Monday, June 5, 2017

The Paris Covfefe Accord: Why Liberals Dominate Comedy

In this brief interlude between Donald Trump's shameless decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and the coming Comey testimony, Steve explores the alignment between comedians, comedy, humor, and a liberal orientation. It's not funny!

Those who are feeling burned over Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords may be turning to these pages for some heated discussion of the politics, marketing, and non-alternative facts about the White House’s action.  But you don’t need a whole column to boil this one down.

Savvy pundits swiftly concluded that for a presidency that has fulfilled approximately, well, let’s just say  zero of its campaign promises (ObamaCare repeal and replace, Muslim ban, tax reform, border wall) and is in free-fall due to ballooning investigations over potential collusion with Russia to interfere with our elections, bailing out of the Paris Accord was just too easy a way to show some BSD to the faithful core.  Trump clearly seized on the opportune timing, as he is now just a few days away from facing an existential threat to his presidency in the form of sworn Congressional testimony by former FBI Director James Comey. Trump’s calculation was that dumping Paris was an optics grand slam: he could deliver on a campaign promise, ooze America First, shove a stick in the eye of the liberal establishment, and tell those annoying effete and elite European allies to eat my Florida.  In Trump’s badly listing presidency, the rising tides of climate change raise all of his pathetic boats.

No, there’s no need for an exclusive column on this one, and even wasting good electrons clobbering Trump over it is simply too easy. .. there are just too many ironies in the fire on this one. Start with this: Trump and the Republicans used to excoriate Barack Obama by accusing him of “leading from behind,” and now we struggle to come up with a more apt assessment of where the United States appears to be on climate change under the direction of Donald Trump. On this issue, Americans are not merely being “led from behind,” they are quite literally being led around by the asshole.

Donald Trump provided a rationale for his decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord, presenting an argument that – for a self-alleged business genius – wholly lacked vision about the opportunity for new jobs and economic revival in renewable energy, a sure a bet for sustained growth throughout  the twenty-first century.  His argument was riveted in the rear-view mirror, obsessed with a claim of protecting jobs in diminishing energy industries.

The truth was that he actually made more sense the night that he apparently drifted off to sleep in mid-tweet, leaving the world to ponder the unknowable and enigmatic “Despite the negative press covfefe...” Indeed, we see a missed opportunity: the climate discussion may have been just the moment to provide the full explanation on the mystery tweet.

CNN Reporter: “President Trump, can you explain why you think climate science is a hoax, and why allowing China, Germany, and France to take the lead in the greatest growth industry of the twenty-first Century is a good for American business, even though virtually every Fortune 500 C.E.O. disagrees with you?”

Trump: “Yes. You sleazy horrible people in the media have missed the whole point. As I tweeted the other night, ‘despite the negative press, COVFEFE!’ My decision on the Paris Accord is an excellent example of my abundant and powerful covfefe.  It happens that I have an enormous amount of covfefe, and I know how to use it. In fact, my decision on climate change, like healthcare, bombing Syria, banning Muslims, and firing Comey – and I say this with great, ah, surety – these are actually some of the most greatest and I have to say awesome examples of covfefe that have ever been seen in the history of the world. And that is this has been the most successful presidency since – well, since ever… because we always do things with high levels of covfefe.”

WTF, why not try it? It would have made a helluva lot more sense that Trump’s contention that sticking with the Paris Accord would have caused other countries “to start laughing at us.” Huh? You think that they are just starting?

Yes, Mr. President, when the world is not crying about the America it no longer recognizes, it is spending a great deal of time laughing. And they are not really laughing at America, per se. They are specifically laughing at you.  All the countries in the world united in laughter at what a ridiculous president you are. Call it the Paris Covfefe Accord:  193 countries aligned in their belief that you are a joke.

If the President wanted to know a truly excellent reason why the rest of the world is laughing at the United States now, he should start by watching the video of Sean Spicer being asked what the President meant by the mysterious “covfefe” tweet.

Poor Sean Spicer. He peers out at the White House press corps like a guy with post-tweet stress disorder, shoulders hunched in tension, and with a vise-like grip on the podium that is his only protection from the ravenous reporters he fears would rip him to shreds if he ever let go. And yet, too, he is clearly terrified of what lurks behind him, unseen; he is afraid to look up at the monitor behind him for fear that he will discover that he is being fired, Comey-style, on national television at that very moment. Spicer is Trump’s personal 38th parallel, a DMZ between the whack job dictator on the one side and the power of a free society on the other.  Spicer knows only one thing for certain: when the real bombs start flying, he gets killed. His bet is that it will be friendly fire.  

So Sean should have been anticipating and thoroughly prepared for incoming on the covfefe tweet. Squaring his shoulders and burrowing deep, Spicer grimly told the world the shocking truth about covfefe: “The President and a small group of people know exactly what he meant," he asserted with the smug satisfaction of those who traffic in inane tautologies. Spicer probably felt he had perfectly threaded the needle: he had pleased his boss by making Trump’s tweet sound fully intentional, purposefully opaque, and crystal clear to a small elite in the know, and at the same time he had dismissed the press ridicule with a powerful sentence, and the brouhaha was behind him.

Or perhaps not.

If ever in this history of press relations there was a moment to smile, toss off a laugh, and make a small, harmless joke, this was it. Hey, Sean… here are a few options, no charge, from your friends at BTRTN:

“Yeah, you can see that the President was tweeting about you people in the press, so naturally he fell asleep.”

“The President wasn’t sure that you people in the press were paying attention to his twitter feed, so he was testing to see if you were awake.”

And the winner would have been:

“’Covfefe’ is the name of the Israeli agent that the President did not disclose to the Russians. Please don’t tell anyone.”

C’mon, Sean... you had a whole morning to prepare. You call your team into your office at 8:00 a.m. and you tell them you are going to get pummeled with questions about covfefe, so everyone has to come up with a disarming joke by noon. C’mon, man!  You shouldn’t need me to explain that to you!

Which brings us to the real topic of today’s post: the humor gap.

Of all the differences in our Red State/Blue State, Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat bifurcations, one of the areas in which we now see the sharpest, deepest, and greatest divide is in the area of humor.

Think about this: amidst a sea of very popular and successful comedy/”news-tainment” shows that lean brazenly to the left (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Real Time with Bill Maher) there is not one single show in America that tries to take the perspective of the right and make fun of the left.  Not one.

The closest thing to a right-leaning comedy show we have seen was The Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert spent eleven years in the character of a stupendously self-idolizing, woefully ignorant, and endlessly bloviating conservative talk show host, essentially Bill O’Reilly lacking only the serial sexually predatory behavior.  There can be no doubt that a discernable sliver of The Colbert Report's tv viewing audience was Alabama red necks who thought that Colbert’s hysterical right wing hyperbole was for real. 

Indeed, it took over a decade after Fox News was launched for the left to finally come up with programming that fought back, issue for issue, and regularly called bullshit on Fox on its fusillade of alternative facts. However, that was most certainly not MSNBC, where Keith Olbermann spewed anger from the left as self-righteously as Sean Hannity gushed venom on behalf of the right. 

No, most lefties would tell you that the real counter-programming to Fox happened when Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show and turned it into the most bitingly effective and boldly political satire in history.  Jon Stewart did not pretend that both sides of the story deserved equal weight and respect. He saw Fox for what the propaganda arm that it was, and he pioneered new ways to rapidly search for video clips that caught Republicans and Fox in outright lies, gross flip-flops, and proof of statements that conservatives had attempted to deny. Jon Stewart took the gloves off, and the battle was finally joined.

Today, Stephen Colbert has accomplished in less than two years what the great David Letterman could not do in thirty: Colbert’s ratings have surged ahead of The Tonight Show, which has been giant of late night television dating back through its long history from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson to Jay Leno.  Colbert achieved this by turning The Late Show into a television property that is every bit as blatantly aligned with liberal progressives as Fox News is with the conservative movement.  Every single night since Election Day, Colbert has opened his show like a razor-witted velociraptor ripping into the gaffes, ignorance, arrogance, and questionable legality of the Trump White House.  Based on the combination of his content, his reach, and his ratings, it’s fair to say that Colbert has become the most visible and vocal critique of the Trump administration in the entire entertainment industry.

Of course Colbert’s surge was aided and abetted by the humiliating episode in which current Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon obsequiously pandered to Donald Trump, playfully messing his bright orange hair. Where Fallon went for the cute gag, Colbert went for the jugular. Colbert is now routinely pounding Fallon in the ratings, and perhaps the only thing that could slow Colbert’s mojo now is the impeachment and removal of Donald Trump.

Jimmy Kimmel recently stormed to the center of the national conversation with a gripping, emotional appeal for universal healthcare based on his deeply personal trauma over his infant’s health crisis. He became yet another network tv late night host going public with his politics, squarely siding with the progressives on an issue of huge importance for the Trump administration. 

Finally, at the most serious end of the comedy/”news-tainment” spectrum, we find John Oliver and Bill Maher. Every Sunday, John Oliver opens Last Week Tonight with a rapid-fire review of the previous week, inevitably scalding the Trump White House with impeccably-researched and scalpel-edged commentary. Bill Maher’s Real Time  is one of the few programs in either the world of news or entertainment that actually does a reasonably good job of presenting a spectrum of informed, articulate advocates for differing political views on a single panel...though it is occasionally hard to hear over the shouting.

And then there is the godfather of it all, Saturday Night Live, which has been carried to heights of popularity not seen in generations on the wings of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer.

Of course, the important comment to be made is the programming detailed here long since ceased being “comedy” shows, if indeed they ever were.  A generation that came of age under the dubious leadership of George W. Bush will tell you that they did not turn to The Daily Show for comedy; it is where they actually got their news.  There is no more pointed irony about the passing of this torch than two stories that were both featured on the exact same front page of The New York Times on February 10, 2015. On the left side of the front page was the story announcing Jon Stewart’s decision to leave The Daily Show (“Jon Stewart Will Leave The Daily Show on a High Career Note”), in which he was lionized as a ground-breaking and ferocious champion of the truth. On the right side of the front page was the headline announcing NBC’s punishment for embroidering self-aggrandizing fantasies about his own journalistic daring (“Brian Williams Suspended from NBC for 6 Months Without Pay”). Yes, on the exact same day, the champion of faux news was exalted for the telling the truth, and the highest rated anchor of “real news” was brought down for plying fake news.

In this sea of left wing comedy, where, oh where, is the humor on behalf of the right?

A decidedly less clear-cut but equally interesting fulcrum on which to compare the humor of the right vs. the humor on the left is not in the world of comedy, but in the humor of the politicians themselves.

It is in this contrast that we see yet one more reason why the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump has felt like being trapped in a skyscraper elevator as it plummets in free fall from the penthouse to the basement. Barack Obama may well have used comedy for the purpose of effective communication more deftly than any inhabitant of the White House in history. Donald Trump, on the other hand, appears to have undergone surgical removal of the funny bone.

Since Donald Trump began his angry, vicious, and hostile campaign for President, we have observed a grand total of one genuinely laugh-out-loud piece of comedy from the Disparager-in-Chief, and we have to admit, it was funny. At the Al Smith Dinner, candidate Trump appeared to be lecturing the media for their differing treatment of Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.  In a sly reference to his wife’s then-recent convention speech that lifted lines from Michelle Obama, Trump admonished the assembled journalists. “I really have to say, the media is more biased than ever. You want the proof? Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it. It's fantastic. They think she's absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech, and people get on her case!” Hey, you gotta give the guy credit… that’s a first rate joke.

Unfortunately, it really is the only one we can think of.

Aside from that, Trump’s use of comedy is so sparing as to approach the barren tundra offered by Richard Nixon himself.  Nixon and Trump may soon have more in common than simply being two of the most humorless, awkward stiffs ever to occupy the White House.

The gulf between Republican and Democratic presidents in terms of wit is not the stark, binary contrast seen in television comedy shows, but it does exist.  Virtually alone among Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan employed humor brilliantly, and many people believe that his re-election in 1984 was secured by his immensely effective handling of the issue of whether his advancing age should be a factor that voters should consider on election day.  Reagan turned the issue inside out, noting that he felt that age should not be a factor in the election, and that he refused to make an issue of Walter Mondale’s “youth and inexperience.” To mainstream Americans, nothing proved that Reagan was still mentally sharp more convincingly than a brilliantly conceived, cannily self-deprecating, and perfectly executed bit of comedy.

However, the other Republican presidents of the past half-century – Jerry Ford, and the elder and younger Bushes – were each far more fodder for comedy than practitioners.  One of the comedy bits that made the original Saturday Night Live a break-out success was Chevy Chase’s side-splitting imitation of the oft-stumbling and seemingly slow-witted Ford. George Bush the elder was, in hindsight, a far more able president than he is given credit for, but while serving, he was goofy and aloof, a patrician product of Yale’s secret societies who was shown to be out of touch with such basic elements of daily life as a supermarket check-out scanner. Dana Carvey, also of Saturday Night Live, pristinely mimicked Bush’s loopy social discomfort, befuddlement, and bewilderment, which was perhaps the high-water mark of presidential imitation. The younger Bush – Dubya – had a more deft comedic touch than he has been given credit for, and yet his entire presidency was overwhelmed by the sense that he was an inexperienced man who was in far over his head, abdicating his decision-making responsibilities to his Vice President and cabinet members. SNL’s Will Ferrell would torture Bush the Younger with devastating riffs on his mangling of multi-syllable words and his officious manner, through which the comedian brilliantly captured Bush’s desperate – and failing – desire to be taken seriously.

But perhaps the president with the most natural affinity for comedy was John F. Kennedy. JFK constantly employed a dry, intellectually-elevated wit – often with a wry, self-deprecating punchline – to disarm, to win people over, and to blunt the obvious manifestations of his wealth and patrician upbringing.  Upon returning from France, where his glamorous and fashion-trending wife dazzled les enfants de la Patria, Kennedy introduced himself as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” Kennedy wooed the press with a steady flow of understated asides and they were seduced. Shortly after he was inaugurated, Kennedy was asked what the biggest surprise he had found upon taking on his new role. “That things were as bad as we had been saying they were,” he deadpanned. Even in a barb at the previous Republican administration, he found a way to chide himself. 

Comedy is not the most important thing presidents do. It is not the most important thing journalists do. It is not the most important thing most of us do in our everyday lives, at work and with our families.

But it is a vital ingredient in the totality of our humanity. It gives us perspective, insight, connection, warmth, and honesty. It makes us smile. People who have the ability to laugh – and particularly to laugh at their own expense – appear more comfortable in their own skin than those who do not. And in seeing that comfort, that confidence, and that honest self-assessment, others find accessibility and feel trust.

The fact that Sean Spicer is not empowered by his boss to make a joke about covfefe tells you everything you need to know about this presidency. Donald Trump is pompous, self-important, surrealistically self-aggrandizing, and values comprehensive personal loyalty over any and every other trait – including expertise, experience, intelligence, and independent thinking.

Oh, yes… and humor. 

The explanation for the observation we posed in our headline may be startlingly simple. Ask anyone who has ever written comedy, performed comedy, or studied comedy, and they will tell you that at the very nucleus of any great joke is a truth about humanity.  Comedy starts from the truth.

And today, one political party is interested in the truth, and the other is not.  

You can’t find comedy in a bold lie. If you routinely traffics in lies -- that Mexicans are rapists, most of the world’s one billion Muslims hate America, most violent crime against white is committed by blacks, the unemployment rate under Barack Obama was 45% -- you will never find an audience that finds amusement. There’s no market for comedy about falsehoods; there is no humor in a lie.

Right now, Trump, his team, his media advocates, and his supporters in the Republican Party – they all take his presidency with a slavish and impregnable seriousness. No one can laugh about the Donald. When he announced his decision on climate change, he snarled that other countries “won’t be laughing at us anymore.”

It is in many ways merely the logical end point to a gaping divide between a party of frightened, backward-looking, anti-science people who relish their victimhood, and a party of forward-looking, more highly educated people who find humor in honesty, and honesty in humor.

Perhaps we should all lobby to have Fox start a comedy show so all those people on the right can pull the pole out of their butts and smile.  

Perhaps Donald Trump will watch that, too. It would do him a world of good to be able to relax, smile, and even laugh at himself.

But for Donald Trump to do that, it would take the most amazing, most awesome, and most incredible amount of covfefe that the world has ever seen.

And if he says he’s got that much covfefe,  well, he’s lying about that, too.


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