Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance of websites past (Part 5: Rant Morgan)

The internet is a great place to learn how to do things. I guarantee, if you think of nearly any random activity and Google "How do I _____?" you will find some answer, somewhere. Rant Morgan did his part to make sure that no such query went unanswered, by providing how-to guides on a wide range of things ranging from the plausible (get free DVDs) to the less likely (set up a threesome or fake your own death) to the extremely unlikely (start your own cult or train a monkey). The site's motto was "Showing you how to do the things you shouldn't do." And indeed you shouldn't, at least not following Rant's advice.

What made the site unusual was the combination of a breezy, matter-of-fact style, well-written articles, and absolutely no grounding in reality whatsoever. Rant was a pseudonymous character set up to be sort of a cross between James Bond and The Most Interesting Man in the World. Claiming an improbable range of experiences, Rant's advice was utterly off the cuff, and sometimes even unsuccessful, as when the monkey he ostensibly trains has an unfortunate encounter with a bus:

In my apartment, I surveyed the damage: Spilt beer, flung crap, a scratched cheek, a busted disposable camera, and a lack of sleep. Brad was gone, I lost my pictures of the zoo, I was picking crap off the walls, and now I own a perfectly good monkey leash without a monkey in sight. I wept. And that's How To Train a Monkey. Warning: Sometimes things don't go as planned.

Rant's site was hard to get a handle on, because he was so glib that it wasn't always clear to readers whether he was really making things up. Some of his advice was logical enough, as far as it went, though I'm pretty sure he never actually rigged an election or built a Mars rover. (It is entirely possible, however, that he did go cow tipping at some point.) Half the fun was gauging the plausibility of his "strictly for entertainment purposes" guides.

Rant Morgan was an example of a site with a lot of potential that didn't quite catch on. Most of the guides were very entertaining, but some were pragmatic enough to seem like an only slightly offbeat version of The concept of Rant as a character seemed only half-finished; he came through most clearly in the insane or patently illicit how-to guides. For the more mundane activities, such as "hosting a keg party", Rant the mystery man seemed to take a back seat to the unnamed twenty-something young man behind the mask. One suspects that had the writer given the fictitious Mr. Morgan a stronger presence, or stuck more exclusively to the truly oddball guides, the site would have caught on with a wider audience. But pretty much all the content was produced in 2004, and although the writer remained active in the online humor community for some time after, it was clear he'd moved on to other projects.

Eventually, the site passed into parse error purgatory, and the web became a slightly less interesting place to surf. RIP Rant Morgan, 2004-2007.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When playing with fire, make sure you know who's getting burned

(by Bill Stockton, Check Please! Editorial Board Member)

This week's article in Check Please!, When Humor Meets Homophobia, offers an account of parodied homophobic views taken seriously. The author underscores how effective satire can be in highlighting the surprising prevalence of such prejudice. However there is an additional, negative potential to be considered, something that all we satirists who indulge in faux news should keep in mind. It's this: what if some ignorant bigot takes a piece of faux news seriously and is provoked to violence? To what extent does writing faux news on lightning rod issues like race and gender identity perpetuate the bigotry rather than helping expose and eliminate it?

On many satire sites, you would have to be truly near brain death not to see that the articles are completely bogus, given the look and feel of the sites and the juxtaposition of many absurd faux news pieces one after another. But what if a piece about a gay agenda is plucked off an rss feed that lacks the context of the website itself? Imagine that this faux news, further laundered of context, gets on an e-mail list to skinheads and it becomes real news to them.

Now imagine two skinheads who believe this is real news are in a bar one night. A gay guy walks in and the next thing you know, the skinheads have him outside beating the crap out of him. They tie him to a barbed wire fence and leave him there in sub-freezing temperatures. The next morning he is found dead. (This is the infamous Laramie case, though the perpetrators weren't skinheads and faux news wasn't involoved.)

In the media blitz leading up to the release of Sacha Baron Cohen's film, I watched on YouTube a clip of him convincing everybody in a county and western bar in Tucson to sing along as he performed "Throw the Jew Down the Well." It was scary watching all those cowboys and their dates get into lustily singing the song. My wife Ann, whose grandparents came to Ellis Island at the end of the 19th Century to escape pogroms in Russia, didn't find it very funny. I grew up on a cattle ranch in New Mexico and know up close how bigoted some, but not all, cowboy types can be about gays. Cohen could just as easily sang "Throw the Fag Down the Well." Might that have provoked some of the drunken cowboys you see on that clip? Cohen taunted a stadium full of people by posing as a flamboyant gay man. Did he provoke some of those present to go out and beat up the first gay person they came across? Did his appearance before the crowd further gay rights in this country, or retard them?

If homophobia is still acceptable behavior in American society, what responsibilities do satirists have when writing faux news about gay people? To be effective, satire depends upon context, and the internet is famous for quickly and inextricably separating information from its source. There are lessons to be learned in the reactions to the pieces by Matheny, Borowitz, The Onion and Baron Cohen. One of those lessons is that even satirists - or perhaps, especially satirists - need to be careful about what they say.

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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.