Thursday, April 28, 2011

Win Ben Stein's Sexist Joke

You may have seen this? Ben Stein, most famous for an excellent, nay classic, cameo in the delightful John Hughes paean to post-pubescent fantasies of escape, and who has remained in the public eye ever since largely for being one of those Right Wing celebrities who see themselves as modern-day Quentin Crisps, risking life and limb by outing themselves in a world genocidally hostile to rich, white conservative men, got pre-emptively fired from a corporate gig for a sexist joke. Salon doesn't give us many details of this joke, because, gleaning what I can from another report, nobody has actually written down what those jokes were. However, the other report, from Bloomberg (which, as they admit, used to pay Ben Stein to write for them?) gives us a hint of the jokes, and Stein's response.

Over at Salon, they make the point that perhaps it's a shame this man is losing a gig at a Citigroup shindig for a sexist joke and not for being a corrupt, lying, corporate whore. Yeah, I know; I kind of agree. It's like getting Al Capone for tax evasion, or NPR tripping over its own laces firing Juan Williams for foxholing anti-Muslim bigotry and not decades of numbskull "analysis" and milquetoasty faux liberalism. Oh, and apparently Citigroup is already facing a big sexual harrassment lawsuit? But let's not talk about that. Let's talk about what we know about the jokes, and Stein's response.

Here's what we know:

Villarreal’s e-mail to Orszag told of three jokes at the Dallas conference she said were disparaging to women. One joke was about a wealthy man, his wife and his mistress, she said.

Another involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.

Villarreal said the jokes she sent to Citigroup were versions found on the Internet based on her recollection of what Stein said.

Okay. So the first joke involves a wealthy man, his wife, and his mistress. Is it sexist? Based on what fractionally little evidence we have, it certainly smacks of sexism: after all, it is already like one of those eighteenth century tombstones that features identifying characters of the man and then all the women are described only in relation to him. He's a "wealthy man", the other two characters are "his", and are described in terms of their sexual obligations to him. But, frankly, that's not exactly enough to pass much of a judgement on the joke.

The next joke is . . . hold on, I skipped ahead: there's no third joke, and we're told that the offended party sent internet versions of the jokes she thinks she heard? Given that any single word can quite substantially alter how we understand a joke, I'd say that we're not working with very compelling evidence here.

Still, we have Stein's response:

Stein, who has written columns for Bloomberg News and appeared as a guest on Bloomberg Television, said in the interview that the joke targeted the man, not the woman, and that in his Dallas telling the woman didn’t remove clothing.

“It’s usually a joke understood to be making fun of a kind of cloddish, dopey guy,” Stein said. “When I was finished with this speech, dozens of women in the room came up to me and wanted their pictures taken with me, wanted autographs from me. Dozens of them. I got fan mail from women who had been at the group saying how much they liked the speech.”

The jokes are not original, he said.

“Every one of those jokes are thoroughly vetted with my wife,” said Stein.

Jesus Christ. What the hell are we supposed to do with this? The joke's at the expense of the man, not the woman? Really? Maybe? And presumably when he says the jokes aren't original, he means that they didn't originate with him, he didn't create them, write them, think them up. Still, it's a little bit embarrassing to be a professional corporate wag, essentially known as a humourist, and to be telling old jokes? Of course, one of the cool things about jokes is that so many of them are transmitted so quickly that authorship is soon lost. But even so, is this any sort of defence? Original authorship may be lost, but there's still some responsibility for re-telling the joke? And then he testifies with a rather depressing version of "my best friend is black", pulling his wife into the dock beside him in the hopes that proximity to her is exculpatory. (The rest of the article involves other rather vague and creepy assertions of how much good Ben Stein has done for women).

So, I am not officially a lawyer, I didn't go to law school or read case law or any of that stuff, but basically, to the extent that anybody has the right to claim to be a lawyer, I have that right. And I practice in the British system, which means that I prosecute and defend at the same time. I know. A peculiar system. So here is my summation:

"Your Grace, thank you for this opportunity to speak in the case of The Crown versus Ben Stein. As your Lordship knows, what we have here is failure to communicate. Mr Stein, who cannot be a sexist, because he has received fan mail from women (please note the plural: at least two women), and because he is married, is purported by the prosecution witness to have told jokes similar to ones found on the internet (what's that, your Honour? Oh, the internet - a newfangled technological device which allows near-instant communication, sort of like a typewriter-cum-telephone? Yes, it's most wonderful.) As I was saying, the jokes that approximate the ones told by Mr Stein are highly suspicious. To put it to you, your Grace, in a way you might understand: imagine a youth skulking around the sweets section of a newsagent with his hands jammed into his urban clothes, his mouth sticky, and his breath sugary. You might not have caught him stealing any sweets, but you'd be right to give him an ASBO. Now I Wanda - I mean, I wonder if we can fulfill our duty to the Crown as both defence and prosecution without knowing what the jokes were and how they were told? We must therefore find him - before I finish, may I just say how lovely you're looking today? It's such a relief to be in the presence of a Magistrate who takes such care over his appearance. No, you're very welcome, it's my honour. As I was saying, we must therefore find Mr Stein - excuse me, I'm sorry to interrupt myself again, but is that Comme des Garçon? It is? I thought so. Lovely. Now, regarding Mr Stein, I think my case has been made. Good day to you all and, if I may add: three hurrahs for Will and Kate! Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wham Bam

The list of things that aren't quite as good as they should be is soul-numbingly long. Glee would be near the top of the list right now, but as the anti-Glee bandwagon is getting more crowded than the Glee bandwagon, I can't really find anywhere to jump, so I've skulked away to pretend it doesn't exist. Community deserves a spot on the list, despite also being better than it could have been, and The [US] Office has long tarried there. The novels of Louis de Bernières, recent Scorsese films, Lou Reed's hairstyles, New York pizza, any father who isn't a 'tit singer' ... the list of disappointing things is a very long one, and it extends quickly towards the horizon when you start to add things that were once amazing but now, in retrospect, aren't quite as good as we once thought (Seth Rogan, 1980s sitcoms, Lou Reed's hairstyles)

Of course, what is really prominently positioned at the very pinnacle of the list, standing a lanky, greying head and shoulder above the disappointing throng, is the presidency of Barack Obama. I know, I know. But it's true. One of Jay Leno's writers stated the painfully obvious through the ham-jawed, stage-pacing ventriloquist's dummy: "President Obama said he plans on running for reelection against the Republicans. After the tax-cuts for the rich, the bailouts for Wall Street, and the bombing in Libya, I already thought he was the Republican candidate." Glenn Greenwald over at (which is my main competition for readers, though I think I've siphoned off about 45% of their traffic) is charting a much more painstakingly detailed course through the oil-polluted waters lapping across the deck of Obama's sinking presidency.

I was curious to find out what sort of jokes are being told about Obama, outside of the slightly-scared laughter emanating from The Daily Show audience, who can see the wounded disenchantment in Jon Stewart's eyes. So, I typed in a search-term of some sort and found a bunch of sites, which I perused. It's always strange to seek out comedy and jokes where even from the (presumed) privacy of your home you don't expect to be part of the audience; it's strange to be alone and to know there are kindred souls out there chuckling at the same time, but not as strange as the weird solitude of listening in on a conversation other people are enjoying from the silence of one's own room and finding in that conversation nothing to share.

This list of jokes is strikingly barren. I cannot say that I even forced the corners of my mouth into a formal smile of recognition, although I accepted that a number of the jokes had various features that would place them in the category of comedy. The comments, despite one lonely plea in the middle to steer clear of racist material, hone in on racist jokes, the hallmark of which is that they say nothing about Obama except by way of how they are racially designating him and then slurring those who share the racial designation. And I would be ashamed to have come up with the poor quality jokes the editors of another, purportedly comprehensive, list include, and this is coming from somebody whose blog is full of such poor quality jokes, his readers don't even notice them. (Hey, what's Sarah's only qualification for running against Barack? She's Palin comparison. What's the difference between Obama and Osama? Osama has plundered plutocrats' wealth to fund his wars.)

One of the most peculiar things about comedy is that an act of comedy - a joke, a pun, an impersonation - may have all the necessary formal qualities but there can be absolute disagreement about its essence, its effect, its core aesthetic virtue: whether or not it is funny. Of course, out on the edges of any aesthetic movement, one may be compelled to ask "Is it art?" but, crucially, that question can be answered, and, even more crucially, the question may even be a productive, instructive way to begin a conversation. "Is it funny?" is far less likely to lead to a conversation about a comic act that renders it funny, and it is possible to ask the question with deadly earnestness as myriad people around you are busting their guts.

One reason for this potent divide is that an entire Weltanschauung can be packaged into a joke of only a few words: the tiny fragments of scaffolding that make up a joke -- a few pieces of rusted pole and an odd-looking twisty device that holds sections of pole together -- can also house nearly endless boxes of information, whole libraries of sentimental and political-philosophical books, lengthy corridors lined with portraits, picture galleries and treasuries of old videos and film clips, and Grandma in her rocking chair by a roaring fire. If you approach a joke without similar furnishings and gimcracks, you're left with a useless, empty, and terribly small frame.

Another reason is a less positivist version of the first (or really, more positivist, because it relies not on Danielewskian architecture, but on visible or reproducible or nameable ploys to evoke the negative): the joke expands into commentary and comedy not just out of what we have but what we pretend or think we don't have. The defensive functions, for example, of denial, so usefully employed by so many of the birthers who insist, sincerely, that they are not racists; their sincerity is not a function of integrity but a product of total submission to denial, and so their jokes are ones they can share with their (imaginary, or otherwise depressed and frustrated) "black friends". If the psychology of defensive functions, of denial and reaction formation and repression, of compromise and displacement. which can construct out of a few snippets of words a system of the world and an appreciation of that world by infiltrating the spaces between the words and in the words with the materials of the unconscious without even necessarily being aware that you are doing this, are not your cups of tea, then the joke still hinges at the unspoken and the unspeakable, the actively-forgotten; and if this isn't your cup of tea either, then take your thirst somewhere else.

I know you're asking: how is any of this different from the response to any art or any "text"? I really wish you wouldn't ask that, you bastards. To come up with an answer would be to come up with a final definition of comedy. I can offer two (non)answers. The first is that there is no quantitative difference, just a qualitative one, to which you are guided by the structure and the paradigms (or, really, the repertoire of paradigms) in comedy: surprise, reference and quotation, incongruity, etc., which designate the aesthetic experience a comedic one. The second is that comedy, unlike other forms, sustains an ambiguity within the resolution, where the dynamics of the ambiguities are not fully explained by the end result and yet remain decisive, whereas with other arts or other "texts" there is a completion which is suspended where the joke is decisive, and finalised where the joke presents only a blank stare.

Which is the same type of stare you're giving the screen right now, right?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


Joan Acocella has a brief review in this week's New Yorker, which can be found here, if you are able to access the digital edition? Joan Acocella is always worth the price of admission.

In this review, she's discussing Behind the Burly Q, a 2010 documentary about the world of burlesque. There's a lovely passage that I want to quote:

The audience wasn't just men. Alan Alda, one of Zemeckis's interviewees (his father was a "tit singer," the man who, with the chorus girls, opened the show) says that . . .

Okay, hold on, how amazingly happy does that make you? Alan Alda's father was a "tit singer"! Now, I've always loved Alan Alda. Most of the many celebrities and stars I've seen in the streets are skittering about with a keen sense of being watched; when I spotted Alda, he was just another tall, thin, grinning man in a crowd of mostly tourists watching a group of boys breakdance for cash outside the Plaza hotel. And his father was a "tit singer"! (That makes Jack Donaghy's grandfather a tit singer! How perfect is that?) My day has been made.

Acocella ends the review thus:

Finally, Zemeckis tells what killed burlesque: pornography, feminism, and, as with so much live theatre, television.

What can't be blamed on pornography, feminism and television?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Hitch Dentata

You may have seen the Martin Amis review of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism. It's a eulogy before its time, an obituary-in-advance. In an age when illness is something we battle, when disease is something we wage war against, to countenance defeat is no more and no less than frank surrender; it's a brave gesture then, as well as a kind one, to offer a eulogy in advance, saying without saying "This is what we will be saying." Hitchens no doubt remains unconvinced that he will peer down from a writer's desk in Heaven with a stiff drink in his hand as his friends submit their eulogies and obituaries, so gifts like these are necessary, and, oddly, the work of mourning can be met with gratitude and appreciation (and even disputed).

Nevertheless, when I re-read the review more closely, I found myself put off by the Amisisms, and the way Amis shoulders his way into every anecdote and every argument with a "Who, me?" expression on his face. I can't help it. I feel like God must have felt when He looked down to see the first man innocently, but effectively, masturbating. It's that propulsive combination of innate technical proficiency with twitchy, repetitive self-satisfaction.

An Amisian paragraph is so often like an elaborate old hot air balloon constructed of intricately-wrought bindings and long mahogany planks, burnished bright and festooned with lacy quotations, but which simply won't sail; it can't get airborne no matter how much hot air - self-serious moralising and cheaply-earned political asides - you pump into it.

But back to the Hitch. The quotations I liked best were the ones that had prune-faced Amis reaching for the alka selzer.

Here are some indecorous quotes from the The Quotable Hitchens. "Ronald Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife." On the Chaucerian summoner-pardoner Jerry Falwell: "If you gave Falwell an enema, he'd be buried in a matchbox." On the political entrepreneur George Galloway: "Unkind nature, which could have made a perfectly good butt out of his face, has spoiled the whole effect by taking an asshole and studding it with ill-brushed fangs." The critic DW Harding wrote a famous essay called "Regulated Hatred". It was a study of Jane Austen. We grant that hatred is a stimulant; but it should not become an intoxicant.

Aesthetics is an unfurling, not bounded by temporality (as with nature) but by craft, the edges formed by the work and the workmanship (edges which may include time, timing, decay, decrepitude, the finite and the infinite, but always as meaning, as symbol, as structure that is not wholly explained by itself, etc.) These quotes from Hitchens unfurl in a typical, even familiar narrative fashion and yet they each end with a perfect detail, where the general and the universal collapse under the immense force of comic gravity into a single, impossibly dense detail. Nancy Reagan, and Ronald's shrimpy, limp member. The shrivelled sheath of a man so full of shit that he wouldn't even be a used condom if the shit were removed. And, taking a Burroughsian ass-face a step further into ecstatic body horror, Hitchens employs "studded", if not inviting then forcing the reader to think of bony nubs implanted into soft, wrinkled tissue, culminating in the final twist: if it isn't bad enough that you have teeth in your anus, you could at least make some effort to brush them properly?

One is reminded of a William Baziotes painting:

Hitchens, in the examples above, is excessive and lurid, but expressionistically exquisite. Amis makes much of "decorum" and relegates the "jokes and jibes" to the side in order to celebrate the "terse witticism", the "crystallisation", the "insight that leads the reader to a recurring question". Here are several:

"One reason to be a decided antiracist is the plain fact that 'race' is a construct with no scientific validity. DNA can tell you who you are, but not what you are."

On gay marriage: "This is an argument about the socialisation of homosexuality, not the homosexualisation of society. It demonstrates the spread of conservatism, not radicalism, among gays."

"[I]n America, your internationalism can and should be your patriotism."

"It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment."

"This has always been the central absurdity of 'moral', as opposed to 'political' censorship: If the stuff does indeed have a tendency to deprave and corrupt, why then the most depraved and corrupt person must be the censor who keeps a vigilant eye on it."

The recurring question is not, apparently, is it at all true, or does it mean what Hitchens seems to think it means, or how much has he chipped away as he carves the crystalline insight out of the lumpen rock of experience, but rather, according to Amis, "if this is so obviously true, and it is, why did we have to wait for Christopher to point it out to us?" Well it's not, it really isn't - and why wait for Christopher to point it out? Well, that can be answered: because Hitchens is a man who, for better and for worse, has spent his life pointing things out, with tremendous gusto, sometimes with hatred, and with a profound ear for rhythm and a sharp eye for image. Why should he now revert to the saggy agnosticism Amis wants him to accept, why should he settle for tepid moralising about how hatred "should not become an intoxicant", and steer clear of the jokes and jibes? Is it because he should now be "serious" - humbled, subdued, cautious, tempered? Nabokov, as quoted by Amis, said "Life is a great surprise. I don't see why death should not be an even greater one." The cosmic punchline that greets us after our last breath is probably not the sun's eventual explosion or man's return to "stellar fire", as Amis boringly has it, it's probably going to be a lot more like the toothy ass of death's face giving us our first breath in the afterlife.

Reporting Live

There is in comedy a weird dynamic between the circumscribed and the dagger-like thrust into the centre. We joke about things: the joke encompasses something, encircles it, moves in an orbit around its topic like a sneaky satellite scanning information and shooting small, painful darts down towards the haplessly exposed surface below. Jokes are also about something because something is extracted, like a heart pulled out of a chest and held up for our cheers and roars, gripped now by the joke and not by its familiar contextual cavity.

(Of course, we joke with friends, we tell jokes to our bosses, and so forth, but in relationship to the subject of the joke, we joke about it).

One reason jokes are so disavowable is that this aboutness means we can always dispute what the joke is about. Is it a racist joke or about racism? However piercingly accurate or brilliantly observed a joke may be - especially when piercingly accurate or brilliantly observed - this aboutness is a distance and an estrangement, a ripping away. But, unlike a lonely satellite circling a stooge planet, and perhaps more like what we see in a celebratory heart-removing ceremony, the aboutness is not happening in a vacuum. There is a coordination of orbits, a ritualized and socialized communal engagement, a crowd of spectators at a hanging whose participation is not accidental curiosity but instrumental to the spectacle.

When something is generally spoken, there are claims of responsibility to the topic (contested, ambiguous ones, to be sure, when those claims are examined); when something is joked about, the claim is qualitatively different, as the circumscription, the encirclement is effected (in part) by the adoption of a voice that is not one's own, by quotation (we are repeating a joke, circulating something funny created somewhere else, we're sharing a perspective about something we don't entirely claim is our own), by impersonation. The various pathologies of comedy deviating from the norms of speech are not pathognomic, they are not so much exceptions as they are symptoms; or, to put it another way, and to quote Derrida, "Let's be serious."

At the same time, at the very same time, as comedy handles its topic from a reserve, a preserve of distance, its virtuosity is its complete grasping of the core of what it speaks about: the way an impersonation gets somebody just right, the way blondes are that stupid, the sensational evocation of the quoted.

I was somewhat grateful that an alert reader sent me a link to The Onion: "somewhat" because if I were to pay too much attention to The Onion, I would be forced to blog eight, nine, ten times a day. I haven't kept up with the newspaper; honestly, I became a little tired of some of the gags after about six years (Area woman can't find birth certificate, worried she's not a citizen; Boehner pronounces "penis" to rhyme with "tennis")

In previous posts, we discussed a joke about autism, or really, a joke about a boy.

There are a number of things I like about this video. The first is that I can't help but enjoy the character of the autistic news reporter and how excited he gets about trains; the second is that I can't help but be amused by the missed cues. In both cases, it would be untrue to say that these are not jokes "about" autism. But the joke is not only about autism; it's also a lovely parody of the news anchor as a provocateur, trying to rachet up the drama, and a Brookerian review of the format of the news report, skewed by the "autistic reporter" who "misses" the point: the news story is a conventional type of narrative, usually in the """tragic""" mode, with a shallow, but deeply expressed, sympathy for the victim of the "tragedy". In this case, the autistic reporter fails entirely to develop this emotional-dramatic narrative, and instead focuses on the train. As such, it's an act of resistance, and has its own piquant twist: there are other values. There is a perspective where a train is a thing of beauty and majesty and importance. Although the comedy essentially skewers this as a failure to recognise the import of a man's death, I can't help but admire this reporter, and the joke, as a small rebellion against the phony sentimentality of the news with its cheap paradigms of head-shaking sorrow and disgust, its assumptions about homogenous values, its glib normativity posing as objectivity and common sense. And the way in which all of these are tied into entertainment and commercialism.

So is this a sick joke "about" how people with autism lack a theory of mind that would allow them to see the death of someone else as something to mourn, about how people with autism fail to "empathise" with others, or is it about the news?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

In the spirit of the day, here's my recommendation for musical acts that deserve a proper resurrection.

3. Harry Chapin.

So cheesy and sincere he makes Bruce Springsteen look like a Left Bank intellectual who wears black turtlenecks and berets, sips on espressos and formulates wry bon mot about Genet's crueler pieces, Harry Chapin was a folksinger and a believer in a better world. He told stories in songs that Billy Joel could only dream of writing, where pathos was not nostalgic drama but a condition of the human spirit. Sure, one of them became a massive hit, even with frat boys, but that's because frat boys are sons and some of them will be fathers, and the song bears all the truth of a psalm for a Catholic on Easter. In today's day and age, when we've passed through irony to become ironic about irony and discovered that it doesn't lead back to authenticity but to transparency, it's nice to listen to a real believer.

Here's Bruce performing Harry.

And here's Shatner performing Taxi.

2. Alphaville.

Lyrics so articulate and confusing, I'm still sure that Marian Gold knows English better than I do and I've just got to get better at it before I can make sense of them. They were Big in Japan before Spinal Tap or Lost in Translation. They sang about the Victory of Love, they sang about Jerusalem, they sang about Summer in Berlin. While we danced slow dances to Wonderful Tonight or the latest Phil Collins tearjerker, projecting ourselves into our late middle age while still teenagers, the cool kids, the kids in America, were ending their proms dancing to Forever Young, which knows that even teenagers know it will all come to an end, but turns that knowledge into a melancholy beauty of its own.

Dylan scholars are too intimidated by their lyrics; Swedish pop bands turn green with envy at the ease with which the produced bouncy melancholic pop; Marion Gold's mouth is like a Stephen Adly Guirgis play put into lip form, his eyes like Stoppard protagonists between lids, his cheekbones a pair of Pinterian hoodlums who'll slice your spine out, the man's face is New Wave-meets-Drama; Alphaville deserve our reconsideration.

1. The Only Ones.

Britpop avant la lettre? The origin of Britpop? Whatever they were, they had the best pop-rock song of the 1970s (80s, 90s, and 00s) in Another Girl, Another Planet. It's the best song, in every way, ever.

And anybody who loves, I don't know, guitars? could spend hours curled up on the floor up against a bookcase with earphones in, following perfect line after perfect line. If you don't like Pink Floyd (but can't help liking Pink Floyd), if you do like Guns'N'Roses and want to listen to some dirty music instead of feeling morally dirty, if you like The Smiths or Suede or Arctic Monkeys, then how are you not listening to The Only Ones?

This used to be DJ's favourite song; probably isn't anymore, but respect.

Wait, what's that, you say?

The Only Ones reunited a couple of years ago, and re-released all their albums, with bonus tracks?


Friday, April 22, 2011


Choreographed by the media over several days is the slowly pirouetting story about an elected official in the Republican Party's Orange County Central Committee who has given the game away. She sent out an e-mail showing a family of three - mother, father, baby - with chimpanzee faces superimposed over the mother and father, and Obama's face superimposed over the baby. The tagline to the image is "Now you know why no birth certificate." A beautifully-written editorial in the L.A. Times nails her for her weak-kneed apology and, without being heavy-handed but without pulling any punches, makes an unimpeachable case for the racism of that particular "joke", and impugns the entire "Birther" movement for its racism.

The original Associated Press article about the event is much more weasley. They lead off with Republican condemnation of the joke, as though the integrity and anti-Racism of the Republican Party is the backbone of the story. Two sentences involve the NAACP, in which the NAACP "demanded" and is making "demands", petulantly and boorishly. And they address the Birther claim as though it is based on a conflict over the facts:

Some voters have maintained since the latest presidential election that Obama is ineligible to hold the nation's highest elected office because, they say, he was actually born in Kenya, his father's homeland. Obama's mother was an American citizen.

Hawaii officials have repeatedly confirmed Obama's citizenship, and his Hawaiian birth certificate has been made public. Courts have rebuffed lawsuits challenging Obama's eligibility.

Yes, the Birther claims are presented as subjective and in a carefully vague manner ("some voters", "maintained", "they say") and the article throws in some opposing facts ("have repeatedly confirmed", "has been made public"), but this all only serves to sustain the lie: that the birth certificate, Obama's citizenship, and his legitimacy is an issue of constitutionality and interpretation of the facts. It's about racism.

Of course, because this involves a joke, the offending party apologises for the joke and denies anything underlying it:

"I feel that it was inappropriate and I offended people," Davenport said outside her suburban ranch-style home. "I think it's only racist when the intent in my heart is to make it that way, and that was not the intent in my heart."

(Isn't it odd that "suburban ranch-style home" sounds so specific, and yet it conjures up no image in my mind of what the home looks like? Or is that just me? But isn't there something paradoxical about "surburban" and "ranch-style"? I don't know, whatever.)

What I love about Davenport's disavowal of racism is where she locates it "in my heart". This is code, dog-whistling, and frank pandering to the Christians: Jesus is the philosopher of the heart; the heart is where one finds peace. And, at the same time, in the same way, it is a rejection of Freud and modernity. If that sounds a little drastic . . . well, it should. She's describing her prelapsarian self, where intent is located in the heart, hearkening back to a time prior to Eve plucking the apple from the tree of knowledge, when intent shifted from the heart to the brain. It's an image of innocence and sincerity, childish and earnest.

Playing on the same tropes of innocence and sincerity, Scott Moxley knuckles down and faces her in her own living room, where he discovers "One on one, there is nothing frightening about Davenport." Such a sweet, grandmotherly figure with her tchotchkes and her piano. The moral of his interview is that even though he is sure Davenport really doesn't understand the issue, she has apologised, which is a massive step forward for the jackbooted corporatist racists of the Orange County Republicans. Of course, when you read her apology (see, here, at the bottom), you see a sinister, twisted sense of victimhood and innocence masking venomous little snaps and spits, and, as Moxley notes, a complete failure to understand or take responsibility for her racism. She lies, of course, when she says

I simply found it amusing regarding the character of Obama and all the questions surrounding his origin of birth.

as if anything about the joke can be understood "simply" (ah, that homely simplicity of the good-hearted straight-shooter), especially insofar as the image says anything about the "character" of Obama or his "origin of birth". But how much more racist can she be? How can she possibly stumble deeper into the codes of racism? Didn't Martin Luther King say something about not judging people by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character: and here, in this photo of chimps, she sees Obama's, ahem, character? And what about that contrived phrase, "his origin of birth"? How convoluted is that? It's not an accident though: it is a loud echo, of course, of the On the Origin of Species. Because the entire premise of her joke is a longstanding eugenicist, racist trope about evolution: we don't believe in evolution, except as it pertains to black people and simians. (I'm not feeling lonely as I make this assertion: Scott Moxley winks at this in his reporting, and his most recent piece is titled Marilyn Davenport: The Evolution of a Scandal; evolution and debates about evolution are popping up in the comments sections of articles about this story).

It's Good Friday today, and somebody's dying, yet again, for our sins.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Time's tide will smother you

A very alert reader buzzed me about this particular column in Time Out New York. The Hot Seat is a standard format, back-page Q&A for celebrities touting their latest book/movie/spouse/bleaching, and in it, there is usually some effort made to address, or at least allude to, some recent scandal involving that celebrity and a biographer/movie/spouse/bleaching. This week, it's Gilbert Gottfried, and the alert reader wondered if this wasn't "a propos".

The first thing this interview does is address something that, terrible dictu, happened before this blog started: Gottfried tweeted jokes about the tsunami in Japan as it was happening. I'm so glad that the alert reader let me know about this TONY column, because it always seemed to me that the real tragedy of the tsunami and Gottfried's jokes was that they happened before this blog got started. It was as if the Gods of Nature and the Gods of Comedy conspired against me. (But what do you think I'll get another chance?)

So, the first question posed to the shrill memoir-shilling comedian:

You tweeted some shocking jokes about Japan. Are there any topics that are off limits for you?
Evidently not. When martians land on this planet, years from now, and dig up our civilization, they’ll see my name and picture and the tsunami and figure, Well, this guy caused the tsunami.

Clever answer. Without exactly saying it, he's tossing the comedian's Get Out Of Jail Free card onto the table and shrugging smugly: he actually didn't cause the tsunami, he just joked about it. He goes on to point out that the media coverage of the tsunami was soon dropped from the front pages and television news for more celebrity outrages, which just goes to show how contrived and phony the "scandal" was; and he's pretty much right.

The next answer is really just your typical celebrity reach-around:

Was there anyone you were particularly proud of offending?
I heard Dr. Laura was very offended. And also Perez Hilton. He takes photos and draws penises on them and accuses everyone of being gay, but he was morally offended. And my favorite was I beat out Charlie Sheen as the most provocative celebrity of the week onShowbiz Tonight. And the expert to give the final comment on why it was wrong was Kelsey Grammer’s ex-wife Camille—to let you know that the universe has officially come to an end.

Celebrities critiquing celebrities critiquing celebrities. It's a bit sad that the phrase "accuses . . . of being gay" is still in circulation, but, anyway, as I said (accusing everybody of being gay), it's just your typical celebrity reach-around.

And then things get interesting:

Is there is a waiting period for joking about tragic events?
There is that old saying, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Although I realize that’s true, I also think that is so hypocritical. Because why should you [wait]? If it is wrong before, why should it be allowed afterwards? Somebody tweeted me recently and said, “I just looked at the calendar. I am going to wait another 17 days till I can laugh at Gilbert’s Japan joke.”

I'm deeply impressed that Gottfried takes the moral highground (perhaps a useful place to be when a tsunami of moral approbation is bearing down on you?) With utter disregard for the convention of apology, he says that people who complain about his jokes as having come at the wrong time or too soon are the hypocrites, the moral wretches. He's spotted something deeply obvious: that the moral issue at stake is (largely) the same, whether or not the comment comes a few minutes, an hour, a week, or a month later: it is laughter as a response to suffering.

Now, hold on, you might say. Grab that floating piece of car, pull yourself onto that roof, let's take stock of the situation. What is not funny at the time can often becomefunny later, when the pain and terror and fear diminishes, when the healing has begun.

We know this from our own lives.

Imagine you're attacked by a pit bull. It jumps up, clamps its jaws down hard on your hand, and with a drooling snap, it bites your middle finger off; it then staggers back while you stare at the bleeding stump; the pit bull looks up at you, swallows your finger dramatically, pauses for effect, and then vomits out your finger, right there, at your feet. You're probably not laughing. But four years later, as you tell the tale in the pub, it's a great story, and everybody laughs. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

But wait: that's because it happened to you. Therefore you need the time to get over the pain, to become accustomed to typing without that finger, to go outside without wetting yourself every time you see a dog. So, let's imagine we're all walking back home, late at night, a big group of us, drunk and happy. It's after a long evening of, say, karaoke. Our voices are hoarse, our crotches damp, our feet sore, and if we hear Coldplay one more time, we're going to fucking hit something. And along comes a pitbull. It jumps up clamps its jaws down hard on somebody else's hand, and with a drooling snap, it bites that person's middle finger off; it then staggers back while everybody stares at the bleeding stump; the pit bull looks up, swallows the finger dramatically, pauses for effect, and then vomits out the finger, right there, at our feet. I still think that the laughter would come later. I still think that we would be screaming, calling for help, traumatically dissociating and mumbling the words to The Scientist, and not laughing. So, the rule stands: Tragedy plus time equals comedy.

But, of course, as a rule, it's also rubbish. Countless are the times when, once the moment has passed, once the fire has dimmed, once the tide has turned, that jokeisn't funny anymore. So what about Gottfried's tweet-jokes? How do they stand the test of time? Are they any better or worse now that some so-called "time" has passed? Here are the "worst ten" of the twelve he tweeted. I should defer on judging them, because this is the second time I saw them, but, as I've discovered, because I'm writing this blog, I don't actually have to defer to anybody. So, here's my "judgement": on the day, I thought that one or two were quite funny, though most of them were shudderingly bad. But the one or two I thought were quite funny on the day don't seem so funny now. Hmm. Time's tricks are a mystery.

So, what is the relationship between a joke, tragedy, and time? If there is to be a rule, it would probably involve something like Tragedy plus timing equals comedy: the time of the joke relative to the tragedy, the relationship of the joker and the audience to the time of the joke relative to the tragedy, but also its rhythms, its patter, and, perhaps the real twist, the real problem, how much comic bang you get for the tragic buck. In other words, how we judge the timing depends in part on how good the joke is, while the quality of the joke is affected by the timing.

In any case, this passing scandal involved the usual chest-thumping and shock, horror, outrage, and lots of reader polls about whether or not the jokes were funny. Gottfriend had to share the stage, though, with a somewhat more impressive figure.50 Cent also started cracking jokes about the Tsunami on the day, and so the chest-thumping and shock, horror, outrage was distributed amongst the celebrities. (I honestly think that more journalists troll twitter for something to write about than report on what is happening outside the twitterverse; everyday and in every way, we're getting closer and closer to having our entire lives mediated by celebrities).

So why do we tell sick jokes? This post runs through some of the most famous reasons: coping, hostility, fear, and -- full credit to the author -- dismisses these explanations (or at least problematises them); it's worth reading for the jokes included therein, including ones about Japan. They are far better than Gottfried's tweets. And maybe, today, instead of asking about why "we" tell these jokes, perhaps we should end this meditation on why Gottfried tells jokes like this. He has an answer, and he cites his source.

Poor Neil

Cue joke about eggheads:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ima wanna summa that

As I mentioned yesterday, we would come back to sex slavery. It's a big topic now.

I've known it's wrong, ever since I first became aware of it.

And now we have Demi and Ashton, compellingly called "DNA" (as in "Demi'N'Ashton"!) leading the global campaign to end child sex slavery. Given the fact that just about everybody in the world has at some point wondered if it would be all bad to be Ashton Kutcher's sex slave, I can't think of a better celebrity pair to take on this task.

In addition to giving speeches and appearing at official functions around the world lending their support to the abolition of child sex slavery, all of which is chronicled on their web-page, they've created a series of video ads starring friends: "Real Men Don't Buy Girls."

Here's one with Justin Timberlake. Frankly, I think it's a bit disappointing. Justin Timberlake is one of the funniest young comic actors out there, but he can't quite pull it off. In fact, most of them are a bit disappointing. I wanted to enjoy Sean Penn's. But I didn't. Ashton Kutcher proves that he really is quite a poor actor. I suppose that this one, featuring Jason Mraz, is quite interesting?

In any case, I've been amused to discover that there's something of a backlash, which I don't want to whip up into a cultural whiplash: it's a small backlash, limited mostly to comments on YouTube about how these ads aren't quite appropriate. Michaela Haas, who is one of those weird media celebrity-cum- academic-cum-advocate figures, has written a delightfully lurid piece of agonised concern over DNA's Real Men blitz. But I get the sinking feeling that this is really all about celebrity. The word "celebrity" is in the piece five times, and "star" four times, which is more than "slavery", "HIV" and "Clooney" combined. And she's quite careful with her criticism; she is very pleasant about how

Demi and Ashton, with their combined star power, can attract considerable publicity and capital for a cause that truly deserves more attention and clearly needs more exposure.
But she's not so sure about the comedy bit.

Yet the reality is dirty, painful and cruel -- the videos are so silly they miss the mark because they seem to make fun of the reality.
Yeah, um, do they do that? Or is this some other, Matrix-like use of "the reality"? Anyway, this allows her to segue into some sentences that might suggest "expertise" by listing a bunch of unsurprising facts. What she's really worried about is that if celebrities act silly, then media celebrities-cum-academics-cum-advocates may lose their gravitas when they put on their Armani glasses and act serious. Without anything approaching a serious analysis, she points to some other celebrities who have apparently done it right:

The most successful celebrity philanthropy endeavors all prove that success comes with continuous involvement. Sean Penn does truly amazing work outside the limelight [Ed. note: that's Limelight the club in Port-au-Prince; he's regularly covered by photographers and the press] in rebuilding Haiti. George Clooney has spent an enormous amount of time and undergone tremendous personal risk (including contracting Malaria [Ed note: Malaria was actually the name of the driver Clooney contracted to drive him around in Southern Sudan]) to keep the world alert to the atrocities in much forgotten Sudan. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have devoted not only millions from their personal fortunes, but also time and real effort into causes such as rebuilding New Orleans [Ed note: which they did! It's huge!] and the plight of refugees around the world [Ed note: they're still working on that]. Using their celebrity status and wealth, Bill and Melinda Gates have been able to gather billions of additional support dollars for global health causes [Ed note: they also channelled about ten thousand dollars to a guy name Stichko to stab Slavoj Zizek]
Yeah, come on. It costs more to fly any one of these jokers to their destination and then back to their holiday villa (stopping off for a junket in Monte Carlo or Tokyo) than on those Real Men videos, but . . .

I hope Demi and Ashton got their friends to produce the videos for free. It would pain me to see donor money wasted on neatly polished, silly ads when I know that as little as $100 can keep a girl in school for a year in Asia -- and thus likely out of the reach of traffickers. As little as $25 pays for a month of trauma counseling when a trafficking victim in Cambodia needs support to start a new life.

Hey, I know how they can earn that money!

Wilde, Arrested

What would happen if Mitchell Hurwitz, who created Arrested Development, made a show starring Will Arnett and David Cross (dearly loved in Arrested Development as Gob Bluth andTobias Fünke respectively), adding Peter Serafinowicz as a character named Fa'ad Shaoulin, and called it Running Wilde?

Before I stumble towards an answer, let's just take a moment to admire Arrested Development one more time. As it turns out, the critics who thought the show was the only situation comedy to address its times were doing it a serious injustice. It was not only about the times; it was prophetic. Running from 2003 to 2006, the show was about a family whose riches came from the housing market (and, admittedly, the Cornballer) in the era of George Bush's "ownership" society, well before subprime mortgages and Credit Default Swaps became part of the common lingo; the Bluths bounced on the bubbly cornerstone of the economy, which finally burst two years after Arrested Development was cancelled, in 2008.

Running Wilde was cancelled after airing only eight episodes. There was a painful hush, a silence all the more apparent after the raucous disapproval that met arresting Arrested Development's development. Even those of us who wanted to love the show, who approached it primed like a sailor on shore leave, couldn't muster up much than a bored sigh as the expected kimono-clad vamp coming through the bead curtains turned out to be an actor auditioning as a longshoreman in the newest Tony Kushner play. Yeah, so there were some major problems with the show. I don't want to go into too much detail. You may want to see it. And it's not inconceivable that in years to come Running Wilde will secure a place in the cultural heart as a series ended tragically soon by short-sighted, small-souled fools who whimpered into their lattes about "major problems" with the show.

But anyway, the problems. The first is that the wealth in Arrested Development was never real. The yacht, the diamonds, the membership in the private club, grown children who saw no need to get real jobs--

--all of this wealth was a mirage, and however hard the family clung onto their torrid dream, reality kept imposing itself. The shabbiness of the Bluth family wealth and their desperate vulgarity made their fiction that much more wonderfully grotesque, and had a number of consequences for our viewing pleasure. First, it made every fall from grace delicious, as we watched scrabbling rich vulgarians getting their comeuppance; second, it made every fall from grace heart-breaking: willful, proud people scrabbling to keep their phony lives and broken family together. And if every set on the show seemed cheap, all the better. That was one of the jokes, played out in two ways: the family was trying to keep up appearances, squirming as their house fell apart around them; and the real economy itself was no more than a cheap set. Their fiction was the fiction of the West.

In Running Wilde, the protagonist is a filthy rich billionaire playboy, Steve Wilde (Will Arnett) who re-connects with his childhood sweetheart, Emmy Kadubic (Keri Russell), an anthropologist and activist living in a rain forest in the Amazon. The first mistake the show makes is that Steve Wilde (and his neighbouring millionaire, Fa'ad Shaoulin) are essentially secure in their wealth.

We may be invited to laugh at their vulgarity and their extravagance, but there are obstacles to accepting that invitation. Cheap, tacky sets don't convey luxury and wealth, they convey cheapness and tackiness; whereas this made perfect sense in the Bluths' world, we lacked anything similar to latch onto in Running Wilde: if Wilde is ridiculously rich but also cheap and tacky, so what? Who cares? It just doesn't work. Another obstacle is reminiscent of the tagline to the current Russell Brand re-make of Arthur: "Meet the World's Only Lovable Billionaire." Lovable? That makes you want to kick his teeth in even more.

This may be in part an issue of class discomfort. Who wants to watch monstrously-rich people in the aftermath of George Bush's economic collapse? I might - but it's unfortunate that Running Wilde found no way to address the very real financial catastrophe. And it may be that we really wanted a Zizekian middle-finger directed at the purportedly well-meaning, golden-hearted, lovable rich (cf Violence, for a take-down of Gates and Soros for their double-dealing as cut-throat capitalists and the benefactors of what Zizek calls liberal communism while they parade around as generous philanthropists and even spokesmen for the unfairness of the system; they will always have already taken far more than they could give). If that's what we wanted, Running Wilde was again disappointingly mute.

But I also think it's a function of comedy's own two faces. Arrested Development had its finger on the pulse, you could feel the systole of sympathy and the diastole of loathing in every beat; you were drawn into a dynamic of Schadenfreude and empathy. Running Wilde wanted to do the same thing with two brilliant comic actors, Arnett and Serafinowicz, who can deliver casual cruelty and sweet charm over the course of a single line, who have been cast as comic villains (say, 30 Rock or Spaced, respectively) and whose every thrashing is truly deserved and yet whose presence is magnetic and pathetic and even loving. Anchoring them to wealth, in an era in which wealth is not a solid, grounding anchor but rather is an act of force, like the wind, called into creation and then into action by politicians and their financiers, stultified them.

The second major problem was in casting Keri Russell as Emmy Kadubic and Stefania LaVie Owen as her daughter, Puddle. Russell, raised on the neurotic-ironic patter of Friends, had no conviction as an anthropologist-activist (except for the lines where she said how much conviction she had); Owen was far too harmless.

The show's dramatic tension, between the rich and the poor, the carefree and the caring, the socially-oblivious and the socially-committed had little resonance; the comic tension, as the various ironies and inconsistencies, weaknesses and foibles, vanities and desires subverting or parodying or mocking the distinction between rich and poor, carefree and caring, socially-oblivious and socially-committed, had nowhere to go.

And, frankly, I didn't spot a single Oscar Wilde reference during the entire 8-show run. Was I missing something?

So, anyway, speaking of kimono-clad vamps . . . tomorrow, DNA and sex slavery.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Vive le différence

I was invited by an alert reader to compare the difference in tweeting styles between Steve Martin and Peter Serafinowicz, a task for which I am doubly grateful: not only is the comparison a rich one, but I had never thought to check out Serafinowicz's tweets.

With Steve Martin, it's like you're a guest of a friend at a friend in the afterhours bar of an exclusive jazz club and just happen to be sitting next to Steve Martin; for most of the time, he's turned away, holding court, discussing art and music and LA, but every once in a while he turns to you and deadpans a funny line, which is by no means great in and of itself, but it's Steve Martin, you're next to him, you're a bit drunk, and you love him, so the joke makes you warm and happy. You know that if you repeat it the next day, you'll get a patient smile in response, but it doesn't matter.

Peter Serafinowicz, however, approaches you in the harsh glare of broad daylight in the middle of a crowded pavement, comes up to you - no, looms over you, and says with Pinterian menace in his brass baritone, "I'm going to make you laugh seven times today." And you think, "Well, a) that's impossible, and b) you've not exactly put me in the mood," and then he makes you laugh seven times, and, even better, after the first couple, you're completely on his side.

Is that how you see it?

UPDATE: Typo in title; sigh.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday Recommendations

Five albums that I thought I liked and said I liked before I actually ever listened to them, and when I finally did, I really loved them.

5. Tribal

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Punch in the GUT

A very alert reader referred me to a Wired article about a professor who purports to have a Grand Unified Theory of Comedy. Naturally, whenever I hear about somebody who has apparently solved the conundrum of comedy, a small part of me, I won't say which, curls up into a quivering, snail-like fleshcoil of despair that someone else got there first, and I begin to wish I were only as unlucky as Scott; what usually then happens is that I become priapic with rage as I read some trilling, preening intellectual dilettante dismiss two and a half thousand years of scholarship, including writings by such names as oh, I don't know, Plato, Hobbes, Kant, Freud and Bergson, to say that he has come up with a novel theory of comedy, which invariably involves some trite wordsmithing to come up with a vague, usually sentimental gesture towards a supposedly common-sensical explanation of all things comic.

Let's just say that once I unfurled from my fear and began reading the article, my subsequent emotional state was unsurprising, except to the extent that it was more depressing than infuriating: why is it that one of the most perplexing and ubiquitous, exciting and strange dimensions of life - comedy and jokes, humour and laughter - can inspire so much shabby, shoddy intellectual charlatanism? (If you're reading this blog daily, no doubt it is a question you've asked yourself many times.)

In this case, after situating the reader in a conference about comedy, apparently one of the first of its sort (?), Joel Warner introduces us to his star:

But as the sessions wound on, no one had addressed the underlying mechanism of comedy: What, exactly, makes things funny? That question was the core of Peter McGraw’s lecture. A lanky 41-year-old professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, McGraw thinks he has found the answer, and it starts with a tickle. “Who here doesn’t like to be tickled?” A good number of hands shot up. “Yet you laugh,” he said, flashing a goofy grin. “You experience some pleasurable reaction even as you resist and say you don’t like it.” If you really stop to think about it, McGraw continued, it’s a complex and fascinating phenomenon.

If an audience of comedologists, as I like to call them, hasn't ever stopped to think about tickling, they're in the wrong business; it would be like asking an audience of herpetologists if they've ever stopped to consider slime.

If someone touches you in certain places in a certain way, it prompts an involuntary but pleasurable physiological response. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. “When does tickling cease to be funny?” McGraw asked. “When you try to tickle yourself … Or if some stranger in a trench coat tickles you.”

Right. So they've never encountered Adam Phillips? Or what about the "philosopher of comedy", John Morreall? Because, as they say in my part of New York, this shit is basic.

The audience cracked up. He was working the room like a stand-up comic.

Now we're on to something. The author of this piece is making a slight error here in his simile, but it's an interesting one, and we'll come to that in a moment. But for now, apparently when saying something that simply doesn't read as funny when written on the page (at least to me), and, if anything, seems to betray a casually lazy ignorance both on his part and on the part of the audience, McGraw can be very funny. So perhaps there's something about presentation, tone, manners and mannerisms, voice, and timing, all constituents of the context, or the particular experience, that affects what is and what is not funny? Shall we see if McGraw's GUT addresses these?

[McGraw] has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers.

It's quite possible that "nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor" are of one category, but it's also possible that they are wildly disparate, so I'm not quite sure what this list is supposed to accomplish. But either way, we've encountered the parismonious Grand Unified Theory of every imaginable type of humor: Benign Violation Theory. And right away, there's a very important claim that elevates this to a theory proper: that it can explain not just what makes things funny but why certain things are not funny.

A theory, after all, must do something. The best theories predict; they specify a future outcome. Decent theories can essentially be descriptive, providing that they still do something, which usually means that they continue to generate distinctions that are imperfect but where the imperfections are themselves informative and meaningful. In other words, a theory of comedy that fulfills the expectations of a theory in physics would predict whether every single "joke" is funny or not; a theory of comedy that is essentially descriptive but can continue to generate distinctions between what is funny or not funny, where exceptions are at least interesting, would be a more reasonable goal for the empirically-minded students of comedy.

So what can this particular theory do?

Coming up with an essential description of comedy isn’t just an intellectual exercise. If the BVT actually is an unerring predictor of what’s funny, it could be invaluable. It could have warned Groupon that its Super Bowl ad making light of Tibetan injustices would bomb.The Love Guru could’ve been axed before production began. Podium banter at the Oscars could be less excruciating. If someone could crack the humor code, they could get very rich. Or at least tenure.

There's already a twist: what the theory "does" is shifted away from generating distinctions into some sort of practical efficacy. Now, if you aren't aware of the Groupon Super Bowl ad fiasco, it goes as follows: truck-loads of thousand-dollar bills are driven into the vaults of ad agencies and network televisions for the advertisements aired during the Super Bowl; these ads are, for many of us, much more fun than the game, because they are quite often brilliant; Groupon did an ad at the last Super Bowl that, and I'll quote back here, made "light of Tibetan injustices". Apparently, McGraw's theory could have prevented this. But, prevented what? Isn't it possible that despite apparently "bombing" (and it was indeed controversial) the ad is still actually very funny - and, then again, was it not very successful as an attention-grabbing ad? How would McGraw's GUT, if it even works to distinguish the funny from the not-funny, have prevented this fiasco-which-might-not-have-been-a-fiasco? And, thinking of some of the other examples, is it even possible to conceive of a theory of comedy that could determine whether or not an entire film would be funny? And is it possible that the podium banter at the Oscars is excruciating not because of the lines being fed to the actors but because of the way the actors are delivering them? The key here is to notice the slinking commercialism of the approach and the conclusion of the paragraph: whoever "cracks the comedy code" could make lots of money (I think that the "Or at least tenure" is not a wry aside about academics; I think it's a serious addendum, an afterthought).

Remember, of course, that McGraw is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing. This is all about marketing. McGraw isn't doing "stand-up comedy", he's marketing himself and his theory.

The article meanders through some of McGraw's (potentially quite interesting) experiments, followed by a completely dishonest gloss on other theories of comedy (if you want to read a book where the author competently and thoughtfully and fairly reviews preceding theories of comedy before going on to discuss his own views, then read the book that was forever after fated for the opposite treatment, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious). This section of the article wraps up with an explanation about how the Benign Violation Theory works:

The professor was able to plug the BVT into every form of humor. Dirty jokes violate social norms in a benign way because the traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters that populate them are not real. [eh?] Punch lines make people laugh because they gently [eh?] violate the expectations that the jokes set up. The BVT also explains Sarah Silverman, McGraw says; the appalling things that come out of her mouth register as benign because she seems [eh?] so oblivious to their offensiveness, and “because she’s so darn cute.” [patronising dick] Even tickling, long a stumbling block for humor theorists [eh?], appears to fit. Tickling yourself can’t be a violation, because you can’t take yourself by surprise. Being tickled by a stranger in a trench coat isn’t benign; it’s creepy. Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation. [Doesn't "Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation" sound very, very . . . creepy?]

Okay, just a few quick points: "not real"; "seems so oblivious", "because she's so darn cute"; "by surprise"; "it's creepy" - none of these are necessarily derived from a unified concept of "benign violation". It's just that the term "benign violation" is so vague, so approximate to comedy, and contains something of the hint of the tension of comedy in it. Collecting in a large conch trapped echoes of the pleasure, the tensions and dramas, and the ambiguities of comedy, and then claiming the conch therefore reproduces the sea; this is a description that lacks any theory, where all the work that needs to be done is in interpreting it, and then mistaking that work for the work of the theory itself.

But then we get to the meat of it all. Here's where, as they say, it's at:

McGraw and the HuRL team continue to test the theory even as they begin to deploy it in the real world. They’ve partnered with mShopper, a mobile commerce service, to see whether BVT-tested humor can make text-message product offers more compelling. They’ve also launched FunnyPoliceReports .com, which aggregates law enforcement dispatches that are likely to amuse readers, such as a woman who called the cops when she was sold fake cocaine. If the website sounds sort of like FAIL Blog, that’s no accident. McGraw knows Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, who has been using HuRL’s findings to help determine what content and features have the potential to be the next big meme.

Note that "FunnyPoliceReports" is neither original nor dependent upon a "theory of comedy"; no, this is all about marketing. And isn't it depressing that the "real world" is the world of marketing, and not the world of intellectual inquiry?

What happens next, though, is quite interesting. On the one hand, the article seems to be doing what so much contemporary journalism does, in the name of a feeble objectivity: it provides a few counter-quotes for supposed balance and let's the reader "decide", without inserting any sort of contextual nuance or fact-checking that might prejudice the reader towards the truth.

His well-honed delivery gets a lot of laughs, but his theory ultimately receives the same polite applause as everything else. There are no stunned looks of amazement in the audience, no rumblings of a field torn asunder.

And why might that be?

Maybe it’s because a discipline that can’t even agree on what to call the response elicited by humor isn’t ready for a universal theory of humor.

Riiiight. They can't handle the truth. But then Warner lets the damning begin:

The BVT also has its fair share of detractors. ISHS president Elliott Oring says, “I didn’t see many big differences between this theory and the various formulations of incongruity theory.” Victor Raskin, founder of the academic journal Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, is more blunt: “What McGraw has come up with is flawed and bullshit—what kind of a theory is that?” To his mind, the BVT is a “very loose and vague metaphor,” not a functional formula like E=mc2. He’s also quick to challenge McGraw’s standing in the tight-knit community of scholarship: “He is not a humor researcher; he has no status.”

I now fucking love Victor Raskin.

McGraw’s lecture did impress Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor at The New Yorker, who also gave a presentation in San Antonio [. . . ] Mankoff says he admires McGraw’s work, “and I admire him even more for having the balls to take his theory on the road as stand-up.” But he also has a caveat for McGraw and other humor scientists: “All these theories are so general that they’re of no use when you’re trying to craft a good cartoon.” He cites one that he’s particularly fond of, an illustration of a Swiss Army knife featuring nothing but corkscrews. The caption reads “French Army knife.” No Venn diagram, he says, has ever produced a joke like that.

So, in effect, McGraw is in the marketing business and he now has a faux-niche to call his own; no doubt a book will follow and con$ulting gigs. Warner's article seems to be making every effort to defend McGraw, and yet he gives McGraw's detractors (and fans) ample opportunity to stick a dagger deep into the navel of McGraw's GUT.

What ends the piece is a bear-trap vignette about McGraw going to see one of his favourite comedians, Louis CK.

The comedian slumps into a chair, the toll of weeks on the road apparent on his face. Knowing that he has only a few minutes, McGraw gives a nutshell version of his well-honed spiel. He lays out the BVT and describes the tickling conundrum that killed at the humor symposium. But CK cuts him off. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” he says, directing as much attention to a preshow ham sandwich as to McGraw. “There are thousands of kinds of jokes. I just don’t believe that there’s one explanation.”

Oof, tough room. His research dismissed, McGraw casts about for another subject of inquiry. Luckily, he’d polled fellow attendees for questions while waiting for an audience with CK. “A woman in the lobby wants to know how big your penis is,” he says. CK cracks the faintest of smiles, shakes his head. “I am not going to answer that.”

“I wouldn’t either,” McGraw says. With a chuckle he adds, “But I’ve heard that if you don’t answer that, it means it’s small.”

The silence that follows is so thick you could pound in a nail and hang a painting from it. That last remark is a violation, and it isn’t benign.

BUT IT'S FUCKING FUNNY!!! Dickhead "professor" of marketing goes to see a comedian in private before a show, pitches his theory, gets shot-down, tries to joke about dicks and is met with stony silence. That is funny. And surely we've come to the most obvious of points: that comedy can be cruel, vicious, divisive and destructive at its very funniest, where its cloak of benevolence, its benign aura of harmlessness, is its cruelest, most vicious, most divisive and destructive feature?

The piece actually gets funnier, though I won't quote how, and then it gets depressing.

Sensing that his time is up, McGraw heads for the door. He did get one valuable takeaway: “My approach to this sort of research needs to be more professional.”

His "theory" has been completely dismantled in every way, but, remember, it's all about the marketing. McGraw just needs to work on his approach.