Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Dissection of Comedy as how it relates to The Boobs Song from The Oscars, South Park, and the art of the "Act"

I saw your boobs...
This past weekend was the 85th Academy Awards hosted by Seth MacFarlane,some say he was great others say he was terrible but one thing that seems to bea recurring thread is the fact many parts were considered sexist, racists,homophobic, and so on.  Let me start by saying I'm not a fan of SethMacFarlane's work.  The main body of work I've been exposed to isFamily Guy and American Dad (I've never been able to make it through anepisode of The Cleveland Show).  They are simply not my type ofcomedy, that being said it's undeniable the man is talented.  Hesings (he got lessons from Frank Sinatra Junior's vocal coach), he dances, andnot many a man can lay claim to having had Fox resurrect their show afterhaving previously cancelled it and not only to return but to have two spinoffslaunch off of that show!  Now I will not get in to the details of whetheror not the content was sexist or homophobic or racist I'm a middle classheterosexual white male.  I'm pretty much the embodiment of "TheMan" BUT I am a comedy nerd and many of the arguments regarding the natureof his comedy during the ceremony seem to take individual components of theceremony out of the context of the larger work.  As a comedy geek and anerd in general this bothers me.  So, I'm going to attempt to dissect thework, and for the record even though I don't like his work I actually liked theoverall awards.

First let me explain my comedy pedigree, during my youth I grew up listeningto my dad's Cosby and Steve Martin albums.  I would stay up late as akindergartener and grade 1 student to watch Eddie Murphy era Saturday NightLive (before it was called SNL) before you get too upset about a kid that agewatching such a late show I lived on the west coast so it was 9 o'clock and Idid it when my parents were away or working late so they didn't catch me. Once I returned to Ontario took up listening to Chum FM's late night comedy onSunday nights often falling to sleep to stand up and radio performances ofAbbot and Costello as well as Doctor Demento.  Once in mypre-teens CBC gave me SCTV and I found WNED who not only introducedme to Doctor Who but also Monty Python and simultaneously I found Benny Hill onWUTV also out of Buffalo.  My teens brought me the Myers era SNL and theCBC gave me Kids In The Hall.  My comedy nerdom is varied and eclectic. Whilst I wish I was a "funny-man" the best I can work up is a LewisBlack style rant that would make Marc Maron say "that dude needs tochill".  The world has enough of those, and anything I have to sayI'm pretty sure Patton Oswalt's said it before and a thousand times funnier thanI ever could.  But my addiction to the self-mutilation called stand up andmy hobby of listening to Inside Baseball style podcasts on comedy has made methink about comedy a lot.

Now, comedy pedigree established, let's look at the offending material anddissect and contextualize it.  A lot of people are looking at individualcomponents and saying "this is sexist" or "this is racist"but this is an individual component and Seth MacFarlane is the king of the"meta" joke since his entire career right now is based on a fourthwall destroying series of works.  The type of comedy MacFarlane creates is"bit" driven; a bit can be a single gag, joke, string of jokes orseries of sketches depending on the setup and payoff.  These bitsmake up an act; this act could be a sketch, film, or television show.  Inthis case the song about seeing the "boobs" of actresses was part ofa larger sketch which was a part of an entire act.  When looking at theAcademy Awards we can look at his entire performance (with asides, outtakes,and toss away gags) as a single Act.  A bit out of context of the entireAct is like any piece of Art taken out of context, meaningless and inscrutable.

Now, let's contextualize MacFarlane, this is making a series of assumptionsbased on what I've seen and know about the man and is 100% my personal opinionand in no way reflects any deeper knowledge, but the man is the king of thesting.  You look at his body of work and you see a man who whileexceptionally talented and terribly erudite he works from the lowest commondenominator but I don't think this is a case of being where his mind is comingfrom but in fact is a conscious decision to basically make himself stinkingrich pandering to what pays the bills.  Given his three TV shows and hismovie you'd think that's it but he toiled away in the obscurity of the VoiceActors world with many works including Johnny Bravo as a writer.  This isan extrapolation of that work in to a more accessible less "for kids"version.  Given that the kids he wrote for with Dexter's Laboratory andJohnny Bravo were now adults he had primed the pump for a type of gag drivencomedy that we now see in his later works.

Now there are infinite forms of comedy, but most comedy can be divided alonga single line.  There is subversive comedy (later called alt. comedy orindie comedy) and there is mainstream comedy.  Now, this is not a judgmentof one being better than the other but the line is also not as clear cut andobvious as one might expect.

One may think Bill Cosby is "mainstream" but if you listen to hiswork it was revolutionary for its time and is in fact exceptionallysubversive.  This was a man telling a Black American story from a pointthat didn't play in to the stereotypes beyond the realities of his situationgrowing up.  These were pointed pieces and when he was coming up playingthe East Village his material (as was the material of his contemporary JoanRivers) turned the comedy world on its heel.  It was authentic andunexpected.  Now, of course there are examples like Andy Kaufman who redefinedthe very nature of comedic performance or Bill Hicks unflinching gaze inspiredgenerations of comedians like Louis CK, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverberg andmany more.  Even if we look at MacFarlane's contemporaries like South Parkwho's very raison d'ĂȘtre is to obfuscate the true message under a layer ofgross out humour (see the following clip for the best example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AoyYLhgKq4)or even the Simpsons who despite growing tepid with age still has some verybiting satire of contemporary culture.  MacFarlane in many ways is cutfrom the same cloth as Chaplin and Groucho, his finger is firmly raised at thesystem he manipulates to earn a pay cheque.

The alternate is mainstream comedy; these are acts like Carlos Mencia,Carrot Top, Jeff Dunham, Dane Cook or shows like Big Bang Theory or How I MetYour Mother.  These are the acts where there is no subtext, there are nolayers, it is simply what it is.  Something playing to a series ofstereotypes and triggers that inspire people to laugh.  It can be arguedthis is a lower form of comedy in the same way people argue that pop music is alower form of music than say classical.  That would be wrong; there is artto writing a good bit for straight comedy.  You need to know your targetaudience, you need to know the reaction you're trying to set up and it'simperative you think of the larger bit.  I enjoy The Big Bang Theory forthe same reason I enjoy a bubble-gum pop song, there is artistry there. Some feel that it is a "geek minstrel show" but that's a discussionfor another time, I enjoy it because there is craftsmanship and skill in thatwork and that is to be admired.

Now, does that excuse the comedian from the impact of their words? Alt. Comedy will often say shocking things but use it in the attempt to useirony to draw the participant audience in and hopefully turn their minds aroundby planting that seed of doubt that will hopefully allow them to grow. Straight comedy, it doesn't do that.  When Jeff Dunham says a racist orhomophobic thing under the "guise" of comedy there is nothing beyondthe fact he's a racist homophobic prick.  When Daniel Tosh makes a rapejoke, Michael Richards drops an N-bomb or Tracy Morgan says somethingincredibly stupid there is nothing more than that's how their mind works(though in the case of Morgan I have a suspicion he's just not making his pointclear).

Now, we've dissected the world of comedy down to its component partsstructurally and philosophically let's look at Sunday’s performance.  Wehave to remember this is in a post Gervais world, Gervais who in many ways isso alt he's mainstream spent consecutive Golden Globes verbally abusingHollywood.  And when I say he's so alt he's mainstream I'm not kidding,he's like everyone's adorable poster boy for edgy comedy.  And let's behonest, outside of moments in The Office and Extras he's not been all that edgyand his last show Life's Too Small was tame.  While he's funny, his edgehas dulled to the point he's basically a roast master.  While the Globesmade much ado about offense in the end it was nothing really beyond a"look we can take a joke we're human don't hate us because we wipe ourasses with toilet paper that's more expensive than your car".  Forall his edge, his awards show piece was actually the mainstream one.  Onthe other hand MacFarlane's work was insidious in its nature.  It lulledthe audience in with an admission of his bawdy nature.  By starting withthe "Worst Host Ever" gag he defanged the critics because in essencehe called it, he then shows the "Shock" gag (the boobs, sex, drink,etc.) and placates the audience with a tepid crowd pleasing psudeo-mea culpabut he continues with the Nazi joke for the Von Trapp family, he continues withTed's pretending to be Jewish that ties in to the Jewish Media Conspiracymyth, het continues with the asides all the while honing in on the truththat they are the ones that created these myths, the material he'sworking with is their material, and in the end he is a Frankenstein Monster andhis act is built of his audiences hubris.  That is the true altcomic and that is my take away.

Now, what do I know?  I'm a white middle class heterosexual male,to be a hack and steal from Louis CK you drop me anywhere in time and I'd begolden.  We've never had it bad, I'm of part Irish descentbut I'm so far removed from that if I was to EVER claim the Irish plighthad in any way affected me I give the whole world carte blanche permission topunch me in the balls.  I'm a geek, I grew up being bullied andcondescended to, I have body issues and esteem issues and yeah, The BigBang is exploitive of "my people" but to compare it (or my life)to a Minstrel Show and the experience of the Black American conflates thereality of my situation beyond recognition.  The reality is, we geeksrule the freaking world right now, we've never had it better, and yeah itsucked when I was a kid but I'm freaking golden now.  I don't havethe stress of a religion, nationality, sexuality, gender or ethnicity issue toweigh me down so like the above mentioned South Park episode I won’t ever getit but sometimes too, maybe the people who are waving their hands in horror aremore like the people trying to strip the "N-word" out of Huck Finn,take some time to really understand the intent of the message not just thesurface and maybe you'll find that person you view as disgusting is actuallyyour friend and ally not the enemy.

In closing a few quotes on the nature of comedy from far wiser men than I:

 Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.
~ Charlie Chaplin

Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.
~ Mel Brooks

Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.
~Peter Ustinov

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