Monday, October 13, 2008

SNL Packs a Punch

For years Saturday Night Live has been fading into satirical obscurity, with most people convinced that the days when it represented anything close to cutting-edge satire were decades past. However, Tina Fey's recent and hilariously successful impersonations of Sarah Palin have been so spot-on that some are suggesting Fey is actually influencing the election.

Not since Chevy Chase made many viewers perceive Gerald Ford as a clumsy stooge has a television impersonation been credited with altering the political narrative to such a degree, said John Pitney Jr., a professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.

"The parodies may have done a bit of damage. People remember Gerald Ford through the prism of Chevy Chase," he said. "Ford was among our most athletic presidents, and he had a wide-ranging knowledge of public-policy issues. But because of 'SNL,' many came to think of him as a buffoon."

A recent Washington Times poll found 33 percent of independents said the "Tina Fey effect" is hurting the McCain-Palin ticket. Palin is trying her best to laugh off the SNL skits, and her loyal base is furious about what they perceive as the 'disrespectful' parodies. But the damage has been done: Tina Fey has raised SNL's ratings by nearly 50%, and for many it's impossible to separate the real Sarah Palin from the parody. The moral of the story? - Don't run on a presidential ticket if you happen to bear an uncanny resemblance to one of the sharpest, Emmy-award winning humorists around.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

That sonovabitch had to go and die on us

Okay, I'll be honest - I haven't given George Carlin much thought over the last few years. Unless you're in the field and know his backstory, most younger folks probably look at him like an old curmudgeon. And I'd relegated him to that role in my own thinking.

Now he's gone, and instead of mooning over him and how great he was, instead I'm going to post a few resources here. Whether you already know and revere him, or you want to come up to speed on a guy who you heard used to be pretty hot stuff back in the day, check out:

The Kennedy Center had recently announced Carlin as their 11th annual recipient for their Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Few people walking this earth deserved it as much as he did. Now they'll have to give it posthumously - astoundingly ironic, considering his routine about death:

"'Older' sounds a little better than 'old,' doesn't it?," he said. "Sounds like it might even last a little longer. ... I'm getting old. And it's OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die - I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they'll call it a 'terminal episode.' The insurance company will refer to it as 'negative patient care outcome.' And if it's the result of malpractice they'll say it was a 'therapeutic misadventure.'"

Thanks to MSNBC for publishing that, as well as a nice bio and selection of videos.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Not satire, thank you very much

Satire and fake news (interchangeable terms for most people, though they're not the same thing) have become increasingly popular forms of social commentary. Well-written stories trade on their plausibility - absurd enough to catch the eye, but plausible enough not to be dismissed out of hand. It may be a bad sign, however, when 'serious' media feel a need to preface surprising headlines with a "non-satire disclaimer"., a site dedicated to news about 'occupied Iraq', reports a surprising decision by the Swedish courts determining that Iraq is not under armed conflict. The headline is preceded by a large "* * * NOT SATIRE * * *" notice. Have we done our job too well? Will other media outlets follow suit (or will they be uncertain whether they can make the claim)?

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It's Stephen Colbert's world - we just live in it

Satirical persona Stephen Colbert is unabashedly self-aggrandizing, mimicking the art of punditry so well that he makes the real articles look pale in comparison. It was, therefore (in hindsight) almost inevitable that the self-anointed great man would answer America's 'call for a hero' - a call which only his superior hearing can make out! - and run for President, at least on the South Carolina ballot.

Most people seem amused by the notion of a comedian entering the race for president, though most also seem to feel that he cannot possibly harm the dignity and sanctity of the process since it is already trailing along in the mud, on various levels. However what makes Colbert a dangerous candidate is the same thing that makes him a dangerous talk-show host: his utter lack of hypocrisy. He embraces the absurd, takes the most alarming doctrines of the right and pursues them to their 'logical' conclusions. Where most public figures gloss over inconsistencies in their positions or unpopular issues, Colbert charges forth, ostensibly blind to all but the beautiful music of his own drummer.

The Colbert Report is first-class satire in the truest sense of the term (as opposed to the amusing, but less trenchant parodies of The Daily Show) and it is a treat to see the man himself enter an already surreal ring at the peak of his powers. Whatever happens in South Carolina, it is sure to be interesting.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New Zealand's missing sense of humor

It seems incredible, but New Zealand has actually voted to ban media outlets from using images of Parliament for satirical purposes. What's more, the vote was not even close (it was 111 to 6). Most New Zealanders apparently think this is a bad idea, and most journalists as well. It never bodes well when a government tries to take control over its public image to this extent; controlling satire is just a step towards controlling media coverage in general.

However despite the headlines screaming "Parliament bans satire!" it should be noted that the MPs here are talking about images being taken out of context, a favorite tactic of today's media in search of a better/more interesting reality. This isn't a ban on written expression (yet). However, it's a bad precedent, and one destined to be ineffectual to boot. One wonders just how many photoshopped images of New Zealand MPs will pop up on the internet in the coming weeks; they're just asking for it.

(Thanks to our comrades at Brainsnap for the tip.)

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Can you be sued for failing to recognize satire? Sure, why not?

We have long cast a jaundiced eye at the mainstream media's tendency to fall for fake stories. A recent example of poor reporting has become even more complicated, thanks to a lawsuit.

In April, content omnivore Associated Content, which accepts contributions of all kinds, printed a story by Nicholas Plagman about a supposed "hate crime" involving Muslim students and a sandwich. The problem is, the spurious article cited a real school and a real school administrator, who got enormous amounts of flack after the ever-vigilant Fox News reported the story as fact. Now, the administrator is suing Fox News for the damage their reporting caused his reputation.

There's plenty of blame to hand around here. Fox News of course completely failed in its duty as a mainstream media outlet to double-check their story. But, although it is somewhat painful to admit, in this case the circumstances may have been somewhat mitigating. Plagman submitted his satire news story as a real news article to Associated Content, a site which disseminates both real and parodic material. Consequently the normal 'tells' indicating that a site may not be reliable (e.g., it is called Broken Newz or The Specious Report) weren't there. And the use of a specific school administrator suggests some malice on the part of Mr. Plagman.

Fox News is getting the lawsuit, because it has the deep pockets to pay up and because it has a higher standard to meet. But there are real questions about the role of AC, which has since engaged in a frenzy of self-reflection in an effort to understand what the fraudulent submission means for its generally friendly and devoted community. The strength of this site is its open submission policy, which works fine and dandy unless someone gets cute with the facts. The problem is that in appearance and focus, AC seems to emulate a legitimate news aggregator. It carries legitimate news. Unless it figures out a better way to sort through and present its original content, it will remain vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous posters with the potential to do real damage to real people.

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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.