Thursday, November 30, 2006

He Who Laughs Last, Votes Best (part 1 of 2)

For the complete article -- beautifully formatted with color photos, see e Pluribus Media. (Special thanks again to kfred, Cho and everyone over at ePM.)

Forget “Soccer moms,” “NASCAR dads,” and “value voters,” the operative bloc in the midterms were the “comedic constituents.” Stephen Colbert was right to proudly proclaim that every Congressional candidate who appeared on his show – Democrat or Republican, incumbent or challenger – had been elected. The power of the laugh should not be misunderestimated.

Apathy and Irony live together in perfect harmony
Richard Nixon’s appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In was the first time major televised comedy was used for political PR and was ultimately as important to his career as the Checkers speech. But the world changed with the Ray-Banned Bill Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show. The image created the new notion of President as Celebrity-in-Chief.

Clinton's entertainment connections projected an image of Presidential glamour the country had not seen since Kennedy’s Camelot. His prime time embrace of Aretha Franklin was seen as an act of R.E.S.P.E.C.T. to the African American community as whole, a bump they also got amongst the Jewish population from the first family’s relationship with Barbara Streisand – whose social relevance was in no small part rescued by Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk” bits on Saturday Night Live.

True, Ronald Reagan was also a product of cinematic idolatry, but his Hollywood had long died out. As Governor, his rise was propelled by his contempt for the hippies and his nationwide appeal turned on his image as a grandfatherly relic of times past to which he promised to return us. Reagan's appeal was based on being unapologetically out of step like when he removed the Beach Boys from their standing gig at the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall, replacing them with that repository of traditional values, Wayne Newton.

It was in direct contrast to this that Clinton made the post-prime-time slot a necessary club in the campaign bag. Late Night and The Tonight Show were used to show that candidates had the levitas necessary for high office. “Boxers or briefs?,” a question for Clinton from an MTV candidate forum, is now shorthand for the contentless fluff needed to connect with "real people" who cynically distrust anyone with ideas, much less an agenda.

This was the period where Seinfeld dominated the comedic landscape. The show was not about nothing; its appeal was its narcissism, its ability to take trivialities and by embedding them in the intricacies of lived lives pretend that they were tragedies. To have involved the characters in authentic conflict would have been to kill the schtick – there was never and could never have been “a very special episode of Seinfeld.” It had to be axiomatic that the upper middle class lifestyle of Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer was never in danger, regardless of whether one got served by the Soup Nazi, could dispose of muffin stumps, or celebrated Festivus.

And so it was with us. There were no real threats to our peace and prosperity. Congress could shut down the government and, like George losing his job, nothing changed. It didn't matter if the President was trying to put gays in the military like a liberal or declaring the end of the era of big government like a conservative. A semen stain on a blue dress could be elevated to the level of a constitutional crisis because we had the luxury of thinking that the most imperative issue confronting us was whether the Commander-in-Chief was master of his domain.

The comedy was sarcastic in its smugness. The worries of post-modern life were mere social constructions. Political theater was “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Existential crises were, like, so 1960s. And thus turn out for elections, especially among younger voters, approached historic lows.

The election of 2000 featured a brainy, earnest Democratic wonk; a language mangling, ne’er do well Republican; and an anti-telegenic Green repeating hypnotically “there’s no difference between the parties.” And it rang true because there was precious little difference between Clinton’s Dick Morris guided triangulation and the Bob Dole prairie-moderate branch of the GOP.

But Gore and Bush were different – in image. The vicious attacks on Gore came from a general cynicism among the pundocracy. Gore didn’t get the joke. Nothing was at stake and Bush’s playful nicknames and banter with the press showed them that he was in on the gag. We had no worries putting a gentleman's C student in the White House because the government was too big of a ship to be moved. Its inertia would carry it smoothly regardless of who was at the helm so we might as well spend the next four years with the one we’d prefer to watch Seinfeld with.

Tomorrow: 9/11 and the War on Humor, and Katrina (and Colbert) Open the Floodgates