Tyrone: ... you are kidding me. No. How is it?
John: Please. Watch.
John: It's as if aliens tried to decipher humor from radiated cable television waves and then constructed a "comedy" show with a poor translation algorithm. It is un-joke. You could put it in a chamber with a knock-knock joke and use the resultant explosion to power a starship.
Tyrone: That Rush bit -- it starts as the standard "My fellow Americans" bit, then Coulter comes in, then there are phone calls ... it's as if they don't know how sketches work.
John: I love how it opens with Rush slamming Howard Dean as too crazy to run in 2008. Which is literally a four year old joke used against a guy who absolutely will not be running for President a year in the future. Not only did they launch the show with a hack joke, they launched it with a hack joke that doesn't even make sense.
Tyrone: That beat the Marion Barry joke, which is fifteen years old. There are premises, plenty of joke premises, or even joke structures that don't land on the best punchline ...
John: I'm not sure they've employed any actual television comedy writers. They spent two full minutes on a "B.O." joke about Barack Obama. That's the A-game for the opening show. The sort of name-joke that the jocks stick on a kid in freshman year, then guffaw and punch each other every time they say it. So I guess that's what the show's message is: "If you're the type of schoolyard bully who would call a kid 'B.O.' and think that is HI-LARIOUS, you're our target audience."
Tyrone: Such people are out there, John. And they vote. Who's running this thing?
John: Joel Surnow.
Tyrone: ... wait. The 24 guy?
Tyrone: Has he ever worked in comedy before?
Tyrone: Would you put Dick Wolf in charge of a comedy show? On what planet did that make sense?
John: I've become fascinated by Surnow's narrative. Did you read the New Yorker article on him? It mentions how his rightward political turn was influenced by his friend Cyrus Nowrasteh, the guy who wrote the very bad and relentlessly incorrect Path to 9/11 mini-series.
Tyrone: Didn't you actually defend Nowrasteh?
John: I was more making the point that an agenda-driven piece of writing almost always fails. But I certainly held no grudge. The odd thing is, all the recent media mentions of Nowrasteh drop the fact, like a little biographical tidbit, that he's the son of a "deposed advisor to the Shah of Iran." And no one seems to mention that this is Very. Fucked. Up. We have been living with the Ayatollahs as the bad guys so long, we've forgotten that the Shah was not the good guy. His secret police, Savak, carried out thousands of tortures and assassinations. This is like being the son of a Pinochet advisor. This is like being the son of a Saddam Hussein advisor. I personally would not throw this on my CV.
Tyrone: Maybe his dad was a dissenting voice. Maybe he was the anti-torture advisor.
John: Of course. The Shah, like all autocratic dictators, hated "yes-men." He liked to mix it up in the council chambers. Get a free exchange of ideas going.
Tyrone: Like House. "All of you, give me your opinions. Now shut up and do what I say."
John: ... yes. The Shah of Iran was the House of the Middle East.
Tyrone: Or is House the Shah of medicine? Hmmm?
John: At the very least, I'd like to see Fox promote the show with that logline.
At this point we drifted to other topics. But if I may, there's another interesting Surnow quote about his new comedy show:
"Almost every comedy show or satire show I see uses the same talking points against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney," Surnow tells Variety. "The other side hasn’t been skewered in a fair and balanced way"....
That's just fascinating. If that's true, he hasn't been watching The Daily Show, which mocked the ineffectiveness of the Democratic candidates in 2004, and is now hitting the new Democratic candidates with equal aplomb. He also hasn't seen ... every other late-night comedy show. (My favorite joke of the cycle goes to Amy Poehler: ""Earlier today, Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president. Upon hearing the news, Hillary Clinton punched a pillow so hard it turned into a diamond.") I hate to keep explaining this, but if it seems like the Republicans have been suffering the comedic brunt for the last six years, this is because they have been in power, and comedy's job is to kick power in the junk.
More revealing is the idea of using "talking points" in a comedy show. This is obviously someone who's never worked a real comedy writer's room. For topical runs, you start with "okay, what happened today," and you look at everything. Everything. This is because comedy has maybe a 10% success rate on the pitch, and that's just for joke-like objects, never mind actual functioning funny jokes. To fill a show with a couple dozen funny jokes, you don't have the time or luxury to stick to talking points. You need to find the funny. Unless you're not worrying about funny -- in which case, you get the 1/2 Hour News Hour.
On a deeper level, this is about how you cannot make humor, you find humor. And you find humor in truth. As Tyrone pointed out to me later in the conversation, often Stewart does nothing but play the tape of a politician's actual words, and then do a reaction. A joke only works -- although every comic has a theory on this -- if there's some underlying bit of truth to it. Either truth unrecognized before now, eliciting surprised laughter in response, or recognized and appreciated, the so-called "sympathy laugh." (see Simpson, Homer: "It's funny because it's true!" which in context is damn near a three-level meta-joke.) This is why jokes about Bush not being bright work -- because we've all heard him speak, and he does not come across as a bright man. This is why jokes about Bill Clinton being a horndog work -- because Billy-boy's a horndog. You could not do a joke about Bush being, say, an adulterer, even if that were your "talking point." It just wouldn't work, because it doesn't ring true.
This, by the way, is the underpinning of the situation comedy, or nearly all scripted comedy: an ordinary person is put in a ridiculous situation, and his truthful response is amusing; or a ridiculous person is put in an ordinary situation and his truthful response is amusing.
Comedy is truth, truth is reality, and if "Reality has a well-known liberal bias" for now, anyway, you just have to suck that up if your job is the funny. One party has boring, earnest junior Senators with competing health plans running for President. The other party has the guy in charge of fighting child pornography online soliciting minors online, a Senator who talked about "man on dog" action, a State Representative who doesn't believe the Earth revolves around the Sun, and a Vice-President who won on an anti-gay platform with a gay daughter who's pregnant with another woman's child, which may be why he shot a dude in the face. Nobody's fault Fate dealt one player the "goofy" cards for the last few hands.
Don't worry, soon the Democrats will be completely back in power, the scales will tip back, and we can go back to mocking universal health care and adultery.
There's a further point to be made about the general level of emotional retardation aong Hollywood writers and executives (both liberal and conservative), combined with a stunning level of ignorance of history and politics, but hey, I need to work in this town.