Sunday, November 09, 2008

TV: The journalists deliver the belly laughs

Last week the laughs never stopped coming, except when they were promised. The biggest belly laugh came from Newsweek's Evan Thomas declaring of Barack Obama, "There is a slightly creepy cult of personality about all this." Like most strong laugh getters, it's funny because it's true.

Before we could reach that comedic high, America had to suffer. Through the two-hour clip job. At a time when NBC has screwed themselves and their own schedules by refusing to air Heroes and Chuck in repeats over the summer, at a time when NBC is desperately attempting to make Monday must-see, both shows were benched last week so that Saturday Night Live could eat up time with their really bad clip-job.

We warned you in September:

You can't comedically cover a political race when you only hurl invective at one side. We have long made that point to friends currently with SNL. As they begin assembling a clip show of election coverage, a few have started to get our point. One admitted he was "dead wrong" about our criticism last year. There's no crime in being wrong. There's crime in not admitting it. We were wrong ourselves. We thought Tina Fey was a performer and not just a "Mean Girl" dashing off bitchy, little lines.

We'll get to Tina Fey, don't worry. But right now let's give the break down of SNL's Monday night special.

The special offered a smattering of clips from past decades. We found the eighties and nineties most illuminating. Take 1988 where George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis (the Republican and Democratic Party presidential nominees) could both be mocked, kidded and joshed. That's a stark contrast to today. So was a 1992 clip where Diane Sawyer (played by Jan Hooks) was questioning independent presidential H. Ross Perot. Carole Simpson. Remember that name? She moderated the town hall presidential debate (Bush, Bill Clinton and Perot). The presidential, not the vice-presidential. For two election cycles now, one woman has been allowed to moderate a debate and it's been the vice presidential debate. It's called regression, not progress. (Although this election cycle, in terms of number of viewers, the vice presidential debate was the one that delivered.)

And that reminded us of how women have been sidelined repeatedly and how (Democratic) Women's Media Center came along in 2004 and has really accomplished nothing. How it wanted to beg for questions to be included in one debate. How pathetic the begging was. How pathetic WMC is and how the pathetic women in charge had years to object to the rollbacks and never did. We remembered calling out the problems with women's role at the Democratic convention coverage PBS broadcast as well as the Republican convention and especially remembered this:

That point was driven home best on Thursday when the boys decided to again explore women. It was interesting to see so many speaking about women and notice that not one person speaking was, in fact, a woman. You had the three male 'historians' (will get back to them), you had Jim Lehrer, David Brooks and Mark Shields as 'analysts' and you had a man from PEW research plus Ray Suarez. Eight voices discussing women -- eight voices and all of the male. Don't count on the increasingly inept watchdogs to call it out. They didn't do a damn thing when women were sidelined by PBS in Denver and they're not going to do a damn thing now.

[. . .]

Listening to Peniel and the other boys slam women as "bitches" (being PBS, they went out of their way to avoid using that word) was really something to witness. "Even Nancy Reagan," gushed Jim, demonstrating that, in their minds, regardless of political party, every First Lady had been a 'ball buster.' Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Pat Nixon . . . all 'ball busters.' It was an informative segment . . . only not in the way PBS might have hoped. What it informed was just how any woman with power (perceived or real) was a threat to these delicate male egos. It was unbelievable and hard to watch.

If you're wondering how you missed WMC calling this out, you didn't miss it. They never said a peep. They had time to tear down Governor Sarah Palin, they had time to beg a man to ask questions in a presidential debate but they didn't do a damn thing about women being marginalized by PBS at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. (We called it out here and privately. When it was time for the debates, PBS added a female presidential historian to the mix. We thanked PBS friends for that.)

Imagine what could have been done if the useless WMC had led a campaign on any of those issues? Oh, the little girls of WMC, cowardly, pathetic and so afraid to dream, let alone fight.

Which is why they could go into loony tune time (and include NOW's Kim Gandy) over a New Yorker magazine cover but never say one damn word about the damaging portrayals of women SNL offered. On Monday, you got the condensed version of that. You got Hillary (played by Amy Polar Bear), conniving, bitter, power-hungry. You saw that in the first skit (McCain did the cold opening -- John McCain playing himself) where Hillary explained she'd be running in 2012. This was followed by Amy playing Hillary while Fred played Barack in a single camera shot that used the right side of Fred's face and the left of Amy's while their characters spoke and Barack was all sugar and spice and everything nice while Hillary was truly a Bitches Brew all the way to the end when they declared they were running for . . . Barack: "Democracy." Hillary: "Because I deserve it."

Having bashed Hillary twice it was time for Palin so we got the bad sketch with Tina Fey as Palin (the last time she looked good on camera as Palin -- the crash diet that would emphasize her hook nose and the bad bangs would follow in the skits performed after this one) and Amy as Katie Couric. Sarah, in the skit, was dumb as a doornail. Oh, ha, ha, ha.

You got a skit mocking Biden and then it was back to trashing Hillary as Amy (playing Hillary) declared, "I am a sore loser." This clip fest faded into Amy as Hillary on the night before the election bitter about the way things turned out and snarling that "it's like a really bad dream."

Then it was time for Seth to question Bill Clinton (Darrell Hammond) about how his endorsement of Barack didn't sound like much of an endorsement. It slimed Bill including portraying him as a rapist at the end. It only underscored that Michelle Obama was never put through the SNL mill. They were never interested in sending up Michelle, were they?

The way they were never interested in being factual. Will Ferrell came back as Bush for one of the Thursday night specials last month and, of course, Monday's special had to include a clip of that as well. The joke was that Bush was finally endorsing McCain. Really? We remember that endorsement taking place before the press at the White House March 5th but, hey, maybe the audience isn't any smarter than the 'creative' 'geniuses' at work at SNL?

It was really something to watch that skit the first time and it never stops being illuminating. Tina Fey thinks it's funny to play a vice presidential nominee who lifts her skirt up for the camera. Funny, Palin never did that on the campaign trail but who said funny had to be true (a policy our own Isaiah intends to adopt from Tina Fey with hilarious results to come over the next few weeks)? There was Tina with the hawk nose, the saggy skin and the bad bangs, looking like death warmed over.

From there it was time to replay the sketch of the vice presidential debate and you really notice how when Joe Biden says something crazed, there's no double take or scowl from Queen Latifah playing Gwen Ifill though Queen offers it plenty when Fey's Palin says anything. She pulls out a flute at one point, Fey, and asks about the talent portion. Oh, that Palin, she's so stupid!

So it's real cute how SNL flips it from dumb Sarah Palin in their early skits to power hungry Palin. You know, the same bits they used against Hillary. The same bits they use against every woman. A mayor and governor of two years was picked to be the vice presidential nominee of a political party. She's power hungry? But the man who's been a US Senator for two years before running for the presidency isn't?

It was a really bad special. An awful clip job and they had nothing to offer on Barack. That's because they never did Barack jokes in 2007 or 2008. Hillary and Bill? You'd see 'em in bed together in skits. You'd have Bill call her a "witch" and more. Hillary's personal motives? Skits attempted to illustrate them (always negatively -- just by chance, you understand). Now SNL told us back in April that they intended to use Hillary as 'comedy gold' all the way up to the election, even if she didn't get the nomination. And damned if they didn't try to do so.

It must be wonderful to be a presidential nominee that no one ever tells a joke about or makes fun of or ridicules. It must be nice to be given a repeated pass while your opponents face character assassinations in sketch after sketch.

"He is very elusive," Newsweek's Jon Meacham maintained to Charlie Rose on the PBS show Wednesday, "Obama, which is fascinating for a man who has written two memoirs." Like SNL, the press refused to explore Barack but the press is a little more willing to admit it even if they do offer laughable excuses for their bad coverage.

Along with noting the "slightly creepy cult of personality, Newsweek's Evan Thomas would characterize Barack as "a deeply manipulative guy." That could have made for a funny skit and certainly would have matched SNL's attempts to peer into Hillary's brain repeatedly. But while you could laugh frequently at Wednesday's Charlie Rose (especially if you grasped that markers were being laid down by the establishment), you just couldn't laugh at what was billed as comedy.

Tina Fey. Yeah, we said we'd get back to her. Robert Bianco (USA Today) decided to offer up just how stupid The Water Cooler Set (and those desperately wanting in) can be:

No entertainer got a bigger boost from this election than Tina Fey. Her hilariously, witheringly precise SNL imitation of Sarah Palin set the Alaskan governor's public image before Palin had a chance to do it herself, while certifying Fey as a genuine TV-and-beyond star. Armisen's portrayal of Obama has gradually become more accurate, but it hasn't even begun to approach funny. Plus, it has only served to emphasize long-running problems of diversity at SNL, which is using a non-African-American to portray the first African-American president and has no one on staff who can play his wife. That's embarrassing at best, shameful at worst.

Bianco's an idiot, even for someone aspiring to the Water Cooler Crowd. Barack Obama is half White and half Black. There's no reason a Black castmate needs to play him. Fred isn't bi-racial. Fred is multi-racial. Maybe Bianco could try research before he writes? Fred has Asian and Latino roots. And we haven't heard Bianco express outrage that John McCain was played by the Asian-American cast member of Mad TV. Second, Fred's performance has not "gradually become more accurate," it's always been accurate. For it to be funny, however, Fred would have to be allowed to do something other than recite lines and -- pay attention, Bianco -- as we've noted since last January (over and over), they create no scenes for Barack, he exists in a vacuum.

As for Bobo Bianco's whine about the 'diversity,' how many African-Americans are in the cast Bobo? One. If 'diversity' matters to you, tell us how many women are in the SNL cast?

The answer is one. Kristen Wiig. Amy Polar Bear had her baby, she's gone from the cast -- as was known all along. There are nine cast members. One is an African-American male, one is a woman. It's amazing that you didn't notice that. It's amazing that you whine there's no one on 'staff' (do you think it's an employment agency?) who can play Michelle Obama while you didn't bother to object to the fact that they had to 'hire' Tina to play Palin. She's not in the cast.

Bobo is full of crap-crap. And it should be noted Keenan could play Michelle. Garrett Morris played Tina Turner (among other women) and, though we don't care for it, SNL has never tired of dressing men up as women (including on the most recent broadcast). Bobo tells you Tina Fey is a winner. Of what?

No one's watching her damn show still. Last week's show came in third for its time slot (losing to ABC and CBS) and, as we predicted, it was down in the ratings. 8.5 million (nothing to brag about) gave the show its record high two Thursdays ago. Dave Itkoff notes on C2 of yesterday's New York Times that Thursday's broadcast "was down slightly (8 million)". Down slightly? They lost a half-million viewers in one week. All it took was the bad debut and the threat of Oprah (and Fey doing bad Mad TV rip-offs) to send a half-million packing. The show's a bomb. It's never delivered ratings and to call Tina a "winner" requires that you define what she won.

All she appears to have won is awareness -- more people are aware of her and aware that they don't like her. (As females in comedy pointed out when Fey started doing Palin, bitchy is not a road to success for women.) Maybe someone could notice that her half-hour show has a cast of 13 and only three are women including the barely used Katrina Bowden. [Fey and Jane Krakowski are the other two.] Yeah, like Alias' Sydney, Tina Fey's Liz Lemmon works in a world of men. The difference is that Fey is actually responsible for 30 Rock. She created it, she writes it. And Fey would rather be surrounded by men and exclude women.

Maybe she thinks it will make her look prettier? Well now that actually is funny. But this is the woman who also thought pulling the waist line up to below breast level this season would make her look thinner. That didn't work out too well either.

At least she hasn't added a strawberry blonde rinse. Chris Matthews tried to get away with one not all that long ago. Matthews was providing more laughs on MSNBC last week. Along with laughs, he was demonstrating why NBC doesn't want him anywhere near Meet The Press. Chris showed up on Morning Joe to 'explain' journalism to Joe Scarborough who already demonstrated last March that he knows more about journalism than anyone else working at MSNBC. The madcap Matthews bored with the topic quickly and began declaring, "I want to do everything I can to make this thing work, this new presidency work, and I think that --" Scarborough cut him off asking, "Is that your job? You just talked about being a journalist!" The look on Chris' face is really priceless. And it reminds you of how accustomed Chris has grown to having his ass kissed daily. Matthews then responds, "Yeah, it is my job. My job is to help this country. . . . To make this work successfully. This country needs a successful presidency."

If it seemed so very familiar, you may have been thinking back to Dan Rather's appearance on Late Night With David Letterman back in 2001, when he declared, "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and you know, as just one American wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where." It's not journalism, but it is a freak show. (Click here to see Scarborough attempt to educate Matthews and here for the Letterman clip via Bill Moyers Journal.)

On The Charlie Rose Show last Wednesday, Meacham could have been describing Chris Matthews when he declared Barack's "core believers have such faith in him that [it's quite possible] they'll forgive him his compromises". The fact that we agree with that call by Meacham doesn't make it any less frightening.
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