Inspired by the O.J. Made in America documentary from ESPN, here is a quick article I wrote for Mental Floss, “10 Fascinating Sports Documentaries.” They rearranged the list in chronological order, which makes sense, but my favorite from the list is, without a doubt, Hoop Dreams. Writing the list allowed me to revisit some terrific documentaries though, so it was certainly a blast to write.
If there was any question about whether SNL was being too soft on Donald Trump’s xenophobic and nativist political campaign, those questions were quashed Saturday night in their “Racists for Trump” sketch, a fake advertisement that ran immediately after Jonah Hill’s opening monologue. The sketch features a group of everyday people (“Real Americans”) professing, in banal ways, their support for Trump. But as they talk about Trump’s authenticity and his status as an outsider, we learn that one is wearing a Nazi armband, another is ironing Klan robes, and still another is using his fireplace to burn books. It’s a brutal satire, one that uses visual framing and off-screen space in a clever way.
But while the “Racists for Trump” ad received by far the most attention, the cold open, which parodied New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s awkward Trump endorsement, perhaps more subtly associates Trump’s recent comments with both racist and fascist ideologies. I haven’t quite been sold on Darrell Hammond’s characterization of Trump, but during this sketch, he does capture Trump’s preening and posturing. More notably, the sketch features Trump bragging that “the media are saying they haven’t seen anything like this, not since Germany in the 1930s.” He goes on to brag that he won “racists, ugly racists, people who didn’t even know they were racists.” It’s a pretty blunt appraisal of Trump’s campaign messaging and one that shows they power of comedy to comment on politics in a clever, engaging way.
I’ve been caught up in a whirlwind of grading and have not had the opportunity to post as often as I would like. But like anyone else with a pulse, I have found myself bewildered by what feels like a series of increasingly audacious moments in our political spectacle. By themselves, each of these moments seems like a watershed political moment, one that will resonate within the news media and the historic accounts of the race, only to see it topped just days–or even hours–later.
But in just the last week, at least four pivotal interactions occurred, all of them touching on Trumpism in some form or another. First, there was Chris Christie’s notorious introduction or endorsement of Trump, which he seemed to read with all of the enthusiasm of someone who’d been kidnapped. The image of Christie standing impassively in the background inspired some of the best social media parodies, including my personal favorite, this Vine, which uses the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm in order to read Christie’s seemingly pained expression at being placed in an impossibly awkward situation, a reading that Christie himself has disputed.
The second key moment involves the fascinating debate between CNN political commentator Van Jones and Trump supporter Jeffrey Lord after Lord sought to identify the Ku Klux Klan as a “leftist organization.” This debate came on the heels of Trump’s apparent unwillingness to disavow the support of former Klan leader David Duke and other white supremacist organizations. Trump later and repeatedly disavowed these groups but not before Lord sought to make the case that Democrats, for decades, were guilty of “dividing the nation” on the basis of race.
The third key moment involved the image of the previous GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, delivering a sweeping denunciation of Trump and stating that the party should do everything possible to bring down the Republican frontrunner. Romney sought to depict Trump as a “phony” and “fraud,” themes that would be echoed later in that week’s Republican debate on Fox News, but what was notable about the speech was the fact that Romney tacitly endorsed further fragmentation and refused to throw his support behind any specific candidate. Instead, he seemed to propose the idea of a contested convention, one in which party power brokers (rather than primary voters) would be in the position of deciding the nominee.
Finally, there was the Republican debate itself, in which Trump famously defended the size of his penis from attacks by Marco Rubio. Which basically places us just a couple of steps from the satirical futuristic society depicted in Mike Judge’s brilliant film, Idiocracy. But these questions about Trump’s manhood–and the need he felt to defend it–actually tell us quite a bit about the state of the electorate and the degree to which Trump’s performance depends on there not being a “problem” there. But I would also want to highlight the degree to which Fox News sought to single out Trump’s business dealings, as when Megyn Kelly, Trump’s chief foil within conservative media, questioned him on his failed businesses including Trump University. It’s unclear whether these negative attacks will have any effect on Trump, of course. Jeb Bush, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and other Republicans have sought–and failed–to discredit Trump, to expose him as a serial liar with no basis for his policies.
However, to some extent, I see Trump’s supporters as being beyond persuasion, in much the same way that Colbert diagnosed with Bush supporters many years ago when he coined the term “truthiness.” For Trump, we are reaching something that might be called “Trumpiness,” with the pun at the end of that word fully intended. Trump’s “truth” is one that is felt, and it is one that is completely grounded in his performance of success and winning, of feeling the pent up rage of working class people who feel screwed by the system and then magically transforming that into a success narrative. It is a powerful narrative and one that should not be underestimated.
Via the Washington Post, I just discovered Heads of Space, an animated political satire series produced by a Venezuelan comedy team, but with creative contributors from all over the globe, that mocks the 2016 U.S. presidential election by sending the candidates on a mission to outer space. The series includes contributors from the Upright Citizens Brigade and others who worked on the series Archer. And from what I’ve seen in the debut episode, it’s a pretty clever send-up of the major political candidates and their major quirks.
The series is distributed via Univision and seems targeted for a young, international audience, which says a little bit about how the U.S. election is “translating” to other countries, where audiences are likely watching with a mix of humor and horror as events unfold. As the Post article notes, it’s entertaining to see political impersonations operating in a different format.
John Oliver’s brilliant HBO show, Last Week Tonight, is back, and in his first episode, Oliver is going after Voter ID laws like those in my current home state of North Carolina that require voters to obtain a state-issued ID. Oliver points out many of the standard arguments about these laws: they disproportionately affect the poor, African Americans, and Latinos, and they have been engineered by Republicans who admit they are trying to suppress the vote from these groups. He also illustrates that many states have made it nearly impossible for people to obtain this ID.
He then shows that voter impersonation during elections is incredibly rare, showing that in South Carolina, there were only five cases that could potentially be considered possible voter impersonation cases out of millions of legitimate votes. This observation sets up his brilliant conclusion, which I won’t spoil here, but it brilliantly illustrates the hypocrisy of many of these voter ID proponents.
Oliver is one of my favorite political comedians, in part because he often “covers” issues that are not in the daily headlines and in part because his position on HBO allows him to create monologues that can run 10-15 minutes long, much longer than any segments on commercial television. This allows him much greater flexibility in building an argument that can make a political point. There are plenty of examples where Oliver has used this power for positive effect, as when he did a powerful segment on net neutrality that led to the FCC website crashing because so many of his fans (and other activists) went to leave comments. At any rate,John Oliver is back, and that alone is worth celebrating.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around the new advertisement from Ted Cruz that parodies one of the most iconic scenes from Mike Judge’s Office Space as an attempt to mock Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Of course, my initial observation is to feel defensive of one of my favorite film comedies: How can Ted Cruz appropriate something–much less like something–so incredibly fun and subversive? But given the timing of the ad–released days before the Republican and Democratic primaries in South Carolina–and the fact that the ad was approved by the Cruz campaign itself (and not one of the SuperPACs supporting him), it seems like a deliberate strategic move on his part.
First, it’s pretty clearly playing well with some members of the Republican base and Cruz’s base. Bashing Clinton, even during a primary election, continues to be a winning strategy for Republicans, and Cruz seems to imply here that he will be better equipped to do that than other members of his party. The advertisement does an effective job of linking the “fax machine” scene to Clinton seemingly destroying an email server that contains potentially top-secret emails. And although there are concerns about how this will play with older voters in South Carolina, it’s easy to forget that Office Space is nearly twenty years old (it came out in 1999), and fans of the film when it first came out may be in their late 40s or 50s. And while the ad features Cruz’s approval, he does not appear directly in the advertisement itself, so he is not directly, visually linked to something that might alienate older voters. Even so, political tribalism–as seen through Facebook and Twitter shares and retweets–frequently trumps questions of taste, and the message of a video or image macro, if it resonates politically, is often more important than potentially offensive meanings of the original text.
Still, Cruz has built his campaign around a subversive, anti-establishment discourse, one that frequently evokes popular culture, often in ways that defy the original or privileged meanings of those texts (note his performance of a key scene from The Princess Bride). I’m no fan of Cruz, but his campaign has carved out a clever advertising strategy that has embraced some of the lessons of how “pop politics” can help to define the perceptions of candidates in the public imagination.
Update: MSNBC mentioned that the ad was specifically scheduled to run during SNL, a time when viewers skew a little younger and are more likely to be familiar with the original film that is being parodies.
One of the observations I made in my book is that election debates have played a central role in defining our political culture and–perhaps as a consequence–have frequently been central to our definitions of political candidates, especially at the national level. Political TV shows as diverse as The Good Wife and The West Wing have featured debate episodes as crucial showcase episodes. Notably, for both of these shows, traditional political debates (such as the ones we are currently experiencing on a weekly basis during the extended primary season) are faulted as being inauthentic and as failing to provide rational criteria for viewers to evaluate the candidates and their positions on key issues. The Good Wife goes further to suggest that debates foster false political divisions between candidates that may share a number of values politically, as when Alicia and Frank have a “real” debate in the kitchen. Similarly, The West Wing evokes nostalgia for the Lincoln-Douglas debates as compared to our current situation, in which debates are overwhelmed by the needs of the broader political spectacle.
That being said, debates can provide some of the most memorable pieces of political imagery, shaping our views not only of specific candidates but also the role of government itself, of competing political visions. They can, like elections themselves, have consequences. The most recent example of this is the exchange between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in which Christie successfully lands the critique of Rubio that he is a Washington politician who simply repeats the same “25-second soundbite” rather than actually accomplishing anything.
Rubio’s stumble here is magnified by the fact that he repeats the soundbite twice after Christie has called him on his reliance on soundbites. Of course, we now know that Christie did not himself reap any benefits from this exchange. His poll numbers in New Hampshire remained stagnant, and he has since dropped out of the race. But he has clearly put the Rubio campaign on the defensive, at least for the next few weeks, and Christie’s comments have provided substance for an existing perception of Rubio’s candidacy, one that will find itself expressed repeatedly through Facebook memes, Twitter hashtags, and other forms of political entertainment.
The exchange also illustrates one of the powerful appeals of debates. Their liveness assures us that “anything” can happen, that the potential for a consequential moment is always on the horizon.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 Breitbart.com, 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.”
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:
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.
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.
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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