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Comedy Gets Serious

July 4, 2017

In 30 years hosting The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson proved to be an astute judge and able promoter of budding talent. Guest appearances on his show made many a career, especially among stand-up comics. A gig on The Tonight Show meant that a stand-up comic could stop worrying about where the next meal was coming from. Saturday Night Live has done much the same thing over its 42 seasons – not so much for guest hosts, who are already well known, but for SNL cast members, many of whom came to SNL from obscurity and left for successful performing careers.

It has only recently occurred to me that Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015, also made a lot of comedy careers. The long list of stars who got big, early career boosts from Jon Stewart include Dave Attell, Steve Carell, Wyatt Cenac, Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Aasif Mandvi, Demetri Martin, Olivia Munn, Kristen Schaal and Jessica Williams.

Two alumni of The Daily Show who now have weekly comedy/news commentary shows are Samantha Bee, of Full Frontal, and John Oliver, of Last Week Tonight. Both shows started out with similar formats: Oliver sat at a desk and delivered a fast-paced commentary on the week’s news; Bee stood on a stage and delivered a fast-paced commentary on the week’s news. Both monologues were delivered with blistering outrage, rarely disproportionate to the events described.

Blistering outrage – even if proportionate – has a relatively short shelf life. Bee seems to have recognized that, and has begun introducing innovative segments on her show. The big breakthrough came on June 21, with a brilliantly bizarre segment called “Fantastic Words and Where not to Find Them.”

The  segment features what you might think of as a Greek chorus, if the Greek chorus were scripted by Samuel Becket and filmed by Fritz Lang in a Weimer-era cabaret. The chorus plays against Bee’s monologue, which is interspersed with illustrative video clips.

The subject of the segment is the Nineteen Eighty-Four-style corruption of language by Donald Trump and his administration. “Deep state” is not a synonym for “government”; “expertise” is not “dangerous elitism.” And by the way, Ivanka, “architect” is not a transitive verb. (Although “gaslight” is.)

The tone is set by a quotation of then-candidate Trump’s own words about words: “I know words. I have the best words.” A recurring motif of the segment is the juxtaposition of words as used by Trump and his advocates with words as defined in the dictionary.

Examples include “leaker,” which Trump uses to refer to James Comey talking about conversations they had, but actually means someone who illegally discloses classified information; “classified,” which Trump uses to refer to information he would prefer not be discussed in public, but actually means information that is subject to federal secrecy protections; and “complicit,” which Ivanka Trump defines as being “a force for good,” but which actually means “involved with others in an illegal activity or wrongdoing.”

The segment includes an extended excerpt from the famous Fox News interview with Trump attorney Jay Sekulow. Sekulow explained that President Trump is not under investigation for obstruction of justice even though Trump had tweeted that he was under investigation; then twice accused the Department of Justice of investigating Trump for doing what the Department of Justice had recommended he do, that is, for firing Comey; then claimed that he had been “crystal clear” that President Trump is not under investigation and indignantly accused Chris Wallace of putting words in his mouth by pointing out that Sekulow had twice said that Trump was under investigation.

The segment reminds us that “fake news” is not a news report you disagree with, or one you think is unimportant, or one that embarrasses you, but false information disguised to look like news, disseminated by people whose intention is not to inform but to deceive. Media pundits who incorrectly predicted Donald Trump’s electoral loss in 2016 were not disseminating “fake news,” but “erroneous predictions,” which are different. Reporting on the cost to taxpayers of President Trump’s travel and living arrangements may not be of huge import, but it is not “fake news.”

The segment includes video clips of media and administration figures using no fewer than 15 different euphemisms for “lies,” my favorite being “misstatements of a factual nature,” from MSNBC’s Ari Melber.

For about half of the segment, a banner runs above the video, displaying transcribed excerpts of Trump’s rambling speeches, which would have made a satisfying comedy bit all by itself. You’ll need to watch the segment twice, because you won’t be able to do justice to both the banner above and the video below in one viewing.

At one point in the segment, a burst of misspelled words appears on the screen, including “covfefe,” all from various Trump tweets – which, depending on which Trump acolyte you listen to at what time, either do or don’t constitute official presidential policy statements.

Students of fascism know that corruption of language is an essential element of the corruption of the coercive power of the state. Newspeak and doublethink are prominent features of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the 1949 novel that seemed very futuristic when I first read it in the 1970s, but seems quite contemporary now and is enjoying a popular resurgence – especially after Kellyanne Conway’s irony-free advocacy for “alternative facts.”

The news media is too preoccupied with the “breaking news” of the moment to spend much time on the deeper meaning of current events. What time media commentators do spend consists of softball questions lobbed to panels of “experts,” largely consisting of other media commentators. Academics are able to devote serious resources to such matters, but the academic method requires slow, deliberate research, careful peer review, and extended publication schedules – so we’ll be reading papers on the early signs of Trump’s fascism any year now.

Meanwhile, it falls to comedy shows – who knew? – to do the serious thinking about what’s going on in our world. Bee’s “Fantastic Words” segment, and its accusation that “language is dead,” was an important contribution.

As the segment ended, right before the commercials, the Greek chorus intoned, “We will have been right back.”


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