Bern Your Enthusiasm

The candidate cameo on Saturday Night Live has become increasingly common, especially as SNL works to create timely sketches that will generate anticipation among viewers who might be more likely to watch the show live and among pundits who are more likely to replay the cameo, thereby drawing further attention to it. Most cameos end up being relatively friendly to the guest candidate (with the significant exception of Sarah Palin’s appearance during the 2008 election), and Senator Bernie Sanders’ appearance is no exception. In his sketch, he plays the crew member of a sinking ship railing against various sorts of inequality. The sketch allows Sanders to perform alongside of Larry David, who has been impersonating him on the show, and to play off his campaign persona in a comedic way. But I was also taken by another SNL sketch, “Bern your Enthusiasm,” in which David riffs off of his comic persona from his long-running HBO show.

The sketch parodies Curb’s obsession with manners–and Larry David’s habit of violating social norms–to mock some of the conventions of campaign narratives in a clever and fun way, especially for fans of the original show.


Political TV on Amazon

I’m excited to point out that my new book, Political TV, from Routledge is now available for purchase on Amazon. The book should be released sometime around March 3, right after Super Tuesday, so you can have some counter-programming once you’re sick of listening to pundits talking about the election results and what they mean for Donald Trump.


The Return of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin

With the reappearance of Sarah Palin on the political scene, it seemed inevitable that Tina Fey would also return to reprise her impersonation of the former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate on Saturday Night Live. And sure enough, SNL devoted its cold open–the most privileged slot of the show–to a parody of Palin’s Donald Trump endorsement. And the sketch did not disappoint. Fey captured Palin’s rambling syntax, mocked her use of alliteration and rhyming and her simplistic framing of world issues.

In Political TV, I made the argument that most of SNL’s presidential impersonations have only limited satirical effect. In most cases, these imitations simply exaggerate a personality trait–Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Bill Clinton’s appetites, George W. Bush’s folksiness–without speaking to the political implications associated with them. The exception, to my mind, has been Fey’s imitation of Palin, which helped to tease out the political cynicism that brought her into prominence and how that allowed someone who was clearly unprepared for national office to appear as a VP candidate. This observation became especially acute when Fey’s Palin appeared in sketches alongside of Hillary Clinton, as played by Amy Poehler. While Kate McKinnon has played Clinton as fragile and out-of-touch, Poehler brought a layer of sympathy to her portrayal of Clinton, depicting her as an accomplished whose candidacy was trivialized by Palin’s ascendancy. Together, Fey and Poehler brought a subtly feminist critique to the show.

Fey’s reappearance tends to go for straightforward mockery, and her impression of Palin here almost feels like a “greatest hits” performance, capturing Palin’s glib speaking style. But what struck me about this sketch is how it frames our encounter with Palin through the eyes of Donald Trump (as played by Darrell Hammond). In many ways, it invites us to sympathize with Trump and to see him as being in on the joke (that Palin is crazy). I’m searching for a way in which the sketch might be critical of Trump, but as Hammond plays him, Trump seems to be a goofy guy who’s bemused by Palin’s theatrics. In that sense, it almost works against the 2008 sketches and the feminist critique they articulated.


Palin Parodies

In my previous post, I discussed Sarah Palin’s use of “affective politics” in her endorsement of Republican candidate Donald Trump. Rather than present a coherent argument, Palin instead offers a series of riffs that express a populist conservative narrative about America’s identity, one that is characterized by hard-working families falling behind because of a Washington “establishment,” a potentially-tough military than has been prevented from exerting its influence by an emasculating Barack Obama, and a coalition of family-values voters whose views have been marginalized by a dominant political correctness that banishes unwanted viewpoints. Trump’s campaign narrative is a restoration narrative (“Make America Great Again!”), and Palin’s rural hockey mom branding fits neatly into that, and I argue, makes her endorsement much more powerful than many liberal opponents would acknowledge.

Because her speech did not conform to the normative standards of political speech (much less the conventions of grammar and syntax), it was ripe for parody by both late-night comedians and by snarky remix artists. As many of my readers will know, there has been tons of scholarship on the effects of political parody (and I’ve contributed my share of it), including articles focusing specifically on Palin parodies, and as this research suggests, the effects are somewhat inconclusive. Certainly liberals and progressives can enjoy seeing Palin get mocked (I certainly do), but I would argue that many of these parodies actually help to reinforce populist-conservative perceptions of the “lamestream media.”

Notably, most of these parodies fall into relatively similar critiques, focusing on Palin’s syntax and her (lack of) political knowledge. Stephen Colbert’s parody takes this approach, with Colbert–now freed from his role as a faux-conservative pundit–describing her speech as a “reunion tour” in which Palin “plays all the hits.”

Colbert later went into an extended sequence in which he imitated Palin endorsing other political candidates, babbling seemingly disconnected (and often irrelevant) catchphrases in something approaching Palin-ese, but not before pausing to “taze the part of my brain that understands sentence structure.” It’s a clever bit, one that is all the more enjoyable given Colbert’s undeniable excitement about having Palin back in the public eye.

Like Colbert, Trevor Noah, as host of The Daily Show, also happily “endorses” Palin’s return to the public eye and all of the new comedy material it will generate. And like Colbert, Noah mocks Palin’s seemingly incoherent ramblings. Reacting to one of comments, Noah laughs, “What? That is amazing. It’s like the only thing that Palin hates more than Obama is punctuation.”

Finally, one of the most widely circulated remixes has been the “Sarah Palin & Donald Trump–Country EDM Remix,” which mixes key phrases from Palin’s speech with an electronic country beat punctuated by the line “hee haw” (taken from the old country variety show). It’s a fun and goofy take that isolates some of Palin’s funnier lines, but again, is unlikely to do much other than provide catharsis for those of us who are disturbed to see Trumpism becoming an increasingly dominant force in American politics. Still, it’s a lot of fun:


Right Wingin’, Bitter Clingin’: Sarah Palin Endorses Trump

On Wednesday, former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, endorsed Donald Trump for President in a speech in Ames, Iowa, home of the Iowa caucuses. From one perspective, her speech appeared to be an incoherent collection of conservative catch-phrases, seemingly jumping from topic to topic without any overarching message. Palin’s rambling comments immediately incited snarky responses from all of the usual suspects–The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, and the increasingly partisan New York Daily News–much of it quite funny.

trump palin stupid twitter
But as Amanda Marcotte points out, in one of the strongest analyses of the speech I’ve encountered, Palin was neither “drunk” nor “stupid.” Instead, Palin is appealing to what might be called the “affective politics” of contemporary conservative populism. She is speaking to the felt sense of bitterness that Trump’s supporters have about their economic standing, the perception that the Washington establishment–in cooperation with the mainstream media and other powerful institutions–has left them behind. Note that from the very beginning of the speech, Palin refers to hard-working families who are losing ground economically while seeing their religious values assaulted (her reference to “holy rollin'”) in a shift toward political correctness–one of the chief villains in Trump’s political narrative. In much the same way that politicians allude to or echo past political speeches, Palin rhythmically (I hesitate to say “poetically”) frames her audience as “right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religions,” a reference to an oft-cited 2008 interview in which Obama attempted to diagnose why midwestern voters were reluctant to embrace him.

While liberals and many others in the mainstream media were quick to dismiss the speech, some activist conservative outlets, including, described the speech as “fiery.” It’s difficult to tell how much endorsements matter. Most endorsements likely do little to directly change people’s opinions. But Palin remains a conservative star, and her political brand is one that serves to reinforce Trump’s. It also served to keep Trump–and Palin–in the headlines for several days, keeping cable news outlets focused primarily on him rather than his closest rival, Ted Cruz. Palin’s speech is also a powerful expression of the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many of Trump’s supporters who see their image of America being supplanted by something else and who dream of restoring this idealized image in order to “make America great again.”


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Clinton’s Big Moment

Unlike the Republican debates, which have been driven by a bizarre hybrid of dire, almost apocalyptic rhetoric and belligerent personal attacks, Democratic debates have been quieter and far more substantive. As Josh Marshall describes it, Republican debates are “high drama,” even while being “toxic” as a contribution to our wider civic and political dialogues. As a result, it’s often more difficult to pull out singular dramatic moments that stand out like the exchange between Trump and Cruz about New York values. That being said, all debates are political spectacle in some form, providing viewers (and voters) with a mise-en-scene of what democracy should look like. And both political parties, their candidates, and the networks that produce these debates collectively work together to create an image of what politics should look like. Debates also provide a highly visible stage for taking political stands that might otherwise receive little attention.

And this is why I believe Clinton’s closing remarks–which she used to highlight the horrifying toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan–was so important. Rather than using that moment to make a case for her candidacy, Clinton directly addressed the crisis (which had not been raised by the moderators), stating emphatically:

I think every single American should be outraged. We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what: If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.


Clinton’s comments directly address issues of race and social class that often go ignored in political debates, while also highlighting the importance of infrastructure and good government. And to a great extent, the comments essentially forced Sanders to use his time essentially agreeing with her position. Her comments also immediately provoked a response from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who tweeted the following:

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Snyder’s defensive tweet immediately drew criticism across the social media landscape, showing again how his failure to react to requests from Flint for help were so destructive. I’m trying to resist using this blog to engage in speculation about the horse race, but I believe Clinton’s Flint comments could prove to be a pivotal moment in the Democratic primary.


Bringing Back the Blog

It’s 2016, but I’m hoping to starting blogging again, especially with the current election season presenting us with an utterly insane political spectacle. Specifically, the Republican primary has been dominated by the rise of Donald Trump and the emergence of what many media critics have begun to call “Trumpism,” a particularly bellicose form of populism (Norm Ornstein’s diagnoses of the causes of Trumpism is perhaps the best writing I’ve seen on the topic). I’m not quite sure yet how I’d like to add to the conversation, but one contribution I’d like to make is to try to document some of the more significant “moments” of political media over the course of the next eleven months. While elections matter a great deal in determining the future direction of our country (and the world), the narratives that frame them also matter a great deal as well. They can serve to reflect the ways in which “we” perceive ourselves as a country.

With that in mind, I’m going to spend the next few months compiling and hopefully commenting on some of these key moments. One of the most widely discussed moments involves the recent Republican debate that aired on the Fox Business Channel. While the number of debates may seem excessive–and may, in some ways, reinforce political fragmentation–they can reveal quite a bit about candidates–not just their beliefs but also their temperaments, their ability to craft narratives about themselves. And that’s why I think that this exchange from Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, in which Cruz accuses Trump of having “New York values” is so important.

Cruz here is making an attempt at a form of “dog-whistle” politics: he’s using New York as code for everything that’s ostensibly wrong with America, at least from the perspective of the evangelical, rural, and presumably white voters that make up his base (and much of the Republican base). But Trump turns this on its head, in a response that evokes the heroic efforts of first responders during the September 11 attacks. For perhaps the best analysis of this exchange, see Josh Marshall’s insightful discussion of it.



Watching Television in First-Year Composition

I’ve decided to revamp my first-year composition class to focus very broadly on the issue of “watching television.” The courses have already met once, so I likely can’t do any tweaking, but I would welcome any suggestions readers might have about assignments and readings that I might use in the future (and if anyone is interested in poaching ideas, feel free). I’ve designed this course with some specific institutional needs and contexts in mind, so I’ll explain those here and leave the weekly calendar for the class below the fold.

First, this is the second course of our composition requirements, so it (a) focuses on the research paper and (b) requires students to learn APA format. in the past, I’ve taught the course via different kinds of debates about specific issues (the role of steroids in sports, Michael Bloomberg’s soda laws) that might open themselves up to a range of arguments where writers would have to identify different forms of effective evidence to support their arguments. Thus, they could consult nursing journals if they wanted to write an argument about the health issues associated with sodas or could find legal arguments about the effects of such laws on small businesses, to name a couple of approaches. The problem is that I didn’t have enough disciplinary background to guide students on how to enter that kind of conversation.

So, even though my class is a core requirement with few (if any) communication or English majors, I decided, somewhat late, that I would do a TV theme. The students will write four papers (which they can revise). The first will be a paper that uses Heather Hendershot’s insightful updating of Horace Newcomb’s “cultural forum” idea to look at a TV show of their choice. I’ve included a couple of other recent examples (including the debates about how Saturday Night Live cast the roles of Michelle and Barack Obama) that might overlap with this thesis. The second paper will invite students to develop an argument about TV news. I’ll provide some of the classic key terms (framing, etc) and allow my students to pick a relatively current case study to analyze. This assignment will be well-timed to look at some of the election narratives, but it also would work well to look at the events in Ferguson, Missouri, or other major news events (Gaza, Iraq, etc). The third paper is a little more diffuse and looks at the idea of media and citizenship through several lenses (reality TV, news, etc). I may need a stronger hook, but that should emerge from class discussions.

The final paper remains somewhat open, and I’d welcome some suggestions here. Given that I will have taught John Oliver’s monologue on Citzens United, I am now leaning toward having students discuss the effects of political humor. Can a John Oliver monologue change public policy? Does Colbert’s satire of right-wing TV pundits diminish the credibility of Fox News? But I’d like to go beyond news parody shows, if there is time, so SNL or Key & Peele or even something old school like Richard Pryor might work well here, too.  Since I only have a week or so for this unit, the final unit has to be something they can grasp quickly. To be clear, this is not an “intro to TV studies” course or anything that would belong in a media studies major, but it is a course that encourages students to reflect on the significance of TV from a variety of perspectives. Thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions are definitely welcome here or on Facebook or Twitter.

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Technology in the Classroom, Fall 2014

I’m tweaking my Technology in the Language Arts Curriculum course for the fall and would like to crowdsource some of the changes. I’ll be doing the course online this semester, which will likely change some of the assignments a little–more discussion boards, blog posts, and other “small” products–but I am also tying to think about (a) new tools for classroom use and (b) meta-level issues related to tech in the classroom. Some of this may involve more detailed discussions of big data and user surveillance, for example, but I may also do some discussion of crowdsourcing as a phenomenon (and to try to think about what that might mean for the classroom). I’ll likely drop the unit on gamification (unless someone can convince me of its necessity) and may cut social bookmarking (or just teach it via Pinterest). I’d appreciate any suggestions about readings or tools that I should consider adding to my syllabus. My current weekly schedule is below the fold:

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John Oliver on Net Neutrality

From what I’ve seen so far, John Oliver’s HBO show is brilliantly funny and insightful. This monologue on net neutrality is a perfect example of his ability to show why an arcane concept like net neutrality matters and why some of its biggest advocates are struggling to communicate this to a wider audience. The entire thirteen minutes is worth your time and Oliver even directs his audience on how to become involved in this issue by leaving comments on the FCC website.

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Documentary, Service Learning, Video Annotation

In case you missed them elsewhere, here are a couple of recent publications where I discuss my Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy course, which I have revamped into a class focusing on documentary ethics In the course, students watch documentaries, and we discuss them, in part, in relationship to ethical principles. The course also includes a service-learning component, in which my students create short documentaries about a local community group. Here are the articles:

  • Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier 2.2 (Spring 2014). This article discusses the course in general and how I responded to my university’s decision to significantly rework our core curriculum to a “literacy” model.
  • Using Video Annotation Tools to Teach Film Analysis,” Profhacker, June 2, 2014. This article focuses specifically on a video annotation tool I was able to try out, Social Book. The tool allows students to comment direct;y on specific scenes within a film. It also makes it easy to locate student comments by going to their avatar on a timer bar.


Watching HBO with your Parents

These HBO Go advertisements are both very funny and incredibly perceptive about the dynamics of TV watching and family togetherness.They also make me want to revisit an essay I wrote for Screen several years ago (it came out in 2012, but most of the ads I discussed were from 2010 or so) about the ways in which portable media platforms have been marketed to audiences as a means of promoting family harmony through individualized consumption.

All of the ads mock the discomfort that parents and children feel when watching provocative, mostly sexual, content, whether explicit sex on Lena Dunham’s Girls and references to homosexuality on Game of Thrones. By showing this discomfort, they remind viewers (especially teenagers and young adults living at home) of the benefits of watching these shows alone–on personal devices such as laptops, iPads, or even cell phones–rather than viewing them on the main TV in the home. If TV advertisements in the past promoted family harmony through shared viewing experiences, these advertisements seem to suggest a new family harmony through avoiding the shared discomfort of watching a scene from Game of Thrones with your mom in which two women make out.

They also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that HBO the primary source of provocative TV content, producing the shows you want to watch, just not with your parents.


Rethinking Spielberg

Some of my blog posts over the years, including my reviews of The Adventures of Tintin and Munich have been republished in a neat e-book anthology called The Take2 Guide to Steven Spielberg. I’m in good company here with Jonthan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, and dozens of others also included. The series editor John Pruzanski has also been working on several other volumes for a series of e-books on movie directors, so hopefully there will be more to come.


Betting on the House

270px-House_of_Cards_title_cardMy social media feeds are practically overflowing with references to the second season of the hit Netflix series House of Cards, many of them assessing the show’s realism (or at least fidelity to recent political events) and its mechanics for maintaining suspense (we know Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood will succeed; the pleasure is in seeing how he manages to do so). The show doesn’t just confirm our perception of Washington as hopelessly corrupt, it revels in that. The show has prompted readings that identify it as feminist, while Alyssa Rosenberg identifies a far more problematic depiction of gender politics.

But even more attention has been paid (and more digital ink spilled) focusing on what the success of House of Cards means for the future of television. One of the best assessments comes from Matthew Yglesias, who offers a pretty insightful analysis of the structural aspects of the entertainment industry that currently favor Netflix over its chief competition, HBO (arguments that are not unlike some of the points Max Dawson and I raised in our essay, “Streaming U: College Students and Connected Viewing“). Yglesias points out that Netflix benefits from several key advantages over HBO: first, it’s significantly cheaper than HBO, especially for cordcutters who are not paying for a cable television subscription, and as Dawson and I argue, a large proportion of college students fall into this category. If college students are habituated into subscribing to Netflix, those habits may carry over after graduation. In fact, Yglesias astutely diagnoses that users are often likely to share HBO Go passwords (although this also happens with Netflix). Finally, Yglesias, like pretty much everyone else points out that Netflix has also tapped into the pleasures of binge watching by releasing all episodes of a “season” simultaneously, a technique that rewards the kinds of intense viewing that many fans have embraced.

This emphasis on binge watching has provoked a number of essays attempting to define binge watching and addressing whether or not the practices of binging are harmful or not. Nolan Feeney of The Atlantic offers an elaborate taxonomy of binge watching, detailing everything from how many episodes have to be watched to call it “binging” to whether binging is a harmful activity. Others, like Slate’s Emma Roller, defend the practices of binge watching by suggesting that it encourages more attentive viewing (Slate’s Alex Soojung-Kim Pang also defends binging). But the implication throughout is that our on-demand culture allows us immediate, intense, inexpensive, and uninterrupted access to texts that inspire passionate discussion.

That said, there may be some complicating factors that dislodge Netflix’s “disruptive” distribution model. As Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn reports, broadband caps that limit the amount of data that consumers can use in a given month are becoming more widespread (and with the imminent merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, likely to become even more common). According to Harris’s calculations, a particularly avid binge watcher consuming movies in high-definition, as Netflix and Amazon deliver them, is likely to use her entire data allotment in the course of a single weekend (the data costs for avid gamers would be even worse).  This potentially makes Netflix a more expensive alternative than a basic cable subscription with HBO added on. The future of streaming could follow a number of different directions, but it’s important to note that this mode of consumption may prove to be a temporary form that is upset by any number of technological, political, and economic forces. In the future, we may binge-watch the old-fashioned way: on DVD.


Documentary, Ethics, Service Learning

To follow up my post on my junior seminar, I’ll quickly add a copy of my course schedule for my Introduction to Film course. In the English department, we have adapted the Intro course so that it will fit into the “ethics and civic engagement” competency for the new core curriculum here at Fayetteville State. With that in mind, I’ve reinvented the course to address issues of documentary ethics and to include a required service learning project in which students make a 6-7 minute documentary about a local community organization (last semester it was Fayetteville Urban Ministry; this semester, it’s the local chapter of the American Red Cross). Last semester was very much a “beta test” for the class, in that I had never taught anything like this. It ended up working out pretty well, but I’ve learned a few things that I can write up later if anyone is interested. Students will also be required to write a paper addressing an ethical concern related to documentary. For now, below the fold, is our weekly schedule.

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