In early August, Fox News and Facebook organized the most watched primary debate ever, in Cleveland, Ohio, where 17 Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in two debates in hope of emerging as the star of the field. The pundits are still out on who exactly ”won” the debate, curiously there seems to be something of a correlation between the ideology of the pundit and whom they declare the winner. Among much post-debate think-pieces, media bickering, and inappropriate comments by Donald Trump, the perhaps best, and certainly funniest, piece was a bit by Funny or Die featuring kids reenacting the debate.
Since presidential debates became a staple of the election season following the 1976 debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, they have been the source of much comedy fodder. Saturday Night Live has over the years, since 1976, provided such gems as this Bush-Clinton-Perot debate, focused on Arkansas as backwater, this Gore-Bush sketch, Will Ferrell as Bush became a long-time favorite, and the instant classics of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, like this. The Funny and Die bit, however, highlights the inherent humor in the actual debates. For while it might be more fun to just catch Dave Letterman’s recap of the debates than actually watching hours of political posturing, even the politicians drop some funny lines.
Historically, the presidential debates debuted with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, but as both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon then avoided debates in their 1964, 1968 and 1972 runs respectively it wasn’t until the 1976 campaign they returned. Since then they have been a crucial part of any election cycle, including the primary cycles. The humor in presidential debates consists mainly of inadvertent gaffes or advertent zingers. The perhaps foremost example of the first category dates back to the 1976 debate where incumbent president Gerald Ford claimed there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Max Frankel of the New York Times, serving on the panel of moderators, can barely conceal his grin as he in disbelief asks if the president is actually saying Eastern Europe is not within the Soviet sphere of influence. The blunder by Ford enhanced the impression of him as somewhat dim, and was used to great extent by the Carter campaign. A more recent example of a humorous debate mistake would be Rick Perry’s inability, in a Republican primary debate in 2012, to remember the third government agency he would do away with if elected to the White House. Falling back on his Texan charm Perry tried to brush it aside with a nonchalant “oops”, which only made the whole exchange sillier. Speaking of silly, Mitt Romney’s attempt at humor when proposing to cut funding to PBS, saying that he likes Big Bird (of Sesame Street fame) but would still axe it, also misfired as it gave more than ample ammunition to editorial cartoonists, meme-ers, and comedians all over the country.
When the candidates in the debates are consciously humorous it is more often by a joke on the opponents account, a zinger. These certainly seem to have decreased in recent years, and the defining debate zinger remains one from 1988. Irritated of continuing criticism of his inexperience, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate explained that he had as much experience as John F. Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960. His opponent, long-serving Texan Senator Lloyd Bentsen, saw his chance for a put down and clearly took pleasure in delivering the zinger of the century. “I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”, Bentsen replied with a smile hardly hidden. Increasing the comedy, Quayle’s face dropped to the floor and clearly hurt he said the comment was uncalled for. Bentsen’s comment was immediately viewed as bold; if he wasn’t crossing a line he was at least approaching that line. The risk with crossing the line is that you come off as mean, which is a reason most of the best zingers hail from vice presidential debates – the designated hatchet men. Back in 1976 Republican vice presidential candidate Bob Dole showed off a sharp wit, repeatedly making cracks about his opponent Walter Mondale and presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. Viewers found Dole lacking in seriousness and coming off as a wisecracker, making him unappealing.
Ross Perot, debating with Bush and Clinton in 1992, similarly highlighted his comedic chops with repeated jokes and zingers. As a candidate from outside the political establishment the strategy was risky, it was crucial for him to appear presidential, and ultimately a failure. “It’s nice that someone has some humor and lightens things up, but now it seems like every opportunity he had to speak he had a quick one-liner”, was the verdict of one focus group. The risk of not appearing responsible and mature enough for the White House actually led the naturally witty John F. Kennedy to tone down his humor in the 1960 debates. As Kennedy was struggling with the perception of him as too young and his reputation as witty aldready widely appreciated the strategy seemed good. Still, sense of humor remains a key factor for voters in determining the character of a candidate, not to mention likability. Moreover, a well delivered zinger or joke is almost certain to reach a larger audience by making it to post-debate coverage – especially on television and today YouTube. To find a balance is vital, yet difficult.
The only president who ever truly mastered humor in presidential debates was Ronald Reagan. “The Great Communicator” had a good sense of humor and a background in delivering lines and presenting himself appealingly. In 1980, as Jimmy Carter laid out his case against Reagan, he smiled confidently and good-naturedly said “there you go again” before defending himself. The almost laughing Reagan uttering the “there you go again” is as close to iconic as presidential debate moments get. It was a part of Reagan’s debate strategy to throw Carter off with humor and smiles. When facing Mondale four years later, Reagan delivered another classic when he ironically answered a question by promising not to make his opponents age an issue of the campaign – his own age was of course what had been questioned in recent weeks. The joke not only drew large laughs from the crowd but from the moderator and Mondale, again highlighting Reagan’s affable personality. By mixing self-deprecation with irony and a message, Reagan showed off presidential debate humor at its best; if even the opponent is getting a good laugh you know you’re doing something right. Apropos irony, we still have some twenty debates in the 2016 cycle to look forward to!
For more commentary on the 2016 elections, check out the interdisciplinary election podcast Campaign Context at www.campaigncontext.wordpress.com.
Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about him and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.
The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “we know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in reality. And reality has a well-known liberal bias”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.
Bill Murray may be the coolest living celebrity. This is due in large part to his very approach to celebrity. Murray is one of the few movie stars that is able to balance a consistent public presence, amassing both commercial and cult status, with a genuine private life.
You may see him at Cannes, but not on Facebook. He’s on Letterman, but not Twitter. He is evasive without being reclusive, reserved without being withdrawn. He famously has no agent or manager and can only be contacted through a 1-800 number, which his own lawyer uses to reach him. He reportedly has homes in South Carolina (he is co-owner and “Director of Fun” of the minor league baseball team the Charleston RiverDogs) and near the Pechanga Indian Casino in Temecula, California, as well as PO boxes in New York and Martha’s Vineyard (at least). The truth is, Bill Murray is never in one place for very long and is notorious for randomly interacting with fans at bars, fast food restaurants and, of course, karaoke booths. He’s crashed birthday parties and engagement photos. He once drove a cab from Oakland to Sausalito so that the driver, who worked 14-hour days, could practice his saxophone, stopping for barbeque at two in the morning along the way. He doesn’t retreat from the world, he simply chooses his own entrances.
This healthy, almost admirable, approach to celebrity is part of what has fueled one of show business’ great third acts. Having enjoyed blockbuster movie stardom in the 1980s and 1990s with iconic films such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Murray is highly sought after in middle age by indie filmmakers such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola, who have used his sardonic, almost post-hip persona to help elevate their quirky imaginings of the modern world.
But before the film success, Bill Murray began his comedy career with the legendary Chicago-based improve group The Second City, and eventually achieved national fame on Saturday Night Live.
Murray created many memorable characters on SNL, the most beloved of which is Nick the Lounge Singer. Continue reading →
I have a fever for exploring the curious life of one of the most bizarre and compelling comic sketches to work itself into the American grain, the collective unconsciousness, cultural zeitgeist, internet meme-life, and merchandising half-life: Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) “More Cowbell,” first shown on 08 April 2000. According to Wikipedia (yes, “More Cowbell”–the catch phrase–has its own page), “the sketch is often considered one of the greatest SNL sketches ever made, and in many ‘best of’ lists regarding SNL sketches, it is often placed at number one .” I don’t understand why Wikipedia wants a citation for this statement; we don’t need any stinking citations for something that is so clearly and indisputably true. I have a “More Cowbell” app on my phone to prove it.
Here is a link to the sketch itself: More Cowbell Full Sketch
The sketch, written by Will Ferrell, is inscrutable and inexplicable, which makes it a perfect tool for teaching American humor. In the introductory days of a class I teach called American Popular Humor, I have always included contemporary sketch comedy as a way to get students to explore what makes humans laugh and also to break down that laughter into components. In short, I ask them to dissect the humor. It is what teachers do, with apologies to the damage inherently done to the sheer joy provided by humor itself.
I have found that “More Cowbell,” provides an ideal source for exploring the layers of humor in any given piece of material. The sketch offers the complexity of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That is a joke with its own layers (which is what humor scholars say when a joke is not as funny as they think it should be). Actually, most of Eliot’s poetry is a bit more complicated that a Will Ferrell SNL sketch, but almost nobody cares, and nobody wears a t-shirt with “More Prufrock” on it. If I am wrong about that, I am sorry–and saddened, as I gaze at my own rolled-up slacks. If I am the first the come up with that idea, I freely grant full licensure to anyone who wishes to make such a shirt. Surely, there are a few English grad students who would scrounge enough money together to buy it.
But “More Cowbell” as both a fine example of American humor and a cultural phenomenon provides a useful and fun way to talk about humor and how laughter depends on some many tenuous moments. Students bring much to such a discussion built around “More Cowbell,” because they are familiar with it and recognize its references. With that in mind, a discussion of the sketch can lead to a stronger awareness of how the humor of any given sketch depends on far more than the quality of the writing and performances. The context is the thing.
First, the sketch is funny in and of itself. It is built around simple incongruities, most obviously regarding the overblown attention that a simple instrument like a cowbell earns in the production of a rock song., in this case, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The supposedly famous producer–the Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, creates the first true comic moment of the bit by pronouncing his desire for “more cowbell.” This is incongruous–and funny–because anyone who has ever listened to the song would be hard-pressed to argue that it needs more cowbell. But even so, those hearing the song opening measures for the first time can recognize how prominent the cowbell is along with the dominating physical presence of Will Ferrell (as “Gene Frenkle,” the fictional lead cowbell player). That is the core written joke of the sketch: a great producer has a curious (and absurd) passion for more cowbell. Additionally, the sketch is an astute parody of the silly hyper-seriousness afforded to rock bands and their recording processes; the sillier-still seriousness of the VH1 rockumentary as a medium. All of this makes the sketch funny but alone is certainly not enough to earn or explain its legendary status. No, that comes from the live performance and the audience’s willingness to embrace the intangibles of the sketch. This is the point I am eager for students to embrace–the essential interaction between comic performances and audience desire.
“More Cowbell” is a funny bit that becomes hysterically funny in the moment based on the live performance. Students generally first assert that they enjoy the laughter of the actors on stage. This has been a key to the success of SNL from the beginning: audiences love when a performer breaks character and laughs–or, more appealingly, tries to suppress laughter. It is infectious. Jimmy Fallon’s SNL career, his greatest moments, are almost exclusively built around his difficulty in playing a straight man. The other players crack up as well. The sketch finds that magical balance between good comedic writing and the stage energy on the verge of chaos. The sketch is on the verge of collapse at every moment.
Which brings us to Christopher Walken, the essential component of the sketch as written and as performed. Students generally assert, without qualification, that Walken is the only actor that fit for that roll. His off-stage quirkiness carries into the performance itself in the minds of viewers. In short, “the Bruce Dickinson” is funny because Christopher Walken is weird, baby.
American humor at its best is alive and always feeding on the moment. That does not mean it must always be “live,” so to speak. Rather, it means that the humor must always derive from the energy between performer and audience and a mutual love and disdain for the world they share.
As “More Cowbell” has become more entrenched as a “classic” SNL sketch, it has become funnier still. For many of us, it also carries the warm glow of nostalgia for those times before we started rolling up our pants and counting our coffee spoons, when we could still stay awake late enough to see SNL and could recognize the hosts and the musical guests, and when those guests played musical instruments, and sometimes cowbells.
My grandma, Louise, babysat for Lawrence Welk‘s kids when she was a girl. She lived across from Elitch Gardens, where my great-grandmother ran the roller coaster and my great-grandpa worked in the greenhouses. Growing up, we often watched the Lawrence Welk show with grandma.
I remember laughing a lot at the show–for both the intentional humor and the unintentional. Welk’s persona and corny jokes always made grandma laugh. Such as:
How many of Lawrence Welk’s critics does it take to change a light bulb?
– They don’t know how to change a light bulb, but they’ll find something wrong with how his Musical Family does it
Welk continues to maintain popularity, and his fan pages are examples of humorous web design in themselves. The music and costumes were often hilarious, often unintentionally so.
Which leads to some obvious and welcome parody:
Feel free to post your own Welk pieces and humor.
The finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.
Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”), to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.
There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.