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February 22, 2007

Filed under: politics»wingnuts»fox_news

After-Dinner Shrieking

Joel Surnow is not just the sociopathically torture-happy producer of 24. This Sunday, the right-wing Daily Show that he spearheaded aired on Fox News, thus completing an infinite loop of irony for the rest of us, particularly those who have always suspected that Fox News was itself a right-wing Daily Show. Sadly, the complete show doesn't seem to be online, so if you "forgot" to watch it, you'll just have to settle for clips. You can find the two that were leaked out ahead of time, as well as a pretty insightful take on it, at John Rogers' Kung Fu Monkey. The whole post is brilliant, but my favorite part is where Rogers presents his theory of why humor works:

On a deeper level, this is about how you cannot make humor, you find humor. And you find humor in truth. As Tyrone pointed out to me later in the conversation, often Stewart does nothing but play the tape of a politician's actual words, and then do a reaction. A joke only works -- although every comic has a theory on this -- if there's some underlying bit of truth to it. Either truth unrecognized before now, eliciting surprised laughter in response, or recognized and appreciated, the so-called "sympathy laugh." (see Simpson, Homer: "It's funny because it's true!" which in context is damn near a three-level meta-joke.) This is why jokes about Bush not being bright work -- because we've all heard him speak, and he does not come across as a bright man. This is why jokes about Bill Clinton being a horndog work -- because Billy-boy's a horndog. You could not do a joke about Bush being, say, an adulterer, even if that were your "talking point." It just wouldn't work, because it doesn't ring true.

This, by the way, is the underpinning of the situation comedy, or nearly all scripted comedy: an ordinary person is put in a ridiculous situation, and his truthful response is amusing; or a ridiculous person is put in an ordinary situation and his truthful response is amusing.

Keep that in mind if you were to watch, for example, another leaked segment from the 1/2 Hour News Hour--that link, for those who are not masochists or who can't watch streaming video at work, is a parody "promotional ad" in which the ACLU sues on behalf of pregnant cocaine addicts. Have there been any pregnant cocaine addicts in the news lately? Not that I'm aware of. Is the ACLU well-known for defending either cocaine addicts or pregnant women, much less both? Again, that doesn't seem to be the case to me. Perhaps a better question is, are pregnant cocaine addicts actually funny? And the answer is no, not really. Even if the spot actually came out and mentioned "crack mothers," which (with all of its accompanying connotations) is almost certainly what they hope to evoke, that's not really a funny idea. It's just kind of sad. Tying it to the ACLU is simply bizarre--wouldn't NARAL have been the appropriate choice?

But you know, we could sit around and write better jokes for these guys all day (and, should I still be job hunting by the end of June, that might be the last resort). We could also simply take away the lesson that conservatives aren't funny, but as Dan notes that's just too easy. What I find fascinating is that the show is so aggressively unfunny, and I don't think that's necessarily a conservative fault. There are funny conservatives, somewhere. More importantly, I disagree somewhat when John Rogers says that you cannot "make" humor. You can't make really good humor, but you can certainly fake mediocrity better than the 1/2 Hour News Hour does. I know, because I spent two years on a college forensics team.

See, one event in forensics (competitive speech, not dead people) is called After-Dinner Speaking. It's supposed to be the humorous category, although that is tempered by the requirement that the speech should also have some sort of point and structure--this isn't stand-up, in other words. It's the kind of skill that might come in handy if you're asked to give a funny introduction for a business retreat, or some other equally awkward situation. Impress your boss without looking like an idiot, in other words. When you take a step back from forensics in general, you begin to find that those are the skills it develops most.

I wasn't very good at After-Dinner Speaking, personally. I think part of this is that I am neither a tremendously funny person, nor a tremendously serious person which is equally funny in the right context. But I managed to qualify for the national tournament in ADS both years on the team, because it turns out that you can actually manufacture jokes using a few basic formulas. For example, there's the List of Three: recite a trio of examples for any given point, where the first two items support your point and the third either undermines, subverts, or exaggerates it. So I might say that the 1/2 Hour News Hour is produced by Joel Surnow, Manny Coto, and a particularly bright howler monkey (you can hear him on the show's fake laugh track). Likewise, there are a number of stock joke constructions from ADS speeches like the Off-the-Wall Pop Culture Reference, the Non-Sequitur, and the Embarrassing Self-Deprecation. They're not going to get you a gig at the Improv, but they're good enough to liven up a presentation on your business case.

What all of these strategies have in common is that they're surprising, which I think is actually the root of humor. We find things to be funny when they snap us out of what we anticipated would happen. Maybe that means that they get us to look at the world a little differently, as with observational comics. At the lowest level, slapstick is funny because it combines everyday activities with overly-dramatic clumsiness and violence. It can even work in reverse: the punchline of "The Aristocrats" is funny because it's so utterly banal compared to the rest of the joke.

I get what Rogers is saying when he says that comedy is truth, but I feel like what he's really saying is "good comedy is truth." Mediocre comedy is just the unexpected. And that's what I find so sad about the clips of the 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour: they're not surprising at all, unless you count their lack of self-awareness (seriously, Rush Limbaugh mocking someone else for their medical treatment?). There's just nothing there that's even shocking, much less subversive. Calling Barack Obama "gassy" isn't a punchline. It's just an insult, and not a very creative one. I'm not offended because the show is racist and conservative. I'm offended because it's lazy. And I'm particularly offended because it isn't actually offensive, or unexpected, or challenging, except in the most mild and pandering ways. If it could manage any of those, I still wouldn't like it--but it might be funny.

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