Thursday, November 11, 2010

Schmaltz in "new" show-biz: the "inartful" Stewart-Colbert rally (part two), and the Maddow-Stewart interview

NOTE: I wrote this piece a week ago, but decided not to post the second half of it since the story was still “developing.” Last Friday Rachel Maddow delivered the single most eloquent rebuttal to Jon Stewart and company's method of equating right-wing extremism in the media (read: Fox News) with left-wing “extremism” (read: MSNBC and certain activists in public settings). The result was Stewart reacting to Rachel’s editorial on The Daily Show and then appearing as a guest on her show for a full hour tonight. I include my reflections on the Maddow-Stewart interview below, after the piece I initially wrote.


The next step in tying the “new” show business in with the “old” was taken at the Stewart/Colbert rally. Yes, there hasn’t been anything like it in American history — an exceedingly well-attended mock rally, endowed with a "real message," run by two comedians (one in character, one not) that actually qualified as a mildly political variety show done on location in Washington, D.C. — sort of a “Capitol Steps” show held on the capitol steps.

The event began as a swipe at the Glen Beck rally, which sounded like a great idea, but as it grew in proportion and journalists began to speculate on the “message” of restoring sanity, it was clear that something was slightly “off." Ordinarily rallies and protests are held to convey strong political messages — here was one that was asking everyone to just calm down and stop being so strident. The fact that the sentiment that goes along with that goal — again, “let me go back to bed,” the first-person variant of Bill Hicks’ “go back to bed, America!” — was just fine with everybody, since basically everyone is disappointed with the country the way it is (but the message of the rally, “let’s all be reasonable,” seemed to oddly parallel President Obama’s never-ending courting of the Republicans, who want nothing whatsoever to do with him — curious, huh?). And yet there is still a blind, unswerving patriotism in this country that causes the lunkheads among us (and Colbert audience members — but they’re “cheering ironically,” mind ya….) to shout out “U-S-A, NUMBER ONE!” when most of those cheering haven’t ever visited anywhere else in the world.

So, we have a rally that registers as not much more than a promotional stunt for two TV comedy shows, and yet journalists and attendees started taking it seriously as some sort of statement, although the politics behind that statement were murky, and almost dangerously naïve. I hope it was fun for the attendees — those I’ve spoken to or corresponded with said they had a great time, but couldn’t clearly see or hear the show.

Let’s talk about the comedy that was on display, though, since I want to return to my thesis that today’s cutting-edge comics will quickly reach back to the schmaltz and hokum of the past (with a dollop of snark on top); that hokum being best embodied by Bob Hope’s specials, barely watchable then, but now a source of camp and kitsch fascination for nostalgia buffs like myself (but, again, let me stress, they had the corniest comedy writing in existence — they were bad entertainment!).

The godawful “Chris Rock/Tracy Morgan do Simon and Garfunkel” bit that embodied the Bob Hope corniness of the “Night of Too Many Stars” had its equivalent at the “Rally to Restore Sanity” in a lengthy musical bit. For those who didn’t see the bit, it found Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, doing his anthemic “Peace Train,” only to be interrupted by Stephen Colbert, who brought out Ozzy Obsourne to perform “Crazy Train.” Jon Stewart became the proponent of Yusuf/Cat, and Stephen continued to want to hear Ozzy — until finally the whole issue was solved by having the O’Jays come out and sing “Love Train.”

Besides the fact that all three songs appeal primarily to people my age or older (not much acknowledgment of the youth demo in this “reasonable” political mock-movement), the bit is very much of a piece with sketches on the old Hope specials. It was friendly, cute, innocuous, and had nothing common with the satire that has made up the best of the Stewart and Colbert TV series (the laser-sharp montages showing politicians contradicting themselves on Stewart; “the Word” segments on Colbert).

It was, in short, pretty mild stuff that yielded only one surprise. That surprise occurred when Colbert interrupted Yusuf/Cat’s song and the audience booed him — and then realized it was Stephen doing the thing they disapproved of, and the boos stopped immediately (it was as if a noise of condemnation just suddenly disappeared).

At that point, it became pretty evident yet again that Americans need to love their wrong-headed comic characters, and that under no circumstances is the character to appear “villainous” or unpleasant — he or she must be cute and cuddly! The “Archie Bunker effect,” as I’ve called it, rules American comedy, and Colbert’s character is a perfect example. Consider this for a moment: what remains the single best moment for the character and Colbert himself as a comic performer? His genius turn in character before the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner several years back, with then-President Bush in attendance. There he was, not getting laughs, in “enemy territory,” and he stayed in the character, much like a “heel” wrestler or punk rocker would, taking his lumps and delivering the single best monologue of his career.

It would admittedly be hard to find as unsympathetic an audience for him as was found there, but provocative comedy, and certainly genuine political satire, needs that kind of friction to make it successful (and brilliant), and not just cute, cuddly mainstream entertainment (which admittedly will make you lots of money if your name is Ferrell or Sandler, but you’re not doing good work, you’re making absolute LCD crap comedy). Granted, a good portion of the American public might not be able to comprehend the notion of a character who can be booed and still laughed at (although that notion seems to work well enough in every wrestling arena in the country), but it’s contingent on the creators of comedy to sorta step out there on the edge, and not just surrender to “creeping Bob Hope-ism.” It’s just so much easier to chant ironically “U-S-A, NUMBER ONE!”

And I am aware that Colbert openly evoked Hope when he entertained the troops in the Middle East (golf club over the shoulder, big radio-style microphone). It was a wonderfully gracious gesture to entertain troops imbroiled in a totally futile political gesture intended to solidify America's hold over Middle East oil, but on an entertainment level, those live shows were schmaltz pure and simple, the sort of toothless “comedy” that I was sorta hoping had been eradicated by the smarter, sharper political humor that developed post-Lenny/National Lampoon/Carlin/Pryor/Klein/Hicks (and of course has been reduced to the impersonation-and-nothing-more formula by the rancid corpse that is SNL).

Colbert’s single best evocation of the past was indeed his tongue-in-cheek Xmas special, which was extra-good precisely because there was no audience to cheer it on — the jokes either worked or they didn’t, no “guide” for the home viewer was necessary (we’re adults, we can handle it — in fact, HBO and FX comedies have proven it’s possible).

Back to the rally: never has a politically-themed gathering been a “call to IN-action,” but that’s what this event was. The fact that the right-wing belief system is more emphatic, violent, and leans on emotion and opinion rather than facts, whereas left-wingers have to be (as my Marxist teacher at H.S. taught me years ago) literally steeped in factual information to be able to defend their positions, didn’t factor into the rally's hazy philosophy of "reasonableness" first and foremost.

Proving that Lefties are more susceptible to nudges than the Right, two days after the rally, Keith Olbermann suspended his “Worst Persons in the World” segment, in order to make an effort to be more “reasonable.” Keith seems genuinely thrilled to be mentioned on The Daily Show (and in fact makes segments from The Daily Show and SNL into news “stories”). Keith seems offended when they critique him, yet he hasn’t been on the Stewart show once as a guest in the years I’ve been watching him. On the other hand, Jon had a super-chummy (and lengthy) chat with Chris Wallace in the week after the rally, and has had on O’Reilly repeatedly to hawk his books (and appeared on the “Factor” as a guest). I may not be alone in finding it kinda cringe-inducing hearing Jon do the gigglelaugh at the Fox hosts’ bon mots.

As the close of the rally Stewart made a heartfelt speech as himself. The fact that this serious speech followed frivolous sketches made little sense (making it seem in certain ways like those “Final Thoughts” that Jerry Springer shares with his audience), but Jon’s tone did, yet again, bring the enlightened nostalgia buff back to the schmaltz of the variety show era — or the moments at the ends of Borscht Belt acts where a brassy comic like Buddy Hackettt or Jack Carter would suddenly turn serious and sing “Sunrise, Sunset.” The performer I was put in mind of was Red Skelton (who used to, in his final years, talk proudly and endlessly about the American flag in his live act, after playing “Clem Kadiddlehopper”). As I listened to Jon talk sincerely about how proud he was of America, I kept thinking that the event was going to end with him saying, “goodnight... and gawd bless!!!”

That sort of variety show fare makes for fascinating viewing a few decades on, as a time piece and a curio of an era now gone. As contemporary political satire, to paraphrase an old Jack Paar book title, its saber is bent.


EPILOGUE: The Stewart appearance on Maddow was informative and enlightening, in terms of seeing the relative seriousness and knowledge both broadcasters bring to the table. Maddow is a razor-sharp commentator who has facts at her command, and is one of the brightest hosts on television at this moment. Jon Stewart is a standup comedian, a talented one, and an amiable host. He ain’t Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, or Marshall McLuhan — I personally don’t believe he has any profundities to convey to us, although he is a very pleasant comedic host. And, in his hour with Rachel, as in the serious moments during the rally, it did indeed seem like he now fully believes his own press and feels qualified to speak out on political issues and the media.

And since this blog frequently discusses Godard and his conceptual take on cinema, including the power of montage, I really have to take exception to the very lame defense Jon has offered, to the effect that his show and rally had an “inartful” presentation of the left-right equation. Apparently he can’t/won’t acknowledge the power of montage (Eisenstein's Film Form is on the way, Jon!), which is one of the key joys of his show. Montages do put equal signs between the images and sounds. It can’t be ignored, and to claim the messages of the Daily Show and rally montages were muddled is to acknowledge unwittingly that there’s no clear agenda behind the comedy. To be an effective political satirist, you have to paint heroes and villains — and then if one of the insulted parties says, “hey, you made me out to be the bad guy,” you can’t claim “inartful” editing. Especially when your show is immaculately edited.

The final part of the interview where Jon discussed humor was actually the only effective part of the conversation since, again, I would only turn to Jon for opinions on humor, not his personal take on politics or media. Interestingly, though, he informed Rachel that the “tea bag” label used by the Left to describe the tea party movement was “funny for a day” — this came, oddly, from a comedian who frequently punches his lines up with Adam Sandler-style high voices and dropping the f-bomb (not forgetting the “wiseguy” Jersey voice). We’re not talking Will Rogers, Mort Sahl, Groucho Marx, Steve Allen, or Bill Hicks (in fact Jon revealed his own comic model to be Jerry Seinfeld — anodyne observational comedy as the model for a political-satire show?); we’re talking a very amiable TV comic with an extremely talented writing staff and immaculate video editors.

The Rachel-Jon interview was extremely friendly (yes, it was truly "reasonable"), and provided further evidence that Maddow is a class act. As for Jon, it seems that his feelings are hurt that his rally has been subjected to some criticism. If the rally had indeed had any political message other than a call to inaction, I think I could’ve sympathized with him.

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