A few of my favorite things

A political cartoon by Lalo Alcaraz, distributed on June 19, 2018. Brutal, but no more brutal than the policy it depicts.

This may be a bad time for human rights in this country, but it’s a very good time for satire. “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand,” Mark Twain said, though this may have been more in the line of wishful thinking than a scientific fact. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt; in the arsenal arrayed against tyranny and authoritarianism, satire may be a small weapon compared to protest, debate and resistance (not to mention endless expressions of outrage on social media), but it partakes of all three and doesn’t appear to be any less ineffective than these. They also serve who only stand and crack jokes.

Morally, this may be one of America’s darkest hours. Hard-core Trump supporters don’t want to hear it, and they certainly don’t want to hear that they’re wrong and morally complicit in the government’s practices. (In a democracy, I can’t see how they aren’t. They voted for the man.) I don’t have too many Trumpets on my Facebook feed, but those that are there are urging that protestors against the current administration just “shut up” (or, more accurately, “SHUT UP!”); others are urging that protestors should just close their mouths, keep their opinions to themselves and vote Trump out in 2020. Obviously free speech and open discussion, as uncomfortable as it can often get, is just as unimportant to them as it is to the administration they support, and they avoid it like the plague.

The most recent boom years of American satire came in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the country was perhaps even more divided and on the verge of tearing apart than it is now. From William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern and Philip Roth to the best years of the National Lampoon, a no-holds-barred attack on status quo consciousness formed quite a considerable segment of American literature and popular culture.

These days, while the ammunition of exaggeration, parody, sarcasm and lampoon may be the same, the delivery systems are different. Instead of glossy magazines and novels, the preferred media of satirists today are live television and the Internet. (A shout out, though, to the American Bystander, still fighting the good print fight.) The world moves too quickly to be effectively captured in a novel or a magazine; reaction is now more immediate and best distributed through digital realms.

Unfortunately, these are shared in closed spaces like the echo chambers we call Facebook and Twitter, where only your friends can hear you laugh and some very good stuff streams off your feed before you can see it. I posted several great examples of recent (by that I mean produced within the past week) satire on Facebook yesterday, but I’d rather memorialize and archive it here, where anybody can find it. It may be that collectively they’re more powerful than they would be if each was seen individually. But it does prove that if there’s anything healthy in the American culture today, it’s lampoon and satire. Long may it wave.

From Seth Meyers:

From Ward Sutton, winner of this year’s Herblock Prize (and the Onion‘s Stan Kelly in another life):

And finally, John Oliver on China, where things aren’t any better:

A short history of America

R. Crumb’s “A Short History of America” has always been on my short list of popcult-as-art masterpieces, so I was delighted to recently receive my very own, artist-approved giclée print of the work, now awaiting framing for prominent display. (A few are still available from Crumb Products, your official source for all things Crumb.) The new print differs from the 1979 original in that, in 1992, Crumb added three panels to the original 12-panel version, depicting possible future outcomes: Ecological Disaster; Techno Fix; and the Ecotopian Solution. I was even more delighted to share it with Goldie and Billie, my daughters, who are comics mavens too. In Goldie’s estimation, the most probable outcome will be that of the “Techno Fix.” “I like Ectopian Solution the best,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s going to happen.” We can only hope that Ecological Disaster can be avoided.

I first wrote about Crumb and “A Short History of America” last September. This gives me the welcome opportunity to republish that below; I also recommend Robert Hughes’ essay on Crumb in the March 7, 2005, issue of the Guardian. One of these days I’m going to get around to writing something more substantial on Crumb, Mark Twain, and early 20th-century American music, which I touch on below — and which led me to pick up the ol’ guitar myself recently — but for now, there’s this. At the end of the post, Crumb and the East River String Band play us out.


[“You just want to throw up your hands,” the original title of this post] is an appropriate response, I suppose, to so many things these days. But the quote comes from R. Crumb, as he attempted to explain the reaction to his enthusiasm for early 20th-century popular music:

You play old records for most people, and, if they listen at all, after the record’s over they turn to you and say, “So what is it you like about that old music?” You just want to throw up your hands.

Crumb may be best known as a cartoonist, of course, a prophet without honor in the land of his birth. His “A Short History of America” lithograph above says a great deal in a mere nine panels. A few years ago, Josh Jones wrote in a short essay about the lithograph: “Crumb’s love for simpler times is more than the passion of an aficionado. It is the flip side of his satire, a genre that cannot flourish as a critique of the present without a corresponding vision of a golden age. For Crumb, that age is pre-WWII, pre-industrial, rural — a time … when ‘people could still express themselves.'” And “A Short History of America” also suggests that, like Mark Twain, Crumb is a moralist as well.

Crumb moved to France in 1991. That country has been somewhat more hospitable; in 2012, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris offered the first full retrospective of Crumb’s 50-year-long career (the catalog for the show will finally be published in the US later this year). He’s also been the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Museum Ludwig in Germany, as well as the notorious 1994 documentary by Terry Zwigoff, available from the Criterion Collection.

As a teenager I was a great enthusiast of not only Crumb’s comic work but also his excavations of early American popular music with his band the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Crumb continues to play old records for people, most recently for John Heneghan’s “John’s Old Time Radio Show,” a periodic podcast. Recently he’s been featuring early recorded world music from South America, Africa, and other regions. Go there and he’ll play them for you, too. And below, Crumb plays ukelele on “Coney Island Baby” with Eden Brower and John Heneghan’s East River String Band, recorded in France late last year. A new album by the same title is promised soon.

What, me worry?

Back when I was a kid in the early 1970s, Mad magazine was the gateway drug to corrupted morals and a skeptical perspective. And not only for me: figures as varied as Art Spiegelman, Graydon Carter, Joyce Carol Oates (!), Terry Gilliam, Jerry Seinfeld, Roger Ebert, and Patti Smith have all attested to its warping effect on their own consciousness (those attestations can be found on the Wikipedia page for the magazine). As Spiegelman noted, “The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids.'” Still good advice, especially today, though it should be noted that the magazine’s founder and editor William M. Gaines defined Mad‘s editorial philosophy as “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”

I moved on from Mad to National Lampoon sometime in the mid- to late-1970s, but no doubt I’ve never lost the raucous comic skepticism and even cynicism about the media, politics, and so many other things besides that Mad implanted. (Just ask my wife.) My daughters are just about the age at which I started reading Mad, and I’m very much looking forward to corrupting them similarly. As it happens, Mad magazine recently moved from New York City to Los Angeles and launched a minor revamp of its design, resetting the issue count back to Number 1 (though, as you’ll note from the cover image above, it ain’t all that different after all). No time like the present, perhaps, to start their subscriptions. (Last month Wired‘s Brian Raftery crossed his fingers for the success of the revamp.)

Though Mad was founded in 1952 and has spread its influence far and wide since then, it’s surprising that there’s been no American Masters-style documentary about the magazine (Marla Reidelbach’s 1991 history of the magazine, Completely Mad, is still the best resource for those hoping to trace its influence and checkered past, though the book is out-of-print). Back in 1987, Morley Safer from 60 Minutes put together the below profile of the magazine, which is as good as we’ll get for a while, apparently.

The Wolf in the china shop

It’s been almost two days since Michelle Wolf, a comedian and former contributor/writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, performed at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, so she’s been spun out of the news cycle by now — much to the relief, no doubt, of the association. Her routine has been criticized in some quarters, according to reports from CNN and the New York Times; and late yesterday afternoon, Margaret Talev, president of the WHCA, said, “[Saturday’s] program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press. Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

As Ms. Wolf herself pointed out in her routine, they should have done a little more research before issuing the invitation, if that’s how they feel.  Her 2017 HBO stand-up debut was the ironically-titled Nice Lady, and her recent tour was the less ironically-titled The Not Nice Tour. I was only able to get to her 19-minute speech (which you’ll find below) this morning and although “not nice” accurately describes some if not most of the jokes, the WHCA dinner has traditionally been more in the nature of a Friars’ Club roast than a rerun of The Ed Sullivan Show. There are several moments when she’s vulgar and crass; many of her detractors have condescendingly dismissed her as “not funny” (such dismissals being the last refuge of the humorless). Humor is always a matter of taste; I found her speech very funny indeed. A few of her jokes fell flat, though far fewer than I was expecting having read the press coverage; it was a tough room, and Wolf wasn’t planning on making it easy for herself. Perhaps next year the WHCA will invite a comedian who’s more middle-of-the-road and family-friendly, but I must warn them that Bill Cosby will probably not be available.

It’s likely that much of the controversy stems from Wolf’s comments about the press itself, which make up the last five minutes or so of her speech; she excoriates the assembly for having created the toxic media environment responsible for Trump’s rise and success. This ABC News story collects some of the more significant Twitter comments from attendees of the dinner. Some press women seemed to deliberately misconstrue her comments about Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was Wolf biting the hand that had just fed her monkfish that really got under the skin.

Before this story sinks forever beneath this week’s avalanche of breaking news, it’s worth remembering that, however they think of themselves now, both politicians and the press have been the sitting ducks for scatological satire in the United States for three hundred years or more. Robert Hunter’s 1714 satire Androboros, among the first plays written in America, concludes with all of its politicians being dumped into a cesspool; more recently, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed the venal, opportunistic crudity of both politicians and reporters in the 1928 The Front Page. Reporters may be enjoying their recent movie idealizations in The Post and Spotlight, and politicians may be rededicating themselves to the fine American ideals of democracy and justice in their stump speeches on the campaign trail, but it’s always been the prerogative of political satirists to knock the arrogant, the conceited, and the greedy down a peg or three. And that’s just what Wolf did on Saturday night — she is in the fine American tradition of scurrilous and ribald political satire, and instead of distancing themselves from her remarks, both politicians and the press should be shaking her hand for genuinely speaking truth to power, whether that power is in the White House or the CNN press room.

If there were such a thing as a Michelle Wolf Fan Club — and if I were such a person to join such clubs — I would sign up as a charter member now. In lieu of that, however, it may be worth considering a donation in her honor to Pro Publica or Freedom House.

I never thought I’d be saying this in any context, but: You go, girl. And the WHCA should consider inviting her to perform next year, too.

Here’s her full speech:

Elimination nation

Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian McLoughlin (not quite dead) in The Death of Stalin.

Allow me to raise a tumbler of vodka to Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, recently released here in the US about six months following its UK release. It completed filming in August 2016 (shooting locations included Kyiv, Ukraine; London; and Oxford), several months before the US elections, so it can’t be said to be a comment on the contemporary American political scene. Where it is relevant, however, is that the film satirizes what happens when a charismatic, nationalistic leader dies or falls, leading to a power vacuum in which various toadies, sycophants, and hangers-on jostle for position and power. We have no shortage these days of such leaders, both in Europe and at home, and the film fires a warning shot across the bow: there’s always the possibility that the disappearance of such leaders will lead to further suffering and oppression.

Among the most significant toadies in The Death of Stalin is the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. Its members include Nikolai (Nicky) Khrushchev, played with a shaved head, ill-fitting suits, and unreconstructed Brooklyn accent by Steve Buscemi. It’s been no secret among the Committee members that Stalin’s bloody, vicious reign has turned the entire country into a prison camp, torture chambers and all (many of them run by Laventri Beria, chief of Stalin’s secret police — a paunchy, phlegmatic Simon Russell Beale); the question is what comes next. Khrushchev and Beria emerge as the chief competitors for the leadership of the country. In a violent dictatorship, there’s no question that whoever wins, the loser will have no future.

Despite the lip service paid to ideology, the power struggle takes place in the arena of Realpolitik. The only true believer on the Central Committee, Vyacheslav Molotov (depicted as a genial idiot by Michael Palin), believes whatever Stalin and Das Kapital tell him regardless of the evidence of his own eyes, even to the details of his personal and private life, and as a result he’s easily manipulated by both Khrushchev and Beria. (The historical Molotov would continue to believe in the rightness of Stalin’s cause until his death in 1986; he is one of the few characters of the film to have died of old age.) As each character becomes consumed by his own lust for power and fear of death (a lust and fear intimately related), common sense and skepticism fall to the only women characters in the film, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Khrushchev’s wife Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel), and the concert pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), whose family was eliminated by Stalin and who may or may not have sparked the cerebral hemorrhage that kills the supreme leader; she opens and closes the film with performances of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a touch of civilization in a barbaric world.

The film is not, strictly speaking, historically accurate all the way down the line. It’s not a documentary; it’s a fantasia and political meditation based on history, not unlike Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon. But any comparison with Stone’s work must end there; this is politics as bloody farce, not conspiratorial tragedy. Indeed, its true precursor is the 1980s BBC comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister; these also dealt with schemers in the corridors of power whose actions belied their rhetoric, and The Death of Stalin‘s director, Armando Iannucci, has paid due respect to these brilliant series. But the Yes Minister series was set in a Western liberal democracy, not a nationalist authoritarian state; the stakes, for its characters, were not life-and-death but ego-and-livelihood. Back in those days, Western liberal democracy seemed secure, not on the road to the grave. Let’s hope that The Death of Stalin remains a farce about an ugly past, and not a prediction about an ugly future.

The trailer for the film is below. The Death of Stalin is now playing, as they say, at a theater near you (though not, significantly, in Russia).