Wanda and Imus and Rush and Sean: Every year at this time, we stage a national pseudo-debate about the nature of political comedy. It has become an annual ritual. The story-line rarely changes:
First, some press association or other invites some non-insider comedian to perform at its annual dinner. Predictably enough, the non-insider crosses some (perfectly sensible) line in the course of the evenings performance.
Observers fly into a rage, depending on who has been insulted. Depending on who has been insulted, one party says we should be more respectful. The other party responds by saying that we should all lighten up.
In the process, weird things get said about the nature of comedy. Often, theyre versions of this plainly inaccurate claim: But comedy is always offensive! None of this makes very much sense. But as people used to say about baseball, it happens every spring!
A few points:
In 1996, Don Imus was the non-insider entertainer. He was openly insulting to the Clintons, who were sitting on the dias, and to the late Peter Jennings, who was in the front row. But it isnt true, as weve read this week, that the press corps thought it was A-OK when it was Clinton who got insulted. Imus got famous in the process, but mainstream reaction was very negative. Kim Masters reported the full-blown flap in the Washington Post:
MASTERS (3/23/96): It was a roast that turned into an inferno.
Radio talk host Don Imus's raunchy performance at the Radio & Television Correspondents Association Dinner Thursday night has developed into a full-blown media flap. The committee that organized the event has issued a formal apology to the president and expressed its hope that he might attend another of their dinners someday. ABC's Cokie Roberts says she will neverrepeat, neverbe a guest on the Imus radio show again.
Even Cokie! In this case, it was a major conservative who said we should just lighten up. More Masters: One of Imus's lone defenders was Republican commentator Mary Matalin, who said the members of the audience at the dinner behaved as if they were sitting on sticks when they reacted with shock to the Imus onslaught.
This year, Wanda Sykes has been widely frisked for a few jokes or insults aimed at Rush Limbaugh. In this case, Dems and libs have said we should lighten. Conservatives have starred in the alternate role, going into a lather.
As always, the ensuing discussion tends to make little sense. Some have said this: But Sykes just did the sort of thing Limbaugh does every day! Thats true, but Limbaugh doesnt do it at a formal dinner, with the president sitting right there. In 1996, Imus standard idiocy crossed a line when he exhibited it on a formal occasion, with his targets physically present. We said for years (until we gave up) that Limbaughs misstatements should be treated as news (more so than his insults). But its one thing to engage in insults on a radio show, or at a comedy club. Its another thing to do so at a dinner with the president present, in a situation where you have been asked to entertain an audience.
Were not trying to knock Sykes, by the way; its very hard to do topical comedy, and she had a bunch of good jokes. But she tended to run out of jokes a bit as her set went along, trending more toward insultsand yes, there is a difference. None of this makes a huge difference, of course. But so what? In a culture devoted to pseudo-discussion, it happens every spring!
Final note: Its often surprising to see what happens when pundits explain what a certain joke meant. Late in her set, Sykes had a good joke about Sean Hannity. It was a good joke because it made a point, in a joking way. But uh-oh! We thought Kathleen Parker missed its point, in an otherwise largely sensible column:
PARKER (5/13/09): If Sykes deserves criticism, it's for being un-clever. To be funny, a joke has to reveal some truth buried deep in the collective psyche. As when Sykes said she wouldn't need to waterboard Sean Hannity to get information, because all she'd need to do is put him in a middle seat in coach.
Now that's funnynot because we infer that Hannity is a diva, but because we're all divas when it comes to the middle seat. We have personal experience with that bit of torture. During a recent four-hour flight wedged between two folks who've apparently yet to decline dessert, I'd have confessed to whatever Sykes wanted for an upgrade to first class.
To us, the joke did imply that Hannitys a divaor perhaps a bit of a fraud. To us, that seemed to be its obvious point; that was the truth buried in it. The same joke would have made little sense applied to Gordon Liddy or Oliver North, for example. (But then, they wouldnt have made Hannitys show-boating offer to get water-boarded in the first place.) But as Parker notes: On the meta level, this joke is an actual joke because it implies this about its subjectit doesnt just issue an insult.
Sykes seems like a good, decent, cheerful person. At a few points, she did wander over some sensible linesmuch less so than some before her. No, it doesnt make a huge difference. But in a culture which longs to avoid real discussion, it happens every spring. We insist.
COWS AND BRASSIERES: Jonathan Turley had his usual minor cow on last nights Maddow Show.
In fairness, Turley has never met a president he didnt want removed from office. Next week, well share his highlight reel from 1998 and 1999, when he got famous by insisting the republic would wither and die if Bill Clinton was allowed to linger on at the White House.
Actually, if Turley likes a president, he wants him removed. If not, he wants him arrested. (We prepared that as a joke for a GW fund-raisers event. Decided not to go theretoo obscure.)
Last night, the highly nuanced, wavy-haired academic was asked to explain Obamas flip on release of those prison photos. And good lord! It was just like old times! Obamas conduct was perfectly Orwellian, Turley subtly explained at the start. He flatly stated that Obama was allowing material to be withheld just because it would be embarrassing to the country. (He made this claim several times in the course of his interview.)
It was an incredibly dark moment, Turley said. It was more evidence that this administration is becoming the greatest bait-and-switch in history. Obama is morphing into his predecessor, the nuanced professor said, watching his words with great care.
Bad Obama! According to Turley, the president has reaffirmed what al Qaeda has been sayingthat we are a nation of hypocrites. And not only that! Obama has really allied himself in this with the worst possible approach to government.
His frameworks switched like New England weather. At issue was a lot more pictures or a few more pictures, depending on which sub-point he was arguing. (It was a lot more pictures when Turley explained how much release of the photos would prove. It was a few more pictures when he explained how silly Obama was to oppose their release.)
To watch a small cow enter the world, you know what to do: Just click here.
Why did Obama reach this decision? We dont have the slightest idea. That said, we were struck by one familiar point as watched Turleys cow emerge. At no point in the five-minute discussion did Maddow or Turley state the reason Obama has given for making his decision. All manner of speculation was offered about Obamas real reasons for acting. But you would have had to listen quite hard to know what reason he himself had given. Its quite standard in discussions like this, of course: If pundits dont like some decision or other, they refuse to consider the possibility that the principal has stated the actual reason for it. Its the law! If pundits dont like some decision or other, the motive must be hiddenbad.
Were slightly disadvantaged today because the transcript of Turleys session hasnt yet appeared on Nexis. But then, the Maddow Show continues to appear on this important service in a haphazard way. This Mondays show hasnt yet appeared; neither has last Fridays or last Wednesdays. We cant recall seeing a prime-time programeven on Fox!create so haphazard a record. The Maddow Show is a very important program. It should create a lasting historical record, as all other cable shows do.
Tomorrow, well look at Maddows interviews from Tuesday night, with Lawrence Wilkerson and Eliot Spitzer. The Spitzer session struck us as importantthe stuff of an emerging great show. Wilkerson? Something quite different.
Meanwhile, the world of Bill Wolff produced more cable entertainment last night. Uh-oh! There was no excuse to play tape of Carrie Prejean. So the corporate playboys turned their sights to the wonderful world of brassieres:
OLBERMANN (5/13/09): Bests in a moment, and car chase ends in drive-thru lane.
First, this is May 13th, thus 21 days since Sean Hannity volunteered to be water-boarded for a military families charity. Thus 20 days since I offered to donate $1000 per second that he lasted. Thus 19 days during which Sean Hannity has reneged on his promise. Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Let`s play Oddball!
Yes, I called him a kitty. What do you want to do about it?
We begin with Tokyo, with the latest in lingerie for all the single ladies. Behold, the husband-hunting bra. Finally, theres a way to tell that deadbeat boyfriend of yours: If you like it, you should have put a ring on it.
The bra comes equipped with your own biological clock. Tick, tick, tick, girls. First, decide your marriage deadline. The clock will begin counting down. Next, find your life partner, get him to propose, insert your engagement ring into the bra and the clock stops. The bra will then play a lovely electronic rendition of the wedding march and a special pen side pocket is provided for all important prenup. Or once he finds out you snared him with the help of a diabolical bra. Divorce papers are in there too.
To Tel-Aviv, where if you successfully used your husband-hunting bra, you get hitched, to a large truck. Actually, these women are the first females to participate in Israel`s annual truck pull...
Kitty was meant to suggest a bolder word, thus pleasing this programs target audience, whose IQ is apparently 12. And as KO narrated about that brassiere, tape was played of a Japanese ladysorry, girlsmiling at you in her underthings. To watch the excitement, just click here. (To see such conduct condemnedwhen done by Fox!you know what to do: Just click this.)
Countdown was dumber than ever last nightdeeply, crusadingly, dead-dog dumb. The pointless segment about Sarah Palin got pushed way up in the program last night; only one real segment was offered. You know, wed almost have to guess that a corporate decision has been made. Spitzer and them will show up on Maddow. With KO, its clowns and brassieres.
Might the answer to all this gonging possibly lie in the world of Bill Wolff? Well ponder that crucial question next week in a special report.
Constantly skirting danger: By the way, KO knew how naughty he was, as he revealed in this tease:
OLBERMANN: So, its a brassiere that hunts husbands. Yes, I dont think theres a single joke I can make without getting into real trouble here.
Oh, to live in a less repressive land! Poor lad! Hes always flirting with danger!
Whatever this is, it isnt progressive. Then too, it has ceased being news.