Posts Tagged ‘Saturday Night Live’

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:

phil_hartman_clinton

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.

Sagging Pants?  Outrage.  Twerking?  Outrage.  Largest bank in Europe laundering money for drug dealers and terrorist organizations? Crickets.

The first two examples above can really kick up an American’s dander. The third was passed over with barely a murmur.  Fashion choices that affect no one; dancing fads that look like other dancing fads; someone working the system to get food stamps when they are not needed.  Such stories have become social media, and mainstream media obsessions.  The publicized word of mouth outrage has been metastatic. It feeds on itself.  Outrageously however, our saggy-pants-illustration-vl-verticalnational obsessive outrages point in the wrong direction. Real outrageous stories and happenings fall by the wayside, replaced by the latest absurd outrage d’jour.  We need to figure out what is going on, and get outraged over this misplaced outrage.

Start with baggy pants.  I pointed out in my last post how sagging jeans is still a topic people get riled up over, two decades since they became a common fashion trend.  The notoriously stiff and starched George Will wrote a somewhat hilarious opinion piece about pants a couple years ago, calling the ubiquity of blue jeans in our culture “an obnoxious misuse of freedom”.  While a just a wee-bit of an overstatement, ol’Georgie boy will be pretty happy to know that this freedom is slowly being curtailed in certain parts of the United States when those blue jeans are a just a bit too saggy.  That’s right, in some towns of our ‘sweet land of liberty’, it is now a fine-able offense to wear ‘baggy pants’.  In April, a Louisiana town passed an ordinance that would fine baggy pant wearers “$50 for the first offense, $100 for the second offense and $100 plus 16 hours of mandatory community service for the third offense.”  And, in case you think this is an issue of a white, racist majority, trying to legislate modern Jim Crow laws, think again.  Jerome Boykin, the president of the local NAACP chapter declared, “There is nothing positive about people wearing saggy pants. This is not a black issue, this is not a white issue, this is a people issue… Young men who were in prison who wanted to have sex with other men would send a signal to another man with his pants below his waist.”

Oh boy. Let us get this out of the way right now.  The homophobic baggy pant prison theory/rumor is false.  The look evidently did come from the prison system.  But, all inmates had baggy pants because it is a suicide risk having belts in the clink.  Furthermore, EVEN if the homophobe theory was true, who really cares where or how the trend began?  How does this justify outlawing someone’s fashion choice? This is unfortunately a rhetorical question.  American history is filled with ridiculous, often vicious laws regulating personal choices. See Jim Crow.

Outspoken outrage has been turned into legislation, and today’s hyper-connected world may be partly to blame for the ubiquity of such outrage, and hence, for the growth of such laws as well. Social media, and 24 hour news cycles, has allowed outrage to reach a deafening cacophony.  Modern media allows, perhaps even encourages, miley-the-screamoutrage to become obsession, with conspiracy theories, and unsubstantiated rumors (Prison homosexuals) travelling on fiber-optic cables, leaving the truth struggling behind, as it tries to connect with a dial-up modem. This is the world of the internet memes.  Memes can produce a falsified, angry narrative hidden behind universally recognized pop-culture humor. This internet guerrilla propaganda depends upon the most absurd of photos, and most flippant of reasoning to make a point, produce a laugh, or create a sneer.  Talking points then become repeated verbatim, creating an echo chamber of outrage that feeds upon itself.

Memes allow our outrage to be directed at the most daft and harmless social trends.  See twerking and Miley Cyrus for the most recent example.  Just this previous weekend, Saturday Night Live poked fun at the outrage about Cyrus’ VMA performance, using a nuanced, advanced humor to point to the absurdity of twerk-rage.

If you think this is all tongue-in-cheek, just quickly Google “Miley Cyrus Fall of Western Civilization“. You will find people who make such an argument.

So now, the big problem. Our contagious, self-spiraling outrage is making Americans truly blind to the forest for the saplings. If you ask Americans how they feel about baggy jeans, or Miley Cyrus twerking, you will get outspoken opinions, outrageous in their passion.  But, ask them about the HSBC scandal, and you would most likely get blank stares.

download (1)What is that, you may be asking?  A couple years ago, authorities discovered that HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, had been laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels, dictatorial regimes, and even Al Qaeda.  The United States military have shocked and awed nations and civilians for much less, but HSBC got a relatively light sentence from Washington D.C. The bank had to pay a 1.9 billion fine, which sounds all well and good, until you learn that outrageous total is about 9% of the company’s pretax yearly profit.  Oh, and another thing, not ONE manager, VP, CEO, CFO, got jailed, or even fired for this little indiscretion of laundering cash for murderers.  Where was the outrage?  Where were the memes?  Where were the viral videos?  Good questions.

Such ignorance of the HSBC makes me…well… outraged.  I need an answer.

Stuart-Gulliver

HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver

Perhaps, just perhaps, this is an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’.  Maybe we get outraged over someone wearing baggy pants, or stealing an unnecessary 30 dollars from the government each month, or twerking because we are similar to those people.  They are us, and we are they with only a couple tweaks of the cultural dial.  Maybe HSBC is too big; too nameless.  Miley Cyrus was that girl next door who has gone bad.  HSBC is a multinational corporation. I know what Miley Cyrus looks like; I have no idea what HSBC’s CEO looks like (Stuart Gulliver).  We feel powerless attacking a monolithic bank. We feel empowered to shame a kid wearing jeans we don’t like, or a girl dancing in a way we find offensive.

It really is outrageous.