When Jokes Die...
“Last week Vice President Cheney implemented the controversial new procedure of stopping assassination attempts proactively. Over the next sixteen months, Cheney will visit every able-bodied man on the continental United States and shoot him in the chest with buckshot. Those in the highest tax bracket will be given the option of buckshot or rock salt.”
The above joke can be found in the Topical Runoff section as a ‘joke’ but here it is posted simply as an example of the subject of this article.
Dick Cheney shot his friend in a run-of-the-mill hunting accident on February 11th. Almost two weeks have passed. In that time, the victim has had a minor heart attack, Cheney has talked to the press through Fox News, the rift between the President and Vice President’s staff has become more apparent, and countless comedians, comedy writers and internet humorists have found their jobs to be slightly less difficult for the time being. Busy, busy, busy.
But now, as we all turn our attention back to global warming, the majesty of the Winter Olympics, and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, one can’t help but wonder if one of the greatest gifts god has recently bestowed upon the house of chuckles has already worn out it’s welcome. A pro-military, draft-dodging administration with little interest in gun control had a hunting accident on its hands. And while the actual importance of the event is quite paltry when compared to the current affairs of the United States, it sure was easy to laugh at. And maybe too easy. Maybe we’re all laughed out.
Is the reaction to the joke above an eye roll and half-hearted grin because ‘I’ve heard this one before’? (I’m trying to ignore the actual quality of the joke) How long can you pound topical jokes into people before they just don’t care anymore? Does it have a definite shelf life of, say, a week? Do certain topics just have better mileage than others? (see jokes on President Clinton’s sex life) Are the life spans of the humor found in these events inversely proportional to the amount of jokes told concerning them?
If we decide that the final posit is the most suitable, certainly this shooting accident should be dead in the water. A week straight of late-night comedy cracks (‘Dick Cheney is the Weapon of Mass Destruction’, ‘it’s the solution to social security…’). You can buy t-shirts online that begin with, ‘I went hunting with the Vice President…’. There’s a humorous collage picture being sent through email titled ‘Ten Ways Dick Cheney can kill you’, with various television appearance photos of Cheney making benign yet ambiguous gestures with captions below such as ‘Karate Chop’, ‘Head-butt’, and ‘Telekinesis’. With such an easy target (sorry, really sorry), you know that material of this nature will constantly dribble out of various mediums for a long time to come. It will just get a cooler and cooler response by the public with each additional day…until the end of 2006, when it will be shown ad nauseum in everyone’s ‘best of the year’ clips.
The 'problem' with the above possibility is that this event so wonderfully encapsulates the publicly assumed demeanor of Dick Cheney. A tough, stubborn, you-can-all-go-to-hell type attitude mingled with the occasional carpet bombing and photo-op. Just like Bill Clinton’s smooth talking, laid back, uber-intelligent Southern boy persona was complimented beautifully with him being an ol’ horndog from Arkansas as far Letterman and Leno are concerned, Cheney may have to accept that this mark on his record will dog him until he shuffles out of office. Just like his running mate has the reputation of a lazy imbecile (at this rate, heaven help the next president if he or she has a corpulent mother).
(continued below table)
While a single joke ages and dies quickly, the situations from which they emerge can occur at such a frequency that they define the person on a one-dimensional level. Then the tables are turned and there is no single joke. This definition of the person becomes a running joke. Cheney’s hunting accident didn’t change anyone’s perception of him. It was just another notch on the bedpost.
Although some jokes were made of shooting alone, most incorporated Cheney’s supposed demeanor (“The real question now is, is this a one-time thing, or will the Vice-President try to kill again” – David Letterman). I believe it’s a healthy assumption that if Bush was the shooter, a great majority of the jokes would play up the incompetence factor instead (and if it was Clinton, well, he was just trying new ways to pick up women).
As the information available to all of us increases exponentially, and what passes as common knowledge is reduced to simple factoids, what can be laughed at by everyone becomes a much narrower field. In many cases, you can see the joke coming a mile away. If you hear the buzzwords, ‘President Bush’ and ‘free trade agreement’, it’s a safe bet that the joke will be about the president not understanding the math or thinking they’re referring to baseball cards. Now I’m not suggesting we are losing out on golden comedy moments because there’s no audience for a complex economic joke, but if – as is often reported – that many people get their political news from comedy quips, what does it say about the place of politics in our daily life if we can reduce these important figures to a single word? (and rarely a complimentary one at that)
But that’s not the point of comedy. It’s not here to instruct us, but to have us reflect. And if what is being reflected is always the same, repetitive jokes should not be our first concern. In the end, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that these jokes don’t die at all. They are simply rehashed for the next applicable situation. Today a Clinton sex joke is like a fine wine in a comedy monologue. And old classic dusted off, to which the audience responds with a wealth of applause, obviously thinking back to time when they were subject to ten identical cracks a night. And while it’s hard to tell now if that far down the line Cheney will live on in topical humor history or simply go the way of the dodo (hunted to extinction, by the way), you have to admit that at first, it was pretty damn funny.
What’s the difference between Tom Cruise and the Mad Hatter? A hat.
Why can’t Paris Hilton water ski? She always lies down when her crotch get wet.
Did you hear that Israel finally agreed to a ceasefire in the fight against Lebanon? They are now planning to regroup and attack Mel Gibson.
Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, and now Mel Gibson. What celebrities are you shitting on this week? It probably depends on how much time you have before your opening monologue begins (‘we’ve got ten minutes and need two other jokes. Who’s fat and in the news?’), and how much confidence you have in the pre-planned segment you introduce when you get behind your desk (‘is it too weird? We may have to throw them a Mr. Britney Spears joke’).
Easy targets with short-term memories. You can rake Paris Hilton across the coals and claim that mack trucks full of dicks run in and out of her vagina hourly, but if she’s got a CD or home video coming out, she’ll appear on your show to plug it if you lay off the cracks for a couple days beforehand. Much like politics, in the world of show business the past truly is history, and history can be cut, gutted, stuffed or just completely ignored, depending on who’s telling it and what the present has to gain.
Fat jokes? Sex jokes? Jumping on Oprah’s couch jokes? When it comes to taste in mainstream comedy, better make it a Big Mac. Everyone recognizes it, what it’s going to be, and how it ends. You aren’t going to find a tomato or obscure reference to Naked Lunch at all. A Big Mac won’t surprise you, but if you wanted a surprise, you wouldn’t have asked for one. Sure, not everyone loves Big Mac’s, but everyone knows what it is, and that is what makes all the difference.
And celebrities fit this McDonald’s analogy perfectly. More people voted for one episode of American Idol than for President Bush in the 2004 presidential election. You can reach so much more people when you knock someone in Hollywood than in Washington, and not just because political jokes can divide your audience. Only the most superficial aspects of politics are considered mainstream. The filibuster issue earlier this year went over the heads of most Americans, but you didn’t have to watch a single episode of Newlywed’s to know everything about what led to the breakup of Nick and Jessica (see? We don’t even need to use last names, while some of you probably had to check ‘filibuster’ on wikipedia). While jokes about politicians can have their party’s policies and current events mixed in with the general tabloid ‘dirt’ about the particular figure’s demeanor, the celebrity joke is just ‘dirt’. Is this proof of the dumbing-down of popular culture? Not really. In the course of human civilization only small pockets of people had any real access to politics, anyway. Most people were content to till their land and see the occasional wandering minstrel show. The only real time politics and government truly became ‘democratic’ is during times of severe oppression or starvation, when all the proles march to the capital and look to remove the heads of their inefficient leaders and place them on spikes (sure, it didn’t stop the hunger, but it probably felt really cathartic).
Okay, we’ve gone off topic slightly to define the human condition as mainly indifferent to the world at large, but that an excellent link to the next point, which is that the best jokes are personal and can only be appreciated by small groups of people. This is why the mocking of a celebrity is essentially an absurd situation. It is as if the personal foibles of your pal is magnified and spread across the country. Types of jokes that are usual reserved for your cluster of friends (you make fun of the idiot, the bimbo/mimbo, the jerk in the group accordingly) become fodder for the nation. Now, it’s not really a problem making these jokes between your friends, about your friends. You know these people well. You know their likes, dislikes, and nuances. They are complex human beings, with unique thoughts, hopes and dreams. The jerk is more than just a jerk, or otherwise you wouldn’t be hanging out with them (unless you’re all jerks, which would render the jerk jokes moot). Now celebrities get the brunt of these jokes without the advantage of people knowing much more about them. Oh sure, there are interviews in magazines and on television and maybe even a blog or two on a personal website, but that’s a small sliver of that person’s actual personality, and interviews themselves can be pretty damn unnatural*. People judge celebrities on these grossly simplified (and completely misguided and inaccurate) personality traits. Now don’t get us wrong, some of these labels are right on the money (if Paris Hilton isn’t an untalented bimbo (awful in House of Wax, has Britney Spears' singing ability with none of the dances moves, and three – count ‘em, three – sex videos), she’s a incredible actress for convincing us all that she is), but that doesn’t mean it’s fair. We are objectifying these people, and we clearly try to justify making these jokes by claiming that those who hear them understand that they are ‘just’ jokes. We don’t honestly think that Tom Cruise is ‘just’ a crazy scientologist, or that Tara Reid is ‘just’ a drunken party animal, or that Britney Spears is ‘just’ lip-syncing trailer-trash. No, we’re all too smart to fall for that. We know they’re much deeper than these superficial labels (or at least as deep as the average person). Or do we?
* - think about what interviews are. A writer asking questions to a celebrity who knows that this person is here solely to write an article about them. It is the writer’s job to turn this forced, pre-arranged discussion into a cohesive article that is easily digestible for the masses with a single underlying focus or theme. Of course the interviewee in question is going to put their best foot forward. Even if it’s a fake foot.
We use that excuse (they’re ‘just’ jokes, everybody! Don’t take it so seriously!) not only for cracks at celebrities but any joke or gag that someone construes as offensive or controversial. Something degrading to women? The defense becomes: Ah, anyone who watches that bit knows that’s not how you should behave! And while that may be a reasonable assumption, it’s still just an assumption. What can the comedians and comedy writers expect from their audience? Or better yet, what should the comedians and comedy writers expect from their audience? Andrew Dice Clay knew his act was mocking crude alpha male stereotypes, but what did the crude alpha males sitting around having a beer think? (‘Ha, ha! Big titties! How marvelously ironic!’) Must we banish all forms of entertainment that have the possibility of objectifying or stereotyping the subject matter to the audience? And if so, how can we possibly enforce such a subjective definition?
Before this question/essay becomes a First Amendment issue, let us return to celebrity because they are once again an anomaly for this particular query. Are jokes that make fun of minorities, handicaps, and women appropriate? This question is colored by the fact that these groups have suffered because of what they are. Celebrities don’t have this. Celebrities live much, much better than the average person, so the sympathy card is a weak one, making them easy targets. While this doesn’t justify making these jokes, it certainly makes it difficult to find people who would outright denounce them (although Michael Jackson fans protesting the singer’s current media image do come to mind). It’s not so much a ‘these stars are getting what they deserve’ attitude as much as it is an unspoken trade for becoming a star. Your privacy and public dignity in exchange for having your-name-before-the-move-title and being able to vacation annually in St. Barts (as well as easy access to sex, drugs, and free swag). Suddenly we are placing the blame on the stars themselves. They chose a lifestyle that takes place in the public eye, and this is what they get. Or are we just rationalizing our guilt and responsibility for the skewered perspective out of the equation? Maybe so, but it still doesn’t mean all the jokes should be so damn stupid or clichéd. So remember, a celebrity is more than a series of one dimensional jokes. Not necessarily much more, but certainly at least a little bit. Hell, Tom Cruise can’t be so crazy when he’s sleeping, right? (Unless Scientologists have removed the need for that, too…)
Oh god, can it not just die? How much more do we have to take? And by that, I mean how much more am I going to have to ignore? How many more seasons am I going to have to say I know nothing about? I used to have my Simpsons knowledge down like a geeky pro. When it got syndicated in 1994 and started airing five times a day for the first time, I watched every one. And this was when the weekly new episode was also a classic in the making. Nowadays, the last remotely brilliant episode I can recall is when Homer opens a daycare in his house while recuperating from a knee injury (Artie Pie: ‘I can’t see through metal, Kent!’), and that was over a half decade ago.
See, the more and more mediocre the recent seasonal fare, the better the classics seem. So right off the bat I’ll admit that I’m guilty of getting nostalgic, of looking back on the ‘good old days’ with a smile and a sigh. Maybe the newer episodes are better than I give them credit for, but it doesn’t change the fact that The Simpsons don’t do to me what they used to. The humour feels forced, and that’s the worst position to put someone in when they are trying to laugh.
And this is a great shame, because no television program or entertainment source in any other medium has influenced me and my sense of humour as much as The Simpsons has. And not just me, but a whole generation of young adults (For millions, the term ‘Dental Plan’ will forever be associated with ‘Lisa needs braces!’). Most of us began watching at an early age (it’s a cartoon, for Christ’s sakes), so this is what introduced us to parody, sarcasm, dry wit, slapstick, and more obscure seventies product references then we’ll ever fully understand.
Somehow The Simpsons was able to walk the incredibly fine line of incorporating both satire and realism, without falling into too much of either. Homer’s Triple Bypass from season four is about as heart wrenching as prime time television can get: Homer giving us a moment of genuine emotion when saying goodbye to Bart and Lisa was set up by producer James Brooks, who seemed to have taken a page directly out of his film, Terms of Endearment. At the same time, the episode is also one of the most ridiculous:
Life insurance man: Okay, on this form here under heart attacks, you crossed out ‘four’ and put ‘zero’.
Homer: Oh, I thought that said brain haemorrhages.
Life insurance man: I see. And do you drink?
Homer: I do enjoy a snifter of port around the holidays.
In the end, Dr. Nick Rivera does the operation with the gloves that came free with his toilet brush. He also uttered what is probably the last thing anyone going under the knife wants to hear before the gas kicks in: ‘What the hell is that?’
And all these jokes work within the episode. Each episode was a natural progression, a light wandering pace that carries the narrative but allows a bit of time to just push the odd bizarre joke just far enough (an example of this from Homer’s Triple Bypass is the opening Bad Cops sequence. And even that shows the writers had the good sense to put something so ridiculous within the context of a television show Homer is watching). And then there are the countless, silent visual gags that can be completely missed upon the first viewing (The Simpson Archive website categorizes this as ‘freeze frame fun’). A Trailer Park with the sign: ‘4 days without a tornado’. Whenever an event is advertised on a civic centre billboard, the event for the following day is typically ‘Closed for roach spraying’. The slogan for the 1984-like Re-Neducation centre in Treehouse of Horror V is ‘Where the elite meet to have their spirits broken’. At the first Kwik-E-Mart in India, a sign behind the CEO/guru is ‘master knows all except combination to safe’.
And these aren’t meaningless, hanging-in-thin-air jokes, they’re just additional jokes that compliment – but never corrupt – the base material. They never hammer you over the head. They are subtle. They are rewards for the attentive. They are group in-jokes, secret dispatches from the writer’s room for the people who grin at the same shit they do.
Recent seasons, however, have seen the show shoot this beloved subtlety in the face. Is it a reaction to the series Family Guy, which has taken The Simpsons subtlety and esoteric references to a ridiculous extreme? By season sixteen, we are reduced to Bart and Homer discussing reality TV shows in the following manner:
Bart: Is this one of those
reality deals where a guy gets a million bucks for marrying Aunt Patty but
they have to honeymoon in a box full of snakes?
At first jokes about the quality of the FOX network were few and far between (which made them funny and appreciated). Now it’s become a constant thing, mainly because The Simpsons are overloading episodes with ‘meta’ jokes. That is, jokes about The Simpsons as a television program. At one point Homer draws himself on paper as if an animator was, and notes that his band squiggle and ear create an MG, a not-so-subtle nod to creator Matt Groening (who went on to do a cameo in the series). Finally:
Homer: (attempting to pie Mr. Burns) I've run out of pie-related puns!
And it’s not just the jokes but the stories and setups themselves are suffering, too. Suddenly the writer’s are treating the audience as if they are as stupid as Homer. In the episode where Homer drives Marge crazy by turning their backyard into an RV park (Mobile Homer), he tells her she can’t do anything about it, and then Marge looks down at a power card and says the completely redundant line, ‘nothing I can do about it, eh? We’ll see about that.’ See, the shot of Marge looking down at the power cord essentially makes her line tautological. Just Marge looking at the outlet is enough for the viewer to know what she’s thinking. The tension is shot to pieces. Am I quibbling over a minor matter? Certainly. But it’s these minor matters that The Simpsons has been able to avoid, gloss over, or laugh at for the first ten seasons. In another sitcom, it’s just a regular line to keep the plot chugging, but in The Simpsons it is glaring abscess that just makes one shake their head sadly: ‘Has it come to this? Why do these new episodes have the comedic setup and pace of a run of the mill sitcom? Why don’t I just watch Two and a Half Men?’
Another matter of discussion: The guest stars. The word ‘round the campfire is that the show is getting better and better guests and that is what is overshadowing the actual content of the episodes, but it’s more of how they use these guests. If The Simpsons is/was biting satire, celebrity had to be a legitimate target, too. And in the first eight years or so, it definitely was. In season four’s Last Exit to Springfield, Dr. Joyce Brothers was the sole guest, and she had one line, which she said when she appeared as one of the panelists on Brockman’s Smartline: ‘I brought my own mike!’. Or witness Dick Cavett’s appearance in Homie the Clown, trying to befriend Homer dressed as Krusty:
Dick: Let's walk and talk. I, uh, I have some wonderful stories about other famous people that include me in some way.
Homer: Er, can't, I gotta go distract bulls at a rodeo
Dick: Hey, me too. We can go together.
Homer: Um...no, I'm going a different way than you, Dick.
Dick: Heh heh, your...churlish attitude reminds me of a time I was having dinner with Groucho and --
Homer: Look, you're going to be having dinner with Groucho tonight if you don't beat it.
But now celebrity means someone recently in the news going on The Simpsons and making a couple smartass wisecracks and then walking off (see Blink 182, Britney Spears, 50 Cent, etc. And at least earlier guest stars were rather competent when it came to the vocal performance (even the baseball players), meanwhile watching recent guest Carmen Electra was awful simply because she is such a poor actress). Yet maybe a couple funny lines is exactly what a cameo is and should be. But for some reason in the older episodes it never came across so indulgent and self-serving. Even when Johnny Carson lifted a buick skylark over his head, it didn’t seem preposterous in season four.
And perhaps that’s what really might be wrong with The Simpsons. Nothing at all but old age. Also known as: Family Guy Syndrome
-is family guy
funnier than the the Simpsons, master Yoda?
And now there’s a movie. Matt Groening and the producers have promised us something special, not a glorified, back-to-back-to-back patchwork of episodes. I’ve only seen the trailers – with Homer whipping the sled dogs, Homer being swung around on a wrecking ball – so it looks like it would fit comfortably with the last couple years of the show. That’s not to say I won’t see it, and I’ll even try to lower my expectations so in some twisted way I might actually like it, but like Norman Mailer’s book version of the Itchy & Scratchy Movie, ‘it’s just not the same’.
The Simpsons are dead. Long live The Simpsons.
In response to
the ridiculous flap over a New Yorker magazine cover and the ensuing New
York Times article where late night comedy show writers were commenting
how difficult it is to crack wise about Obama, we have provided a series
of lowest common denominator jokes about the one tireless, incontestable
advantage black men have over white counterparts.
-If Obama’s dick ran on gasoline, the price of oil would be $170 per barrel.
-White women aren't voting for Obama because they fear him, but because they're pissed that he never makes personal calls when their husbands aren't home.
-Obama never has to raise his hand in the senate. He just thinks about Tyra Banks mud wrestling Jessica Alba.
-Former Senator Larry Craig was hoping against hope that the guy in the stall next to him in the Minneapolis Airport was Barack Obama (and was doing jaw exercises in preparation).
-23% of people who meet Barack in a crowd think they are shaking his hand but are actually giving him a quick tease of a handjob.
-Most of Obama’s secret service detail is actually there to protect podiums for when the senator approaches them.
-Every morning Obama stirs the coffees of all the people involved in his campaign... while he's still in bed.
-If elected, one lucky personal assistant will be titled, ‘Chief of the Staff’
-When flying commercial, Obama’s dick is considered a piece of additional luggage, and is subject to the $15.00 fee
How big is Obama’s dick?
-Barack’s dick is so big you can only buy a model firework of it in three states for Memorial Day
-Barack’s dick is so big that when he’s at home in Chicago, the wang needs the weather report for Gary, Indiana
-Barack Obama’s dick is so big the Oscar Meyer weinermobile rides in him.
-Barack’s dick is so big, that if elected, it will get its own presidential seal
-Barack’s dick is so big it was even considered for the vice presidential position, but there were fears it would overshadow the presidential nominee (plus, no one wants back to back dicks as VP)
-Barack’s dick is so big he has pushed through earmarks that pay for its maintenance
-Barack’s dick is so big it was what made Michelle Obama finally proud to be an American
A classic joke modified for this particular occasion
Barack Obama walks into a tavern after a hard day of campaigning and sees a jarful of cash on the bar. Knowing he could always use another campaign ad in a swing state, he asks the bartender what the jar of cash is for and the bartender says, “If you can make my horse laugh, you win the money.”
So, Obama walks around back of the tavern, whispers in the horse’s ear and the horse starts laughing and snorting and stomping his hooves. The presidential nominee walks back into the tavern, takes the jar of cash, orders a martini and proceeds to drink it down.
A few weeks later Obama’s in same town and after giving the same stump speech he walks into the same tavern and sees another jar of cash on the bar. He asks the bartender what the jar of cash is for now and the bartender says, “My horse hasn’t stopped laughing since you were in here last and if you can make my horse stop laughing you win the money.”
So Obama walks around the back of the tavern and soon everyone hears the loudest sobbing and crying coming from the horse. The senator walks up to the bar and reaches for the jar of cash.
“Hold on a minute”, says the bartender, “I’ve gotta know what you said to that horse.”
“Well,” says Obama, “the first time I came in, I told him that my dick was bigger than his.”
“And the second time?” Asked the bartender.
“I showed him.”
Political Cartoon (we are well aware that describing a political cartoon defeats the purpose of a calling it a cartoon, but with our drawing skills being what they are, you’ll have to deal with it. Maybe Luckovich will see this idea up and pick up our slack)
A slutty lady liberty eagerly hopping out of GWB's bed (with a small blanket tent where his crotch is) and into Obama's (with a much larger blanket tent)
"Hello, this is Serge..."
"No salsa, but when you do have salsa... spicy."
"Did you ever put something in your mouth, and then it's more delicious than you thought it was going to be, and it takes a little while to get around?" "Are we talking about giraffes again?"
Craig Ferguson is a man who quits things. First booze, then the United Kingdom, a couple of marriages, and now his one of a kind late night talk show. Foul mouthed puppets, gay robots, pantomime horses, and maybe two minutes of prepared material. Sesame street on x-rated acid being shoehorned into a suit and tie with flourishes of half recognizable monologues and celebrity interviews. Not really surprise guests, but a right mocking of 'talking to the audience' and 'big cash prizes'.
There are familiar signposts every night - an audience, a man in slacks and a jacket telling jokes, a supportive sidekick for banter - but they all get twisted several times in the forty minutes plus ads Ferguson gets every night and you became acutely aware at how cardboard so much televised entertainment is.
It doesn't mean that The Late Late Show is the funniest or the most groundbreaking chunk of entertainment on the chattering cyclops (although it is certainly...NOT LIKE ANY OTHER LATE NIGHT SHOW).
Instead it operates in the little known cultural shadow of Sartre's nausea and deBord's 'detournement'. A self-aware play on a Sisyphean schedule, where the surprises come in the form of nuanced non-sequiturs ("you're welcome, four people", is a common aside after a joke that seems to fall flat unless you're one of those four people). The Late Late Show feels like it's made for a small group of weirdoes, and reaching that feeling/sensation is hard to manufacture. More so than any talk show - and maybe any other television or media personality - Ferguson doesn't just bore easily. He bores first.
Mad skills have to be there initially, however, and the man is a consummate veteran comedic performer who can tell monologue jokes, charm the pant(ie)s off the guests, and connect with the audience on an emotional level.
Only then can you bitch and complain to your off-camera producer, have actresses touch your glittery ball, get in arguments with your robot sidekick, and castigate the audience while they laugh at being castigated.
It's a place where the guests can quickly become mildly amused/confused background fodder for Ferguson, gay robot wingman Geoff Peterson, and the horse (except for a handful of regulars like Kristen Bell and Jim Parsons). They are in total control. Do not adjust your set.
Comedy in 2014 is subject to the same effects the internet has created for all other aspects of culture. Smashed into a million pieces, which means you can find the standup, skit, sitcom, or anything else almost specifically tailored just for you. Anything big and well-known is typically quite broad, which is why The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, and Modern Family (Arrested Development with the edges shaved off) are the most popular sitcoms on television, and why Jimmy Fallon is just trying to be your friend on The Tonight Show and play parlour games with celebrities.
But starting at 12:35 in the morning on CBS you're never sure what's going to happen and whether you're going to laugh your ass off at Ferguson laughing his ass off, or stare blankly at your TV or monitor as the joke sails above your head.
For 10 years, Ferguson has been a cult favourite (and for people who aren't in cults, reasonably tolerated), but on one of the four big networks (CBS, for the record). An internet-niche phenomenon on one of the biggest, and historical (yes, television is now historical) stages for mass communication.
It starts off as amusing rubbernecking if you're up late on a weeknight or stumble across a clip on the vast cultural wasteland that is the internet.
Especially when there's suddenly a shot of a skeleton with glowing blue eyes and a pantomime horse, throwing in their two cents or two stamps (or trying to levitate, or goose step). A far cry from Ed McMahon in the sidekicks department. But when you become a fan of The Late Late Show - when the daily hit isn't enough and you start watching many, many older bits on youtube - you enjoy looking for patterns and strings and are all the more tickled pink when you realize that there's none of that. Even the callbacks that burst forth out of improvisation seem wholly natural in context (i.e. accusing frequent (but good sport) target and show producer Michael Nadius of being a racist because there's not enough money in the show budget for nicer things).
Geoffrey Peterson is the name of the gay robot skeleton, which evolved from a straight up gimmick (a guy from Mythbusters built it for Ferguson) to a character with a more well-rounded and interesting personality than most people on TV, real or fictional (and he has places everywhere!).
Ferguson and Peterson (here is where we acknowledge that Peterson is masterfully played - both voiced and controlled - by comedian and actor Josh Robert Thompson with some written material supplied by Bob Oschack) have chemistry because there never had to be any. No pressure from day one. If the first few bits fell flat, he can go into the back of the prop room. You don't have to treat Geoff like a human being because he isn't one. And it certainly helps that in addition to playing a sassy, innuendo-obsessed robot skeleton, Thompson can also effortlessly call up spot on impersonations of Morgan Freeman (also the voice of Secretariat's interior monologue), Robert DeNiro, Serge from Philadelphia and Jerry from room service.
Okay, now let's talk about the horse.
The pantomime horse is a British theatre tradition, ruined partially by Monty Python when they mocked the 'two man, one horse costume' getup in a Flying Circus episode where they worked at a bank and had to fight to death for their job, and starred in James Bond spoof which involved the pantomime horses riding real horses (there was also a pantomime goose, and a pantomime Princess Margaret, hunting breakfast with a harpoon). So if anyone was going to bring back two guys under a brown rug and a perpetual blank expression of a crudely design horse head, it would be a man who just got tired of profane and needy puppets to get his point across.
So Secretariat - named after the famed horse but only because a movie about him came out in 2010 - was introduced as a gentle mocking of the real deal, who would rush out from backstage when Ferguson rings a doorbell and dances happily.
And later he was given a stable at the side of the stage, upon which he would messily (but silently) do lines of cocaine off of. This rule seems to be only one set in stone. The pantomime horses doesn't talk. He nods, shakes his head, act happy, sad, angry, tired, drunk, what have you, but nary a single sound escapes from his glued on lips.
Altogether, it's a strange brew.
And now it's ending.
Craig Ferguson is going out on the highest of notes.
In late night, ten years is a rare midpoint.
You either get shitcanned early on or keep going and going until you reach some epic level of iconic institution (even if most of your audience will admit you've been coasting the last decade or so). Ferguson survived the former and never seemed to have any interest in reaching the latter. If the institution here would be represented a sort of a museum with pillars outside and items and exhibits sectioned off by velvet ropes inside, then the Late Late Show was the basement bar in the alley beside the big white building. No cover, never packed, and the beer is hoppy and strong and the music doesn't hit the Top 40.
If Carson made the rules, and Letterman broke them, then everyone that's come after is working in these two men's wakes. 12:30 always meant weirdness, in the tradition of Dave running over stuff with a steamroller and Conan's deconstructing of the jokes and himself. Fallon's brief stint before trading up meant excitement just for being alive and hosting a show.
Ferguson brings (or sadly, brought, when this last week wraps up) the cynicism, deconstruction, and excitement of three above-mentioned guys, but it never seems like he's taking from any of them. It comes off too effortless. No reason to avoid the easy jokes, but make them with a cheeky grin and move on to something much more bizarre.
A manic energy soaked in British wit.
One hour of buzzing (sometimes that's just the sound of Geoff).
Pushing it but never forcing it. Filthy but fun. With the female guests he's harmless but still randy.
Constant riffing and improvisation means that we're all in on the joke from the beginning, with Ferguson and Peterson only a half second ahead of us.
You have different standards when there's a loose knowledge that little to nothing of the material is scripted. The silliness is more warmly received. And while it could possibly come across as broad Ferguson has no problem chatting with a gay robot skeleton about bird shit and/or sinus infections.
In the true stoner tradition (even if he's been sober since 1992), the whole atmosphere of the show feels like a green cloud hovering over a ratty couch with four friends squeezed in upon it.
A talk show and a talk show host with nothing left to lose. But that was the vibe since day one, when the film was shot on a sardine can set and Ferguson's sidekick was a potato. Hand puppets typically opened the show from 2009 to 2011 (including Sid the foul mouthed rabbit and Brian, the shark with Hollywood dreams), and guests have choices at the end of the interview of how to lead into the commercial (awkward pause, mouth organ, touch Craig's glittery ball).
It's weird, it's wild, it's full of heavy lifting but Ferguson's such a pro it never looks that way. If he has something to say, whether a joke or the next line in an anecdote, he'll shush the crowd of they're offering up any sort of obligatory applause.
(also, I want credit for not starting this article with 'it's a sad day for America, everyone')
Personal and absurd.
The list of the moments that haven't yet fully dripped out of your head and just take up space grow with every scour through the internet bowels (in fact, on youtube there are clips I've laughed at and then can never find again, which is kind of a nice experience, in a realm where everything supposedly lasts forever and is always accessible).
Other Jeff, Miriam, The Queen, Lori from Petaluma (all played by Thompson) calling in at the most inopportune times.
Giving a full 100% attention and energy to his guests, barely relying on notes (ceremoniously ripping them up and throwing them behind him), and not being afraid to clearly put the celebrity in an unfamiliar position talking-point wise.
Ricky Gervais and going to the proctologist.
Where Sandra Bullock's tattoo is.
How Tom Hanks got to Cleveland.
Harrison Ford seemed pleasantly surprised to talk about airplane engines.
And always unfamiliar but never uncomfortable, as he has such a naturally affable demeanour that he can talk to any woman about their cleavage and make it seem to be more about great fashion choices than anything else (or if there is anything else, he's able to make sure their chemistry between the two of them that she can make cracks back at him as well).
And on the other end of the scale, you can point to his hour-long interview with Desmond Tutu or his monologue regarding his past struggles with alcoholism in relation to making jokes about celebrities going through similar circumstances, as proof that he can speak honestly and from the heart as well as any media personality (though he would probably despise that term).
It's a quality that comes through even when he talked about stepping down. Ferguson actually didn't want to keep doing it two years ago, but was persuaded by money and a brand new studio (with stable!) to re-up on his contract through 2014. But made sure that when he explained his departure earlier this year, it was clear and respectful, with not a hint of hard feelings between him and the network.
And maybe the knowledge that there would be an end to this, no crossed fingers, no matter what, that has made the last few years some of Ferguson's best. He might have lost a bit of passion for it but we can't tell or don't care. He's not fooling us. He's one of us. We're in on it. In an interview at the Banff Comedy Festival, Ferguson said that seeing Secretariat in his stable every night reminds him that that there's 'one more of us, one less them of them' in this world.
Until December 19th. So get your Ferguson fix in while you still can.
What did we learn in this article, Craig?
It's an important question, which is why Robert Plant always asked it during the live performances of 'Stairway to Heaven'.
It wasn't part of the original song lyrics. On Led Zeppelin IV (aka 'Untitled', aka 'Zoso', aka 'Old Man With Sticks' aka 'the album so good that maybe, just maybe, 'Stairway' is the weakest song on there') Plant warbled, 'and the forests would echo with laughter', and left it by that.
But if you were in any sports arenas in the early seventies trying to rock out, suddenly you were asked a question by a golden god that might catch you off guard off guard (as much as you could catch a bunch of stoned eighteen year olds in 1973 off guard).
It's a funny business.
(I'll show myself out when I'm done).
It's 2015 and the heaviness of unending bad news and an uncertain future means a good chuckle goes a long way.
Especially a good chuckle that warms the cockles of the heart of as many people as possible.
And that's the goddamn rub, because don't get me wrong, I know for a fact that there are more choices and comedic niches for hitting your particular funny bone than ever before. Broad and cheap laugh comedies are still on television, and re-runs of older, broad and cheap laugh comedies inadvertently infused with the all powerful drug of nostalgia are syndicated on the chattering cyclops (thanks, Sideshow Bob!) or on Netflix (or a Netflix clone). But if you want to get weirder, don't worry, cable and the internet (and Netflix and Netflix clones) has got you covered. Short list: The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, Comedy Bang Bang!, Key & Peele (for a bit while longer), Louie, Veep, Orange is the New Black, etc.
And if you need it to be weirder, just animate it. Adventure Time, Rick & Morty, Archer, pretty much anything on Adult Swim.
The internet has also made it easier to find stuff you might have missed the first time it came around. Now you can binge watch Wonder Showzen (this might be a bad example, as Wonder Showzen should be watched in careful doses to prevent madness).
But we're all laughing as little pockets of people, at different times, in different places, on different types of devices/appliances. It used to be done all together in front of the home's single television (if you missed it, you missed it, until summer re-runs). And while this isn't a straight up lament for the good old days, we haven't had anything genuinely epoch-making/water-cooler-worthy since the late nineties (which, for the math deficient, is nearly twenty years. The only cultural thing the millennials have experienced together is some cat videos).
Seinfeld was the final sitcom that everyone knew, that everyone absorbed in some way even if you didn't watch it. The swag was ominpresent, the catchphrases were butchered by everyone, and even the jazzy, bass-heavy music became a proto-meme.
(The only thing that has come close since is Jon Stewart's tenure on The Daily Show, but political satire, no matter what the bent, has the unfortunate reminder running through it all that you're laughing because something important is corrupt, broken, or a complete clusterfuck)
The irony is that not long after it got noticed and extremely popular for examining the mundane and slightly unusual aspects of daily life (waiting for a table, getting lost in a parking garage, dealing with shirt stains) and garnering 'the show about nothing' tag, Seinfeld's plots soon became completely unbelievable and absurdist (flying to India for a wedding, giving his girlfriend a roofie so Jerry could play with her toy collectibles, returning bottles to Michigan and running into the mechanic who stole Jerry's car which still has JFK's golf clubs in the back).
But even as the plots got stranger (in part because they became dependent on having interconnecting storylines for the four main characters), Seinfeld still felt insular, while still being the most popular show on television. It was still somehow true to the roots it only had in its initial pitch to the network in the late eighties: How a comedian gets his (or her) material.
And while at first the show explored the humour of daily minutia - and became extremely popular doing so - it transformed into a show that let a single funny idea (an angry soup restaurant owner, finding a set from an old TV show, lying about your job, your girlfriend, your health, etc.) bloom into a comedy of errors.
This was largely in part because of how the comedic sensibilities of odd couple Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David meshed perfectly despite (or because of) very opposite personalities.
David was the frustrated, irritated, short-tempered writer/producer who based a slightly alarming amount of episodes on misadventures in his own life (including the (in)famous masturbation contest).
But the centre was Jerry Seinfeld.
Both the comedian/actor/writer/producer and the autobiographical version of himself on the show remained coolheaded and emotionally detached from the chaos and dysfunction around him.
Which had long been reflected in his style of stand-up comedy, and made him a big name draw throughout the eighties (and certainly still today). Which he did with no characters, no funny voices, no impressions, no explosions of anger, no standalone one-liners, no sketch-like monologues, no winding personal stories (true or extremely exaggerated), and no interactions with the audience.
When one looks at this list, you actually realize how difficult it would be to come up with bits (let alone an hour of material). To stand up in front of a stage and talk about taxi cabs and cows and get laughs.
Who would put themselves in such a position?
Stand up comedy is a unique skill with a masochism streak running through it. One activity that you can't fake your way through.
And among the many successful comedians over the last several decades, Jerry Seinfeld is an anomaly whose style and presence seemed to define eighties and nineties culture (nihilistically pecking at the ridiculousness of over-materialism). And a large part of this is his perfectionist devotion to the craft. He is a virtuoso with clinically precise delivery and a borderline obsession with the right word, the right rhythm, the right syllable.
There are other observational comics out there - and there are certainly a wide variety of dry, prop, story, and character comics who have include observation bits in their act - but Seinfeld is by far and away their flagship/archetype/icon.
He is probably under-appreciated in the annals of comedy (I'm referring to his stand-up performances, not his obviously successful, universally praised sitcom). It's too polished, too exact, too robotic. Even when there are quick asides, or a string of clever words or turns of phrase, or even a bit of physicality, it all has a feeling of being exhaustively rehearsed and lacking spontaneity (which mirrors the current style of our movies, television, music, and commercials. All our entertainment has this glossy over-rehearsed sheen. Which is not a knock on Jerry. He just did it first. And did it so well that everyone copied).
In the 'Me' decade, Seinfeld was shining a light on every tiny little thing around us. He was pioneer in what could be called post-modern comedy, influencing in an entire generation of comedians, writers, and everyone else growing up in the eighties and nineties. If Jaws and Star Wars ushered in the era of the blockbuster, then Jerry Seinfeld brought a polish to post-modernist culture. The weirdness packaged very neatly.
Seinfeld's continued popularity as a comic proves that he can still deliver the goods, but his influence over comedy is woefully ignored. He wasn't the first comic to make observational humour, but he refined it to archetypal perfection through his style and delivery. It was controlled, focussed, unemotional destruction of the target. Certainly there was passion and power behind his words (things that annoy, bother, and stand out awkwardly to him), but there was no manic, physical explosion of energy. There were specific gestures, and kneejerk pauses, all understated movements. Which meant every utterance had to land.
Greenwald notes that comedians today want to get their audience 'in on the joke'. For Seinfeld, it was pointing out where the joke was all along, and that you just hadn't thought of it before.
While still one of the prominent comedians of the 1980s, most of the world received their dose of Seinfeld as a stand-up in the thirty second bits that opened his show (and in the early years, appearing in the middle of the show briefly, as an intermission of sorts). Seinfeld has talked of writing and performing stand up comedy as an extremely precise and careful endeavour, where he would sometimes shave off words or syllables from a line in a bit to make it flow just perfectly.
Tens of millions of people saw a teaser of the result of this work every week. 30 seconds tops. A basic opening line premise, and then riffs of suggestions, concerns, and complaints about it. It was 'funny internet video' size before any funny internet video.
But in the thirty-plus years Seinfeld has performed, stand-up comedy as a whole has absorbed these qualities (in piecemeal form of course, with some stand ups borrowing this or that) to such a degree that even his 1998 special, I'm Telling You For the Last Time, can feel archaic. And maybe it's from watching many, many Seinfeld episodes that you recognize certain bits, but the whole thing feels like you've seen the jokes and their style of delivery many, many times.
This type of minute observation bangs right up against what feels like common sense, with a 'why didn't I think of that' type reaction (not necessarily thinking one should now become a comedian, but it's always pleasant to have an interesting thought of your own). His current show, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee is about as straightforward as it gets, with the title explaining it all.
Until George Costanza shows up.
George Constanza isn't a real person. He's a fictional character, based or Larry David, played with incredible comedic talent and timing by Jason Alexander.
This works because Jerry Seinfeld the successful stand-up comedian who created the show Seinfeld is quite similar to Jerry Seinfeld the not quite as successful comedian who starred on the show Seinfeld.
It's worlds collide!
It's even a step above the season four story arc of the show where Jerry Seinfeld was offered to create a show for NBC.
That's pretty transgressive for an artist who initially made his name by making fun of air travel.
But these are transgressive times.
Reality TV stars are running for president. Middle Eastern terrorist cells are recruiting with high quality youtube videos. Recent studies show that most recent studies don't meet proper scientific standards. The same social problems over and over again to the point where we recognize the news coverage formula, but still do nothing about it. A sense of helplessness, where you know what's wrong but can't do anything about it.
It's time for something completely different.
It's time for Monty Python.
A transgressive society requires transgressive culture, and certainly it's always been around.
Groucho Marx did it. Bob Hope did it. Woody Allen did it. As noted, Seinfeld did recently (as has Rick and Morty, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, even Spongebob Squarepants).
But it was Monty Python who push it to a hellishly aggravating degree.
Yes, the nineteen sixties was the rise of the so-called counter culture, but by the time it got to your turntable, movie theatre, or television set, enough business-like men had looked it over, smoothed out, and gave it their 'let's make some money' approval.
Something as game changing as their TV show, 'Flying Circus', couldn't possibly have been green lighted in Hollywood. And it wasn't. The government run BBC over in jolly old England gave five Oxford and Cambridge-educated Englishman (and one American) a chance to put together a late night comedy show that might appeal to the 'kids' (viewers in the their twenties).
Dead parrots, transvestite lumberjacks, airliner sheep, a conductor with two sheds, Mr. Hilter ('you won't have much fun in Stalingrad, eh?'), the funniest joke in the world as a military weapon, hells grannies, news for gibbons, spanish inquisition, Raymond Luxury Yach-t.
And what's odd is that if you watch some of these clips on youtube, you'll catch the quality and acting writing, but you'll miss the bizarre, stream-of-conscious flow that really fucked with a viewer's head in 1969.
As a block of thirty minute programming, you really didn't know what was going to happen. No punchlines, sketches that stopped before they started. Episodes that ended early and just featured crashing waves. Episodes that began with what appeared to be a straight-laced, last minute schedule-replacing pirate film. Callbacks to previous skits, and fake-out call backs to previous bits.
You had to watch Monty Python on your toes, but none of these challenges to the normal expectation of an evening’s entertainment ever got in the way of it being funny. You didn’t have to know about ‘cartesian dualism’ or mining in Yorkshire to get the joke. Even if you were in on it, it didn’t matter. Weird was weird.
Plus there’s the end of Holy Grail, which is the cinematic equivalent of an orgasm halted at the very last second. Or everyone getting crucified and singing at the end of Life of Brian. And the extremely underrated Meaning of Life, which has sex ed, finding the fish, the middle of the film, Zulu wars, and Mr. Cresote (‘and I don’t want to start bleeding all over the seats!’).
The needle was typically in the red with Python. You weren't exactly sure where this very silly, leering journey was going to take you. Even when things fell flat, it didn't stay down for long because of the rapid pace of the show and the films.
They rarely dipped into topical politics, so the Minister that fell through the crack in the Earth and Election Night Special hold special places in the canon because of how inadvertently prophetic both feel.
The former has a politician do just that, and is trapped on a ledge deep in the bowels of the earth, where he still tries to read his speech. Then they cut to a team of experts discussing whether this is the furthest a minister has ever fallen into the earth. The mundane analysis to the ridiculousness is a snapshot of modern day news coverage, always missing the forest from the trees.
The latter’s on location bits - just an excuse to list off some bizarre names of the silly and extremely silly parties - haven't aged well, but the 'in studio' banter between newsmen discussing the results is not too far off from the worst of the 24 hour networks today.
The frequent comparison of Monty Python to The Beatles is certainly applicable in the insular writer-performer aspect of the material, as well as the wide and influential range of future comedians, comedy writers, and actors who were inspired by the Silly Six.
If history is indeed cyclical, then it’s high time that we face our uncertain future with at least at slight jolt of old school, forty five year old absurdity, because even if things get so terrible that you have to eat your own mother, you can always dig a grave later and throw up in it.
All photo sources found in the public domain. If they're yours and you don't like 'em here, send us a legal jargon filled email and we'll remove them. We're good and spineless like that. Part One Photo Sources: NRA/Rife - Daily Kos; Ten Ways - CollegeHumour.com; Clinton - Fark.com; Bush - Atrios; White House - unknown. Part Two Photo Sources: Tom Cruise - www.tallarmeniantale.com; Paris Hilton - Rotten Library; Mel Gibson - Hoover Library: Hollywood Cowboys; Lindsay Lohan - tshirtwatch.com
|squealing like a pig, buzzing like a fridge that has been pulled out of the aircraft|