Thursday, September 16, 2004

Wait, Jay Leno is Funny?

That IS news!

Phoblog's funniest friend, Sanjay (go check out Badmash), passes on this Nikki Finke article from the L.A. Weekly on Jay Leno: Does Mr. Middle-of-the-Road Lean Left?

The piece opens with a laundry list of lefty indicators Leno possesses: no Reep staff writers, thinks Iraq was bad, thinks Bush is a moron, has tips for Dems, his joke-writers are all Dems. Then Finke asks, "Could it be? . . . Is Leno, "the right comic," really a closet lefty?"

The interview was born of a phone call from Leno to Finke following her (totally justified) ripping of Leno's Schwarzen-pandering and apparent selling out to one side (which, to be fair-ish, is fine since Letterman hates Bush. of course, most thinking folks should, so nevermind, I revoke any sorta-credit given to Leno).

Finke had a problem with Arnold announcing on Leno's show. She thought it "hurt [his] objectivity."

Objectivity?

Here's my objective analysis of objectivity in humor. Or maybe it's my subjective analysis. Or both. Or neither. You decide.

As I've cited frequently over the life of this blog, during periods of intense political disquiet, rancor, and fear, comedians end up the only truth-tellers to whom we can turn. Not all comics are "true," but some do hit equally at all sources of incongruity (read: "hypocricy" in the political word) which is the bedrock of funnyism from a theoretical point of view. Finke's question, however, imparts to the comic the same ill-conceived definition of "journalism" or "reporting" that threatens the safety of Americans today. Namely - a need to be "objective" is realized in an equal treatment of both sides' talking points. Not what the facts might be - but what each side says the facts are. See the difference?

Leno, as a comedian, is not a journalist bound by any code of "objectivity" no matter how defined. I mean, look at Sean Hannity - he's funny, and no one doubts who he champions (what? he's not a comedian? oh, he's serious . . . . hmmmm).

Leno, buying into the premise and assigning to himself much more credit than he is due, fires back that during the Clinton years he was "so Mr. Democrat" - so much so that he wrote jokes for them and is thanked in Hillary's book. Wow, but is that not what I remember from the Lewinsky years . . . .

Leno then riffs on "bashing" as a comedian - who he bashes, who he doesn't, and how he may or may not bash. Debbie Allen couldn't choreograph such intricate responses.

When Finke calls him on his Clinton record - saying many journos thought he was Clinton bashing - his response is the funniest thing I've heard out of him in years - unintentionally, though:

Now when you say bashing Clinton, I never questioned his patriotism. If you take doing the occasional sex joke, to me that’s not bashing. I will never denigrate or make fun of John Kerry’s service record. He is a true hero who served his country. I may make fun of the fact he mentions it a lot. But I will never call his character into question. I heard some guy on talk radio the other day going on about Kerry’s medals being phony. Now, I won’t even do jokes about that because I don’t want to plant that seed.

You’ve done jokes about him allegedly throwing the medals.

But that was harmless. It’s not as if he didn’t earn them.
Finke eventually returns to her all-consuming quest to preserve objectivity in humor by asking how Leno ensures his political comedy is evenhanded.

There are, to be fair, many effective strategies for being funny. There's the Daily Show's method - incisively pointing out rampant incongruity with an eye toward the greater good (that is, smaller hypocricies take a back seat to, say, most of Bush's record. Things that could end with us all blowed up, rightfully, get more attention). . . .

And then there's Leno's method - a lower-brow, yukka yukka, everyone's-a-moron technique that should be played infront of a brickwall next to a stool instead of on national television where Leno should acknowledge that his encouragement of national head-nodding is engendering a comic-induced forgiveness of Bush's idiocy while indicting Teresa Heinz Kerry for being rich.

A hint of intellectual honesty comes through when Leno talks about Letterman:
Does he show his dislike maybe a little more than I do? Probably. But to me, Dave is a TV broadcaster. I am a comedian. It’s just different. My job is to get laughs. For what I’m doing, sometimes sarcasm and irony do not work as well as a joke. But I don’t think our politics are probably much different. I’m also at a disadvantage. Because you know you can never ask Dave to answer any of these questions.
So at least Leno admits there are different forms of funny. But I'm not sure there's much of a distinction between his job and David Letterman's - aside from what he's created to continue swaying the electorate while disavowing any responsibility for his influence.

I just don't buy most of Leno's arguments. In my opinion - and remember, I almost minored (yeah, CMCers, I mean "sequenced" but who knows what that is outside of our cult?) in comedy (no, really) - Leno isnt funny. Or, if he is funny, it's rudimentary, inelegant, spiteful, and geared toward gafaws. Irresponsible comedy - especially when used to convey opinions on politics - isn't harmless fun. A laugh creates a connection, engenders support, agreement - makes an in-group and, necessarily, an out-group.

Leno owns up to his agenda (may be too harsh a word) here:

You went totally hog-wild with the French jokes.

Well, there’s nothing funnier to me than the French. The French Resistance is probably the biggest mythical joke that ever existed. There were four guys in the French Resistance. They couldn’t hand over the Jewish people fast enough. Oh, please, don’t tell me about the French. The French have all sorts of secret deals with Saddam and everybody else for two cents a liter. It’s an easy target.
An easy target.

That's Leno's comedic philosophy in a nutshell.

Leno is right and wrong when he says "you don't change anybody's mind with comedy. You just reinforce what they already believe." In the short-term, that is true. Minds aren't changed in one joke (unless it's a damn good joke). But over time, it can, and does change mind. It makes otherness acceptable.

The thing is that I’m just here to tell the joke. I really don’t have any personal ax to grind. And I try to keep a sense of fair play. This is not a bully pulpit. You try to do what reasonably fair people would think of as a fair joke. . . . .

The ratings are laughs . . . if it got a big laugh. I always say comics make the mistake that they start off as comedians, then they become humorists, then they become satirists, then they become commentators, then they’re out of show business. That’s sort of the way it goes. I don’t want to be preached to as a member of the audience. I like to hear a joke. And if I’ve learned something after I’ve laughed, well, that’s pretty good. And if I’ve learned something before I’ve laughed, I don’t enjoy it as much . . . .

The White House strategy is to ridicule Kerry every single day of the campaign. And obviously The Tonight Show will be the first to pick up on that. How do you decide if you’re being used to further some political party’s ends?

Nobody from the White House calls or leaks us stuff. You see a picture that appears in the paper, like Kerry at NASA, and you roll with it. If it’s something funny, like Dukakis in a tank, Bush with a sombrero, Kerry in that colonoscopy suit, you use it.

Do you personally think this is a more important election than some of the others?

[Sighs.] Yeah, it is. I remember in college, and up until recently, I could have a political discussion without people walking out of the room, or telling me to screw off. There’s hostility now. I mean, it’s literally brother against brother. I have friends who won’t even speak now because one is a Bush guy and one is a Kerry guy. And I say, “You really think there’s that big a difference between these two parties?” Okay, obviously there is. When it comes to Supreme Court judges, yeah, I really worry. But I’m not sure what Kerry is going to do that much differently in Iraq. He says today he has a plan, but he doesn’t want to say what it is. Hello. I remember Nixon was going to end the war. . . .

I think that having grown up in Boston, having been in a middle-class family, and having been active on behalf of unions — I know about that — I actually think you’re probably left of center. But I think there’s a fear inside of you that you don’t want to piss off authority. It comes from your mother, this don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.

Is there anything wrong with making authority laugh at themselves?

The current crew in the White House doesn’t seem to laugh much at themselves.

The interesting thing is, I have found that the Republicans respond much more to jokes about themselves than the Democrats do. Democrats take it very, very seriously. You know, when Al Gore was here in 2000, we said we want to do this bit, and then it was, “Can we run it past our people?” “Can we make these changes?” Then the day of the show, “We’re going to pass.” Bush shows up. We had a bit where we’re playing Jeopardy, and he’s going to look kind of stupid. But then, in the end, the joke’s on me. “Yeah, fine, whatever you want.” It couldn’t have been easier.
He's right that Dems need to be more open to laughing at themselves. And Dems have fallen into the "that's not funny" trap. Remember - you'll NEVER win with the statement "that's not funny." Once you're mad, you're theirs, every time, without fail. And the more you have to insist the lack of humor in a situation, the funnier the situation gets. Bush et al have managed humor brilliantly in this camapaign - as evidenced by the way jokes creep out of Reep stories, reported Reep talking points (which are funnier, and what gets reported because that's what reporting is these day).

Leno is a cynic. Removed from the world to a place where he can choose when to care and when not to care. He has the luxury of a mouth heard 'round the nation. He presents his reality and everytime you laugh at it, you agree with it, it gets in you and you're likely to use it to make your own joke later. Rinse, Repeat. And as to the consequences of lowest-common-denominator humor:

But surely “Jaywalking” [Leno’s man-in-the-street segment] shows you what morons Americans are.

You get the government you deserve.

Heartwarming.

Perhaps we demand too much from Leno. After all, by taking him on, am I not also falling into Finke's theory that Leno should be living up to some level of objectivity? Maybe. But then again, we can't deny the persuasive power of humor - in politics, pop-culture, pretty much everywhere. Its undeniable and when used well can foreclose rational discourse framed in non-funny terms( See also: Presidential election, Bush v. Kerry (2004)). So while I still take issue with a demand for "objectivity" - when defined as "evenhandedness" - I encourage calling out Leno on what he does. (note also in the article his government-owns-media statements and contrast that with how much he's owned by corporate America. Judge the level of selling out as you will - he is hamstrung by his job. Small cable channels, not so much).

If you think about it - since comedy is incongruity, hypocricy, Leno's interview is rife with opportunity. But I'll leave to to The Daily Show - they get it.

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