or satirical.  The monologue, in this way, functioned a sort of transitional ritual whereby Noah introduced himself to his new (and now massive) audience, attempted to reunite those members of the audience who feel alienated by his presence behind the anchor desk—since he’s neither white, American, nor a woman—and begin the work of moving that audience back toward the goals and ideals of the Daily Show.  It was a kind of truncated inaugural address not unlike the ones given by newly elected Presidents.

Now, Trevor Noah is not the President and he was not addressing the nation for the first time as such—just imagine what the birthers would do with that image.  Nevertheless, he did step into a particularly important symbolic role for American political culture and it was his first official act as host of the nation’s favorite fake news outlet.  In this way, his three-minute opening bit was very similar to an inaugural address both situationally and, as mentioned above, functionally.

For rhetorical scholars of genre—or categories of public address—these characteristics (situation and function), together with form, may indicate generic participation.  Form, in this case, seems to be where the generic comparison breaks down.  After all, Noah was primarily just telling jokes and even though POTUS may deliver a one-liner or two to in January after being sworn in, they’ve never been side-splitters. 

Even so, Noah’s deference to his predecessor is particularly reminiscent of a newly installed President paying tribute to the previous administration.  This element of praise for the outgoing host situates the discourse squarely in the present, the here-and-now.  It marks Noah’s opening monologue as what we call epideictic rhetoric.  The same kind of rhetoric used in a Presidential inaugural.  So the style—the jokes—is clearly different, but the form, perhaps was more similar than it seems.

On its face, a comparison between the host of a late-night comedy show and the President may seem absurd, but the transitional and ritualistic nature of the monologue make a particularly good example of the inaugural genre.  Well, an inaugural with jokes, anyway.  If nothing, we were reminded on Monday to ask not what The Daily Show can do for us.  But to ask was The Daily Show can do for our country.

For more on generic criticism and presidential inaugurals I would encourage my reader to check out Karhlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson's book Presidents Creating The Presidency: Deeds Done in Words.  It doesn't suck.  Not one bit.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Different Christmas Story

It’s almost Christmas and that means that it’s time to watch the heartwarming story of a young boy’s incredible desire to find his very own Red Ryder BB gun under the Christmas tree.  

Though A Christmas Story is set in a fictional town that is supposed to resemble Hammond, IN (where I used to work and live), it was filmed in Cleveland, OH (where I currently work and live—sometimes).  Over the past few months, the Cleveland Police have managed to find themselves in some hot water regarding their use of force against the community that they have sworn to protect and serve.

As reported by the Northeast Ohio Media Group, on November 22, two officers approached a park after receiving a 9-1-1 call that a “guy” was brandishing a “pistol” and “scaring the shit out of everyone.”  The caller also mentioned that the pistol was “probably fake,” but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.  Upon approaching the park, both officers exited their cruiser and within seconds a pellet-gun-toting twelve-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, was shot.  He died in the hospital two days later.

This death comes on the heels of a number of high profile police homicides including the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and John Crawford (who also had a BB gun—in a store where they sell such toys), as well as the chokehold induced murder of Eric Garner. 

In every case, the murderer was not indicted by a grand jury.  That is, each homicide was classified as “justifiable” or “reasonable” rather than “criminal.”  The police, according to the grand juries, were just doing their jobs. 

The grand jury has yet to rule on Tamir Rice’s death, but it would be surprising if they chose to indict given the recent string of non-indictments in similar cases (especially in the death of John Crawford).  There is, however, at least one mitigating factor here—the Cleveland Police Department was recently investigated by the Department of Justice.  The DOJ report argues, “We have concluded that we have reasonable cause to believe that CDP engages in a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” 

Given this factor, it is possible that Tamir’s killer could be indicted. Unfortunately, that sets up the officer to be a convenient scapegoat for a larger problem.  If indicted, he will become the poster child for police brutality in Cleveland and his punishment will be offered up as a symbolic punishment for the sins of the police force writ large.  Admittedly, much of this is speculation, but it’s speculation based upon a tale we tell all too well.

What is more, if this officer is indicted, the DOJ report will undoubtedly be used as a means of framing the potential indictment of Tamir Rice’s murderer as singularly unique in comparison to the other three non-indictments.  Which is to say, it would permit us to ignore/deny the fact that in every case the victim was black and the officer was white.

There are those who will argue (vehemently) that race was not a factor in any of these homicides, but I think, in a round about way, my borderline absurd comparison between Tamir Rice and Ralphie Parker tells a different story.  Why?  Because when the cop got out of the car, I am certain that he didn’t see Ralphie playing with a toy (see the Eastwood-esque screenshot to the right).  Instead, he saw a criminal threatening the lives and safety of those around him.

Maybe, if Tamir had only been wearing bunny suit he’d still be alive... but I doubt it.

Admittedly, this Christmas story is a little different than the one we’re used to watching at this time of year.  Instead of wondering if Ralphie will in fact “shoot his eye out” while playing with his brand new BB gun, we know that Tamir Rice is dead because he had one. When you watch Ralphie escape unfazed after taking a BB in the glasses at the end of the film this year, take a moment and remember Tamir and his family’s Christmas story.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Doing Satire Differently

I’ve been kicking the idea of writing about John Oliver’s new show, Last Week Tonight, for a while now, so it might as well make its way to the blog.  Because I am currently teaching Intercultural Communication, Oliver’s recent episodes on Immigration have almost become regular contributions to our in-class discussions.  Almost every week, I find something in the show worth talking about, arguing with, or expanding upon.

If you aren’t familiar with the show, you should be.  Go “borrow” your friend’s HBOGO password and catch the hell up.  I’ll wait.

All caught up?  Good.  If not you can also find most of the main segments on Youtube (see below).  Also, you should probably find some better friends.

For the uninitiated, John Oliver earned his stripes on The Daily Show as the “senior British /White House/Catholic/ETC correspondent” for the Best F@cking News Team Ever.  While at The Daily Show, he was also afforded the oh-so-rare opportunity to fill in behind the anchor’s desk while the show’s host, Jon Stewart, spent the summer in the Jordan growing a beard.

He also may or may not have directed the film Rosewater.  Either way, he grew a beard, so I’m choosing to focus on that.  It’s my blog.

After spending the summer pretending to be Stewart, Oliver was offered a contract by HBO to do a Daily Show-esque program that provided satirical commentary on the news and politics, but with more exposed breasts and expletives.

Since that time, Oliver has received quite a bit of critical attention and praise: John Oliver is outdoing The Daily Show or John Oliver's First Year on HBO was Unquestioned Success or John Oliver Usurped a Genre (of course, the Harvard Political Review used the word "usurped" in their title)

Given that Oliver’s show was thrust into a small dark corner of the TV landscape already occupied to by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert--two of the most prominent figures in American comedy (and, arguably, politics)--it is surprising that his program has been as successful as it has.  One reason for this success is that his transition from Comedy Central to HBO did not simply attempt to re-create The Daily Show without the bleeps. 

The Daily Show mines much of its laughter by sending up the newsmedia. Last Week Tonight, on the other hand, is not a parody program.  To be sure, many of the conventions of news programming--OTS graphics, the news desk, current events topics--have slipped into Oliver’s show, but where Stewart often makes jokes about the conventions themselves, Oliver engages the tropes of news to make jokes about issues.  Sure, he pokes Fox News and CNN, but by and large he takes news production conventions at face value.  In this way, he’s more like a pundit than a parodist.  Think British Bill O’Reilly, not British Stephen Colbert.

Instead of parodying the media, Oliver satirizes the issues.  His comedy, to paraphrase Horace, tells the truth through laughter.  This is not to suggest that The Daily Show is not satirical because it certainly has its moments.  Instead, it is to suggest that the form that organizes each program is markedly different.  To be overly reductive (again, my blog), Last Week Tonight is a satire and The Daily Show is a parody.  Parody can be satirical, but only insofar is it satirizes that which it imitates or at least uses the imitation as a vehicle for satirical critique.  For Stewart, this means that the formic emphasis on news parody limits his ability to satirize events beyond the boundaries of news coverage.  From a rhetorical perspective, this restricts his ability to invent arguments because any argument that he invents is necessarily understood in the context of the parody that provides the form for his discourse.

Oliver, on the other hand, has much more leeway in discovering arguments.  As long as he’s funny, he can more or less create and structure his satirical arguments as he pleases.  This means that his satire tends to be more focused on making clearly defined arguments.  Unlike Stewart, Oliver compels his audience to take specific actions (for instance, email the FCC about Net Neutrality).  He also has more time (by roughly 8 minutes an episode) because HBO doesn’t interrupt his satirical ranting with commercials for Doritos, Mountain Dew, and Call of Duty 4,971.

Admittedly, Oliver, like Stewart, makes his share of dick jokes and wildly unrelated asides, but the formic differences, I think, are telling.  Even in light of his penchant for adolescent humor, Oliver’s truth-telling cuts cleaner than Stewart’s because he is not burdened with the requirement to satirize through parody.  Last Week Tonight, in this way, has been successful at least in part due to the fact that it is satire without parodic form.  Thus, Oliver has greater latitude to invent argument because his only formic requirement is that he satirize.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Too Soon?

First, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long.  My negligence (it’s been almost a year since my last post...) was borderline abusive, like NFL running back abusive (too soon?). 

My intention was not to ignore the mess of thoughts ricocheting around my head like a racquetball or my commitment to providing my friends a means of procrastinating and questioning my sanity.  No.  Instead, I was busy getting a dissertation[1] completed, defended, and formatted for electronic publication (which is like publication, but not at all like publication... The whole thing is really just a cruel lie that we tell ourselves after we spend a year or more slaving over a document that maybe 50 people will read all while knowing full well that at least one of those people is our mother.  By the way, thanks for reading my dissertation, Mom!).  Oh, and I started professoring a small Midwestern liberal arts college in a large Midwestern metropolitan area (which is academic double speak for Notre Dame College in Cleveland, OH).  And my daughter was born.  She’s awesome, but is not a fan of me writing anything.  Ever.

Having completed this lengthy preamble, I would now like to wade back into blogdom with a brief thought piece on rhetoric, comedy, and the exigence.

The art of rhetoric is deeply entwined with the notion of exigence.  For Lloyd Bitzer, exigence was “an imperfection marked by urgency,” a reason to speak, a defect that needed to be (and could be) addressed.[2]  Rhetoric, then, is the art of appropriately identifying and addressing (speaking to) exigence.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about comedy in much the same way.  Comedy, rather than being about the appropriate response to an exigence, however, is more concerned with the exploitation of exigence.  Imperfection, defect, problem, and contradiction are the stuff of comedy.  They are the comedian’s raw materials.  Comedy and laughter, in this way, can function to indicate or uncover latent exigences in cultural discourses. 

WTF does that mean?  Essentially, I’m suggesting that comedy functions to direct our attention to things that we should be talking about.

Consider, for instance, the all-to-common joke script where a potential merry-maker comments on some disaster or tragedy and tags the comment saying, “too soon?” (see, for example, my mostly tasteless quip at the beginning of this post).  In almost every case, the “too soon” joke is an attempt to capitalize on some tragic exigence in public culture.  The “too soon” jokester’s humor hinges upon the prominence of the exigence in public discourse—that is how many people are talking about it—and the gravity—how tragic it is/was—of the event in question. 

The joke at the beginning of this post, for instance, addresses an exigence that somehow occupies 48 hours of coverage in a 24 hour newsday for ESPN (prominence) and, in each case, involves horrific violence inflicted upon a more or less defenseless person (gravity).  I would post the pictures and video here, but they still make my stomach turn.  By joking subjects that are both timely and serious, comics, meme writers, and bad jokers (that last one is just for me) draw attention to already exigent issues like domestic violence in the NFL.

What I find interesting about this kind of comedy, however, is not just that is directs attention to things worth talking about, but that it stands as a constant reminder that whichever exigence comes to the joker’s attention has not been appropriately addressed.  If the imperfection could be corrected then it would cease to be fodder for laughter.  In this way, I would argue that comedy does more than merely attracting attention to its subject because in the very act of selecting a subject the comic rhetor sorts through myriad exigencies in order to discover which is most inappropriately addressed and therefore laughable.

It may be in poor taste to make a "too soon" joke, but it's also an important reminder that some exigences--even those about which we are speaking--haven't gone away.

[1] “Laughing at American Democracy: Citizenship and the Rhetoric of Stand-up Satire” is available on an electronic database near you!  If you don’t have access to an electronic database, I’m happy to forward a copy along.
[2] The quotation is from his essay on the “Rhetorical Situation” (p.6)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

So You're Hip To The Affordable Care Act, But Bugged By Obamacare?

In the two weeks or so since the United States House of Representatives opted to take their ball and leave because they couldn't completely gut the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) there has been plenty of fodder for comic critique to go around.
While the memes, cartoons, and one-liners are amusing (See over there -->), in poking fun at our elected officials' inability to pass a budget (compromise, negotiate, you know--govern) the humor surrounding the shutdown does one of the things that humor does best--it relieves, for a brief moment of laughter, the tension of the situation.

Amidst these barbs from the left and the right, Jimmy Kimmel Live ran a bit called "six of one" on October 2--the day after the start of the shutdown--that is the perhaps the best possible representation of the worst possible aspects of U.S. political culture.  In the bit (see below), a Kimmel staffer uses the "person on the street" interview style to presumably gauge the public's opinions about the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare which, as my incredibly well-informed reader no doubt already knows (if you read the first sentence of this post), are the same thing. 
Each interview begins with some version of the question, "which do you prefer, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act?"  As a follow-up, the interviewer then pushes the subject to explain why they support the plan they profess to support--a task for which they are overwhelmingly underprepared.  Their foolishness in their attempt to defend and discredit their own position provides much of the comedic payload in the bit.  What is more, that foolishness carries the additional benefit of appealing to the audience's sense of self-righteousness.  We watch the segment  from a position of superiority over the fools on the street because we enter the joke after hearing Kimmel's preamble that explains, in no uncertain terms, that the ACA and Obamacare are one and the same.

The bit is funny. And for that reason, it has circulated around the web at an incredible clip. In fact, the official YouTube site for the show indicates that the clip has been viewed, as of October 16, more than 3.5 million times--mostly, I assume, by the people who post and share things that appear on my Facebook feed.  On its surface, the bit makes an important point: we, the American people, generally don't actually know what we're talking about and in our ignorance we typically fall in line in incredibly predictable ways.

More interestingly, I would argue, the bit underscores an important component of our contemporary political culture: the question between two things that are one and the same is often the question that we, the people, are asked to answer.  When presented with only the illusion of choice we have no option but to be fools in the comedy of our so-called democracy.  However, unlike the woman whose interview bookends the segment, we are rarely offered the redemption of realizing our foolishness and transcending our pathetic lot.  We are not invited to share in the laughter of the self-righteous.  We are fools constantly prevented from learning our lesson.

What is more, the bit permits us, as the audience, the privileged vantage point of the informed observer.  It encourages us not to see ourselves in the fools on the street--and therefore partake of their redemption--but to see them as the exception rather than the rule.  From a safe distance we laugh at those people and in so doing relieve ourselves of our own foolishness. Would you, dear reader, have known that the ACA and Obamacare were the same thing if you were asked to choose between them in a completely random situation?  Really?  I expect that Kimmel probably would have been able to pull one over on me.

Importantly, the "six of one, [half dozen of another]" joke-structure is premised on the notion that the poor fool in question will necessarily see difference where there is in fact only similarity. When the ACA and Obamacare are presented independently as possible choices, they appear to be distinct and, more to the point, in opposition with one another.  This is our political culture in a nutshell.  Issues (facts, reality...) be damned, we support our side and stand opposed to those people on the other side--even when we agree. 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Where are all the Women Satirists?

In recent months, I devoured Alison Dagnes book, A Conservative Walks into a Bar: The Politics of Political Humor.  The book revolves around the question of why there are so few conservative satirists (a question that I’ve already kind of sort of written about in a previous post:Funny and Conservative/Liberal?).  The book is a super easy read and contains some really great insight courtesy of Dagnes fascinating interviews including American satirists Will Durst and Tim Slagle, comedy writer Adam Felber (Real Time with Bill Maher), Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, and 1960s secular moralist and stand-up legend Lenny Bruce.

Okay, the last one wasn’t actually in there, but it would’ve been a welcome addition if Dagnes could’ve drummed up a medium to get Lenny’s take on the question, or maybe Dustin Hoffman (star of Lenny), or some schmuck detective in New York (you know, another performance by Lenny Bruce—in substance).  Anyway…  I digress.

Either way, the book was good and Dagnes makes a nice clean case about how “the big tent” party (that would be the Dems) means a bigger pool to draw on for an audience and subject matter and therefore the potential for greater success as an entertainer.  Said another way, the Left-leaning comics probably only lean left because they are actually free market conservatives when it comes right down to it.

All of this is a giant meandering introduction for this post.  Dagnes book was interesting, but it left me wondering not why there were so few conservatives in political satire, but why there were/are so few women in political satire.

Think about it.  Which of the top-tier satire programs airing right now feature women? The Daily Show always has a female correspondent or two (Currently, four of the twelve are women: Samantha Bee, Kristen Schaal, Jessica Williams and Sarah Vowell) and Saturday Night Live—when they remember that they’re supposed to be topical and funny and not suck—has been known to permit women to drop a political bomb or two.  But aside from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler sending up Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election cycle (see video below), no program trading in political humor features a woman.

My intent is not to bring back the Jezebel accusation against The Daily Show (Initial argument— Jezebel says, "you're sexist!" and female Daily Show employees respond, "Go f@#k yourself!") and the comedy establishment.  Rather, it is to point out that the contemporary Mount Rushmore of political satirists is more likely to include a conservative satirist, say… Dennis Miller, next to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher (who already has his libertarian edge) than it is to include a woman.

The question is why?

The answer is not because “women aren’t funny.”  Okay, I’ll grant you that Lisa Lampanelli isn’t funny, but there is a whole host of women comics who are tremendously funny.  I dare you to take in the stand-up routines and comedy records of Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Jackie “Moms” Mabley (see below), Ellen DeGeneres, Rusty Warren, Whoopi Goldberg, and Margaret Cho (I could keep going, but this list should keep you busy) and tell me otherwise. 

It’s also not because women aren’t “into” politics.  According to Gallup’s demographic breakdown of the 2012 election, there not only were more women registered to vote going into the election, but they were more likely to vote than men.  In fact, the “gender gap” (Obama won the female vote by nearly 18%) has been credited as a key contribution to the 2012 election outcome.  What is more, the 2012 election was groundbreaking for women winning elections.  The current Congress boasts the highest number of both female Senators (20) and Representatives (78) in history.  Of course, even with the historic numbers in the 113th Congress we still only have 98/535 seats (or 18.3%) of the legislature representing just over half of the voting population.  If we start with the gross misrepresentation of women in politics, we might begin to outline the problem of women in political humor. 


First of all, the conventional wisdom about politics is that men are more interested than women and therefore men would be more likely to be interested in political humor than women.  Given the trends cited above, this is not likely the case.  What is significant here, is that comedy deals in conventional wisdom rather than reality as a place to mine punch-lines (hence why stereotypes are still so prevalent).  Thus, until the conventional wisdom changes, comedy will be more like George W. Bush—who, in Stephen Colbert’s estimation, believes the same thing Wednesday as he did Monday regardless of what happened on Tuesday—than John Kerry—who actually signs his Secretary of State Tweets “JK,” you know just in case the wind changes.

Second, the problem of the female satirist is more analogous to the problem of a female president than the problem of the female legislator.  There are 535 seats in congress, but only one in the oval office thus it is statistically less likely for a woman to become President than for a woman to become a Senator or Representative.  As Dagnes indicates in her book, political satirists are an incredibly small subset of all comedians because the audience for political comment is way smaller than the audience for fart jokes.  Thus, it follows that if there is less opportunity to be a political satirist for comedians in general then it is likely even more difficult to be a female political satirist especially since comedy tends to be a male dominated field (hence the whole “women aren’t funny” BS).  To draw on the Daily Show as an example, it’s no surprise that 33% of the correspondents are women, but it would be a big shock if one of them replaced Jon Stewart (a bit The Daily Show has tried with Samantha Bee).

Third, there may be something unique about political material that just doesn’t jive with female comic’s comedic style.  As Joanne Gilbert argues in her essay on female stand-up comedy, women in stand-up tend to favor self-deprecation as a key laugh-getting trope in order to invite the audience to both laugh at and identify with them.  Of course, men also use self-deprecation (Aristotle argued that it was the most acceptable form of humor for use by the orator), but political satirists generally avoid it.  Satire requires the comic to be the “smartest person in the room.” So even when satirists self-deprecate, they almost always do so in order to ridicule their target to an exponentially higher degree.  Generally, I am no proponent of the “men do it this way and women do it this way” approach to rhetoric, but there may be something to the role of self-deprecation in women’s humor and the rarity of female political humorists.  If nothing else, it is clear that self-deprecation and political satire don’t play well together in the sandbox of comedy.

In sum, I’m not entirely sure that I can answer the question.  I can’t put my finger on any one glaring reason why there aren’t more women doing political humor, but it does seem like a question worth asking.  In fact, it may even be more compelling than the conservative satire question because while conservatives may not be doing much political humor (excluding most of the programming on Fox News, which has to be comedy, right?) they do have access to the political structure—even the crazy ones.  Women, on the other hand, have to count 18% representation as an historic victory and can’t even make a joke about it.