NPF: THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT BEING AN ASSHOLE

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 12th, 2012 by Ed

To people who say money can't buy happiness, I don't agree. The price of happiness is whatever it costs to buy a Jet-Ski. Ever seen anyone frown on a Jet-Ski? You haven't, because it's not possible. (*acts out sobbing while Jet-Skiing*)

That, delivered well, is funny. It's a Daniel Tosh joke. I consider it evidence that Daniel Tosh has the ability to be funny. He understands how a joke works. It starts with a universal premise and then takes an amusing twist that the audience is unlikely to see coming. Then it's acted out to emphasize how ridiculous the twisted premise is in reality. Good one, Dan.

Eventually, however, he realized that shock value is one of the cornerstones of humor, and a particularly easy one for a moderately clever person to exploit. Why bother writing good material when you can just say a bunch of "Oh no he di'int!" stuff? So Daniel Tosh got lazy and decided it was easier to do a bunch of shock material rather than write jokes. The problem is that over time it has been more difficult to shock audiences. Sex? Porn? Whackin' it? Dead babies? Racism? Abortion? Audiences are used to all of it at this point. As Jane's Addiction once warned us, nothing's shocking (anymore). You can only say "faggot" so many times and tell so many stories about masturbating. We get it. You're edgy.

So, there's rape. Rape is still offensive because, you know, it's horrible. It still shocks people. And it's OK to make jokes about things that are shocking. The problem is that most comedians are too lazy (or too stupid) to figure out how to tell a joke properly about something terrible. Here's a joke I use as an opener quite often.

It's so hot down here during the summer that I actually walked up to an Atlanta cop and begged him to shoot me.

*pause for tepid chuckle*

…and it would have worked if I was black.

*pause*

I'm kidding, of course. If you're black you don't have to ask an Atlanta cop to shoot at you.

I'm kinda proud of that one. It's not straightforward ("Cops are racists, amirite?") but it uses some misdirection humor to make the audience think about something that is fucked up. Racism: It's a Terrible Thing. So it's possible to tell a joke that makes people remember, "Oh, right…rape is a serious problem and it happens all the time, and it's ridiculous to believe stupid things like 'She was asking for it'." An uncharacteristically strong column on Jezebel includes a lengthy discussion of this point, with examples.

Daniel Tosh leans on rape jokes like Katt Williams leans on the F-word. They're not particularly well thought-out or funny. He just says "rape" a lot to keep things "edgy." And in that context – if the rape or the rape victim are the butt of the joke – it just isn't funny. His Twitter account has a "#rape" hashtag with dozens of jokes and references. His TV show includes at least one in every episode.

The problem with this whole ToshTroversy started here: with Tosh telling yet another stupid, un-clever, and lazy rape joke. People coming to his defense and wailing about censorship – a common response among comedians – miss the point. This is a classic Can vs. Should problem. You CAN say whatever you want. Should you? Should you tell a story in which your "clever" twist is that someone gets gang raped at the end? Sure, I guess…if you suck at comedy.

I have a lot of things to say about heckling, and that is the part of this story on which I originally focused. No matter what the comedian says and no matter how justified you believe you are, yelling at the stage is always an asshole move. Sorry. Try doing comedy sometime and you will understand what I mean. Comedy is not just a person talking, it's a person doing a performance that he or she has practiced hundreds of times and that relies entirely on flow and timing. If you fuck that up, the performer is going to be an asshole to you. He or she is going to do whatever is possible to get you to shut up and stop ruining the act as quickly as possible. The audience paid to see the performance, and it is a dick move to stop it akin to talking loudly on a cellphone in a movie theater.

But the more I think about it, the heckler is not the important issue here. The take home point is that he/she-got-raped jokes are lazy, stupid, and only amusing to dolts. Taking the low road and going for the easy shock laugh does not take talent and does not make one good at comedy. Audiences have to be sentient and willing to think a little bit about what they hear in a comedy club – if you decide that you are offended by any mention of rape in any context on a comedy stage, you're not much brighter than the people who laugh at Tosh. And if the comedian isn't thinking carefully about the substance of the joke – Who's the butt of the joke here? What's funny about this, and why? What am I trying to say? – he's not doing his job.

So this controversy has a relatively simple solution: Comedians, stop being lazy dickbags. Don't tell jokes that have no purpose beyond shocking or offending the audience. Try saying something useful. If you're unwilling or unable to do that, then at least avoid being hateful and offensive. Tell some fart jokes or something. Even if you don't care whether the audience is offended or belittled, self interest should be enough to talk you out of this. Nothing says "I'm a hack" quite like rape jokes. You're not edgy or clever. You're a cliche. Don't you want to be a little better than that?

(PS: Seriously though, stop yelling shit at the stage. Everyone who does it thinks they have a great reason. Most of them are wrong.)

THE SUPREME COURT, PART II: UNDERMINING

Posted in Rants on July 12th, 2012 by Ed

On Monday we talked about how the political process is turning the Supreme Court into a kind of super-legislature to resolve the contentious issues that elected officials lack the will to resolve themselves. That's bad enough on its own but the political process follows it up by using the Court as a punching bag, undermining public confidence in institutions that are supposed to be symbols of trust, consistency, and fairness.

One thing that differentiates the American right from conservatives in other similar nations is its willingness to throw the institutions of the state under the bus for short-term political gain. The heart of conservatism, at least historically, is the defense of institutions: the family, the state, religion, and so on. While the liberals are running around promoting a libertine "Do as thou wilt" philosophy, conservatives traditionally grab the moral high ground by defending culture, traditions, and social institutions. That happens today in some instances (the defense of "traditional marriage", for example) but for the most part, the American right's ability to defend the institutions of the state (i.e., the government) has been crippled by decades of ideological litmus-testing that have promoted free market worship above, quite literally, god and country. In other words, Americans rarely defend their institutions when they make unpopular decisions. If the Supreme Court makes a decision that the right doesn't like, no one says "We don't like this outcome but we accept it as legitimate, and we will work within the process to change it." Instead, the message is, "If the Supreme Court does something we don't like, then fuck the Supreme Court. It's corrupt, undemocratic, and untrustworthy."

When teaching the presidency, I always assign Al Gore's concession speech after the debacle of the 2000 election. The quote that stands out to me:

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College.

This is in line with the spirit in which the Constitution was written and those so-often-exalted "Founders" hoped the system they created would function. You will not like every decision the government makes, and the fact that you do not like it does not mean that the government is not functioning. By the time they reach seven or eight years old most small children have grasped the fact that one does not always get everything one wants in life. I think that the authors of the Constitution expected nothing more than that we would apply that life lesson to the democratic process.

The problem is that it's just too tempting and there's too much cheap political gain to be had from feeding the anti-government paranoia that fills the heads of so many Americans. They rail against "activist judges" and promote the idea that if the legal system produces an outcome with which you disagree, you should be able to ignore it. If the Court does something you do not like, it is evidence that the Court is controlled by dark forces and cannot be trusted. The end result, of course, is that what is supposed to be the least political (although certainly not apolitical, as we discussed earlier this week) is held in the same regard as the rest of our political institutions. Opinion polling shows that the Court's approval rating among the public isn't much higher than the President's mediocre rating, although both certainly dwarf Congress's miserable performance.

You may be thinking that the reason Americans believe, as the polls show, that the Court makes decisions based on personal political ideology is because the Court does exactly that. Given our embarrassingly low levels of information, though, that assumption is tenuous. It is more likely that we assume this about the Court because we don't know anything about it except that we don't trust it and it makes decisions that we dislike. The more highly visible the Court becomes, the more it is undermined. The more it is undermined, the more we believe that the entire government is worthless. The more we believe that, the more "small government" rhetoric and the people spouting it seem appealing.