Tag Archives: Satire

Goodbye, Jon Stewart: Please Let the New Guy Be Funnier

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

Jon Stewart’s decision to leave “The Daily Show” at what critics universally call the top of his game serves as another reminder of just how humor-deprived contemporary American television has become.

Stewart is, like his fellow Comedy Central alum Stephen Colbert and standup megastar Louis C.K., one of the most overrated talents of our time. Not that he isn’t fast on his feet – he is. Not that the camera doesn’t love him – it does. Not that he doesn’t understand timing – he does.

jon-stewartWhat Stewart isn’t is falling-down-on-the-floor hilarious. His fits and starts, lurching style of monologue elicits plenty of knowing guffaws and the occasional eye-rolling laugh at the expense of, typically, an ideologically inconsistent politician. But because he refuses to take the chance of alienating his audiences by offending them, he never risks falling off the high wire you have to climb in order to achieve comedy greatness.

If you want to be really funny, you have to be dangerous.

(To illustrate this point, I was going to cite a farm-based joke by Rudy Ray Moore, the black comedian and Blaxploitation filmmaker of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s so outrageous and so obscene that I’m pretty sure I’ve never work again if I did. Now that’s some wickedly funny stuff.)

I remember – actually, as a cartoonist, I am traumatized by recollecting – a female friend telling me why she turned against the late great George Carlin.

She loved Carlin. She owned many of his albums. She had seen him in concert many times. She couldn’t stop talking about how brilliant he was. Then, she explained, he said one joke that offended her feminist sensibilities. After that, he was dead to her.

I was baffled and a little disgusted. “In baseball, if you hit the ball 35 percent of the time, you’re a God. So you need to tell me that George Carlin told thousands of jokes that you loved, gave you hours of pleasure and countless laugh out loud moments, but because of one joke, he was dead to you? You fired a guy with a .999 batting average!” (I’m more in the 30 percent range.)

He was.

Here’s the joke that pissed her off: “Have you ever noticed that the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck anyway?”

Neither Jon Stewart nor Stephen Colbert nor John Oliver are ever going to say anything that funny. Or that mean. That’s not their business model. They walk between a very narrow set of lines defined by decades of political correctness.

Which is fine. Really. I don’t have a problem with what they do. The issue isn’t that they play it safe; the problem is that America is so starved for comedy that they manage to pass this bland stuff off as the real thing. The only reason that they have been so successful is that, following decades of horrible late-night tedium like Jay Leno, David Letterman and the inexplicably still on the air “Saturday Night Live” which, contrary to conventional wisdom was never very funny but is certainly much less so now.

“The humor that makes me laugh hardest is the material I know would offend or insult someone else,” wrote “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams in 2008. “But offending isn’t enough. The audience gets more out of humor if the messenger is putting himself in danger.” Adams says it’s a universal law, and I agree with him. It certainly applies to me. My most outrageous work – on 9/11 widows, Pat Tillman, making fun of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq – is also some of my funniest. And it definitely put me in danger: I stopped counting the death threats at 1000. And I lost some good jobs.

Every now and then, someone has to kill a humorist to remind us how dangerous good humor can be.

Of all things, last month’s massacre of – whether you like them or not, outrageously funny – cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris reminded some Americans of what exists elsewhere, but has been lost here, or perhaps never existed: an over-the-top, ribald, take-no-prisoners culture of satire, particularly in print but also on television.

Every few years, I make the rounds in Hollywood trying to pitch TV show ideas. During the peak of the Bush years, and before the idiotic “That’s My Bush!,” I presented to executives all over Los Angeles my idea for a comedy, either live action or animated, that made fun of the Bush family and the president’s top officials. The hook was, Bush was actually a reluctant leader, didn’t want to be there, and was secretly brilliant but didn’t want to let on. His daughter Jenna was really running the show. Dick Cheney was a softhearted wimp who broke into tears over nothing.

Maybe the show was a dumb idea, I don’t know, I’m not a TV executive. But that’s not the point of the story. The point is, Hollywood was so satirically illiterate that they rejected the idea based on legal fears: they were worried about being sued by the first family. As I repeatedly explained, Bush and Cheney and their families were public figures, so it would have been possible to mock them six ways till Sunday without having to worry about a successful lawsuit. Besides, almost every other Western country on earth had some sort of comedy show that sent up their political leaders: France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, even, at the time, Russia. They were all quite popular.

I explained that, as an editorial cartoonist, I routinely say all sorts of terrible things about the president, and yet, here I am, not in prison, at least not yet. But the pitch meetings never got beyond the legal questions. That’s how safe TV has become: they don’t even know what the legal landscape looks like.

There have been some bright spots. But you have to wonder, would anyone greenlight “The Simpsons” today? How about “South Park”?

There is no denying the success of the Comedy Central approach. Millennial viewers who would never watch the evening news nevertheless enjoy, and learn from, the fake news format pioneered by Stewart and Colbert. But make no mistake: that is not hard-hitting political satire.

Louis C.K., who is undeniably much funnier than those two, nonetheless likes to keep things safe as well. Although these incredibly incisive when issuing humorists observations about divorce, relationships, parenthood and popular culture, he generally shies away from straight-ahead politics.

The fact that it hasn’t always been this way tells us that things can change. In the 1960s and 1970s, even the relatively tame Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby routinely delivered more trenchant humor than you’ll find on television today. Richard Pryor, of course, was a God. Hell, Lenny Bruce got arrested! That’s not going to happen to the big-time comedians that we are constantly being told are so funny today.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of great humor out there – but not on the national stage, not on network television.

So now that the big Comedy Central stars have left, Colbert to the blander than bland Tonight Show (notice how no one talks about him anymore?), Stewart to whatever he figures out, we have an opportunity to reconsider the fact that, as a humor-loving people, Americans have the God-given right to watch dangerously funny TV shows – and there has never been a time when they were more needed.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Editors, Not Terrorists, Killed American Political Cartooning

Terrorism doesn’t scare political cartoonists nearly as much as editors — and the corporate bean-counters who tell them what to do.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre couldn’t have happened here in the United States. But it’s not because American newspapers have better security.

Gunmen could never kill four political cartoonists in an American newspaper office because no paper in the U.S. employs two, much less four, staff political cartoonists — the number who died Wednesday in Paris. There is no equivalent of Charlie Hebdo, which puts political cartoons front and center, in the States. (The Onion never published political cartoons — and it ceased print publication last year. MAD, for which I draw, focuses on popular culture.)

When I began drawing political cartoons professionally in the early 1990s, hundreds of my colleagues worked on staff at newspapers, with full salaries and benefits. That was already down from journalism’s mid-century glory days, when there were thousands. Many papers employed two. Shortly after World War II, The New York Times, which today has none, employed four cartoonists on staff. Today there are fewer than 30.

Most American states have zero full-time staff political cartoonists.

Many big states — California, New York, Texas, Illinois — have one.

No American political magazine, on the left, center or right, has one.

No American political website (Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Slate, Salon, etc.) employs a political cartoonist. Although its launch video was done in cartoons, eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s new $250 million left-wing start-up First Look Media refuses to hire political cartoonists — or pay tiny fees to reprint syndicated ones.

These outfits have tons of staff writers.

During the last few days, many journalists and editors have spread the “Je Suis Charlie” meme through social media in order to express “solidarity” with the victims of Charlie Hebdo, political cartoonists (who routinely receive death threats, whether they live in France or the United States) and freedom of expression. That’s nice.

No it’s not.

It’s annoying.

As far as political cartoonists are concerned, editorials pledging “solidarity” with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is an empty gesture — corporate slacktivism. Less than 24 hours after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel fired its long-time, award-winning political cartoonist, Chan Lowe.

Political cartoonists: editors love us when we’re dead. While we’re still breathing, they’re laying us off, slashing our rates, stealing our copyrights and disappearing us from where we used to appear — killing our art form.

American editors and publishers have never been as willing to publish satire, whether in pictures or in words, as their European counterparts. But things have gone from bad to apocalyptic in the last 30 years.

Humor columnists like the late Art Buchwald earned millions syndicating their jokes about politicians and current events to American newspapers through the 1970s and 1980s. Miami Herald humor writer Dave Barry was a rock star through the 1990s, routinely cranking out bestselling books. Then came 9/11.

When I began working as an executive talent scout for the United Media syndicate in 2006, my sales staff informed me that, if Barry had started out then, they wouldn’t have been able to sell him to a single newspaper, magazine or website — not even if they gave his work to them for free. Barry was still funny, but there was no market for satire anywhere in American media.

That’s even truer today.

The youngest working political cartoonist in the United States, Matt Bors, is 31. When people ask me who the next up-and-comer is, I tell them there isn’t one — and there won’t be one any time soon.

Americans are funny. Americans like funny. They especially like wicked funny. We’re so desperate for funny that we think Jon Stewart is hilarious. (But…Richard Pryor. He really was.) But editors and producers won’t give them funny, much less mean-funny.

Why not?

Like any other disaster, media censorship of satire — especially graphic satire — in the U.S. is caused by several contributing factors.

Most media outlets are owned by corporations, not private owners. Publicly-traded companies are risk-averse. Executives prefer to publish boring/safe content that won’t generate complaints from advertisers or shareholders, much less force them to hire extra security guards.

Half a century ago, many editors had working-class backgrounds and rose through the ranks from the bottom. Now they’re graduates of pricey graduate university journalism programs that don’t offer scholarships — and don’t teach a single class about comics, cartoons, humor or graphic art. It takes an unusually curious editor to make the effort to educate himself or herself about political cartoons.

Corporate journalism executives view cartoons as frivolous, less serious than “real” commentary like columns or editorials. Unfortunately, some editorial cartoonists make this problem worse by drawing silly gags about current events (as opposed to trenchant attacks on the powers that be) because they’ve seen their blandest work win Pulitzers and coveted spots in the major weekend cartoon “round-ups.” When asked to cut their budget, editors often look at their cartoonist first.

There is still powerful political cartooning online. Ironically, the Internet contributes to the death of satire in America by sating the demand for hard-hitting political art. Before the Web, if a paper canceled my cartoons they would receive angry letters from my fans. Now my readers find me online — but the Internet pays pennies on the print dollar. I’m stubbornly hanging on, but many talented cartoonists, especially the young, won’t work for free.

It’s not that media organizations are broke. Far from it. Many are profitable. American newspapers and magazines employ tens of thousands of writers — they just don’t want anyone writing or drawing anything that questions the status quo, especially not in a form as powerful as political cartooning.

The next time you hear editors pretending to stand up for freedom of expression, ask them if they employ a cartoonist.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist for The Los Angeles Times, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

 

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Satire – The Revolution Will Be Digitized

This Time: Three Douches To Watch Out For

It sounds like the lede of another breathless Dot-Com Bubble 3.0 puff piece by David Carr.

Three douchebags hook up at a café-cum-gallery-cum-hacketeria in a section of Brooklyn so hip that hipsters can’t find it on an app. Eight minutes later, they’ve banged out a business plan. What for, they can’t say. All they know is, it’ll be wicked awesome sweet. They send out a few emails; before you can type 140 characters they’ve lined up $28 million in seed capital. (There’s also out-of-school chatter about off-the-book rubles. Whatever.)

Now everyone’s talking about Douchenet.

Not you. You’re not talking about Douchenet. No one you know is talking about Douchenet.

By “everybody,” we don’t mean “everybody.” We don’t even mean “a large number of people.” We mean “everyone who matters.” Which most assuredly doesn’t include you. Or, really, hardly anyone at all.

So.

What exactly is Douchenet? Who knows? Who cares? The point of a piece like this one isn’t to tell you what’s going on. The point is to blow some free publicity the way of well-connected 26-year-old friends of people who matter to people who matter. (Not. You.) Twenty-six-year-olds whose business ideas are obviously utter horsecrap, are clearly doomed to failure, but not before they walk away with even more cash, raised from unwashed small-time rube wannabe playas. That’s the point of a piece like this.

That, and to make you feel miserable.

You poor, stupid, underemployed schmuck. A schmuck who will never, ever come anywhere near millions and millions of dollars. No matter how hard or long you toil.

Id.

iot.

At first (and OK, 17th) glance, last week’s Facebook IPO looks like a fiasco. Federal investigators are looking into charges that Morgan Stanley knowingly set the share price too high in order to inflate its underwriting fees, leaving unsophisticated stock buyers holding the bag for an 18 percent plunge of a $16 billion offering. But that’s only half the picture.

Sure, millions of people lost their hard-earned savings. But three douchebags are rocking out.

Which is what matters.

Mark Miron, 26, got paid in Facebook shares for watching Mark Zuckerberg’s cat one summer. As of last week, he was worth $200 million. But he’s more than just another smug, Silicon Valley wanker with rich parents, who likes to wear blue shirts with white collars, and is smart enough not to let his friend’s friend’s cat die. I mean, he is that. But there’s other stuff too. Like, he made a name for himself at Google when he agreed with some other entitled kids-of-Boomers that having illustrators design the search engine’s front page for free (i.e. “exposure”) was a cool idea. (By “cool,” we mean cheap, cynical and exploitative.) Can you say moxie?

Marc Parker, 26, started out at Facebook.co.uk, where he came up with the idea to model the British version of the site after its American parent, down to using the same language. “I love the blue hyperlinks. The white background. So American. And yet so British.” Eager to be promoted from a prat or a git to a full-fledged douchebag, Parker moved to Palo Alto, California in order to relinquish first his British, then his American citizenship in order to avoid paying taxes on the £200 million he earned from the IPO.

Jeff Mark, 26, drifted from PayPal to Facebook to MySpace to Compuserve to Netscape back to Compuserve. (Though closed, he somehow managed to collect €200 million from the latter.)

The three men became inseparable—and insufferable—after a chance encounter at Bi-Nary, a macrobiotic air bar that caters to sexually indiscriminate coders on the edge of the foothills near the section of the Google campus where they test attack drones for corporations.

It was during a sex tour of the Bushwick section of Brooklyn that the three douches conceived Douchenet. “We were talking about how, even though douches run just about everything in multimedia, until recently there weren’t the authoring tools and the bandwidth and/or the tablet platform for douches to hook up to do douchey things,” said Miron.

“Yeah,” agreed Parker and Mark.

I reached out to (that’s e-talk for “called”) Margot Jefferson, an analyst at D-Freak, a firm that tracks douchebaggery. “Douches account for 33 percent of start-ups, which account for 82 percent of investor fleecing, which amounts to 126 percent of economic activity in the United States,” points out Jefferson. “So the ability to connect douches across digital platforms using digital things is a game changer,” she confirms.

Given the power and the track record of these remarkable entrepreneurs, Douchenet is a story about power, wealth, journalism—and yes, wealth and power—worth watching. Marc Miron, for example, wrote that article that appeared in Wired that time. And Parker’s dad is just ridiculously rich, so we know he’s smart. Douchenet brings to mind Wingnutnet, a website you’ve never heard of because it doesn’t exist, yet which I’ve been writing about forever, by which I mean 2011.

Sometime this summer, Android will release a free version of Douchenet, so people who sign up can begin registering their personal financial information for distribution to trusted sites in Belarus. Using the so-called “freemium” model, Douchenet will charge fees for actual features, like the ability to create an “avatar” that could be sold by Farmville, which would pay a fraction of a fractile of a percent back to the original user, i.e. Douchenet.

In a live Tweetathon, Mark said he was drawn to Douchenet less by the idea than by the people who came up with it. “When you make an investment, you are betting on the team more than the idea,” he said. “If the idea is wrong, but the team is right, they will figure it out.”

“Who knows where this will end up?” he added between tokes on a clove bong.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 29. His website is tedrall.com.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Conning the Taliban

Confessions of a Phony American Peace Negotiator

For much of the year now drawing to a close, U.S. and NATO bigwigs conducted secret peace talks with Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the #2 Taliban official. They paid him tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars to show good will. NATO planes delivered him to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he met with Hamid Karzai.

“But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all,” reports The New York Times. The phony Mansour, Afghan intelligence agents say, was actually “a shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta” who looked nothing like the real guy.

You can’t sugarcoat this debacle. L’affair Mansour instantly transformed the United States, previously reviled as the world’s most brutish bully, into an intergalactic laughingstock.

Yes, our government and military are headed by dumb-as-rocks hillbillies. But the Taliban can be fooled too—as I learned during my own top secret mission deep in the deepest valleys between the highest mountains of the Hindu Kush.

I found myself short of cash while traveling in Afghanistan in August. So I devised an ingenious scheme. Call it Operation Turnabout: Why not present myself to the Taliban as a high-ranking American official eager to end the war? It could be fun. It could be lucrative. And who knows? If they fell for it, I’d be up for the Nobel Peace Prize!

Finding Talibs didn’t take long. I walked up to two guys planting an IED. Or they were stoning some chick. I don’t remember. Anyway, it isn’t important.

“Salaam,” I greeted them. “I am American Vice President Joe Biden. Take me forthwith to your leader, Mullah Omar, he of one eye, and see that you are quick about it.”

The rogues chucked me into the back of their Toyota Landcruiser, wrapped in duct tape. Off we went. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they hit every pothole on purpose.

Eventually, we stopped. They ripped the tape off my face. “American dog!” they cried in unison. “Time for dinner!” A kebab vendor glared at me from the side of the road. As did the goat head on the grill.

My animal cunning was too much for the two undereducated brutes. “Alas, my good fellows,” I replied, “my White House Amex card is not accepted by yon locals. Might I ‘borrow’ some money? You know—as good faith?”

Soon I was 17 afghanis richer. My plan was working!

A day or two later, my bound form was carried into an empty poured-concrete room in a complex somewhere in The Remote Tribal Areas Along the Border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and dumped on the floor. A bearded man with an eye patch walked in.

“I am Mullah Mohammed Omar, Head of the Supreme Council and Commander of the Faithful of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” he said.

“Hi there,” I said. “I am American Vice President Joe Biden of America.”

He grimaced.

“How do I know you are who you say you are?” he asked.

“Ask me anything,” I challenged. “The combination to the safe where the Oval Office porn collection is kept. Vladimir Putin’s cell number. I can even identify most of the American states.”

He smiled.

“Of course you can,” he said. “But you could say anything. We have no way to check it out. The United States is a distant, remote country. Its leaders have never been seen in public, certainly not by Afghans. We don’t even know if there is a ‘Joe Biden.'”

“We must trust one another,” I purred, “if there is to be peace.”

I had him there. He chuckled. “Yes,” he said.

“Of course, travel between my country and yours is very expensive,” I pointed out. “As you may have heard, we Americans have spent all our money on bonuses for bank CEOs and hedge fund managers. So, if our quest for peace is to have a future, you must front me some cash.”

Sated with watery tea and partly-cooked goat parts, I headed for the Peshawar bus terminal. Where I reserved two full seats in coach. So I could ride, legs spread. American style.

Before long the media reported that the Taliban was conducting secret peace negotiations with “a high-ranking U.S. official.” Naturally, the Americans denied the leaks. President Obama spat: “The cunning enemy is trying to expand its military operations on the basis of its double-standard policy and wants to throw dust into the eyes of the people by spreading the rumors of negotiation.”

No one believed him. No one ever believes Americans.

Ha!

My brilliant ruse continued throughout the month. Sometimes the two cartoonists with whom I was traveling asked me where I was spending nights. “With Mullah Omar!” I wanted to shout. “Eating his nan and blowing through dozens of his afghanis!” But I couldn’t. “I was in the bathroom,” I lied.

Yes, we are a dumber-than-dumb people led by a stupider-than-stupid government. But the Taliban aren’t much smarter.

So there.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2010 TED RALL