Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Hitchens on Franken, Stewart, Colbert, and the Like

Two thoughts come to mind as I read Christopher Hitchens' attack on liberal comedy. But first, some samples:
Bathos is not irony, though Franken and Stewart and Colbert seem unaware of this. Irony usually partakes of some element of the unintended consequence. How might I give an illustration of the laws of unintended consequences? Let us imagine that Senator Franken composed a chapter about government lying and cover-up, which involved the use of the irresistibly hilarious instance of Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s former national security adviser, being caught red-handed as he stuffed his pants with classified papers from the National Archives. In a capital city that witnesses quite frequent alternations of power between the two main parties, what will be the chances that fiasco and corruption occur at the expense of only one of them? Yet meticulous care is taken by the senator to make sure that no such “fair and balanced” laughter is ever evoked, which is quite a sacrifice for a comedian. Consistency of this kind allows no spontaneity, let alone irony. It might even go some way to explaining the howling success of the “Air America” network, the collapsing-scenery rival to the right-wing dictatorship exerted over the rest of the ether.

Stewart, too, has something of a fat-target problem, and seems partly unaware of this problem’s source in his own need to please an audience that has a limited range of reference. In Naked Pictures of Famous People, when he decides to lampoon Larry King—who in any context is a barn-door-size target—he still manages to make the attack too broad. There’s no slight nudge, but a huge dig in the ribs. It needs to be “Adolf Hitler: The Larry King Interview.” And Hitler has to be a guest who has been helped by therapy to become more of a people person. Here’s his opening reply to King’s welcome to the show.

HITLER: (biting into a bagel) First of all, Larry, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. These are delicious!!!

At whose expense, I wonder, are those three (count them!) exclamation marks? Who is afraid that who will miss what point?
The first thing that came to mind is that humor suffers from analysis. What determines whether or not a comedian is good is not a matter of reason or argument, but of visceral reaction. It either makes a person laugh or doesn't. Further insight or understanding is simply unnecessary, at least for consumers (as opposed to practitioners) of comedy.

Second, it was one of the most elitist things I have ever read. The breadth of a comedian's range of reference strikes me as a bizarre measure of comedic value. I'm not sure any comedian has made me laugh harder than Dave Chappelle, but I don't think he mentions much of anything that I wasn't familiar with by the age of 13. Whether or not a comedian can match Hitchens Baudelaire reference for Baudelaire reference has nothing to do with whether or not he's successful. This isn't like slamming an economics columnist for an unsophisticated grasp Hayek; such a criticism gets to the heart of the function of his job. Hitchens essentially criticizes mass-marketed comedians precisely for taking aim at that mass market. In other words, the more people who can find humor in a joke, the less funny Hitchens finds said joke.


jd said...

[Insert Hitchens-must-not-have-had-his-morning-Gilbey's-when-he-wrote-the-piece joke here.]

pc said...

Better still: you write the joke and I'll dissect whether or not it's funny over the course of 2200 words.

mojo.rhythm said...

Here is the article, in dumbed down plain English, with all the verbosity and gratuitous literary acrobatics removed:

Time magazine took an online poll to find out who was “America’s most trusted newscaster.” The winner, with 44 percent, was Jon Stewart. Either I missed it, or the poll did not specify what had been its “margin of error.”

A summer debate at the Oxford Union once concluded: “This House believes that the nation is slowly sinking giggling into the sea.”

Question 1: Do most people, especially youngsters, get their news from satirical websites?
Question 2: Is the balance of power held by Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live?

For question 1, yep.
For question 2, no. Opinion polls tend to hold the balance of power, with rare exceptions. Case in point: Tina Fey's parody of Palin cost the GOP the 2008 election.

After 9/11, Giuliani wanted to let everyone know that things were going back to normal. He appeared on SNL. One good bit was when they asked “Can we be funny?,” and he responded, “Why start now?” I remember thinking what Al-Queda thought of it.

One time, I was on a cruise-ship entertainment panel—sponsored by The Nation —with Betty Friedan and Al Franken. I thought I was way funnier than Betty Friedan, but I noticed that some left-wing women thought Al Franken was really funny—way funnier than me—even though he was barely trying to be funny. That made me jealous. In fairness to Al, he does do an awesome Mick Jagger impersonation, and he was wicked funny at one of the White House Correspondents’ Dinners when Clinton was president. Franken has a naturally funny face, and perfect deadpan timing. I yakked with him afterwards at the ship bar about Hilldogg running for Congress; this is where I learned that he was a strident progressive Democrat.

You guys might have been really surprised to find out that Stewart is the most trusted news guy. I wasn't all that surprised. Some time ago, I taught a Mark Twain class, and someone asked who I thought the new Mark Twain was. I thought that Gore Vidal, in his youth, might be the closest thing, but someone suggested Jon Stewart. Tons of students agreed with this, which surprised me lots. I said that I'd know for sure after I appeared on his show next week. This made my class respect me more than they ever had. The day after my appearance, I was at West Point to lecture again, and everyone stopped me and talked to me, having seen it. All the attention was totally awesome and stroked my ego like crazy.

mojo.rhythm said...

It's sort of scary. Al Franken actually being a senator is realistic. But Jon Stewart is nowhere near as good as Mark Twain. What's next? Stephen Colbert for Zola? Al Franken for Swift?

Franken always calls himself a “satirist.” I think it's really arrogant, but expected, given his general attitude. I think other people have to judge whether or not you are a “satirist,” and tell you that you are one.

His best book, Lies, proves the general point that people who practice satire see everyone's faults except for their own. The incriminating evidence is on page 37, where he is PWNING Bernie Goldberg:

Why, Bernie asks, if CBS identifies the Heritage Foundation as a “conservative” think tank, does it not identify the Brookings Institution as a “liberal” think tank?

I don’t know. Bias? Or could it be because the Heritage Foundation’s website says their mission is to “promote conservative public policies,” while the Brookings website says it is committed to “independent, factual and nonpartisan research”?

But Goldberg isn't pissed off that the Heritage Foundation call themselves conservatives! He's pissed off that Brookings doesn't call itself liberal. Goldberg thinks that the media should form its own opinions of the think tanks and not just take their word for it. Al Franken is not doing satire if he just assumes that Brookings is telling the truth about this.

Goldberg also says that Rosie O' Donnell should be called a liberal, just like Rush is called a conservative, which is pilloried by Franken. However, Rush is open and proud about being a neocon. Rosie O’Donnell—considered totally cool by Al—is an apolitical wacko who recites talking points, and even believes some of the 9/11 Truth horseshit. She's just covert about her stances.

I hate the Hannity and Colmes Show, but Hannity was right about John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban guy. Hannity said that JWL “converted from anything-goes liberal agnosticism to hard-core Middle Eastern radical Islam.” There are probably good arguments against this point, but Franken doesn't offer one:

Before reading this, I had never considered the direct line between liberal agnosticism and hard-core, radical Islam. But Hannity has a strong case. So many of my liberal, agnostic women friends from college gradually relinquished their freedoms and decided to spend the rest of their lives in chadors, avoiding the gaze of man.

If Jon Stewart said this on TV, everyone would have cracked up after he said the word chadors. He'd get away with saying the last four words, even though they refer to something seriously fucked up in the Muslim world (girls not being able to look guys in the eye). However, when you read it in print, the word chadors isn't hysterically funny, which makes the last 4 words super awkward, like the elephant in the room. Some college feminists, along with other lefties, have become cultural relativists about political Islam, and oppose women who are against it. Obama, who the young people think is Bigger Than Jesus, has only made one speech about the clothes Muslims wear—saying that Muslims can wear hijabs if they want, and that France sucks balls for making it illegal to wear them.

mojo.rhythm said...

Franken and Stewart have a detailed opinion on religion. The phrases Christian right or Moral Majority make their fans laugh automatically when you say them. There is heaps of light-hearted, funny stuff like this from Franken:

If it hadn’t been for Social Security, I never would have met Franni in Boston my freshman year, deflowered her, and gotten her to renounce the Pope. But I digress.

And this, from a not-funny-at-all essay/sketch by Jon Stewart called “Breakfast at Kennedy’s,” set in Connecticut, at Choate:

That’s where Jack and I bonded. I was the only Jew. My father ran the commissary so I was allowed to attend school there. My room, or the Yeshiva, as Jack called it (he really wasn’t prejudiced and would often defend me to the others as a “terrific yid”), was a meeting-place and a hotbed for hatching great pranks … I’m sure the ample supply of brisket and whitefish from Dad helped.

A similair, albeit less Jewish, joke from Colbert:

Now, I have nothing but respect for the Jewish people. Since the Bible is 100% the true Word of God, and the Jews believe in the Old Testament, that means Judaism is 50% right.

If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like. It's a good joke for people who laugh just because they get the joke, and think they are really cool for getting the joke. The joke itself isn't that funny. Colbert, Stewart, and Franken are left-leaning, so none of them take the piss out of Jeremiah Wright, or lampoon The New York Times for calling Al Sharpton a civil rights activist. Baudelaire wrote that the devil’s greatest achievement was to have persuaded so many people that he doesn’t exist: cliché, stupid liberal thinking is the devil in this analogy. Liberals don't even know that they suffer from cliché, stupid liberal thinking.

mojo.rhythm said...

I would have voted for Franken if I lived in Minnesota, because he is smart and knows more stuff than most Senators, and would be a funny guy to spend the evening with. When Al does political stuff, he's very witty and funny. When he's just trying to be funny, he isn't funny.

See if this makes you laugh:

As the Mandingo buck, Mede, says in the movie after he has been brought to James Mason’s plantation to be used as breeding stock, “Massa, it beez wrong to sell a nigger like a plow horse.” He’s right. It does beez wrong. It beez very wrong. These words are as true today as when Ken Norton said them twenty-six short years ago. And I am here today to say that it was wrong to hunt escaped slaves down on horseback; it was wrong to boil slaves alive; and it was wrong to sell a black woman merely because her breasts had grown too droopy.

Urgh, not funny. The “irony” is that you're supposed to cringe, which assumes that irony is humour.

Franken agrees, whether he realises it or not:

“Ironic distance” is not [Al] Gore’s problem. Not that he doesn’t have a well-developed sense of irony. He actually has a terrific sense of humor.

Perceiving irony is isn't the same thing as perceiving humour. Irony is not air-quote finger-marks, as if to say “Just kidding” when you actually are being serious. (Does anyone ever say “Just kidding” when they're being jokey?) Switching from the beautiful and serious to the trivial and absurd, causing a feeling of anti-climax in the process, isn't irony. Franken and Stewart and Colbert think it is. Irony usually involves unintended consequences. I'll give an real-life case to show what I mean. Imagine Senator Franken wrote an essay about government lying and cover-up, using, as an example, Sandy Berger, President Clinton’s former N.S. advisor, being caught stealing classified papers from the National Archives. You'd think that both the GOP and Dems would be a bunch of corrupt goons and not just one party? Al only makes fun of the GOP, so, by definition, he can't be ironic or spontaneous. Not ridiculing the Democrats deprives him of heaps of good material as well. It probably explains why the “Air America” network is so popular, the left wing version of talkback radio.

Senator Franken, in Lies, shows that he is witty when he talks about politics. He does his research, and credits people who help him do his research. When he knows he approaching the PWN on Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter, he takes his time, and milks it. Even if it isn't totally hilarious, it's good polemics. I think, tentatively, that he preys on stupid conservatives, or narcissistic right-wingers who just care about thrusting themselves into the limelight and making coin.

Jon Stewart tends to prey on the weak and stupid as well. Why is this? Because his audience are not the sharpest tools in the shed. In Naked Pictures of Famous People, he does a fake Larry King interview, who is an easy target. The attack is not subtle or intelligent. The attack is really crude and obvious. He interviews Hitler, who has changed and become a people person. Here is Hitler's first reply:

HITLER: (biting into a bagel) First of all, Larry, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. These are delicious!!!

See what I mean? Those three exclamation marks were really crude and obvious. Stewart probably thinks he needs to do it to get the attention of his stupid audience, otherwise they won't appreciate the humour. Too be fair, he does piss-take a few of Larry King's words funnily (“Lovely man, Bud Friedman, very funny”), but Rob Long of National Review takes the piss out of King without needing to use an exaggerated fictional guest. Unfortunately, anything from the National Review isn't supposed to be funny if you're a liberal. They are a conservative magazine who liked Bush.

mojo.rhythm said...

I noticed that in Franken’s Lies and in the Stewart team’s America, they mentioned Joseph Welch’s famous challenge to Joseph McCarthy about whether there was any “decency” left at last. The liberal humorists all tend to know about this event. Two things seem to be involved here: the idea that the far-right used to hate the entertainment industry (which Stewart, Franken et al. are somewhat nostalgic about); and a need to show that it is still true. They have tons of American symbols all over their books, so they must, by definition, be American patriots.

Some loony neocons actually do hate mainstream-TV comedy, which shows, ironically, that mainstream-TV comedy and its comedians aren't really that radical and revolutionary after all. Here’s Franken:

For Dad the rest of religion lay in the ethical teachings of Judaism and, to the extent he had absorbed them, of any other faith, Western, Eastern, or whatever. Again, not so different from our Founders. In their famous correspondence at the end of their lives, Adams and Jefferson wrote a lot about religion. When Adams concluded that his personal creed was “contained in four short words, ‘Be just and good’” Jefferson replied, “The result of our fifty or sixty years of religious reading, in the four words, ‘Be just and good,’ is that in which all our inquiries must end.”

That is just sappy nonsense, but it makes me wanna see Franken start PWNIN again. Just to note: almost all the stuff I've quoted was from back when the Democrats didn't hold power in any branch of the Federal government. This made the liberal comedians, at the time, not part of the establishment. So it should have been funnier, but it wasn't. It gets worse. This year’s black gay woman comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner roasted Limbaugh and not Obama, as was supposed to be tradition. Everyone there thought it was gold. At the moment, I don't think that liberal jokes are funny.