Our highest-paid historians

I’ve written in the past about how an interest in comedy made me a better student. Early in my life I recognized that comedians weren’t dopey clowns, but – the good ones, anyway – were well-read historians and philosophers. The same is true of the best musicians.

Depending on how you grew up, you may have seen music, comedy, and the arts enjoyed, but been encouraged to pursue more “serious” career paths. That was my experience, though it always bugged me because my gut knew better, but my kid words couldn’t articulate it. And before the internet, it was harder to find the video interviews to support my hunch. Later I would find interviews on YouTube of Stevie Ray Vaughan lecturing on the subtle differences between Freddie King and Eric Clapton, or how T-Bone Walker held his guitar, and confirm he was a careful student of music history. Now one of my favorite pastimes is watching hour-long videos of artists talking about how they work.

Recently I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of Wynton Marsalis’ knowledge of World History as it relates to Jazz, and his growth as a person. So round is his understanding of the history of his genre, he can listen to the drum beat of any given Jazz song and tell you which immigrant group moved to which neighborhood in New Orleans and contributed it. In the same video you see Marsalis, and Late Show band leader (and fellow music historian) Jon Batiste walk you through the history of America via Jazz.

And speaking of the Late Show, you may also enjoy Stephen Colbert’s interview with a priest in which he breaks down not only the nuts and bolts of humor in politics and society, but also drops obscure church history, ontological arguments for the existence of God, and the sweetness of his affection for Christ. Five nights a week you can watch him and Jon Batiste play the erudite symphony of America past, present, and future.

Don’t let the sometimes goofy garb of performance trick you into believing you are consuming the work of fools too flakey for academia or business. In many cases you are consuming the applied science, history, and theology of masters in their field.

The Role and Power of Satire

If you were to draw a Venn diagram of John Oliver viewers and Vox Americans, you’d be left with a perfect circle.

– Jacob Sugarman, They’re not eviscerating Trump: John Oliver and Stephen Colbert will never save us from fascism

This was tough to read, but I think Sugarman makes a good point: Our “Comedian X DESTROYED person Y,” reactions amount to so many impotent rush hour amens as we read another bumper sticker confirming our own views. Political criticism has become so pre-qualified in terms of its viewership that few people who don’t already subscribe to a commentator’s view will give it any credence.

I don’t think Sugarman is saying satire isn’t valuable. For example, Jon Stewart’s recent parade of late night cameos shed light on the Zadroga Act being used as a political toy, when it wasn’t being neglected altogether, which shortly resulted in it’s getting passed by Congress, securing health care provisions for 9/11 first responders. The issue here is the hyperbolic, clickbait-y, internet responses to each new comedic segment, especially as it relates to Trump’s campaign, which, though it has made comedians a lot of money, seems pretty well satire proof in terms of persuading anyone (Ironically, even Sugarman’s own headline participates in exaggeration with the phrase, “save us from fascism.” That word is getting tossed around increasingly in relation to Trump’s campaign, but cooler heads who actually lived through fascism would have us tap the breaks there as well.).

Comedians have a canny skill for spotting inconsistencies and following them to their most absurd conclusions, sometimes bringing legitimate clarity to society’s issues. For our part, though, we could be a bit more responsible about how we elevate their role, and inflate their victories.

“I don’t talk about that anymore.”

These first weeks of Colbert’s Late Show have been exciting for this nearly-life-long fan of late night comedy. I love how he is experimenting with the form, shortening the monologue, bringing the anchor/graphic trope from his his previous show. There are other little meta details and love notes to Letterman I drink up as well, but the single aspect of his show I have enjoyed the most is his handling of the Presidential candidates.

He has been called the “grownup of late night”, which seems pretty fitting. When the candidates go on Fallon, it’s all fun and games, which is in keeping with the lighter legacy of Leno’s Tonight Show, but Colbert has been a different story thus far. He pressed Jeb about his disagreements with his brother. He mashed on Sanders a little about his socialism. And he didn’t let Cruz make the typically fawning references to Reagan without asking him admit he disagreed with Reagan’s amnesty plan for immigrants, or raising taxes. Cruz was performing the classic politician move of evading a direct question and heading straight for his branded talking point, and Colbert interrupted him and made him concede the point, to Cruz’s visible frustration.

It’s maddening when journalists and hosts of all stripes allow candidates to just barrel through a tough question, and so far Colbert has demanded their a-game. Until last night.

The Trump interview was disappointing. Who knows what factors played into it. Perhaps he was reprimanded for being too tough on Cruz, but comedians usually take that kind of reprimand as a near moral obligation to disobey, so I am currently in doubt of that reason, though I could be wrong. There is so much craven insanity in the things Trump says, and I thought Colbert would press him harder. I would have even been satisfied if his only question to Trump had been the birther question, but he pulled his punch when he let Donald get away with a simple “I don’t talk about that anymore.”

I love Colbert’s work so much, and he’s going to have to commit a lot worse than this sin of omission to run me off, but I hope to see more of that tenacity in future candidate and business leader interviews. He has been telegraphing that this isn’t place to try to sell yourself as personable, but to be ready to talk about things you try to evade elsewhere. I hope he stays this course.

A frog, a horse, and a smaller horse

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

— E. B. White

I just watched a great five minute video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining the process of writing a joke about Pop Tarts. It took him two years to write a bit that will likely only last ten minutes. He fussed over syllable count and rhythm like a musician. I couldn’t do Jerry’s laundry, but these are the same pains I take when I write jokes for Twitter.

Some jokes come together in a couple tries in one sitting, some take a long time and several revisions. One of the jokes I’m most proud of took me weeks of revising, cutting, copying, pasting, and reordering. Here it is:

I’d love to know what this guy in the next stall is paying that Foley artist. The man’s gallop is so good I can almost smell the horse.

Let’s have frog legs for dinner.

  • I’m in a bathroom stall, which is automatically funny.
  • There is some raucous activity happening in the stall next to me. Also funny. If you’re keeping score, that’s now a second bathroom stall, along with some loud bathroom noises.
  • The noises are so vivid I believe they are coming from a Foley artist. Foley artists use to work for radio shows making believable sound effects live on the air. That’s a pretty funny occupation by itself, but it’s made funnier because the only people left doing Foley work in the 21st century are employed by Garrison Keillor.
  • The Foley artist is doing his work in the stall with the other man, and since I’ve not said anything about this being a handicapped stall, you may believe it’s sufficiently cramped in there.
  • The Foley artist is there because he has been paid well to ply his trade while another man uses the bathroom. Why? Is it for the edification of the other patrons of local leaving houses? Is it for his own amusement? You get to decide! Isn’t this fun?

Now, we could have stopped the joke here and it would have been complete. But let’s continue.

  • The sound effect the Foley artist is performing is the distinct trip-o-let of a horse gallop, which is funny because there is clearly not actually a Foley artist in the stall next to me. There is just a single man alone in the misery of his body trying make sense of what must have been a dinner of curry and firecrackers.
  • Referencing the gallop sound, we make a broadly absurd situation funnier by adding specificity. Rear ends making noise are funny. Rear ends making the specific rhythmic pattern of a horse’s gallop are funnier still because rear ends are not known for their dexterity.

Now we get to it.

  • So completely has this illusion been created in the theatre of my mind, and by a Foley artist so gifted I might wonder what princely sum it would take to hire his services, that I believe a horse is running in place in the stall next to me, and that the usual men’s room smells are indeed the earthy musk of a fine equine specimen.

It took weeks to get this right, to boil these eight-odd multiple sentence bullets down into 140 characters with 5 to spare.

Why am I telling you this?

Because Twitter is my night club. There’s less smoke and I can kick people out at 9pm. And while comedians measure their work by laughs in the night club, we measure it by little golden stars on Twitter. That’s how we know you’re laughing.

That joke got 13 little golden stars, which is nothing comparatively, but I was pleased as I could be, because I worked hard for each one of them and several were from my other funny friends, whose work I respect.

The real real reason I’m telling you this is because yesterday I posted a tweet that got 22 little golden stars. What flights of humor did I perform? I posted a photo of a pumpkin in which I had carved a symbol from my daughters’ favorite cartoon. With the photo I said “All the days of my life led up to the moment I carved Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark into a pumpkin.”

Rainbow Dash is the name of a character in the children’s program My Little Pony. A cutie mark is a butt tattoo on each pony that tells you at a glance what their power is. I was making a throw-away joke about how my entire life had been orchestrated so that I would live to be 35 years old and spend an hour carving a magical pony’s butt tattoo into a pumpkin for my children. Is that funny? Well, yeah, it is. But it’s not two-men-and-a-Foley-artist-walk-into-a-restroom-and-I-can-smell-the-horse funny.

And it wasn’t 22 little golden stars from my funny friends telling me they laughed. It was 22 little golden stars from a bunch of grown, male, childless fans of My Little Pony (Bronies), all of whom apparently receive keyword alerts when someone tweets about magical ponies with butt tattoos.

Well they can keep their little gift horse. I’m headed over to the second stall to get a look at that Clydesdale.

The Climate Science of Comedy

Slate just launched a new podcast titled Working, in which editor at large, David Plotz, interviews people about the work they do. It’s a descendant of Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, only instead of focussing on how they feel about the work they do, it focuses on the granular specifics of what happens between waking up and going home. The first episode is off to a great start with Stephen Colbert. I got tired just listening to the description of his routine. Comedy often gets pegged as a frivolous, easy activity done in lieu of more serious work, but it’s hard, and requires rigorous discipline and study. (NB: There are a couple of points in the interview where Colbert uses some words you don’t hear at church potlucks, so maybe don’t play it in the background while your kids are coloring.)

Similarly, though the clip is a little older, this Rachael Maddow interview of John Stewart is excellent. It’s 40-odd minutes long, so there’s a great chance you won’t actually watch it, but if it sounds like two ideological peers talking shop, it’s not. Stewart explains more clearly what I’ve seen and loved in his work for years now. The easy conclusion is he’s a liberal taking cheap shots at conservatives, but if you watch this interview you’ll see he’s really shooting at the entire news media culture.

His analogy is he is a climate scientist looking at the full breadth of data, while Maddow, O’Reilly, etc. are talking about today’s weather. He makes some great points about the general cynicism of both sides (for example, the notion that there are only two sides), and a distinction between partisanship and wild ideology. If you think your ideological network of choice has it right, I encourage to you hear Stewart’s diagnosis of the climate.

Yes, he’s a comedian, a fact he owns, but the discipline of comedy and satire is to ruthlessly scan the world for patterns and discrepancies and follow them to their most absurdly logical conclusions. Sometimes it’s just for a laugh, sometimes it’s to use a laugh to disarm us before convicting us.