Posts Tagged ‘Pop Culture’

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:


These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.


Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:


In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?


By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

When it comes to my pop culture proclivities, I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile.  My late high-school, early college years was when my English-mania reached its climax. Though embarrasing now, I felt it absolutely appropriate to dress like, and style my long-lost hair in the manner of my favorite English maudlin and/or ironic singers.  In high school, it was a pompadour and t-shirt with blazer, a la 1987 Morrissey.  By college, it was a shaggy moptop with stripy sweaters a la Damon Albarn of Blur. At the time I thought I could pull this off.

By the time I graduated from college, I honestly didn’t have the energy any longer to style my hair in a particular fashion. Plus, I had my girlfriend, and eventual wife, who rightly felt the look went from a cute sign of style, to something much closer to pretention. I came to realize that there is a certain point when putting daisies in your back pocket, and carrying around a volume of Oscar Wilde is just sad. Though my fashion changed, my musical


An inside joke for fans of the Smiths.

tastes still focused upon the English pop music of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  In high school, my cohorts were obsessed with the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Smashing Pumpkins grunge movement; I enjoyed a more dour line-up of The Cure, Depeche Mode and The Smiths.  By college, people were fighting over West Coast vs. East Coast rap; I was concerning myself with the Oasis vs. Blur quarrel (Blur is MUCH better, by the way.) Some of my university acquantances spent their nights listening to Phish, The Grateful Dead, and Blues Traveller, I…well, I just couldn’t stand that crap. Still can’t.

When we moved to Chicago 15 years ago, my Britpop obsession had cooled considerably.  Now in my mid (okay, late) 30’s, I thought my Anglophilia had finally died.  Then, a couple weeks ago, an import from the Islands rejuvinated my love.  But, it wasn’t music this time.

One evening, I was looking for a good historical documentary to watch on Netflix.  Not much there.  Figured I might as well check out PBS.  Nope, nothing really on.  Finally, I realized, ‘of course! Youtube!’  Sure enough, inputting historical documentary got me quite a list of shows to watch (835,000 hits to be exact).  How to decide?  Well, I quickly realized to look for three letters: BBC.  Youtube was awash in BBC historical programs.  After watching a couple, I was amazed at their quality and seriousness.  For instance, I found a wonderfully intriguing three part documentary written, and hosted by one of my favorite historians, Mary Beard.  Beard is a classicist at Cambridge, and though she doesn’t write about my specialities, she is wonderful at humanizing the people of Ancient world.   Just take a look how she deals with Roman toilets (yes toilets) in this scene from her series ‘Meet The Romans’ (Jump to 24 mins):

Now tell me that is not interesting!  Nothing at all fancy about the production; no special effects; no actors; nothing ‘EXTREME’ or ‘SHOCKING’ or pseudohistorical. Just an expert telling the viewer about a time period and a long gone people she loves. Such shows are stirring my Angliophile nature once again.  But, I must be honest.  This love is mixed with a serious degree of jealousy.  I mean, why can’t we produce works like this in America? Instead, we have  The History Channel.  AAARRRGGGHHH!  How I hate The History Channel.  Let’s just take a look at what the History Channel has on it’s two stations in the next couple days, shall we?  Oh, great, ‘Swamp People’!  Hey, ‘Ancient Aliens”!  How historically challenging! Wait a minute, don’t forget ‘Jurassic Fight Club’!  Sounds like a really enlightening program.

I just can’t figure out why Americans have such a limited understanding of history….Wait, what was that? ‘Pawn Stars’ is on the History Channel at 6:30? Nevermind.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

Pop Culture references don’t age well. I think about this, from time to time, when I am teaching an essay that refers to outdated celebrities. The example that comes to mind is from William Raspberry’s essay “The Handicap of Definition,” an insightful and broad-minded exploration of racial stereotypes. The piece was published in 1982 and features rather unfortunately outdated Pop Culture references (Tom Jones and Teena Marie). These no longer function as pertinent examples since I have to explain them to students. This doesn’t mean the examples are no longer valid, but much of their impact is lost.

This past Sunday, I encountered the rather disturbing truth that my examples are only as current as I am. I have to imagine that this is true for the rest of people, too, which is probably why people striving to stay “young” and “hip” and “cool” always look so tired (is anyone else conjuring images of Madonna at Super Bowl XLVI?). Staying relevant must be exhausting. I have never labored under the impression that I am now or ever have been “cool”; I am content to be quirky, unusual in a way that seems generally pleasing, if not downright laughable. Still, I was awfully surprised when, during conversation with (ok, ok, considerably younger) friends at Sunday brunch, I had to explain not one but four Pop Culture references that I just assumed everyone would “get”.  The references are, in my mind, neither obscure nor specialized. The following are the names I dropped, which no one picked up: Jessica Lange, Sam Sheppard (convinced that he would help my friends remember Jessica Lange), Henry Rollins, Bobcat Goldthwaite and Alpana Singh. The first three, certainly, are quite well-known and still actively working in the public eye. I must conclude, then, that I need to consider my audience.  Or, at the very least, it reminds us to think carefully about the examples we use.

Over time, Pop Culture references aren’t worth much, which is a much more pertinent lesson.  What makes us laugh today makes us cringe tomorrow, but confused the day after. It is somewhat akin to watching old comedy (of course, here, too, the definition of “old” is rather fluid). Many jokes that once got enormous laughs are so topical that their meaning is lost. Still, I can locate a reassuring thought: in the not-too-distant future, none of my students will have ever heard of Snooki.