Sally Field, Phil Hartman, and Everyone’s Jesus

My wife Jessica dug up this old SNL clip today, and I love it.

Let me tell you why I love it.

First, Sally Field commits. This is not some half-baked celebrity-host cue-card phone-in. She becomes this Jesus-loving woman entirely. It’s just grand.

Second, Phil Hartman is the perfect Jesus. Not because he “looks the part” or anything, it’s that he manages to pull off the perfect blank-slate-Jesus. There is no figure in fiction or fact who comes with more cultural baggage than Jesus Christ, and yet somehow Hartman manages to fulfill both the theological/cultural expectations of the character, without inserting any unnecessary commentary on Jesus or Christianity. He’s not the South Park Jesus, or some hypocrite Jesus. He’s just Jesus, writ-large.

Third, the sketch isn’t based on being mean or snarky. It takes a stock character, the Jesus-obsessed mom and lends it a funny twist, but never turns her into a fool or a jerk. There is a love for the character despite her flaws.

Weird Al Offers Safe Passage to Pop Music

Photo by Kristine Slipson
“Weird Al” Yankovic was the first “popular music” I ever liked. Well, him and the Monkees, because I was a kid. From a young age I felt alienated from what I knew of pop music: Rock was aggressive and threatening (to me), and Top 40 pop was dopey. At the age of 8 or 9 or so, I really didn’t know much else (save for the Beatles, which were more like a cultural force of good than a “rock band,” revered in our house even if I was too young to appreciate them. They didn’t count).

Weird Al gave me an avenue into pop music by mocking it. With Weird Al, I could enjoy the tunes and arrangements and harmonies of songs like “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and still stay “above” them, at a distance, with the parodized lyrics. Thus, “I Think I’m a Clone Now,” which is brilliant. Rock and pop became safe, in disguise.

Apparently, I’m not entirely alone in this. Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker writes of how Weird Al makes pop music okay to like:

Anxiety starts early for pop audiences. For decades, I have had twenty-somethings tell me that they don’t know what’s on the charts, haven’t listened to any new artists since college, and don’t “know anything about music.” They feel confused by how quickly the value of their knowledge of what’s current fades. Weird Al’s songwriting process, almost without exception, is to confront that anxiety and to celebrate it. Yankovic will take a mysterious and masterful song and turn it into something mundane and universal.

These twenty-somethings are where I was when I was nine, except I of course didn’t feel like I had grown out of touch with age, but that I was already alienated from pop music from the start (I came around, FYI).

For those who feel ashamed to play a chart hit, or possibly even hate the chart hit, Yankovic offers an opportunity to have your cake and eat it.

Indeed part of my 9-year-old’s alienation was fueled by embarrassment. Not because the songs were necessarily “beneath” me and my refined tastes (I also played over and over the Transformers The Movie soundtrack), but because I felt out of my depth as a small kid even taking part in the more adult (or at least teenage) scenarios portrayed in popular music. What if someone saw me enjoying “Bad” or “Beat It”? I felt silly. Al was silly, which made it okay.

Here’s an important aspect to this, from Frere-Jones again:

None of these parodies would work with weak songs; he chooses ones with strong melodies and distinct personalities.

Right. The hits he parodies are hits for a reason. Even if their subject matter is vapid, the original songs themselves are often refined and crafted to within an inch of their lives to be pleasing and evocative. So even if you’re horrified by the words of “Blurred Lines” (as I am) you can indulge in its grooves and melodies with “Word Crimes,” and avoid the guilt over digging a song that reads like a rape threat.

This is also why his polka medleys work so well. Though not lyrical parodies, lots of popular, hook-filled songs mashed together and played at frenetically and joyously is often an enormous delight. It’s like a buffet of hits.

I have lost the obsession with all things Al that I had as a kid, and sometimes I see his work as kind of weak (his New Kids parody “The White Stuff” and Chili Peppers lampoon “Bedrock Anthem” spring to mind). But I’m so glad he’s still doing what he’s doing. I’m surprised frankly that someone else hasn’t sprung up to steal his shtick in all the time he’s been around.

Maybe it’s because so far he’s the only one who’s been able to own uncoolness so entirely, and so totally unironically. And come on, the last thing we need is some above-it-all hipster version of Weird Al.

Gorged on Snark

I was kind of on the same page with Tom Scocca and his anti-smarm essay at Gawker for the first chunk of it. He has some great zingers and I’m a sucker for a skillful thumb-biting at the successful intelligencia, for whom of course my envy is a deep, rich forest-green. But maybe 800 or so words in it dawned on me that, spirited as this essay was, it was getting out of hand. To say Scocca paints with too broad a brush is somewhat understating it. He’s attempting to reproduce a Seurat with a paint roller.

(The camel-injuring straw may have been the tagging of Mike Daisey, a Twitter-buddy of mine and fellow stage actor, with the word “fraud.” Mike screwed up royally with his whole This American Life episode, but classifying him in total as a fraud despite the astoundingly high quality of his body of work and the sincere passion with which he pursues the most difficult moral questions of our time, well, it showed me that Scocca was perhaps not to be taken all that seriously on this topic.)

Let me get to the premise, though. I’m not interested in the specific definitions of “smarm” and “snark” per se. They both roughly describe a flavor of communicating in which a message or statement is delivered in a way that implies the moral and intellectual superiority of the speaker. Sarcasm is usually involved, and the thrust of the message seems intended on taking any perceived failing of a given person, and treating it as definitive evidence of that person’s lack of value as a human being. The Gawker network swims in this attitude, and from my experience it’s the dominant currency on Twitter. Indeed, in the tweetosphere, there are some circles in which a timeline can begin to seem like a contest of who can exude the most cynicism for its own sake, who can appear to hover the farthest above the absurdities these silly “others” seem to be engaged in (political journalists and insiders is one in which I see this all the time, for example).

It is never constructive, but entirely destructive, as in; meant to dismantle or erode any integrity the subject of one’s ire or cynicism might possess.

In the hands of some, this mode can be executed smartly and entertainingly, but it must be in managable doses. But as it becomes a more and more dominant form of communication generally, especially online, it becomes poisonous. The air becomes thick with various groups’ and individuals’ revulsion for each other. Maybe the best word for it isn’t that it’s smarmy or snarky. It’s snide. Scocca’s piece is snide.

This bit from a rebuttal by Malcolm Gladwell caught my attention for this very reason. I, like many within the skeptosphere, have my issues with Gladwell (“turns out…”), but he’s got this one fairly spot on, and he uses a different term altogether that cuts to the bone a bit:

What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn’t worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.

It saddens me to think that an overabundance of satire may be what’s poisoning so much discourse, but in mulling that sentence of Gladwell’s, I find it feels rather true. Satire works best as an alternative, a clever contrast to the presumably stolid, milquetoast, absurd, or offensive status quo (which is perhaps why it was so desperately needed during the Bush years, for example, when so many things were genuinely so bad at so many levels). But when everything is expressed in satirical forms, there is nothing to contrast with. Satire cannot perform its function as a release, an informed refreshment from The Way of Things, if it becomes the very air we breathe.

And if sincerity is the only balm for overexposure to satire, well, we’re kind of awash in that, too, or, at least we are awash in sincerity’s bizarro-dopplegangers, sentimentality and overt righteousness. Which is a whole other thing.

I don’t really watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report anymore. True, I don’t subscribe to cable, but I avoid the avalanche of clips that are splattered around the Web. I don’t avoid them because they’re bad at what they do. Stewart and Colbert are masters of the form, and time was I would not miss an episode. But these days it’s all too much, and to tune in today is to simply expose myself to 22 minutes more of what I am already gorged on. I no longer watch or listen to some of my favorite lefty broadcasters anymore either for similar reasons – it’s one thing to report news from a political viewpoint, but it’s another to spend one’s air time gloating and guffawing at how silly one’s opposition is. And yes, fellow skepto-atheists, it may be why I don’t read your blog too.

I do snide sometimes. I do satire and sarcasm and snark, and probably smarm. All of them as forms and attitudes are useful rhetorical and comic tools. But like any tool, they have their optimal applications. Prince Hal advises us:

If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

I’d love to be able to wish for satire and snark again.

The Two Greatest Tweets of All Time

Twitter has become one of my favorite mediums. When used well, its strict character parameters enforce pith and concision. Over the years, my twit-fu has become strong, and I have a real admiration for those who have mastered the form. (Two such twit-fu masters would be the likes of Dave Weigel and Alison Forns.)

Two particular tweets in recent months have truly stood out to be as prime examples, and to the best of my recollection, are the Two Greatest Tweets of All Time. This is hyperbolic, of course, but welcome to the Internet.  And I really can’t think of any that have delighted me more.

They are, first, for raw comedic brilliance:

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The second is also hilarious, but not in a build-up-to-shock kind of way, but in a way that encapsulates the absurd irony of a very contemporary, first-world crisis. You may have already seen it. When the New York Times‘ website went down earlier this week, we got this from one of the paper’s designers: 

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A masterpiece. 

Monty Python and the Scarcity of Irreverence

David Free in The Atlantic susses out what about Monty Python worked so well, and why we can’t have that today.

It’s a pity that the word irreverent has lost its weight, so that it’s come to seem a mere synonym for cheeky. The Pythons were irreverent in the deepest sense. They had automatic respect for nothing. Everything was fit matter for comedy: religion, national differences, cannibalism, Hitler, torture, death, crucifixion. They created a parallel world in which nothing was serious. They were like boys: they not only weren’t afraid; they didn’t know they should be afraid.

Today’s comedians can’t go back to that prelapsarian world. They can query or violate our current taboos, but they can’t unknow them. There has been plenty of excellent comedy since Python’s work, but most of it has been the comedy of social anxiety: comedy that walks the tightrope between what we can and cannot say.

Mostly true. When I think of the best television comedy (and there’s so little that’s even worth mentioning, let alone watching) like Louie or Arrested Development, the absurd is ever-present, but there’s always one straight man or woman at whom the world is being absurd. Louie and Michael Bluth are flawed and have quirks, but they are primarily suffering through a world gone mad around them. For Python, no one was exempt. Everyone was equally culpable for adding to the world’s psychic entropy. (Except perhaps Brian?)

It’s only been other form-shattering sketch shows that have at all come close to what Python began; I’m thinking of The State and Mr. Show in the 90s, and perhaps to a lesser degree the more-recent Portlandia. But these are all niche programs, not generational hallmarks of a particular kind of taste in the way that Python was and continues to be.

The anti-Python is, of course, the last couple decades or so of Saturday Night Live. That show is only irreverent in that is has no respect for its audience’s intelligence or time.