Monday, March 06, 2006

The Politics of Comedy - Marc Maron and Mark Riley

I've practiced comedy but recently, I've been interested in how comedy shapes public discourse. (Oh yeah, I'm a lot of fun at parties.)

Comedy of unity.

Comedy of division.

Some comedy can be mean and hostile, other comedy can be kind and welcoming. Below is an excellent discussion from the classic "Morning Sedition" (May 10, 2005).

Stand-up comedy vet, Marc Maron and talk-radio vet Mark Riley discuss the politics of comedy today.

Why is this important?

Comedy may be the most succinct language for describing what we should embrace and what we should reject. That's what comedy does.

Part of the genius of Lenny Bruce (and Pryor and Carlin) is in the fact that comedy can break through our manners and our hangups to join the comedian in the fight against hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness.

At its best, comedy is liberating.

In the past several years, I've seen how comedy can be used to target, marginalize, demonize and ridicule the undeserving.

(By contrast, you could do a doctoral thesis on anti-semitic jokes during the Third Reich, if you have the stomach. You could also do a thesis on how comedy changed American political dialog for the better.)

As a community-oriented language, comedy is extraordinarily powerful for ill or good.

The following is an excerpt of the most succinct and passionate discussion on the politics of comedy I have heard.


This transcript is edited for clarity and content. If you want to hear the full discussion and the intelligent call-ins afterwards, listen here. You can start at 9:00mins. The transcript starts at 19:00mins.


Marc: Something has gone wrong. I'm not going to tell you that something hasn't gone wrong, culturally, with comedy. Look at the success of the Blue Collar comedy tour... I'm in the business, I know these guys. I also know that Hee-Haw was very popular a few years back. I understand there's a market for this stuff. But it seems to me that it's coming out of nowhere.

All of my generation of comics and the generation, a few minutes before and a few minutes after me, kind of went the "hipster" path. There were a bunch of very intelligent, creative comics that refused to touch politics and just became sort of hipster-ish -- lower east side, Brooklyn-ish, sort of self-indulgent. I get accused of being that but that's not where I started.

I started by listening to Kinnison, by listening to Carlin, by listening to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Those are my heroes. (And a few Borscht-belt guys, Rickles and Buddy Hacket). But the bottom line is something is going on in comedy. And I am concerned about it.

There is not much of a left-wing political voice in comedy and it's not because people aren't funny. I actually think it's because people are afraid.

These guys that go out on the road -- and I know it from me -- there are very few people who have the courage to go up against an audience that doesn't know them and preach the ideology of all-encompassing liberal politics through comedy.

Comedy used to be progressive.

It used to be a liberal voice. You look at the great comedy of the late 50's, 60's and 70's, all of it was coming from our side.

Mark: Well, what you've got here, Marc, is an attempt by the Right to affect the same kind of incremental change -- in comedy, on college campuses, and in these other, what they consider to be, "bastions of liberalism" -- that they've tried to do with media.

The easiest way to understand how they do this is by looking at the radio format that is euphemistically called "smooth jazz."

Smooth jazz radio has very little to do with what most people who know about jazz would consider jazz music. It has nothing to do with it.

Sade is not a jazz artist. But she's on smooth jazz radio. Why?

Because the people that created the format set out to define what jazz was, differently than what people had become familiar with. And that's exactly what these guys are doing.

These guys are going out and saying, "Wait a minute, don't talk bad about 'South Park.' Let us create our own frame around 'South Park.' Let us define what 'South Park' is for enough people. And that will be to our benefit."

It's exactly the same thing they did with radio format.

Marc: Well, it scares me because they've got a certain amount of momentum now. But it frightens me because I know when I'm on stage and facing a primarily conservative crowd that doesn't know who I am, you've got to push them. You know you're going to be pushing up against an ideological wall that's not going to give. It's very draining and it can make your throat hurt.

But you do it anyway. I think one of the greatest comics was Bill Hicks. It gave him cancer. He used to go up there and push progressive values in a very radical, satirical way. It fell on deaf ears because most people aren't smart enough to have their own opinion. Most people, the opinion they have was given to them by the simplicity of talk radio or the simplicity of another ideologue who made them understand it in a way. They don't engage.

Even when I talked to this DJ in Cincinnati, I tried to have a conversation with him about Social Security.

And the DJ was like, "Look, most people don't need it. Smart people don't need Social Security, they don't rely on it afterwards."

So you get these talking points that justify a type of contempt and narrow-mindedness in conservatives that disables their ability to even engage in empathy for other people and in the diversity of things, in the thing that's unique in all the different races in all the different issues.

...My whole issue with political correctness is there are some aspect of politically correct thinking that I find annoying. But there are other things that I thought were very helpful in terms of bringing up the confidence and presence of a diversity of people in the social landscape we live in now. I don't think, in this point in time, political correctness is threat. By attacking it more is just to program the youth of this generation to prepare themselves so that when they go into college they will shut down any sort of talk that seems progressive or liberal.

Mark: [The phrase] "Political correctness" is part of those incremental steps that people on the right are taking to solidify what they consider to be their base...

Marc: Lenny Bruce was a champion of fighting racial inequality, fighting racism in language, he pushed the envelope of satire of what went over the acceptable censorship levels at the time. He said what he thought was right about religion, about race, about sex, about drugs, about any number of things. This guy really pushed it out there.

Now, what I've found in my comic peers after 9/11, there was a group of guys who really thought every Muslim should be thrown out of America.

I never even entertained that idea.

But the idea that "these guys were Muslim, let's get them all out and sort through it later," was a real political idea for some of these guys. And they were able to rally around this idea and decided that this was an ideology. This was a new American ideology, "We don't have to have patience or tolerance or acceptance of races -- certainly not Muslims -- in this country after what they did." And that started to filter out to all races.

Then you had this comic language of basically saying, "The reason there are racial stereotypes is because some of them fit. So let's play that out. Let's all be proud of racial stereotyping and make that an assault on political correctness."

For instance, in comparison to Lenny Bruce trying to break through racism, this is who Brian Anderson says is Lenny Bruce's true heir:

[sound clip] "I live in Astoria Queens. [applause] There's the other six white people who live there. Thank you. The FBI says they're having trouble penetrating these terrorist cells. Bullsh*t, I've been buying fruit from the Taliban for four years."

Marc: Not only is that a hackey premise, the terrorist deli owner, but it's just an intolerance that people find relief in now because this is the way the pendulum is swinging. "It is OK to be racist." That is what this kind of comedy is saying.

Mark: But he's lying. Who represents Astoria? Are there any elected officials of color who represent Astoria? Of course not. The bottom line is Astoria has been known for years (and I'm surprised this guy doesn't know it) as a Greek neighborhood.

Marc: It's just a general sense that "diversity is bad because we don't know who these people are -- we are the true Americans -- that Americans don't need to tolerate or stay on a level playing field with any immigrants -- and that this is the way America stays strong."

And it's not.

America stays strong by embracing diversity, by embracing tolerance, by making democracy work for people who come to this country and want to embrace it. Not by pushing them all aside a creating this "dominant race" theory. I just don't believe that's the way this country was built.

Mark: Of course it isn't. But what's happening now is that media, some media, is trying to blunt that message. ...Being inclusive bothers some people because they feel like they still have some turf -- whether it be racial, ethnic, religious or whatever -- to defend.

What you have now is an energized base that is out not just to defend what they see as their religious turf, but to expand their religious turf to include everybody -- even people who disagree with their religious frame.

Marc: I think you're right. But I also think on the other side of this is also to keep a steady simmer, culturally, with this type of comedy. A steady simmer of dividing and conquering ourselves. They don't want common ground. They'd rather have an acceptable friction.

There are kids and grown-ups out there who are comfortable with having racial anger. And they want to be validated. The want to make it cute, "We can do this 'cause we're on the same page here."

But I still think it's a dividing tactic.

It doesn't help people accept one another, it doesn't help people garner respect for people that are different. All it does is accept a sort of dividing factor.

Mark: That dividing factor, Marc, has been around since the founding of the country. There was a time when Harlem was divided up not just by race but by ethnicity. There were certain blocks in Harlem that you could not walk across because they were Irish or because they were Italian, or because they were whatever. This was part of the history of the country. And these guys want to bring back that time because they don't want to acknowledge that the breaking down of those barriers represents any form of progress whatsoever.

Marc: But it must represent progress.

Mark: Of course it does!

Marc: What do you think? Do you have any input on this cultural level of debate about comedy, about diversity, about the new wave we are facing in terms of culture -- against progressive values that's clearly starting to dominate the airwaves on all levels?


For fuller discussion (particularly on the re-framing of "South Park,") and intelligent call-ins, click here and scroll to 9:00mins.

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