Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #306: On Comedy

There's a scene in an old episode of Seinfeld where Jerry visits a Catholic Priest in the confessional to discuss his dentist's recent conversion to Judaism, and how Jerry suspects he did it only for the jokes.

"Does that offend you as a Jew?" asks the Priest.

"No," answers Seinfeld, "it offends me as a comedian."

That's sums up how I feel about the whole David Letterman/Sarah Palin kerfuffle.

It doesn't offend me on any political level, I'm a
Canadian, and American politics doesn't really involve me, but the fact that he allowed such a poorly conceived and executed joke make on air, offends me as someone who at least tries to be funny without the benefit of a multi-million dollar salary and staff of writers.

And it doesn't matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, it was a bad joke that was badly executed, and Letterman didn't give any thought into it all, because if he did, he wouldn't have done the joke.

And here's why:

1. RELEVANCE: The 2008 election ended in November 2008. Sarah Palin then went back to being governor of Alaska, and pretty much stopped being national news. The only reason most people even heard that she had visited New York, was because Letterman made jokes about it. It wasn't big news, it wasn't even little news, and doing the routine meant that it was done at the expense of more relevant stories.

Yes, she did run as Vice President, but that was last year, she lost as well, and she went back to Alaska. Her visit to New York had about as much resonance nationally as the Governor of Wyoming visiting New York. Before this boondoggle the only people who seemed to care a whit about Palin were the people of Alaska who see her as their governor, a handful of Republican supporters who think she's their messiah, and the upper-echelons of the New York-Los Angeles media community, who think she's Lucifer incarnate.

Inadvertently, Letterman made her politically relevant again, and put a big fat target on his own head by attacking her child, and giving her supporters the material they need to get her back in the news.

2. ETHICS: Making jokes about the children of public figures is just plain tacky. Making sexual jokes about the teenage daughter of a public figure is really tacky. It doesn't matter if Letterman meant the 18 year old with the baby, or the 14 year old without, it's still really tacky. The children of politicians often find themselves the subject of unwanted media attention, constant questions from reporters, watching by cameras, and gossip by bloggers. They're trapped in a catch-22, if they do try to control the situation by doing occasional interviews, they're accused of being exploited as the puppets of their parents, if avoid the press, they're damned for participating in an alleged cover-up.

Teenage girls, whether they had a baby or not, don't need some comedian telling the country that they're so slutty they put out baseball players in the dugout, or getting propositioned by a hooker-chasing ex-governor. Ridicule the parent as much as you like, they wouldn't be in politics if they couldn't take a joke, but their children are not fair game. The question a comedian would have to ask is: "Would I want someone saying that about my own daughter?" The answer would be no, and those who would ridicule the children of someone famous deserve all the scorn they get.

3. LAZINESS: The whole routine struck me as the sort of material someone blurts out in the Writer's Room, gets a giggle, and then is quickly forgotten, because while it may amuse a bunch of people buzzed on caffeine, Chinese food, and Xenu knows what else, it's just not good enough for national television. It's like making fun of a colleague's genitals with a rudely placed egg-roll, it may get a laugh in the writer's room, but it doesn't make it worthy of late-night.

The fact that it made it through the usual process of getting a joke through to air, shows a decided lack of effort on the part of the writing staff, and on Letterman himself. I know that producing relevant news jokes on a daily basis is tough, but it's been done since the dawn of television, so it's not impossible. And the laziness shows in the structure of the routine itself.

Saying Palin has a "slutty flight attendant look" was cheap, and inaccurate. She has more of a naughty librarian look, but the writer was probably watching some p0rn with flight attendants on his computer, and that stuck in his head. (My advice to Letterman, if he has to fly commercial, bring your own food and drinks, flight attendants have feelings too, and ways of getting revenge.)

Plus, when you do news related material you have to make sure that you at least know who is in the story. You don't just make an assumption and run with it. If Dick Cheney said something joke-worthy, it would be poor work on the part of the comedy writer to go and place the quote in the mouth of Vladimir Putin. Not knowing which daughter was on the trip, and putting the wrong daughter in the cross-hairs, is a sign that someone wasn't doing their job.

4. ARROGANCE: Letterman made the joke because of a simple, yet false assumption. The bulk of his narrow social circle in New York opposed her run for the VP seat. That is their right, it's a free country, but they seem unhealthily obsessed with her, viewing her as a combination of Elmer Gantry, Forrest Gump, and Dracula in heels.

This goes beyond the simple attitude of "I don't agree with them politically so I will ridicule them and their positions," to an attitude of "I don't agree with them politically, so they must be retarded and evil, so I will ridicule them and their children."

Since everyone in Letterman's social circle shares his attitude, he assumed that the entire country shared his attitude.

And let's remember that bit of wisdom: Don't ASSUME anything, because you will only make an ASS out of U and ME.

Letterman didn't count on Fox News, talk radio, and conservative bloggers to jump on the issue like stink on a mule. I get the feeling that's because he doesn't watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, or read conservative bloggers, because if he did, then he would have seen this coming.

It's the perfect storm for them, Letterman's a millionaire late night comedian, who refuses to make jokes about the current ruling administration, employed by a multi-billion dollar mega-conglomerate, attacking the child of the governor of a state that's literally two countries away from his Manhattan circle in what appears to be some sort of petty revenge for campaigning for a party he doesn't like.

Letterman didn't seem to realize the law of unintended consequences. He made the joke in the hope of belittling a former candidate and her family, but instead gave her supporters the ammunition they needed to revive her standing on the national stage. The millions of people who voted for her, and even those who didn't, saw the joke as an attack on a child and joined in on the outrage, seeing a middle class mother turned governor of a relatively politically small state being attacked while the politically powerful walk unscathed on a nightly basis.

Why didn't Letterman see the shit-storm coming?

The only reason I can think of is arrogance.

Letterman runs his own shop, nobody dares say no to him about anything, he apparently listens to no one that doesn't agree with him completely, and after too many years of that you start to think that you're all that and a bag of chips, and that you can make a really bad joke, and not see the wave of shit it's going to start.

Should Letterman be fired?

No, I don't think so, and I doubt he will. He'll ride it out, and in a week or two it'll all be forgotten.

What he should do is obtain a little humility, because humility is the comedian's best tool. It's what helps a comedian tell the difference between a joke that deserves to get on air, one that can only causes shit.

Now I hope that Letterman sees that he screwed the pooch, and makes himself and his writers aim for a higher standard in their material.

And let this be the last we talk of politics here.

It's not my bailiwick.


  1. "And let this be the last we talk of politics here.

    It's not my bailiwick."


  2. It doesn't matter if Letterman meant the 18 year old with the baby, or the 14 year old without, it's still really tacky.

    THANK YOU! My sentiments exactly.

    Would Letterman ever have told this joke?:

    "Hey, I see where President Obama took his family to a Senate dinner, and between the entree and the dessert, his daughter got knocked up by Ted Kennedy."

    No, he wouldn't. And he shouldn't. (Hell, I'm ashamed I wrote it, but I'm making a point here.) The families of political figures should be off-limits for such mockery unless 1) they're of legal age AND 2) they've put themselves out there talking about issues, the way Chelsea Clinton did in 2008 when she campaigned for her mother, and McCain's daughter (Megan?) is doing commentary now. (And there was even some suggestion that Chelsea was still off-limits.)

    I will only say this much more: the Democrats still feel the need to destroy Governor Palin because she scares them. More than any other Republican on the scene today.